Feline Moonbeams

To Paluu, the plan was unparalleled genius. The cat community was near feverish with his speeches and his bold ideas. He overstepped lines, he had a certain charisma about him, and, best of all, he was willing to give everything for them. Everything.

The humans did not know of the plans. The cats knew they could not understand them, even if they knew. They stole the information away in their forest. They hid it among the green leaves that glinted like jealous eyes across the glossy pelts of the felines. In the moonlight they conspired, glow-eyed with emberous hope and admiration; bristling their tails in passion that consumed like blossoming love.

Soon, they could live.

If the humans knew, they would stop it.

Good thing they did not know.

If the humans knew, they would be horrified.

Good thing they were ignorant.

If the humans knew, there was no way they could ever understand.

Good thing it was the cats' little secret.

"Mommy, I think Paluu's sick," Jamie yowled, flopping his hands on the tabby's glossy fur. Paluu narrowed his eyes and flattened his ears backwards at the boy's flopping and drumming, but he did not budge from his sprawled position across Jamie's lap. His ragged purring, like the sound of a motorboat's engine, continued just as always, as did the patient flapping of his tail.

It was true, Paluu's mouth was agape, illuminating a curled pink tongue and sharp white teeth, and the cat's amber eyes were abnormally slitted, but Jamie's mother did not seem overly concerned and neither did Paluu. His purring was constant, strange and disconcerting in contrast to his feral expression.

Jamie's attention was stolen from Paluu to the television set as a favorite show started, and Paluu emitted a mournful, open-mouthed meow as a message to his distracted owner. Jamie raised his arms, eyes never lifting from the blinking rainbows of the TV, and Paluu took the moment to steal away from the boy's grasp. He glided across the carpeted floor, oddly graceful for such a lumbering creature, to settle himself in front of the sliding glass door that opened into the backyard. He curled his stubby tail around his hind legs, raised his forelegs, and swatted at the clear door to be let out.

"Oh, Paluu, you oaf," Jamie's mother smiled. Setting aside the spatula she was using to stir the scrambled eggs on the stove, she sauntered over to Paluu, leaned down to scratch him behind his ears, and cracked open the door so he could slip through it.

Once outside, he took a moment of cool observance. He pushed his whiskers out in front of him to sift a light-hearted breeze, noting the warm scent of cedar chips and pine. Near-dead sunlight flitted through the dappled leaves of the maples to leave apricot stains of light on the ground. Everything was burning oranges and yellows, but underlying those heated colors was the twinkling, subtle blue that would soon overtake the fire of the sunset.

Paluu's tongue made a short appearance as it slid across his upper lip thoughtfully. Pushing off on long hind legs, the big cat trotted across the verdant lawn towards a copse of pine trees. He flicked his ears as he jogged, wondering on the possibility of other presences, but his stubby ears captured little other than the spritzy sound of a sprinkler going off in a neighbor's yard and the raucous yell of a nearby raven. He was alone, if only for the moment.

Once the copse slipped past his eyes, his run transformed silkily from a trot to a full-out lope. He wanted to be there before the fiery colors disappeared into the twinkling of night. He doubted they would be this early (the meeting time being when the first stars came out), but he needed all the good impressions he could get and the last thing he figured he should do with that in mind was leave the others waiting for him.

On he continued. Over a bald clay hill where he could see the last glinting of the sun off a reservoir that lay below it, across a sprawling, feather-grassed meadow with a stream that snaked through it, into a circular thicket of blackberry bushes that was so impenetrable it was always a few degrees cooler than in the surrounding air. The thicket was the obstacle that made this journey a careful one, and acted as a boundary that filtered for The Place those who were welcome and those who were not.

Paluu had more practice than anyone at taking the thicket on, at the exact maneuvers required to escape the teeth of the bush's thorns. The Place was his. He found it one night, years ago, and was overwhelmed by the power he felt stemming from that singular circle of trampled grass. He made it his. He started the tradition of the Star Watchers. He located other cats nearby, he told them of what he had found. He captured their interest. They believed him. They began to come—to bring their friends, families, and any cats who could get there. He showed them things they could never believe, and they continued to come every night.

