BlogClan 2 Wikia
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Description[]

Of Shattered Stars is a WIP fanfiction being written by Flamecloud. Some parts are based off of their short story, Curiosity Killed the Cat. It takes place quite a bit after the canon Warrior's series. The clans have almost entirely lost their belief in Starclan, and Starclan itself is almost entirely faded, with only the most famous and most recent casualties remaining. The five founders of the clans, paired up with five notorious Dark Forest villains, are returning to the clans with the hopes of renewing their faith and helping their decedents survive the coming darkness.

Allegiance[]

Thunderclan:

Leader: Applestar (light tabby she-cat with bright green eyes)

Deputy: Bellstorm (pale gold cat with blue eyes and white paws)

Apprentice: Brownpaw

Medicine cat(s):

Bearsnout (large dark brown she-cat with amber eyes)

Bubblepaw (white tom with silver patches and blue eyes)

Warriors:

Sharpstone (ginger tabby with gold eyes)

Apprentice: Orchidpaw

Foxnose (dark ginger she-cat with amber eyes)

Timberlight (grey cat with yellow eyes)

Apprentice: Raypaw

Wildeye(black and white cat with one green eye and one dark brown eye)

Fennelnose (cream tabby tom with brown flecks and amber eyes)

Apprentice: Droppaw

Flintstripe (dark grey tabby and white tom with green eyes)

Birchflight(tabby tom with yellow eyes)

Sandcloud (classic cream tabby tom with hazel eyes)

Driftshade (brown and white cat with amber eyes)

Moleface (tabby tom with copper eyes)

Crowspeck (calico cat with hazel eyes)

Vixenfrost (pale brown tabby and white she-cat with gold eyes)

Apprentices:

Orchidpaw(small tabby she-cat with amber eyes and white paws)

Duckpaw (fluffy tabby tom with amber eyes and large ears)

Raypaw (pale golden tabby she-cat with yellow eyes)

Brownpaw (tabby cat with amber eyes)

Droppaw (pale grey she-cat with yellow eyes)

Nursery:

Doescratch (pale brown tabby she-cat with pale green eyes), mother of Foxnose’s kit, Blazekit (ginger she-cat with yellow eyes)

Elders:

Leafmist(light brown tabby she-cat with green eyes)

Goldenheart(small yellow tabby she-cat with golden eyes)


Shadowclan:

Leader: Flarestar(thick furred bright ginger she-cat with dark amber eyes)

Deputy:Amblefoot (grey cat with white speckles and green eyes)

Medicine cat(s):

Wolfbounce (dark grey tom with green eyes and a lighter undercoat)

Warriors:

Sycamoreheart (white and brown she-cat with green eyes)

Apprentice: Pollenpaw

Ebonyfall (black tom with amber eyes)

Burrtail (pale cream tom with yellow eyes)

Apprentice: Dawnpaw

Frondsong(slim tortishell she-cat with amber eyes)

Ashfox (red tabby she-cat with emerald green eyes)

Berryflake (black tom with copper eyes)

Kestrelsong (pale grey tabby tom with blue eyes)

Snakebranch (tabby cat with amber eyes)

Echoclaw (ginger tom with yellow eyes)

Hickorymist (light brown tabby she-cat with green eyes)

Blackwhisker (dark grey tabby cat with yellow eyes)

Budleaf (grey tabby cat with amber eyes)

Apprentices:

Pollenpaw (cream tabby tom with amber eyes)

Dawnpaw (light brown tabby tom with amber eyes)

Nursery:

Elders:

Cloverspots (dappled gray-brown she-cat with pale green eyes)

Raggedtalon (big gray she-cat with dark gray patches and a missing ear and amber eyes)

Podclaw (small grey classic tabby with green eyes)


Windclan:

Leader: Ploverstar (dusty-brown tom with pale amber eyes and white markings)

Deputy:Henheart (chocolate torti she-cat with green eyes)

Medicine cat(s):

Duststone (brown she-cat with green eyes)

Warriors:

Duskflame(yellowish-orange tom with pale green eyes and white paws)

Whispersong (dark tabby cat with yellow eyes)

Fogheart (black tom with dark grey eyes)

Valleystep(sleek, ginger and white cat with green eyes)

Starlingstorm(small dappled brown tom, with flecks of black on his back and brown eyes)

Daisyleap (yellow she-cat with pale green eyes and white patches)

Apprentice: Russetpaw

Barkclaw (black cat with green eyes)

Apprentice: Fernpaw

Newtfrost (grey and cream cat with yellow eyes)

Nettlemouse (grey she-cat with brown eyes)

Dovespeck (grey tabby tom with green eyes)

Pouncesnow (white she-cat with blue eyes)

Stoatstem (brown and white tom with pale yellow eyes)

Thrushmist (tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes)

Flamesplash (ginger tom with lighter ginger spots and yellow eyes)

Apprentices:

Fernpaw (small tabby tom with green eyes)

Russetpaw (ginger tom with green eyes)  

Nursery:

Orangeblaze (ginger tabby tom with amber eyes), father of Tunnelkit (tabby kit with ginger patches and amber eyes)

Kitkit (dappled ginger and white she-cat with blue eyes, currently unnamed)

Elders:

Gustystorm (dark gray tom with blue eyes)


Riverclan:

Leader:Hawthornstar (dark tortishell and white cat with dark green eyes)

Deputy: Quicktail (silver tabby she-cat with amber eyes)

Apprentice: Icepaw

Medicine cat(s):

Pepperheart (spotted ginger tabby tom with yellow eyes)

Stormflight (black cat with white markings on their face and blue eyes)

Warriors:

Mintrain (dark grey and white she-cat with blue eyes)

Stingclaw (ginger she-cat with amber eyes)

Apprentice: Sagepaw

Jadesight (pale ginger cat with very bright green eyes)

Willowface (silver cat with blue eyes)

Tempestsong (muscular gray and white tom with green eyes)

Apprentice: Lichenpaw

Smallspring (ginger she-cat with dark ginger tabby markings and yellow eyes)

Irisdawn (white she-cat with blue eyes)

Poppyflame (brown cat with yellow eyes)

Palewing (long furred cream and white she-cat with hazel eyes)

Robincloud (white tom with dark tabby patches and green eyes)

Runningsong (grey tabby and white tom with yellow eyes)

Mallowspots (grey tabby she-cat with hazel eyes)

Apprentices:

Icepaw (white she-cat with a black-tipped tail with amber eyes)

Sagepaw (white tom with icy blue eyes.)

Lichenpaw (white she-cat with dark brown speckles and grey eyes)

Nursery:

Hazemist (white she-cat with blue eyes), mother of Tempestsong’s kits, Dillkit (grey tabby she-kit with green eyes), Squallkit (dark grey and white kit with blue eyes), and Kernelkit(white kit with green eyes)

Elders:

Lambfur (large deaf tom with silky white fur and blue eyes)


Skyclan:

Leader:Dewstar (small white tom with silver eyes)

Apprentice: Talonpaw

Deputy: Hayfire (tortoiseshell she-cat with bright amber eyes)

Medicine cat(s):

Sablewind (reddish-brown cat with darker paws/tail, ginger freckles, and green eyes)

Warriors:

Marblecloud (lanky classic brown tabby with amber eyes)

Apprentice: Skippaw

Pondstone (grey cat with silver shading and blue eyes)

Hedgeflight (chestnut brown she-cat with white patches and brown eyes)

Apprentice: Goosepaw

Greyspring(grey tabby tom with grey eyes)

Sparkwillow (dark brown she-cat with white freckles and yellow eyes)

Boughflight (calico she-cat with blue eyes)

Treehopper (golden tabby tom with dark blue eyes and long legs)

Apprentice: Boulderpaw

Whitebird (white she-cat with green eyes)

Fireflake (bright ginger and white tom with yellow eyes)

Pebbleye (grey tabby she-cat with brown eyes)

Apprentices:

Goosepaw(black and white she-cat with grey eyes)

Skippaw (tortishell tom with grey eyes)

Talonpaw(ginger and white cat with blue eyes)

Boulderpaw (torbico she-cat with grey eyes)

Nursery:

Kalenose (dark brown tabby with amber eyes), father of Hedgeflight’s kits: Figkit (dark tabby kit with amber eyes), and Thymekit (slim dark grey she-kit with white paws and dark amber eyes)

Lavenderdapple (tortoiseshell she-cat with a torn ear and lavender eyes), expecting Fireflake’s kits.

Elders: n/a


Cats outside of the clans:

Elm (calico tom with one blue eye and one green eye, loner)

Hunter (black tom and white tom with green eyes, loner)

Bane (heavily scarred burly coal grey tom with green eyes, rogue)

Turtle (skinny tabby tom with orange eyes, kittypet)

Scone (brown, ginger, and white she-cat with green eyes. kittypet)

Robert (tabby tom with green eyes, kittypet)

Bumble(yellow tabby she-cat with black stripes, yellow eyes, and a pink nose, kittypet)

Enip (plump reddish brown cat with green eyes, kittypet)

Prologue[]

“Greetings, Clear Sky,” the silvery tom murmured, the dim starlight turning his fur a dusty slate color. He dipped his head to the approaching cat, smiling slightly at the other tom’s affronted expression.

“Skystar, you mean?”

River Ripple shrugged casually, staring out across the clearing. “I’m in a nostalgic mood.”

Skystar, or Clear Sky, as River Ripple had never quite been able to stop thinking of him as, frowned and followed his gaze. A puzzled look drifted across the pale cat’s face, evidentially not catching what they were looking at.

What they were looking at, River Ripple thought grimly, was nothing. And that was exactly what made it all so important.

“You, nostalgic?” a voice scoffed, and the two toms spun to find a third figure behind them. Despite the utter absence of any tree coverage, Shadowstar had still managed to slip in without River Ripple noticing. The black she-cat’s pelt was wispy with stars, but her eyes were as piercing as ever. “Out of all of us, you have always been the best suited for this place.”

River Ripple shook his head slowly, folding his tail lightly across his paws. “If you say so, Tall Shadow.” They could say what they liked, but in truth, all five of them were perfectly suited for life in the stars. They had no choice but to be, for it was the destiny the universe had hand picked for them long ago. River Ripple had just accepted that the soonest.

“With entire forests at our disposal, why would you choose to meet at this place?” another voice shouted, laden with irritation. Wind Runner’s slim form appeared over the gentle crest of the terrain, her strides long and agile. She stopped beside Tall Shadow, her gaze baleful.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Thunder added, padding up from the other direction.

River Ripple glanced over his shoulder at the border, vaguely amused. While they had walked among the stars with each other for what seemed like an eternity, apparently they still couldn’t decipher what was going on in his head. Perhaps that was what Tall Shadow meant. Mystery, if not the stars, did seem to fit him the best. “I thought we might want a bit of privacy.”

“The young’uns aren’t invited to the party?” Clear Sky asked, glancing around as if he expected more cats to join them.

Young’uns. While the five of them were old, very very old, the so-called youths Clear Sky was referring to were not young at all. Firestar, Bluestar, Tallstar, Crookedstar, that whole generation of leaders from what they now called the Golden age, all were getting to be quite ancient as well.

“I thought this might be best left to us five,” River Ripple murmured, with a thin smile. “The others would likely have difficulty approaching this situation from a logical standpoint.”

“This situation?” Tall Shadow echoed softly, her eyes drifting to the border.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean,” River Ripple replied gently, flicking his tail around him, “We’ve all noticed it.”

The pretense of lightness that they’d all been holding onto slipped away as they turned to observe the border grimly. In some ways, it looked the same as always, one side green and healthy, with an abrupt fade to rotting leaves and wilting grass. But beyond the ground, there was very little difference. Both sides had a murky look to them, Starclan having taken on a sort of dullness, and Dark Forest’s sheer darkness having faded to a foggy grey.

The elegant oaks and the towering monstrosities of trees were still there, if one was looking for them, but their outlines were blurred and fuzzy.

“Are you sure?” Clear Sky asked reluctantly. River Ripple glanced over at him, noting the fear in his eyes. After all these years, the Skyclan leader never had quite escaped that.

“Look at yourself, Skystar,” Wind Runner snapped, giving the pale gray tom a sharp jab on the side. Clear Sky’s expression stiffened, his eyes flashing with stubbornness.

“It can’t be.”

“It can,” Tall Shadow growled, stretching out a paw and placing it over Clear Sky’s. Through her cloudy black fur, River Ripple could see Clear Sky’s pale grey paw, and just barely past that, the misty ground. Thankfully, he couldn’t see through that. Yet.

“How is this even a discussion?” Thunder asked, staring at his father. He glanced around at the rest of him, his gaze hard. “None of you have even acknowledged that he’s not here.”

“He wasn’t invited,” River Ripple replied gently, “There are five of us, not six. He is his own type of importance but he is not one of us.”

“Oh, so now you’re doing it too,” Thunder snapped, his ears flattening. “Riverstar, I thought you were above such foolishness.” For the briefest moment, River Ripple was reminded of back when Thunder had been the youngest leader, still trying to grow into his huge paws. He was, of course, still the youngest, but a few seasons meant nothing in the final scale. “Honestly, when was the last time any of us saw Gray Wing? He wouldn’t just abandon us. He’s faded, like the rest of them.”

“That,” River Ripple admitted, staring at the border, “Is definitely a possibility.”

“What’s the point?” Wind Runner demanded, fixing him with an angry gaze. “Yes, cats have faded. Gorse Fur, Violet Dawn, Sun Shadow, Star Flower, Night, and now Gray Wing. We’ve all lost cats.”

Tall Shadow nodded her agreement. “Gray Wing was the last of our generation besides us to remain. Then there’s the group from the Golden Age, and then the newer ones that still have family and friends among the living to remember them. Beyond that, everyone’s gone.”

“But what can we do about it?” Clear Sky asked, staring at his own faded paws. “Beyond the medicine cats and a few leaders, no one believes in us. Hardly anyone tells our tales anymore, they’re all too busy dying.”

“Cats are fading faster,” Wind Runner added grimly, “The living have too much on their paws to remember the dead.”

“What we need is another miracle,” Thunder suggested, his gaze brightening slightly. “Like back in the Golden age! We had future seers, mind readers, invincibility, a reincarnation. We even all went down there at once. A spectacle like that would renew their faith.”

River Ripple dug his claws into the ground, then lifted a paw, watching the soil fade off of his fur as it fell. Slowly, he shook his head. “Our power comes from them, Thunder. The newcomers do not know how to interact with the stars, and I doubt they’ll last long enough for us to teach them. Starclan’s not capable of what it used to be.”

“Then why bother bringing us here?” the ginger tom asked, his voice regaining it’s hopeless tone. “It seems we’ve got no choice but to sit around and fade.”

“Because,” a deap, rusty voice growled, making all but River Ripple jump, “Starclan can’t do it alone. But we can do it together.”

Wind Runner, Clear Sky, and Thunder all bolted to their feet as a massive dark brown tabby strode across the border, the shadows clinging to him like a ghostly second pelt. His fur was matted and torn, but his eyes were gleaming with haughty cunning.

Tall Shadow shot River Ripple with a questioning look, and he blinked at her. “Put your claws away, friends,” he murmured to the other, nodding a greeting to the ragged shapes that slunk out of the Dark Forest  one by one to stand by the first cat. “They’re here on my invitation.”

“I thought the Goldies dealt with you a long time ago, Tigerstar,” Tall Shadow murmured, eyeing the tabby with narrowed eyes.

“You of all cats should know by now that darkness never goes away, it just waits for the next night,” Tigerstar replied, dipping his head to Tall Shadow in something that might have been a semblance of respect. Tall Shadow had founded the clan he had taken control of, and Tigerstar had driven her clan into a dark age that had lasted many lifetimes. Neither thing could be easily dismissed.

“The clans need our help,” River Ripple began, rising to his feet. “The obstacles they face are not so unique, but their results certainly are. Everything has a solution, but the living can’t find it this time.” He turned to the gathered Dark Forest cats, a slim smile on his face. “Our powers alone are useless, but together we should be able to walk among the living and guide them.”

“What’s in it for them?” Wind Runner asked, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “We know we can’t trust them, how can we be sure this isn’t some kind of trick.”

“Because we’re no fonder of being forgotten than you are,” a scarred tortishell and white she-cat replied. River Ripple could make out the shapes of her clanmates through her fur, just like with the Starclan cats.

“Besides,” a white and black tom added, “You’re all...well, how should I put this?”

“Weak?” a second dark tabby with a flat face suggested, shooting the Starclan cats a cruel smirk.

“That’s the word,” the white tom agreed, nodding. “These next few generations are going to be a turning point. Hard decisions are going to have to be made, and I doubt you’ll have the guts to make them.”

River Ripple dipped his head slightly, closing his eyes. This was the part he hated about this plan. The Dark Forest cats were right. If the clans were going to survive, sacrifices would be required. The Warrior Code wasn’t enough anymore.

“Funny, I seem to remember all of you getting killed by us ‘weaklings’,” Clear Sky muttered, and River Ripple shot him a warning glance. Many of the gathered cats bristled, but Tigerstar just shrugged.

“True or not, we both have our skill sets.”

“Tigerstar and I have come to the conclusion that we have enough power between our two groups for five reincarnations,” River Ripple mewed, glancing between his allies and the Dark Forest cats. “We’ll walk among the living and help them prevail over their challenges, much like how we orchestrated the Golden Age’s Three. Tigerstar, have you made your final picks?”

Tigerstar nodded, flicking his tail. Four other cats stepped out beside him, their pelts dark and misty. “Hawkfrost, Darktail, Mapleshade, Ashfur, and myself.”

“No Brokenstar?” River Ripple asked, glancing at Ashfur in puzzlement and relief. He wasn’t the choice he had expected Tigerstar to make. In fact, the spotted grey tom had once been in Starclan until they’d thought wiser of their decision. He certainly wasn’t trustworthy, but at least his resume lacked kit murdering.

Tigerstar waved a translucent paw through the air dismissively. “Brokenstar lacks tact.” From behind him, the other dark tabby let out a hiss of anger, and Tigerstar added, “ Besides, we can’t leave our newer member completely without supervision. I’m assuming the five of you will be representing Starclan?”

“It seemed only fitting,” River Ripple replied.

“Wait,” Thunder interrupted, his brow furrowing. “Five Starclan cats, and five Dark Forest? That’s ten cats! I thought you said we only had enough power to send down five of us.”

River Ripple exchanged a long look with Tigerstar. He could tell by the suspicious looks on the Dark Forest cats that Tigerstar hadn’t told them about it either. The tabby gave him a wry smile, before turning to face the gathered cats. No one was going to like this.

“Really, Thunderstar, you can count to ten? I’m impressed. You’re going to have to share,” Tigerstar said with a smirk, as if this was just another way for the Dark Forest to get under Starclan’s fur. “Five bodies, ten souls.”

“You’re kidding,” Tall Shadow murmured under her breath to River Ripple, at the same time that the Dark Forest cats burst into turmoil of angry outbursts.

“Why can’t we just split it?” Clear Sky asked, shooting a nervous glance at the Dark Forest cats. “Three Starclan, two Dark Forest, or vice versa. You can’t seriously expect us to share a physical form, the poor cat won’t even be able to decide what direction to walk in.”

“Because,” River Ripple explained with a sigh, “Our powers alone are both quite weak. Only with multiple souls will we be able to maintain an anchor to a living form. And….you won’t exactly have the opportunity to argue.

“This has never been done before, so it’s all theoretical, but Tigerstar and I are fairly certain that the pair of souls will mix, instead of remaining two halves of a whole. You’ll become one cat.”

“Can it be reversed?” Clear Sky demanded, his pelt bristling with alarm. “Once this is  done, will we be able to separate again?”

“Does it matter?” Tigerstar challenged, fixing the pale grey tom with his harsh amber gaze. He took a step deeper into Starclan territory, waving a paw around at it. “If we fail, we’ll simply cease to exist.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Clear Sky agreed reluctantly, his blue eyes dark with worry.

River Ripple glanced around at his friends, his expression grim. If they were anyone but the five they were, he would ask them if they were sure they wanted to do this. He could tell no one was too keen on combining with a Dark Forest cat. But the clans were their creations and their responsibilities. It had to be them.

“You’re not going to involve the Goldies at all in this?” Tall Shadow asked, her expression neutral but her gaze filled with turmoil. “Firestar would want to be involved.”

“You’d expect them to agree to any of this?” River Ripple prompted, gesturing to Tigerclaw. “Would Firestar be willing to work with Tigerstar? Or Bramblestar with Hawkfrost? Squirrelflight with Ashfur? Onestar with Darktail? No, it’s better this way. We have no personal conflicts with them. Besides, someone has to stay behind and guide us.”

“When are you going to tell them then?” Wind Runner demanded.

“Never, they’d try to stop us,” River Ripple answered with a thin smile. “But as soon as we go, Firestar and the others will be able to sense our host’s connection to Starclan. They’ll figure out what we’ve done soon enough.”

He took a deep breath, then waved his paw through the air. He could sense the strain that even this simple task took on the territory, but with a bit of prodding five blurry shapes appeared in the mist beside him.

“Tigerstar, would you like to demonstrate?” River Ripple asked, and the dark tabby stepped forward.

“Wind Runner,” Tigerstar called, flicking his tail towards the wiry she-cat. “Come here.”

The WindClan leader hesitated, scowling. She shot River Ripple a baleful look, which he responded to with a calm nod. “Do what must be done,” he murmured.

Tigerstar dipped his head to the she-cat as she came to stand beside him, looking tiny compared to his bulky shoulders. “That,” the tabby said, reaching out a paw to touch the transparent form of a small, black kit, “Is going to be Stormkit very soon.” With a scowl, he received, “We are going to Stormkit very soon.”

The Dark Forest tom hesitated for a brief second, before stepping forward into the mist. His form seamlessly melted away, there one second and gone the next. Wind Runner glanced back at them one last time, then vanished after him.

River Ripple let out a long breath. Now, it had begun. There was no turning back. “Clear Sky, Hawfrost, you take the ginger and white one,” he instructed, gesturing towards what was going to be a cat named Valleykit in just a moment.

“Great, I get the spineless one,” Hawkfrost grumbled, before striding into the mist with a nervous looking Clear Sky on his heels.

“Thunder, you and Ashfur get the yellow tabby, Bumblekit” he continued, trying to ignore the stirring of fear in his chest. Soon, it would be his own turn, and although he knew it was necessary, there were few things less terrifying than the prospect of losing one’s self.

River Ripple paused as Thunder’s ginger pelt faded away, studying the little unborn calico tom in front of him. All of the matches had potential to result in monsters if they didn’t retain their Starclan benefactor’s virtues, but this one was especially dangerous, he felt. “Tall Shadow, Darktail, you will be Elm,” he murmured, hoping he hadn’t just made a fatal mistake.

“You expect me to go with the cat who almost destroyed my clan?” Tall Shadow murmured, rising slowly to her feet.

“Yes,” River Ripple replied simply, and she dipped her head ever so slightly.

“So be it,” Tall Shadow said, sizing up the white tom. Head held high, she lead the way into the mist, her dark fur fading like all the others.

That left only River Ripple. He turned slowly, gazing steadily at Mapleshade. “Shall we?” he asked, looking at the last cat, a plain brown tabby with white paws. Orchidkit would be her name.

“Your clan has taken so much from me,” Mapleshade growled, meeting his gaze with narrowed eyes. “If Tigerstar had warned me that I’d have to collaborate with you fish faces, I might not have agreed.”

“Are you backing out?” he replied, his voice light but not without a hint of a challenge. He needed a Dark Forest cat, not specifically her. If she wasn’t up to the task, River Ripple would make do.

“Of course not,” Mapleshade replied curtly, brushing past him. Without another word, she stalked into the mist, her dapple form mixing into nothingness.

River Ripple shot one last glance around the territory, taking in the wilted paradise one last time. He had no way of knowing if he’d ever be able to return.

Part of him wished he had asked the other four to stay back a minute longer. None of them had said their farewells. That might have been the last time he’d ever speak to them as himself.

But, he thought, closing his eyes as the mist grew heavy around him, even if the cat he was never saw them again, the cat he was about to become certainly would. Fate demanded it.

Chapter 1[]

Valleykit sat crouched towards the back of Windclan camp, watching the ground before them intently. Their eyes followed the long trail of ants, watching their tiny legs churn through the thin grass like the water of a river through reeds. They’d long since lost track of their numbers, but they were still dutifully at their task.

“Moonstorm. Quailtail. Footfoot. Noseflight. Headpelt. Acornbelly. Whiskerface,” the little ginger kit murmured under their breath, their heart skipping in their chest as they realized that they’d missed one. “Tickletoes,” they added quickly, before the ant could disappear from their line of sight.

“Bananaleaf. Grasspeck.  Snakeduck. Eyesight. Budlight. Treesoot. Stormsong. Basilwillow. Skunkriver,” Valleykit continued, chewing on the inside of their lip in concentration. They only knew so many words, and they were starting to run out, but the ants just kept coming and coming. “Umm,” they muttered, racking their brain for something else that could serve as a name.

“What about Ploversky?”

Valleykit looked up, frowning at the dusty brown tom that had come to sit next to them. “I can’t use that, it was your name!”

Ploverstar smiled slightly, folding his paws neatly under him. “Well, I’m pretty sure you’ve used Moonstorm twice,” he said, following the kit’s gaze to the trail of ants.

“Well, then Moonstorm #2 is now Pebblestorm,” Valleykit said, with a scowl. “Sorry, Pebblestorm,” they whispered, leaning closer to the ant hill.

“Dovefox. Bramblebush. Orangewhisker. Tansydash. Blazefuzz.”

Ploverstar’s eyes krept away from the ants, to the kit beside him. Oblivious, Valleykit continued rattling off names, looking less with a kit playing by themself and more like an adult with a serious task to do. “Valleykit, why are you naming the ants?” Ploverstar asked gently. Any other cat’s heart might have been warned by the scene, but he knew better.

The kit scowled, obviously frustrated about being interrupted again. “Dewfrost. Quickjump. Because,” they replied, as a gap opened up in the line of little scuttling bodies, “There’s a lot of ants. And they’re always here, even if we don’t see them, but we don’t pay any attention. Butterfoot.”

“There’s a lot of grass too, and mice, and leaves,” Ploverstar pointed out, with a sad smile.

“I know,” Valleykit replied, their expression crumpling suddenly. “I’m never going to name them all, but they still need names.”

“No one deserves to be neglected, huh?” Ploverstar murmured, leaning over to give the kit a brisk lick over the ears.

The little ginger and white cat bristled, as if startled that Ploverstar had been able to connect the dots. “Of course not. But,” they added, their expression smoothing over into a grin, “They’re just ants. I’m just trying not to be bored.”

“Just ants,” Ploverstar repeated, wishing that was the truth and that he didn’t have to ask the question he needed to ask. “Valleykit, have you seen Duskflame lately? He didn’t go to any of his scheduled patrols today.”

“No,” Valleykit replied cheerfully, their grin looking stiff on their fluffy little face. “I’m sure he’s around somewhere, though.” Mischievously, they added, “Are you going to punish him? You should make him clean the elder’s den with Whisperpaw.”

Three moons old, and already starting to act. Ploverstar rose slowly to his paws, gazing regretfully down at the kit. He was doing his best, but he had a clan to run and he wasn’t Valleykit’s father. Arguably, Duskflame didn’t count as their father either.  “I think I will,” he said, blinking at them. “Maybe when he gets back he’ll help you name the ants.”




Valleystep dashed after the rabbit, enjoying the rush of air through their fur as the two of them crested the rise, the murky dusk light casting long shadows in the rabbit’s wake. Their paws hit the ground hard, their long legs agility mimicking the terrified animal’s every move.

The rabbit darted left, but Valleystep saw the dodge coming and put on an extra burst of speed, leaping over a tuft of tall grass and sending up a scattering of dust. The world tilted as they landed off balance, but Valleystep turned it into a dive for their prey before they fell.

With a triumphant woop, Valleystep pinned down the frightened creature, pressing its back against the dirt. Then, with a huff, they stepped back, watching as it scrambled to its feet and bolted away.

Their sides heaving from the run, Valleystep eased themself back onto their haunches, squinting at the horizon as the rabbit darted over a hill and out of sight.

“Why do you catch them if you don’t intend on killing them?”

Valleystep grinned at the voice. They shook the dirt from their pelt, then turned to greet their climate. “Fogheart, why do I do anything?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Ah, but if you were so inclined to find out, you’d know that everything I’ve ever done is for one virtuous purpose: for fun.” They flicked the black tom lightly with their tail, enjoying the flustered flicker of annoyance on his face. “Besides, our freshkill pile is full for once. If I caught it tonight, it would go bad before anyone ate it. Best to let it live and make little baby rabbits for us to eat later.”

Even on the cusp of night, the air was warm and sweet with the scent of blossoming flowers. Valleystep could tell that they were looking forward to a nice, long green leaf, and they were looking forward to the time where the days seemed to last forever and everyone grew fat on rabbits.

“If you say so,” Fogheart grumbled, shaking his head. Valleystep caught a slight edge to the tom’s voice, and shot their clanmate a quizzical look.

“What’s rattling around in that handsome head of yours that you’re not telling me?” they asked, their eyes darting across Fogheart’s face.

Fogheart hesitated, the reluctant look on his face an answer in and of itself.

“Got it,” Valleystep said, smiling cheekily even as their content mood dived down into glum anticipation. “My father is an idiot, and Ploverstar wants to speak to me, right?”

“Right,” Fogheart replied, looking a little relieved that Valleystep had relieved him of his task, but not quite comfortable yet. “Val, he’s-”

“Now, you wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, would you?” Valleystep interrupted, with a teasing, elegantly chiding tone that they felt particularly proud of. After all, what were they if not good natured and cheery?

Valleystep spun on their heels and bolted off in the opposite direction, ignoring Fogheart’s attempt to continue the conversation. Duskflame was not something they liked to talk about when it was avoidable. Besides, what was it that Fogheart could say that would surprise them?

Val, he’s run off with a loner.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, and probably not the last.

Val, he tried to vanquish Skyclan.

Been there, done that. Poor Dewstar had seen more of Duskflame lately than anyone else.

Quite honestly, the only thing Valleystep would be surprised by at this point was if Duskflame apologised. They’d long since realized that their father was who he was now, and nothing they did could change him back.

Valleystep hesitated slightly as Windclan camp came into view, the rhythm of their pawsteps faltering for a moment before they pushed themself into a sprint. It would be better to get it over with. Rip the cobwebs off all at once, as Duststone would say.

They stopped just outside of camp, taking a moment to smooth their fur and readjust their expression into a slight smile. Then, with the safety of knowing that no one was looking, they allowed themself a long, deep breath. Whatever Duskflame had done this time, it couldn’t hardly be worse than what he’d done before.

Valleystep slid through the entrance, noting how all eyes immediately stuck to them as they padded into camp. That was never a good thing. It must be something bad this time. Maybe he’d actually managed to take one of Dewstar’s lives this time, although Valleystep couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen their father execute a half-decent battle move.

Whatever they’d been expecting, it certainly wasn’t what was in front of them. Ploverstar met their eyes, his expression too full of contradictions to betray anything of too much meaning. Then, slowly, the leader dipped his head, looking down at the tiny kit that was sitting between their paws.

“Valleystep, this is your younger sister,” he murmured.


“Sister?” Valleystep echoed, the word sinking through the layers of their mind like a claw cutting deeper into a wound. The little speckled kit looked up at him, her blue eyes wide with curiosity.

“Well, half-sister, technically,” Ploverstar revised. “Duskflame just brought her by, he’s in the warrior’s den taking a nap. Valleystep, are you okay?” he added, his face darkening with concern as Valleystep gawked at the tiny she-kit.

“I’m fine.”

They most certainly weren’t fine.

How were they going to take care of a sister? And yes, it would be them who was taking care of her, because Duskflame didn’t even take care of himself and Ploverstar was already up to his ears in trouble from trying to do it for him.

Valleystep knew nothing about being a sibling, let alone being a parent. Was this kit even old enough to eat solid prey?

What if she got sick? Or had an accident? They could see it all clearly in their head, the tiny limp form or the eagle growing smaller and smaller in the sky. The kit in front of them tilted her head at them, looking nervous. She had every right to be nervous. She could die, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything but watch.

“Val?”

Ploverstar had stepped away from the kit, and was crouching beside them as if they were the one who needed to be protected. “Valleystep, what’s wrong? I know this is big, but you look-”

“What if she drowns?” Valleystep blurted, so suddenly that Ploverstar actually flinched away. They frowned, almost equally surprised. They’d barely had time to think about it, let alone decide to say it.

“Val, this is Windclan. Where’s she going to find something to drown in?” Ploverstar asked, with a bewildered sort of gentleness. “We’ll keep her far away from the lake, I promise.”

Yes, they thought, but kits don’t stay where they ought to. They remembered being a kit themself, always wandering off to name birds and what not. Kit went on adventures and got themselves killed.

They weren’t ready for this. They couldn’t lose anyone else. They couldn’t turn into Duskflame, or worse, end up just like-

Like who?

Just like me.

Valleystep shook their head, their face crumpling into a harsh scowl as they struggled to reign in the panic. They weren’t thinking sense, let alone speaking it. Their clanmates were whispering and the kit - their sister, they reminded themself- was staring at them. They needed to get a grip on their emotions before they lost what little of a reputation they had.

Valleystep forced in a breath, then a second one. The kit wasn’t going to drown, or get eaten, or anything. Ploverstar was right, they could keep her safe. One of the nursery queens could help them take care of her. It would be fine. They were fine.

“Are you okay, Valleystep?” Ploverstar prompted carefully, peering at them through worried eyes. Valleystep felt a stab of guilt, Ploverstar had enough to worry about without having to worry about them as well.

“Never been better,” they chirped, swinging the scowl back into their usual grin. “So, little one, tell me about yourself,” they added, turning their charming smile to their new sister. “I can already see that you got my charming good looks. I’m sure we’re going to be the best of pals, but first, would you do me the honor of telling me your name?”

The kit giggled, shaking her head. “No,” she replied, grinning back at them.

“No, really, I must insist.”

The kit hesitated, glancing up at Ploverstar for help. “Am I supposed to have one of those?”

Of course she didn’t have a name, Valleystep thought, their smile wilting only a little. “Well, everyone needs a name,” they purred, blinking reassuringly at her. “It’s okay that you don’t have one yet though, just means we can come up with one together. It’s more fun this way, anyway.”

She grinned, her face lighting up like a little ray of sunshine. “Cool!”

Valleystep grinned back, seamlessly hiding the battle in their mind. On one side, reason. On the other, the haunting vision of dark water swallowing up tiny paws.

Chapter 2[]

“Those are horses, correct?” Stormpaw asked curiously, their sky blue eyes sparkling like the river on a sunny day. The apprentice walked with a happy bounce in their step, their head on a constant swivel as they took in the territory around them.

Beside them, their new mentor, Quicktail, let out a purr of amusement. “Yes, those are horses.”

Stormpaw grinned, sitting down to peer up at the huge creature that had it’s head draped over the fence in front of them. The horse, equally curious, stretched its long neck down towards the ‘paw. They tilted their head slightly, watching the giant animal’s nostrils flare as it sniffed them.

Hesitantly, they reached a small black paw up to touch the horse’s velvety nose, then jerked back with a startled yelp as it snorted, splattering them with an unfortunate amount of watery mucus.

“What in Starclan’s name is wrong with you?” Stormpaw hissed up at the horse, their ears flattening. Angrily, they swiped furiously at their face, then waved their paw wildly, their expression so comically disgusted that Quicktail couldn’t muffle her chuckle.

“It’s not funny,” her apprentice growled belligerently, looking upset enough that their mentor shot them an apologetic blink.

“Here, let me help,” she offered, but Stormpaw twisted away.

“I don’t need help,” they grunted, wiping their paws off on the neatly shorn grass. “Dumb horse,” they added, shooting the creature a withering glare.

Stormpaw headed off along the fence, their pelt burning with embarrassment and anger. It was only their first day of being an apprentice, but that didn’t mean that Quicktail could treat them as a kit. “Someday,” they murmured to themself, the words replacing the hot unhappiness with the gentle warmth of contentment, “You’re going to be a great Riverclan warrior.”

Stormpaw could see it, their wonderful future they could have if they could just figure out how to grow a little faster. It was irritating, waiting for their pelt to lose it’s kit fuzz, but soon enough they’d be ready.

“Hey, you’re one of those fish cats, right?”

Stormpaw jerked out of their thoughts at the sound of the voice, and squinted up at the top of the fence. The bright sunlight made it hard to see, but they could still make out the form of a plump, reddish brown cat balancing on the wood above them.

“You look a little small though, don’t they feed you?” the cat inquired, hauling their hind legs over the edge of the fence and dropping heavily onto the ground beside Stormpaw with a loud jingle from their collar. “Ohh,” they said, as they studied the apprentice closely, “You’re just a kitten. A baby fish cat!”

“Are you a kittypet?” Stormpaw asked, a strange chill settling over their pelt as they gazed at the chubby stranger.

“You forest folks talk funny,” the reddish cat replied, with a lopsided grin. “But yeah, I live in that den over there. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a pet,” they added, their amiable voice taking on a smug edge, “Y’know, I caught a fish the other day.”

Stormpaw bristled, the fur on their spine rising up into thorn-like spikes. “You stole Riverclan prey?” they pressed, stalking closer to the kittypet.

“Uh,” the kittypet replied, backing up against the fence, “Well. I guess, if you want to put it that way. But there’s a bunch of fish in there, plenty for everyone. Right?” Nervously, they grinned a bit too wide, their eyes darting anxiously from side to side as if a kittypet could ever escape a clan cat.

A kittypet. A useless, lazy kittypet was stealing from Stormpaw’s clan. They’d pay for what they’d done, every last bit of it.

With a harsh snarl, Stormpaw darted forward, their claws leaving long, bloody rows in the other cat’s soft fur. As the pathetic coward tried to twist away, they used the kittypet’s momentum against them, flipping the reddish cat over onto their back in one smooth lash of their paw.

“You'll be sorry you ever underestimated me,” Stormpaw growled, raising their paw for the blow. The final blow, to finally even the score.

“Stormpaw!”

Then, before they could move, Quicktail’s voice was breaking through their fury and they were being shoved down into the grass. Stormpaw pulled themself slowly back to their feet, watching as the kittypet disappeared over the brim of the fence once again.

“Stormpaw, what’s wrong with you? They weren’t even on our territory!” Quicktail snapped, her face looming over them like an angry badger.

Stormpaw shrank beneath her horror and anger, their heart beating loud in their ears as they realized what they had been about to do. “I-I don’t know,” they stammered, staring at their bloodstained claws. The kittypet had seemed familiar somewhere, like a face out of an old nightmare. “It won’t happen again,” they promised, struggling to ignore the whisper in their mind that wasn’t even the slightest bit sorry.




“Stormflight, we’d best be going if we’re going to make the meeting on time,” Pepperheart said curtly, poking his head inside the medicine den without actually daring to meet his apprentice’s searing gaze.

Stormflight gritted their teeth, their claws shredding the chervil they had been organizing into a soggy pulp before they realized what they had been doing. “Mousedung,” they muttered, flicking a bit of green gunk off of their paw as they rose stiffly to their feet.

Pepperheart slipped to the side, allowing them to exit before falling into step behind them. Stormflight had the sneaking suspicion that the little weasel was too jumpy to turn his back on them. Pepperheart was a fool, but at least he wasn’t stupid. Stormflight wasn’t sure they trusted themself not to slit his throat if they were given the chance.

“Stormflight!” a voice voice called, the weary, forced cheerfulness of the sound making Stormflight’s heart shrink. They smiled reluctantly as their mothers clustered around them, wishing that they could fall for Mintrain and Stingclaw’s act like they had as a kit. “Good luck,” Mintrain murmured, blinking at them. The warmth in her gaze was bittersweet with grief, and the pang it sparked in Stormflight was so sharp it nearly cut them like a claw.

“Thanks,” they replied, hoping that they were doing a better job of acting happy than the two of them were.

“You’re sure this is what you want?” Stingclaw asked awkwardly, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one paw to the other. “You were always so set on being a warrior.”

“I’m sure,” Stormflight managed to choke out. “Look, I need to go,” they added, abruptly turning away and heading for the camp entrance. They were grateful for the way the darkness cloaked their fur, hiding the lies their face couldn’t quite bury.

“Come,” Pepperheart instructed, flicking his tail in the direction of the border. He initially took the lead, but quickly slowed his pace to once again fall behind them.

Stormflight scowled, their eyes raking the darkness listlessly as they neared the horseplace. The kittypets knew better than to show their faces with clan cats around now, but that didn’t stop them from checking. Even if they weren’t a warrior anymore, they could still fight.

They weren’t a warrior anymore.

The realization hit like a cold splash of ice water, just like everytime Stormflight remembered. Their clanmates were all so bewildered, and they didn’t blame them. After almost a year of serving unwaveringly, Stormflight had become a medicine cat. The stars had chosen them, they claimed, as if anyone said mousedung like that unironically anymore.  

Experimentally, Stormflight slowed their jog, dropping back until their tail was close enough to brush Pepperheart’s shoulder. Around the soft symphony of crickets and the lapping of the lake on its bank, they heard the tom’s pawsteps slow to match their pace.

Scowling, Stormflight switched from a slow trot to a brisk walk, flicking an ear back towards their mentor. It was ridiculous, honestly, that they were expected to take instructions from the foxheart. He was half their age, barely old enough to have his full name, even if his soul did seem to be the equivalent of a grumpy elder.

Stormflight could remember him as a kit, always fearful and nervous. They never would have guessed that he would end up being such a thorn in their paw.

They walked slower and slower, until they finally stopped. There were no pawsteps behind them, and besides the usual wildlife, the night was suddenly silent, enough to make them wonder if Pepperheart was even there anymore.

Maybe, they allowed themself to hope for a moment, maybe he’s fallen in the lake and drowned.

But no, when they turned, the little ginger tom was staring intently at them. “Why don’t you lead?” Stormflight prompted icely, noting with satisfaction the way his gaze immediately drifted a little to the left of them. “After all, I’ve never been to the moonpool before.”

“No,” Pepperheart replied, matching their frosty tone, “I don’t think I will. Go on,” he added, nodding ahead. “I’ll tell you when to turn.”

Stormflight glanced around, sniffing to see how close to the Windclan border they were. Then, reassured that no one was in ear shot, they let out a loud hiss of rage, slashing their claws through the grass. It was hard to think through the anger. It was even harder to remember that killing Pepperheart wasn’t something they’d be able to get away with.

But it would only be fair. After all, he’d ruined their life. If Stormflight couldn’t be a warrior, they were as good as dead already.

“Is it really so bad?” Pepperheart murmured, his voice both curious and patronizing. “I’ve always found comfort in being able to heal instead of hurting.”

“Is that what you’re doing now?” Stormflight snarled, taking a menacing step forward. “Healing me?”

“No,” the tom replied simply, “I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

Stormflight stalked closer, until they were towering over him. “I could kill you right now, you know,” they whispered, staring down at him. It would be so easy too. Pepperheart had never bothered to learn any battle moves, and even if he had, he was about as durable as a dried leaf.

For the first time since they left camp, Pepperheart raised his eyes to meet their gaze. His expression, fearful and nervous, was all too familiar. “See, this is why we have this agreement in the first place,” he whispered back, as if they were apprentices sharing some particularly interesting gossip.

Gingerly, he pressed a paw against Stormflight’s chest, pushing them back and away from him. He let out a short breath, and bent to lick down the ruffled fur on his shoulder. “I’m not doing this out of my own kindness, you know,” Pepperheart said softly, “If it were up to me, I’d tell Hawthornstar everything. But Starclan wants you to be a medicine cat.”

“And why’s that?” Stormflight demanded.

“Maybe they think it’s the only way to keep you from hurting anyone else.”

