Trailing Stars: Chapter 24
edited by Spottedpaw
illustrated by Jayfrost
I can’t believe we did it.
Cheetahspark didn’t know how BlogClan had managed to capture the badger. Their tormenter. The beast that had kept her up for so many nights, her green eyes staring at nothing and everything as her Clanmates slept around her, her imagination — dreadful, horrible imagination — forcing her to think up the cruelest fates for each one of them. All the ways the badger could tear into their flesh, make them howl in pain, force them to beg for a mercy that it would not give—
But they had caught it. Somehow. Cheetahspark couldn’t remember much of the battle.
Red had flashed across her vision, the howls of her Clanmates drowning out all of her senses and harmonizing with the deep thrumming of her heart. She vaguely remembered helping her injured Clanmates to the medicine den, but she couldn’t be sure. Her paws ached, and she looked down to find grass and clumps of dirt lodged deep into the spaces between her claws. Cheetahspark’s senses seemed to be dialed up tenfold. She noticed the glint of light off of every leaf in every tree, smelled the dust caked into the claws of her Clanmates, and felt the deep heat as it soaked into her thick spotted fur.
For a moment, Winterpaw’s question had caused almost every cat in the clearing to fall silent.
“Alright. We caught this beast and everybody’s ready. Now comes the really hard part. Cakestar, do we kill the badger, or free it?”
But the force of the yowls of her Clanmates that broke out after that short breath almost shattered what little calm Cheetahspark had scraped together.
“Show it no mercy.”
“Let it suffer like it made us suffer!”
“Can everyone please calm down?”
“It needs to die.”
Different voices drifted through the air, each more passionate than the last. What if we kill each other before we even get to decide whether or not we should kill it? Cheetahspark’s throat ached. Had she screamed during the battle? She couldn’t remember. Most of the Clan looked excited. Hopeful. Alive. No one had looked that way in a long time.
BlogClan had been walking zombies over the past few days, weeks, months — however long they’d been trapped in this StarClan-forsaken forest. Shuffling feet, furry chests shaking as they rose and fell, hollow eyes set on what only they could see. They went from day to day hoping against all hope that whatever their latest problem was wouldn’t come to snatch them away during the night.
Pretending helped. Pretending all their problems weren’t real. Working helped, too. Going on patrols, searching for herbs, building dens — anything to keep them busy and their minds off of the horrors they faced in the dreaded place they had come to call their home. What else could they do? When they weren’t worrying about the badger, they were worrying about foxes, or snakes, or the fact that they were all starving to death.
Not to mention the state of Cakestar. She was better than she had been, but it was hard to ignore the dull sheen of her coat or the way her amber eyes seemed to shine with unshed tears. The red tabby was standing tall, her tail wrapped around Jayfrost’s for support. Her wise eyes scanned the Clan. Rage lit up in the gazes of even the gentlest of cats, fixed firmly on the lumbering badger that was currently howling in pain, branches keeping it locked in what used to be the warriors’ den. The brute thrashed, it’s jaws opening in a silent scream as it moaned for freedom. The only thing its fruitless efforts produced was rotting leaves sprinkling from the dead branches and onto its shiny black-and-white back.
Cakestar silenced everyone with a quiet flick of her ears. Wide eyes snagged onto BlogClan’s leader, hope and relief humming through the group. Everyone, including Cheetahspark, drew forward when the red she-cat opened her mouth to speak.
“I understand how much pain and fear this creature has caused all of us. I know how much you all want it to pay for what it has done.”
A collective hiss rose from a group of apprentices behind Cheetahspark, their tails lashing in bloodlust. Jayfrost shot them a sharp glare to keep them quiet. “But in these times,” Cakestar continued, “We must keep our humanity.”
How ironic,Cheetahspark thought bitterly, her ears pressing back against her head and her tail curling tighter around her, twitching against her flank.
“If we can’t show this creature compassion, how will we ever call ourselves BlogClan with any hint of pride?”