The Place was special to him. In his mind's eye, he could play the night he found it over and over again, for it never bored him and never failed to make the black-striped fur on his back bristle with excitement and wonder.

On that ice-splintered morning, when the sun was still sending bleak illumination into the cotton clouds above, he had spotted a rabbit in the copse and pursued it for hours, until they reached the meadow of the stream. On the edge of the meadow, the rabbit paused fearfully, eyes glazed spheres bulging out of its head, and when Paluu saw why, he almost fell over in surprise.

A shadow was pacing back and forth on the edge of the meadow. Its steps hit the ground with a sense of sinister patience, and just the sight of it sent Paluu reeling with fear.

It was a bobcat. A huge bobcat whose eyes were brimming with glossy delirium. Its mottled beige and black coat, highlighted with ruddy clay fragments and what appeared to be dried blood, hung off of its body with the same lackluster effort as moss hangs off of a tree. Ribs stuck out, each one distinct in the huge cat's obvious starvation. Drool wetted its jaws. The bobcat seemed so confused and lost, half-crazy, that if Paluu had not been shaking and frozen with fear just as the rabbit was, he most likely would have felt a pang of pity for it.

With a hissing cry, it charged the rabbit, but its aim was way off, and by the time it pounced where the rabbit was, the rabbit had already fled away, into the forest, in a frenzy. This was when it spotted Paluu.

Barely avoiding tripping over its own feet, it started off towards Paluu. Hunger was poignant in every movement it made. Paluu tried to run, but he could smell the sourness of the bobcat's breath and no matter how he tried, he was stuck in a quagmire of fear.

The next moment was dim. All he knew was that there were bobcat claws raking over his side for a second, blood streaming over his fur, and the next thing he remembered, he was in The Place, surrounded by orbs of pulsing light.

He did not know how he had gotten there. All he knew was that the emerald orbs hovering over him were comforting, and there was not one scratch on his body. A scar lit over his side where there should have been a gaping wound.

He stood up quickly, looking around at the orbs in wonder. How could his wounds already be gone? It was the same night that had been at the corners of the sky when the bobcat attacked him, he was positive of it. The orbs, so it seemed, had saved his life.

On his way back home on that eerie night, he memorized where The Place was, and since then, he had visited the bobbing orbs every night.

Snapping from his reverie, he slipped into the middle of the circular clearing that was The Place. Because there were still traces of sunlight in the twinkling dusk, the orbs were not yet fully formed, but were rather dim outlines of light bobbing in ghostly patterns two or three feet above the ground.

The Place looked simple enough. It was a clearing, about thirty feet wide, of nothing but beige, trampled grass. The grass was always dead—even in spring, when rain was abundant and therefore it could easily spring to soft, green life. Surrounding all sides of the circle of trodden grass was a halo of blackberry bushes. Cats were pretty much the only animal in the area agile enough to sneak through the blackberry bushes without injury, and their scent permeated every inch of the circle. Because of the nightly rituals here, the grass was snapped and beaten down into a grain not too much unlike something one would see in the inside of a crop circle.

As Paluu waited in the middle of the circle, his eyes respectfully tilted upwards, the blackberry bushes began to rustle and hiss. Cats, in ones and twos and occasional threes, emerged ceremoniously from the thicket and settled themselves around Paluu. As usual, Whisper, a calico female who was blind in one of her blue eyes, settled herself very close to Paluu, as she was his mate. She was normally earlier than this, but Paluu did not pin her with a glare as she was afraid he would. His eyes were latched firmly on to the sky.

"I'm sorry Paluu. The humans got curious, y'know? They were asking where I go every night and they didn't let me out 'til I ate all the food they put in my bowl." She made a sour face about this.