Chapter 3[]

Bumble crouched, her hindquarters wiggling in the air behind her as she stalked slowly closer to her prey. Her fluffy golden kitten fur stood out against the cool sea of green grass, but she had no doubt that her skills were more than enough to make up for that.

With a ferocious yowl, she lunged, her tiny claws tearing the delicate petals of the doomed daffodil into a pile of crumpled shreds. “Take that, you mousebrained fish eater,” she growled. A blade of grass dared to stab at her chin, and, with another battle cry, she tore it from its roots and gave it a thorough chewing.

“Bumble said mousebrain!” a squeaky voice chirped, and the young yellow tabby’s fur bristled up into a sunny cloud of distress as a pair of large paws blocked her view of the rest of the flower bed.

“I did not, Robert is a liar!” she objected, following the paws up to the face of her father’s stern face. Nervously, she gnawed at another blade of grass, eyeing him hesitantly. She didn’t understand why her brother had to be such a spoilsport, especially since she’d heard him say foxdung the last time Scone had shoved him in the mud.

Turtle lowered his head down, his huge chin brushing his daughter’s ears as he scooped her up by her scruff, and set her back down on her paws. “Y’know what I’m going to say, Bumble?” he prompted, gentle but still stern.

“No swearing at the flowers?” Bumble muttered, more indignant than ashamed.

“No swearing at the flowers,” Turtle confirmed, shaking his head slightly. “Your pop’s a bad influence.”

“Pop’s a great influence,” she objected, brightening at the mention of her other father. He wouldn’t have yelled at her for swearing at the flowers, especially not when the tulips had definitely deserved it.

“Hmmm,” Turtle murmured, ducking down the lick down a bit of fur on the top of her head. “Well, you’ve gotten dirt in your fur again. You’re going to need-”

“No, no, no! I don’t need another bath!” Bumble objected, scrambling away. Around Turtle’s huge tabby form, she could see her brother, Robert, wearing a particularly smug expression. “Why do we have to be clean today anyway?”

“Yeah, what’re we doing out here anyway?” Scone complained, poking her brown, ginger, and white head around Turtle. She gestured around at the garden, scowling. “It’s chilly today. I want to go back inside.”

Turtle grimaced slightly, and glanced away. “It’s nice out.”

“Daddy’s making his lying face,” Bumble whispered loudly, grinning as her siblings scuttled over to peer critically up at their father.

“Yep,” Scone agreed, nodding wisely. “That’s the lying face.”

“Bad Daddy,” Robert scolded.

“I,” Turtle said, the corners of his mouth twitching up disobediently, “Most certainly do not have a lying face.”

“You most certainly do, you scheming foxheart,” a voice called, a voice that made Bumble’s heart soar higher than any bird could ever go. Turtle gave up his failing attempt at a straight face, and grinned.

“Pop!!” all three kits squealed in synchronous, all bearing identical grins to Turtle.

“We talked about this, Lizardsight,” Turtle purred, leaning over to brush his head against his mate’s, “They repeat every single word you say, especially the insults.”

Lizardsight smirked, giving Turtle a light tap on the nose with his paw before spinning around to face his kits.

Lizardsight had the most spectacular eyes that Bumble had ever seen, and she always wished that she had the same ones as him. They were yellow, like plenty of cats, but with flecks of darker streaks that made them look like, well, lizard eyes. “How’re my little warriors?” he purred, flopping down on the flowerbed beside them, with a goofy grin Bumble saw all too infrequently.

“Tell us about Shadowclan!” Scone demanded, clambering onto his head and peering down at his face from above. “Did you end up fighting the fishclan like you said you were going to last quarter moon?”

Bumble squirmed over, settling herself between Lizardsight’s paws as Robert sat primly down beside her, his tail draped neatly over his paws. Turtle tucked himself up against Lizardsight’s side, still wearing the same goofy grin.

Even though she only saw him four times a moon, Lizardsight was probably her favorite cat ever. And even though she knew he loved all the others, Bumble was pretty sure she was his favorite too.



“Mousedung,” Bumble growled, irritably detangling herself from the tulips as she struggled after Scone. Technically speaking, they weren’t supposed to be out at night, but with the half moon shining bright up above it wasn’t all that dark. Scone’s reasoning was that if they could still see, it didn’t really count as night, and Turtle wouldn’t mind.

Not that they were kits anymore, no matter how her father seemed to act, but Bumble didn’t mind Turtle’s fussing. If Robert or Scone strayed too far into the forest, they might not come back, and Bumble never wanted her siblings to leave her.

“Are you sure you heard a noise?” Bumble asked, darting after her sister. She couldn’t see out beyond the garden, which contained only its usual assortment of flowers, but even so she shifted so that she was in front of Scone. If there was something out and about, Bumble planned on being the first to give it a clawing.

“I’m sure,” Scone grumbled, shooting her an irritable look. “But keep your voice down, Robert will hear you.”

Robert, of course, was not invited, given that he was a perpetual spoilsport and prone to tattling even in adulthood. He had the bravery of a mouse and the ears of a bat.

“Well, there’s nothing here,” Bumble said, gesturing at the flowers. Scone shook her head, checking under a leafy bush as if there might be a cat or a badger hidden in its greenery.

Then, as if intent on undermining her, a shrill shriek split the air. In front of her, Bumble saw Scone’s fur fluff with fear, but she forced her own to remain flat. “That’s a cat,” she whispered, shifting closer to the garden entrance. “Someone’s in trouble.”

“We can’t go-” Scone began to say, but Bumble was already slipping under the garden’s metal gate, ignoring the rough scrape of the gravel beneath her belly. Without waiting to see if Scone would follow, she bolted out into the forest.

The scent hit her almost immediately, as bold and loud as a bright color or the scream she was following.

Shadowclan.

Turtle said it wasn’t safe in the forest. The few times he’d taken them out of the garden, he’d led them to the scent line as if being smelly made the clan cats more intimidating. But, really, the only thing the scent made her think of was Lizardsight.

She was painfully aware of how loud her paws were, each step seeming to land in a nest of brittle, cracking twigs. The forest itself had gone silent, with even the crickets having fled.

She sniffed the air, recoiling slightly at the heavy, metallic smell of blood in the air. She considered calling out to the cat, but while she needed to find whoever was hurt, she didn’t feel the same about whoever’s claws had inflicted the damage.

Careful, she crept onwards, squinting against the darkness as the trees blocked the moon’s light from reaching the forest floor. It had been ages since she’d been this far from home, but despite the icy fear prickling her pelt, she was not afraid of the forest itself. It was like it was welcoming her home, not luring her into a trap.

Suddenly, her paw brushed something soft, warm, and sticky. Slowly, Bumble looked down, already knowing what she was going to find.

The tom beside her, his pitch black fur nearly invisible in the shadows, was completely soaked with his own blood. Bumble sniffed at him, the scent of mint tickling her nose.

Mint? For the briefest moment she was confused, until she remembered something that Lizardsight had told her several seasons ago. When someone was up to no good, for instance, Lizardsight himself, they rolled around in a patch of mint to hide their scent.

Meaning not only did someone kill this cat, but they’d planned to do it ahead of time. With a jolt of fear, Bumble peered at the trees around her, no longer feeling so friendly about the forest. What murderer was it hiding within its depths?

She needed to go, but it didn’t feel right to leave the Shadowclan tom outside alone for the badgers, especially not when she’d left the safety of her home just to help him. With a grunt, Bumble snagged his soggy scruff, gagging at the salty taste that instantly flooded her mouth. She braised her paws against the ground, and pulled, starting the long journey home.


“Bumble! Oh, thank goodness,” Turtle yelped, slipping under the gate the moment the house came into view. He bolted to her side, then stiffened at the sight of the corpse she was dragging behind her. “Mousedung,” he murmured, his eyes wide with terror.

“No swearing,” Robert chided from behind him, then fell silent as he too spotted Bumble’s new companion.

“This is a swear worthy moment,” Turtle muttered, rocking uneasily on his paws and looking a little sick. “Bumble, where did you find him? Did you go out in the forest? Alone? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said distractedly, waving away his concerned sniff with a blood soaked paw. “It’s all his blood, I’m fine. He was fighting someone out there, though,” she added, glancing over her shoulder in the direction she’d come from.

“What’re we going to do with him?” Bumble wondered out loud.

“Bury him?” Turtle suggested, with an uneasy shrug. “I don’t see what else we can do.”

“We should take him back to his clanmates,” Scone objected, staring sadly down at the dead tom. “They’re probably worried about him. It’s the least we can do.”

“No,” Turtle objected, shaking his head wildly. Robert looked equally concerned, but Scone exchanged a long glance with Bumble.

This cat had been a clan cat, just like Lizardsight. A noble warrior, a brave soul caught unaware in some sort of ambush. If it were Bumble laying there, limp and bleeding, she’d at least want the comfort of knowing that she’d be going home one last time.

“Absolutely not,” Turtle continued, his voice growing hard with fear driven anger, “I forbid it. Those cats don’t like kittypets, you know. And what if they think we’re the ones that killed him? Plus, whatever did this is still out there. It’s not safe.”

Bumble gazed down at the black cat, then back at Turtle. “What if Lizardsight knew this guy, Dad?” she murmured, shaking her head slightly. “What if this was his brother or something.”

“He didn’t have any brothers,” Turtle growled, still shaking his head.

“That’s beside the point. We have to take him back.”

Turtle hesitated, eyeing the looming forest. Then, slowly, he gave a single nod. “Alright, but we’ll all go together, and certainly not until it’s light. I’m not trusting those cats with any more of my family.”

Chapter 4[]

“And so, with the power of the stars guiding his claws, the mighty Firestar killed Scrub with a single blow. Since Scrub had no faith in Starclan, and therefore no nine lives, he couldn’t come back like Firestar had. Upon seeing their leader defeated, Boneclan fled, leaving Lionclan victorious and a great disaster avoided,” Oaknose said, peering down at the kits from the perch of his nest.

“However,” he added ominously, shooting Stormkit and Azollakit a toothy grin, “While Scrub stayed good and dead, the clans hadn’t seen the last of Tigerstar yet. But that’s a story from another day.”

“No!” Azollakit objected, pounding her paws against the ground in frustration. “What do you mean, they hadn’t seen the last of him?”

The elder grinned. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug, “But come back again later and I might remember. Did you enjoy the story, Stormkit?” he added, resting his chin on the rim of his nest as he peered at them. “You’ve been awfully quiet. It wasn’t too scary, was it? Stingclaw and Mintrain will have my hide-”

“No, it wasn’t too scary,” the kit interrupted, their voice curt and harsh. Oaknose tilted his head, puzzled by the angry undercurrent of the words. Stormkit pawed listlessly at the floor of the elder’s den, their ears flattening under his scrutiny. “I just didn’t think it was a very good story.”

“How so?” their sister asked, frowning. “It was perfect. It had all the good stuff: romance, violence, and adventure!”

Stormkit shrugged moodily, their face darkening like a clouded sky as they considered what to say next. “I didn’t like the part where Tigerstar died,” they said eventually, ignoring the confusion on their companion’s face. “And no, not because it was scary,” they snapped as Oaknose opened his mouth to speak. “It was just dumb that a great warrior like him got defeated by a kittypet and a half-grown rogue.”

“Stormkit,” Oaknose said slowly, “He was evil. What was Firestar supposed to do, just let him take over the forest?”

Stormkit shrugged again, a little confused with the dark snake of anger that was coiled to strike within them. They’d always found Oaknose’s stories a little cliche, but this one really ruffled their fur.

“I just don’t think Tigerstar was all wrong,” they grunted, returning the elder’s glare defiantly. “He just wanted to make the forest strong.”

“He took over Shadowclan!” Azollakit objected, staring at her sibling in astonishment. “He murdered Brindlefang and fed her to the dogs!”

“And Bluestar was out of her mind,” Stormkit shot back, jumping to their feet. “She was weak, and cruel! She named Brightheart Lostface! She let Swatpaw die! Plus, she made Oakhead break the warrior code and then dumped her kits on him. And yet, Tigerstar’s a villain while she’s wise and heroic.”

They knew both Oaknose and Azollakit were staring at them like they were crazy, but they continued on anyway. “Plus, Firestar was just a random kittypet Bluestar snatched out of his cozy den. He knew nothing about the clans, was a reckless, impulsive idiot who didn’t know when to mind his own business, and yet Bluestar rewarded him by making him a warrior early, then deputy. He was a spoiled brat who wasn’t ready for leadership!”

“So you’re saying Tigerstar did the right thing by murdering cats?” Oaknose replied, his voice no longer light and cheerful. Stormkit shifted uncomfortably, glancing away at the hint of distrust in his gaze.

“I just think Firestar’s dumb,” Stormkit muttered, “And Tigerstar was more interesting.”

They shrugged again, then turned away and scuttled out of the nursery. Their pelt was burning with embarrassment and anger, but their mind was alight with a flurry of contradictions.

Tigerstar shouldn’t have gone that far, but he had done the wrong things for the right reasons.

But his motives didn’t matter, he was still a murderer.

Did it really matter if he was a murderer, given that his victims had it coming?

Stormkit stiffed, startled by their own thoughts. Being weak didn’t mean cats deserved to die, they reminded themself. And just because their parents had been fools didn’t mean that half-clan cats should be punished for their ill-advised romances.

“It was just a stupid story,” they muttered to themself, shaking their pelt as if they could rid themself of the dark thoughts like they could the dust they’d acquired from sitting. Chances were, Tigerstar wasn’t even real. Some elder had probably made him up at some point in time, to scare kits into behaving.

“Do you see where the grass is worn away there?” Pepperheart called from behind Stormflight, “We follow that.”

Stormflight nodded stiffly, turning as instructed. Their paws fell into the imprints of other pawprints. The grass was threadbare and the ground soft. While the oaks around them wreaked of Thunderclan, they could smell the other clan’s scent mixed in as well.

If they strained their ears, they could just pick up the slightest hint of running water up ahead. Meaning that soon, there would be no turning back.

“Why are you really doing this?” they asked abruptly, spinning on their heels to face their mentor.

Pepperheart twitched, his paws instantly falling still now that the two of them were facing each other once again. “I beg your pardon?” he replied, squinting at them.

Stormflight snorted, their tail twitching with annoyance. The scrawny ginger tom could pretend all he liked that he didn’t know what they were talking about, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. “Why are you forcing me to become a medicine cat?” they said, pronouncing each word slowly and clearly, accompanied by a mocking smile.

“Like I already said, it’s not my doing. I’m just following instructions,” Pepperheart replied evenly, nodding solemnly up to the cloudy night sky about them, as if the twinkling stars and pearly half-moon were listening.

“Right,” Stormflight replied, their voice heavy with sarcasm. “You stuck your nose in a big puddle and it told you to make me a medicine cat.” They shook their head, their eyes narrowed into slits, gleaming like sharp splinters of ice. “You’re pathetic.”

“I really couldn’t care less what you think of me,” Pepperheart replied. “An insult from a monster is a complement.”

His tone was enough to make Stormflight want to run away and hide or kill him, preferably both. He hadn’t said the words like he wanted them to hurt, only like they were the truth. And maybe they were.

Unfortunately, neither option was viable, so Stormflight settled for trying to find words that stung him as much as his had stung them. “You’re pathetic,” they repeated, “Ever since Airsong died, you’ve been the only medicine cat. You’ve lost two patients so far, right? I bet she could have saved them.”

Pepperheart let out a huff of annoyance. “We’re running late,” he muttered, glancing pointedly in the direction of the moonpool.

“You’re practically a ‘paw still,” they continued, tilting their head in mock curiosity. “How old are you anyway? Eleven moons?” Stormflight let out a harsh laugh, shaking their head. “If you were so desperate for adult supervision, you  should have just said. I’m sure Hawthornstar could find you one. Or maybe you could even try to find company on your own, without resorting to blackmail.”

“Are you done yet?” Pepperheart demanded, his yellow gaze hard and unyielding. “I’d far rather live in solitude than endure your pettiness if I had the choice. I am doing what Starclan told me to do, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Starclan,” Stormflight snorted, bitterly amused that he was still sticking with that story. “If you say so.”

“You don’t believe in Starclan?” Pepperheart inquired, his eyes drifting up once again towards the pale moon up above. “Well, then these next few hours ought to be interesting for you. Go on,” he added, waving a paw in the direction of the pool, “Unless you’ve changed your mind. To me, walking the path of a medicine cat seems preferable to being exiled or executed, but to each their own.”

Stormflight glowered at him, their paws heavy as boulders. Were they really going to let this spineless weasel blackmail them into swearing their life away to a bunch of plants and fairy tales?

Yes, they were, Stormflight acknowledged grimly, turning slowly back around.  

Some part of them knew it was the least they deserved.

“There you are, Pepperheart, we were beginning to worry!” a large, brown she-cat called as they crested the ridge of the stone hollow, Bearsnout of Thunderclan if Stormflight recalled correctly.

Gingerly, they started down the slope, once again walking in the soft imprints of other cat’s paw prints. For once, Pepperheart was audible behind them, his paws sending pebbles rolling past them.

“Who's that?” a young white and silver tom inquired, eying Stormflight quizzically.

“This is Stormflight,” Pepperheart said, nodding to them with a smile, all hostility stashed aside for the benefit of their audience. Stormflight forced themself to smile back, their face feeling stiff. “They’re my new apprentice.”

They were nearly impressed that he could say that with a straight face, given that Stormflight was twice his age, but no one else seemed concerned with that.

“Why is a murderer training to be a medicine cat?” a dark grey tom demanded, his ears flattening back against his head as he stalked forward.

For a brief, terrifying moment, Stormflight gaped at Pepperheart, certain that he’d betrayed his end of the bargain. If the Shadowclan medicine cat knew, then who else did? It was only so long until word got back to Hawthornstar and their family.

But Pepperheart just shook his head ever so slightly, a look of disgust flickering across his face. “The death of Sagebranch was an accident, Wolfbounce. A tragic, unfortunate accident that shouldn’t have happened,” he added, his expression taking on a hint of a sneer, “But I can assure you, Stormflight feels the deepest regret for their actions.”

Stormflight fought back a sigh of relief, along with the urge to laugh in Wolfsong’s face. An unfortunate accident that they regretted? They’d bested the Shadowclan she-cat in a fair fight, after Shadowclan had invaded Riverclan’s territory. The idiot hadn’t known when to give up, and had later succumbed to her wounds.

It hadn’t been Stormflight’s fault, and it certainly hadn’t been murder.

But they had no choice but to go along with Pepperheart’s little charade. “I feel so terrible for the pain I must have caused your clan,” they murmured, allowing their chin to droop as if weighed down by the burden of shame. “In fact, that’s why I’m becoming a medicine cat,” they added, “To repent. I hope that if I dedicate my life to healing, Starclan will forgive me for the damage I’ve done.”

They could feel the burn of Wolfbounce’s gaze on their fur, and shot him a nervous sideways glance. Had they laid it on too thick? The last time Stormflight had talked about Sagebranch, it had been to tell some Shadowclan idiot to get over it already.

Luckily, Wolfbounce seemed satisfied by their ridiculous groveling. He gave them a stiff nod. “Good,” he muttered, seeming a little embarrassed by his outburst. “Well, I’m Wolfsong.”

“And I’m Bearsnout, and this is Bubblepaw,” the Thunderclan medicine cat added, gesturing to her silver and white apprentice. “Over there is Duststone of Windclan, and Sablewind of Skyclan.”

“It’ll be so cool, having another apprentice around!” Bubblepaw chirped, beaming at them.

Stormflight was old enough to be their parent, but they returned his smile, internally wondering how it was possible to be so stupid and happy. “So, what happens now?” they asked, glancing around at the other medicine cats curiously.

What was it that the herb heads did all night twice a moon? Did they just sit around and talk, or did they really come all the way out to Thunderclan territory to take a nap by a special pool of water?

“First, we have to make your apprenticeship official,” Bearsnout purred, blinking at them. “I know you probably already did one back at your camp, but we have to introduce you to Starclan.”

“Okay,” Stormflight replied, uncertainty whether to laugh or howl in misery. If by some slim chance there really were a bunch of dead cats up in the stars, then they certainly already knew they existed. Either way, becoming an official medicine cat sounded about as appealing as taking a bath in a fire ant nest.

“I, Pepperheart, as medicine cat of Riverclan, call upon my warrior ancestors to cast their eyes upon this cat,” Pepperheart murmured, staring up at the night sky, “and ask them to greet Stormflight as my new apprentice and reassure me that this is the path they are destined for.”

Stormflight watched his yellow eyes patrol the stars, wondering how much of this was customary and how much of it was Pepperheart hoping that Starclan would revoke their instructions, assuming they even existed. After a long moment of silence, Pepperheart turned his gaze to them. “Starclan has no objections,” he murmured, his voice a little unsteady. “Stormflight, is it your wish to become a medicine cat apprentice?”

No.

Stormflight stared back at Pepperheart, their brain still desperately trying to find a way out of this situation. But there wasn’t a way out, at least not one they could think of. And not one they could get away with right now.

“It is,” they said, forcing the two syllables out. It was almost as hard to say it now as it had been when Hawthornstar had asked them the same question in front of their clan.

“Then welcome, Stormflight,” Pepperheart returned. He was a skillful pretender, better than Stormflight at least, but because they knew to look, they caught the queasy, sickening dread that was haunting his eyes, hidden behind his smile.

The other medicine cats cheered their name, but they sounded far away. It was done. They were officially, and permanently, a medicine cat.

Stormflight watched as the others settled around the moonpool, dipped their noses into the water, and fell still, a chill running up their spine.

They kept waiting for the part where they were let in on the little secret. Where one of them would wink at them, or explain what actually happened on half-moons. Maybe swore them to secrecy. But this was exactly what they’d been told to expect.

“What now?” Stormflight asked, turning to Pepperheart. He still hadn’t moved, standing stiff as if he’d turned into a tree and grown roots right there in the rock.

“Now,” he said slowly, “We go stick our noses in the ‘big puddle.’ I’m going to speak with my ancestors. I have no idea what happens to cats like you.”

Cats like them. Was he referring to cats who didn’t believe in Starclan, or the kind of cats who did things that got them blackmailed into joining a puddle cult?

“There really is a Starclan?” Stormflight whispered, staring at the moonpool. It was beautiful, if they were being completely honest, the water crystal clear past the crisp reflection of the moon above them.

What judgement waited for them there?

“There really is a Starclan,” Pepperheart confirmed, following their gaze without moving.

Stormflight squared their shoulders, nodded, then crossed the smooth rock to the pool. Gingerly, they folded their paws beneath them, staring down at their reflection.

Hesitantly, Pepperheart took his position to their left, his eyes pinned on them. Stormtail glanced over, expecting him to dip his head to the water, but once again he remained still. Then, they glanced around at the other cats, taking in their sleeping forms.

They looked peaceful.

Vulnerable.

They smiled slightly as they finally caught up with Pepperheart’s train of thought. It would be all too easy to kill him now, while the others were off galavanting with the stars, especially if he was foolish enough to join them. A quick, quiet struggle, then they’d wash their paws off in the pool.

Then Stormflight could go to sleep, as if nothing had happened.

Sablewind was on his other side, and all the others weren’t exactly far away either.

It could have been any one of them. And why would his own clanmate slit his throat? More likely, Shadowcaln wanted revenge for their most recent defeat. Back at the camp, being his denmate would make it too obvious. But now….

The truth would die with him.

Stormflight held the ginger tom’s gaze for a moment, drinking in the terror that was positively radiating from him. Even though they knew they had deserved it, Stormflight didn’t mind seeing him suffer for ruining their life.

The longer they held his gaze, the more his shell crumbled. His paws were shaking now, just the tiniest bit, and he opened his mouth as if to call for help. If they were going to do it, now was the time.

“I hate you so much,” Stormflight whispered to him, closing their eyes. Before they could think anymore about it, they plunged their nose into the water, the cold spreading slowly through their pelt.

Chapter 5[]

“Airsong, it’s so good to see you,” Pepperheart purred, rubbing his head underneath his former mentor’s chin. The words couldn’t begin to describe how much he meant that.

“You’ve done well,” Airsong murmured, blinking at him. “I know you think-”

“That losing two clanmates over the course of a half moon is bad?” Pepperheart snapped, his voice shattering like the fragile happiness he’d been trying to hold onto. “Sorry, I don’t know where I might have gotten that idea.”

One Starclan forsaken half moon was all it had taken for him to start failing after she’d died.

“You tried-”

“Don’t tell me I tried my best, tell me things are going to get better!” he demanded, pacing agitatedly along the edges of the clearing. Starclan’s territory was even more faded than the last time he’d been there, his paws going right through the ghostly trees as he stalked through them, too angry to wonder if that was supposed to happen.

All they’d had was a border scuffle with Shadowclan. It hadn’t been a plague, or a famine, or even a full scale battle. And yet, three cats had found a way to die. Sagebranch of Shadowclan at the paws of Stormflight, and Scarletpelt and Mossberry of Riverclan from infections, at his own incompetant paws.

“It’s not going to get better,” Airsong called after him, sounding painfully regretful. “Things are about to get much, much worse.”

“Worse?” Pepperheart echoed, gawking at his mentor. “What do you mean, worse? What’s going to happen?”

“I can’t tell you. We aren’t able to see the specifics of anything anymore.”

“Then what am I even doing here?” Pepperheart demanded, gesturing at the fading forest around him. “What’s the point?”

Airsong ducked away from his gaze, falling silent for a long moment. Then, sounding almost apologetic, she said, “You need to take Stormflight as your apprentice.”

“What?” Pepperheart said, too startled to be mad about her lack of an answer. “Stormflight’s never had any interest in being a medicine cat. They’re one of Riverclan’s best warriors.”

“No matter what happens, they need to be your apprentice,” Airsong insisted, leaning down to look him in the eyes. “Please, promise me.”

“You want me to force them to be a medicine cat? Why?” Pepperheart asked, recoiling. His mentor wasn’t making any sense. Stormflight wasn’t exactly the type that made a good medicine cat, and he was fairly certain this wasn’t what they wanted with their life, so what good would making them his apprentice do for anyone? Besides, he was barely qualified enough to be a medicine cat, let alone train one.

“It’ll make more sense soon,” Airsong replied gently, blinking at him. “But please, promise me, regardless of what you see, you won’t tell Hawthornstar. We need Stormflight. They’re important.”

Pepperheart flinched, staring at his mentor. No matter what he saw? What was he going to see? “I promise,” he whispered, his pelt prickling with nervous anticipation.

“Go on, Pepperheart, go back to Riverclan,” Airsong said quietly, as he felt the tug of the living world trying to summon him back.

As soon as he’d reached the border, he smelled the blood. Part of him was set to continue on his way, preferably at a sprint, but he thought back to Airsong’s words. Whatever was happening, he was meant to investigate it.

With a deep breath, Pepperheart followed the scent, his claws unsheathed and tensed to fight if he had to. He knew absolutely nothing about defending himself, of course, but the pretense was comforting.

At first, he didn’t see them. Stormflight’s fur was jet black, the same hue of the night, save for the dashes of white by their blue eyes, so he didn’t realize the blurry shape by the lake’s edge was them until they turned around.

Beside them, sprawled a limp silver shape, dark splotches spreading over its fur as it lay utterly still and unmoving.

Azollafrost.

Stormflight had just killed their own sister.

“Starclan help me” he whispered, taking a hurried step back from the gruesome scene as Stormflight’s eyes widened with recognition. Before they could move towards him, he bolted away, fleeing towards camp as fast as his paws would carry him. Pepperheart wanted nothing to do with this. He wished he could unsee what he had just sawn.

He was a witness.

A loose end.

And Starclan wanted him to make this cat his apprentice?

Stormflight frowned, wondering if something was supposed to be happening. The cold had faded away, but besides the chill that clung to their pelt, nothing had changed. They were still crouched on the ground, waiting.

Then, with a start, they realized that they weren’t touching the water anymore. Quickly, they opened their eyes and scrambled to their feet, their paws making the dry grass beneath them crunch.

“Greetings, Stormflight,” a voice called, rough and scratchy like a patch of thorns. Stormflight spun around to find a huge tabby tom with a flat face sitting a short distance away.

Stormflight glanced around them, their pelt bristling with discomfort. Whatever they’d been imagining, it certainly wasn’t this.

Instead of the starry paradise they’d been promised, they found themselves in a gloomy, dark forest that seemed faded, like light at dusk. It smelled of rotting bark and although it was supposed to be spring, the air carried a distinct, eerie chill, as if the trees were watching them.

The tom didn’t look like he belonged in the stars either. His fur was matted and riddled with scars, his tail bent like a twig that had been stepped on, and his eyes glinted with cruel curiosity. “This isn’t Starclan, you mousebrain,” he snorted. His crooked grin revealed a row of long, yellowed teeth. “They’re too soft to accept gifts like yours.” He shook his head scornfully, his grin morphing into a sneer.

“Gifts?” Stormflight echoed, a sickening twist of guilt making their stomach churn. They knew exactly what he was talking about.

“It comes easily, doesn’t it?” the tabby purred, his eyes raking their pelt as if he was searching for something.“Killing. Letting the darkness take over and guide your paws until you’re winning without even trying. Watching the blood pool out and knowing you were stronger.”

Stormflight shifted uneasily, not liking the way he was looking at them. It wasn’t lust in his gaze, but the smug familiarity made their pelt crawl. Particularly because they felt like they knew him from somewhere as well. “Who are you?” they demanded, even though the answer was on the tip of their tongue.

The tom laughed, shaking his head. “Brokenstar,” he said, voice heavy with wry amusement that Stormflight didn’t understand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Brokenstar,” Stormflight echoed, their insides going cold.

So this really was the Place of No Stars. They surveyed their bleak surroundings, their stomach churning with disgust.

Of course it was. Had they really thought they would speak with Starclan, after what they’d done? Everywhere they went, Stormflight seemed to end up in the shadows. It was foolish of them to expect anything else here.

“It’s interesting,” Brokenstar murmured, taking a closer step, “The light doesn’t land on you quite right.” He reached out a paw, his shadow overlapping with Stormflight’s. “See, mine’s far darker than yours.”

“That’s close enough,” Stormflight growled warningly, drawing themself up to their full height. The tabby was still far larger, but Stormflight was hardly Pepperheart either. They’d heard plenty of stories about Brokenstar, and they weren’t going to let themself be pushed around by some idiot who had gotten himself killed by his own mother, twice. “I’d back off if I were you, unless you enjoy having your face clawed.”

Brokenstar gave them a knowing smirk, seeming far more amused than alarmed. “Typical,” he grumbled, stepping back. “I’d almost forgotten how little I’ve missed you. Come on, Firestar wants to speak with you.”

“What?” Stormflight asked, swiveling their head around. Firestar, as in, The Firestar? They couldn’t imagine what he would be doing in the Dark Forest, nor what he’d want with them.

Brokenstar didn’t reply. With a twitch of his crooked tail, he headed off through the trees, his dark pelt melting in with the shadows and making him almost invisible. Stormflight followed, not wanting to get lost in the maze like rows of trees.

“Here you are, kittypet,” Brokenstar called, as the pair of them reached a small clearing between the two faded forests. If the Dark Forest had been dusk, then Starclan’s territory was dawn, and still extremely underwhelming.

The line between them was hard to see, just the slightest change in the grass’ color.

On the other side, sat a ginger tom with bright, piercing emerald eyes, his pelt speckled with the outline of the ghostly oaks behind him. Stormflight froze, a bolt of burning, flaming rage shooting through them in a fevery mist. Slowly, they slunk across the border, stopping a fox length away from the starry tom.

There was no mistake of who he was. Firestar, the kittypet who had become the beloved star of the clan’s fables. Described as handsome, brave, kind, honorable, perfect perfect perfect. He wasn’t nearly as fine looking as Oaknose had described him in his wistful voice, nor as strong looking as his supposed accomplishments would warrant. He looked small, weak, and just as insipid as the rest of his territory.

“Hello, Stormflight,” the ginger said gently, his gaze piercing and knowing. “Will you walk with me?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned away from them. A bold move, considering how much their claws were itching to tear his silky, unscarred pelt.

“I know it’s not nearly as beautiful as it’s supposed to be,” Firestar called over his shoulder, flicking his tail to a pale stream running parallel to the border. He leaned over, dipping his paw into the water. It didn’t part around his claws, just flowed past as if there was nothing there. “It used to be, though,” he added, with a wistful smile.

“What do you want from me?” Stormflight growled, tired of the coward’s amiable pretense. He was wasting their time, and every word out of his mouth made them angrier.

Firestar looked up sharply, suddenly reminding them irritatingly like Brokenstar as he peered at them, as if he was seeing someone else other than them. “Come now, there’s no reason why we can’t have a civil conversation,” he said, “Set our differences aside for the common good. That’s the point of this, right?”

It was like he was talking to someone else as well. Stormflight glanced over their shoulder, bewildered, but the only cats around were the two of them. Oddly enough though, the dark rage settled slightly, cooling though not dissipating completely.

Firestar smiled, his gaze refocusing a little. “Wonderful. Now, about your question.” He sat, his tail curling neatly around his paws. He hesitated for a long moment, long enough that Stormflight wondered if he planned on answering at all.

“Stormflight, you may not know it yet, but the clans are coming up on a very dark time,” Firestar murmured. “There will be challenges. But Starclan has chosen five cats, one from each clan more or less, to guide you all through it.”

“Lovely,” Stormflight scoffed, “I thought Starclan usually shared their vague messages via prophecy.”

“Darkness lies ahead, follow your guides or you’ll be dead,” Firestar said.

“You just made that up on the spot, didn’t you?” Stormflight accused, scowling. He was infuriating and a terrible poet.  

“I thought perhaps you’d take the situation more seriously if I set it to rhyme,” he replied with a shrug. “But, believe me or not, you’ll come to understand soon enough.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Stormflight demanded, shaking their head. “Why couldn’t you tell this to Pepperheart? Why force me to become a medicine cat? Why ruin my life?” Their voice rose with every question, the snake within starting to uncoil again.

“You’re one of those five,” Firestar replied, ignoring their outburst. “We decided it would be simplest if one of you became a medicine cat, and between that and your most recent….activities, we thought we might kill two birds with one stone. We’re not trying to ruin your life,” he added gently, “We’re trying to keep you from straying down a very dark path.”

“I hate you,” Stormflight spat, shaking their head as if to shake off his words. “I was on the path I wanted to be on, before you made Pepperheart blackmail me!”

“If you were on the right path, Pepperheart would have nothing to blackmail you with,” Firestar pointed out, his voice still infuriating calm.

“Then why choose me if I’m so messed up? Make Pepperheart one of your five, I don’t want to be a knock-off Lionblaze or whatever it is you have planned for us,” Stormflight growled, taking a step backward. One minute they hadn’t even believed in Starclan, the next this dumb tom was telling them they’d been picked for a magical destiny. He could keep his special destiny, Stormflight didn’t want to be the next fairy tail.

“We did not choose you, per se,” Firestar admitted. “But we’re making do with what we have.”

Stormflight let out a hiss of frustration. “I’m not meant to be a medicine cat,” they spat.

Firestar tilted his head, considering them. “As soon as you killed your sister,” he said slowly, “You left us with no choice.”

Stormflight stared back at him, any retort they might have had catching in their throat. It was the first time they’d heard it said out loud.

They stared at their paws, remembering the way her blood had turned them wet and shiny, her eyes wide and horrified just like Pepperheart’s when he’d stumbled upon the scene. Feeling sick, Stormflight cleared their throat, glancing nervously at Firestar. “Is-is Azollafrost here?”

“Yes,” Firestar confirmed, dipping his head. “But she doesn’t want to speak to you.”

Stormflight nodded, their brain swimming. They felt guilty. They felt smug. She’d deserved it, she’d betrayed them, but any reason they thought of fell flat even to their own mind. “Tell her-” they choked out, part of them fighting the words all the way out, “that I’m sorry.”

Firestar hesitated, then nodded ever so slightly. Stormflight felt the dizzying whirlwind of contradictions within them calm a little, their mind clearing. At least the mighty Firestar was kind enough to spare them that small mercy.

“You know, Pepperheart is convinced that you’re going to kill him,” Firestar continued, watching the stream flow by. “But you’re not going to.”

“No?” Stormflight echoed.

“I’m sure it’s crossed your mind, but it won’t solve your problem,” Firestar replied, his civil tone taing on a sharp, warning edge. “If you kill again, Starclan will know. And while you still have a chance for redemption now, we do not give third chances. If you so much as break his skin on purpose, we will enter the dreams of your leader and tell them of your crimes directly.”

“I thought you needed me,” Stormflight murmured, their heart skipping a beat.

“We do not need a monster.”

Stormflight closed their eyes, and forced themself to nod. So there wasn’t a way out after all. It wasn’t just Pepperheart who knew their secret. Not just Pepperheart who judged them.

But they didn’t need a monster- was that implying that they weren’t one yet? Stormflight felt a little flicker of hope. They wanted to be strong, but not a murderer.

It was almost a relief, having an excuse not to kill Pepperheart.

“You have to wake up,” Firestar instructed suddenly, snapping them out of their thoughts. His voice was urgent, almost fearful. “Right now. We’ll talk again next half-moon.”

“Wait, why?” Stormflight yelped, feeling a sharp tug at the back of their mind. But Firestar was looking farther away, only his worried expression in sharp enough focus for their brain to make sense of.

And then, just like that, they were back at the moonpool.

Stormflight sat up, taking a gasping breath of the crisp night air. They glanced around, their confusion making their mind process the scene before them in slow motion.

A dark shape was crouched beside them, Pepperheart’s tiny shape trapped beneath it. They had one set of claws digging into his spine, the other plunged into the water.

Holding him under, Stormflight realized with a jolt of panic, noticing the subtle ripples in the water as the medicine cat flailed feebly beneath the surface.

“Get out of here!” they snarled, springing to their feet. With a feral growl, they barreled into Pepperheart’s startled attacker, slicing their claws deep into their side. With a hard shove, Stormflight shoved them off of their mentor, sending them tumbling. Behind them, they heard a soft splash as Pepperheart slid all the way into the moonpool, his limp body disappearing beneath the clear surface.

The cat they were fighting smelled overwhelmingly like mint.

Medicine cats were beginning to stir now, but Stormflight paid them no heed. Blood dripping from their claws, they darted forwards again, clawing at their hindquarters as the attacker struggled up the rocky incline.

“Where’s Pepperheart?” someone yowled from behind them, stopping them midstep. Stormflight hesitated, pebbles bouncing off their nose as the attacker scrambled away. If they kept going, they could catch them with ease. They were a medicine cat in rank only, after all.

But given the fact that none of the daft medicine cats had even figured out that Pepperheart was in the pool yet, nor could they swim, and that they had no idea how long he’d been being drowned before they woke up, the medicine cat’s chances didn’t seem good.

Would Stormflight letting him die count as them killing him? They weren’t about to call Firestar’s bluff.

With one last glance at the escaping cat, Stormflight spun around, their paws slipping on the smooth rock. They shoved their way past the useless, frightened medicine cats that were blundering around like lost sheep, and plunged into the cold pool.

This time, there was only water to greet them when they opened their eyes. The moonpool was just like any other body of water now, but with the waterfall creating a dangerous undercurrent.

There was some sort of underground stream leading out of it, Stormflight realized, allowing the currents to carry them. A ridge of stone darkened their peripheral vision, but they swam forward anyway, squinting through the bubbles in search of Pepperheart’s ginger pelt.

Their back brushed the ceiling of the tunnel, sending a wave of claustrophobia through them. There wasn’t going to be room to turn around if they got all the way in, and they doubted they’d be able to fight the current going backwards, let alone dragging Pepperheart.

Stormflight was just about to give up, and settle for exile instead of drowning, when their claws brushed something soft. They dug their claws in, and tugged backwards with all their might, pushing off against the tunnel entrance with their hind legs. Then, they ducked forward, snagging Pepperheart’s sodden scruff, and fought their way back towards the surface.

“Starclan help us,” gasped Wolfbounce, staring at them in horror as they resurfaced, choking in a breath around a mouthful of fur.

“Don’t just stand there, get them out!” Sablewind ordered, shoving the tom out of the way. The Skyclan medicine cat leaned over, taking the weight of Pepperheart’s limp body and hauling him up onto the rocks.

Stormflight scrambled up after him, panting for breath. “Is he dead?” they murmured, resting their chin on the wet stone. Sablewind ignored them, and instead crouched over Pepperheart’s form, their brown paws pressing hard against his chest.

Pepperheart looked even smaller than normal, with his fur slicked down against his scrawny limbs.

“Please, Starclan,” Stormflight murmured, not necessarily on his behalf. They’d tried, hadn’t they? Had it been enough to satisfy Firestar?

“C’mon, Pep, come back to us,” Sablewind demanded, their voice rough with frustration. Stormflight swallowed hard, watching nervously as they kept pressing on his chest.

They wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken if he died, but Stormflight found themself feeling a little nauseous, watching him lie there limp. There were rows of short, deep gouges in his back and neck where the attacker’s claws had dug in, the blood running over his shoulders in watery rivulettes.

Suddenly, with a spluttering gasp, Pepperheart jerked under Sablewind’s paws, coughing. The ginger tom rolled onto his side, choking up mouthful after mouthful of water. “Easy,” Sablewind murmured, hovering over him as he shakily lifted his head, eyes wide with fear.

“W-what happened?” Pepperheart asked, sounding ridiculously like a kit. He glanced over at Stormflight, his eyes darting across their soaked pelt.

“Somebody was trying to drown you, Stormflight chased them off and then dove in after you!” Bubblepaw chirped, bouncing excitedly up and down. “It was awesome!”

“A Riverclan medicine cat, drowning in the moonpool,” Stormflight mused, meeting Pepperheart’s startled gaze, “That would certainly have been ironic.”

But Pepperheart didn’t look particularly grateful, just confused. “Why?” he asked, shaking his head slightly.

“We don’t know, dear,” Bearsnout murmured, completely misunderstanding the question. “Why would anyone want to kill you?

“I have no idea,” Pepperheart replied, still watching Stormflight questioningly. The answer to that question was obvious to both of them, and yet here he was, alive because of Stormflight. He was almost as amusing confused as he was scared, Stormflight thought.

“They probably went after him because he’s the smallest,” Stormflight pointed out.

Wolfbounce was pacing nervously, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. All of them seemed quite rattled, Stormflight realized with a bit of annoyance. They supposed medicine cats probably weren’t used to being in danger. “Did you get a look at who it was?” the Shadowclan medicine cat asked them.

“No, it was too dark,” they replied, glancing up at the sky. A cloud had drifted over the moon during the time they had been in Starclan, as if Starclan was offended by cats drowning in their pools. “They had dark fur, maybe brown or dark gray, and smelled like mint. They didn’t fight like a clan cat,” Stormflight added, with a smirk, “I don’t know any clan cats who fight that sloppily. They didn’t even draw my blood.”

“Lucky you,” Pepperheart muttered, stiffly shuffling himself into a sitting position. He looked absolutely miserable, shivering in the chilly air and wincing with every movement. His wounds didn’t look that bad to Stormflight, but then again, this was probably the first time he’d been hurt.

“Whoever it was, they’re probably still out there,” Bearsnout said, casting a nervous glance at the dark forest around them. Without the moon, they were all sitting in almost complete darkness. “No one should be walking home alone tonight. Come back to Thunderclan with me,” she offered, “It’s the closest. You can stay the night, and a patrol will walk you back to your camps in the morning.”

“That’s probably wise,” Pepperheart replied. With everyone in agreement, they headed towards the Thunderclan camp, moving at a snail’s pace to account for Pepperheart’s pathetic limping.

“Y’know,” Stormflight murmured under their breath to him, “So far being a medicine cat is actually quite entertaining. It’s my first official day, and I’ve already fought off a murderous rogue and almost drowned.” If this kept up, it would be as if they never stopped being a warrior.

Pepperheart looked up at them. At Bearsnout’s suggestion, he was leaning against Stormflight for support, but Stormflight was fairly certain that they weren’t helping much because the little weasel was as stiff as a log, evidentially still certain that they were going to kill him. For better or worse, he no longer had anything to worry about.

