The three young cats flit from shadow to lengthening shadow as the day’s light fades. Two project an air of casual confidence while the third jumps at every noise and sudden movement, but all three of them are as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
They wait for a moment at the end of an alleyway while a human passes by. “Does she really eat kittens for breakfast?” asks the youngest in a frightened whisper.
“Of course she does. Why else would I say it?” Hungry arches his back and hisses. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“She wouldn’t dare!” says Curious, her eyes narrowed in scorn.
“N..no, I just…” Timid trails off. “I just thought you might be… mistaken.”
Hungry advances on Timid and she backs away until she’s up against the grimy alley wall.
“I am never mistaken,” he growls, his hackles up.
Timid makes herself look as small as possible and lowers her head submissively.”O…of course, I’m s…sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Hungry sniffs. “Now come on, while there are no humans around.”
Timid follows her siblings as they cross the street and approach The Burnt Place, a charred human structure that’s surrounded by a fence made out of dead trees. The frightening smell of smoke lingers here even though the place has been burnt for as long as any cat can remember.
The three of them huddle by the fence, eager not to be seen. It’s difficult for Timid’s siblings to maintain their air of confident superiority while in this position, but they try their hardest. “You remember what you’ve got to do?” asks Curious with a faint sneer.
Timid swallows. “Y…yes. I have to go inside the Burnt Place and down the stairs into the underground part. I have to bring back something from inside to prove I was there.”
“That’s right,” Hungry nods. “And if you don’t do it you’ll never be respected by the others.”
Timid shudders at the thought. “I don’t want that! I… I’ll go. You’ll shout if you see Scarlet coming back, won’t you?”
“Of course we will,” purrs Curious. “You’re our sister; it’s not as if we want you to be eaten alive, after all.”
“Off you go,” Hungry says, batting at Timid’s tail with his paw.
She crouches and leaps, making it halfway up the fence. She panics for a second and scrabbles at the rough surface but then her hind paws find a raised plank and she gains enough purchase for a second leap that takes her up and over the fence.
As she lands a small cloud of ash puffs up around her, the acrid smell of burning filling her mouth and nose. She sneezes, the soft sound loud in this sombre place, and she stands stock still for a moment to see if she can hear anyone moving.
Satisfied at last that there is nobody listening, Timid begins to scurry in stops and starts across the open ground between the fence and the entrance to the Burnt Place. Her heart is racing and her paws feel weak, but she makes it without incident.
As promised she finds a hole in the splintered boards covering the entrance that’s large enough for an adult cat, giving her more than enough room to slip inside. The burnt smell is much more intense here and she gags as she tries to clear it from her mouth. She glances back at the fence and the safety waiting beyond but then gathers her courage and slips inside the building.
Outside, Hungry and Curious take turns to watch their sibling through a knothole in the fence as she makes her way to the door. “Look how scared she is!,” comments Curious. “It’s hilarious. To think she’s scared out of her tiny little mind when there’s absolutely no chance of Scarlet coming back. There isn’t, is there?” she asks, with a hint of concern in her voice.
“Of course not,” Hungry smirks. “She never comes back until after moonrise on nights when the moon is full. Timid is perfectly safe.”
Curious fixes her brother with a disturbed gaze. “But the full moon was yesterday.”
Hungry opens his eyes wide and swallows, then presses his muzzle against the knothole and shouts a warning to his sister.
But he is moments too late.
Sounds are muted as Timid enters the Burnt Place, breathing shallowly so that the smell of charred wood doesn’t overwhelm her. A jumble of boxy shapes fills the gloom, everything plastered with a thick layer of soot and ash. There are pawprints in the gritty black powder, most of them concentrated in a trail leading from the entrance deeper into the building.
Timid reaches out her forepaw to hold it over one of the larger prints before her. The cat who left it must be almost twice her size. She is reluctant to disturb the prints but she is also scared to leave her own trail in the soot; she freezes indecisively with her paw outstretched.