"It's fine," Paluu assured her, gentle and genuine even without eye contact. "We will make up for anything with The Plan anyway, and such a small detail can be overlooked. You are forgiven by all of us."

Whisper occasionally wondered why They chose Paluu. Before the experience with the bobcat, he had been a very earthy cat—one could even go so far as to call him normal, somewhat dull. His passion and sudden spirituality had been a surprise for Whisper, as one day he had come to her and told her that there was now something more important than hunting, than living a normal life.

His new love of life, though, was hope, and Whisper needed all the hope she could get. Two years before the bobcat incident, Whisper had given birth to a litter of six kittens. Paluu was the father, though he, like an average tomcat, was not concerned with his kittens. This was normal, though, and not to be worried over. However, Whisper's owners were problematic people, and one day, when the kittens were two weeks old, Whisper had gone to her food dish for a moment to snatch a bite to eat. When she came back, she discovered her kittens were gone from the basket they slept in. She searched for them frantically, mewing plaintively. After several hours of distraught searching, she discovered their bodies, wet and still, in the trash can.

Her owners, not wanting to be bothered by the burden of finding the kittens homes, drowned every last one of them.

Before the incident, the exact tragedy of the drowning never found Paluu. He continued hunting, living with his humans, and wandering the forest just as he always did. After he found The Place, though, and he began to be haunted by Their voices, he was suddenly struck with remorse over an incident that was over two years old.

"Life is precious," he explained to his baffled mate one night under the orbs. "Every life. But sometimes, sacrifices are made without our realization. If one does not make a conscious attempt at sacrificing for Their sake, They will take things. They want things from us. They want us to acknowledge that we know They are there." His eyes deepened as he stared at the orbs, their gentle lime glow lightening his face. "It is only too bad I didn't know this beforehand…"

Every year since that day, when the stars aligned over the clearing in such a way that they formed a circle just above the circle of the thicket (if one looked directly above the clearing, from the middle), a sacrifice had to be made. It could be something small—a cricket, or a mouse, if the year had been forgiving, for that was a sign that They felt appeased and at peace with the Star Watchers. But every now and then, the year would be turbulent. Cats would lose kittens, owners would take Star Watchers away and they would never be seen again. Disease would spread like wildfire. Natural disasters would cause pain and sadness.

That was when a decision had to be made.

"If They do not feel we are acknowledging them, They feel cheated. They will not give us the favors that allow us to live in peace. Like what they did with my scar, if we do as we are willed, they will do things for us that defy explanation." His eyes sparkled, then dimmed as negativity crept into the speech. "A bad year is a sign that They are not feeling our souls. A bad year means we do not deserve favors. A bad year means we need to prove to Them otherwise. We need to give them the ultimate…"

The year before last, when the time came, they had sacrificed a Star Watcher's kitten.

This sacrifice had almost been the Star Watchers' undoing. The cats felt disgusted and cheated that one of their own kind should die for Gods that only Paluu could hear, and for some bobbing green lights that appeared every night in a lonely circle in the middle of the forest. The sight of the kitten's twisted body, twitching in the grass, under the suddenly burning, flaming orbs, was almost too much for them. But Paluu's calmness, Paluu's soft voice saying, "Wait, just wait," made them stay just a little longer.

The year after that had been as perfect as the cats could imagine. Paluu's promises seemed far from empty. Two litters were born successfully, and the kittens were as delightful to the colony of cats as the sacrifice had been sickening. One cat had almost been run over, only for the car to be miraculously thrown off track just enough that the cat escaped without so much as a scrape. Food was abundant, weather was scintillatingly beautiful, and all of the cat owners were kind. No disease sprung up, there were no grass fires in the summer, and hunts were so successful it was almost eerie. The sacrifice at the end of that year was a mouse.