“I’d tell you that it’s not usually like this,” Pepperheart replied, “But I have no idea how things will go from now on. I think this was the beginning of something bigger.”

Chapter 6[]

“Elm? Elm, are you hurt?”

Elm froze midstep, internally cursing his bad luck. His father went to bed with the sun’s set, every night, like clockwork, and then slept like a badger until it reappeared. Waking him would be like trying to eat twoleg’s monster. And yet, here he was, very awake and very alarmed.

Elm looked down at his dappled calico pelt, which was currently streaked with a generous coating of blood. His snowy paws were painted a bright red, and the fur along his spine stuck up in shiny, soggy tufts. “It’s not mine,” he replied, settling down beside the cardboard box that served as their den to begin to groom the sticky mess from his fur.

Hunter gawked at him, his mouth moving without words coming out. Elm knew how it looked. Hunter was probably thinking the worst, which was inaccurate but only by a little bit. “Then whose is it?” his father asked eventually, his eyes following every movement Elm made with a strange, horrified curiosity.

“Bane’s,” Elm said, grimacing at the salty taste that flooded his mouth. He should have found a puddle to wash off in, but hindsight would do him no good now. “He and some of his cronies cornered me in an alley, they left me no choice. No one’s dead.”

Partially true, but it had been him cornering Bane, no cronies involved. Bane was lucky that he had gotten off with a warning. Assuming his wounds healed, he wouldn’t be bothering Elm and his father again any time soon.

“Right,” Hunter replied, his eyes narrowed with concern. Elm could tell he didn’t believe him, at least not entirely. He’d need to work on his execution next time. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay. You’re being careful, right? These streets are a dangerous place to be a young cat.”

Elm fought back a laugh, instead nodding sagely. “Yes, father,” he murmured.

He was nine moons old, but he was no kit. His age was an advantage, not a weakness. Yes, his limbs were shorter, but he was faster. And the best part was, no one saw him coming until it was too late.

A wail split the air, making Elm look up from his bath. He pricked his ears towards the sound, a frown creasing his young face. “Who do you think it is this time?” he murmured to Hunter, dipping his head back down to nibble at his paw.

Hunter sighed, peering out of the box in the direction of the noise. “Petra? Dandelion? Maybe one of Cotton’s kits? Really, it could be anyone, the garbage heap has been mostly plastic these past few days. All the food in it was far past being crow food.”

The chances were about 50/50 that someone had died of starvation or eaten something they shouldn’t have. Either that, or a scuffle over resources turned deadly, but most of the alley cats were too weak to hurt each other too badly. Save for Elm, of course.

“I’ll go out scavenging again tomorrow,” Elm promised, nodding to the meagre collection of scraps nestled between their nests. It made the box smell awful, but if they left it outside someone else would steal it.

“It seems wrong, us still having food while the others don’t,” Hunter murmured, eying the scraps regretfully. “Maybe we-”

“No,” Elm cut him off, shaking his head. “If we share with one cat, everyone will want some, and then we’ll have nothing.”

Of course, if everyone shared, then the chances were that no one would starve at all. But those with plenty generally got it from taking from others, and those with not enough would never turn over the few morsels they had.

Elm had it all worked out in his head, how it could work in a better world, where cats weren’t such mouse brains. Everyone would hunt and scavenge, then put it in a communal spot. Someone would be in charge of making sure no one took more than their fair share, and maybe there could be a committee or an oversight group to make sure that cat stayed honest.

It could work, just not here. He’d tried to organize it  once, a few moons ago, and all he’d gotten was a lousy chicken drumstick and a whole lot of ridiculing.

If they didn’t want his help, then Elm wasn’t going to offer it twice. Having cleaned most of the blood from his paws, Elm slid into the box beside Hunter, curled up in his nest, and closed his eyes.

Somewhere, the cat was still wailing, but Elm had long since learned to sleep through the sound of pain.

Elm straightened, looking down at his catch. The little sparrow wouldn’t feed both him and Hunter, but fresh meat was scarce. His mouth watered a little, just thinking about digging his teeth into something warm instead of half rotten for once.

It wasn’t that the birds were hard to catch, just that the long cement Thunderpaths and towering twoleg dens didn’t make for the best home for anyone.

He stooped to scoop up the bird, then turned in the direction of what Hunter liked to call home. The cement, already hot with the morning sun, burned his feet as he walked. Wistfully, he thought of the cool of the previous night, cloudy and dark save for the brilliant half moon.

Elm didn’t mind the sun, but Hunter liked to joke that he’d given his heart to the night as a kit. True enough, but Elm doubted his father would find it nearly as funny if he knew what the other cats whispered, about how the shadows clung a bit too tightly to his pelt, about how sometimes it seemed like he could spring out of nowhere. Darkness was his domain.

“Hey, you!”

Elm turned, keeping his surprise to himself as he spotted an all too familiar coal grey tom stalking towards him. He dropped his sparrow at his paws, then turned to face the other cat. “Good morning, Bane,” he replied politely, allowing himself the ghost of a smile. He hadn’t seen the fool since over a year ago, when he’d been dumb enough to cross an unspoken line.

Elm didn’t care what cats said or did to him, but mess with Hunter and you’d regret it. Apparently, Bane was still alive after all.

Bane scowled in response, squaring his burly shoulders. Elm had to admit, the obnoxious cat looked more intimidating covered in scars, but given that Elm had put them there himself, he wasn’t too impressed.

Without saying another word, Bane ducked forward, reaching a paw towards Elm’s sparrow. Without having to pause to think, Elm lashed out, opening a thin gash along the length of his outstretched leg.

“Ow!” Bane yelped, springing back. “Are you out of your mind”

Elm frowned, tilting his head slightly. “It seemed to me that perhaps you somehow got it in your head that you were welcome to my food. Feel free to try again if you’d like, I’d love to see if you’ve grown more of a spine since our last chat.”

He’d been expecting Bane to scowl, or perhaps break down crying over his new scar, but instead the grey cat just smirked. “You don’t get out much, do you, Elm?” Bane taunted, flicking his tail. Several more cats trotted out from behind a nearby dumpster, their eyes glinting menacingly. “There’s a new rule now. This part of the town belongs to us.”

Elm surveyed the gathered cats curiously, taking in their ragged pelts and the ribs poking from their sides. “Who exactly is ‘us’?”

“We don’t need a name,” a dark grey tabby spat, scowling. Some of the wounds on their sides look fresh, and they smelled strangely of mint. “But this is our territory. Hand over the sparrow, and we’ll let you go in peace.”

Unimpressed, Elm chewed at his lip, pretending to think.

Every moon or so, some gang tried to take control of the allies, but everyone knew the town belonged to nobody. He wasn’t sure when these newcomers had shown up, since everyone pretty much left him and Hunter alone, but they wouldn’t be any different than all the other failed dictators. They’d be ousted by the next half moon.

“Alright,” he said with a shrug, tossing the sparrow to the tabby. The little bit of prey wasn’t worth risking getting hurt, at least not right now.

“You’re letting him go?” Bane protested, giving his companions an imploring look. “Elm’s the one that I was talking about! He says ‘alright’, but what he really means is that he’ll be back tonight, sneaking around in the dark like the coward he is!”

The tabby hesitated, studying Elm’s face curiously. Elm shot them his most innocent look, eyes wide and nervous as if he had anything to fear from them. “Our quarrel isn’t with him or this scrap of a town,” the dark cat growled, shaking his head. “We just need territory for now.”

“Trust me, he’s not a cat we want to keep around,” Bane growled. “He’s peaceful enough now, but if you don’t let him do what he wants, he’ll make his displeasure very clear.”

“Hoping they’ll settle your grudge for you, Bane?” Elm murmured, smiling at the tom’s words. He’d been such a dumb bully until Elm had put him in his place. Now he was a coward with a smidge of a brain. Elm was almost proud. “Not brave enough to do it yourself?”

The grey tabby glanced at one of their companions, exchanging a long look. One of them nodded to the tabby, who frowned. Elm sat patiently, watching the silent conversation carefully.

He knew the moment before the tabby spoke that he wasn’t going to like the verdict they’d come to. “Get out of town, Elm,” the tabby said, sounding almost apologetic. “We can’t have you in our way.”

Elm sighed, his amiableness dropping away like a bird of prey swooping in for its prey. “I don’t think so,” he said, rising to his paws. “See you around, Bane,” he added, with a smile that was more of a promise than anything else.

The tabby lashed their tail, and Elm stiffened as their companions sprung into action. He unsheathed his claws, set to fight his way out if that was what they were down for, but the cats slipped around him, heading down the alleyway.

“Where are they going?” Elm asked the tabby, curious but not yet alarmed.

“Where do you think?” Bane said smugly, winking at him.

Elm was silent for a moment, nodding slightly. “Well played, if not particularly original,” he murmured, his eyes narrowing, “But Bane, I hope you know I don’t do second chances,” he added, miming slitting his own throat. Then, before the slime could reply, he spun around, slipping out of view.

He climbed silently up a gutter, taking to the roofs. His long legs carried him swiftly across the slick metal, his mind calculating the quickest way back to his father.

If it weren’t for Hunter, there would be nothing holding Elm back, in more ways than one. Without Hunter’s conscience acting for both of them, Elm would have reduced the population of the allies significantly. Without Hunter, Elm would have nothing to protect and therefore no weakness.

But he was entirely aware of all this, and it was hardly the first time someone had pulled this trick. Elm bunched his hind legs then sprang, landing lightly on the roof next to the one he was on. He was already caught up with the fools who thought they knew this town, who thought they could own it.

He cut diagonally across the neighborhood, taking an extra block but skipping the busy intersection the rogues would have to cross. Nimbly, Elm jumped down onto a stack of wood, then down to the alley floor. Smug smile already beginning to creep into place, he trotted down his street, and into the little corner where his box was.

It was empty.

“You’re smart,” one of the rogue murmured, appearing at the other end of the street, “But your mistake here was thinking we were dumb. We’ve been keeping an eye on you, Elm.” The cat shook their head, an almost pitying smile on their face. “Your father went out hunting about ten minutes ago, according to our scouts.”

“Where is he?” Elm asked, his voice civil and unconcerned. But inside, he knew he’d been the fool this time. He was fairly certain he was already too late, but he had to see it for himself.

“You might want to check the Thunderpath by the forest,” the cat replied, essentially confirming what Elm was trying to get himself to accept.

He nodded, then sprang back up onto the roof, taking his time now that there was no rush.

He’d always known Hunter wouldn’t last forever on the streets. His father belonged in some twoleg nest, getting fat on fish, but Elm had never been able to convince him to leave.

Elm closed his eyes as he caught sight of the Thunderpath he was looking for, schooling his expression into one of cool indifference. This was going to hurt to see, but he wasn’t going to give the cowards any satisfaction.

He dropped down onto the sidewalk, noting with a bolt of anger that Bane and the tabby were waiting for him, Bane looking ridiculously smug. Elm gave the tabby a curt nod, ignored Bane, then turned to take in the scene on the Thunderpath.

“I have to say,” Elm murmured, staring blankly at the black and white form that had been his father, already fairly flattened by the steady stream of monsters, “This almost seems like cheating. Shoving him in front of a monster doesn’t take much skill. I never could teach him how to watch his back.”

“See that, Elm? Your pop went splat,” Bane taunted, practically giddy with joy. Elm turned, a look of unimpressed annoyance plastered on his face.

“Yes, Bane, I can see that,” he murmured, unsheathing his claws on one paw, slowly so that the rogue’s eyes couldn’t miss the movement. “I’m sure you’ve been wanting this for a long time. And now that no one’s here to tell me not to,” Elm added, stepping closer, “I can do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, too.”

Bane was too dumb to even try and dodge. In a neat, smooth movement, Elm slit his throat, stepping back at the splatter of blood that sprayed across the cement.

“It’s a win win for everyone,” Elm murmured, his voice almost friendly as Bane let out a choking gasp, falling onto his side.

The dark grey tabby looked down at Bane, as if they were watching something vaguely fascinating. “I never liked him,” they murmured, turning their gaze to Elm. “My condolences for your loss. I did try to warn you.”

Elm surveyed the cat, trying to decide whether or not he wanted a little more blood to warm his paws. He was running on anger right now, he might as well enjoy it before the pain set in. But no, the rest of the rogues were starting to gather now. More than before. He wasn’t going to be able to slip out of this unscathed if it turned into a fight.

“What’re you going to do now?” the tabby asked curiously.

“I think I’m going to go for a walk,” Elm murmured, turning his gaze towards the forest.

“It’s good to admit when you’ve been defeated,” the tabby agreed, and Elm’s eyes darted back to them.

“You haven’t beaten me, you’ve just taken away the prize,” Elm said, flicking his tail towards the sad splotch of black and white. “I have no reason to stay here now. Enjoy the town,” he added, reaching a paw out to check for monsters. “It’s not much, but I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”

Without another glance back, Elm trotted across the hot pavement, his head held high and his heart sinking with each step. He wasn’t sure where he was going. Hunter wasn’t just his weakness, he had also been his purpose for as long as he could remember.

For the first time since he’d been a kit, he was lost.

Chapter 7[]

“Duckkit, Marblecloud says that eavesdropping is bad.”

“Raykit, get off my head!”

Orchidkit wiggled in between her siblings, her tabby pelt nearly invisible amongst the dusky shadows of the retreating day. “Quiet, both of you,” she murmured, flicking them gently with her stubby tail, “You’ll get us caught, and then we’ll all be in trouble.”

The bickering pair of kits beside her fell silent, looking embarrassed. She’d tried to brief them on her rules for misbehaving many times before, but Raykit was too honest and Duckkit was too loud. She wished they hadn’t noticed their parent, Marblecloud, deap in an intense discussion with Dewstar, so that she could have spied on her own.

Rule number one was don’t get caught, and Raykit and Duckkit were very slow learners when it came to stealth.

Orchidkit pricked her ears, resisting the urge to squirm closer. There were few good places to hide in the main clearing, at least not that were close enough for the sound quality to be worth the effort, so they’d settled for sitting in the shadows of the apprentice’s den. Stillness was all that was hiding them.

“Applestar says that everything’s all set for tomorrow,” Dewstar murmured, his voice set in his usual apologetic tone. “It sounds like Bellstorm’s really looking forward to seeing the kits again.”

Marblecloud nodded, not looking happy at all. Xe was chewing at xyr lip like xe always did when xe was upset about something, xer tail twitching like a snake ready to strike. “Thank you, Dewstar,” xe replied curtly, beginning to turn.

“Marblecloud, I truly am sorry,” Dewstar called after xem, rising to his paws to fallow xem. “But I didn’t make the warrior code.”

“If you were really that sorry, you’d try to change the warrior code,” Marblecloud shot back, making him flinch. “You are a leader, aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” Dewstar repeated, hovering uncertainly in the center of camp as Marblecloud whisked away, headed back to the nursery.

The nursery the kits were no longer occupying.

“Mousedung!” Duckkit exclaimed, springing to his paws. Dewstar looked up, his eyes widening as Raykit and Duckkit scrambled away, leaving Orchidkit behind.

“Orchidkit, how long were you listening?” Dewstar murmured, his eyes darting nervously to where the other two were disappearing around the back of the nursery, heading towards the secret exit they’d dug, completely oblivious to the fact that they’d blown their cover.

Mousebrains, Orchidkit thought glumly. That would be the last spy work they’d be doing for a while, at least until the adults forgot about this incident. “Not that long,” she muttered, ducking her head sheepishly.

Not that it really mattered anyway. She’d figured out a long time ago what it was that her parent and the rest of the clan was hiding from them, or at least part of it. Duckkit and Raykit were oblivious, but Orchidkit was no foolish kit. That said, if Marblecloud wanted it to be a secret, Orchidkit would keep up the pretence for xem.

“You shouldn’t eavesdrop, little one,” Dewstar said, stooping down to scoop Orchidkit up by her scruff. “It’s not an honest thing to do.”

Orchidkit let herself go limp, not bothering to fight the inevitable. She was caught, thanks to her siblings. “You’re a hypocrite,” she replied, not bothering to elaborate. He knew what she meant. Dewstar stiffened, his grip on her scruff tightening unintentionally. Orchidkit wiggled uncomfortably, letting out a little growl of complaint.

She didn’t understand why adults thought it was okay to keep secrets from kits, as if they were less deserving of honesty. It wasn’t like she was demanding his deepest, darkest secrets, she just wanted to hear the truth of her heritage said out loud for once.

Orchidkit was pretty sure she had most of the picture. Obviously, she’d always known that Marblecloud couldn’t be her only biological parent. She’d asked about the other one once, and gotten a very vague answer that confirmed her doubts. It was someone outside of Skyclan.

The rest came easy. No one talked about it around her, but there were whispers, glances, certain names with certain connotations, things her clanmates brought up among themselves only when Marblecloud wasn’t around. They’d never gossip in front of her intentionally, of course, but Orchidkit was very good at making herself forgettable.

Bellstorm, deputy of Thunderclan. She didn’t know much else about them, but she carried their blood.

And apparently, she was going to meet them tomorrow.

Marblecloud scowled as Dewstar approached, then spotted Orchidkit hanging from his mouth a moment later. “Orchidkit!” xe scolded, “How many times do I have to talk to you about this?”

Xe didn’t really seem mad, just tired. Orchidkit thought that maybe this would be a good time to test her luck, to see if Marblecloud would finally cough up some answers. “Marblecloud,” she asked, eyes wide and worried, “Who’s Bellstorm?”

Marblecloud sighed, shuffling xyr paws in the dust. “Bellstorm is your other biological parent,” xe admitted, glancing guiltily at Duckkit and Raykit, who were looking on, wide eyed, from the nursery.

Finally, Orchidkit thought, a smile brightening her face. Finally, finally, some honest answers. “Awesome!” she chirped, blinking at Marblecloud amiably. “We’re related to the deputy of Thunderclan? That’s so cool, isn’t it guys?” she added, shooting Duckkit and Raykit a prompting glance. Both of them stared blankly back at her, too shell shocked to smile or even nod.

“And tomorrow,” Marblecloud continued, xyr eyes dropping away from Orchidkit’s face, chewing on xyr lip hard enough that she saw a little bubble of blood, “You’re going to go live with them.”

“What?” Orchidkit yelped, gawking up at xem in alarm. That, she had not been expecting. What if she wanted to stay in Skyclan? She had always wanted to meet Bellstorm, but she didn’t want to live with a cat she didn’t even know!

“Don’t you want us anymore?” Raykit whimpered, dashing out of the nursery to bury her face in Marblecloud’s fur. “I don’t want to leave.”

“It’s not forever, loves,” Marblecloud murmured, blinking at them sadly. “Just for three moons. We didn’t want to force you into any one clan when you were too young to understand, so you’re going to go back and forth for a while.”

“How long?” Duckkit asked.

“Just until you’re a warrior. Then, you can choose which clan you like better.”

“I like Skyclan,” Orchidkit said, frowning. This plan didn’t make any sense. ‘Just’ until they were warriors? That was a pretty long time to be switching back and forth between clans.

“Yes, but you’ve never seen Thunderclan,” Marblecloud argued, looking at Orchidkit almost pleadingly. “And Bellstorm’s a very nice cat, you should give them a chance as well.”

Orchidpaw woke to the sound of chaos, and was instantly very tempted to go back to sleep. Instead, she peeled her eyelids apart, blinking around at the dim lighting of the Thunderclan apprentice’s den.

Across from her, slept the tiny shapes of Droppaw and Brownpaw, sound asleep despite the clamor outside. Or, at least they looked tiny to her, especially in comparison to Raypaw and Duckpaw.

It had turned out that switching clans every three months was not a very efficient way to complete one’s warrior training. She always had to get used to her new mentor’s teaching style, and readjust her technique to fit that of the given clan. Even when her mentor was the same cat who had taught her before, it was still confusing.

Which was how, she thought with a sigh, she’d ended up still being an apprentice at two years old. Absolutely ridiculous, but she felt like she probably knew more about ticks and moss than any other cat alive.

She rose from her nest, about to exit the den, then hesitated. Scowling, Orchidpaw gave Raypaw and Duckpaw a poke each, internally resigning to figuring out what was going on the old fashioned, honest way. “C’mon, there’s something going on,” she said, waiting impatiently for their sleepy gazes to clear.

“Do you think it’ll postpone the ceremony?” Raypaw said hopefully, then paused, shooting the two of them a guilty look.

“It better not!” Duckpaw exclaimed, jumping to his feet, “We’ve waited long enough, I want to be a warrior already!”

Orchidpaw said nothing, her thoughts her own. While she wanted to be a warrior, and wouldn’t miss the disorder of switching back and forth, she didn’t want to say goodbye to either half of her life. She wasn’t sure why Marblecloud and Bellstorm had thought any of it was a good idea. It had been ages since Skyclan had fought anyone, but if they and Thunderclan ever found themself in a conflict, she knew it wouldn’t be easy to stay on the side she’d chosen.

She slipped out of the den, and trotted into the center of Thunderclan camp, where her clanmates were gathered curiously around a group of strangers.

“Are those all the medicine cats?” Duckpaw asked, his eyes wide with curiosity. Raypaw hovered nervously behind them, her tail twitching uneasily.

“Yes,” Orchidpaw replied. Besides Bearsnout and Bubblepaw, she could see Sablewind of Skyclan, along with Wolfbounce, Duststone, and Pepperheart, plus one she wasn’t familiar with. Apparently, someone had gotten a new apprentice.

“Why’d you bring them back with you?” Applestar was asking, regarding the herd of medicine cats warily. Orchidpaw felt her gaze keep wandering back to the strange one, a lean black cat with odd white flashes highlighting their blue eyes. She had the feeling that she knew them from somewhere.

She’d probably met them at a gathering at some point in time, but for some reason it was bothering her that she couldn’t remember when. Suddenly, Orchidpaw realized with a startled twitch that they were staring back, their icy gaze wary and curious.

Bearsnout gestured to Pepperheart, whose scrawny shoulders were plastered with cobwebs and some sort of green herb goop. “We were ambushed last night, at the moonpool. Pepperheart nearly died. It seemed pretty likely that if any of us walked home alone, whoever it would was likely to take a second try.”

“What?” Raypaw yelped, her eyes wide with fear. She glanced around, as if expecting a strange cat to leap out and murder her in broad daylight in front of the whole clans. “What kind of cat would go after the medicine cats?”

“I’m sure we’re safe here,” Bellstorm murmured, giving her a lick over the ears before they stepped to the front of the crowd, standing at Applestar’s side. Orchidpaw recognized the calm, serious look on her parent’s face. Bellstorm was in deputy mode. “Bearsnout, can you walk us through what happened?”

Bearsnout dipped her head. “I’m afraid I don’t entirely understand what happened,” she admitted, with an embarrassed grimace. “I woke up to see Stormflight chasing someone away, and then they dove into the moonpool and fished Pepperheart out. They could probably tell it better,” she added, nodding towards the black cat.

“Stormflight?” Applestar echoed, glancing at the cat with a puzzled expression on her face. “Aren’t you the Riverclan warrior who killed someone in that border scuffle a couple moons ago?” The name was familiar to Orchidpaw as well, definitely something she’d heard at a gathering before.

Stormflight nodded, a slight smile creeping onto their face, almost a smug one. Orchidpaw wondered if they were pleased with their actions, or just the fact that the Thunderclan leader recognized their name. “Technically speaking, I’m the ex-Riverclan warrior who killed someone,” they pointed out, “I’ve decided to become a medicine cat. I’m trying to put my days of bloodshed behind me.”

Orchidpaw could have been imagining it, but she could have sworn there was a bitter tint on the last few words.

“Well, Stormflight, can you walk us through it then?” Bellstorm prompted, and the Riverclan cat nodded.  

“I woke up to find someone holding Pepperheart under the water,” Stormflight said, flicking Pepperheart with their tail. The little medicine cat twitched, edging a bit away from his apprentice. “So I tackled them off and he fell in the moonpool. The clouds had covered the moon at this point, so I couldn’t really see who I was fighting with at the time. However,” they added, holding up a paw, “I did find a bit of fur stuck between my claws this morning. We’re thinking grey tabby.”

“Was it a clan cat?” Bellstorm asked, and Orchidpaw winced at the way all of her clanmates bristled, their eyes automatically snapping to Wolfbounce. The Shadowclan medicine cat scowled, letting out a hiss of annoyance.

“Just because Skyclan and Riverclan have accused us of stealing prey doesn’t mean we’re murdering medicine cats,” he growled, fixing Applestar with a challenging look. “Shadowclan had nothing to do with this. Stormflight says they didn’t fight like a clan cat anyway.”

“No skill whatsoever,” Stormflight agreed, with a nod. Unlike their mentor, the cat’s fur looked sleek and unmarred, but based on what Orchidpaw knew about them, the ex-warrior might have a different definition of skill than the rest of them. “They were also hiding their scent with mint.”

“Mint,” Bellstorm echoed, exchanging a dark glance with Applestar. They all knew what that meant. This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, Orchidpaw thought grimly. Someone had set out that night intent on murdering a medicine cat or two. The real question was why, but she didn’t have a clue about that yet.

“How come they woke up before the rest of the medicine cats?” Raypaw whispered, a little too loudly.  

“Pardon?” Stormflight asked, their pelt bristling. “Could you repeat that louder, I didn’t quite catch what you said.” Their icy gaze raked across Orchidpaw’s sister’s pelt, making the golden she-cat shiver.

“I was just wondering what made you wake up before the others,” Raypaw repeated, her voice verging on a whimper.

Stormflight scowled, surveying the gathered cats balefully. “Seriously? I saved this lot,” they gestured at the other medicine cats, “And you’re accusing me?” From beside them, Pepperheart leaned closer, murmuring something under his breath. A flicker of annoyance shot across the cat’s face, but when they looked away from him, they were wearing an apologetic smile. “Sorry,it’s just been a rough couple of days.”

“I heard about your sister at the last gathering,” Bellstorm replied gently, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Stormflight didn’t look particularly comforted by that, Orchidpaw noticed. “But, I would also be interested in knowing the answer to the question. What woke you up?”

Stormflight’s scowl was threatening to make a return, but they dipped their head to the deputy. “I know it sounds unbelievable, but Starclan told me I needed to,” they murmured.

“Starclan told you to,” Bellstorm repeated, looking skeptical.

“Yes,” Stormflight agreed, their voice tight with frustration, “That’s what I said.”

“It wasn’t Stormflight,” Pepperheart interjected, looking annoyed both by his apprentice’s temper and the accusations. “Everyone who wasn’t preoccupied with drowning saw them chase the attacker away. We shouldn’t waste our time with blind accusations, not when the cat that almost killed me is still out there.”

“Right,” Bellstorm agreed amiably, turning to Applestar. “Should I organize patrols to take everyone home?”

Applestar nodded, glancing at Raypaw, Duckpaw, and Orchidpaw. “You three, I know I promised you a warrior’s ceremony this morning, but I think that might have to wait until later today, is that alright? Whoever takes the Skyclan patrol will let Marblecloud know so that xe doesn’t show up early for your decision.”

“That’s fine,” they all answered, at the exact same time.

“Jinx,” Duckpaw chirped, but his usual enthusiasm was a little dampened at the reminder of the choice the three of them had ahead of them. None of them minded having a little more time.

“Sharpstone, Orchidpaw, Foxnose, you take Duststone, Stormflight, and Pepperheart back to Windclan and Riverclan, okay?” Bellstorm instructed, flicking their tail towards the exit. Orchidpaw nodded, heading over to her mentor’s side.

“Orchidpaw?” Stormflight repeated sceptically, looking her over quizzically. “You look a little old to be a ‘paw.”

Orchidpaw was tempted to tell them to mind their own business, but for no particular reason she wanted to keep talking to them. “I’m getting my warrior name today,” she said with a shrug, following Sharpstone out of the camp along with the others. “My apprenticeship just took longer than normal.”

“You can say that again,” Stormflight chuckled, with a level of amusement that made Orchidpaw’s pelt prickle a little. “How come?”

“I’m Bellstorm’s kit, but my other parent’s in Skyclan,” Orchidpaw replied lightly, waiting for their realization. As she’d discovered as an apprentice, Marblecloud and Bellstorm had been quite the scandal when they were first discovered. Even if Stormflight was too young to have been around then, they certainly would have heard of them.

“You’re half-clan?” Stormflight said, their voice tightening a little.

“Less talking, more walking, Stormflight,” Pepperheart called over his shoulder from up by Duststone and Sharpstone.

Orchidpaw picked up her pace, studying the cat out of the corner of her eye. Despite whatever reason this cat had caught her attention, she wasn’t going to deal with their mousedung if they were one of the mousebrains she’d grown accustomed to ignoring. “Is that a problem?” she asked levely, narrowing her eyes at the judgement displayed clearly on their face.

“Well, it's obviously caused some problems, if you’re still an apprentice,” Stormflight replied loftily, with a sneer. “I think I’ve heard about you, switching back and forth. How can you be loyal to either clan if you’ve spent half your life in both?”

Orchidpaw fell silent, taking a moment to calm the burst of anger their words sparked. They weren’t entirely wrong either, about the loyalties at least. And this conversation would be over soon enough, once they got to Riverclan. “Maybe you should go chat with your medicine cat pals,” she replied frostily, nodding up to where Pepperheart and Duststone were.

Stormflight frowned, looking a little confused. With what, she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t really care.

“Wait,” Pepperheart said, coming to a sudden halt before Stormflight could reply. The ginger tom looked sick to his stomach, his gaze fixed on a little cluster of bushes a few foxlengths away. “Is that a friend of yours?” he asked Sharpstone, his voice not quite steady as he pointed towards a limp form draped over the top of the shrubbery.

Orchidpaw sucked in a sharp breath, staring at the body of Timberlight, Raypaw’s mentor. The grey cat had been split open from throat to tail, gutted like a fish. She hadn’t really known them, but that didn’t make the facts anymore awful.

“Smells like mint around here,” Stormflight commented grimly, sniffing at the air. “Stale though. They were probably killed last night, if I had to guess.”

“This is the most common path we take to get to the Windclan border,” Orchidpaw commented, taking a  deep breath to calm her frantically beating heart. Panicking wouldn’t bring Timberlight back to life, nor would it help the situation in any way. “Whoever left them here knew we’d see them.”

“It’s begun,” Pepperheart whispered, so softly she almost didn’t hear him. Stormflight glanced sharply at their mentor, their gaze darkening as if they knew what he was talking about.

“Let’s get moving,” Sharpstone instructed briskly, nodding towards the Windclan border. “We’ll grab them on our way back. The other clans need to know what’s going on, right now.”

Chapter 8[]

“Burntflight, Hollowstrike, Mushmarsh.”

“I don’t have to listen to this!”

“I am your leader, so actually, yes you do!”

“Moontoe. Breezetongue. Appledapple.”

“Get out, Plo. I don’t want to talk to you.”

“This is my den, you mousebrain! And I am far beyond caring what you want. You have a child, for Starclan’s sake!”

“Daisyquill. Mosstail,” Valleykit murmured, doing their best to block out the shouts and yowls that were coming from Ploverstar’s den. The ants were gone now, but they had an abundant supply of grass that needed naming.

“Get. Away. From. Me.”

Valleykit looked up as Duskflame’s voice dropped into a growl, low and loud like a rumble of thunder. Except this time, it preceded the lightning.

The kit shuddered as a yowl of pain split the air, shrinking into a little ball. “Bumblesong,” they choked out in a whimper, burying their head into the grass, hoping it knew they weren’t purposefully neglecting their duties. “Stonefall.”

Duskfall stormed out of the den, his fur ruffled and his gaze wild. He spotted Valleykit crouching in the shadows of the den, his mouth twisting into a scowl of disgust. Then, with a sharp lash of his tail, he turned and bolted out of the camp, his yellowish pelt disappearing from Valleykit’s view as they followed his retreating form.

“Get back here, you worthless piece of crowfood!” Ploverstar snarled, bursting from his den a moment later. “We are not done with this conversation!”

Valleykit flinched, staring wide eyed up at the leader. They’d never seen Ploverstar angry, not even remotely close, but now he was positively radiating rage. Blood was streaming down his muzzle from a long cut across his forehead like a russet waterfall. Valleykit shuffled backwards, trying to get away from this frightening new version of their friend, but the movement drew Ploverstar’s attention.

For a long moment, Ploverstar stared at them, the horrified realization slowly dawning on his bloodstained face. He took a step towards Valleykit, who shrank away, letting out a little whimper of terror.

“I-” Ploverstar began, pausing to swipe a paw hurriedly across his face, smearing the blood, “Val-Valleykit, easy. I’m not going to hurt you,” Ploverstar murmured, crouching down so that he was on eye level with the little kit. Valleykit fell still as the fury vacated Ploverstar’s pale amber gaze, replaced with a desperate sort of sorrow that wasn’t much better. “I promise,” he added, his voice slow and gentle, “I would never hurt you. Right?”

Valleykit took a short, hiccupy breath, forcing themself to nod. But their ears were still echoing with the angry words and raised voices, and the blood was still pouring from Ploverstar’s wound, slipping off the brown tom’s nose in heavy drips.

“Can I come over?” Ploverstar asked carefully, sitting perfectly still. Valleykit nodded again, and Ploverstar slowly crossed the little strip of grass between them to sit beside the kit. Valleykit hesitated, then squirmed over so that they were pressed against the leader, and buried their head in the warm fur of Ploverstar’s side. They could feel the leader’s heart beating like it wanted to escape his chest, and realized suddenly that maybe Ploverstar was scared too.

“I’m so sorry, Val, I didn’t realize you were out here,” Ploverstar whispered, wrapping his tail around them.

“I wanted to ask you if we could play moss ball,” Valleykit whimpered, their voice muffled in Ploverstar’s pelt. They slowly leaned away, staring up at him with wide green eyes.

Ploverstar gave them a lopsided grimace that was supposed to be a smile, unable to quite pull his mouth into the right shape. “Maybe tomorrow Val?”

“I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“That’s okay,” Ploverstar mumbled, blinking rapidly as the blood dripped into his eyes again.

Valleykit glanced up at the gash, where the blood was still bubbling up in fat beads. “Why is it every time you try to talk to Duskflame about me it turns into an argument?”

Ploverstar winced, closing his eyes for a moment. He had been hoping the kit hadn’t known about the others. “Duskflame’s been grumpy lately, that’s all. It has nothing to do with you, Val.”

“Then why is it that I always come up? Doesn’t Duskflame like me anymore?”

“Of course he does,” Ploverstar replied quickly, but the kit trundled on without acknowledging his words.

“I didn’t mean for her to die,“ Valleykit mumbled.

“Val-”

“If I hadn’t been a dummy, she wouldn’t have died.”

“You-”

“It wasn’t supposed to be her. She died protecting me, if she hadn’t she’d still be alive and Duskflame would be happy. I should have been the-” the kit’s words had been tumbling out like a stream, but they stopped suddenly, choking on a sob, “-one who died,” they finished.

Ploverstar stared at them, his eyes wide with horror. Valleykit buried their face back in his fur, hiding from the guilt they’d put on their friend’s face. Duskflame hated them and now they’d made Ploverstar sad.

“Val, Spicecloud’s death was absolutely not your fault,” Ploverstar said, reaching a bloodstained paw over to tip the kit’s chin out of his fur, forcing them to look at him. “She knew what she was doing. She needed you to be safe, and she did what she had to do to make that happen. You deserve to be alive, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong, including yourself. It wasn’t your fault,” he repeated, his voice stern, almost angry. “Right?”

“Then why does Duskflame blame me?” Valleykit murmured, shaking their head. Ploverstar was trying to make them feel better, which was what Ploverstar did. But that didn’t make his words true.

“Your father is grieving, but what he’s doing is inexcusable,” Ploverstar said bluntly, his expression hardening. “He’s pushing away everyone he loves because he’s afraid of the pain that comes with losing them. He’s hurtful because he’s hurting. It’s not okay, and it’s not your fault.”

“He hurt you,” Valleykit said quietly, reaching a paw up to wipe a bit of blood off of Ploverstar’s nose.  

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Ploverstar replied, summoning up a little smile. “Head wounds bleed a lot, but it’ll heal up just fine once Duststone sees to it.”

“Lilykit?” Valleystep suggested, peering down at their sister. She yawned, stretching a speckled white and ginger paw out in front of her.

“Too flowery,” Kitkit, as Valleystep had taken to thinking of her as, replied, shaking her head. All of the flowers were too flowery, colors were boring, and anything remotely water related was soggy.

It seemed impossible, with all their practice, that they couldn’t find a name that satisfied her. After two long days of spouting off every noun, adjective, and verb they knew, Valleystep was getting the distinct feeling that she was toying with them. They grinned, shaking their head. “I don’t know what to tell you, kid,” Valleystep said, “If my brilliant mind can’t find the perfect name for you, maybe it can’t be done.”

“I shall be Gwilpykit,” Kitkit declared, with a haughty toss of her head. Then, at Valleystep’s look, she burst into a fit giddy giggles.

“What,” Valleystep said, beaming, “in the world is a gwilpy?”

“I’m a gwilpy,” she chortled, waving her stubby limbs in the air.

Valleystep was tempted to call it quits and just go with that. But while they thought it was kind of brilliant for her to make up a word she thought fit, Kitkit’s future self might not thank them for letting her name herself after something that didn’t exist.

“Hey Val, are you still in here?” Ploverstar called, peeking his head into the nursery. The leader’s face softened into a grin that Valleystep wished they could freeze on his face forever. He looked so wholesomely happy that Valleystep was almost disappointed when he started talking again. “I hate to break up the naming party, but you’re due for a patrol.”

Valleystep hesitated, then nodded. They rose carefully to their feet, and wiggled their tail out from underneath Kitkit. “Can you hang out with Orangeblaze and Tunnelkit until I get back, Gwilpystar?” they asked.

“Gwilpystar commands you to stay,” Kitkit retorted, shooting them a comical scowl.

“I have to go, kiddo.”

“Leader’s word is law,” she grumbled, “And adulting sounds like a lot of work. You should become Valleykit.”

“See you later,” Valleystep said, glancing nervously at Orangeblaze. They trusted the tom not to accidentally step on their sister or whatever, but at the same time they didn’t trust her in the care of anyone, not even themself.

“I’ll make sure to stay out of the lake,” Kitkit added, making them pause. She found the whole lake comment hilarious. Ha ha, where would she even find water to drown in?

Valleystep really, really didn’t think it was funny. “You better,” they called over their shoulder, before following Ploverstar out of the nursery.

“Have you decided on a name for her yet?” Ploverstar purred as they neared the clan entrance, his eyes dancing with amusement.

“No,” Valleystep replied, shaking his head. “She’s got high standards. I approve, but still, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to find something we both agree on.”

“Her mom wanted to name a kit Aspen.”

Valleystep looked up sharply at the familiar, indifferent voice. Duskflame shrugged, his eyes fixed anywhere but on the two of them. “I’m sure you’ve got it all under control, though.”

“You bet I do,” Valleystep replied cheerfully, grinning at their father, “But….I have to admit, I’m stumped. This kit is out of my vocabulary’s league. I’d appreciate the help if you’re offering!”

Ploverstar looked over at them, his gaze sad. They both knew what Duskflame’s response would be, but it was always worth a shot.

“Nah. You’ve got it.”

At least it seemed like Ploverstar had convinced him to go on a patrol for once. Duskflame was very skilled at being a killjoy, but sometimes Valleystep was able to lure him out of his shell once in a while. Maybe today would be another one of those days.

“Oh well,” Valleystep replied, shrugging as if they weren’t disappointed. “Shall we go then?” they added, gesturing towards the moor. “Between my good looks, skill, brains, and your support, I’m sure we’ll find something tasty to catch.”

Ploverstar nodded, still looking sad. Duskflame looked like he thought Valleystep was out of their mind, but at least he seemed a little entertained. It was better than nothing, Valleystep thought, leading the way out of camp.

“Good catch!” Valleystep commented as Duskflame reappeared out of the tall grasses carrying a mouse, sniffing the air for prey of their own. Duskflame nodded his acknowledgment, licking a bit of the creature’s blood off of his paws.

Valleystep brightened at the scent of rabbit, their eyes scanning the rustling grass keenly. The light breeze made it hard to tell exactly where the thing was, but Val wasn’t about to quit over that.

“There,” Ploverstar murmured, nodding his head towards a flat stretch of grass ahead of them. Valleystep narrowed their eyes, fixing the little brown creature in their sights. “I’ll go left, you go right?” the leader suggested, but Valleystep shook their head.

“I can handle this,” they murmured back, trying to stifle the excitement bubbling in their chest. Some part of them acknowledged how sad it was that they’d been chasing rabbits all newleaf in the hopes that Duskflame would be around at some point to see them catch one, but the other part was just overjoyed to have the chance.

And none of that was going to be helpful. Valleystep took a deep breath, nodding to themself. They’d caught dozens of rabbits without help, sometimes the same rabbit two times in a row. This would be easy.

Valleystep started off at a jog, not bothering with stealth. The rabbit looked up, it’s eyes wide, then bolted, Valleystep breaking into a sprint in the wake of its dust.

It was heading towards a burrow, they realized, squinting ahead at the little divot in the earth. They put on an extra burst of speed, stretching their long legs out as far as they would go and pressing off the earth like it was burning their paws.

Startled by their sudden nearness, the rabbit veered left, away from Valleystep and also away from its burrow. They ducked closer, grinning as it shied away. Why catch rabbits when one could herd them?

It was tempting to try and pull some sort of stunt, like turn the frightened animal back around towards their father or catch it, let it go, and catch it again, but Valleystep didn’t want to risk making the kill. They sprang forward, swiping the rabbit’s paws out from underneath it, then finished it off with a quick bite to the back of its neck.

“Well done!” Ploverstar called from the other side of the field, his smile barely visible on his tiny form. Valleystep was about to turn and see if Duskflame had been paying attention, when their nose caught a disturbing scent.

Blood, and lots of it. Not rabbit blood either.

Cat blood.

It hung heavy in the air, along with the crisp scent of fresh mint, which seemed ridiculously out of place. Valleystep tossed their rabbit aside, flicking their tail frantically to signal Ploverstar and Duskflame.

Their stomach churned as they came across a long, thick streak of dried blood, a gruesome contrast to the cheery green grass it clung to. Whoever was hurt, they’d lost quite a bit of blood.

Valleystep followed the trail, the sound of their clanmate’s footsteps growing closer as the two of them dashed over. “Great Starclan,” Ploverstar murmured, falling in step beside Valleystep.

“Val?” a weak voice croaked, as Valleystep pushed away a tall frond of prairie grass to reveal Fogheart. The black tom’s pelt was crusted with dried blood, long wounds making his pelt stick up unevenly along his sides. One of his legs was sticking out at an angle that it definitely wasn’t meant to be able to.

“Funny seeing you here,” Valleystep murmured, glancing uncertainly over at Ploverstar. What were they going to do?

“Ploverstar, is that you?” a little brown head poked through the grass. Ploverstar jumped, spinning around to face Duststone. “Ploverstar, I have something important to tell-” Duststone broke off mid sentence, staring at Fogheart. “Oh.”

The grass parted to reveal more faces. Valleystep recognized Pepperheart of Riverclan and Sharpstone of Thunderclan, but the rest weren’t cats they knew. They had no idea what the Riverclan medicine cat was doing in Windclan territory with Thunderclan cats, but they weren’t about to complain. “Well, Fogheart,” they said, “You couldn’t have picked a better time to almost die. For your troubles you’ve won not one, but two medicine cats.”

“Shut up, Val,” Fogheart muttered as Duststone crouched over him, sniffing at his wounds. Valleystep shot him their most obnoxious grin, hoping that Fogheart’s annoyance would distract him from his injuries.

“Here, Duskflame, you support him on this side, I’ll take the other,” Ploverstar instructed, carefully helping Fogheart to his feet. “What were you going to tell me, Duststone?” he asked, shooting a curious glance at the Riverclan and Thunderclan cats.