That must not have been what everyone wanted to hear. Yowls of protest broke out amongst the Clan as hackles rose and eyes lit up in fury. Cheetahspark felt swept up in the middle of it all.
It was as if she was trapped in the eye of a hurricane, a storm raging around her, with nothing she could do to stop it.
She didn’t know what to think. She hadn’t felt anything since… well, she didn’t really remember when the last time was. Even their victory against the badger had seemed a temporary solution, just one battle won in a war they were going to lose.
Though most cats had celebrated the badger’s capture with a feverish fervor, she had felt no joy, no sense of achievement, just a feeling of impending doom and the surety of BlogClan’s inevitable implosion, like a storm cloud roiling towards her.
Everyone’s thirst for the badger’s blood seemed further proof of what Cheetahspark already knew. The humanity Cakestar was fighting so hard to keep was long gone.
“With all due respect, Cakestar,” Wavesplash began, looking very much like she was trying to keep her rage in check, “If we release the badger, won’t it just come after us again? Won’t killing it get rid of the threat?”
Irispaw’s approach wasn’t as polite. “Are you kidding?” She growled. Lionfire’s eyes widened in shock as she tried to cover the apprentice’s mouth with her ginger tail, but Irispaw wasn’t having it. “This thing almost killed us all! Ending its life would be a mercy compared to what I would do to it if given the choice.”
The silver apprentice’s rage was jarring, to say the least. Irispaw was one of the kinder members of BlogClan. But, being hunted can do strange things to a person — or cat, more accurately. Why shouldn’t she be angry? No — furious. Why shouldn’t any of us be furious? Don’t we have the right to send this thing back to its maker?
No. Cheetahspark shook her head to herself. Stay positive. Stay kind. Positivity. Kindness. These were the ideals Cheetahspark had held herself to in her time with BlogClan. When all hope seemed to be lost, spout out words of encouragement. When everyone was sick and miserable and hungry, share a piece of prey. Recently, Cheetahspark’s firm hold on her positive attitude had begun to slip away like a pesky minnow, but she was determined to make it stay. When Cheetahspark had been a human — not that she remembered much of that — positivity hadn’t exactly been her forte. She had complained, and groused, and basically made everyone miserable with her sullen criticisms and critiques. Then she had become a cat and realized BlogClan’s fate. She knew it would be hard. Cats would need encouragement. Just one more hunt. Just one more patrol. Just keep going. Complaining would make everyone feel worse. So she’d decided to change her attitude, if not for her sake, then for her friends’. If she put on a brave face and made everyone thinkthings would be alright, they would. Right?
She was shaken out of her thoughts by a comment from Sundrift. “Everyone needs to calm down,” she soothed. “Listen to Cakestar. Do you really want your choices to be dominated by your emotions?”
“This isn’t some kid’s book,” Darkpaw sneered. “Would you rather be given a meager amount of satisfaction for ‘doing the right thing’ and hunted by this beast for the rest of your lives or have to endure a bit of shame for the Clan’s safety?”
“I’d rather be hunted than turned into a monster,” Owlpaw snapped. Kat flinched.
Winterpaw edged closer to Cakestar’s side, his black-and-white fur bristling. “We need to stop arguing!” He yowled. “Cakestar is our leader and we do what she says, whether we agree with it or not.” The apprentice held his head high, confidence laced in his dark green eyes.
A crescendo of hisses and growls rose from the assembled Clan. Pastelpaw ducked her head, her ears pressed flat against her skull in fear. Crystalpaw hissed at the other apprentice, her bushy tail lashing furiously. Cheetahspark backed away slowly from the surging crowd, her paws still aching and her ears still throbbing from the screeches that echoed through the gorge. Winterpaw’s statement had only seemed to make everyone more aggressive.
Capturing the badger was supposed to have united BlogClan, once and for all. Where was the hope Cheetahspark had known was shining in everyone’s eyes when they’d done it? Where was the teamwork? It all had seemed to disappear in a flash as soon as revenge was brought into the mix.