The Gods' favor did not travel into the next year. The mouse did not appease Them. This year, the one that was just about to draw to a close, had been awful—even worse than the year before the kitten had been sacrificed. The summer was filled with forest fires and stinging smoke. Three Star Watchers disappeared without a trace. Owners were abnormally abusive, a nasty disease took the lives of four cats, and ingestion of antifreeze took another. The cats were frightened. They did not want this to keep up, but neither did they want to watch a kitten losing its breath in the grass. Paluu stayed calm.

"I do not want to watch another kitten die," Valley, the gray and white female whose kitten had been sacrificed two years ago, said firmly.

Paluu nodded solemnly and promised. "No kittens will die. I promise you. They are not asking for a kitten. They are asking for something bigger."

The cats all froze, but Paluu said, "Do not panic. It will be a difficult ritual, but we will not lose one of our own."

They were reassured, as always, by Paluu's words.

Paluu finally removed his eyes from the stars, as he could feel many gazes resting upon his silver coat.

It was a week before the sacrifice for this year would take place, so even more cats than usual had showed up to solemnly discuss the agreements for this year. As he surveyed, he estimated numbers. It appeared to be about forty cats—and even the kittens from last year, who occasionally skipped meetings, had shown up and were staring in wonder and awe at the now blazing orbs that shimmered over their heads.

He addressed his fellow cats in gentle tones, but he could tell by their twitching tails and impatient stares that this time, they wanted an explanation.

"Star Watchers, we are here today for the last night until the sacrifice. As you all know, we take a break of six nights in preparation to fully honor Them, and on the seventh, we all gather for a sacrifice. This year, as I know you will all agree has been unusually hard"—cats mournfully bowed their heads and dropped their ears out of sadness—"so this year, there will be a different sacrifice than anything you have ever seen before."

Yellow and green eyes blazed on him with the reflection of the orbs, and with their curiosity.

"'A kitten is not a big enough sacrifice.' This is what they told me in a fearful dream I woke from several weeks ago. A single kitten means more than anything to its family, and to our community, but They are displeased by the mouse we gave to them last year. It did not reassure Them. They want more from us. They want something that will risk the loss of our lives as we know them."

The cats were fearful at this revelation, and as long as they searched their minds, they could not think of anything that fit this description.

Whisper was somewhat more connected to Paluu than the rest of the cats, and when Paluu said this, she was puzzled for a moment, but soon an idea, almost too shocking for her to vocalize, touched upon her mind. Her eyes widened and glowed intensely as she watched him continue his speech, and the more he talked, the more she was sure it was as crazy as she believed it was.

"It will be difficult. I am going to have to spend a lot of time at my home, preparing for this moment and planning for this to work. If this is, however, what They want, our lives will be changed forever, and it will be for the better. We will have more power over our own lives, and more power over their quality. This sacrifice is so big, so risky, it is possibly we may never have to sacrifice one of our own ever again."

A few of the cats meowed fervently at this, and one or two mouthed, "What is it? What could it possibly be?" to one another.

"This will be the year that felinekind gains a freedom like we have never had before. It will cost us little in the way of our own community, and yet it will require all of you for this to work," Paluu's words and ideas were stemming from him as powerfully as light radiates from the sun.

The cats were so jazzed up that they stood and stalked in circles around Paluu's grave stance.

As he watched them, he determined this was the time to reveal to them just what it was they were going to do.

"This year, the Star Watchers are going to sacrifice…a human child."

Every one of the cats, down to the kittens who had been leaping in joyous circles around the perimeter of the circle, froze to stare at Paluu. Not a tail shivered, not a pupil wandered, breaths barely stirred the sides of the cats. Even the orbs that hovered above them had stopped Their bobbing to burn silently in one place; tense and solemn.

No one was quite sure how to react. It was crazy, crazier than anything they could imagine… But at the same time, it was brilliant. It was unparalleled brilliance. What controlled their lives? Humans did. What risks would it take to steal one of their children into the forest, to kill it? Unimaginable risks. What power would the cats get, if only they could pull this off? Power like no other animal could ever have.

