1.

The two kits tussled on the hay-strewn floor, the long, golden light falling over them like a fuzzy, warm blanket. Late warm moons, Eirem had always said, were particularly kind to a barn cat, when the sun warmed your back and prey was practically running into your ready claws. Mackerel, of course, had only picked this up as she crept past the family meetings, flattened to the dusty, cobweb ridden plank floors with round, hopeful amber eyes.

I want to hear, ma!

Watching from the hay, she'd drink up every word Eirem spoke, adoring the soft, gentle voice that her ma reserved for her brothers Cub, Rec, Loth, and Shaw.

All Mackerel knew was her sneaking, hiding, creeping. Eirem had never allowed her a break from her imprisonment in the darkness, the parts of the barn where light never touched the musty floor. 'Shadow-walker' was what Spell called her, but everyone knew she was touched in the head.

2.

The silver tabby's amber eyes, alight with curiosity, were framed by the hay she peered through. Hints of sunlight warmed her face through the straw, and she smiled softly to herself, enjoying the pleasant, bubbly feeling of heat that accompanied the gold. She yearned to stretch her paw forward, to see her claws glint in the lustrous light, to feel—

Black legs halted before her, intercepting the light, and she shrank back, heart beat quickening.

"I'll tell ma you're here," he warned, ducking his head to meet her eyes. His amber gaze was lit with a greed that didn't match his boyish voice; he loved the fear that glistened in her eyes and the rapid shake of her head that begged him not to give her away. Loth never meant his threats if she appeased him, Mackerel knew that much.

"What are you doing there, anyway? Eirem's made it clear you can't leave the dark, or she'll claw your eye out for real this time." Confusion mingled with guarded curiosity in his voice, and she was surprised at the change of tone. Mackerel had always thought her brother was haughty, throwing ma's real name around like he wasn't her son, but she didn't think that he would take too kindly to her if she said that.

"I'm cold." She winced at the rustiness of her voice, which had grown that way from disuse. "I—I wanted to feel the sun."

The vague look of inquisitiveness on Loth's face vanished, replaced by an angry glare. "Well, there's not enough sunlight to go around, and I'm not going to let you take any of it away from me. I'm telling ma—I mean, Eirem—on you."

With that said, Loth wheeled around, storming away. Mackerel's amber eyes locked on him apprehensively as he disappeared from sight, but she didn't flee back to the shadows, knowing that her punishment would be all the more cruel if she did.

It took months for the scars of the beating she received to fade.

3.

She wanted to die. The emptiness was overpowering, a simple, hollow feeling threatening to crush and tear her apart. Her heart beat and filled the silence, yet she had never felt so alone.

4.

Slivers of moonlight bathed the mismatched pelts of Mackerel's family, all of them sleeping soundly under the watchful eyes of the stars. She thought it was awfully arrogant of them all to assume she posed no threat while they slept, completely vulnerable to attack, while she could be stalking them like a hunter to a mouse.

That's all they were, really. Dispatching them depended on how quickly she could reach their pulse point, and Mackerel was the most skilled hunter of all her family. She knew where to bite and how much pressure to apply when it came to killing mice, which left her wondering: how different could it really be when performing it on her own kind?

In retrospect, it would have been easy for her to take their lives one by one, not a noise escaping their throats as she ended their insignificant lives.

Eirem's golden and white fur was thicker than most—she would be the toughest to kill. But the rest, thin-furred Cub, Rec, Loth, Shaw, and Spell, were all built like herself. Just one bite and they would never feel again…

She gazed at her family from the dark corners of her earth plaintively, regretting everything she had thought against them that night.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to no one as she curled up, shudders wracking her body from both the cold and the loneliness that threatened to choke her. I just want somebody to love me.

5.

She hadn't known his name, but he had known hers. Pressed against her, his teeth had met her scruff, the jeers of Rec and Cub echoing distantly in the background. Magnified heartbeats, her anguished panting, and him

Things would never be the same. Please, please, please. Let me die.

6.

The smoke had reduced her lungs to nothing more than raw, agitated skin, but it was nothing compared to the agony of watching her world burn.

"It was her," Loth's voice was quiet, heart-broken, as he lay by Shaw's still body. "Em started the fire, I—I watched her."

Nobody heard his croaking, all their eyes fixated in both awe and horror as the structure of the barn creaked under the weight of the licking blue flames. They had felt the heat, felt it like it was blood pulsing in their veins, but none more so than Mackerel had.

While Eirem and her brother's senses were dulled with disbelief, hers were still attentive and alert—the smell of singed fur was strong in the air, nearly intoxicating to her. Mackerel heard Loth—

"Em started the fire, I—I watched her."

—and she ran as quickly as her long, spindly legs could carry her.

The blades of yellowing, cool moon grass were foreign against her cracked pads, but it was easy to pretend that it was straw she was walking on. Those unfamiliar shadows she raced into? Nothing more than the darkness she had walked for so long.

She didn't fear the dark; she was a part of it. In a way, they were old friends, Mackerel and darkness. Two halves of a whole, neither seen without the other.

Freedom. It didn't taste as good as the shadow-walker had always imagined it would.