“I was going to tell you that someone might have died last night,” Duststone murmured, “But apparently Fogheart managed to survive.”

“I didn’t survive by chance,” Fogheart growled, his eyes foggy with pain, “They let me go. Told me to deliver a message.”

“What’s the message?” Valleystep asked quickly, watching their friend intently.

“This was a warning. The clans are to vacate their territory within the next six moons, or else a war is coming. A war they say we can’t win, not this time. And no cat, be they a warrior or a kit, will be left unpunished.”

“Well,” Valleystep said into the heavy silence that followed, “That certainly sounds like something to look forward to.” Internally, their mind kept playing the last detail over in their mind, again and again. No warrior or kit will be left unpunished. No kit left unpunished.

How were they going to keep their sister safe from a war?

Chapter 9[]

“Hey, Bumblekit, rise and shine,” Lizardsight murmured, dragging Bumble out of her dream. She blinked blearily up at her father, whose golden eyes were glittering with mischief.

The sky outside the window pane was still dark, speckled with the faint twinkling of stars. Bumble rubbed a paw over her eyes, wondering if she was still asleep after all. Lizardsight looked out of place around the plush twoleg toys and the tall, enclosing walls. Turtle had never been able to convince him to take a peek inside.

And yet, here he was, dragging her out of her warm bundle of blankets. If this was a dream, Bumble didn’t mind, because it was better than the last one.

There had been a ginger cat, and there had been fire. Bumble couldn’t recall if the ginger cat had been setting her on fire, or vice versa, or something else entirely, but she remembered feeling angry and afraid. Something dark and dangerous had been there, and it had been familiar. It had been hers. Or more, she had been its, a slave to her own monster.

Bumble shivered, glancing around at the dark den. She wasn’t afraid of the dark, but the faint flickers of flames seemed to cling to her peripheral vision. “What’re you doing here?” she asked Lizardsight, peering up at him.

“Keep your voice down,” Lizardsight whispered, with a wink. “Wouldn’t want to wake the others up.” He sprung onto the couch, then leaped over to the window sill. With a soft creek, the window swung open beneath his paws, letting in a breeze that nipped at Bumble’s nose. “What do you say, Bumblekit? Want to go on a little adventure before the sun comes up?”

Bumble grinned. Bumblekit, as if she was a warrior like him. She scrambled up onto the window beside him, peering down at the garden below. “Of course,” she murmured, beaming up at Lizardsight.

“Not scared of the dark, I hope?” he said, more teasing than concerned. Bumble shook her head furiously.

“Shadowclan thrives in the dark,” she chirped, “It’s our friend, not our enemy.”

“That’s my girl,” Lizardsight purred. He picked her up by her scruff, the world tilting as he sprang off the window, flying through the air like a hawk before landing lightly on the branch of the nearby tree. Bumble giggled as she swung from his mouth, looking down between her hind paws at the ground. It seemed so far away, but she knew Lizardsight wouldn’t drop her.

Lizardsight crouched again, this time dropping down into the leaf pile beside the tulip bed. He released her, turning away to sniff at the rows of plants. “Here we are,” he murmured, plucking up a few sprigs of mint. “Bumblekit, can you roll around in these?”

‘Why?” Bumble asked, sniffing at the mint. The strong, chilly smell made her want to sneeze.

“Darling, strictly speaking what we’re about to do isn’t allowed in the technical sense,” Lizardsight said with a lopsided smile. “Kittypets aren’t supposed to go into clan territory.”

“But I’m with you, won’t it be okay?” Bumble asked, her eyes wide. “If not, am I allowed to beat up your clanmates?” She was pretty sure she could take at least one. Maybe two, if they were little.

“They wouldn’t fight a kit, but they also wouldn’t be thrilled with either of us,” Lizardsight explained, “Hence the mint. They won’t smell you, just mint.” He tilted his head down at the little green leaves, then added, “Mint’s a trouble maker’s plant, Bumblekit. Chances are, if you’ve been rolling in mint, you’re up to no good.”

“We’re breaking the warrior code?” Bumble clarified, grinning.

“Bending the warrior code,” he corrected, “Breaking the warrior code is bad. Bending is more acceptable. See, technically speaking I’m supposed to challenge any trespassers on my territory.” He let out a playful growl, boxing her gently over the ears. “Bow down, kit! Roll in that mint or I shall shred you!”  

Bumble nodded seriously, and dutifully flopped over to roll back and forth across the mint leaves.

“Consider yourself challenged,” Lizardsight said, nodding his head in the direction gate. Bumble scampered after him, her stubby kitten legs struggling to keep up with his long, ambling strides.

She scrambled clumsily under the gate, then stopped.

Bumble had never been out of the garden before, at least not that she could recall. For all of her minimal moons, the neat flower rows and the wobbly looking two-leg den had been her entire world. Now, she realized just how big the outdoors could be.

The trees seemed to stretch eternally upwards, many of their broad fans of leaves taller than the den they shaded. Past the initial row of pines was a second row, and a third row, a fourth, and more. It just went on, and on, and on.

Lizardsight glanced over his shoulder at her, smiling. “I know Turtle doesn’t want you little guys out here,” he murmured, glancing around at the forest before them, “But there is so much more to life than one little garden, if you’re brave enough to look beyond the gate.”

“Why doesn’t Daddy want to look beyond the gate?” Bumble asked, turning to look back at the house they’d left behind. As wonderful as this adventure was, she thought it would probably be more fun if Scone and Turtle were with them.

Lizardsight’s dappled eyes darkened with regret. “He’s afraid. And while he’s right that it’s dangerous out here, this is my world. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay inside, but….I think you’re different, aren’t you? You’re like me. Maybe in a different world you could have been a warrior.”

Bumble craned her head up at him, his questioning face framed by the pines and the night sky behind him. There were no walls here, she realized with a little shock. Nothing to keep the wilderness out, but nothing to keep her in either. “I’m like you,” she agreed. At least, she hoped she was. If this was his world, then she wanted to be part of it.

“Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to coax Turtle out for a walk,” Lizardsight mused, “Who knows. Maybe with enough time…” he broke off, shaking his head. He closed his eyes for a moment, then his smile was back, as brilliant as the sun and just as out of place in the darkness.

Bumble thought maybe she could grasp why he was sad. This new world outside of the gate was alluring and beautiful, even if it wasn’t hers yet. But she couldn’t leave the others behind. The two of them were torn between the two best things that existed.

“Now,” Lizardsight said, cheery once again, “What’s the first thing you’d like to learn, Bumblekit? The warrior code? Hunting?”

Bumble considered it for a moment. She wanted to know it all. But the answer came easily when she stopped letting her mind get in the way.

“I want to learn how to fight.”

Bumble awoke to sunshine, the rays streaming through the parted curtains, painfully bright on her eyes. She yawned, then frowned at the strange scents that clung to her fur. The forest, mint, Shadowclan, and, more overwhelming than any of the others, blood.

She’d tried her best to rid herself of the scent the previous night, but no longer how soggy she licked her fur, it wouldn’t quite come clean. Her usually sunny yellow fur had little bits of dried brown flecks in it, and her mouth was still metallic with the after taste.

Grimacing, Bumble rose slowly to her feet. Her muscles ached from dragging the Shadowclan cat, just like they always had after midnight  training sessions with Lizardsight. A glance at the window revealed that she’d already slept through most of the morning.

Turtle was sitting on the sill, his tail flicking against the glass in a constant, unsteady beat. He glanced away from the forest outside as she sprang up beside him, his expression marred with dread.

“We’re going to be fine,” Bumble said before he could speak, blinking at him. “They’re not going to hurt us for bringing back their clanmate. They’ll probably just be grateful.”

“Right,” Turtle murmured, “I’m sure it’ll go wonderfully.”

He was making his lying face, but Bumble didn’t point it out. Her father probably had a lot on his mind as it was. She did as well.

Not all of her memories of the forest were good ones.

“We should get going, so that we have plenty of time to make it back before dark,” Bumble suggested, glancing over to where Scone and Robert were still dozing on the couch. She wouldn’t have minded walking home in the shadows, but she doubted her kin shared her feelings in the dark.

“Right,” Turtle said again, nodding slowly. He had a strange, vacant look on his face, as if his mind had checked out a long time ago to wallow in his nightmarish worries and the worst corners of his memory.

“Poor guy,” Scone murmured, staring down at the stiff cat Bumble had dragged out of the forest last night. They hadn’t been able to get him under the gate, so Bumble had settled for stuffing him under a bush along the side of the fence. Luckily, it didn’t appear that any animals had decided to make him into a meal, but that didn’t mean he was a pretty sight.

She’d seen his wounds the previous night, but not in good lighting. Long, deap gauges ran along his spine and sides, with a neat little cut on his throat that Bumble suspected was probably what had actually killed him. He was no longer soaking wet from his own blood, with his fur having dried into a crusty brownish mess.

“Close his eyes, will you?” Turtle muttered gruffly, looking anywhere but the body. Bumble realized with a shiver that she’d neglected to do that the past night. The tom’s startled amber eyes were still staring blankly up at the sky, like he was still surprised to be dead.

Gingerly, she reached a paw forward, and brushed the cat’s eyes closed before quickly withdrawing. Even though she’d dragged him through the forest for a good half hour already, it was still gross touching his unmoving form.

“So, how’re we going to do this?” Robert asked, with a tone that made it clear that he didn’t want to be part of the ‘we’.

Turtle grimaced, forcing himself to turn his gaze to the corpse. He gave it a gentle poke, as if there might have been any mistaking the hapless tom for a living cat. “Bumble, help me carry him, please,” Turtle mumbled, “Scone, Robert, keep an eye out for any threats, okay?”

Bumble didn’t really think they needed two lookouts, but nodded. She bent down, stifling a hiss of disgust as her mouth closed around the bloody spikes of the cat’s scruff to lift him onto her father’s shoulders. Then, she squirmed closer so that the dead cat’s front paws draped stiffly over her shoulders.

She had thought her pelt had smelled bad, but it was nothing compared to the stench of dried blood and death that clung to the tom. Pared with the cold, lifeless pressure of his limbs on her back, it was nearly enough to make her lose her lunch.

Beside her, Turtle had gone tense, becoming nearly as tense as the corpse they were toting. “Are you okay?” Bumble murmured to him, the corpse wobbling as she moved. Turtle nodded. He looked brittle, like he might snap under any more pressure, but at least he was still motile.

“Let’s go,” he growled, taking an unsteady step forward. Bumble matched his pace, doing her best to keep their cargo from slipping off.

The forest seemed even larger in the day time, but blander, all of its secrets exposed. Bumble was almost disappointed by the rough bark and plain grass beneath her paws. Even so, the crinkle of leaves and the melodies of birds chirping up in the boughs were comforting.

She and her father’s paws fell in synchronous, their steps heavy under the cat’s body. Neither of them said a word, but they’d been here before. The grim parallels were more than enough to occupy the silence, which was shattered by the nervous chatter of Scone and Robert.

“Do you think they really eat bones?” Robert was wondering, sounding nervous.

“I hope not!” Scone yelped, eyeing the forest warily.

Bumble gritted her teeth, trying to block out her siblings’ chatter along with the ache that was spreading through her muscles. She’d dragged him on her own earlier, but now that her adrenaline had long since faded, he felt like he was made of bricks.

“Hey, you!”

“Dad, I see a threat!” Robert squeaked, diving behind them as a group of cats dashed into view. Shadowclan, Bumble thought with a mixture of grim anticipation and elation, the later of which was probably not appropriate for the situation.

“What’re you doing on Shadowclan territory?” the lead cat demanded, their gaze challenging but not particularly hostile. A flock of kittypets wasn’t much of a threat, Bumble supposed.

“Is that Ebonyfall?” one of their companies asked quietly, sounding like she was afraid to know the answer.

“Please don’t eat us,” Robert pleaded from behind Bumble.

“I found him in the forest last night,” Bumble said, addressing the Shadowclan cats and also completely ignoring her brother. She glanced at Turtle, expecting him to jump in, but her father remained as silent as a grave. She turned her gaze back to the clan cats, doing her best to keep the nervousness from her voice. “We’ve come to bring him back to you.”

The lead cat stepped forward, grimacing. They sniffed gently at the dead cat, their gaze clouding with sadness as they stepped back. “It’s Ebonyfall,” they confirmed grimly. “Looks like those foxhearts got us too.”

Ebonyfall. So now the body she’d been hauling around had a name, and it appeared friends as well. But that wasn’t what Bumble’s mind caught on.

“Got you too?” Turtle echoed, snapping out of his daze. “What do you mean by that?”

The lead cat exchanged a long glance with the she-cat beside them, their eyes darting uncertainly back to them as they leaned over to murmur something in her ear. She shrugged, her dejected expression not changing as the first cat turned back to Bumble. “Could you please come back to Shadowclan camp with us?” they requested, “I think you should know, but I want to check with our leader first.”

“We need to get back home,” Turtle interjected, his pelt bristling against Bumble’s. Bumble saw a flicker of distrustfulness in his eyes, so agitated that it verged on panic.

“No harm will come of you,” the Shadowclan cat added hastily. Turtle shook his head firmly, but they continued on anyway. “But you really do need to know what’s going on. We’ll escort you home before sundown, I promise.”

“No,” Turtle growled, with an anger that startled Bumble just as much as it startled the Shadowclan cats. “We are going home.”

Bumble frowned, staring at him. She wanted to see Shadowclan camp, and she wanted to know what the Shadowclan cat was alluding to. It sounded important, interesting at the very least. Turtle met her gaze, his expression stern.

How could he push away this half of their life so fiercely? The wild cats were dangerous, yes, but Shadowclan had been Lizardsight’s home. Had Turtle forgotten that?

“I’ll come with you,” Bumble said, the words out of her mouth before she had been able to stop them.

“Absolutely not!” Turtle snapped, Ebonyfall tipping onto the ground as he spun around to face her. “Bumble-”

“I’d like to go as well,” Scone murmured, and Turtle’s eyes flashed to her, sharp with startled betrayal. Scone flinched slightly, but didn’t revoke her answer.

Turtle glanced between them, then at the Shadowclan cats and the dead body lying on the ground. Bumble held her ground, her gaze steady. She was an adult and her own cat, and it wasn’t as if walking into Shadowclan camp was the most dangerous thing she’d done in the past 24 hours.

Turtle closed his eyes, and gave a single jerky, mechanical nod.

“Thank you,” Bumble murmured, but he just ignored her, stepping aside to allow the warriors to pick up their clanmate’s body.

Bumble swiveled her head around at the camp as she and her family trailed in the wake of the Shadowclan patrol, a small smile escaping her composure as they left the thorn tunnel. Bramble thickets speckled the little clearing, with the low hanging trees casting the entire thing in shade, the darkness cool on her pelt.

It was just as she remembered it from her last and only other visit, although she’d been too preoccupied to notice much. Beside her, Scone was taking it in for the first time, looking curious but not as entranced as Bumble had hoped. Robert was digging his claws into the ground, as if rooting himself down was the only way to keep him from turning and running back home.

“Sycamoreheart!”

“Here!”

“Pollenpaw!”

“Here!”

“Dawnpaw!”

“Here!”

Draped across a broad branch that extended across the camp was a thick furred, young bright ginger she-cat, shouting out what Bumble assumed were the names of the cats clustered beneath her. They appeared to be doing some sort of role call, but the she-cat fell silent as the patrol slowed to a stop near the entrance.

“Welcome back, Amblefoot,” she called, leaping nimbly from her perch. Her eyes darted across the kittypets, before settling on the body Amblefoot and the she-cat were lowering to the ground. “I see you’ve found Ebonyfall,” she added tersely, nudging the black tom’s corpse with a paw. “Mousebrain,” she muttered to it, scowling.

 “Is anyone else missing, Flarestar?” Amblefoot asked, glancing around at their gathered clanmates.

“Now that you three are back, everyone is alive and accounted for,” Flarestar replied, “Save for Ebonyfall, obviously.” She frowned, tipping her head at Turtle. “You’re one of those kittypet who brought back Lizardsight’s body a few seasons ago, aren’t you?”

Turtle looked like he was choking on air, so Bumble stepped forward. “Yes,” she replied, trying to catch her father’s eyes without success. “That was us.”

Flarestar glanced around at the four of them, looking a little miffed at the twin expressions of muted grief on Robert and Scone’s faces. “Well, I’m sorry you had to go through this again,” she said, “And my apologies in advance if I show up dead on your doorstep in a few months.” Bumble didn’t find that particularly amusing, and based on the looks of the cats around her, no one but Flarestar did.  

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Bumble said politely, “How likely is that to happen? What’s going on?”

Flarestar shot Amblefoot an annoyed look, but the grey cat just shrugged. “I thought they ought to know. They live just up by the border, you know.”

With a heavy sigh, Flarestar nodded. “Fair enough.” With a flash of ginger, she scampered up the tree like a squirrel, carrying a theatrical air about her. “We don’t know much yet,” she called down, folding her legs delicately in front of her. “But essentially, someone’s got a bone to pick with the clans. Last night, cats snuck into our territory and attacked our cats, one from each clan along with the medicine cats’ half moon meetings. Save for Windclan, all five clans have discovered one of their members dead. Fogheart, the exception, was spared to carry a message. If the clans don’t abandon our territory, we’re going to war.”

Bumble got the distinct feeling that, despite the seriousness of the situation, the she-cat was enjoying her little performance. She glanced nervously at Turtle, whose gaze was dark with worry. Scone looked worried as well, and Robert looked as if he was ready to write himself a eulogy right there and then.

A war? Like Amblefoot had said, their home was just outside of the border. At the very least, Ebonyfall wouldn’t be the first casualty that they had to return home. At worst, they could get caught up in it themselves.

“Are you going to leave?” Turtle asked tensely, his gaze sharp.

Flarestar rested her chin on her paws, gazing down at them. Bumble stiffened as the she-cat’s dark amber eyes flicked curiously to her. “Obviously not,” the leader snorted, giving Turtle a lopsided smile. “We’re warriors. War’s literally in our name. If they want a fight, we’ll give it to them.”

“Of course you will,” Turtle said, his voice uncharacteristically sarcastic.

“Now, now, kittypet, don’t get snippy with me,” Flarestar replied, positively radiating amusement, “I don’t know if you’re up to date on the whole clan thing, but I'm the leader here. You can show me respect or I can show you the exit.”

Turtle tipped his head slightly, frowning a little. “What happened to the other one? Rosestar?”

“Dead,” Flarestar said with a shrug, “Caught a bad bout of whitecough a season or so ago.”

Bumble only vaguely recalled the old she-cat who’d greeted them last time, but she could say with certainty that she had liked her better than the smug cat above her. Flarestar smirked, as if she had guessed Bumble’s thoughts.

Before Flarestar could say any more flippant nonsense, a commotion at the camp entrance drew everyone’s attention. Two cats dashed through the thorn tunnel, smelling of rabbits and fresh air. Behind them trailed another cat, the guard who had greeted Bumble earlier at the entrance to the tunnel.

“Henheart, Valleystep,” Flarestar called, nodding warily to the newcomers, “To what do I owe the pleasure? Today seems to be a day for visitors. You just missed Thunderclan’s patrol returning our medicine cat, but you’re right on time to meet a flock of kittypets.”

The brown tortishell dipped her head in greeting, wearing the slightest of frowns as if she couldn’t help but feel a little affronted by the leader. “Today is a day for visitors because it is a day of death,” she said, flicking her tail towards Ebonyfall’s body. “Ploverstar is organizing an emergency gathering at sunhigh in light of the current crisis.”

“He’s calling this a crisis?” Flarestar snorted, shaking her head. “Leave it to ol’ rabbit ears to overreact. But do go on,” she prompted as Henheart’s frown deepened. Beside her, the ginger and white cat’s amusement was a stark contrast to her disapproval.

“Crisis or not, Ploverstar feels that it warrants a discussion,” Henheart replied. “He’d like to keep the meeting to high ranks only, if that’s acceptable to you. We’ve already talked to Hawthornstar, and they agree.”

“Sounds like a party,” Flarestar remarked, flicking her tail disinterestedly at the messengers. “Amblefoot, Wolfbounce and I will be there. Take care on your way back to Windclan. And Amblefoot, can you organize a patrol to take the kittypets back home?”

“Wait,” Bumble interjected, “Before we go….is there any specific place that you bury your dead? If so, I’d like to see it.”

Turtle looked up sharply at this, his gaze warning. Bumble smiled at Flarestar, trying to keep her expression nonchalant.

Lizardsight’s clanmates had never known about the other half of his life, and they’d done everything in their power to keep it that way. He deserved better than to have his reputation tarnished without him there to defend it.

But Bumble wasn’t going to leave without visiting him, not when they were already in Shadowclan camp.

Flarestar turned her amber gaze to Bumble once again, her expression unreadable. “There is,” she said, flicking her tail in the direction of the camp entrance. “Head around the back of the camp, and look for a little cluster of dandelions.”

Bumble nodded, grateful but puzzled that the leader didn’t question her request. She followed her instructions, the others trailing behind her and a couple Shadowclan cats supervising their progress.

“There,” Amblefoot said, flicking their tail.

The grass grew sparse here, with one spot completely bare and covered in loose dirt. A recent burial, it appeared. The edges were speckled with clumps of dandelions, but beyond that there were no decorations. Bumble supposed that with such a high death rate, the clans didn’t have time for much fanfare.

It made sense, but she still felt that Lizardsight deserved better.

The breeze tickled her whiskers as she stared at the little patches in the ground, wondering which one was his. It had been close to a year, so maybe the grave wasn’t even visible anymore among the little green bristles.

“May Starclan light your path, love,” Turtle murmured under his breath, quiet enough that only the four of them could hear him.

“We miss you, Pop,” Scone added.

Bumble glanced over her shoulder at the sound of approaching footsteps, and stiffened when she saw Flarestar walking towards them. Instantly, they fell silent, Turtle’s face growing tight with distrust as the leader took a seat next to Bumble.

“He was a good cat,” Flarestar mused, tilting her head. “A pain in our rears sometimes, but a good cat.”

Bumble said nothing, eying the leader warily. Where was she going with this?

“I know you were his real family though.”

Turtle’s eyes widened in horror as Flarestar shot him a sad, knowing smile. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he stammered. Internally, Bumble groaned as the leader smirked.

“You have the most obvious lying face I’ve ever seen,” she remarked, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who figured it out. As deputy back then, I probably should have told Rosestar but…” Flarestar shrugged indifferently. “He was a loyal warrior. I saw no reason to get him in trouble for something so harmless.”

Turtle once again fell silent, so Bumble replied in his stead. “Thanks.”

Flarestar glanced around between the four of them, her voice turning apologetic. “I’m sorry if I seemed crass earlier. I just wanted to put up a confident front for the clan.” Bumble blinked, startled by the sudden flip flop in the leader’s demeanor.

“I’ve only been leader for a season, and I’m by far the youngest out of the five,” Flarestar continued, glancing at her paws. “I know what I’m doing, but getting my clanmates to put their trust in me is an entirely different monster.”

“Huh,” Turtle replied, looking unimpressed. “Well, thank you for allowing us to visit Lizardsight’s grave and for filling us in on the situation. We’ll be going home now.”

“Right,” Flarestar said, straightening. Bumble shot Turtle and irritated glance, annoyed by the briskness in his voice. What was the rush? It seemed that she was the only one out of her family that didn’t mind seeing Lizardsight’s home. She would have liked to chat with Flarestar more, to hear more about clan life.

“Stay safe,” Flarestar called after them, as Bumble followed Turtle reluctantly back towards their home. “Hopefully next time we’ll meet on more pleasant circumstances.”

“There won’t be a next time,” Turtle murmured under his breath.

Bumble glanced over her shoulder, her eyes lingering on the fluffy ginger she-cat. Flarestar tilted her head, holding Bumble’s gaze curiously.

Bumble flinched, something stirring within her. Flarestar seemed kind if a little blunt, full of energy and determination. Bumble could have stared into those intelligent amber eyes for an eternity, both entranced and repulsed.

When had she been here before?

Bumble dragged her head back around, forcing her eyes to stay on the ground. Around the heavy weight of an unsettling sense of deja vu, the nonsensical thoughts kept storming through her mind, making her dizzy.

She could not, under any circumstances, be foolish enough to want her again. Not after last time. Love was a flame that only kept you warm to lure you close enough to burn you. The she-cat was a trap. Distrust was the sole kind of certainty that wouldn’t lead to betrayal.

This was where she had lost control of things last time as well.

Chapter 10[]

By the end of the first moon of Elm’s first winter, he could say with certainty that it was his least favorite season. That title had previously been awarded to autumn, when the leaves fell from the ragged little trees stuffed haphazardly along the sides and centers of the roads, leaving the branches reaching sadly up towards the sky, all alone. It had been bleak and chilly, but at least it had kept the organic goods from the rubbish heap from going bad quite as usual. Of course, at two moons old, Elm hadn’t had anything else to compare it to.

But winter was a whole different tier of suffering that the kit couldn’t quite comprehend. What was the purpose of it? Who had decided it was a good idea that for a whole season the world should just go into a deathlike sleep?

“Don’t worry, Elm,” his father, Hunter, reassured him, coming to sit at the edge of the box beside the little calico tom. “We’ll be fine.”

Elm flicked an ear up at him, but said nothing. His odd eyes, one blue, one green, raked the ally with a distant sort of watchfulness. “Thanks, dad,” he said blandly, noting the dwindling piles of prey and scraps, and the pointy ribs of their neighbors. Fine appeared to be a very relative term.

Hunter meant well, but Elm was quickly coming to realize something about him. Elm had either been born to a skilled liar or an utter fool. Unfortunately, it seemed like the latter.

“I’m going to go play with Aqua,” Elm said, rising to his paws.

At this, Hunter frowned, his face seeming to crumple with sadness and regret. “Son, Aqua can’t play right now,” Hunter said with painful gentleness.

“How do you know she can’t play?” Elm asked, tilting his head curiously. “Have you asked her?”

Hunter squirmed, clearing his throat awkwardly. “Well….”

“Elm, Aqua’s dead,” a voice said, matter-of-factly. Elm glanced up at his mother’s voice, his mismatched eyes widening slightly.

“Luna!” Hunter hissed, glaring at his mate.

The ginger she-cat held his gaze evenly, with a little shrug. “Would you rather we lied to him? Tell him that she moved away?” Luna shook her head, blinking warmly down at Elm. “Our son’s too smart to fall for that sort of garbage. He’d figure it out on his own eventually, better to get the truth out now.”  

Elm forced himself to nod, his mind too caught up in this information to appreciate his mother’s praise.

Aqua, dead? Just a few days ago they’d played in an icy puddle by one of the gutters. She’d been a little under the weather then, but Elm certainly hadn’t expected this. He thought of the way her grey fur had clung to her thin shoulders, the way her paws had trembled beneath her tiny frame.

“That makes sense,” he said, ignoring the look from his father. Elm scowled, fighting to keep the tremble from his voice. His friend was dead, but that didn’t mean he got to cry about it.

Aqua was dead, but so was Jimmy from the next ally over, and Bess who had used to share Zelda’s box. Along with Anne, Chocolate, Stick, Auburn, and countless cats he’d never learned the names of. Each death was a little drop in a sea of suffering. The only difference was that he’d been unlucky enough to know the victim this time.

“Why’d she die? Was she sick?” Elm asked, turning to his mother. Hunter would probably have some wishy washy answer that was supposed to make him feel better, but Elm wanted the cold, blunt truth.

“She starved, love,” Luna said, kind but frank. She dipped her head, gently licking at one of Elm’s ears.

Elm nodded again, staring blankly at the wall of the ragged cardboard box. Aqua hadn’t even mentioned that she had been hungry. Had her mother known she’d been so near death?

It didn’t really matter, even if she had. Aqua was out of a litter of six, and litters that big just didn’t survive here. Her mother had probably been forced to pick a few kits to feed, and evidently Aqua wasn’t one of them.

“Well, I’ll find someone else to play with then,” the kit muttered, walking slowly from the box. The buildings that framed the narrow street kept out the worst of the wind, but the air was still plenty frigid enough to slice through his fluffy kitten fur as if it were made of paper.

Something small and white landed on his nose, melting almost instantly into chilly little droplets. Elm frowned, and tilted his head to gaze up at the sky with distant curiosity.

It was as if the clouds were coming apart in little chunks, filling the stormy grey sky with little specks. They initially disappeared the moment they hit the ground, but as the dots thickened into a flurry of white, beginning to cling to the tired cement and Elm’s patched fur.

His first snow.

Elm wondered who it would kill first.

….

Elm usually enjoyed playing with cats’ perceptions of him, like an actor performing to an audience. He liked the way their minds could be led, to try and predict the assumptions they’d make and allowing guise after guise to paint the picture that worked best for him.

This time though, this was no game of pretend. This was the equivalent of a drowning cat clinging to their last breath for dear life. His anger, the satisfaction of the blood on his paws, the knowledge that he was free of the wretched alleyways, it was enough to get him across the Thunderpath.

He passed the vaguely cat shaped blob that had been his father until half a dozen monsters had crushed him into a bloody pancake, ignoring the rosette of blood that splattered around Hunter.

Elm would not, and could not allow them to see him grieve. He had said that they hadn’t beaten him and that was the truth, but if the rogues saw the cracks in his armor then it was as good as over.

Logically speaking, he knew he’d be fine. He’d grieved before, and it wouldn’t break him to do it again. Hunter would join the group of sorry whispers in the back of his mind and Elm be back to himself, but colder.

That was their main mistake, really. There was no one else that Elm cared enough about to grieve now. He was out of things to lose.

In other words, he had lost the only good thing left in his life.

As soon as the treeline swallowed up his slim form, shielding him from the gazes of his enemies, the act evaporated along with any semblance of control that Elm had maintained. The grass smelled heavily of a group of cats he didn’t know, but at the moment he didn’t care.

Wobbling a little, Elm turned to the nearest tree and leaned his forehead against it, pressing down hard enough that the bark scraped painfully against his skin. The grief was enough to make him dizzy.

Beyond the impossible, Elm knew there was nothing that was going to ease the hurt this time. There was no other parent to turn to, no friend to confide in. He was just going to have to ride it out.

Give it a moon or two, Elm thought to himself, trying without success to escape sob he couldn’t quite stifle, and he’d be fine. Fine as he ever was, anyway. The emotions were illogical, unhelpful, and once they were dealt with he could move on.

It didn’t help.

The worst part was that he certainly could have prevented Hunter’s death. If he’d just agreed to leave the stupid ally like he’d always dreamed of doing, his father would be alive.

Accept Hunter would never agree to leaving, and Elm was too bullheaded to take a blow to his pride like that.

Also, in hindsight, he really should have killed Bane a long, long time ago.

“Are you alright?”

Elm stiffened, cursing emotions for clouding his senses. He plastered composure back on his face, straightened, and turned to face the speaker. Luckily for them, they weren’t one of the rogues he’d left behind. If they had been...well, right now Elm wouldn’t have minded seeing someone else pay for his mistakes in blood.

“Yes, merely a little tired,” he said with an amiable smile, dipping his head to the round reddish kittypet who was peering worriedly at him. “I was just resting for a bit.”

“Oh,” the kittypet replied, with a nervous smile. “Well, that’s good.” Their eyes darted along his pelt, widening slightly. “Um,” they said pointing to Elm’s chest, “You’ve got a little….rabbit blood on you there.”  

Elm peered down at his chest fur, noticing for the first time a russet splatter of fresh blood. Bane’s, of course. “Oh, that’s not rabbit’s blood,” Elm replied pleasantly, lifting a leg to show his pudgy companion the matching streaks of red on his snowy paws.

The kittypet’s eyes went wide as full moons, but Elm ignored their reaction. “Is this your territory?” he asked, nodding at the forest around them.

“N-no, nope, nope,” the kittypet stammered, shaking their head quickly as if they were afraid Elm was going to fight them for it. “I live at the horseplace. We’re actually in warrior territory right now, I was going to warn you that it’s not safe here for kittypets and loners. The clans aren’t very friendly. ”

“The clans,” Elm echoed, tilting his head slightly. All he knew about them is that they were allegedly at bones, which he highly doubted. “Well, thank you for the warning, but I think I’ll be okay.”

The kittypet nodded numbly, their eyes still fixed on the splatter of blood as if they’d never seen anything like it before. As far as Elm knew, maybe they hadn’t.

He turned, staring up at the nearest pine. Ignoring the kittypet’s curious gaze, he studied the branches, looking for a spot sturdy enough to bear his weight. Then, he lept, wincing as the spiny needles dug into his paws, and scrambled up through the boughs.

The trees held none of the familiarity that the weather worn roofs of the maze of twolegs dens, unstable and unpredictable in ways that just couldn’t be mimicked by loose shingles and slippery metal. Elm leaped to the next tree, frowning as the branch he landed on bucked and bowed beneath his weight. He scrambled closer to the trunk, then, with a set of delicate, swift steps, he made his way around the tree to face the next one.

Eventually, he ran out of trees. The forest  thinned, revealing a clear, sparkling lake. The soft sound of a stream somewhere tickled his ears, and the air was heavy with a different, fishier cat smell.

He dropped down from his perch, sniffing at the scent line. The two groups’ scents were overwhelming, enough to make his lip curl a little bit. It was obviously a border, one he certainly wasn’t supposed to be inside of.

Some part of Elm almost hoped some of the cats who owned this land would come and order him off. If there were only a few of them, maybe he’d test his luck.

But being an idiot wouldn’t bring Hunter back, no matter how satisfying the prospect sounded at the moment. Elm hadn’t spent two years clinging stubbornly to life while everyone around him starved just to throw it away in a spur of the moment burst of recklessness.

There were no cats in sight at the moment, so Elm headed down to the shoreline to see where it could take him. The territory was speckled with only a few trees, which made scanty covering at best. Besides, he wasn’t hiding from anyone.

He wasn’t sure what exactly it was that he was doing, but it kept his feet moving and his thoughts fixed on something other than Hunter.

Elm took a second or two to groom his fur free of the congealing blood, then dropped and rolled around in the thin grass. It wouldn do too much to disguise his smell, but he hoped it would reduce the scent trail he was leaving behind.

Then, as he straightened, something curious caught his eye. An island nestled just off shore, connected to the rest of the territory by a rather conveniently placed fallen tree. And, most interestingly of all, there was a collection of shapes moving there.

He hesitated, tilting his head slowly from one side to the other as he turned the thought over and over in his mind.

Elm wasn’t sure what exactly it was that made him want to cross that tree bridge onto the island. Undoubtedly, grief wasn’t exactly sharpening his thought processes, but still, why? If he just wanted a fight, there were easier challenges to be had.

Regardless, his paws found the slippery bark of the downed tree, his steady steps carrying him quickly away from the sandy shore and towards the island and its mysteries.

Elm settled down onto the broad tree branch, a slight smile on his face. Today had been a day he wouldn’t mind forgetting, but there was a certain satisfaction that came with eavesdropping. He’d climbed back into the trees, as quietly as his paws would allow him, made sure he was down wind from the strange cats, and now sat, the shadows clinging to his dappled pelt.

There were thirteen of them, all gathered beneath one of the stocky trees. It seemed to Elm that there were four groups of three and one of four, given the way the different clusters sat a little bit away from each other, like they were something adjacent to strangers. The silence they were sitting in was so awkward that Elm was nearly tempted to jump down just to break it.

“Anyone up for hiding in the bushes and jumping out at Applestar when she finally shows up?” a ginger she-cat asked, with a cheeky grin that no one returned. She glanced around her, scowling at the withering looks she was receiving. “Right, I forgot. I’m the only one of us who has a sense of humor.”

“Flarestar, with all due respect, I do not think that this is the best time for humor,” a dusty brown and white tom replied, his voice laden with forced patience. “Given the current situation, I do not think that Applestar would be amused.”

“Dewstar thinks, don’t you Dewy?” the she-cat, Flarestar, replied, turning her gaze to a little white tom, who shifted uncomfortably away from her.

Elm pricked his ears curiously at this. Did their names all end in ‘star’?

The silence returned, arguably more awkward than before. Elm watched the cats with narrowed eyes, trying to puzzle out the dynamics. It seemed as though each group had a leader of some sort, but that could have just been an inherent default as opposed to an official ranking.

He couldn’t figure out one of the groups either, the one with Dewstar in it. The brown and white tom who had spoken, along with Flarestar and a dark tortishell, were obviously in charge of their sections. The cats around them glanced uncertainly towards them as the quiet drew on, and leaned a bit towards them as if they were planets caught in the orbit.

But in the last group, there was no orderly chain of command. There was a reddish cat who was looking at the tortishell she-cat beside them, but the torti was looking at Dewstar, who was fidgeting nervously and looking at no one.

“Think she’s coming?” Dewstar asked, glancing at the brown and white tom.

“Thunderclan’s on the opposite side of the lake, give her time,” the tom replied, dipping his head gently to the white cat. “I trust she’s on her way.”

“Thank you, Ploverstar,” a new voice called, drawing Elm’s attention towards the tree bridge. A pale tabby she cat trotted over towards the others, flanked by two others. They took their seats among the others, their flanks heaving from running. “Sharpstone and Orchidpaw only just got back with your message.”

“No worries,” Ploverstar said, “You’re here now.” He glanced about, then added, “Shall we begin?”

“By all means, go ahead, Ploverstar,” the dark tortishell leader said, with a voice that sounded unnecessarily irritable, “You’re the one that called the meeting.”

“I’m sure you’re all aware by now why we’re here,” Ploverstar began, his voice grim. “Has everyone discovered who their clan’s casualty is by now?”

“Timberlight of Thunderclan,” Applestar said, her voice stiff with anger.

“Ebonyfall of Shadowclan, who thought it was a good idea to go for a midnight walk,” Flarestar muttered, sounding both sardonic and regretful.

“Greyspring of Skyclan,” Dewstar added.

“And what of Riverclan, Hawthornstar?” Ploverstar asked, tilting his head quizzically.

Elm leaned forward ever so slightly, making sure that his pelt remained cloaked in shadows. This entire conversation had taken a turn he certainly hadn’t been expecting, and his mind was still working on rearranging the pieces into the full picture, but he had the feeling that the final image would be familiar.

The four Riverclan cats were silent for a long moment, each wearing a slightly different version of the same furious, sad expression. Hawthornstar looked like they were fighting with the words, so one of the others, a black cat, answered for them. “The filthy little foxdungs took Dillkit,” they spat, their ears flattening against their head.

“They killed a kit?” Dewstar asked after a beat of silence, his voice fearfully quiet. The white tom closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly.

“Took, not killed,” corrected the tiny ginger tom who was sitting a bit away from the black cat. “There was no body.”

“We probably just haven’t found the corpse yet,” the black cat muttered, earning a glare from Hawthornstar.

“Do not assume the worst, Stormflight. We can not give up on Dillkit until we know for certain that she is beyond our help. She is a kit!” the leader growled, their voice low and dangerous.They rose to their feet, their pelt bristling with agitated anger. “Perhaps if you’re the next one to disappear, I shouldn’t bother to look for you either.”

“Relax, it’s not as if I want her to be dead!” the black cat replied sharply, flinching slightly at their leader’s sudden, venomous snarl. For a moment, Elm wondered if he was going to get to witness the clan’s fighting skills first hand.

“Hawthornstar, Stormflight, enough,” Ploverstar said, stepping carefully  in between the two Riverclan cats. “We’re here to discuss what we know and how to proceed, not tear each other’s throats out.

“This was obviously a show of strength on their part,” Ploverstar continued. He seemed older, at least to Elm, but it was clear that the other leaders respected him. He was the calmest as well, neither angry nor afraid from an external view. “Six attacks in one night takes organization, but we have to keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily mean they have numbers as well. We could be up against an army, or just a handful of cats. They’re smart, that’s for certain, and clever enough to sneak into our camps and snatch a kit. We need to figure out what we’re up against, and what we’re going to do about it.”

“Have any of you considered their offer?” Dewstar asked, sounding uncertain like he was an extra wheel on a monster or a kit trying to take part in an adult discussion. “If we move, there will be peace.”

At that, everyone turned to regard him in shock, several cat’s springin to their feet.

“You’re kidding, right?” the black cat called Stormflight demanded, as Flarestar let out a disgusted snort.

“I hope so, because the very suggestion is laughable,” she scoffed, peering down her nose at the smaller tom. “We’re warriors, fighting is kind of our thing. It won’t be the first group to try and scare us away, and it won’t be the one to succeed either.”

Dewstar shrugged, looking embarrassed. Ploverstar cleared his throat, drawing the attention away from the little white cat. “We should consider all of our options,” he said gently, his voice like a cool drizzle on a burning ember.

“Either way, we have six months to think and to investigate.” He turned in a full circle, fixing each cat in his gaze. “Your clans are your own to govern, but in Windclan at least we will be doubling our security. I’ve established a buddy system to keep cats from being caught alone, and have upped the guards around camp. I’ll also alert you to any new developments, and I’d appreciate if you’d do the same.”

“And keep an eye out for dark grey tabbies with claw wounds,” Stormflight added, with significantly less grace, “Because I’ve got a conversation I’d like to finish with them.”

Elm’s eyes widened with recognition. Simultaneously, as if it had been waiting for this moment, the breeze suddenly kicked into a thundery gust, completely changing its direction before Elm had the chance to even consider moving.

It took a few seconds for his scent to be carried down wind to the clan cats, and a couple more for the cats to notice. Elm swore softly under his breath as 16 heads jerked up almost simultaneously, and 16 pairs of eyes swiveled in his direction.

“We have company,” Flarestar growled, her already fluffy ginger fur poofing up like a fiery cloud around her.

“Come out, you coward!” Hawthornstar hollered in his direction, taking a few threatening steps forward.

Elm scowled, peering carefully at the alarmed faces below him, trying to judge how likely they were to shred him to pieces the moment he revealed himself. There was no way he could make it across the bridge before they caught him, and even if he did get that far, he was right in the middle of their territory.

With a sigh, he rose to his feet, and padded forward on the branch until he was out of the shadows. He smiled amiably as all 32 eyes were quickly snared, forcing his fur to remain flat and unthreatening.

“Greetings,” Elm said cheerfully, balancing delicately on his perch.

“Who are you?” Ploverstar asked, suspiciously but not in a manner that implied that he’d like to eat Elm’s bones for lunch.

“My name is Elm,” he replied, “And I think we may share a common enemy.”


Chapter 11[]

Elm was well aware of the way the other cats’ eyes clung to his pelt as he made his rounds about the alleyways, and while it was irking to be gawked at like some sort of reptile with a set or two of extra legs, he couldn’t exactly blame them.

He was probably quite the sight. At six moons old, his legs had suddenly shot up into long, spindly trunks, and his ears had expanded into large, floppy fans of veins and skin that kept getting sunburned. Between his awkward adolescent form and his loud, flashy calico pelt and dual toned eyes, that in and of itself was enough to earn a few amused second glances.

But today he wasn’t just an oddly colored kit with mismatched proportions. He was an oddly colored kit with mismatched proportions and a large cardboard box on his back.

The droopy corners swallowed up his shoulders and hung off his ears, making him look all too much like a long legged, lopsided turtle. Its sides were scored with lines of varying lengths.

Elm came to a stop beside an overturned laundry basket that was serving as a den, and poked his head inside, box and all. The scruffy tabby she-cat inside awoke with a start, doing a quick double take at the sight of the feline box turtle that was invading her home before speaking. “Can I help you?” she asked warily.

Elm sighed, wiggling until the box tipped off of him and onto the ground. Looking like an utter idiot was a necessity today, unfortunately. He needed the box. “Hello, m’am,” he said, with the air of a practiced businessman, “Sorry to bother you, but might I ask you a few questions? I’m taking a survey.”

The tabby narrowed her eyes, looking bewildered. Cats didn’t do surveys, especially not in the allies. There was an unspoken rule that everyone was to keep their noses out of other people’s business, or lose them in the effort. “I guess,” she said halfheartedly.