Cheetahspark needed to get away from it all. Her tail brushed the ground as she padded farther and farther away into the shadows, too tired to lick her spotted fur clean of the dust that had settled over it like a blanket. She noticed Lapispaw, Wishpaw, and Gingerpaw edging closer to the makeshift enclosure and the fearsome badger inside.
Wishpaw giggled, slashing her claws in the badger’s direction to tease the creature. Flowerstream seemed to notice, snapping at the apprentices to stay away from the brute. They scurried away, Flowerstream letting out an exasperated sigh as she met Iceflower and Emberdawn in conversation near the apprentice’s den.
A pair of icy blue eyes greeted Cheetahspark as a fluffy gray-and-white she-cat made her way delicately over to Cheetahspark’s hideaway, Spidersong’s coat dull and matted and her eyes showing a hint of the weariness she must have been feeling inside. “I hate this,” Spidersong groaned. “Can’t we just let the thing go?”
“And risk us being killed by it in the future?” Cheetahspark countered, tucking her paws under her chest as she slumped onto the ground. “We can’t win. If we let it go, it could come back and kill us, but if we kill it, we lose the bit of humanity we have left.”
“Maybe it’ll leave us alone,” Spidersong mused. “Maybe it’ll be grateful that we didn’t kill it.”
“You think it can understand us?” another voice chimed, a white she-cat with cream points trotting up to meet them. Jasminepaw’s violet eyes were clouded with anger as she shot a glare at the badger. “All it cares about is killing everything in sight.”
“What if it has a family?” Cheetahspark meowed. “Do you want to do that to his wife and kids?”
Spidersong sighed. “Badgerette is worried about her husband,” she shook her head in mock disappointment. “Do you really want his children to grow up without a father?”
“I will personally eat those badgerlings if it means we get food for once,” Jasminepaw snapped.
“I think baby badgers are called badger cubs, not badgerlings.”
As grateful as she was for this enlightening conversation — and she really was, because humor also helped with ignoring the melancholy state of everything — Cheetahspark had to know what they were thinking. Truthfully, she had to form an opinion herself. She guessed it didn’t really matter. They were all going to die anyway. Positivity,a voice in her head chimed, reprimanding her. Sometimes she wished that voice would find a new cat to bother with its helpful notions.
“Jasminepaw, I’m assuming you want to kill it?”
The apprentice snorted. “It would definitely make our lives easier.”
Frostpaw chose that moment to appear out of seemingly nowhere, her blue gaze fixed on Jasminepaw in anger. “You seriously want to kill it? It’s a living creature!” Jasminepaw snorted at that. Frostpaw continued, “Besides, Cakestar wants to set it free, and she’s our leader, so that’s what we’re doing.”
“But it might be pretty tasty with some hot sauce,” Spidersong added. Cheetahspark swiped at her, growling.
“This is serious,” she muttered. “You realize our lives are at stake, right?”
Spidersong shuffled her paws, her gaze locked on the ground. “I know. Which is why I think we need to kill the badger.”
“Really?” Cheetahspark wasn’t necessarily surprised, but it wasn’t completely expected. Frostpaw looked furious. Jasminepaw looked smug.
“Yeah,” the fluffy she-cat went on. “I’m sick of being afraid of this thing. If taking it out is what we have to do to survive, then I’m going to do it. If Cakestar really decides to set it free, I’ll follow her. But I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”
Is this really what we have to do? Cheetahspark wondered. Is our humanity really gone for good?
Positivity couldn’t help them now. But could kindness?
Cakestar called a meeting at nightfall. Bright speckles of starlight dotted the dark sky, a cool breeze ruffling Cheetahspark’s fur as she stretched and lifted her emerald-green gaze to the moon. If there was one thing she remembered from being a human with shocking certainty, it was that the night sky definitely wasn’t this profound when gazing at it from a city or a house. Here, it was as if the stars spoke to you, their twinkling light like a secret code only you could understand.
