Every breath that Cloud drew was a struggle. The skin beneath her fur burned with heat, her fever insatiable. The puncture wound in her side reeked of infection. She had earned it in a skirmish with the Powers. She had no choice, she had to drive them out of Delta territory. That had been almost a turn ago. She was just glad that no one else had been seriously injured. Besides, she had given Lily a parting gift as well. If she had any luck to her name, then Cloud hoped that Lily was going through the same thing. It would serve the dominant female of the Powers right for leading her family onto Delta land.
She was lying in a shallow chamber of the burrow, she watched as sunlight streamed in through the tunnel. It was beautiful, the way it cascaded over the orange sand. She was glad that she could see sunlight one last time.
“Don’t speak like that.” Bull said from where he crouched by her head and Cloud realized that she had spoken her thoughts aloud. “You’re going to be fine.”
Cloud lifted her chin to glance at her mate. Bull was a large meer, with many small scars dotting his pelt. His dark eyes were wide and anxious as he regarded her. She reached up and rubbed her muzzle against his. “You know that’s not true.”
Bull swallowed hard and the chamber was filled with his fear scent. A claw of grief ripped at Cloud’s heart, not for herself but for Bull. Together they had ruled the Deltas for many seasons. Neither had any idea how to lead without the other. They had never been separated before. Cloud knew that once she was gone Bull would have a tough time adjusting. Her whole family would.
Cloud swallowed back a lump in her throat. She would be leaving behind not only a distraught partner but two three-moon-old pups. Civet and Genet were her newest litter. Guilt bubbled up inside her at the thought of leaving them so young.
“What will I do without you?” Bull’s sweet voice murmured in her ear.
“What you have always done,” Cloud’s tone was like a purr, “protect our family. Survive.”
“I just don’t understand.” Bull’s voice trembled with anger. “It’s too soon. Why are The Before Us allowing this?”
“Hush.” Cloud soothed, her tone firm. “You know that The Before Us isn’t allowing anything to happen that isn’t meant to.”
Bull sighed, sounding tired. He looked seasons older than he was. “I know.” He admitted.
Just then a horrid pain surged down her side, and she gasped. Bull was pressing against her side in an instant. “What’s wrong?” His tail shuddered against her flank.
You already know, Cloud thought. Though she would miss her family she found the knowledge of her impending death freeing. She would be leaving this world to join her ancestors in the Starlands soon. She would be at peace. Besides, there was no use fighting it. Her destiny was inevitable and approaching fast. All she could do was accept it and try to make sure that her family was prepared.
“There is still one meer that I have not said goodbye to.” Cloud managed to say, in a wilting voice, after the episode passed. “Bring Swift to me.”
Cloud’s vision swam out of focus as Bull scrambled out of the chamber and sharpened some moments later to the sight of her daughter standing before her.
“Cloud.” Swift breathed as she stepped forward to nuzzle her gently.
“My gentle, kind daughter.” Cloud rumbled as she leaned into the young meer. Swift’s tawny fur ruffled with her labored breathing. “My time is drawing near.” Swift didn’t argue as she stepped back from her mother, but Cloud could see the sorrow glistening in her blue gaze. “I must tell you something. Both of you.”
Bull and Swift leaned closer to Cloud as her voice grew weaker. She locked eyes with her daughter, her cobalt gaze intense. “You must take my place, Swift. You must become the dominant female of the Deltas.”
“What?” Swift and Bull both exclaimed at once, the shock evident on their faces.
“Only until you take another mate, Bull.” Cloud continued, ignoring their interruption.
“B-But-” Swift stammered. “I’m not qualified to lead. I’m not even the oldest female in the family! What if I am challenged?”
“And I will never take another mate.” Bull proclaimed fiercely. “Never.” His voice was ragged with anguish, yet full of determination.
Cloud regarded her daughter and her mate with affection glimmering in the depths of her gaze. She allowed her head to rest against the cool sand as the strength seeped out of her. “That is your choice, my love.” She told Bull before focusing again on Swift. “You are stronger than you think. You may be young, but you will make the best leader. You can do it. I know you have it in you. If your father supports you then you will receive no challenges.”
She flashed a glance at Bull and was relieved when he nodded. “Of course. I’ll abide by your wishes, Cloud.”
Cloud blinked as her vision swam again and she felt Bull tense beside her as Swift watched. “Do not be afraid.” She said, her words quiet as her eyes slid closed. “We will meet again.”
Swift bowed her head and said with surprising strength. “We release you from your duty.”
Bull repeated after her, seeming almost to choke on the words. “We release you from your duty.”
With a satisfied tic of her whiskers Cloud drew her last breath, and then she let herself go.