“Thank you so very much,” Elm chirped, turning to his box. He ran a paw along its side, looking for the long scratch mark that signified the street he was on. “How many cats live in your home, miss?”

“Uh,” the tabby said, “Well, there’s me and my mate, and our four kits.”

Elm nodded, as if she’d said something very wise. “How old are your kits?”

“A little younger than you, maybe four moons?”

Elm made two horizontal lines, then four little ones next to them, his claws flashing in precise little movements. “How much food would you say that you and your mate bring home on average per day?” he asked, keeping his voice casual and friendly.

Despite his serene manner, the cat instantly bristled. That was exactly the kind of question that got one’s nose removed. She studied him for a moment, obviously trying to figure out what sort of con he was running. “I don’t know,” she grunted, “Plenty to go around. Pax catches a bird every week or so, and the kits are good at finding scraps.”

Elm nodded, his eyes sneaking over to the she-cat’s sides. He could see the faint outline of her ribs through her fur, but her pelt didn’t hang off her like it did some cats. This family was doing better than the average alley cat. He reached out to his box, and made two vertical dashes through the horizontal ones. Three dashes meant the cats were well fed, two was surviving comfortably, one was surviving, and zero was starving.

“Thank you for your time!” Elm said, dipping his head to the cat. Under the weight of her curious eyes, the kit ducked down and wriggled beneath the box, then rose carefully to his feet.

The ninnies could all judge him as much as they liked, but soon enough they’d be thanking him instead of laughing. Based on his calculations thus far, there were actually enough resources to go around, but the food was often stored poorly and wasn’t distributed evenly.

He was going to change that.

He’d fix up the filthy alleyways, fatten up the starving kits, and hopefully scrape out a bit of respect for himself.

If he could get anyone else on board, that is.

….

“My name is Elm, and I think we may share a common enemy.”

Elm watched the confusion mix with the wariness of the clan cats. Carefully, he lowered himself down onto the branch, draping his paws in front of him. The branch wobbled ominously under his weight, worse than before now that he was farther from the trunk, but he wasn’t planning  on going anywhere near the clan cats until he was more certain about his safety.

Ploverstar glanced around at his colleagues, then shook his fur flat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elm,” he said cordially, tilting his head upwards to meet Elm’s mismatched eyes with his own faded amber ones.

“And the same to you, Ploverstar,” Elm replied, noting with internal amusement the little twitch of the leader’s shoulders as Ploverstar attempted to mask his unsettled expression. Ploverstar hadn’t gotten the chance to introduce himself, but Elm had been following their conversation like a hawk circling its prey.

“You’ve been eavesdropping on us!” Hawthornstar growled, ignoring the look Ploverstar shot them. “You claim we share a common enemy, but it seems more likely to me that you’re spying on us for those very same cats.”

“He forgot his mint perfume,” Flarestar muttered, watching Elm with unwavering distrust. Applestar tilted her head, looking curious, while Dewstar was looking rather nervous, which was a little ridiculous given that the clan cats outnumber Elm one to sixteen.

Elm’s gaze drifted across the gathered cats, trying to gauge their reactions. The general consensus seemed to be that he wasn’t trustworthy but not worth shredding. Slowly, to make sure that no one mistook it for an attack, Elm shifted his weight on the traitorous branch and carefully slipped himself off. He landed lightly on his feet, and turned to face Hawthronstar.

“Admittedly, I’m probably not making the best first impression,” Elm said apologetically, dipping his head to them, “But I’m not working with the cats who have been terrorizing you, I promise.”

That was not quite the right thing to say, he realized as Hawthornstar frowned. They didn’t need to be reminded that he’d been party to a conversation he hadn’t been invited to.

“You know those cats though?” Ploverstar prompted.

“Not well,” Elm said, allowing himself a little scowl, “I only learned of their existence this morning. But, I do have some information for you that might be helpful.

“They’re staying in the western corner of the twolegplace,” he began, nodding in the direction of his former home, “If this is the lake-” he paused, stooping over to claw a quick circle in the dusty, paw worn ground, “And this is the twoleg place, then this is where I saw them. They’re claiming this whole area as their own. If I had to guess, I’d say that they’re staying in the abandoned buildings over here,” he added, sketching out a couple of squares.

“How many of them are there?” Dewstar asked worriedly, leaning closer to peer at Elm’s sloppy map.

“I saw maybe twenty, but that’s just who I was unlucky enough to encounter,” Elm explained, scowling at the memory of the cats streaking past him towards his home. “One of them was a dark grey tabby with fresh wounds,” he added, glancing at Stormflight. “Your handiwork, I take it?”

Stormflight nodded, their icey eyes raking Elm’s pelt skeptically. “Why are you telling us any of this?” they challenged. “Our affairs are of no consequence to you, why bother? What’s in it for you?”  

Elm smiled thinly at the black cat. “Satisfaction,” he growled, digging a few little rows in the dirt with his claws as he thought of the grey tabby’s vague apologeticness. “They drove me out, that’s why I was wandering around in your territory in the first place.”

And, he thought, they had killed his father, but the clans didn’t need to know the entire story. Thinking about it was like walking across broken glass. He imagined trying to talk about it would be like swallowing the shards.

“So you want us to take your territory back?” Applestar clarified.

Elm shook his head, straightening. “No,” he said indifferently, with a shrug. “I’m never going back there. If they want the twoleg place, they can have it. That place is a mess.”

“Then why were you living there at all?” the little ginger beside Stormflight asked, but Elm opted to pretend he hadn’t heard.

“What I want,” Elm continued, fixing each leader in his blue and green gaze in turn. This was no act now. “Is to see them lose. To see them broken. They hurt your cats, they hurt me. If you’re going to war, I’m coming with you.”

The dark grey tabby cat had claimed that their quarrel wasn’t with Elm. But Elm’s quarrel was certainly with them.

They’d crossed the unspoken line. Elm didn’t care what cats said or did to him, but mess with Hunter and you’d regret it.

“All this over a bruised pride?” Ploverstar commented, holding his gaze longer than any of the others. He didn’t seem wary any longer, just a tired sort of curious. Sympathetic, almost.

Elm did a quick touchup on his facade, screwing his face up into a haughty scowl. “I don’t appreciate being humiliated,” he said lightly, ducking away from Ploverstar’s far to knowing gaze. He wondered who in the leader’s life had forced him to learn the language of lies, if only to decode it.

“Anything else you can tell us?” Applestar asked, studying the little map curiously.

Elm hesitated, wracking his mind. “They’re smart,” he admitted grudgingly. “They were watching me without me knowing, and I’m not an easy cat to keep eyes on. And I’m pretty sure that they moved to the twoleg place from somewhere else specifically for the purpose of getting closer to you. I can also sketch out the layout of some of the buildings they might be staying at and instruct you on an attack if you choose to go that route.” He’d been in most of the abandoned dens at one point or another, but he suspected the wild cats would struggle with fighting within walls.

“I don’t think taking the fight to their turf is a good idea,” Dewstar said, flicking an ear uncertainly sideways.

“We’ve got six moons to figure it out,” Ploverstar reassured him. His soft amber gaze, which was beginning to make Elm’s fur crawl, was gentle and searching. “What are you going to do now, Elm? I’m sure any of us would be glad to snag you a spot in the warriors’ den if you're interested.”

“Speak for yourself,” Hawthronstar grumbled, but all of the other leaders nodded their agreement.

It was obvious which clan Ploverstar wanted him to join, but Elm wasn’t interested in acquiring a replacement father figure to share his darkest secrets with. He liked those memories the way they were, dark and secret.

What he needed was a new direction. These clans would do just fine. Ploverstar seemed like he had Windclan under control. There, he could be just another cat. Once he’d shared  what information he could with them, he’d become irrelevant.

“What’s the difference between all the clans?” Elm asked.

“Windclan lives on the moor,” Ploverstar replied quickly, with an encouraging smile. “It’s wide and open, very beautiful. Sometimes it seems like we could touch the sky if we could jump just a little higher. We’re runners,” he paused, casting an appraising look over Elm. “You’ve got a build like one, you know. With a little teaching, you’d be catching rabbits in no time.”

“Sorry,” Elm said, almost legitimately regretful, “I’m not a huge fan of unsheltered spaces. Nowhere to hide, y’know?” Even if Windclan hadn’t been so well off or if Ploverstar hadn’t been too smart for his own good, Elm would have declined.

“Ah well,” Ploverstar said with a shrug, blinking at him, “It’s not for everyone.”

“Thunderclan has trees,” Applestar volunteered. She paused, looking deep in thought. “And we uh….fight good?”

“Boring,” Flarestar stage whispered, rolling her eyes. “Thunderclan’s pretty lame.” She glanced at Elm, and added, “Come to Shadowclan. We also have trees. We like to hide in the shadows and yell ‘Boo!’ when people walk by.”

Elm pricked his ears. It was interesting to know he wasn’t the only cat who liked to lurk around in the darkness, but Flarestar seemed pretty indifferent about the whole matter. She didn't need him either.

“What about you two?” Elm asked, tilting his head quizzically at Dewstar and Hawthornstar. Hawthornstar glowered at him, their eyes still sharp with distrust.

“They’re the fish cats,” Flarestar said sagely, flicking her tail at Hawthornstar, Stormflight, and the ginger tom.

“I see,” Elm replied, turning to Dewstar. Hawthornstar’s attitude made that one a definite no.

“Skyclan’s got trees too,” Dewstar said with an awkward smile. “We spend more time in them than Thunderclan, though. They’re like a second ground to us. And,” he added, “We hunt a lot of birds.”

Elm studied the leader, a tiny smile playing on his face. Dewstar was, upon closer inspection, a nice looking little cat. He had fur like fresh snow and eyes like a soft mist, beautiful in a way a smooth shell or a cluster of lilies was before they were swallowed up by the tide or the frost. Delicate. Fragile. Vulnerable.

That, Elm could work with.

“I like climbing trees,” he said cheerfully, grinning at Dewstar. “And I’ve nabbed quite a few birds before.”

“Well, I guess that settles it,” Dewstar replied, returning his smile hesitantly.

Ploverstar nodded, but Elm could feel his gaze on his fur, digging through the layers of pretend like they were a rabbit’s burrow for him to explore. Elm wasn’t sure if the older tom would like what he discovered under there, but it wasn’t on the top of his worry list at the moment.

The dark grey tabby had their army.

Now Elm had his.

Chapter 12[]

As a kit, Orchidpaw had always wondered if she was ever strong enough to climb to the very top of the giant pines that decorated the highest hill in Skyclan territory, would she be able to touch the clouds? The bristly branches and infinite peaks seemed to stretch up eternally, as if they were holding up the sky single handedly.

Now, they were strangers.

“I’ve missed this so much,” Raypaw murmured, lifting her golden muzzle up towards the pristine sky. She trotted around in a little circle, giggling as she toppled over into the soft grass. Leaf-fall’s brisk chill didn’t match her sunny pelt and mood, as if returning to Skyclan had chased away the cold for her.

If Raypaw matched Newleaf, Duckpaw looked like he belonged back in Leaf-bare. Orchidpaw brushed her tail gently across her brother’s spine, blinking at him. “You’ll be back in Thunderclan in another three moons,” she reminded him.

She’d loved this place once, Orchidpaw reminded herself, following Raypaw up over the rise and away from the camp. She’d been heartbroken to leave it.

But that was before she’d been to Thunderclan. At first, she’d stubbornly refused to leave the nursery, demanding to return to her true home and to her preferred parent. She’d been thrilled by the way those words made Bellstorm look like someone was clawing out their throat.

Then, like every Leaf-bare, she’d thawed. Orchidpaw had given Thunderclan a chance, and just about when she’d grown to love Bellstorm she’d been ripped away and sent back to Skyclan. Then, back to Thunderclan, in the middle of her apprenticeship.

And now, she was in Skyclan once again. She wasn’t relieved or disappointed, just tired.

“Where’re your mentors?” a voice called, making both Duckpaw and Raypaw jump. Orchidpaw frowned slightly, reluctantly craning her neck to peer up at the lithe shape watching from the boughs of the branches. “Shouldn’t they be showing you around the territory? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on your first day?”

The tree actually held three cats including the chestnut brown she-cat who was speaking. To her right smirked a dark tabby tom, and a few branches above perched a silvery grey cat who looked like they were tuning out the conversation.

“Hello, Hedgepaw,” Orchidpaw replied, with chilly indifference.

The chestnut she-cat let out a sharp laugh, shaking her head. “Hedgeflight now. Kalenose, Pondstone, and I finished out training two moons ago. How’s yours coming, by the way?”

“Fine, thanks,” Orchidpaw said, applying a thin smile.

“Must be hard,” Kalenose murmured in a loud whisper, “When she pounces, do think half of her springs out of a tree and the other half attacks the proper way? Sounds like a good way to hurt yourself.”

“Hi, Pondstone,” Raypaw said, with a tentative wave at the silvery cat’s direction. The cat’s blue eyes flickered to them, their smile reluctant.

“Hi,” they muttered back. Hedgeflight scowled, and reached a paw up to shake the branch her littermate was sitting on. Pondstone fell quite, their expression apologetic.

“Our training is going great,” Duckpaw announced defiantly, his pelt bristling with indignation. “We’re getting twice the knowledge you are, you’re just petty and jealous. We can hunt like Skyclan cats or Thunderclan cats just fine.”

Inwardly, Orchidpaw sighed. It really wasn’t that hard to deal with Kalenose and Hedgeflight. The best defence was to be obnoxiously polite until they got bored and left, but no matter how many times she tried to explain that to Duckpaw, it didn’t work. To her, their insults were just meaningless chatter. To him, the words cut like claws, and he always made the mistake of letting their tormentors see him bleed.

“I have an idea!” Kalenose chirped, his expression brightening comically. “Let’s see if you’re really getting the two for one deal, or if you’re two halves that don’t fit.”

“Ooh, yes,” Hedgeflight agreed, grinning at him like he was the smartest cat in the world. Orchidpaw wondered if they were officially mates yet. She couldn’t wait until they had a brood of little devils just like them.

“What do you say, Ducky?” Kalenose asked, leaning forwards on the branch he was perched on. “Up for a little climbing?”

“Of course,” Duckpaw growled, even as Orchidpaw shot him a stern look.

“Lovely,” Kalenose purred, springing lightly from the pine. Orchidpaw watched him land delicately on his paws, fighting a scowl. Duckpaw was about to get his rear kicked. “I’ll race you to the top of that pine, okay?”

Orchidpaw followed the dark tabby’s gesture, her heart sinking. The tree in mention was tall and thin, and equally brittle looking, like a big spindly twig.

“Duckpaw, maybe you shouldn’t,” Raypaw murmured, but Duckpaw ignored her, thrusting his chin up in the air in a ridiculous attempt to look confident.

“Deal,” he growled, squaring his shoulders. He was built like a Thunderclan cat, solid and strong and absolutely unfit for springing from branch to branch. It had been a long time since she’d seen him in a tree.

With a sigh, Orchidpaw trailed after the cruel couple and her idiotic brother, slowing enough so that she was walking beside Pondstone. “Still getting dragged around by those two?” she muttered to them, not bothering to keep the judgement from her voice.

Pondstone nodded, their blue gaze snaking away from hers. “It’s my hope that someday I’ll be able to talk sense into them,” they murmured ruefully.

“Yeah? How’s that going for you?” Orchidpaw challenged, but they had already reached the tree and Pondstone’s mouth snapped shut like a clam. Idiot, she thought irritably, the insult not exclusively for Pondstone.

Duckpaw was gazing balefully up at the corpse-like tree, looking as if he was on his way to his martyrdom. Orchidpaw followed his line of sight, eyeing the dull needles and tight nobs of the tree. It looked half dead, like how Kalenose and Duckpaw would be if either of them stepped on the wrong branch.

“All the way to the top,” Hedgeflight was instructing, her eyes glittering with amusement.

“This is a bad idea,” Pondstone said, so quietly that only Orchidpaw caught it. As if she needed reminding.

“Go!” Hedgeflight yowled, and with a flurry of dead leaves both toms sprang up and off of the ground.

Pine needles fell off the branches in a rustling rain as Kalenose instantly took the lead, his long legs carrying him from branch to branch with ease. Below him, Duckpaw fumbled about like a squirrel on catnip, hauling himself up one step at a time.

At least he was taking his time. Orchidpaw already knew he was going to lose, the only question was how badly. Would he just reach the top later, or would he come tumbling back down before he even got close?

Raypaw let out a horrified squawk as the latter proved itself true. There was crack, and a branch rattled down through the boughs, a frantic scramble of paws, then a terrible moment of silence that ended with an equally terrible thud.

“Duckpaw!” Raypaw yelped, her eyes going wide with horror. Orchidpaw ignore the identical expressions of panic on Raypaw and Pondstone’s faces, along with the sharp sneer of Hedgeflight, and made her way quickly to her brother’s side.

He let out a groan of pain as she nudged him, which was fantastic given that it proved he was alive enough to know he was hurt. “Raypaw, go get Sablewind,” she said calmly, stepping slowly away from Duckpaw.

Orchidpaw waited until her sister’s golden pelt had been swallowed by the crowded rows of trees, before turning to the others. Pondstone looked sick to their stomach, but the other two……

“So this is still funny?” Orchidpaw asked, her voice chillier than a leaf-bare wind.

“Uh oh, she’s mad,” Kalenose snickered, exchanging a look with Hedgelfight that made her want to claw the smug look off of his face.

So she did.

Without a sound, Orchidpaw stepped forward, her claws flashing out like a viper’s strike. She smirked at the spray of blood that splattered Kalenose’s face, the red staining her white paws pink.

For a long moment, her three companions were too shocked to say anything. Kalenose reached a paw up to poke at the deep gash on his cheek, looking utterly dumbfounded.

“Are you out of your mind?” Hedgeflight snarled, shoving her way in front of her maybe mate.

“No,” Orchidpaw said, sitting down to lap the blood off of her fur. “Although we should have had this talk a long time ago.” She glanced at Duckpaw, checking to make sure that he was preoccupied with feeling sorry for himself before she continued. “Hedgeflight, Kalenose, you are, if I’m being honest, the least mature cats in this clan. Did you know that no one respects you? Yes, you do,” she answered as Hedgeflight opened her mouth to speak. “Hence your insecurity. This makes you feel tough, like you’re in charge even when no one else cares. I get that. I don’t mind letting you have your dumb fun, Raypaw and Duckpaw could use some toughening up anyways. But,” Orchidpaw said, her eyes narrowing, “You escalated it today.

She dropped her voice, leaning closer. Pondstone didn’t need to hear this. “You hurt my brother,” she said icily, “And I can’t have that. If you put either of them in danger again, you won’t live to do it a third time.”

Their eyes widened in synch, nervous and uncertain. Neither of them had paid attention to her before, not when Raypaw and Duckpaw were so easy to upset. She was the quiet one who was no fun.

In reality, she was the quiet one that was always watching.

“Whatever,” Hedgeflight muttered, turning away. “Let’s get going, Kalenose.”

Orchidpaw could tell by the shiver that ran along the she-cat’s spine that her point had been made.

….


“Hi.”

“Hi yourself.”

Orchidpaw rested her chin on her paws, a light smile brightening her face as she watched her parents greet each other. Bellstorm’s creamy gold pelt was meticulously groomed, their blue eyes sparkling as they leaned in to quickly brother their nose against Marblecloud’s. Marblecloud twitched a little, xyr eyes flickering icily to the gawking Thunderclan cats.

It amused her greatly to see the two of them playing at casualness, which just ended up making their conversations seem overwhelmingly stiff and forced, all while staring into each other’s eyes like lovesick ‘paws.

The one time she’d asked, they’d both claimed they’d moved on. Bellstorm was too busy being a deputy, and Marblecloud wouldn’t leave xyr home for them, so their romance had fallen apart once they’d been discovered. It was in the past.

Except Orchidpaw could tell that no silly little things like clans and the warrior code were ever going to make them fall out of love with each other. And this wasn’t her scrutinizing their every move to piece together the bits. Everyone knew it, but no one said it.

Marblecloud blinked up at Bellstorm, then turned Applestar. “Can we get started? I need to get back to Skyclan and I’d like to get this over with.” Any warmth vanished as soon as xe wasn’t looking at xyr former mate. The look xe gave Applestar was one of pure disgust.

“Of course,” Applestar replied, dipping her head civilly. She turned and sprang up onto the highrock, and called the clan around. Orchidpaw rose slowly to her feet, her muscles aching from walking halfway around the lake and back again.

“C’mon,” she murmured, nudging the limp golden form beside her with a paw. When Raypaw didn’t reply, she leaned closer to murmur in her ear. “Timberlight will be watching you from Starclan.”

She didn’t believe a single word she had said, but they’d evidentially been what Raypaw had needed to hear. Orchidpaw was honestly surprised how hard Raypaw was taking the death of her mentor, given that they’d spent so much time switching clans that Orchidpaw had never gotten too close to either of hers.

“Thanks,” Raypaw mumbled, following her over to where Duckpaw was waiting. They sat down, in a neat orderly row in front of Applestar. With Bellstorm and Marblecloud watching from the audience, it almost felt like they were a traditional clan family for once.

“The three of you have had a very long, strange apprenticeship,” the tabby leader began.

On either side of her, Orchidpaw’s siblings tensed. This was it. Their long, strange apprenticeship was coming to an end, and along with it any semblance of unity their family had been able to maintain.

“However, you’ve now passed not one, but two warrior assessments with flying colors. No one can dispute your readiness, ” Applestar continued, “And both myself and Dewstar will welcome you as permanent members of our clans. He has given me the privilege of naming you. Raypaw, Duckpaw, Orchidpaw, do you promise to serve the warrior code and defend your chosen clan with your life?”

“Yes,” came three identical answers.

“Then by the powers of Starclan, I name you Raystem, Duckfeather, and Orchidfur.”

Orchidfur pricked her ears as her clanmates cheered her name, waiting for the next words to come.

“The time has come for you to decide where your allegiances lie,” Applestar said, as the cheering quieted. “Thunderclan or Skyclan. You do not have to make the same choice, but let me make this clear: this is final. There will be no visits, no lasting alliances. Your loyalty must be to your clan first. You’ll see each other at gatherings, but nothing more.” She peered down at them, looking almost sympathetic. “What is the answer?”

“I belong in Thunderclan,” Duckfeather announced, blinking apologetically at Marblecloud. Xe closed xyr eyes, but nodded. Bellstorm’s smile was bittersweet as their son walked over to their side.

Raystem tracked Duckfeather’s progress across the camp, her jaw clenched with anguish. “And I’ve always been a Skyclan cat,” she murmured, dipping her head respectfully to Applestar.

Orchidfur frowned, her shoulders stiffening with panic as the attention turned to her. This was not how she’d expected this to go. She’d known that Raystem favored Skyclan, but she’d expected her to follow Duckfeather. She’d been counting on it, actually.

Orchidfur sucked in a sharp breath, glancing between the two halves of her kin. Bellstorm and Duckfeather on one side, Marblecloud and Raystem on the other.

How could any cat in their right mind expect this of her? Her siblings were annoying but at the same time they perfected her. Even through the chaos and struggles of not belonging to any one clan, they’d always been together.

And she couldn’t go without Marblecloud’s fierce love or Bellstorm’s steady comfort.

But Applestar was expecting an answer, she reminded herself, closing her eyes so that she didn’t have to see her family’s sombre faces. She needed to think.

Raystem or Duckfeather? Marblecloud or Bellstorm?

“I choose Skyclan,” she spat out before she could second guess it, fighting back the immediate bolt of dread that followed. She’d said it. There was no taking it back.

Applestar nodded. “Then it’s decided. Marblecloud, Raystem, Orchidfur, say your goodbyes and then you must be on your way.”

Numbly, Orchidfur forced her paws to carry her over to where her siblings and parents were. This would be the last time they were together like this outside of a gathering, she couldn’t waste it on grief.

“I’m very proud of all of you,” Bellstorm was saying, curling their tail around Marblecloud’s. “You’ll make fine warriors, and no matter what clan you’re in, you’ll always be my kits.”

Marblecloud nodded stiffly in reluctant agreement. “I’ll miss you,” xe murmured, looking at Duckfeather and Bellstorm. “I knew this day would come, but I guess I always hoped that Dewstar would magically acquire a spine and do something about this disaster instead of apologizing his pathetic rump off.”

“I’ll see you at the next gathering,” Duckfeather promised, forcing a cheerful smile. “It’ll be okay.” He turned to Orchidfur, leaning closer so that only she could hear what he said next. “Keep Raystem safe, please?”

“Of course,” she murmured back, blinking at him. She wished she could drag him with her. No matter what his ego told him, he needed protecting just as much as Raystem did.

“What if we….” Raystem trailed off, her gaze dropping to her paws, “What if Thunderclan and Skyclan have a battle?”

Marblecloud snorted, shaking xyr head. “I don’t remember the last time Dewstar was brave enough to hold his ground on anything,” xe reassured, “I’ll eat my tail the day he gives a battle cry.”

Orchidfur concurred with xyr opinion of Dewstar, but not with xyr certainty that they’d never fight. Skyclan would never start anything, but that didn’t mean that Applestar would keep the peace.

And then Applestar was calling to them, her voice unwelcome and uninvited. Orchidfur flattened her ears against her head, feeling like she was sinking. They were out of time.

“Goodbye.”

She was leaving half of her heart behind.

What a way to spend her first day as a warrior.

Chapter 13[]

Stormflight winced as Pepperheart dabbed a bit of damp moss at the long, thin scratch across their brow, jerking away from him. “Watch it!” they growled, glaring at the tiny medicine cat. Thus far, the medicine cat’s poking and prodding was more uncomfortable than the actual fight had been.

“Sorry,” he replied distractedly, digging around in his herb stores, which resembled a rubbish heap more than a medical storage. Stormflight hadn’t known his mentor, Airsong, well at all, but they did know that she had processed the decency to clean her den once in a while. “You know,” Pepperheart murmured, pulling out a wad of cobwebs, “If you were more careful,” he leaned closer, pressing down hard enough to make Stormflight flinch, “You wouldn’t be in here at all.”

Stormflight rolled their eyes, forcing their paws to remain still as the young tom fumbled with the roll of cobwebs, his eyes narrowed with concentration. He leaned back after a moment, eyeing his work. “That’ll have to do. Who was it anyway? Are you picking fights with Shadowclan again?”

Stormflight nodded, with a rueful grin. “Wasn’t even my fault this time. They’re still looking for revenge over Sagebranch.” They glanced past Pepperheart’s shoulder to the row of nests along the back wall, only one of which was filled. They frowned, narrowing their eyes at the huddled ginger and white shape. “How’s Mossberry?”

This time, Pepperheart seemed to be out of lofty replies. He turned to follow their gaze, and shrugged. “Still hanging in there,” he murmured, “He’s strong, but so is the infection.”

“Right,” Stormflight replied, frowning down at the little tom. He busied himself with a bit of marigold, avoiding their eyes.

First they’d lost Scarletpelt, and now Mossberry was on the brink of joining her. Two good, loyal warriors lost over a border scuffle that they’d won. Stormflight’s memory could have been wrong, but they hadn’t thought that the cats’ wounds had been all that bad.

“Hey, Stormy, are you still in here?” Stormflight looked up at the sound of their sister’s voice, just in time to see Azollafrost’s silver tabby and white shape slip in through the door. “Hi Pep, hi Moss!” she added, smiling cheerfully at Pepperheart, who dipped his head in greeting.

She glanced up at Stormflight’s scrape, frowning. “You need to stop letting those furballs coax you into fights, love. One of these days you’re bound to lose.”

Stormflight shrugged, blinking at her. “I doubt it,” they replied cheekily, poking a paw against Azollafrost’s snowy chest. “You know I’m the best warrior Riverclan has.”

Azollafrost tipped her head. “Really, love? I seem to recall winning quite handily last time we scuffled. Plus, I’m not nearly as fleabrained.” She turned to Pepperheart, her gaze mischievous. “What do you think, Pep? Who’d win, me or Stormy?”

Pepperheart shook his head. “I don’t know, but this fight you’re referring to better not happen in here. Mossberry needs his rest.”

“Don’t worry, it’s purely theoretical,” Azollafrost replied with a wink, flicking Stormflight with her tail. “I would never consider humiliating Stormflight that way.” Stormflight shot her a good natured scowl, shaking their head. Azollafrost was faster, but they were stronger. Honestly, the two of them were probably about equal, but they would never admit that.

“Anyway, if you’re all done with them, can I snag Stormflight? I’m taking them out hunting,” Azollafrost asked, which she voiced like a question despite the wording. Stormflight brightened, nodding their agreement.

“Yes, they’re good to go,” Pepperheart replied. Stormflight followed Azollafrost out of the den, grateful for an excuse to escape the mess of plants, death, and annoying medicine cats.

“Stormflight, can I talk to you? About something important?”

Stormflight glanced over at Azollafrost, their expression darkening with worry at the nervousness on her face. Night had fallen, and they’d already caught enough prey to feed the clan single handedly. Azollafrost hadn’t let them go back to camp the last few times they’d suggested it, evidentially because she was working up the courage to bring up whatever it was she needed to say.

They let their small pack of mice drop from their mouth and onto the sand, and turned so that they were facing Azollafrost. The half moon’s light ,which floated off of the lake like a gentle wave, matched the soft shadows of their sister’s fur as she gazed listlessly at the waves.

“What is it?” Stormflight prompted, tilting their head. The wait was excruciating. Azollafrost just sat there looking distant, while Stormflight ran through the possibilities in their head. This seemed serious. Azollafrost wasn’t usually one to bite her tongue.

The silver she-cat cleared her throat, her green eyes flickering hesitant to Stormflight’s. “I’m leaving Riverclan.”

“What?” Stormflight gawked at her, sure they’d heard wrong. They replayed the words over and over again, trying to figure out what she’d actually said. Every time, they came back the same. “Why? Why would you want to do that?” they demanded, waiting for her to tell them this was some sort of prank.

Azollafrost’s only kin were in Riverclan. Her friends were in Riverclan. Her ambitions and dreams had always been in Riverclan.

Stormflight was in Riverclan.

“I-I fell in love with someone,” Azollafrost murmured, staring out at the waves again. “I never thought I’d love someone enough to consider leaving all this behind, but….” she trailed off, shrugging helplessly. “I want to be with her. And she won’t come to Riverclan, so….”

Stormflight just stared, something in their brain not quite functioning the way it ought to. The disbelief was suffocating and heavy, her words like raindrops rolling off a slick leaf.

“She’s a really great cat, really,” Azollafrost continued, fumbling over the words, watching Stormflight desperately. “You’d like her. Maybe you could come visit? Oh, Stormy, I don’t want to leave you behind,” Azollafrost added, her voice cracking, “That’s why I’m telling you first. I love Mintrain and Stingclaw, but Starclan help me, you’re my best friend. But she won’t leave her twolegs, and the forest scares her, and I just….”

At this, Stormflight’s previously vacant gaze sharpened, until it dug like claws into Azollafrost’s pelt. “Twolegs?” they murmured, something shifting in their mind, uneven plates snapping out of place as that one word made it through the mist of panic. “You’re abandoning me to become a kittypet?”

Azollafrost flinched, her green eyes darkening with heartbreak. “Please, Stormy, I love you, I promise. I’ll find a way to see you, even once I’m not a clan cat anymore.”

“You love me, but you’re leaving me.”

“Stormy, don’t say it like it’s black and white,” Azollafrost pleaded, shaking her head. “I thought you’d understand. Please, please, try to understand.”

The rage was so hot that it was painful to feel, like boiling water on Stormflight’s skin. A dark and dangerous thing was eclipsing their numbness, and they didn’t try to stop it. Some part of them remembered it, sent up a weak warning sign, but the sparks were drowned out in the roaring fire.

Once again, a betrayal.

They imagined her making the announcement, then walking out of camp. Reddish fur caught their attention and stuck there, like an ember refusing to fade.She said she loved them, but she was still leaving. She loved her filthy kittypets more than she loved her own littermate. The other cats would laugh and laugh and whisper behind Stormflight’s back, and they’d have no one to turn to because she’d be gone.

She was choosing weakness of strength. She was choosing cowardice over her own kin. She was a traitor and a worthless piece of scum. She was another putrid kittypet lover, and deserved to die like one.

“Stormy?” Azollafrost said, taking a hesitant step backwards as a soft growl rumbled in Stormflight’s throat. Her paws brushed the water, kicking up little splashes. She was too trusting to even think of running, and too shocked to put up a fight.

There was a flash of claws, a burst of russet, a panicked, pleading yowl. Her green eyes were wide with horror, as if she were the one who had been betrayed.

Stormflight shoved her head down and under the water, digging their claws into the back of her neck as the blood billowed from her throat in thick, dark waves, staining the shadowed sand a rusty pink. Her weak protests rippled the lake gently, shattering the pristine portrait of the half moon. It was quite, nearly peaceful, and Stormflight felt the monster relax.

Azollafrost stopped moving. Stormflight grabbed her scruff and dragged her back onto the sand, leaving a long, wet streak that sparkled black in the moonlight.

It was done. They’d rid the world of another worthless cat. They’d gotten revenge. This time, she wouldn’t have the chance to leave them behind.

Then, through the heavy fog of euphoria, Stormflight realized something else.

They’d just killed their sister.

….


“I don’t want poppy seeds, I want my kit back, Pepperheart!”

“I know, Hazemist. But could you just lap up a few of these for me?”

“What good will that do? So I can sleep while Dillkit could be out there, alone?”

“Easy. You still have two kits to look after, this is just going to help you calm down.”

“Calm down? Calm down?

“Just take the stupid poppy seeds already, you mousebrain!” Stormflight snarled, slamming their paws down hard on the marigold they were supposed to be sorting. They spun around, glaring at the white queen with irritation.

Hazemist looked startled. Pepperheart looked mutinous. The den was miraculously quiet, and Stormflight smiled thinly at their mentor, completely remorseless.

Pepperheart drew himself up to his full, highly unimpressive height, and squared his slim shoulders. The effect gave Stormflight the overall impression of a three moon old kit trying to pretend he was already an apprentice. “Hazemist, please take your poppy seeds,” he said gently to the furious cat, “Even if you think you don’t need them, just humor me, okay? Then you’re free to go, I need to have a conversation with my apprentice.”

Hazemist frowned, but dipped her head and swallowed down the poppy seeds. Her eyes darted sideways to Stormflight, more curious than offended. Stormflight turned their head, their pelt prickling. It wasn’t their outburst that embarrassed them, but having to endure this ridiculous charade under the eyes of the warriors they had once served beside. Hazefrost ducked out of the den, leaving Stormflight alone with the tiny little creature who claimed to be their mentor.

“You’re going to have to replace that horsetail,” Pepperheart said, gesturing to the pulp at their paws. “I’m tired of seeing you wasting supplies every time you lose your patience.”

Horsetail? Stormflight could have sworn it had been marigold. They sniffed at the mushy leaves, shaking their head. All they could remember about either is that they were both green.

“Just be glad I’m taking my feelings out on plants,” Stormflight commented, leaving the instead of you unsaid. A little twitch of Pepperheart’s face was their only reward, along with a disorientating burst of emotions as punishment.

Guilt, as they remembered the last time their feelings had gotten out of hand, followed by exasperation that they felt bad, then horror that it was even a debate at all. They closed their eyes, their head aching a little.

Pepperheart swiped the scraps of horsetail away from them, peeling the crushed ones away in search of salvageable bits. “Stormflight, what is it about this life that repulses you so much?” he asked, his yellow eyes fixed on the herbs, “You’ve suffered no consequences for your actions. I’m serious when I say you should be grateful.”

He never gave specifics. Stormflight wasn’t sure if it would have been better to be blatantly called a murderer than to be treated like an unspeakable abomination. “For starters, I suck at it.”

Pepperheart did not disagree.

“I have no interests in plants, healing, or Starclan. My skills are utterly wasted here.  And,” they added, scowling, “I never really imagined myself getting a mate or having kits, but it was nice to know I could if I wanted. This life is boring, unfulfilling, and restrictive. What is it about it that you actually like?

Pepperheart’s eyes flashed to them for a moment, cold and accusing. “I like being able to heal instead of hurting,” he replied.

Stormflight bristled, accidentally squishing another plant of uncertain type. “You wouldn’t make much of a warrior anyway,” they hissed, “You’re-”

“An orphaned runt who’s scared of his own shadow?” Pepperheart suggested, almost word for word for what they had been about to say. He sounded more annoyed than anything else, but Stormflight knew that fear was in there somewhere.

They growled, frustrated by the ease with which he flipped the conversation. He had better ammunition. They could taunt him about things out of his control like a petty apprentice, but nothing they said could measure up to the simple fact that they deserved every bit of hate Pepperheart held for them.

Stormflight let their eyes drift sideways to him as they fell into an unfriendly silence, noting with a mix of smugness and shame the tension practically sparking off his pelt now that they were alone, for the first time since their eventful moonpool visit last night.

Pepperheart is convinced that you’re going to kill him, Firestar had said. Pepperheart could act as uppity as he liked, but they both knew that he was terrified of Stormflight. The fact that they found it satisfying probably didn’t say anything good about their character.

Pepperheart glanced up, noticing their attention. He tilted his head slightly in a silent question, and Stormflight decided to address the elephant in the room and put the poor cat out of his misery.

“You want to know why you’re still alive?”

Pepperheart swallowed, visibly forcing himself to hold their gaze. “The question has crossed my mind, yes.”

“Firestar told me to keep you safe, or else,” they muttered, tail flicking uncomfortably. “So, you’re welcome for not letting you drown.”

Pepperheart’s eyes widened, his composure momentarily forgotten. “You talked to Firestar?” he said, his voice laden with unfiltered indignation and perhaps even a tinge of jealousy. Stormflight smikred, nodding. “Why would Firestar want to talk to you?” Pepperheart wondered out loud, “He so rarely shows himself, even to fully trained medicine cats.”

Stormflight hesitated, their mood sobering as they recalled their conversation with the aggravating ginger tom. “The gist of it is that I’m one of five cats who’s going to save the clans, presumably from our newly discovered enemies.”

They expected Pepperheart to be skeptical, or maybe even burst out laughing. Instead, the medicine cat nodded slowly. “Airsong said you were going to be important,” he murmured, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Who are the other four? Did Firestar tell you how to save the clans? Did you at least get a vague prophecy?”

“Just a little jingle he made up on the spot. The conversation got interrupted because I needed to fish you out of the moonpool.”  

Pepperheart was quiet for a moment. “Then we need to go back,” he said reluctantly.

Stormflight tilted their head. “You sure?” they asked dryly, a little amused by his hesitance.

“No, I’m sending us through a rogue infested forest to the exact place where I almost died last night just for the fun of it,” he snapped, his eyes flashing. He took a deep breath, taking a moment to rein himself back in before he continued. “We should get going if we’re going to make it by moonhigh.”


It took them far longer to get to the moonpool this time than it had the previous night. The patrol Hawthornstar sent with them for protection contained Stingclaw, one of Stormflight’s mothers, so they had to be discreet with their antagonizing of Pepperheart, shooting him looks every time he fell behind the rest of them. Stormflight was pretty sure he picked up his pace a bit out of spite, so their actions weren’t completely in vain.

Stormflight trotted down the rock steps, ahead of the rest of the patrol. The air still held the echoes of last night’s fanfare, with the slightest hint of mint in the air and dried splashes of blood on the smooth rock. They could see the evidence of their scuffle with the dark grey tabby, and the spot where a half-drowned Pepperheart had been.

There was a soft thud behind them as Pepperheart half slithered, half tumbled down the steps instead of taking the more traditional method of walking. “I’m fine,” he was already claiming as Stingclaw rushed to his side.

Stormflight turned, regarding their mentor with concern. They really needed to ask Firestar about the specifics of their agreement. If Pepperheart randomly fell over dead, would they still get punished for it?

He really was rather frail looking, Stormflight thought nervously as Pepperheart hauled himself unsteadily back to his feet. He had the build of a dead leaf, and being exhausted and wounded wasn’t doing much for him.

He paused at the bloodstain by the water’s edge, his eyes lingering on it. His pelt twitched as if he could shake off the memories like he could dust, then he turned to Stormflight. “Let’s go,” he said, nodding to the moonpool.

They settled down on the stone, the bloodstain between them. This time, Pepperheart didn’t hesitate before dipping his head to the water, and Stormflight followed suit.

The sparse skeleton of the Dark Forest greeted them as soon as they opened their eyes, the chill instant and unsettling as before. Stormflight rose slowly to their feet, scowling.

Why was it that they kept waking up here instead of Starclan?

A stupid question, they thought grimly. Evidentially, if they died now, they wouldn’t be welcome among the heroes and martyrs. The rejection stung, but more than anything it made them feel angry.

Stormflight glanced around, pearing carefully around the stalky, boulder-like trunks of the looming trees. They weren’t exactly jumping in joy at the prospect of seeing Brokenstar again, but they had no idea which way the Starclan border was from here.

Hesitantly, when it became evident that the only company they were going to get was the phantom trees, they headed off at a slow jog. The grass below their paws was dead and dry, but it didn’t crackle or poke at their paws, instead just glided through them like they didn’t quite share the same plane of existence.

So this was where Starclan thought they belonged. Stormflight’s lip curled at the faint scent of death, the gloomy, soupy shadows, and the expansive, suffocating forest. Their first reaction was to say no, of course they deserve better than this. They were a brave, loyal, fantastically skilled warrior.

But it all boiled down to the fact that they were a murderer. That’s what everything seemed to simplify these days.

Even if the secret died with Stormflight, the others would find out then. They would be separated from Mintrain, Stingclaw, Quicktail, and everyone they had ever cared for.

They didn’t need them.

Stormflight picked up their pace at the thought. It didn’t belong in their head, but at the same time it was true. Mintrain and Stingclaw grew distant in grief, but Stormflight kept cruising, more angry than anything else. Was that all they were, ambition and fury?

Before they could dwell on the thought any more, they found themself falling. With a yowl of panic, Stormflight dug their paws tight into the wispy ground, their hind legs flailing in thin air.

No, not air, they realized as they craned their neck to look at the hole they’d fallen in. Nothingness. There was literally a cavity in the ground, going down forever, not white nor grey or any other color, just a terrifying lack of everything.

Stormflight’s heart skipped a beat as their paws slipped. The grass wasn’t really offering any traction, only half existing in their grip. The dirt came away easily, flaking away at their touch.

“Help!” they shouted, too terrified to care what sort of monsters might dwell in a place like this. Could they die in a dream? Would they even die? The infinite nothing below them seemed to tug at their fur, trying to coax them down into its gaping maw. “Please, someone, help me!”

What a way to go. Pleading with a deaf forest, slipping into oblivion with no audience or fanfare. Stormflight closed their eyes, gritting their teeth. This wasn’t even a measure of strength. Their muscles couldn’t help them hold onto a ground that crumbled like sand.

Suddenly, one of their front paws broke through the earth, creating a new hole. It flailed in the emptiness in a moment, while the other raked helplessly through the ghostly greenery.

At the last moment, as Stormflight’s head slipped down through the hole, someone snagged their scruff. They were unceremoniously hauled backwards, in a quick, frantic scramble, and dumped next to a fallen tree.

Their rescuer dropped down next to them, his sides heaving. “Was just in earshot,” he gasped out, “Almost didn’t make it.” He let out a long sigh, then chuckled. “Never thought I’d see you again, Stormflight.”

Stormflight gave a start at the sound of his voice, rolling onto their stomach to look up at him. His pelt was not its usual immaculate sleek, ruffled and dirty. But the arrogant, clever glint in his eyes was the same. “Locustshade?” they inquired, frowning.

He smirked. “Don’t sound so surprised. Surely you heard of my death?”

They had. They just hadn’t considered that his spirit might be here.

Locustshade seemed to guess their thoughts, his smirk hardening at the edges. “Starclan wouldn’t suit me anyway,” he scoffed, rising to his feet. “Not,” he added wryly, “That it’s going to matter in a few years or so.”