Solemnly, they settled themselves back into the spots of earlier. Many of them trembled, as you could see by the shivering of their whiskers. Whisper's earlier suspicion was confirmed, but she was still just as shocked as the other cats by this revelation.

"How will it work?" cried one of the cats, transfixed by the Paluu's ideas. "What child will be used?"

Paluu was as calm as ever in his answer. "There is a child in my home. He is a good child, I do not dislike him, but he is perfect for the role in every way. He has a toy, a plush rabbit named Hoppy that he is attached to as much as he is attached to me. We will take a young cat, a beautiful one, and this cat will come into the house and take his rabbit in front of him. Jamie will follow you if you take his rabbit. We will lure him into the forest, where all of us will be waiting for him. There is no way to bring him into the thicket, so we will perform the sacrifice just outside the thicket, where They can see us. He is small, but it will still take all of us to quiet him."

Many of the cats had human children that they were attached to, so several of them shuddered with the thought. It was less painful than sacrificing a kitten to them, though, just as it is less painful for a human to watch a cat die than it would be to watch a human die. It is the bond of similarities that adds an extra dimension of pain.

The cats thought this over for a long, silent time as the orbs smoldered over them, convincing them of the necessity of this sacrifice.

"It is a good plan, Paluu," murmured one young cat on the edge of the circle. "It is a horrible plan, but it is a good plan."

When the meeting was adjourned close to midnight, Whisper trailed Paluu into the thicket. Once they had maneuvered past the thorns, she asked him with great concern, "Paluu, what will happen when your humans discover what you have done? You will never be able to go back home."

Paluu set one blazing eye on Whisper. "Whisper, sometimes we have to make sacrifices. This is my sacrifice for all of you. I know I cannot go back, but this is less important to me than the Star Watchers. The voices, They tell me what I must do, and I must listen to them."

Whisper's eyes glossed over painfully. "What happens if you don't?" She stared at him intensely. "What happens if you ignore them, Paluu?"

Paluu's entire coat bristled like Whisper had never seen it bristle before. "Then we all die. Every one of us, down to the last one."

"How do you know that?"

"This is what They say, Whisper. They have always been right, and I will not take chances. I was lying next to Jamie as he slept one night, and They said to me, 'He is the one! He is everything! He is your life, and he will continue to bring you life should you give him to us!'"

"Paluu…" Whisper murmured, unsure of what she wanted to follow his name with. Her voice was downtrodden.

"It hurts me more than it hurts anyone. I like Jamie. I always have liked Jamie. But I like you all more… I like your lives just the way they are."

Whisper rubbed her cheek against Paluu and slipped off into the night. "I will see you at the sacrifice," she called as she retreated.

That night as he curled up to sleep, Paluu could barely look at Jamie without eliciting shivers.

A beautiful smoke-colored cat named Tama volunteered to lure Jamie into the forest on that day. She met Paluu the day before, on the edge of the copse, where Paluu's family wouldn't see them. There, they discussed the fearsome plan. It was the same as Paluu had told the cats several nights before—the abduction of Hoppy, luring Jamie with the stuffed rabbit. It would be a slow process and needed some coaxing, Paluu told Tama softly, for the walk was a long one and Jamie was a small boy of only four. Tama somberly promised that she would be careful and not rush it.

Paluu had difficulty when Tama asked him exactly how the cats would manage to kill him. Tama stared at him in an off-center manner with her dreary eyes as she awaited his response, but he was silent for a long time.

"…His neck will be most vulnerable, is what I'm thinking. If we all work together to restrain him, I suppose I could…" Paluu trembled faintly.

Tama almost asked if he was having second thoughts about the sacrifice, but felt it was not in good taste. Religion, the voices of the green orbs, was the strongest thing in Paluu's life; above his own life, above his morals, above the things most cats kept sacred. The only thing he loved more than what he believed was the fellow Star Watchers and their happiness.

Tama sensed that the conversation was over about then despite the lack of a finished sentence, but Paluu surprised her by adding a comment as she trotted off.