Cheetahspark’s nerves jumped at even the smallest twitch from the badger. The creature’s beady black eyes seemed to stare at her as she made her way toward the gathered swarm of BlogClan, different scents mingling as cats broke off into groups to discuss what was going to happen.
Cakestar was deep in conversation with the senior warriors near her den, her tail wrapped calmly around her paws. At least the BlogClan leader didn’t look as torn as Cheetahspark felt. From what Cheetahspark could gather, most cats wanted to kill the badger, which meant that most cats weren’t very happy with Cakestar’s supposed empathy for the beast.
The thing had calmed down since first being captured, but it still gave the occasional thrash that sent most cats within the vicinity scurrying away like frightened mice. Cheetahspark flicked an ear, pushing away all thoughts of the badger from her mind (even though it had been all she’d been able to think about all day). Rosepaw caught up to her, her apprentice’s brown eyes wide with excitement as she chatted about craving a cupcake, hoping that the badger wouldn’t bite anyone’s heads off, and missing karaoke — in that order.
Cheetahspark couldn’t blame her excitable apprentice. She’d find any topic she could think of to talk about if only to keep her mind off of the badger, and, more importantly, its fate — and BlogClan’s.
The bengal she-cat felt herself being pushed forward by a writhing mass of cats as they all squirmed to get into comfortable positions. Or maybe they were trying to get as far away from the badger as possible so it wouldn’t attack them if Cakestar let it loose. Cheetahspark felt herself squeeze in between Bluebellpaw and Maplepaw, the former looking absolutely terrified and the latter looking like she was going to faint. Cakestar, I’m putting my trust in you. We all are. Please don’t let us down, Cheetahspark pleaded.
Cheetahspark glanced in the direction of the medicine den, where Dawnmist and Silverwind were pressing different kinds of leaves against Hazelburrow’s wounds. The tom had been injured in the fight against the badger earlier that day, and quite a lot of his fur had been torn off in the process. What used to be a layer of thick hazel fur now hung limply off of the tom in clumps? Cheetahspark was no medicine cat, but it looked like it was a miracle he had pulled through at all.
Behind her, Cheetahspark could hear Fallenshadows and Asterpaw bickering, their voices carrying over to her like angry wasps.
“She obviously wants to set it free,” Fallenshadows muttered, her tail twitching in annoyance. “I don’t see how it’s such a big deal.”
Asterpaw let out a dry laugh. “How can you say that? She’s setting it loose in our camp. It’ll kill us all.”
“So you want to kill it?” Fallenshadows retorted. “Give in to being an animal?”
Cheetahspark scrunched up her face. She was sick of all this fighting. They’d captured the badger. This was supposed to be a victory. It didn’t feel like one. Not with everyone fighting over what to do with it. “Can you two stop arguing?” She snapped at them, the short leash she’d been holding on her temper long forgotten. “Whatever happens—” She didn’t know whether she was going to end with ‘we’re going to die anyway’ or ‘we’ll get through it’ (she hoped the latter — she was still trying to be positive, after all), but she was interrupted by a yowl from Iceflower that ordered every conversation to a halt.
Cheetahspark stretched out her ears to their tips so that she could hear what Cakestar was going to say. The red tabby stalked forward, flanked by Copperclaw and Jayfrost, who both seemed to be guarding her from hostile glares by shooting them back in any instigator’s direction. Cakestar looked as calm as ever as her pale amber eyes swept over the assembled Clan. Cheetahspark supposed that everyone should be more grateful that they had such a compassionate leader. Cakestar wanted to help others, even badgers that almost killed everyone. Cheetahspark supposed that not many cats would do that. Not many cats of BlogClan.
“What is it we have been fighting so hard to gain?” Cakestar began, sitting on her haunches. Her voice held a sort of power, so much stronger now that she wasn’t plagued by constant hacking coughs. “What is it that we have almost lost?”