A sudden gust of wind blows ash in Timid’s face, making her sneeze and reflexively close her eyes. In this moment of blindness she feels a cold hand touch her head and slide down her spine to the tip of her tail.
When she opens her eyes, blinking rapidly to try and clear the grit from them, she sees a faint human form through the haze of her tears. She panics and skitters to one side of the room, taking shelter under one of the boxy shapes.
Silence falls and Timid makes herself as small as she can, her view of the room restricted to a slit. Slow, deliberate footsteps circle around her hiding place, but she can’t see feet or legs and the ash remains undisturbed.
“Here, kitty-kitty,” whispers a voice from just in front of Timid. “Come on out an’ play.”
A ghostly human hand, wreathed in flame and with fingers charred to the bone, slides into the gap and tries to grab Timid. She yowls and launches herself backwards, stunning herself silly on the underside of the box as she goes.
She screams in terror and runs back towards the exit, her mind blank except for the drive to flee.
Something drops on her from above, knocking the wind out of her and skidding her through the ash. Then all is still except for the gentle flutter of ash falling back to the ground.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” purrs a harsh voice directly into Timid’s ear.
It seems that Scarlet was at home after all.
Hungry prowls back and forth, his tail lashing anxiously. “Mother is going to kill us if something happens to Timid,” he whines. “How long has it been, anyway?”
Curious is sitting nearby washing herself and outwardly calm, but Hungry can tell that she’s just as worried as he is. “She went inside about a nap ago. Do we really have anything to worry about? Surely even Scarlet wouldn’t hurt a defenceless kitten, would she? You just told Timid that to scare her.”
Hungry turns on her with a hiss. “I don’t know what she’d do! You know as well as I do what her reputation is like. Half the cats in the Parliament think she’s insane.”
Curious sighs. “Maybe you should go and look for her, then?”
Hungry’s eyes widen and his ears swivel back. “I should go in? Surely you mean we should go in?”
Curious narrows her eyes. “You’re the eldest. This whole thing was your idea. The responsibility is clearly yours.”
“Oh, I see how it is! You seemed perfectly willing to be a part of this until a little while ago, but now things have turned bad it’s all my fault.” He pauses pacing and adopts a sly look, tilting his head slightly to one side. “Aren’t you curious as to what’s happening in there?”
Curious snorts. “Nice try. Aren’t you hungry for answers?”
Something clatters nearby and the kittens stop bickering, rising into an alert posture.
“Did you hear that?”
“Of course I did. What was it?”
“How should I know?”
“It was me,” purrs a low, threatening voice. A large, russet-furred tabby drops to land near them, her eyes shining in the gloom. A wicked scar zig-zags over one of her eyes and her muzzle and chest are glistening with wet, red blood.
“Thank you for the appetizer,” she growls, licking her lips. “But now it’s time for the main course!” She lunges towards Hungry and he goes crazy with fear, jumping and turning at the same time so he pivots in midair. When he lands he streaks off down the alley as fast as he can, screeching in terror.
Curious takes one look at the blood-soaked cat and follows suit, silently running after him.
Once she’s sure they are gone, Scarlet chuffs soft laughter and begins to lick the blood from herself. “You can come out now,” she purrs between licks.
Timid emerges from her shadowy hiding place, a large, dead rat hanging from her jaws. It’s almost as big as she is and matted with fresh blood. She drops the rat and licks her lips. “That was h…hilarious!” she says, her eyes shining with silent laughter. “I’m really g…grateful to you.”
Scarlet narrows her eyes and looks away. “It was nothing. Those idiots deserved to be taught a lesson. Now get out of here and take the rat with you. I’m not hungry.”
“W…why does everyone think you’re such a bad cat?” asks Timid. “You don’t seem so bad to me.”
Scarlet gives a wry smile before disappearing back over the fence into the Burnt Place.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” she calls back over her shoulder.
Timid sighs and picks up the heavy rat. It’s a long way home.
But she can’t wait to see the look on Hungry’s face.