"Tama?"

"Mrr?"

"Let him have Hoppy before we do anything, okay?"

Tama bobbed her head in a confirming manner, but her steps were suddenly much softer.

Paluu's steps too, took on a tender nature as he took off towards the house. The sun sunk in the western sky, and all the clouds were soaked in its painful red light.

Paluu curled up next to Jamie that night, purring all the while in his uneasiness, but his sleep was broken and shattered like a dropped mirror.

The day passed like clouds pass over a parched landscape.

Paluu tried to move through it hesitantly, but it pulled him along as though he was captured in a current. Spells of queasiness moved over him, and more than once he had to move off to the side of whatever he was doing and sit in the shade, head lowered and breaths deep, until he caught his composure again. He had his eyes on Jamie, hoping simultaneously that he would not leave and inconvenience the sacrifice, and, oddly, at the same time, that he would leave and that the sacrifice would have to be called off.

The second option, however, was suicide and he knew it. He couldn't help but find himself clawing for a way out, though. No matter how fanatical he was about Them and Their favor, he had a troubled conscience.

It did not help him in the slightest that he simply was not hearing Their voices as he normally did. Without Their voices, his world was dreamily silent. Paluu found himself noticing small noises he had not heard since the bobcat incident. Crickets chirping, distant birds chirruping, wind flittering in the leaves. The laughter of Jamie in the front yard.

Against the better advice of himself, and against every sacrifice tradition in his little world, he visited The Place that afternoon. He wanted at least a little confirmation that this would turn out for the best.

However, just as he entered the blackberry bramble, he noticed through the tangle of thorns and branches a whitish form.

He remained still for a while, waiting to see who it was, and when he saw who it was, he began to back silently away from the snarls of bushes.

It was Whisper. She was pacing the circumference of The Place, tail swishing behind her and her one good eye surveying the land underneath her feet. She muttered to herself under her breath, but when Paluu perked his ears forward, snippets of what she was saying floated into his ears.

"…what's so special about this place anyway? …secret…? What kind of…? What could possess him… It is right, and yet it is not… Such a strange time…"

The same questions raced across his mind as he traversed heavily home.

Paluu stood in the windowsill, watching and waiting. His heart thudded in his chest. His pulse was neither faster nor slower than normal, but it plodded like an old carthorse across cobblestones.

He waited so long there, watching the edge of the copse with eyes of frozen amber, that it almost surprised him when Tama did, indeed, come striding across the lawn.

Then he slipped down from the windowsill, silent like a ghost and with silver fur to match. He made sure earlier that the door was left slightly ajar so that Tama could get in and take Hoppy. Using his hearing and his mental tracing, he deduced that Jamie was in the living room, his mother was nowhere nearby (out gardening in the front yard, last Paluu saw her), and Hoppy was in Jamie's room, where Tama could grab him easily.

He met her at the sliding glass door. In all appearances, she was calm and down-to-business, but he could see how her tail trembled as she held it up above her like a thin flag.

"Where is Hoppy?" she asked breathlessly, barely even glancing at her any of the unfamiliar settings other than the cushioned, beige carpet beneath her feet.

"Follow me." Paluu about-faced and trotted to Jamie's room, where he pushed at the plush animal with his nose. Tama was relieved (or was she?) to find that Hoppy was small enough that she would not have to drag him and could easily clutch him in her mouth as if he were a real baby rabbit.

Once she fit her delicate white teeth around the rabbit's fuzzy body, she trailed Paluu to where Jamie was laughing at a commercial. His blond hair appeared glossy and he almost glowed in the eerie lighting caused by the approaching sunset in addition to the flickering television not far from him. His face was flushed with excitement. His eyes glittered like a thousand fireflies. Genuine happiness was engraved in his features, and he was beautiful with the halos and rainbows of light in the strange setting. Paluu felt a tinge of nostalgia that nearly turned into sadness. This would be the last time he would see Jamie like this, wouldn't it? Laughing and outlined by light and so joyous that even Paluu, so weighed down by morals and religious responsibility, could almost feel his spirit lifting. If only it weren't for Them. If only he was not a leader, and one who could not afford, much less handle, watching the Star Watchers fall around him. If only it would not happen, it could not be his fault.