“What do you mean?” Stormflight asked distractedly. They were too preoccupied. Locustshade had been a friend, in another clan but safe since Riverclan and Skyclan were separated by Shadowclan. And now he was lost among the darkness, walking beside Brokenstar and presumably all the others. They’d heard him painted a villain by his rivals at times, but it was different to see him labeled the same by Starclan.

Locustshade twitched his tail at the hole in the ground. “It’s unraveling.” He didn’t elaborate, his eyes studying them closely. “I hear that sister of yours is dead,” he said, tilting his head slightly.

Stormflight bristled under his gaze. For once, there was no judgement, just puzzled curiosity, but that was still more than they wanted to deal with. “So?” they challenged, eyes flashing.

Locustshade shrugged. “You know as well as I do that neither of us shies away from doing what needs to be done, but why Azollafrost?”

Stormflight looked away. They remembered talking to him as an apprentice and later a young warrior, getting dizzy on the moonlight and shared ambitions. They had talked of violence and power while the older cats had babbled on about peace. But even though he had always understood before, Stormflight didn’t think he’d get this one.

Because, really, there was no logic to this crime. Azollafrost hadn’t been an enemy or competition. Her death had no purpose, had furthered no goal.

Locustshade nodded slightly, and flicked them gently with his tail. “Be careful, Stormflight. Killing because you want to and killing because you need to are two very different things. It’s the former of the two that really gets you in trouble.”

Stormflight was tempted to ask about how much of the rumors of his death were true, but given that he hadn’t brought it up, they decided to let it be. “Can you show me to the Starclan border?” they asked, smiling sheepishly at the way he rolled his eyes.

“Right, you got stuck as one of Firestar’s precious prophecy cats,” he snorted, shaking his head. “Well, let’s get going.”

They followed him through the throng of dim trees. Whatever he was using as landmarks, they were unseen to Stormflight. To them, the forest seemed identical in every direction.

But eventually, they did notice a faint, golden tinge to the lighting, and the grass looked slightly less dead. Locustshade gazed across the border, his lip curling. He turned to leave, then paused.

Just like Brokenstar had, he reached a paw out, letting his shadow cross theirs. His was far darker, like a sliver of night in the otherwise sunny lighting. Stormflight’s was lighter, but it still seemed far too heavy and out of place.

He held their gaze a bit too long, expression unreadable.

“What?” Stormflight challenged, drawing away. They didn’t threaten to claw him like they had Brokenstar, but it was still unsettling.

“Do you know,” Locustshade said slowly, leaning closer, “What I would do if I were in your position?”

Stormflight scowled. “By all means, share. I’m open to suggestions.”

“I’d slit that puny medicine cat’s throat,” Locustshade said, with terrible casualness. “It would be easy for you, over in a few seconds.”

“But-” Stormflight tried to interject, about to explain their arrangement with Firestar, but Locustshade waved them off.

“I’d take death over being stuck as a medicine cat,” he said murmured, eyes glinting. “You’re hardly living as it is. Why don’t you?” It was not a challenge, there was no disgust. Just the same calm, searching curiosity.

Stormflight said nothing, eyeing Locustshade warily. He’d essentially confirmed the rumors now. They couldn’t say that they were exactly surprised. They’d always thought of him as a little more ruthless than they were willing to be, but they were in no position to judge. He’d taken one of his leader’s lives, and they’d murdered their sister.

Locustshade nodded, once again finding the answer in their silence. “That’s the difference between the two of us,” Locustshade murmured. “You don’t belong to the shadows quite yet, Stormflight.” He looked tired, almost regretful. “Keep it that way.”

He slunk back into the darkness, leaving Stormflight alone by the border.

Chapter 14[]

Stormpaw followed their mentor across the tree bridge, on the heels of Azollapaw and only a whisker in front of Quicktail. Their mentor was walking close, too close. She was making Stormpaw a little nervous. They didn’t know who she was hoping to protect, themself or the gathered cats.

“Remember,” she hissed in their ear, “Stick close to me. Don’t talk to anyone, even if they talk to you. Especially if they talk to you.”

“I don’t need babysitting,” Stormpaw grumbled back, their pelt prickling indignantly. They’d already been an apprentice for almost three moons and had attended two gatherings. They knew the drill. Of course, this time would probably be different.

“Hey, don’t think of it as babysitting, Stormy,” Azollapaw scolded, looking over her shoulders. Her green eyes were bright and cheerful, and sparkling light stars in the dark lighting. “By coming here, you’re showing that you’re not afraid of facing them. If you’d stayed home, it would seem like you were hiding. I don’t know if I’d be that brave.”

Azollapaw most certainly would have been equally brave if not more so, but the words still lightened Stormpaw’s mood. They blinked at their sister, who leaned over to rub her head briefly against theirs. “Show time,” she whispered, turning away and to face the gathering. “Head up, love. It wasn’t your fault. You’ve got nothing to be guilty for.”

Stormpaw nodded, lifting their chin. “Right. Showtime,” they echoed, trying to match Azollapaw’s radiant smile.

They were noticed almost instantly. It was just their luck that Windclan seemed to have arrived just before Riverclan, and were still milling around without having settled down.

They tried their best to keep their head down, but they still managed to catch the eye of a young, scrawny apprentice with crow black fur and eyes the color of rain clouds. They guessed who he was the moment before he opened his mouth.

“What’re you doing here?” the recently orphaned Fogpaw of Windclan snarled, stepping around the brown torti she-cat and ignoring the sharp warning flick of her tail against his flank. “Have you no shame? It hasn’t even been a quarter moon since you murdered my father!”

Stormpaw said nothing, their fur rising despite their best efforts. Quicktail pressed against them, steering them away to where the rest of Riverclan was settling down.

“If it wasn’t a full moon, I’d claw your ears off, you foxheart!” Fogpaw called after them, his voice bordering on a wail. “You can’t hide behind your mentor forever, you coward!

Stormpaw had every intention of following Azollapaw and walking away, but somehow they found their paws turning. The wave of anger and frustration came a beat later, hot and heavy.

They weren’t supposed to give in to it, they reminded themself. Quicktail’s eyes narrowed as she swivelled to look at them. They weren’t supposed to give in, they repeated, over and over again. Fogpaw’s raincloud eyes were dark and stormy, practically overflowing with hate.

“Well?” he prompted, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Stormpaw muttered, the words trickling out before they could swallow them back. Fogpaw’s lips curled up into a disgusted sneer, his black pelt rising along his spine.

What should have come next was it was an accident.

One minute they’d been scuffling with Galeshard, holding their own despite the Windclan warrior’s higher rank and experience, probably because the tom had been holding back. Then, they’d landed a lucky blow on his brow, and he’d gotten angry. It had turned into a real fight, one with real wounds and real pain, and Stormpaw had gotten….they hated to admit it, but they’d been scared. Something had kicked in, and suddenly they hadn’t been losing anymore.

And then Galeshard was lying at their paws, his charcoal pelt black with blood and not getting up, just lying there, twitching a little until he wasn’t.

Stormpaw could have tried to explain that, or better yet, slink away into the shadows and let it all roll over like they were supposed to. But they remembered what Azollapaw had said: they had nothing to be guilty for. Right now, silence was synonymous for shame.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Stormpaw repeated, more confidently this time. They lifted their chin, staring back at the smaller apprentice. “Maybe if Windclan spent less time learning how to run away and more time actually learning how to fight, your warriors would be skilled enough not to get killed by half trained apprentices.”

This was evidently more than Fogpaw could tolerate, gathering or not. Stormpaw saw the snap, the all to familiar moment where logic lost its battle against anger.

Intentionally or not, this was what they had been waiting for. This was a solution they could work with. How beating up Galeshard’s orphaned son would help anything, they didn’t know, but it was certainly going to be entertaining.

Behind them, Quicktail was catching on all too slowly. “Stormpaw-” she hissed, but Fogpaw was already springing and Stormpaw moved forwards to meet him.

But luckily for Fogpaw, and in the long run, probably Stormpaw as well, Ploverstar had faster reflexes. Stormpaw saw him move out of the corner of their eye. One moment he was perched next to the other leaders, the next he was slipping through the crowd and shouldering his way in between the two of them.

Neither apprentice had time to register the sudden presence of a third cat wedged in between them enough to stop their attack, but their blows fell awkwardly enough that they hardly drew blood. Stormpaw stepped back as Ploverstar’s seering amber eyes raked both dark pelts in turn, their fur growing hot with embarrassment as logic started to catch up with them.

“Both of you know the terms of gatherings, don’t you?” he said, loud enough to draw the attention of any cats who hadn’t noticed his hurried dash across the clearing. Fogpaw stared past his leader to Stormpaw, his gaze still crackling with unspent rage. Stormpaw glared at their paws.

“Don’t you?” Ploverstar repeated, tilting his head. His voice was even and calm, but Stormpaw didn’t miss the undertones. The Windclan leader was angry, or at least as close to angry as the patient old tom could get. “Fogpaw,” he said sharply, flicking the apprentice with his tail, “Do not ignore me.”

“Yes, Ploverstar,” Fogpaw murmured, dropping his gaze. He shifted his weight from paw to paw, his shoulders slumping.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, I know the terms of gatherings,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “I just-”

Ploverstar flicked him again, killing the sentence before it turned into trouble. “Get back to your mentor, we’ll talk about how you can make up for this later,” Ploverstar ordered, before turning back to Stormpaw. It was impossible not to shrink under that gaze.

“Stormpaw,” Hawthornstar snarled, finally arriving at the scene, “What in Starclan’s name were you thinking? I told you to lie low, not egg someone into a fight! We’ve only been here for under five minutes, and you’ve already landed yourself in  trouble.”

This, however, was easy enough to deflect. Stormpaw shrugged, tuning out the string of angry scolding that was probably meant to make them feel bad but really only hardened their shell of indifference.

“Stormpaw,” Ploverstar said, somehow managing to be both gentle and harsh, forcing their attention back to the leaders. “Please show your leader some respect, they’re talking to you.”

“I can handle my own cats, Ploverstar,” Hawthornstar growled, bristling at the other leader’s intervention.

Ploverstar dipped his head. “Of course,” he said cordially, his eyes flickering once again to Stormpaw as he turned to go. “I trust this won’t happen again?”

He was speaking to Hawthornstar, but looking at Stormpaw. They stared back at the faded amber gaze for a moment, then spun on their heels and retreated briskly into the crowd.

They didn’t head towards the clump of Riverclan cats, where they could have found Azollapaw’s uneasy sympathy and Quicktail’s smothering frustration. Instead, they slipped between cats, hoping to get lost in the maze of pelts. Maybe some of the cats near the edge hadn’t seen the spectacle. Stormpaw just wanted to ride out this gathering and then sleep off their anger and shame.

“That was quite the show you put on there,” someone murmured in their ear as they passed. They spun around, ready to scoff at whatever judgement this random cat was going to throw at them.

The cat, a young tom around their age, smiled at their expression. His dark brown fur looked almost black in the moon’s light, his yellow eyes sparkling with amusement.

“I’m serious,” he said, tilting his head up at them, “I’m a fan. An apprentice taking out a full grown warrior? Impressive. And then you showed up tonight?” He clucked his tongue, his smile sprouting into a grin. “That’s either gutsy or plain dumb, but either way, if that old hare hadn’t interrupted, you could’ve crushed that ‘paw like a twig.”

Stormpaw eyed him warily, trying to figure out what he was getting at. He smelled of Skyclan, which didn’t border Riverclan or Windclan, which they supposed was good. He had no stakes in their conflict. “What do you want?” they demanded, their tail cutting warningly through the air. “Who’re you?”

“Name’s Locustpaw,” he said, unruffled by their fractured temper. He glanced up as Hawthornstar and Ploverstar joined the other leaders, about to start the gathering, then, with a dismissive little flick of his ear, turned back to Stormpaw. “All I want is to talk to you.”

“And why is that?” Stormpaw inquired, their hostility melting into bewilderment.

“Because,” Locustpaw replied, leaning forward, “I think we have a lot in common.”

His voice was nearly dripping with confidence, bordering on conceit. Stormpaw wanted to ask what exactly it was he was so certain they, two strangers, shared, but suddenly they thought they knew. It was heavy in the glint in his eye, the curl of his grin, the lazy smugness in the way he surveyed everyone around him.

They were both killers.

Stormpaw found themself smiling back.

Stormflight squinted over their shoulder at the forest they had left, but the shadows had swallowed Locustshade’s dark pelt. They wanted to talk to him more, to know why exactly he had tried and partially succeeded to kill Dewstar. He had sunk into the deep end, and he knew it. They’d always found reassurance in their mirror image, but now Locustshade seemed more like a grimm warning than a confirmation.

They turned, expecting to find Firestar’s irritatingly amiable face waiting for them, but instead were greeted by the sight of a large white tom sitting by the border, his paws as dark as their own fur. “Who are you?” they asked, carefully striding closer. “Is Mr. Perfect too busy to drop by?”

The white tom’s face quirked into a smirk. “Mr. Perfect thought that after your last encounter with him, you might be most comfortable speaking with me.”

Stormflight flicked their tail. They disliked the idea of Firestar assuming they were uncomfortable around him. He was an annoying, goody goody furball who they thought would look better with a few more scars. “So you are….?”

The tom’s smile hardened into a scowl. “Blackstar.”

Stormflight cocked their head. They’d heard of him, of course. Leader of Shadowclan between Tigerstars. However, in the stories he’d always matched his name a bit better. They’d certainly never imagined him being white as snow.

“My warrior name was Blackfoot,” Blackstar muttered, raising a giant, jet black paw.

Stormflight tilted their head in the other direction, fighting a smile. “It still means your parents named a white kit Blackkit. It would be like naming Pepperheart Bigkit.”

Blackstar’s scowl deepened. The leader was looking rather peeved, so Stormflight decided to let the subject drop. “I have heard of you though,” they added, aiming for reconciliation.

“Yes, I’m sure you have,” Blackstar replied wryly, shaking his head. “What the clans remember of me is far from complementary, but hopefully that won’t hinder our conversation.”

“Actually,” Stormflight said, “You were one of my favorite characters. Back when I thought you were fictional,” they added, as a strange look crossed the leader’s face. “You made tough calls, but you were never a crazy kit murderer either. You fixed up Shadowclan, made up for Tigerstar’s mistakes. But the bit where you fell in love with a rogue, denounced Starclan for him, and had to be tricked back to your senses by a gaggle of ‘paws was kind of lame.”

The leader’s face, which had been softening into something almost touched, shuttered closed in an instant. “That’s….one way of interpreting those invents,” he growled, glaring as Stormflight smirked. “I pity Hawthornstar,” he muttered under his breath, turning away. “Come. We have more important things to discuss. I’m sure you have plenty of questions.”

That was an understatement. Stormflight followed him away from the border, keeping an eye on the ground for more potholes, until they reached a small, circular pool in the center of a misty clearing.

“Where’s everyone else?” Stormflight asked, glancing around. It made sense for the Dark Forest to be sparsely populated, but Starclan was just as vacant and empty, just slightly more inviting about it.

Blackstar settled down by the edge of the pool. “Do you know why Starclan exists, Stormflight?”

“Because cats die?”

“Because cats believe we do,” Blackstar corrected, gazing at the water distantly. Something about his amber gaze seemed old, impossibly, infinitely old, and very tired. “The more faith the clans have in us, the stronger we are. Our peak was in the Golden Age, as we’ve come to call it. Few stories outside of that time period are still passed down. When there’s no one left to remember a cat….” his voice trailed off, his scowl softening into a wistful frown. “They simply stop existing.”

Stormflight’s eyes widened in realization. “Hardly anyone still believes in Starclan these days. Most of us think you’re just a fable.”

“And soon enough, you’ll be right,” Blackstar murmured. “The less tether we have to existence, the less power we have, and the less we can influence the living. It’s a cycle that won’t go on for much longer.”

Stormflight stared at the fading, ghostly expanse of Starclan territory, thinking of the ground had literally caved beneath their weight. “Why not have the medicine cat’s dunk everyone’s heads in the moonpool so you can show them that you’re real?”

“If it were that simple, you’d be dunking people right now. We can only reach those who are at least uncertain of our existence,” Blackstar said, with a regretful shrug. “For most cats, they’d only get their heads wet.”

Stormflight frowned, narrowing their eyes slightly. “I hate to break it to you,” they said slowly, skeptically, “But you’ve got your theory a little messed up there. I spent my entire life convinced the elders were making you up, and yet here I am.”

There was a beat of silence as Blackstar studied them and Stormflight waited for the holy mousedung you’re right! moment. Instead, as the leader’s gaze raked their pelt, he reminded them distinctly of every other cat they’d met in the jaded afterlife. He was expecting something from them.

“You believe in Starclan,” Blackstar said, “You’ve always believed in Starclan.”

“No, actually,” Stormflight objected, “I really didn’t. I think I would know, given that this is me we’re talking about.”

Blackstar shook his head, looking almost charmed by their protests. “Maybe you never realized it, but some part of you knew exactly what would happen when you touched that moonpool. Two parts of you, actually.”

Stormflight’s brow creased with befuddlement as they stared at him, wondering if perhaps time had addled the old tom’s brain. “That,” they said bluntly, “Is ridiculous.” Not a single word he had said had made sense. After two years of vehemently belittling Starclan via crude jokes, scorn, satirical retellings, and outright denying their existence, suddenly they had supposedly believed in them the whole time?

Blackstar sighed, drumming his tail thoughtfully against the edge of the pool. Stormflight’s smug smirk was just dawning when he asked, “Stormflight, did you want to kill your sister?”

Stormflight froze, bristling at what seemed like an unpleasant and completely irrelevant topic change. “Does it matter?” they growled, flattening their ears against their head.

“I am not here to judge you, Stormflight,” Blackstar replied calmly, blinking at them. “I’ve got blood on my paws too. We can’t all be Firestar,” he added, with a little smirk. “Just answer the question, please.”

Stormflight reluctantly relaxed, forcing their mind to dwell on the query. The usual mental turmoil was instantaneous and as disorientating as ever, reminding Stormflight exactly why they tried not to think about Azollafrost.

Of course they had wanted to, she was a kittypet and she deserved it.

Except that logic was wrong, so very wrong. They felt a wave of guilt, before it was washed away by anger.

It was not wrong.

Blackstar watched quietly as Stormflight rubbed at their head, trying to dispel the blooming headache there. They opened their mouth several times to speak, but the words died on their tongue. Finally, in a whispery croak, they muttered, “I wanted to kill her, but I wish I hadn’t.”

“That wasn’t easy, was it?” Blackstar asked, tilting his head.

“Of course it wasn’t easy,” Stormflight snarled. “How about you, huh? Did you want to kill Stonefur?”

Blackstar ignored their outburst. “That’s not what I meant. Yes, admitting to a mistake is hard, but that’s not what you struggled with. You couldn’t decide what the answer was. That’s because,” he murmured, leaning closer, “They’re fighting each other, as well as with you. Your mind’s too crowded.”

“What?” Stormflight asked, their pelt prickling with unease. The more Blackstar talked, the less sense he made.

“This is probably going to be uncomfortable,” Blackstar announced apologetically. He rose to his feet, and stepped towards them. Stormflight, alarmed, tried to backpedal, but he was too swift.

Blackstar pressed one giant black paw against their forehead. For the briefest of moments, Stormflight felt a burst of confusion, but was cut off midthought by a terrible, dizzying tearing sensation.

They were coming apart. At first, it hurt, more than they knew something could hurt. It wasn’t an external pain, but something deep inside them, a violent rip. Then, they were too gone to notice.

Through bleary eyes, they saw two fuzzy shapes before them. A slim, brown she-cat and a burly, monstrous tabby tom, neither of whom they had seen before but both of whom would have been familiar if they could still think.

The two cats looked at each other, then at Stormflight.

Their movements were in sync, as if they were used to moving as one, and their eyes widened with realization at the exact same time. Both spun to face Blackstar. “Put us back in, you mousebrain!” they ordered, in two tones of twin alarm.

Blackstar removed his paw, and slowly the world came back into focus, the shards falling sharply back into place and clicking together as misplaced puzzle pieces. Stormflight’s legs gave away as the leader stepped back, and they toppled gracelessly to the side like crumbling chalk.

To say the world spun wouldn’t do it justice. The world was twisting, twirling, bucking, folding like a leaf in the wind. Stormflight dug their claws into the ground, trying to right themself, but the grass just crumbled. Slowly, reality slowed down to a bleary mess, and they managed to find their voice. “What,” they whimpered, “Did you do?”

Blackstar’s voice was as distant and distorted as everything else. “I split you in half.” His white pelt blurred into cloudy blobs before them as they slowly lifted their head.

Immediately, they regretted moving at all. Stormflight let their chin drop again, trying not to think as they waited for the pounding headache to fade.

He said nothing more as he waited for Stormflight to recover their senses. They weren’t sure how much time trickled by before the pounding and churning of their head died away enough for them to rise shakily into a sitting position. “Please explain how that’s even possible,” they muttered, blinking stars out of their vision.

“Firestar already mentioned that you are one of five very important cats, right?” Blackstar asked, and Stormflight nodded. “Good. Those cats you saw were Windstar and Tigerstar. Each of your fellow saviors are also hosting a set of Starclan and Dark Forest residents, one of each. Your job is to save all six clans, the afterlife included.”

“Right,” Stormflight said distractedly, as if it all made sense. It really, really didn’t, but their ocean of questions had dried up significantly in their fractured mind.

“You’ve actually met all but one of the others,” Blackstar continued, reaching over to the little pool they were sitting beside. It rippled into an image of the two of them, a broad picture from a bird’s eye view. The colors were diluted, like the rest of Starclan. He tapped it, and it shifted into a different image.

“Orchidpaw?” Stormflight asked, leaning forward. The little tabby she-cat was asleep, curled into a tight ball in her nest. Her sides rose rhythmically, and she was evidently completely unaware that they were watching.

“Orchidfur now, actually,” Blackstar corrected, nodding. “She’s harboring the spirits of Riverstar and Mapleshade, and currently residing in Skyclan.”

A third tap shifted the point of view ever so slightly, remaining in the same den. A few cats away lay a splotchy calico tom. Stormflight peered at him, taking a few moments to realize that it was the rogue who’d been spying on the meeting earlier that day.

He didn’t sleep soundly like Orchidfur did. His breathing was shallow and his paws twitched, like he was dreaming. Across the den, someone sneezed, and his eyes instantly opened in a flash of blue and green.

“Elm of Skyclan,” Blackstar said, as the tom glanced carefully around the den without raising his head. Slowly, his closed his eyes again, and returned to his uneasy resting. “Shadowstar and Darktail.”

The next tap took them to a different place, outside of Skyclan. A slim ginger and white cat was sprawled out haphazardly on their nest, a smaller ginger shape nestled next to them.

“Is that the annoying idiot from Windclan that kept making the dumb jokes yesterday?” Stormflight asked, less than thrilled.

“Valleystep, a combo of Skystar and Hawkfrost,” Blackstar said, nodding again. He smiled slightly. “If you don’t like them, then you’re going to be in for a shock for this last one.”

The pool now showed a strange sort of den, with tall, towering walls and a squishy looking floor. A fluffy yellow and black she-cat was sleeping on top of some sort of plush blue nest.

“A kittypet?” Stormflight growled, their pelt prickling with disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Her name is Bumble,” Blackstar murmured, “And I assure you, this is no joke. She’s both Thunderstar and Ashfur, and currently resides in the twoleg nest in Shadowclan territory.”

He stood and stretched, allowing the pool to shift back into its usual misty form. “You’re our best link to them right now,” he said, “So your next step is to share what you know with them.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” Stormflight demanded, shaking their head. “Elm and Bumble won’t even know what Starclan is, and either way, it’ll sound crazy. It is crazy.”

Blackstar shrugged. “You’ll have to think of something.” He paused, his eyes flashed warningly. “You and Bumble are going to have to work together, so I suggest you try and think about where those prejudices of yours are actually coming from.”

Stormflight’s eyes widened at his implications.

Was that why they hated kittypets? Because Tigerstar hated kittypets?

It didn’t matter, the thoughts they now had a name for argued, either way they were right. Stormflight shook their head, ignoring the pounding that was starting up again. If that was true, then what else was from Tigerstar’s influence? Their strength, ambition, and pride? And did their stubbornness and independence come from Windstar?

Most importantly, when you took that away, was there anything left?

“Stormflight?”

Stormflight looked up, startled to find themself staring blankly at Pepperheart’s little face. They hadn’t even noticed when they’d woken up. “What?” they growled, annoyed by the unease on his face. But already their mind was spiralling away.

Why didn’t they like Pepperheart? Because he was small, weak, and fearful. The more they thought about it, the more it made terrible sense. They closed their eyes, ignoring the stabbing pain as they tried to argue with Tigerstar’s persistent insistence that those were all valid feelings, that they were right, always right, that they had nothing at all to be guilty for.

Or was it Windstar who was doing the arguing?

“I have some things to tell you,” they managed to squeak out. They took a deep breath, and shoved back the wave of whiplash inducing thoughts. It didn’t matter why they felt the way they did. What mattered was that they had a job to do.

Their sleep that night was unsteady and broken up into a series of twisted dreams that might have been memories. A mottled grey tabby tom walking away, promising to return but never coming back, leaving them to bleed out. A tiny black kit tumbling away from them, his pelt shining with something wet. Countless cats following their call to battle. A little white cat following a moth right into the path of a monster. A sharp, burning pain, a wave of panic, a fading numbness, and then darkness.

Stormflight’s eyes snapped open, their breath coming in ragged gasps in their ears. They stared blindly at the wall of the medicine den, their sides heaving as they struggled to decide if this was real or if it was another dream. For one terrifying moment, they weren’t quite sure which cat they were, Stormflight, Windstar, or Tigerstar.

“Nightmare?” a voice called from the other side of the den.

Stormflight looked up at the tom, the realization that he was Pepperheart and that they knew him coming slowly as they stared across at him. He’d set his nest up right near the entrance as soon as they’d moved in, as far away as he could get. They noticed with guilt that he looked tired and thin, followed by a rush of smugness.

They gritted their teeth, cutting off the thoughts before they could go down the usual whirlpool. “Yes,” they muttered.

The night was silent, and so was Pepperheart, his yellow gaze unreadable. Stormflight had told him about the other five and how they were half Tigerstar as soon as they had been alone, and he’d been silent then as well. They weren’t sure if  it made them more or less monstrous in his eyes.

Stormflight closed their eyes, then opened them again, reluctant to go back to sleep. The quiet of the den was tense, as usual, but for once it actually bothered them. They felt off kilter, uncertain, and ridiculously lonely.

Stingclaw and Mintrain loved them for now, but neither of them knew anything. Stormflight couldn’t exactly go up to them and say Hey moms, I’m feeling guilty that I killed your daughter. Can I have a hug?

Pepperheart knew everything, but he hated them for it.

Of course he hated them, they thought angrily, they were a murderous monster that took pleasure in his fear.

The only cat that they wanted to talk to right now was the very cat whose throat they’d slit a moon ago.

“I miss her,” Stormflight whispered, the words slipping out before they could stop them, mortifyingly close to a whimper.

The moss and leaves rustled as Pepperheart shifted uncomfortably in his nest, his gaze flickering away. The soft yellow glow of his eyes disappeared beneath his tail as he curled back into his nest.

Stormflight thought for a moment that he wasn’t going to respond at all, but he eventually murmured, “The poppy seeds are by the back wall if you need one.”


Chapter 15[]

To most of the clan, it was invisible. A slight tilt in tone, a little flicker in his eyes. There was nothing out of the ordinary about a leader conferring with his deputy.

Valleypaw glanced over their shoulder, noting the twitch, back and forth, of Ploverstar’s tail. Henheart was leaning towards him, as if to shield their conversation, but they saw the way she brushed against him, either seeking or providing comfort.

Very few things scared Ploverstar, Valleypaw had long since learned. He seemed to them eternally old, like there was nothing the world could throw at him that he couldn’t figure out. Duststone and Henheart, his younger sisters as well as medicine cat and deputy, were equally steady. But Duskflame was a puzzle even Ploverstar’s wisdom had no answer for.

Valleypaw wondered what it was this time. Their father had gotten worse, not better, rotating between absent and numb or sharp and angry. It made them feel sick, thinking of either. They barely remembered what Duskflame had been like before Valleypaw had gotten their mother killed.

Across the camp, the talk came to an end. Ploverstar dipped his head to Henheart, then, cloaked in the dusky light, slipped quietly over the lip of Windclan camp’s boundaries.

Valleypaw hesitated, then followed.

Duskflame’s scent trail led straight through the Thunderclan border. Valleypaw took advantage of the tree cover to watch Ploverstar’s shoulders slump as he paced uncertainly along the edge of his territory. It was strange, watching him when he thought he had no one to protect but himself. Valleypaw felt a sting of guilt, but remained where they were. Ploverstar had taught them well, maybe a little too well. He had no idea he was being followed.

Valleypaw’s eyes widened as Ploverstar stepped over the scent line. It was too late for them to encounter a patrol, but there was no way Applestar would miss gobs of Windclan scent on the wrong side of the border.

Ploverstar’s pace picked up speed as the scent led them deeper and deeper into Thunderclan territory. It stayed by the lake’s edge, straight and certain. Duskflame knew where he was going, and, Valleypaw realized with a jolt of horror, so did they.

Soon, they were at another border. Valleypaw had never been this far from Windclan camp before, but they recognized Skyclan’s scent from gatherings. Ploverstar bridged this one immediately, plowing forward with a frantic sort of briskness. Valleypaw’s breath came rapidly as they struggled to keep their leader in sight, their half grown limbs making them lag behind.

Suddenly, the leader froze. His paws fell still, and he slowly turned around, his gaze raking the tree line. Valleypaw stiffened as their eyes met his, knowing there was no point in trying to hide any longer.

“Go back to camp,” Ploverstar ordered instantly, as Valleypaw trotted to his side.

They ducked their head, their pelt crawling under his pleading gaze, but held their ground. “No,” they muttered. “I-” Valleypaw added a little hesitation, “I don’t know the way back.”

That was a lie, one they felt guilty for instantly. But Ploverstar bought it, probably mostly because he didn’t have time to argue with them. The leader closed his eyes, nodding stiffly. “Fine.You’re on tick duty for a moon for this, by the way.”

“I’m sorry,” Valleypaw offered half heartedly, but Ploverstar waved them off with his tail.

“Let’s get going,” the leader said gruffly, dipping his head to sniff at the scent trail. “It veers inland,” he added, his voice weighted with defeat. “Towards the camp. Based on how stale this is, he’s already there.” The implications of that were nothing good, that much Valleypaw was certain.


Even though it was getting quite late, Skyclan camp was bustling with agitated energy. The guard stepped aside as soon as they recognized Ploverstar, who dipped his head politely as he passed.

“Dear Starclan, please say he hasn’t killed anyone,” Ploverstar breathed under his breath, in a whisper that Valleypaw definitely wasn’t meant to hear. Their stomach twisted as they stuck near his side, glancing nervously around the camp. The gazes they got were mostly prickly with hostility.

“Ploverstar!”

Valleypaw recognized the torti she-cat as Hayfire, Skyclan’s deputy. She shoved her way around her clanmates, and stalked up to the two of them. She ignored Valleypaw entirely, her gaze blazing and ears flat. “Come to get your friend, have you?” Hayfire growled. “You need to get your warriors under control, you mousebrain,” she added before he could reply, “You’re lucky we kept him alive.”

There was something on her paws.

Valleypaw leaned forward slightly, their heart skipping a beat as they realized what the wet substance was.

“Thank you,” Ploverstar replied diplomatically. Valleypaw barely heard him, their attention fixed on the blood on Hayfire’s paws. She left little paw prints behind as she paced before them, delicate little dapples in the low light. Whose blood was it? Was Duskflame hurt?

Ploverstar glanced over at them, then shifted closer so that he could rest his chin between Valleypaw’s ears. “I’m sure he’s fine,” he murmured, “Just let me take care of this, okay?”

“Ploverstar, thank Starclan,” a new voice called, the giddy relief a stark contrast to Hayfire’s anger. Dewstar walked gingerly across the camp, waving his tail in a nervous greeting.

The leader’s snowy pelt stood out in the darkness, his silver eyes shining like stars. He matched the sliver of moon in the sky, save for the large, dark stain splattered boldly across his chest, shiny and wet.

Valleypaw drew in a sharp breath, the air growing thick with the scent of blood as Dewstar approached. The wounds looked shallow enough, but blood was still bubbling out of the five parallel gashes, staining Dewstar’s chin when he dipped his head in greeting to Ploverstar.

Ploverstar’s eyes darted appraisingly over Dewstar’s red bib, looking rather relieved. Valleypaw supposed the fact that no one was dead was worth something, but they still didn’t see their father’s yellow pelt among the agitated cats. “Where is he?” they asked.

Hayfire and Dewstar glanced over at Valleypaw, startled as if they’d only just noticed them. “Who’s this?” Dewstar asked, talking to Ploverstar, not Valleypaw. Their normal response would have been something cheeky, but they were too on edge to think of a joke.

Ploverstar looked sideways at the lanky ginger and white ‘paw. “That’s Valleypaw,” he said, “They decided to tag along. Duskflame is their father,” he added.

Dewstar frowned, biting at his lip worriedly. “Ah. Well. He’s in the medicine den right now, Sablewind is seeing to his injuries.” Valleypaw didn’t like his sudden hesitance, nor the glimmer of sympathy in those silver eyes.

Ploverstar nodded wordlessly, his expression grim. “I wish you’d stayed home, Val,” he murmured under his breath, before turning towards the den in question. Valleypaw trailed after him, Dewstar and Hayfire on their heels.

Duskflame was sprawled awkwardly across the floor, wearing a mask of blood and a mutinous glare. Several neat rows of claw marks ran across his face,  and Sablewind was fussing over the gaping gouge in his shoulder.

He looked up as Ploverstar slipped silently into the den. “Took you long enough,” he grunted.  

Valleypaw hovered uncertainly outside of the den next to Dewstar. Duskflame’s eyes skipped over Hayfire, then his expression hardened. They weren’t sure if it was Dewstar he was disgusted with, Valleypaw, or both, but the face made them feel like hiding behind the little white leader.

“I really don’t understand what prompted his attack,” Dewstar murmured under his breath to them, “We don’t even share a border. What in Starclan’s name could I have done to warrant this?” he gestured at the ragged slashes on his chest.

Valleypaw shrugged uncomfortably. “I might have an idea on that,” they muttered. “A couple seasons ago, you drove a set of badgers across the Thunderclan border. They ended up in Windclan and killed a cat.”

“Oh,” Dewstar said, looking taken aback. “Yes, I remember.”

“That cat was my mother.”

Dewstar's silver gaze dropped to his paws. “I see,” he replied, flicking an ear warily in the direction of Duskflame.

“Coward didn’t even have the guts to defend himself,” Duskflame was growling to Ploverstar, who was listening with an air of polite mournfulness. The yellow tom flashed his claws through the air, a cruel grin on his face. “Would’ve had him if that one-” he paused, pointing his tail accusingly at Hayfire, “-hadn’t started trying to shred me.”

Ploverstar nodded doggedly, then sniffeded gingerly at the gash in his warrior’s shoulder. “How bad is it?” he asked Sablewind.

“He’ll live,” Sablewind replied, not bothering to mask their lack of enthusiasm about the fact.

Dewstar cleared his throat, his tail twitching nervously. “Ploverstar, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what exactly do you plan on doing with him? I mean…” the leader trailed off awkwardly as Ploverstar frowned. “He’s attacked a leader. Surely you’re not…”

“I’m not what?” Ploverstar prompted, his voice even but distinctly less friendly.

“Surely you’re not going to allow him to stay in Windclan,” Dewstar finished, sounding almost apologetic.

Valleypaw’s stomach lurched, and they dug their claws into the ground. Duskflame hissed at Dewstar, attempting to rise to his feet, but Ploverstar nudged him firmly back down. Internally, Valleypaw begged their father to stay silent, to not say or do anything to make the situation worse. “I am not going to exile him,” Ploverstar replied, civil but firm.

Hayfire scowled. “I know he said that as a question, but it wasn’t one. Your cat almost killed the leader of Skyclan. There needs to be repercussions.”

“There will be,” Ploverstar promised, “But not exile.”

Valleypaw glanced nervously as the leader and deputy of Skyclan exchanged a long glance. Dewstar shrugged slightly, Hayfire scowled. With a little, self assuring breath, Dewstar turned back to Ploverstar. “We want him exiled.”

“Given his complete lack of remorse, I’d say he’s likely to try it again,” Hayfire added, narrowing her eyes at Duskflame, who smirked.

“Of course I will,” he growled, flexing his claws.

Ploverstar sighed, closing his eyes. Dewstar and Hayfire watched him expectantly, while Valleypaw stared at him pleadingly. They knew the new Duskflame wasn’t perfect, but they also knew that before Spicecloud’s death, he had been a brilliant warrior and a caring father. They needed that cat to come back, and exile might kill him forever.

Ploverstar opened his eyes, and turned towards Dewstar. With all the gentle, patient politeness in the world, he replied, “No.”

Hayfire let out a hiss of frustration, and spun around to face her leader. Dewstar was looking paler, if that was even possible. He glanced between Hayfire’s imploring glare and Ploverstar’s carefully, measured gaze, looking like he wanted to find somewhere to hide.

Valleypaw’s heart thrummed in their ears as they watched the two leaders regard each other. As a general rule, neither did conflict. Dewstar was too hesitant, and Ploverstar was too wise, but now that it came down to this, what was the Skyclan leader going to do? Would he bring this up at the next gathering? Or, worse, somehow try to attack Windclan?

Retaliation could mean war, but at this point letting something this big drop would be a clear sign of weakness.

“Well?” Ploverstar prompted eventually, tilting his head.

Dewstar swallowed hard, seeming to shrivel under Ploverstar’s amber gaze. Duskflame smirked, and Hayfire drew in a long, heavy breath of forced patience.

“You won’t allow this to happen again, I trust?” Dewstar said, his tone purposefully uppity, as if arrogance could help him regain control of the situation.

“Of course not,” Ploverstar replied kindly, dipping his head with respect Valleypaw didn’t think the other leader deserved.

“Good,” Dewstar said, flicking his tail dismissively. “Then get him out of here.” He held Ploverstar’s gaze a while longer, then added, “I won’t give you a third chance,” he warned.

“Right,” Ploverstar agreed cordially. Valleypaw had to admire their leader’s straight face. “Thank you for your kindness.”

Valleypaw nodded, their panic dying away. Dewstar smiled thinly, then turned away, but not before Valleypaw saw the heavy wave of embarrassment and shame crash down on his face. They wondered what, if anything, could motivate him to fight back if an attempt at his own life couldn’t.

The walk home was long and uncomfortable, in part because Ploverstar and Valleypaw had to support Duskflame the entire way but mostly because of the grim satisfaction on the yellow tom’s face. “I almost got him,” he growled under his breath, as they neared the Thunderclan border.

“That,” Ploverstar replied, “Is not something to be proud of.”

“He’ll pay for what he did,” Duskflame continued, his voice slurring slightly from the blood loss. “I’ll claw him open like that badger did to Spicecloud, see how he likes it.”

“Dewstar didn’t kill Spicecloud,” Ploverstar said gently.

Valleypaw’s breath caught in their throat, knowing what Duskflame was going to say before he said it.

“You’re right,” Duskflame said with a ragged chuckle, shaking his head. He craned his neck sideways, sneering at Valleypaw. “That was good ol’ Val’s fault. But I can’t hardly kill my own kit, can I?” He tilted his head in mock thought. “Hmm. Well, maybe-”

Suddenly, the weight of Duskflame’s shoulder was yanked away from Valleypaw, and the yellow tabby tom was tumbling off of his feet. Ploverstar towered over him, expression thunderous.

Do not threaten them,” Ploverstar snarled, fierce enough to make Duskflame flinch. “I swear, if you touch a hair on their pelt, you’ll wish I’d agreed to exile you.”

“It was a joke,” Duskflame spluttered, his voice cracked with pain. He’d landed on his bad shoulder, Valleypaw realized, but they were too hurt to be worried. “C’mon, Plo, you wouldn’t exile your old buddy, would you?” he added, sounding truly nervous for the first time that night.

Ploverstar forced down a breath, the fur on his shoulder settling down again. “Duskflame,” he said slowly, “I don’t know what I would do anymore.” The anger was gone, replaced by sorrow. “Mostly because I don’t know who you are anymore.”

Duskflame said nothing. Ploverstar bent to help the tom back up, his eyes dull. They spent the rest of the walk home in silence.

Valleystep watched the morning light stream through the branches of the gorse bush that served as Windclan’s nursery. They usually got up early, regardless of whether or not they were on Dawn Patrol, to go for a little hunt or just run around to get their mind awake.

But today they were trapped. When they’d fallen asleep, Kitkit had been curled up next to them, but sometime during the night she’d draped herself over the top of their head, her paws dangling on either side of their snout.

Valleystep usually slept out under the stars with the rest of the clan, but they kept getting up to check on their sister, and although each time Kitkit had been dozing peacefully, they hadn’t been able to rest easily without her in their line of sight.

It made them nervous, the fact that she’d moved onto their head. That meant Kitkit had been awake when they weren’t. She could have easily snuck off when they weren’t watching.

It was a small relief, to look around and be reminded of the precautions Ploverstar had set up almost instantly upon learning of the threat. Unlike most of the other clans, there was no solid barrier around Windclan camp. Generally, it seemed free and spacious, unrestraining. In the light of the three murders, Fogheart’s assault, and especially the snatching of Dillkit from Riverclan camp, it felt unprotected.

What they lacked in bramble walls, Ploverstar had made up with guards. He’d established a shift, with at least five cats on watch at all times. But there was still plenty of room for a little kit to slip through their notice in the dark.

Around the bristles of the bush, they saw the shapes of the Dawn Patrol appearing over the crest of the soft rise that surrounded the little scoop of Windclan camp. Valleystep idly nudged Kitkit’s paw off of their nose, wondering if maybe Ploverstar could be convinced to just let them hang out in the nursery all day.

Then, their focus was dragged back to the rest of the camp by raised voices. Valleystep pricked their ears, frowning as footsteps drummed closer. If something was wrong, and it concerned them, it could mean only one thing.

“Valleystep?” Ploverstar called, ducking into the nursery. Valleystep was facing the wrong direction to look at him, but they recognized that reluctant, apologetic tone enough to know that a reluctant, apologetic expression always accompanied it, as if Duskflame was somehow Ploverstar’s fault.

“Shh, don’t wake the kit,” they murmured, flicking their tail towards their head. Ploverstar fell silent as he wiggled around the drowsing forms of Orangeblaze and Tunnelkit until he was facing Valleystep.

Valleystep’s eyes flickered up to their leader, and instantly they wondered if he’d slept at all the previous night. His pelt was ruffled, his eyes looked dull, but still he was operating like everything was fine.

“What a cutey,” Ploverstar murmured, smiling at the kitten flopped over Valleystep’s brow. “Look, Val, I don’t want to alarm you, but Duskflame didn’t come back with the rest of the Dawn Patrol. “

No matter what Ploverstar’s intentions were, Valleystep was instantly worried. It was a typical, Duskflame type move, disappearing mid patrol, but that had been before they’d known the forest was crawling with murderous rogues. “I thought there was a buddy system?” they asked, making sure to weed all the worry from their voice before they spoke.

“There is,” Ploverstar replied ruefully, “He was paired with Whispersong this morning, but he somehow managed to give her the slip. The patrol looked for him, but they couldn’t find him.” His tired eyes searched their face, and Valleystep summoned a quick smile.

“Probably just the usual, right?” Valleystep said, with a tiny shrug. “He’s either at the Horseplace, pestering Dewstar, or doing whatever else he does for fun. I’m sure he’s fine,” they added. Ploverstar’s paws were full as it was, and knowing him, he’d probably worry about Valleystep worrying if they let him.