Cheetahspark knew the answer. Everyone did. Our humanity. Ever since becoming cats, they’d been turning more and more feral. Minor spats became all-out attacks. Small disagreements led to broken friendships. A decision between morality and vengeance became one that they would actually contemplate seriously.
“Even as humans, keeping our humanity was never easy,” Cakestar meowed. “Choosing the easy way out, picking the option that could hurt others but help us… we’ve been fighting to keep our humanity our entire lives. It’s only now that we actually have to face ourselves and wonder whether we want to give in to our feral sides — the monster inside of all of us — or if we want to fight for our humanity and prove that we’re worthy of keeping it.”
Cheetahspark felt the mood in the clearing change. Pelts were smoothed, the gleam of hostility in the eyes of her Clanmates disappeared, and for the first time, Cheetahspark felt herself relax. Yes, they were on edge. Yes, the badger had done awful things. But they were BlogClan. They could get through this. And they would only come out stronger. They had to do whatever they could to fight to keep what sliver of themselves they had left. They would not be taken by the animals inside them.
There’s that positivity, the little voice sang. Cheetahspark didn’t push it away.
BlogClan had accomplished so much by working together. Heck, they had a literal badger locked up in their camp. Showing compassion would only strengthen their bond. Besides, what’s wrong with a little excitement? BlogClan could handle anything.
Cheetahspark exchanged a glance with Maplepaw. The apprentice’s blue eyes sparked with hope. Cheetahspark had a feeling that she mirrored the same emotion. Behind her, Asterpaw gave Fallenshadows a little nod. Across the clearing, Jasminepaw and Frostpaw sat together, small smiles playing across their features. Swanfeather nudged Bluepaw, her eyes sparkling and whiskers twitching, and Moonpaw rested her head on Silverpaw’s shoulder. Spidersong threw Cheetahspark a wink from the other side of the crowd. It seemed everyone was realizing what Cakestar had realized long ago.
Compassion. Kindness. Positivity. The words thrummed through Cheetahspark, strengthening her resolve and singing in her ear. Teamwork. Victory. Hope. They continued, a song that no one could hear but that Cheetahspark knew flowed through all of their veins.
BlogClan is strong. BlogClan is a team. And BlogClan shows mercy when needed. Even to a badger.
“We will release the badger,” Cakestar announced. Not everyone looked happy. Cheetahspark noticed a few bitter expressions and unsheathed claws, but they didn’t bother her that much. It was obvious that they still needed some work to do before everyone could get on the same page. Of course this would be hard. It wasn’t even completely sane. But it was the right thing to do.
“Rainshine, Bluepaw, and Duskthorn,” Copperclaw ordered. “You three guard the right side of the warriors’ den. We have to cut off all exits except for one. Moonpaw, Hazelholly, and Brackenpaw, you three take the left side. Willowpaw and Winterpaw can keep guard near the back.” The eight cats scurried off to their positions, claws unsheathed. The badger didn’t move, its eyes latched straight forward. Its massive paws scuffed in the dirt, almost looking as if it were preparing for a fight. Cheetahspark was tempted to back away, but she wouldn’t let the beast make her retreat in fear.
“If you need someone to lure it away from camp, I’m a fast runner,” the words left Cheetahspark’s mouth in a torrent, and she hadn’t fully realized what she’d said until Copperclaw was shaking her head.
“If we’re getting rid of this thing, we’re doing it together. We won’t have any stragglers.”
“Then how do you expect to get it out of camp?” Bramblefire asked, his eyes narrowing. “I don’t think it’ll just get up and leave.”
Rosepaw bounced on her toes. “We can chase it out!”
Cheetahspark opened her mouth to shut down her apprentice’s idea, but Emberdawn cut in. “That’s not a bad idea. There are quite a few of us. If it’s smart, it’ll realize it’s outnumbered and leave. We already beat it once.”