Tama mewed in the sweetest voice she could muster with a furry rabbit toy in her mouth, catching Jamie's interest immediately.

If his face wasn't bright before, now it was absolutely shining. "Ohhh, kitty!" he squealed. "Cute kitty!" He made a face at Tama when he saw what was in her mouth. "Hey, that's my Hoppy! Give 'im back!"

Television forgotten, Jamie sprung after Tama, tiny hands outstretched.

As Tama played skittish and shied away from the giggling boy and slipped out the door, Jamie pushed the sliding glass door all the way open and followed behind her without even a thought. Paluu watched from a distance, and took this chance to sneak out the door after them.

The sunset bled openly over the sky as though it were the battlefield to an unseen war. Paluu noted it and wondered if it was in some way a tribute to the war that clashed inside of him. The silence of the voices left him confused, even more morally lost than he would have been without their counsel. He absolutely refused to look at Tama, slowly leading Jamie closer and closer to his death.

He did not walk. He did not trot. He full-out ran. He found that if he ran fast enough, he could forget the heaviness of his heart and concentrate on his own ragged breathing and the thick bludgeons of his paws against the ground. He banished Jamie's face from his mind, banished the strategic organization of the cats as they would ready themselves when he arrived, banished the inevitable blood and tears and the cries of a boy he had purred for so many times. There was no going back.

He was relieved when the angry sunset faded into a passive blue.

Paluu was met with faces that reflected a small piece of his uneasiness. Last year's kittens, who normally watched the sacrifices, had opted not to come this time, leaving only bigger, more devout cats present.

"What are we doing?" a few of the cats meowed.

It was all Paluu could do not to lie on the ground yowling, or run off, or throw a tantrum of some sort. He collected himself, noted the blazing green glow that was alarmingly intense over the nearby bramble, and thought strategy.

"Larger cats in front. Off to the side, everyone, just so he doesn't see how many of us there are. Big cats are in front so they can begin to restrain him first. If the big cats are having difficulty of any sort, smaller cats need to jump in, too. Cling wherever you can on him. Use his clothing to latch on to. Bite and scratch, but…but…" Paluu stuttered for a while before pulling himself together. "Try to make it as painless as possible. The less blood, the better."

Paluu shook like a leaf as he made his final statement. "Give him a minute or two here before you do anything. Only start when he has Hoppy. He loves Hoppy, so he should be given that last privilege."

The cats were visibly unsettled by the humanizing of the little boy they were supposed to kill.

Each of the cats took their place in silence. Most of them were afraid, but none of them so much as Paluu.

In silence, under the dying embers of the sunset, and the aurora borealis-like flashing of the orbs, the cats waited.

The cats could hardly prevent an outcry of panic when Tama sprung into their sight range. Hoppy was dirty in her mouth, as she had obviously dropped him once or twice. She also appeared unsettled almost to the point of psychosis, with wide, moon-spun eyes uncharacteristic to her beauty and serenity.

Jamie appeared shortly after. The cats bristled with eerie feelings of the proportion of their next act when they saw his knees were scraped and fresh tear trails streamed down his face in serpentine streams of crystal.

"Kitty! Kitty! I want Hoppy!" he sobbed, stopping to sniff afterwards. Frustrated and sad, he squatted in the middle of the clearing and cried, swiping his dirty hands across his face. He gave into the crying just then, sobbing into his knees uncontollably. The cats almost fled then at the cries of their intended victim. Tama, on the edge of fleeing herself, whirled on her heels and set the rabbit down on the ground in front of Jamie. A final act of mercy for a doomed child. His face lit up instantly, and he took the rabbit and clutched it to his tiny chest, wailing with a mix of joy and pain from his scraped knees.