“Well, that’s good,” Ploverstar said, nodding. “I’m going to go look for him, Henheart’s in charge, you take care of that little sunshine of yours.” He blinked, his eyes staying shut a little too long like they were begging for a nap. “I’ve got this under control.”

It seemed to Valleystep that it might be handy to have the actual leader around if anything new developed, but they also knew that Ploverstar was the only cat Duskflame came remotely close to respecting.

They frowned as Ploverstar turned to go, and gingerly reached a paw out to jab him in the side. “Wait, Plo, who’re you taking with you?”

The leader shrugged, his smile oddly stiff. “Haven’t decided yet.”

Valleystep fought back a scowl. They hated it when Ploverstar tried to lie to them. Dishonesty didn’t suit the leader well, and besides, they knew exactly who he’d picked up the habit from. “You can’t just implement a buddy system and then exempt yourself from it, Ploverstar.”

“Yes, I’m aware, but…” Ploverstar trailed off, looking suddenly as if his mind had gone on a little vacation. Valleystep was fairly certain where he was at. Specifically, when. Ploverstar’s gaze snapped back to theirs. “You’ve seen how he gets sometimes.”

Valleystep nodded slightly, making Kitkit’s paw bounce against their nose. “Sure, but you can’t be planning on having all that fun without me, right?”

“I would really rather you didn’t come,” Ploverstar replied, with an apologetic blink.

Technically speaking, he had the power to order them to stay in camp, but when it came to Duskflame, the rules had a tendency of getting distorted. Valleystep had a bad habit of not following directions when they pertained to their father, and Ploverstar had trouble working up the heart to discipline them on such matters.  Hence, the thinly veiled plea.

“What if something happened to him? Or if you get ambushed?” Valleystep asked, a hint of their nervousness slipping through unbidden. “Are you going to fight a whole army of rogues on your own?”

Ploverstar smiled wryly. “No offence, Valleystep, but if I run into an army of rogues on my way to the Horseplace, I don’t think one cat will make much of a difference.”

“Well, with me around, at least you can get kidnapped in good company,” Valleystep replied cheerfully.

Ploverstar frowned, drumming his claws lightly against the ground as he stared unhappily at them. Just as he opened his mouth to reply, a ruckus sparked up outside of the nursery once again. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured, before slipping out.

Valleystep glanced regretfully up at the kit on their head, wishing there was some way for them to move her without waking her up. With a sigh, they pricked their ears, trying to catch the tidbits of conversation.

There was a voice they didn’t recognize, among the familiar chatter of Windclan. They said something that sounded like a question.

“They’re over in the nursery,” they caught wind of, sounding like Ploverstar’s puzzled voice.

The gorse rustled, and a lean, muscular black form shoved it’s way through the entry, scowling as the branches raked their shoulders. Valleystep looked up, startled, taking in the vaguely familiar jet black fur, the icy eyes, and the flashy streaks of white by the eyes. It was the new Riverclan medicine cat, the one they’d met the other day when Fogheart had almost died.

“Fancy seeing you again,” Valleystep said, as the cat hunched uncomfortably beside them. “Two days in a row, too. Planning on joining Windclan? Let me guess, you got one look at this face and just couldn’t stay away.”

They winked. The black cat scowled, and rolled their eyes. “Very strange words to hear from a cat with a kit on their head,” they said, staring pointedly at Kitkit’s inert form.

Valleystep shrugged, grinning. “Kit hats are the newest fashion. I’m starting a trend.”

The cat leaned back, watching them through slitted eyes. Valleystep got the distinct feel that they were being appraised, and that the Riverclan medicine cat wasn’t particularly impressed. Finally, they said, “Are you really as dumb as you act?”

Valleystep blinked, startled by the blunt comment, but recovered quickly, if not cleverly. The answer was no, but they were enjoying themself far too much to try and explain the concept of entertainment. “Don’t know,” they replied, “Are you?”

They let out a loud hiss of frustration. Across the den, Tunnelkit stirred in their nest. “Starclan help me, we’re doomed,” they muttered, with a gusty sigh.

Valleystep cocked their head at them. They were getting the feeling that they were missing the point of this conversation. “Look, uh…” they began, trailing off when they realized they didn’t know the other cat’s name.

“Stormflight,” the Riverclan cat provided.

“Look, Stormflight,” Valleystep revised, “Why are you here? Did you come all the way to Windclan just to make cruel comments about my intelligence, or is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Stormflight grumbled, folding their paws underneath themself as they tried to get comfortable in the cramped space. They stared at them for a while more, then sighed. “No matter how I say this, it’s going to sound crazy,” they muttered.

“Try me,” Valleystep prompted, pricking their ears curiously. They really had no clue what this medicine cat wanted from them, but they were enjoying chatting with them regardless. “I like crazy.”

“Valleystep, do you believe in Starclan?” Stormflight asked.

“Nope,” Valleystep said, a little apologetically. They knew it was kind of the medicine cats’ thing, but it had always seemed to them like a load of mumbo jumbo.

“Great,” the black cat muttered, closing their eyes. “Well, it does. Believe me, I was skeptical at first too, but our ancestors really are watching over us.”

Valleystep smirked slightly, but nodded agreeably. “Right.”

“Basically, Starclan has selected five cats to protect the clans from the recent threat,” Stormflight plowed on, ignoring them. “We each harbor the spirits of one Starclan cat and one Dark Forest cat. You are a combination of Skystar and Hawkfrost.”

Valleystep’s smile quivered as they bit back a laugh. Even so, a little giggle slipped through their lips, and Stormflight’s expression darkened with frustration. “I’m sorry,” they choked out, blinking apologetically at them, “But that does sound crazy.”

They looked so mad, and entirely serious. Either this was a joke and Stormflight was a brilliant actor, or they actually believed what they were saying. It was ridiculous, and frankly, absolutely hilarious. As the black cat let out a hiss of anger, Valleystep lost control and dissolved into a flurry of laughter.

“So-I’m Skystar? I didn’t realize I founded Skyclan. Or that Tigerstar was my pop-that would be wild, though. Take my condolences to Firestar, I feel so terrible for starting a couple of violent coups,” they mumbled around their glee, unable to stop the chuckles.

Stormflight’s scowl was sharp and furious. With another snarl, they rose to their feet, towering over Valleystep. “This is serious,” they snarled. “Listen to me, you mousebrain, if I was making this up, I’d choose a more believable ruse. Stop laughing.”

“I’m sorry,” Valleystep repeated, trying to school their expression into something more civil, “But-” they glanced up at Stormflight’s joyless face, and burst out laughing again. “I can’t,” they gasped, shaking their head as they finally fell silent, out of breath.

“Please,” Stormflight snapped, leaning closer. Their blue gaze was disheartened, indignant, and so utterly earnest that Valleystep felt a little bad for laughing at them. “Look, surely you’ve seen some of the signs. Do you ever find yourself thinking things that don’t really make sense? Or feel like there’s multiple cats arguing in your head? Do you get random bursts of emotion that make you do things you regret later, like someone else is taking control of your body?”

Valleystep shrank back, equal parts alarmed and concerned on their behalf. “No,” they said, with a nervous smile, “Do you?” They were aware suddenly of how very close the two of them were sitting now, and the other cat’s growing agitation.

Stormflight scowled, leaned back, and looked away. Valleystep watched as they visibly reigned in their frustration. “It probably manifests differently for everyone,” they muttered, shaking their fur flat. “Obviously, this is hopeless,” they added, “I won’t waste your time anymore. But, Valleystep,” they continued, gaze sharpening, “Think about what I said. If you’re ever feeling less secure in your certainty, you know where to find me.”

They spun on their heels, and slunk moodily out of the den. Valleystep gently slid Kitkit off of their head, and carefully tucked her back into the nest, then followed.

Stormflight met a scrawny ginger tom in the center of the clearing, and muttered something under their breath to him. Pepperheart shook his head, then lead them out of camp. Valleystep watched them go, wondering if the more experienced medicine cat was buying the nonsense as well.

“You don’t believe them,” a voice murmured beside them. Valleystep spun around to find the Windclan medicine cat, Duststone, sitting beside them.

“Do you?” Valleystep inquired skeptically.

Duststone smiled slightly, and gave a little shrug. “It’s a lot easier to believe the unbelievable when you know it comes from a good source,” she said, tipping her head up towards the sky. “Either way, it’s not my opinion that matters.”

Valleystep shook their head, whiskers twitching in disbelief. “If you say so.”

Chapter 16[]

The little ginger and white cat sat very still, their tail curled tightly around their tiny kitten paws. Around them, the usually orderly Windclan camp was churning with a rhythmic sort of chaos, the cats scrambling about like ants after their hill was crushed. They were the sole island of rest in an ocean of movement.

Valleykit wasn’t sure what had prompted the sudden burst of action, but they did know they weren’t too fond of it. One minute they had been dozing with their mother in the nursery, listening to Spicecloud snore. The next, the other queen, Breezestem, was screaming and Spicecloud was bundling them out of the den.

She’d said that Breezestem was kitting, which, according to the curt answers Valleykit had been able to extract from the rushing warriors, was painful and sometimes dangerous.

Their understanding of how the kits got out of Breezestem’s belly and into the real world was fuzzy, but they were pretty sure that whatever was going on wasn’t normal. Windclan should have been excited, but it seemed that everyone was panicking.

There was so much noise, in addition to the movement. Breezestem was still crying out, Duststone was shouting for more moss, the cats rushing to obey her orders were yowling to each other, and the nervously pacing cats outside the nursery were murmuring to each other. Duskflame had long since disappeared to find a stick-why a stick?-and Valleykit had lost track of his yellowish pelt, and Spicecloud had ducked back into the nursery to keep Breezestem’s confidence up.

There was a sharp shriek, and the clearing fell into a nervous silence. Valleykit pricked their ears, trying to catch the murmurs coming from the nursery, then flinched as an anguished cry shattered the quiet.

Ploverstar slipped past the barrier of cats, his dusty pelt swallowed by the shadows of the entrance. He reappeared a moment later, ignoring the sobbing protests from inside, carrying a tiny, limp shape. Ploverstar himself looked smaller than usual, and Valleykit didn’t miss the way he recollected himself upon exiting the nursery, putting on a brave face for the clan.

They caught little snippets of the conversations, not enough to put together much.

“.....she-kit..”

“....so little.”

“..dead…”

“....Breezestem…”

“Duststone says…...more….weakening…”

Ploverstar set his burden gently on the ground, then turned to address the clan. “Everyone not needed to assist Duststone, get back to your usual duties, please. Henheart, send out another hunting patrol. Stressing isn’t going to make this happen faster or easier.” He picked the bundle back up, and Valleykit let out a little squeak of horror as they got a better look at it.

It was a kit.

Ploverstar ducked into his den, then returned without the kit. Valleykit, who was getting nervous sitting on their own, waddled over to him on unsteady paws. “Are Spicecloud and Duskflame going to come back soon?” they asked, tilting their head up at the leader.

Despite the weariness on his face, Ploverstar smiled at them. “Spicecloud’s still with Breezestem, and Duskflame’s out fetching moss now,” he said gently.

Valleykit turned towards the nursery, where their mother’s ginger pelt was barely visible from within. “Can I go in?”

“How about the two of us just hang out for a bit?” Ploverstar suggested, “It’s already very crowded in there, and Duststone likes some space to work.”

Valleykit nodded, and nestled close to their friend.

Ploverstar had tried multiple times without success to explain what made Spicecloud and Duskflame Valleykit’s parents but he was a family friend, and how Spicecloud and Duskflame were mates but he was their best friend, all of which made very little sense to Valleykit’s moon old mind. As far as Valleykit was concerned, they had three best friends and all three were all the greatest cats ever.

Just when they were starting to drift off to sleep, another wail disturbed the uneasy peace. Ploverstar sprang to his feet, gave them a quick lick over the ears, then dashed over to the nursery. He nearly collided with Spicecloud as she bolted out, her fur ruffled with fear.

“Out of my way!” she snapped, shoving him unceremoniously to the side. Valleykit had never heard her talk so fast, or seen her treat Ploverstar with anything but respect and fondness, but she sounded very afraid. “Second kit’s alive, but Breezestem’s fading fast. We need more cobwebs and burnet, now.

Ploverstar nodded, glancing around the camp. “Spicecloud, you take the cobwebs. Henheart, Orangeblaze, run over to Thunderclan and see if they have any spare burnet. Go!” he added urgently, as his clanmates sluggishly rose to their paws.

“Don’t bother, Plo,”  Duststone called, poking her brown head out of the den. She dipped her chin, letting out a little sigh. “It’s too late. I lost her.”

Valleykit crept into the cluster of adults, embedding themself against Spicecloud’s fluff. Her plumy ginger tail curled around them, making their nose tickle. Valleykit could feel her trembling beside them, her muscles tight as if she wanted to fight something. “I’ll nurse the kit,” she growled, sounding angry. Valleykit peered up at her, worried, but she was already storming into the nursery.

They tottered after her, and poked their head hesitantly through the entrance.

The nursery’s usually milky scent was sour with the scent of blood, and Valleykit could see streaks of it staining the soft floor. Breezestem’s familiar dark shape was slumped over in the corner, still as a rock. Beside her hunched her mate, Galeshard, who was making a strange, choking noise.

He was, Valleykit realized with a jolt of horror, sobbing. They’d never seen an adult cat cry, and certainly not like this. Galeshard sounded like he couldn’t breath, like the life was being dragged out of him.

“Don’t touch her,” he bleated as Spicecloud reached down, trying to nudge her out of the way. Spicecloud looked up at him, her gaze sharp.

“The kit needs to be fed,” she said, “Unless you’d like to lose him as well?” That silenced Galeshard at once, and the grey tom stepped back to let Spicecloud snag the tiny kit’s scruff. She carried him over to her nest, Valleykit scrambling at her heels.

They watched, fascinated, as she nudged the little black bundle up against her stomach. The kit didn’t look much like a cat, if Valleykit was being perfectly honest. He looked like a little black mouse, or maybe a vole, too tiny and blobby to be feline. He looked, they decided, like a large, furry bean. “Does he have a name?” Spicecloud called to Galeshard, who nodded numbly.

“She-” he hiccuped, then started again, “She named him Fogkit. Before she died.”

Spicecloud gave Galeshard a weak smile. “That’s a lovely name.”

Valleykit climbed carefully into the nest, making sure to give the little bean kit plenty of space. They climbed up onto Spicecloud’s back, getting a bird’s eye view. They tried to focus on the strange, tiny kit, and not on the limp body on the other side of the den, but the worry kept creeping back in like a gnawing toothache.

“Why did Breezestem die?” Valleykit asked eventually, tipping their head up at Spicecloud.

“Having kits can be dangerous,” Spicecloud explained, her gaze drifting dismally over to where Breezestem was slumped. “Especially when they come early, like these ones did.”

Valleykit considered this, frowning at the bean kit. “You’re not going to die, right?” they fretted, their eyes wide and nervous. Spicecloud looked up sharply, and gave her head an emphatic shake.

“No, don’t be mousebrained. I’m not going to die.” She dipped her head, nuzzling their fuzzy pelt affectionately. “You have nothing to worry about.” 


Valleystep poked their head into the medicine den, frowning when they saw that it was empty save for Fogheart. The black cat looked up as they walked in, their grey eyes dull, either from pain or poppy seeds. “Hey, Val,” he said, raising a paw weakly in greeting.

“Hey yourself,” Valleystep replied, flashing him a quick grin.

Fogheart dropped his head back onto his paws, staring gloomily at the wall. “Nice of you to drop by,” he grumbled, flicking an ear back. Between his sullen manner and his ragged pelt, which was still broken with long gashes, he was looking rather put-upon.

Valleystep’s grin faltered, as they regarded their friend with a twinge of guilt. “I didn’t mean to deprive you of my fantastic companionship,” they said, flopping down beside Fogheart so that they could catch his eyes, “I’ve just been busy with the kit.”

“It’s fine,” Fogheart snorted, his charcoal gaze flashing white as he rolled his eyes. “I enjoyed the silence.”

Valleystep peered at his face. “Then what’s wrong?”

Fogheart let out a little huff, and closed his eyes. Valleystep wasn’t familiar with this tight sort of agitation on his face. “What did Stormflight want to talk to you about?” he asked eventually.

Valleystep chuckled, shaking their head. “Nothing worth hearing. A bunch of junk about how Starclan chose me to save the clans. Imagine that, me saving the clans.” They were inviting ridicule, and expected Fogheart to perk up at the chance, but the black time just scowled. “The two of us didn’t get along too well,” Valleystep mused regretfully, “Their sense of humor was too underdeveloped. Y’know, you two have a lot in common there,” they teased.

Fogheart’s eyes snapped open, a soft growl rumbling in his throat. “I am nothing like them,” he snapped. Valleystep’s eyes widened, startled. They’d meant to annoy him, yes, but Fogheart looked just about ready to claw someone.

“Fogheart, I can’t read that mysterious mind of yours,” Valleystep said, tapping Fogheart gently on the head. “What’s this about?”

Fogheart’s expression grew stiffer. “You don’t remember them,” he said gruffly.

“Should I?”

“They’re the one that killed my father, so maybe,” Fogheart grunted, shrugging.

Valleystep’s head jerked up, their eyes widening with realization. They remembered that battle all too well, one of the few actual fights they’d been in thanks to Ploverstar’s diplomacy. Specifically, they remembered Galeshard’s body, the ragged, uneven gash slicing down his throat and chest, and Fogheart’s shattered cry.

They blinked at Fogheart, and leaned over to brush their cheek against his. “I’m sorry, I should have remembered that,” they murmured.

“It’s fine, that’s not what I’m upset about,” Fogheart growled, leaning away. “I just don’t like them being interested in you. They’re not safe, Valleystep.”

Valleystep frowned, thinking of the flash of anger in the other cat’s gaze as they had laughed at them. “They didn’t seem like the stablest cat,” they admitted, but then they flicked their smile back on. “But, I told them I didn’t believe them. I doubt they’ll be back.”

Fogheart nodded, still looking troubled. “Just be careful Val,” he warned.

“Aren’t I always?” Valleystep chirped, bouncing back to their feet. “Look, I promise I’ll swing by later to annoy you, but right now I’ve got some...business to take care of.” Fogheart frowned, his gaze clouding with frustrated understanding. “Have you seen Ploverstar?”

“He left camp around the time the Riverclan cats showed up.”

Valleystep stared at their friend, mumbled a quick goodbye, then bolted out of the den.


They caught up with Ploverstar about halfway between the Horseplace and Windclan camp, only slightly winded from the run. Racing rabbits was wonderful exercise, and sometimes it seemed like their legs were running on their own accord. They smiled to themself as Ploverstar slowed to wait for them, looking abashed.

“Thought you’d give me the slip, eh?” Valleystep asked as they jogged up beside their leader, shaking their head. “Sorry, Plo, but you’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

“Ah, well, I had to try,” Ploverstar replied, voice ruefully apologetic. He sighed, and picked up a paw to study the underside of it. “I must be getting old, I had a pretty good head start on you.”

“You’re not old!” Valleystep objected automatically, although, upon consideration, they had no clue how old Ploverstar was. He seemed infinite. “You’re just weighed down by all that wisdom. Hence why I’m so fast.”

“I’ll have to tell Flarestar that next gathering,” Ploverstar murmured, as the two of them took off for their destination. “Her elder jokes are getting old. What did Stormflight and Pepperheart have to say?”

Valleystep’s smile grew. “The mousebrain tried to convince me I’m part of some sort of special destiny type foxdung. I should’ve just abandoned the conversation as soon as they started rambling about Starclan.”

Ploverstar stopped abruptly, and spun around to face them. With a startled yelp, Valleystep ducked sideways in an effort to avoid a collision, and ended up toppling into a patch of heather.

“What?” Valleystep asked, shaking tiny blossoms from their ears as they scrambled back to their feet. Ploverstar looked troubled, lost in thought, and not remotely as amused as the situation warranted.

“What did they say?” Ploverstar asked seriously, frowning.

Valleystep tilted their head slightly, regarding the older cat with bemusement. “It was ridiculous, Plo,” they said, startled by his earnestness. “They said I’m supposed to help save the clans. Oh, also, apparently I’m Hawkfrost and Skystar mashed into one.”

Ploverstar stood very still, saying nothing.

“It’s ridiculous,” Valleystep repeated, putting even more emphasis on the word this time.

“Valleystep, do you believe in Starclan?” Ploverstar asked. Valleystep hesitated, trying to formulate an acceptable response. Their respect for Ploverstar stifled the laughter they had awarded Stormflight with, but still, the answer was no. “Well, Val,” he said after a moment, rescuing them from the silence, “Do you believe in me? Do you trust my words?”

“Of course,” Valleystep said without hesitation.

“Val, I’ve died four times,” Ploverstar murmured, his eyes growing a little misty. “Twice I’ve had another cat’s claws go through my throat, once greencough stole my last breath, and, most recently, I fell during the same battle that took your mother.” He smiled thinly, humorlessly, as Valleystep struggled for their words. “But I guess that’s ridiculous?”

“With all due respect,” Valleystep said gingerly, “If you were badly injured, don’t you think it’s possible that you were a little delirious?” They weren’t sure what was harder to believe: Stormflight’s tall tails or Ploverstar buying into old fables.

“No, Val, I don’t think so,” Ploverstar replied evenly, giving his head a little shake. He sounded weary, sad, and Valleystep instantly regretted not pretending to believe him.

“Sorry,” they murmured.

“I don’t care what you chose to put your faith in, Valleystep, but unfortunately I think Starclan will work you into its plans regardless.” Ploverstar closed his eyes. “Which, as your-” Ploverstar faltered, evidentially not certain enough to say whatever he’d been about to say, “-leader, is distressing. Hero is far from the safest occupation.”

“I’m no hero,” Valleystep snorted, “If you want charming jokes and a gorgeous face, I’m your cat, but hero? I think I’ll pass.” They were trying desperately to lighten the mood, and get the topic onto something the two of them could agree on, but Ploverstar just shook his head.

“I hope you’re right, Val,” he murmured. “Let’s go find your father.”

The closer they got to the Horseplace, the more snippets of Duskflame’s scent Valleystep caught. On one paw, they were relieved beyond measure with the reassurance that Duskflame was up to his usual habits and not kidnapped. On the other, when Duskflame left Windclan territory, it generally meant he wanted nothing to do with them, and here they were, tracking him down.

It had been a bit since Valleystep had tagged along for a trip to the Horseplace. It looked the same, exhausted and unstable, although the paint on the main den and the barn had more progress on its secession from the mess. The air smelled of horse dirt, and as they crossed the Windclan border, Duskflame’s scent disappeared beneath the stench.

Ploverstar ducked under the bowed bottom rung of the fence, and led the way over to the barn. He glanced inside, his expression torn between resignation and regret. “Please wait outside?” he asked, and this time Valleystep obliged him, content with the knowledge that they could eavesdrop.

Ploverstar slipped past the tarnished doors, looking rather small under the huge arch of the barn’s entryway. Towards the back, Valleystep say Duskflame slouched on top of a dusty hay bail, beside a round, reddish brown kittypet. The kittypet broke off mid sentence at the sight of Ploverstar, their voice growing sullen. “Dusk, your friend’s here again. The stern old guy.”

“Hi, Plo,” Duskflame murmured, raising his chin off of his paws. “Care to grab a patch of hay?” He patted the spot next to him with a paw. “Enip was just finishing up a story.” Valleystep frowned, squinting at their father through the gaps in the barn doors. He sounded almost friendly.

“Hello, Duskflame,” Ploverstar replied warily, but didn’t join Duskflame on a hay bale. “Please come back to Windclan.”

Duskflame snorted, returning his gaze to the metallic barn wall. “Why do you want me to do that?”

“Because, Duskflame, I’m the leader. I can’t spend all day trying to coax you out of here.”

“Not that,” Duskflame said, waving a dismissive paw. “Why do you bother at all?”

“Pardon?” Ploverstar asked, his voice uncertain.

“I hardly ever go on patrols,” Duskflame mused, sounding almost amazed with himself. “I’m aloof at best and dangerous at worst. I contribute nothing to the clan, and yet you keep dragging me back to it. Why not just leave me here?”

Ploverstar sighed, and, reluctantly, pulled himself up on the hay bale. “Could you give us some privacy?” he asked Enip, who nodded and trotted over to where Valleystep was hiding. The kittypet frowned, bewildered, but otherwise ignored them as they headed for the twoleg den. Valleystep wondered breifly if Ploverstar had been directing that question at them as well, but was too curious to leave.

“Ooh, privacy,” Duskflame drawled, “Is this going to be a serious conversation, Plo? Try not to put me to sleep.” With a lazy wiggle, he flopped over onto his back, staring up at his leader.

“You’re the one who asked the serious question,” Ploverstar replied, folding his paws neatly against his chest. He studied Duskflame for a moment, then said, “It’s partially because I know that if I let you go, you’re going to get yourself into trouble. Either your carelessness or Hayfire is bound to put you in your grave eventually, sooner than later if I’m not around to stop you.” Ploverstar shook his head. “I’m half tempted just to let you go anyway. I’ve given you more second chances than I thought I had in me.”

“Why don’t you?” Duskflame prompted.

Ploverstar glanced over at the door, hesitating. He met Valleystep’s gaze, let out a gusty little sigh, then continued. “Well, Duskflame, I miss you sometimes. But,” he added, with a hint of bitterness, “If it were only me who had to mourn you, I would have kicked you out seasons ago.”

“Ouch,” Duskflame said, in a tone Valleystep didn’t know how to decipher.

“Duskflame, you said it yourself,” Ploverstar murmured, almost apologetically. “You’re aloof at best and dangerous at worst. Most days I can’t find my friend under all that cruelty.”

Duskflame said nothing, but reached a paw upwards to trace the thin scar that still cut across Ploverstar’s forehead. “Then why?”

“Valleystep,” Ploverstar admitted, glancing again towards the exit. “It always comes down to Val. For the past two years, you’ve made their life miserable, but they still love you.” Valleystep flinched at the sorrow in his words, and the truth of them. “I suppose it was foolish of me, but I kept hoping I’d be able to get their father back for them.”

Duskflame retracted his paw. “Y’know the kid?” he asked eventually, casually, “Not Val, the new one.”

“Yes?”

Duskflame cleared his throat, leaning sideways to pull at a stray strand of hay. “Her mom’s dead.”

“I figured as much.”

“She was a lovely little ginger, the same shade as the kit but a little darker, like her mother plucked her right out of a sunset. Her name was Ginger, actually, kind of sillly if you ask me, but whatever. Her eyes were greener than grass.”

“I see,” Ploverstar said neutrally. Valleystep saw as well, with a twist of nausea. That was exactly what Spicecloud had looked like. Duskflame wasn’t finished with his story yet, but Valleystep had the sinking suspicious of how it was going to end.

“Yep,” Duskflame acknowledged with a sigh. “The kit looks a little like Val too, y’know. And Enip’s a poor substitute for you, but I was going to make it work. I was all set to run off for good-” Valleystep noticed with alarm that his voice was taking on an unsteady, quavering note, “-when Ginger went and got herself killed by a badger. A badger, of all things.”

“That’s….” Ploverstar began, then trailed off. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he finished decisively.

Duskflame let out a long, bitter chuckle. “Plo, I literally just told you that I tried to replace you all, and you’re still trying to be polite. Grow a backbone, my friend. Pay me back for that scar. At the very least, raise your voice.”

“What’s the point of this conversation?” Ploverstar asked tightly, his eyes skating over to Valleystep again. He blinked at him, and mouthed I’m sorry.

Valleystep shook their head, plastering on a cheery smile. Ploverstar was sorry? Valleystep had been the one who had insisted on coming, although now they wished they hadn’t.

Duskflame had tried to replace them.

They sucked in a rattly breath, trying to focus on the conversation. Ploverstar was still waiting for a reply, but Duskflame was taking his good, sweet time.

“I guess what I’m trying to say,” Duskflame muttered, “Is that I miss you too. I miss having a family.”

Ploverstar glanced sharply down at him, his eyes going wide with surprise. In a burst of painfull need, Valleystep thought, Did you miss me, Dad? Even in their head, it was said in a squeaky kit voice.

“Maybe,” Ploverstar said carefully, sounding like he was trying to swallow a frog, “Instead of trying to make a replacement family, you should come back to the one you still have.”

“How?” Duskflame asked, sounding very small. “You all probably hate me at this point.”

“I don’t hate you,” Ploverstar replied quietly. “I probably ought to, but I don’t. Same goes for Val. You make them hate themself, but I don’t think they’ve ever come remotely close to actually hating you. And the little one doesn’t know she should hate you yet.

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Duskflame croaked.

“No,” Ploverstar admitted, “I’m not going to lie to you Duskflame, you’ve done a lot of damage in these past two years. But I think maybe we’ve all got one more second chance left for you, if you’re willing to earn it.”

Duskflame gave a single, stiff nod, and Ploverstar’s face split into a hesitant smile. “Good,” he murmured, slipping off of the hay bale. Valleystep might have been imagining it, but his steps seemed springier, lighter. Younger even, maybe. “Let’s go home then.”

Chapter 17[]

The young ginger tabby trotted through the knotted clusters of pine trees, his steps swift and springy with the lightness of someone who had skillfully forgotten all of his responsibilities. He hummed as he jogged along, pausing to swipe at the colorful leaves drifting across the forest floor.

Lizardsight loved a great many things, being a warrior among them, but the primary item on the list at the moment was Turtle. Once he got back to camp, there would be chores to do and lies to tell, but for now, he was content to misplace his common sense and drown in his happiness for the moment.

He drifted over to the edge of the Thunderclan border, in search of prey. That was what he had been meant to be doing for the past few hours, but alas, he’d gotten sidetracked.

Lizardsight sniffed at the air, then frowned as he caught a whiff of not squirrel, but cat. He glanced across the Thunderpath, his good mood wilting slightly at the sight of a scrawny brown and ginger she-cat hovering on the other side of the border.

He really, really wasn’t in the mood to chase someone off of his territory today, but maybe he wouldn’t have to. She smelled like a rogue, but she was on Skyclan’s side of the road. That, he concluded cheerfully, made her Skyclan’s problem.

Unfortunately, the she-cat wasn’t on board with this plan. Lizardsight watched grumpily as she started across the slim river of concrete, and reluctantly padded over to the curb to greet her. “Look,” he began as she reached the middle, “You can’t-”

She heard the rumble a moment before he did. Lizardsight saw her eyes widen with terror, and he just barely had time to register the tremor in the stone beneath his feet before she was dashing towards him.

The monster hit her squarely in the side, sending her flying high and far, like a gangly bird. She struck the ground hard, tried to rise, but Lizardsight noted numbly that she had been flung in front of the beast instead of to the side. He opened his mouth in delayed protest as the monster rushed over her, followed closely by a second one.

Lizardsight turned to stare after the huge creatures. They’d both been a vibrant red, topless so that he could see the twolegs inside of it. Both had been going faster than the usual monster, with their masters shouting and cheering within.

“Great Starclan,” he murmured, as reality caught up with him. On shaking paws, he tentatively crept out to where the she-cat lay, although he could tell from a glance that she was very, very dead.

Lizardsight did his best to avoid looking at the crushed form beside him, hovering uncertainly beside it. He wasn’t sure what to do with it. He had the sinking suspicion that if he tried to move it, it would just fall apart, but if he left it he knew it would be trampled under the monster’s paws over and over again.

“May Starclan light your path,” Lizardsight murmured, less out of faith and more out of habit. It felt wrong to leave the body in the road, but he wasn’t about to stick around to see if the monsters came back. He turned to leave, then froze as he smelled something through the stench of exhaust and blood. It was a sweet, milky scent, the kind that clung to a nursing queen.

“Great Starclan,” Lizardsight repeated again, his voice soft with horror. She’d been a mother. Meaning that somewhere there were kits waiting for her, maybe without another parent to look after them.


It took him almost an hour, combing his way back and forth between Shadowclan territory and the other end of the Thunderpath. He strayed as close as he dared to the border, internally wondering how long kits could last without their mom. Three hours? A day? He had no idea. Even if they weren’t growing weak from hunger or freezing, a fox or badger could find them at any time.

Lizardsight followed the Thunderpath back through Shadowclan territory, the gravel stinging his paws as he darted agitatedly too and fro, sniffing at bushes and pausing to listen for any cries.

Eventually, almost out of clan territory, he smelled the same milky scent that had clung to the she-cat. He followed it to a little dip in the ground, which led into a small, crumbling, abandoned badger den. At the demanding squeak that omitted from its darkness, a relieved smile split across Lizardsight’s face. Something was still alive.

He wriggled into the hole, accidentally bumping his head in the process. He flicked the dirt from his ears, and looked down at his discovery.

Three tiny kits, each about the size of a mouse, were squirming about in a lopsided, disorganized nest.  They were all squawking and squealing, sounding lonely and rather alarmed, so Lizardsight carefully nestled himself beside them. Instantly, all three squirmed over to him, nosing at his side for milk that didn’t exist.

“Sorry, little guys,” he murmured, giving the fluffy yellow tabby a comforting lick, “I know I’m not your mom.”

Lizardsight had really been hoping they’d be old enough to be weaned. He could catch all the prey in the world, but these three would have no use for it. They weren’t walking either, which was almost as hindering. Somehow, he had to transport the little rascals to safety and find them a nursing queen.

Of which, Lizardsight noted with frustration, Shadowclan had none. Wolfpaw had moved out of the nursery several moons ago, and now the den was sitting empty. He racked his brain, trying to remember if Skyclan had any new kits, but came up with nothing. He wasn’t going to haul them all the way to Skyclan camp for a maybe.

Then, an idea hit him. With a broad grin, Lizardsight turned to his tiny companions. “Come on, loves, I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” he murmured.


“Hey, Turtle!” Lizardsight yowled, as he finally reached the creaky gate that marked the beginning of his mate’s territory. His shoulders ached from trying to keep his back perfectly level, to avoid tipping the two kits balanced precariously there to the ground. The third, who he had been carrying in his mouth a moment earlier, sat between his front paws, squeaking dismally. “Turtle!” Lizardsight shouted again, and a moment later a startled tabby face appeared at the fence.

“Lizardsight?” Turtle said, perplexed. “What’re you….” he trailed off at the sight of the kits draped over Lizardsight’s spine.

“Remember how you were saying it was a shame we can’t have kits unless we found some to adopt?” Lizardsight asked, gently sliding the two kits off of his back so that he could sit down. “Well, I think these might work.”

Turtle slipped under the gate, his eyes wide with worry. “Lizardsight, they’re so little!” he paused, regarding him suspiciously. “You didn’t steal them, did you?”

Lizardsight felt a sharp stab of irritation at that. He’d thought they’d gotten past the trust issues, but no, apparently he was still eligible for kit theft in Turtle’s eyes. “No, Turtle, I did not steal them,” he replied, scowling, “I saw their mom get hit by a monster and decided not to let them starve.”

Turtle had the good graces to look embarrassed as he stooped to sniff at the kits. “They probably still need milk, right?” he asked, his gaze flickering briefly to Lizardsight before returning to the kits.

“Yes, an area of expertise that I’m particularly inept at,” Lizardsight said. “I was hoping your twoleg might be able to help. Twolegs seem kind of magical when it comes to healing and that sort of thing.”

Turtle nodded. “She can, she’s done it before. Marigold had kits with her when Olivia brought her home, but not enough milk.” He wrinkled his nose in bewilderment. “Somehow, Olivia just left in her car and came back with more milk.”

“I hate to think of how she acquired that,” Lizardsight snorted, “But as long as these little guys get what they need.”

Turtle hesitated, his expression worried. “How attached did you already get to them?” he asked gently, with a small smile.

Lizardsight paused, his pelt prickling with embarrassment. “You said you wanted kits…I guess I was figuring we’d adopt them?” On second thought, he probably should have checked with Turtle before jumping to that conclusion.

“So, pretty attached,” Turtle murmured, “Not,” he added, “That I don’t think that’s a brilliant, fantastic idea, but if we give them to Olivia, she might not give them back.”

“What?” Lizardsight yelped, his eyes going wide with desmay. “Why? Do twolegs eat kits?”

“No, nothing like that,” Turtle reassured him quickly, shaking his head emphatically. “Olivia would never hurt a kit. But, sometimes, if a twoleg doesn’t want a cat, it takes them to this place with lots of cages, where a different twoleg takes them home. Either way, the kits will be safe, but we might never see them again. I think there’s a pretty good chance she’ll want to keep them, though. Ever since Marigold died, I’ve been her only cat.”

“Okay,” Lizardsight said slowly, staring at the kits. He tried to reconcile himself with the fact that either way they’d end up happy and healthy, even if it wasn’t with him. “Whatever’s best for the kits.”

“Okay,” Turtle echoed, blinking at him. He took a deep breath, then turned towards the twoleg den. “Oliviaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” he yowled, loud enough to make the kits squeak in protest.

Instantly, the door of the den shot open, and the twoleg shot out. She was tall, towering, and wearing a bright green pelt and a patch of grey fur on her head. She spotted Lizardsight first, and made a happy chirping sound.

The two had met before. The twoleg had seemed charmed, and Lizardsight significantly less so, but he supposed if she was nice to Turtle, then he would trust her to take care of the kits.

When Olivia caught sight of the tiny kits sitting at Lizardsight’s paw, she made a low, cooing nose, and shuffled quickly through the gate. She bent down, sending Lizardsight skittering nervously away, and, with more gentleness than he would have thought possible for those giant paws, carefully picked up the kits.

“Please bring them back,” Lizardsight called after her, knowing that she couldn’t understand him but feeling the need to say it anyway. He’d only known the kits for a day, but already he felt painfully protective of them. He really, really wanted to be their dad.



Bumble sat perched on the lap of her twoleg, her eyes closed into little slits as Olivia gently ran a giant paw along her spine, pushing her fur flat. Twolegs didn’t really purr, but she’d noticed over the years that Olivia definitely had a happy chirp. Bumble gazed through the thin gap in her lids, tracing the faded flower wallpaper distractedly. Why twolegs wanted flat, unscented, dull colored imitations of something that existed in full brilliance just outside bewildered her.

It was not a new feeling, this agitated dissatisfaction she felt, sitting in her den surrounded by those she loved. Wasn’t that what made a home? But, no, everytime she left the forest, she felt a desperate longing to return.

Except it wasn’t even the forest that captured her mind. This time, it was a certain ginger, someone with fur thick as clouds and eyes like burnt gold.

“I don’t even know what burnt gold looks like,” Bumble mumbled out loud, instantly regretting allowing her mind to wander. Flarestar lingered in her mind like an unwelcome trespasser, or a tick she couldn’t quite shake. She had Bumble caught up in a whirlwind of hunger, suspicion, terrible poetry, and a heavy hanging confusion.

“What about burnt gold?” Scone asked, glancing up from her perch on the couch arm. “Who’s burning gold?”

“Nothing,” Bumble said, too quickly.

“You’re thinking about that leader again,” Scone chuckled, her eyes sparkling with amusement. “I’m telling you, you’re in loveee.”

Yes, Bumble’s mind complained bitterly, she was. And therefore she was doomed, just like last time. A heavy, angry wave of melancholy rolled over her, laced with resignation and an aching longing.

All of which was utterly bewildering and more than a little alarming, given that she’d met this cat once. Flarestar had been pretty, sure- mind blowingly, stunningly gorgeous, her mind interjected-but Bumble didn’t understand or particularly like the out of proportion feelings that were trying to hijack her brain.

She’d tried to explain this to Scone, which had obviously been a mistake. Bumble wasn’t sure what was going on, but she didn’t think it was love. She hoped it wasn’t love, if this was what romantic feelings felt like, she wasn’t amused.

“I never would have guessed,” Scone droned on, rolling over onto the couch beside Bumble. “That you would fall in love with the first cat we meet who’s not related to us. It’s like...the universe was just waiting for you to go meet her.”

“I’m not in love with her,” Bumble replied, swatting at  Scone’s ears, “And keep your voice down.” The last thing she needed was for the rest of the family to catch wind.

“If you say so,” Scone teased, ducking away from Bumble’s paws. She darted off the couch and out of the room, leaving Bumble to her  thoughts.

Bumble closed her eyes, listening to the ruffling of her fur against the twoleg’s paws. Her head was aching terribly, and she felt as though something was slipping.

Her thoughts kept drifting back to Flarestar. No, not drifting, dragging, forceful enough that trying to think about other things made her feel a little nauseous. Feeling sick and helpless, she pictured the leader’s face- her lovely, perfect face- in a hope that maybe she could get it all out of her system.

If Bumble had been sentient enough to think thoughts after that, she would have regretted it.

The thing swelled, swallowing up the logical little sliver left in her mind. Images of a silky furred ginger she-cat blurred before her eyes. Flarestar’s mischievous smile, the swift punch of her paws against the ground as she sprang, the gleam of the sun turning her fur golden. A ginger grinning, her eyes sparkling, the rise and fall of her side as she slept across the den. A sharp, searing pain, when that same grin looked to someone else. Smoke, choking and enclosing, cries rising with the fumes. Fire burning, licking at a flame colored coat, a flash of black fur, blood, blood everywhere.

The picture cleared and he was watching bubbles fly by, shadows creeping in, and clenched between his jaws a sodden ginger scruff. Victory so close was snatched away, betrayal again and again. He’d tried everything, but she’d tricked him and left him and it was all her fault.

The thing retreated, radiating mutinous hatred, crawling back to the corner it had been lurking in. Bumble’s eyes snapped open, her mind blazing sharp bursts of pain.

He? Bumble thought, as the discomfort faded slowly into the background. Bumble was many things, but she wasn’t a he. She scrambled off of Olivia’s lap, her pelt bristling. The first few memories had been hers, for certain, but after that they definitely hadn’t. The ginger hadn’t been Flarestar, and the blur of anger was someone else’s.

Whose was it then?

“Bumble,” Turtle called, poking his head into the room. She glanced up, startled by the fierce mix of anger, fear, and confusion on his face, and wondered briefly if he somehow knew how much she’d been thinking of the forest. “Bumble, there’s a cat here to see you,” Turtle said tightly, “A clan cat.”

“What?” Bumble said, her eyes widening. Flarestar? Her heart thrummed in her chest at the idea, but more out of fear than anything else. If imaging her face sent her spiraling into a mess, what would actually seeing her do? “Who?”

Turtle shook his head. “Stormflight and Pepperheart, neither of whom I’ve heard of. I don’t think they’re Shadowclan.” His eyes narrowed suspiciously, and Bumble wondered what he was thinking of. Surely he didn’t think she knew them?

“Well, I guess I’ll go see what they have to say,” she murmured, grateful for something to do that could keep her mind occupied. She darted from the room, dashed down the stairs, and slipped through the cat door.

The clan cats were sitting awkwardly between the mint and the tomatoes, looking awkward and uncomfortable within the fence’s confinement. The little ginger tom seemed agitated and uneasy, and the lean black cat’s eyes were flicking about with obvious distaste.

“Hello,” Bumble said, sitting down in front of them. “You….wanted to talk to me?”

Stormflight- she’d decided that the ginger was probably Pepperheart- let their eyes drift slowly over Bumble’s pelt, so obviously judging that Bumble had to fight to keep the scowl off her face. The black cat leaned over to Pepperheart, and murmured under their breath, “Well, maybe she’s not completely useless.”

“Pardon?” Bumble asked, both offended and confused. How was she supposed to be useful to a duo of clan cats?

“Sorry,” Stormflight said, not sounding overly sorry at all, “I guess I’m just used to kittypets being fat.”

“Uh,” Bumble muttered, her ears flicking back, “Well, I do exercise some…” She didn’t know how she was supposed to respond to someone who was being so blatantly rude.

Pepperheart shot Stormflight a frustrated glare, which was enough to make Bumble decide that she liked him better than his companion. “It’s nice to meet you, Bumble,” he said politely, with a strained smile, but from that point forward seemed to falter. “How much do you know about the clans?” he asked after a moment.

“Probably nothing,” Stormflight muttered dismissively.