“And if it’s not smart?” Juniperpool asked.
Emberdawn shrugged. “We get a new scratching post.”
The thought of using the badger as a ‘scratching post’ almost made Cheetahspark shudder. Almost. The warrior unsheathed her claws and lashed her tail. She felt a burst of adrenaline flood her system. She almost wanted to laugh, but that probably would have made her look crazy. Lionfire did laugh, however. Cheetahspark was right. She did look a bit crazy.
“Okay, everyone!” Jayfrost announced. “Here’s the plan. Someone will rip a hole in the enclosure, while the guards keep the badger from going out of camp any other way. The rest of us will herd the badger out of camp through the main entrance, and from there, we hope it leaves us alone.”
“So we’re like sheepdogs?” A voice called out. Cheetahspark couldn’t see them, but it sounded like Dawnpaw.
“Essentially, yes,” Jayfrost relented. “Flashtail, you open up the enclosure by snatching away a few of the sticks,” the tom’s head snapped up, his green eyes widening in surprise. He hesitated for only a moment before nodding, his ginger shoulders squared in determination. “You’ll have to get out of the way immediately ,” Jayfrost continued, “Or else the badger will see you as a target.” The gray-brown tabby flicked her tail as a signal for everyone to get into position. Cheetahspark crouched low, ready to launch herself at the badger in case things went south. StarClan, help us now.
Every cat in the gorge seemed to tense, and Cheetahspark’s own heart felt like it was going to stop as Flashtail darted forward, the ginger tom slashing out a paw as he ripped a branch away from the cage with a hooked claw. Flashtail scurried away when the wooden prison began to shudder.
All at once, the branches tumbled away and the black-and-white beast was free. The badger roared, and Cheetahspark leered back as its massive paws seemed to shake the ground when the beast lumbered forward. Some cat let out an ear-splitting caterwaul, and the Clan prepared to give chase.
The badger lifted its huge head, and Cheetahspark swore she could feel it staring right at her. The creature snarled as Copperclaw nipped at its legs, blood already dribbling from a small wound on its side. The branches must have cut deep if the badger had been wounded that badly by them. Cheetahspark streaked forward, hissing as she followed the deputy’s example.
The badger’s black-and-white fur was thick, so it was difficult to cut into actual flesh. Cheetahspark let out a satisfied growl as she managed to make it past the thick coat and tasted blood on her tongue. Soon more warriors joined in, teeth bared and claws out. The badger staggered forward unsteadily but was cut off as a few apprentices herded it towards the edge of the camp.
Out of the corner of her vision, Cheetahspark noticed Birchfoot and Spottedpaw guarding the nursery, kittens gazing out through the holes in the branches of the den with wide eyes. She let out a protective growl deep in her throat.
Cheetahspark watched as the group herded the beast away from camp and into the forest that led to the rest of BlogClan’s territory. The badger lumbered forward unsteadily, and it seemed to her that the black-and-white creature was teasing the cats by moving so agonizingly slow. The undergrowth quivered as the last of the badger’s frame finally disappeared into the forest. Almost as soon as it had started, it ended. Cheetahspark let herself relax.
A few cats yowled in triumph, and a couple more sprinted into the woods to follow the badger — probably to chase it even farther out and make sure it had actually gone. Cheetahspark sat on the ground with a huff, drawing a paw over her ear like what they had just done was completely normal. Those warriors came back a few long moments later, nodding to confirm that the badger was far away.
We did it.
“That badger better not come back,” Bluebellpaw sighed. “It’s given us enough trouble.”
“If it does, we can handle it,” meowed Cheetahspark with an air of certainty that she had never used before. Whenever consoling her Clanmates that it would get better, or that they would make it, or that they would get to return to their old lives again, she had never truly believed it. She’d thought she was just kidding herself — and them. But this time… she thought she believed it. They could handle it.
She had never been more sure of anything in her life.