Tama had had enough. With a squall not altogether unlike a sob, she fled into the forest, headlong and hurting from every bit of morality in her body. She had no intentions of ever coming back.

Paluu, shaking so hard he could hardly draw a breath, signaled with a yowl for the cats to attack then.

Reluctance was in the eyes of every cat in the area, but their slow creeps finally turned into rolling lopes as a communal hiss rose above Jamie's sobs. The cats flung themselves on to the little boy with the brutal vigor of one who is trying to forget what he is doing—eyes flashing, teeth bared, claws unsheathed. There was a whirlwind of violence and squirming cat bodies surrounding the boy. He was too shocked to even cry out.

They spatted, hissed, clawed, bit, screamed as though possessed by something unearthly. Jamie was in too much shock to move or fight back at all, even after a solid minute of flailing cat claws, so they squeezed with their jaws and raked with claws until they themselves were tired from the effort of being so savage. A few dropped off of the squirming mass and hid themselves in bushes, behind trees, anywhere at all so they would not have to watch the horror unfolding in front of their eyes.

Paluu stood on the sidelines, completely frozen in disbelief over the carnage he had caused.

But this did not last for long.

"STOP!"

Every fiber in his being strove, for that one moment, to deliver a message that had suddenly dawned on him.

Every cat froze and stared in his direction, dumbstruck. Out of shock, a few remained clinging to the boy, who was bleeding severely from nearly every tender spot in his body.

Paluu was in more shock than Jamie, it appeared, but he managed to cry, "GO! GO AWAY, ALL OF YOU!" at the top of his lungs, sobbing tearlessly as only a deeply hurt cat can do.

The cats, all yowling like Tama had, retreated from the injured boy and sped into the forest as fast as they could—blinded by their grief and disbelief and incredible feeling of falsity that jolted through their veins.

Only a few of them heard Paluu murmur, "It is not up to us to determine who lives and dies. This is Their last message I will ever hear."

When all of the cats were gone and the clearing was nearly empty, Jamie slumped over on to the ground and sobbed until Paluu thought his heart might burst. His clothes were ripped to shreds, scratches of every conceivable size and length tainted his pale skin, blood streamed freely over everything. There were several puncture wounds in his side from cat teeth, and those seemed worst of all. Hoppy remained clutched in his hands, but the toy rabbit was barely recognizable as he was torn and sticky with red.

Paluu watched from a distance for a while, numb with the overwhelming feeling of the crime he had committed. His eyes surveyed the damage he had caused. He pondered his inability to move at the critical moment. He wondered what his punishment would be. Anything, he decided, was fitting. This was unforgivable.

As a final gesture—and all he could do to give himself any sort of peace at all—Paluu went over to lick the blood off of Jamie's cheek.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know, 'sorry's don't matter anyway for something like this, and you can't hear me anyway, but I am sorry. The deepest sorry there is. So deep, it'll never, ever go away."

He stared into the sky for a moment, wondering how he would live with himself, and that was when he noticed that the green orbs were missing from the summer night.

Jamie was just fine. His parents found him, were shocked and puzzled (they never did figure it out…), took him to the doctor, and he healed to his normal self in a few weeks, plus a few scars. He was justifiably afraid of cats for the rest of his life.

The Star Watchers never again met, and the orbs, as far as anyone knows, disappeared permanently after that night. No one knows what They were, or why they came into the cats' lives and wreaked such havoc. Because of the Star Watchers disbanding, it is unknown just how devastating the following year was. There were rumors that several of the cats, unable to live with themselves, died of various causes.

Under suspicious circumstances, the day after the sacrifice, Paluu was mauled and killed by a bobcat. No bobcats were in the area at the time, so the rumors say. Some say it was merely his old scar, unsealed and opened as though it were new. As though it had never been a scar in the first place, and the attack had happened that very day…