Bumble raised her chin slightly, shooting Stormflight a triumphant look. “I know plenty,” she said, “There’s five of you, Shadowclan, Thunderclan, Skyclan, Windclan, and Riverclan. You all follow a warrior code, and to some degree, believe in Starclan. Apprentices names end with ‘paw, kits end with kit, leaders end with star. Need I go on?”

Stormflight peered down their muzzle at her, their eyes a shade of ice blue. Bumble felt the thing stir again, this time lacking any wisp of desire. She felt a hard bolt of hate, suddenly, for the arrogant furball in front of her. Not dislike, hate.

“Right,” Stormflight said, their voice taking on a sluggish quality to it, as if they were filtering their words before saying them. “Impressive. Well, the more important question is, do you believe in Starclan?”

“Kind of?” Bumble replied. She straightened, trying to shrug off her uncertainty. She couldn’t let this stranger intimidate her in her own home.

Lizardsight had always spoken of Starclan as if it were something out of a myth, potentially true to some degree but also potentially complete fantasy. She’d never really thought about it until after his death, but now she hoped it was real, for his sake.

“That’s the best response yet,” Pepperheart said, his ears pricking hopefully in her direction. He glanced sideways at Stormflight, and added, “Would you like me to do the honors this time? Given the results of our last attempt?”

“You couldn’t have talked sense into that mousebrain either,” Stormflight growled, their tail twitching irritably. They turned to Bumble, and added, “Besides, if a clan cat can’t buy it, why would a kittypet?”

Bumble’s mind churned with anger, and when she spoke a growl had crept into her voice. “If this conversation has a point beyond you insulting me, I suggest you get to it. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your clan.”

“Oh, there’s a point,” Stormflight replied, a smirk sliding onto their face at her tone. “Bumble, for some reason, Starclan has chosen you to be part of something very important. You, me, and three other cats are in charge of saving the clans, presumably from this new rogue threat.”

Bumble gawked at them. “Is this some sort of a joke?” she snapped, startling herself with the venom in her voice. Angrily, she glared up at the larger cat, her pelt bristling with rage. “Let me guess, someone dared you. They thought it would be funny to mess with the stupid kittypets. Well, sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not that much dumber than you mousebrains.”

Stormflight’s face flushed with anger for a moment, before they sucked in a long, deep breath. They looked, briefly, almost abashed. Pepperheart glanced nervously between the two of them, and took a careful step backwards.

Bumble took a breath of her own, her fur hot with anger. She was usually better at tolerating irritating cats, given that her brother was one. But, what she really wanted to do was claw Stormflight’s smug face off.

“Interesting,” Stormflight said lightly, eyeing Bumble warily. “Very interesting. Pepperheart, you might want to step back, I’m going to try a...different method.”

“Stormflight, don’t be a fool,” Pepperheart said warningly, but obligingly backed up.

“Bumble, do you know who Ashfur is?” Stormflight asked, tilting their head slightly.

Bumble nodded. “Some cat who tried to take over the clans.” That was about all she knew, Lizardsight had performed tales of the ancient Lionclan, Leopardclan, and Tigerclan to the more realistic fables.

Stormflight nodded thoughtfully. “Good. Now, a harder question: who killed your mother?”

“What?” Bumble asked, so taken aback by the question that she forgot to be angry with them. She failed to see why this was relevant, or how it was going to convince her that they were being sincere about their ridiculous scam.

“Who killed your mother?” they repeated, leaning closer.

“I don’t have a mother,” Bumble replied, lashing her tail warningly.

“You had a mother once,” Stormflight insisted, holding her gaze intently. Their eyes were sharp and intense, waiting. “Who killed her?”

“Stormflight, this is a bad idea,” Pepperheart interjected from the edge of the garden. By his tone, Bumble could tell that he understood what was going on far more than she did, and he didn’t like it.

“Who killed your mother?” Stormflight demanded, ignoring their nervous colleague.

“I don’t know,” Bumble said irritably, trying to remember what all Turtle and Lizardsight had said about her biological mother. “I think she got hit by a car.”

“Who killed her?”

“No one, she got hit by a car,” Bumble growled.

Stormflight shook their head, grinning as her agitation grew. “Your other mother.”

Bumble let out an angry hiss. “I don’t have another mother, you idiot, haven’t you been paying attention?” The thing inside of her twisted about like a snake preparing to strike.

“No, Bumble, you’re wrong,” Stormflight murmured, leaning close. Bumble felt a chill of fury freeze her heart as they caught a glimpse of something familiar in their eyes. Something familiar and something despised. “Who. Killed. Your. Mother?”

You killed my mother,” Bumble gasped, her voice bubbling with loathing that wasn’t hers, as something tilted in her mind. She remembered now, the limp grey body, the stains of blood.

“That’s right,” Stormflight replied, their voice taking on a velvety, purrlike quality as their grin grew.

“Stormflight,” Pepperheart called, his pelt prickling with alarm as they rose to their paws, pacing about like a fox, their strides long and elegant.

“I killed your mother,” Stormflight continued tauntingly, “She would have made lovely dog bait, if the others hadn’t interfered.”

With a feral wail, Bumble sprang forward, her claws unsheathed and her fangs bared. Stormflight’s eyes widened with surprise as she ducked away from their well aimed blow, swept a paw against their legs, and shouldered them to the ground.

They moved fast, like a fish through water. The moment they landed, they rolled, and were back on their feet in an instance. Bumble darted after them, and Stormflight reared to meet her. She let out a sharp yelp of pain as their claws slit a long slice of red across their chest, the blood turning her yellow fur a rusty orange.

The pain blurred out some of the anger, replaced by fear. Lizardsight had taught her to fight, yes, but she’d never faced someone who actually wanted to hurt her. There were no sheathed claws or blunted blows now.

Stormflight swiped at her nose as she tried to rise, drawing more blood. They shoved her back down, and crouched over her, pinning her to the ground.

“Stormflight, stop it!” Pepperheart yowled, nearby but still away from the action. He sounded terrified, almost as much as Bumble. Stormflight didn’t look up, their muzzle contorted into a cruel sneer.

“You think,” they murmured, “That just because you know a few moves, you can play warrior?”

“Stormflight, think of Azollafrost!” Pepperheart shouted, and this time Stormflight flinched, their eyes suddenly pained. Bumble wasn’t sure who Azollafrost was, but her name certainly seemed to have the desired effect.

Stormflight stepped back, their expression mutinous. “I wasn't really going to hurt her,” they huffed, glowering at Pepperheart.

Pepperheart had come to stand between the two of them, but Bumble noticed he was still watching them both carefully, the way one would a rabid dog. He looked over at her, his yellow eyes unreadable. “We seem to have different definitions of hurt,” he replied.

Stormflight followed his gaze, looking almost surprised to see the growing bib of blood across Bumble’s chest. The wound burned terribly, and she could feel her pulse beating frantically against it. She bit back a wail of terror. She’d never been injured before, and had no idea how bad it was.

“She’s fine,” Stormflight said dismissively, “I wasn’t intending on injuring her, but I was surprised that she could actually fight. She’s fine,” they repeated, sounding a little like they were trying to convince themself.

Before Pepperheart or Bumble could reply, there was a loud clatter as Turtle burst from the cat flap, fell down the stairs, and scrambled swiftly to his feet. “Get out,” he ordered, stalking towards the clan cats. “Get out of here this instant. You’ve already burst in here uninvited, and now you’re attacking my daughter? Out, he snarled, jerking a paw in the direction of the gate. “You’re not welcome here, not now, not ever.” Turtle glanced over at Bumble, and she realized with a jolt that he was afraid, very afraid.

Stormflight smirked, as if they sensed this. “Oh, really, kittypet? How are you going to make me?”

“Leave him alone,” Bumble growled, rising unsteadily to her feet. “And yes, get out.”

“We’re going,” Pepperheart said shortly, but even as he turned to leave, Stormflight didn’t budge.

“I’ll call my twoleg,” Turtle said, the threat nearly nullified by the tremor in his voice as he tilted his head up at the clan cat. Bumble was painfully aware that Turtle knew absolutely nothing about defending himself.

Stormflight ignored him, and turned to Bumble. “Look, I’m sorry about the scratches,” they said lightly, “But did you see my point? Think about it. Do you even remember your mother?”

Bumble shook her head slowly, the realization of how ridiculous her reaction seemed in hindsight. Her mother had been killed by a car shortly after her birth. Stormflight hadn’t killed her.

And yet, in some way, they had.

“Bumble, you’re like me,” they continued. “You bear the weight of two spirits. In your case, Thunder and Ashfur. In mine, Wind Runner and Tigerstar. Ashfur’s mother, Brindleface, was killed by Tigerstar to give the dogs he planned to use on Thunderclan a taste for cat meat. Hence your instant hatred for me. That anger, at least most of it, wasn’t yours. It was Ashfur’s.” Stormflight hesitated, looking hesitantly hopeful. “Does that make any sense?”

Bumble said nothing, but thought back to her earlier turmoil, and of a certain she-cat Ashfur had been fond of, one who looked and acted a little like Flarestar. She looked around, feeling the brunt of Turtle’s confused gaze and Stormflight’s expectant one, and shook her head.

It didn’t make sense, but it would explain a lot. At the same time, however, Bumble currently wanted nothing more than to never see Stormflight again.

“I will call her,” Turtle said, as Stormflight scowled.

“Fine, keep your fur on,” they snapped, turning away.

As they headed after Pepperheart, Bumble heard him say, “We’re 0 for 2 now. You’ve managed to alienate both of the cats we’ve visited. Next time, I’m doing the talking.”

“I don’t know,” Stormflight replied, glancing back over their shoulder at Bumble. “Give her time.”

Turtle watched them until they disappeared from the view of the garden, then rushed to Bumble’s side. “That monster,” he snarled, his eyes darting nervously between her nose and ehr chest. “Are you okay? Let’s get you inside, I’m sure Olivia will know what to do. I’m so sorry, I never should have sent you out here. You’re going to be okay, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

Bumble let her stammering father lead her back into the den, her chest stinging with every step. Despite it all, despite everything, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was meant to be leaving with that atrocious cat.

And, even more predominant, the knowledge that there was someone else inside of her head. Two someones, actually. One, a famous leader and a loyal hero. The other, a monster she had already grown to fear.

Chapter 18[]

The day his mother had played out just like any other day. Elm couldn’t even recall what the last thing he said to her was, because by the time he realized it would be the last, she’d already been gone for a quarter moon.

Luna had woken with the dawn, gone out for a hunt, and hadn’t returned.

“She’ll be back today,” Hunter said, as Elm gazed down from his perch on the rickety roof of the den behind their box. Elm nodded distractedly, watching the sun paint the sky a charming shade of rosy pink.

She would not come back today, and Elm knew it. It had been four moons, just about marking his first year of life. A whole year, spent loitering in the allies, keeping the flesh on his ribs by scrabbling to the top of the pecking order.

He’d killed another cat yesterday, although Hunter had no idea. That made seven, eight if Bane was dead. Elm wondered what fantasy world his father lived in, that he thought he was safe here. Hunter wasn’t safe, and he was only alive because Elm was quick with his words and quicker with his claws.

Elm was sick of it. He could fend off the competition, weasel his way out of death, and find his way through the allies with his eyes closed. It was all fantastically useless, because he’d just keep surviving until he died, with nothing but a few happy enemies and a mourning father for the world to remember him by.

Elm slipped carefully off of the roof, and landed delicately in front of Hunter. “Dad, we need to talk,” he said lightly, studying his father with his mismatched eyes.

“What about?” Hunter asked, tilting his head to the side.

“Mom,” Elm said. “She’s not coming back.” He said so bluntly, devoid of feeling.

Hunter scowled, and drew himself up to his full height. “Yes, she is Elm. Don’t talk like that.”

Elm smiled thinly. “She’s been gone for four moons. She’s either run off and found somewhere better to live, or she’s dead. Either way, we’re never going to see her again.” He turned in the direction of the forest, where he could just barely see a sliver of green through the maze of buildings. “We should leave.”

Hunter’s expression flashed briefly with disbelief, then settled on anger. “Elm, don’t disrespect your mother like that. She will be back, any day now. Would you have her come back to a pair of empty nests? Just be patient.”

“If she’s finding her way home from some place four moons away, I’m sure she can figure out where we’ve gone,” Elm said gently, skillfully herding the sarcasm from his voice. “What about the forest? I hear it’s nice there. Or, further into the twoleg place, maybe a quarter moon walk, there’s a nice little park that’s not too populated.”

No,” Hunter insisted, shaking his head. He stepped forward, towering over Elm. “We are not going to abandon her merely because you’re getting antsy. We’ve been happy enough here, there’s food and water. Once she’s back we can go wherever you’d like.”

“Hunter,” Elm said, dropping his pretense of respect. “She abandoned us. If we don’t leave, we are going to die here, and I am not willing to waste my life waiting for a ghost.”

Hunter regarded him with a look that was pure disdain. “I did not raise you to be a disloyal son,” he snapped, pinning his ears back against his head. “We are staying, and that is final.”

Elm took a long, patient breath, then said, “No.”

He turned away, his paws itching to move. His heart beat faster as he imagined lush grass beneath his paws, wind in his fur, fresh prey on his tongue. Hunter was the last kin left in his life, but, Elm told himself, he was weak. Without him, Elm would survive just fine.

“What do you mean, no?” Hunter echoed, his eyes going wide. “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

Elm steeled himself against the burst of uncertainty. He’d talked himself through this so many times, but it wasn’t making it easier. He could tell by the stubborn anger in Hunter’s voice that nothing he said was going to make a difference. His father wasn’t going to come with.

“I heard,” Elm said, glancing over his shoulder. “I’m just not listening.” He squared his shoulders, and took a step forward, then another. “Goodbye, Dad.” Hunter was calling after him, but Elm flattened his ears against his head, and broke into a run. It probably would have been more strategic to save his energy for the long walk ahead of him, but he had a feeling that if he lost his momentum he’d quickly end up walking in the wrong direction.

Elm broke through the final row of houses, and skidded into the empty parking lot that sat across from the forest. His paw pads stung from gravel and pebbles, and a quick glance revealed they were already bruised and bleeding. He definitely should have been more careful instead of careening through the streets like a maniac, but at least he was out of the town.

He took a deep breath, the crisp forest air mixing with the dusty, metallic smog of the twoleg place. It carried the hint of rain and a promise of new possibilities.

Elm sat there, his chest rising and falling as he tried to recover his breathing from the run. A gentle breeze tugged at him, as if trying to pull him along with it. The tree branches waved gently back and forth, beckoning him.

He’d heard there were cats in there, viscous, violent cats. Elm was entirely certain that at least some of the rumors were purely fictitious, since, as someone who had tried multiple times during bouts of hunger, he knew that eating bones was a brilliant way to earn a toothache.

Maybe he’d join them. Maybe he’d drift past the forest and look for more distant hunting grounds.

The great thing was, he could do whatever he wanted.

Elm tried on a grin, but he knew the expression was stiff and misplaced even without being able to see it. He wasn’t sure who he thought he was fooling. Whoever it was, it certainly wasn’t himself.

Hunter would be dead within a week without Elm, a moon if he was lucky. He was a poor hunter, and ridiculously bad fighter, and had an honest face that practically invited assault.

Elm closed his eyes, breathing in the wisps of fresh air the wind kept teasing him with. He kept his face frozen in a frost neutral, just in case anyone was watching, but internally he was reliving the past twelve moons, the twelve lousy moons that made up his life.

If he had really wanted to leave, he never should have stopped running.

Then, very slowly, he turned and padded back into the gaping maw of the allies. There was no rush, not anymore. He should’ve known it was foolish to call his conscience’s bluff.


For the first time in over two years, Elm didn’t know where he was when he woke up.

His mind distantly noted the movement of cats nearby, and a split second later his eyes flew open, sharp and awake as if he’d never fallen asleep.

He was in a den, surrounded by woven bramble walls and the curled forms of other cats. Elm was close enough to touch his neighbors if he was inclined to reach his paw out of his nest, which was notably not the box it usually was. They were all strangers, cats he wasn’t familiar with.

Then, as his mind caught up, an unfortunate understanding of reality replaced the wave of panic.

He was in Skyclan, with the new purpose of helping the clan cats defeat the rogues that were pestering them.

And, more importantly, his father was dead.

Elm let out a long, slow sigh. His father was dead. Thinking about it wasn’t going to change it.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” one of the cats to his left murmured, stretching in their nest. Their pelt was a silvery grey, and still ruffled from sleep. “You don’t have to get up yet. We’ve got to go on dawn patrol, but everyone else gets to sleep in more.” They smiled a polite, friendly smile, and added, “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you,” Elm said, although in reality he’d spent more time trying to fall asleep than actually sleeping. Living on the streets had made him a very light sleeper, and he’d woken every time the extra guards got up to switch shifts.

He watched the grey cat pick their way through the clustered nests after the rest of the patrol, trying to remember their name. Pool something perhaps?

Elm had been introduced to an abundance of cats yesterday, and he was ashamed to say that he remembered none of them. He hadn’t quite figured out the dynamics of clan hierarchy yet, but he figured it would be good to start picking out potential allies.

He rose from his nest, quietly shaking the scraps of moss out of his patched fur. Elm wanted to get an early start, partially because he wanted to get a better look at the camp before the whole clan got up, and partially because he wanted every scrap of reputation he could get.

On delicate paws, he slipped around the drousing cats, nimbly avoiding the knots of tails and skewed paws. The sky outside was still dark, but he could see the first splashes of pink on the horizon, peeking through the treeline like smouldering embers.

It was a much prettier morning than he’d ever seen in the twoleg place. Elm felt like he was floating in a dream, finally being rid of those gloomy buildings, but he’d been hoping to have company when he left.

There it was again: Hunter was still dead. Elm closed his eyes, opened them again, and realized that someone was watching him. He paused at the familiar prickle along his spine, and turned slowly to find a small she-cat gazing at him silently from across the clearing. Her amber eyes had a quiet sort of intelligence to them that made him wonder how much he’d given away already.

“Good morning,” he called, dipping his head in an amiable greeting. Her eyes widened slightly, as if she was startled that he had spotted her, but she returned the nod.

The camp wasn’t quite as empty as he’d hoped it would be. There were too many eyes about for him to poke around properly, thanks to the tom who had the misfortune to be Skyclan’s representative in the rogue’s killing spree and was currently arranged neatly in the center of camp.

Elm glanced once again over the pelt of the corpse. The clan cats had clustered around it with herbs and flower petals, and decorated, groomed, and positioned it into something that almost looked alive, but he could still see the peak of red around the side of the paws, the hint of a slit throat.

Around the tom clustered half a dozen other cats, presumably friends and family. Their eyes were heavy with sleep and grief, but if anything Elm was a little jealous. They had company to share their loss with, and the comfort of visiting with the dead tom one last time.

Meanwhile, his father’s bones were being pressed flat against the Thunderpath, and Elm hadn’t bothered to strike up a conversation with a puddle of blood and the few misplaced intestines as he pretended he couldn’t care less. It was a farewell as flippant and dishonest as their relationship had been, so Elm supposed it was fitting.

He realized with a jolt of irritation that his expression had wilted into something dangerously legitimate, and also that the she-cat was watching him again. He grinned cheerfully at her, purely because he felt like doing the opposite.

Elm watched as her gaze drifted idly to the next cat, her expression vague and distant like she was watching the scene through a lens instead of living it. She was sitting, he realized, just within the borders of the den’s shadows, enough that it made her hard to notice, but not enough to make her look like she was hiding.

He got the feeling that she did this often. Which meant, he thought tiredly, he ought to make a good first impression quickly unless he wanted her to form her own conclusion, one that would probably be more accurate and therefore less pleasant.

Elm trotted over to her side, carefully avoiding the mourners. Her gaze flicked questioningly to him, before returning to her work. As she looked towards the corpse, he asked quickly, “Were you two close?” Then, as if it were truly an afterthought, he added, “I’m sorry if that was too personal.” Paired with an apologetic smile, he thought it went over well.

She didn’t seem impressed. “Me and Greyspring? No. He was my mentor.”

Elm nodded, internally puzzling over that. Assuming that mentor meant what he thought it ought to, those two statements seemed contradictory. “Well, my condolences regardless. You know,” he added, tilting his head, “I don’t believe I ever introduced myself to you yesterday. I’m Elm.”

“Orchidfur,” she said, in a stilted tone that suggested she was used to saying something else. She let the conversation drop like it was painful, her eyes cutting pointedly to his and then in the opposite direction.

The message was clear: go away.

Well, then, Elm thought, conversation one was officially a failure. He wondered if there was something on her mind, or if she was always antisocial. Perhaps both. “It’s been lovely chatting with you, Orchidfur,” he murmured, beginning to rise.

She looked up to watch him leave, and paused. He saw a flicker of something-confusion?- on her face, and she called after him, “Wait.”

Elm cocked his head to the side, bemused. “Waiting,” he prompted, as she peered at him.

“I feel like,” Orchidfur said, “I’ve met you before.”

Elm shook his head, flashing an amused smile. “I doubt it. I’m from the twoleg place,” he reminded her. He was confident he hadn’t met her there either. The wild cats rarely left their lovely forest, and when they did, he’d always heard of it.

It was impossible to miss them. Their pelts were always shinier, their eyes bright, their noses upturned, and the taunting trail of forest air clinging to them like a shield to keep the grime away. Elm had always avoided them as a rule, hiding from the reminders of what he didn’t have more than their claws.

“I know,” Orchidfur muttered distractedly. She looked away, visibly sinking back into thought and away from the rest of the world.

“Hey! Figkit, no, don’t-”

Elm looked up at the voice, in time to neatly sidestep a tabby blur. He swiped a paw out, catching the attacker’s hind leg as they passed and flipping them over and onto their back. He pressed a paw down on their open throat, claws unsheathed, then took a moment to register what exactly it was he was fighting.

A pair of wide amber eyes stared back at him, attached to a round dark tabby face and a stubby little body.

A kit, maybe about five moons old. A far cry from the rogue or dog his body had been prepared for.

Elm hastily removed his paw, and looked up to find that he’d successfully whipped up a very awkward situation. Orchidfur was on her paws, pelt bristling, and on his other side, a much larger, angrier version of the kit glared down at him.

“Easy,” he murmured, backing quickly away from the kit. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. Muscle memory, I suppose.”

The dark tabby tom shot him a burning look, before darting forward to check on his kit. “Okay,” he said after a moment, tugging the alarmed fluff ball to his side. “They’re fine. It’s fine.”

“I’m very sorry,” Elm repeated fervently, putting on a nervous, meek smile. Internally, he berated himself over this slip. He needed allies, not enemies, and the last thing he wanted was for the clan cats to get the idea that he made a habit of this sort of thing.

The tom hesitated, seeming to weigh Elm’s words against his actions. To his relief, the tom’s face split into a friendly smile. “No worries. You’re Elm, right? I’m Kalenose.” Kalenose looked down at Figkit, and added in a whisper, “I know we like to play that trick on Dewstar, but you can’t just attack random strangers, remember dear?”

“Can I attack Orchidpaw?” the kit asked hopefully, as if they hadn’t almost been gutted like a fish.

Kalenose jerked his head up, noticing Orchidfur for the first time. Elm watched with interest as both regarded each other silently for a moment.

“Well, howdy, Orchidpaw,” Kalenose said, his voice still light and amiable, but Elm noted that he drifted almost imperceptibly closer to his kit, his tail tip brushing their pelt. “When did you get back? I must have missed you, I’ve been busy with the little ones lately. It’s good to see you again.” Elm suspected that wasn’t quite true. In fact, if anything, he thought Kalenose seemed a little afraid of her.

“Last night,” she replied curtly, “And I’m Orchidfur now.”

“Oh!” Kalenose said, nodding enthusiastically. “You got your warrior name! Congratulations! And I see you chose the right clan,” he added playfully, posture stiff but a joyful grin on his face. Yes, Elm decided, he was indeed afraid of Orchidfur. “What about Raypaw and Duckpaw?”

“Raystem is here in Skyclan, Duckfeather is staying in Thunderclan,” Orchidfur explained, with a little shrug. There was a hint of bitterness in her voice when she said the second cat’s name.

Kalenose nodded slightly, then stooped to snag Figkit’s scruff. “Well, I’d better go make sure Thymekit isn’t making a break for it again. See you around!” Elm watched as the tabby tom made his escape, then turned to Orchidfur, in time to see a flicker of disgust slipping off of her face.

Her ears pricked up as she gazed past his shoulder, and he turned to find Dewstar teetering tiredly from his den, looking very much like he hadn’t slept a wink the previous night. “Oh-” he said when he spotted them, perhaps the beginning of a salutation, but the sentence was swallowed beneath the pounding as paws as he was buried under a pile of kits.

“Grandpa!” Figkit, and another kit, presumably Thymekit, chirped synonymously, bouncing cheerily up and down on the hapless tom as Kalenose watched on, smiling helpfully. “Grandpa! Grandpa! Good morning, Grandpa!”

“Yes, good morning,” Dewstar groaned, “I can’t express how much I appreciate this-” he yelped, and shoved Figkit off of his head, “-lovely tradition. Please move.”

Elm watched as the leader extracted himself from the very situation Elm had narrowly escaped, marveling at how much more comfortable the clan cats were in their camp than he’d ever been in his box. Although, he suspected he’d fare better than Dewstar if they ever encountered a kit-less ambush.

Dewstar wobbled over to them, trying and failing to shake the collection of dirt and leaves from his dusty white fur. “Hello,” he wheezed, “Elm, I see you’ve met my charming son in law and grandchildren. I apologize in advance for the impending surprise attacks.” Elm opted not to mention that his warning was about five minutes late.

“Orchidfur,” Dewstar added, “Why don’t you grab your sister, and I’ll give you two and Elm a quick tour of the territory and camp? I know you’re not new, but a refresher couldn’t hurt.”

Elm smiled as Orchidfur slipped away. He was looking forward to seeing this.

Elm was not a huge believer in true love, but he was beginning to wonder if he needed to rethink this policy. He was having a very, very hard time not falling head over heels for the clan’s territory.

He bet he could watch the sun rise on the pristine lake a thousand times over without getting bored. He had to resist not wriggling up every pine like a squirrel, for while they were a whole different beast from the rooftops of the twoleg place, they smelled strong and fresh.

And the customs? He was doing his best to avoid asking foolish questions, but even what he’d discovered solely through inferring and educated guesses was promising. There were daily hunting patrols, daily border patrols, organized housing, and an education system. Finally, a place where not only would his pleading for teamwork not be laughed at, but were actually unnecessary.

But, still, Elm had to keep in mind that he couldn’t let himself call this place home just yet. He was yet to bridge the subject of his permanent plans with Dewstar, and while the leader was happy enough to have him as a guest, Elm had already picked up on some hints that perhaps the clans weren’t the fondest of outsiders.

“This,” Dewstar said, stopping by a neat little clearing, “Is the main battle training grounds.”

Elm surveyed the time worn grass. “Mentors take their apprentices here often?” he asked, more to make it clear that he had been listening earlier than to receive the obvious answer. Dewstar nodded. Elm hesitated, toying with his words, then added, “How often do you fight with the other clans?”

“Oh, now and then,” Dewstar answered vaguely, shifting his weight uncomfortably from paw to paw.

“Skyclan hasn’t had a battle in almost two years,” Orchidfur said, supplying a much more satisfactory answer.

Raystem, who had a shy sort of kindness about her, blinked at Elm. “And even if we did fight, we’d be well prepared,” she said, as if to reassure him. He hadn’t been worried, just curious, but he smiled back at her regardless.

Elm found the variety of responses rather fascinating, especially for a fairly simple answer. Dewstar looked embarrassed, Orchidfur seemed almost frustrated, and Raystem was just relieved. “That’s good to hear,” he replied, keeping his wonderings to himself.

They continued on, with Dewstar pointing out good hunting spots and Raystem attempting to bait Orchidfur into a conversation. Both, Elm noted, seemed a little sad.

“One thing I’ve been wondering about,” Elm began, glancing between the two she-cats, “Is why you’ve only just arrived in Skyclan. Is there some sort of...internship program for apprentices?”

Right away, he could tell he’d touched a sour spot. Orchidfur looked away, her face hardening, and Raystem glanced at her paws.

“No, it’s not common place,” the golden she-cat murmured. “It’s...complicated.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” Elm responded quickly, although he’d had his suspicions. “If this is too personal-”

“It’s fine,” Raystem said with a shrug, although Orchidfur looked like this was not a conversation she wanted to be having. “See, our parents were from different clans, which is against the warrior code.”

Elm brightened at the mention of a code. Official regulations? Yes, he was willing to admit it: he was in love. “How come?” he asked, forgetting his act in his hunger for more information.

Raystem chewed at her limp, uncertain. “Well,” she said halfheartedly, “We have to be loyal to our clan first and foremost. If you have kin in another clan, it could make it hard to defend your clan properly in battle.”

“Or, it might lead to peace, Starclan forbid,” Orchidfur muttered under her breath, flicking an ear bitterly in the direction of Dewstar. The leader ambled on, either unaware or pretending to be.

Raystem shrugged again, looking uncomfortable. “It’s the warrior code,” she said, sounding dismal, “So, anyway, we’ve been going back and forth between parents for almost three years now, learning how to be a part of either. Now that we’re warriors, we had to pick. Our brother, Duckfeather, chose Thunderclan, along with our other parent.”

Elm nodded. “That sounds difficult,” he murmured, trying to sound sympathetic. He highly doubted they’d appreciate it if he pointed out that they still had a two parent lead on his life. “So, the code, it doesn’t change?”

“No,” Orchidfur said, when Raystem hesitated. “Sometimes, things are added, but I’ve never heard of any amendments.”

Alas, he mused, nothing was perfect. In some ways, an inflexible set of rules was almost as bad as no rules at all. “What’re the other parts of the code?” he asked, pricking his ears expectantly.

Raystem dutifully listed them off, as Elm internally committed them to memory. He was torn between utter adoration and bewilderment on some parts. Mentions of Starclan and the Moonpool went over his head, while some seemed counterproductive.

His brain was already flooding with suggestions, ideas he swallowed back before they could make a break for freedom. For instance, while he understood how battle training could be dangerous, wouldn’t it be more efficient to get kits started on hunting early on? Elm couldn’t even remember what age he’d started at, but it had certainly been before six moons.

And, of course, there was the underlying theme of violence. He could appreciate the way they helped their weak, share their resources, but while the individual clans seemed well organized, he couldn’t grasp why there needed to be multiple clans instead of one big one.

It was a big step up, but in many ways, it seemed to have the same restraints as life in the allies. Grudges were getting in the way of survival.

Elm smiled. It just meant he had room to work. Not now, of course, but maybe in the future. He could make this into a true masterpiece if they’d let him.

Then, they reached what Dewstar pointed out as the Shadowclan border. Both Orchidfur and Raystem stiffened, their eyes going wide. “It changed again,” Raystem murmured under her breath.

Elm tilted his head, catching wind of the rumble of the rumbling of the Thunderpath, close but out of sight. It seemed like it would be an ideal border marker, but it evidently wasn’t being used.

He took a deep breath of the air, and the heavy cat scents explained it all. It was generous to call the wavering wall of intermingling scents, with casual drifts here and there, a border. It was undefined, messy, and Shadowclan scent seemed to linger everywhere.

Elm looked over at Dewstar, who was observing the ground with an intense interest that it did not warrant.

He nodded to himself, feeling vaguely smug. He’d chosen his clan well.

Elm knew he could make this place need him just as much as he needed it.


Chapter 19[]

Orchidpaw looked up from the finch she had been half-heartedly picking at as a commotion broke the dreary listlessness of Riverclan camp.

The sky was cloudy, the air was chilly, and the cats were mulling around, pretending not to hear the raised voices of Hayfire and Dewstar from within the leader’s den. Orchidpaw couldn’t make out individual words from the swarm of angry snarls, but it had certainly stemmed from one of two things.

Starkly contrasting personalities made their views on how to run the clans vastly different, and their high ranks made being mates a complicated dance of professionalism, drama, and reconciliation.

Orchidpaw knew better than anyone that politics had a way of flinging apart kin like dandelion seeds in the wind, but that didn’t mean she sympathized. Mostly, she wished they’d put an end to the charade already and get back to doing their jobs. Living in a clan where the deputy and leader bickered was not particularly enjoyable.

Regardless, when Locustshade came flying through the camp entrance like his tail was on fire, yowling “I need to speak to Dewstar!”, she and most of the clan were relieved.

The young tom’s brown fur was dark and shining with blood, although it was safe to assume it wasn’t his. Orchidpaw stepped out of his way as he stalked through the camp, his eyes sparkling with an excited energy that was a little disquieting.

Of Dewstar and Hayfire’s three kits, Locustshade was Orchidpaw’s favorite, which was to say that they generally ignored each other’s existence.

Hedgeflight was cruel and petty, her temperament inherited from her mother and her brain from a mouse. At least after the incident with Duckpaw, the tree, and Kalenose’s face, she’d stayed out of Orchidpaw’s way.

Orchidpaw didn’t dislike Pondstone per se, but they reminded her far too much of their father. They were kind enough, but with a tendency to give in to whatever their siblings wanted and therefore couldn’t be trusted.

Locustshade wasn’t particularly trustworthy either, but at least Orchidpaw usually knew she could trust him to exist without causing her trouble. But, right now, that hunger in his gaze suggested that he might be trouble for anyone.

Dewstar emerged from his den, looking flustered and nervous per usual. “What is it, Locustshade?” he demanded, his silver eyes widening at the russet coating on his son’s fur. “And who’s blood is that? Someone fetch Sablewind!”

Locustshade shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Shadowclan is in our territory again, and blatantly ignoring those extra markers you had us set up after next time. Marblecloud, Greyspring, and Lavenderdapple are stalling them, we need to launch a counter attack now!”

Orchidpaw heard the anticipation in his voice, and echoed in the murmurs as the rest of the camp drifted closer, ears pricked.

“Do you think Marblecloud’s in danger?” Raypaw murmured, materializing at Orchidpaw’s side, Duckpaw close behind.

“Are we going to be on the battle patrol?” Duckpaw interjected.

“Probably not,” Orchidpaw responded to both, flicking an ear expectantly in the direction of Dewstar.

They were being naive if they thought there was going to be a proper battle. They hadn’t had one in moons, and they weren’t going to have one now.

Orchidpaw could already see the expression she’d seen too many times slinking onto her leader’s face.

Uncertainty. Guilt. Frustration.

And, first and foremost as always, fear.

In the wake of Dewstar’s silence, Hayfire had taken the situation into her own paws. She stepped around her mate, and nodded to her son. “Take Sparkwillow, Kalenose-”

“No,” Dewstar interrupted, flicking her lightly with his tail. Both Hayfire and Locustshade turned to stare at him.

“No?” Locustshade echoed, his voice suddenly slow and dripping with contempt.

“No. There’s no need to waste our warrior’s lives on something so petty, not when leaf-bare is so close. Mistakes happen, you know. I’m sure it was just a silly apprentice or a couple of warriors who chased a squirrel farther than they should have.” Dewstar’s voice grew more confident as he spoke, as he assured his own cowardice.

“It was a patrol of seven,” Locustshade said, with exaggerated patience, “Several foxlengths across the Thunderpath. They did not yield when we challenged them.”

“Besides, this is the third time this moon!” Hayfire hissed, “It’s not an accident!”

Dewstar glanced at Hayfire. “Please don’t,” he murmured pleadingly under his breath, quiet but not quiet enough. “Not in front of everyone.” He turned to Locustshade. “I’m sorry, son, but we will not be launching a counter attack. Pebbleeye, take a patrol to break up the fighting. Give the Shadowclan cats a warning, and reset the markers, stronger this time.”

Locustshade dipped his head, his anger folding away into calm, respectful concession. “Right, of course. I’m sorry for challenging you, Dad.”

Hayfire glanced at him, startled, her own eyes smouldering with anger. Orchidpaw didn’t know if the deputy was fooled, but she wasn’t. The border was just a smell. Without claws to back it up, Shadowclan wouldn’t look twice before crossing it.

Dewstar waved a tail, dismissing the gathered cats. Locustshade’s yellow eyes followed his father’s every move, just cold, distant slits bright against his bloody pelt. Orchidpaw began to turn after her siblings, when she heard him murmur something.

“Dewstar, I’d like to speak to you for a moment. In private.”

She hesitated, and glanced over her shoulder. Dewstar sighed, his smile brief and self pitying.”Of course you would,” he replied, but nodded. She watched as father and son headed towards the leader’s den.

They never could have looked less like kin. Dewstar’s pace was sluggish and reluctant, his shoulders drooping, his small white form looking like a melting snowflake next to Locustshade’s stiff chocolate brown and blood red mass.

It was probably nothing, Orchidpaw told herself. She was probably imagining the ice in Locustshade’s voice.

But Orchidpaw didn’t imagine things, and useless as he was, she was feeling a little nervous for Dewstar at the moment. So, carefully, she slunk after the pair, and hovered outside of the leader’s den as they stepped inside.

“There’s no way I can convince you to defend our territory, is there?” Locustshade asked bluntly. There it was again. Orchidpaw shivered at the dull, hard tone, utterly lacking in emotions.

“Not this time, no,” Dewstar said apologetically. “I’m sorry, but-”

“What about next time, Dewstar? Next time, will we attack? If Shadowclan pushes us again, will we go to war?”

“It depends on the situation,” Dewstar answered diplomatically. “I will not send us to war unnecessarily.”

Orchidpaw’s pelt prickled, little alarms going off in her head. Everything about this conversation seemed off. The conversation was back and forth, question and answer, like an interrogation. And Locustshade had called Dewstar by his name, not father or dad. Like he was talking to a stranger.

“At what point,” Locustshade said, “Will it be necessary?”

There was a beat of silence. It was a heavy, weighted, unfriendly silence, the kind that took your breath away and made you wish you could disappear into a hole.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Orchidpaw jumped at Hayfire’s angry whisper, and spun around to find the deputy glowering down at her. She’d been so entranced by the dangerous atmosphere that she had neglected to pay attention to the rest of the camp.

“Eavesdropping,” she replied, not bothering with courtesy. Hayfire had never been fond of flowery words, and besides, Orchidpaw was far more scared of what was going to happen in that den than whatever punishment Hayfire could think up.

Before Dewstar could come up with a suitable response, before Orchidpaw could tell Hayfire of her suspicions, Locustshade spoke.

“Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.”

Dewstar’s reply was a strangled, choking gasp of pain, followed by a thump. Hayfire’s eyes went wide, and in the split second it took Orchidpaw to register what was happening, she had already slipped inside.

Orchidpaw darted after her, her heart hammering in her chest. She was horrified but not surprised to find Dewstar slumped against the den wall, his white pelt staining rapidly as blood gushed from his throat in an apple red torrent.

The leader pawed weakly at the wound, succeeding only in smearing the blood around a bit as it spilled down his chest and onto the ground. He was alive, for now.

Hayfire sprang for Locustshade, who stumbled to the side. “Mom-” he said, ducking away from her swift claws. Orchidpaw watched with distant fascination, unable to make her paws move, as mother and son circled each other.

Hayfire landed a harsh blow on Locustshade’s shoulder, splitting a long, red arch through his fur, and he stopped pulling his punches as it sunk in that she was serious. He allowed her to slice another cut across his forehead, drawing her in close, before he lunged forward and down, plowing her paws out from under her.

Hayfire twisted as he snapped at her stomach, pummeling his side until he let out a yowl of pain. Locustshade recoiled, and swatted at her face.

Orchidpaw shrank against the den wall, next to Dewstar’s limp form. She couldn’t tell if he was still breathing, only that the blood was still pooling beneath him. She wanted to help Hayfire, but the two warriors were rolling about in a mess of claws and fur, filling up the small space. They were almost indistinguishable, two dark pelts slick with blood. Orchidpaw didn’t trust herself to hit the right cat.

Then, with a sharp, blood curdling yelp, and one of the cats stepped away. It took a moment to differentiate between Hayfire’s dappled pelt and Locustshade’s brown one.

Hayfire stooped over her son, her sides heaving from exhaustion, and, Orchidpaw realized with a jolt, silent sobs. Locustshade’s legs made a slow, weak arc across the wet floor, as if he was trying to rise, but he remained on the ground. Orchidpaw spotted a deep gash in his chest, his pelt now red with fresh and old blood, both his own and his enemies’.

“Why?” Hayfire whispered, glancing between her son and her mate, both bleeding out quietly. Her wild gaze skipped right over Orchidpaw, as if she wasn’t there.

For a moment, it seemed that Locustshade was already gone. Then, softly, he murmured, “I had to. He needs to die for this clan to survive.” Then, even quieter, “I’m sorry.”

Hayfire shook her head in disbelief. “He’s your father.

The wet, raspy noise that came from Locustshade could have been either a chuckle or a sob. “And I’m your son.”

Hayfire’s shoulders shuddered, and suddenly she was pressing at his chest, as if she could take back the claw marks. “No. You’re going to be okay. Just hold on-”

“Too late.”

No,” Hayfire snarled, louder, more desperate. “Please, Starclan-”

Locustshade made the chuckle-sob again. “Starclan? Seriously?” his voice was fading, barely audible from where Orchidpaw was standing. “I don’t think Starclan wants anything to do with me.”

“Just hold on,” Hayfire growled, but Locustshade didn’t reply. Hayfire leaned forward, checking for a pulse, then seemed to collapse, like her muscles had quit working. Draped over her son’s corpse, she whimpered, “You mousebrain. You stupid, stupid mousebrains.”

Abruptly, she seemed to remember that Orchidpaw existed. Her eyes met Orchidpaw’s wide amber ones, and her voice hardened into a growl. “Get out.”

Orchidpaw didn’t need to be told twice. She glanced at Dewstar’s unmoving form, then shot out of the exit as fast as her paws could carry her, leaving Hayfire to the blood and death.

A few long minutes later, as the camp bubbled with anxious chatter and Sablewind tried without success to calm the growing panic, Orchidpaw sat watching the huddled forms of Hedgeflight and Pondstone. Around them, like lost moons, rotated Kalenose and Raypaw, adjacent to the broken family but unable to truly touch it. The medicine cat had forbidden anyone from entering the den.

She closed her eyes, watching the scene replay in her head once again, looking at all the times she could have intervened with a distant curiosity. Should she have? Probably. She wouldn’t mourn Dewstar or his son, but they had still been her clanmates. But the fact remained that she hadn’t, and they were dead.

Orchidpaw thought of Locustshade, how distant he had been. How anger had put his claws through the throat of his own father. How, to some degree, she understood why he had done it.

Then, a cry from Pondstone startled her out of her thoughts. She looked up, to see Hayfire emerging from the leader’s den, looking weary. And, more impossible and astounding, accompanied by Dewstar.

The leader’s usually snowy pelt was drenched in blood, and his pawsteps were wobbly, but he was walking on his own. Hedgeflight and Pondstone bolted across the clearing, their grief momentarily assuage, as Orchidpaw’s head spun.

Perhaps she had mistaken his condition. Perhaps she’d imagined the utter stillness of his flanks, the stiffness of his limbs.

Except she didn’t imagine things.

Perhaps, Orchidpaw thought, leaders really did have nine lives. Perhaps Starclan wasn’t quite as fake as she’d assumed it to be.

Orchidfur trailed behind Dewstar, Raystem, and the rogue, trying to remember why she was in Skyclan and not Thunderclan.

Marblecloud and Raystem were here, obviously, but Bellstorm and Duckfeather were in in Thunderclan, and she couldn’t put a quantitative value to her love for all four of them. Applestar of Thunderclan was quite up front with her feelings about them, that they were welcome to stay but that she had little sympathy for their situation, and she wasn’t particularly close to anyone there.

But that wasn’t to say she was over the moon about any of her Skyclan clanmates either, Her mentor, Greyspring, had been nice enough, but he was dead and she could hardly motivate herself to mourn him around her grief for Duckfeather and Bellstorm.

Kalenose and Hedgeflight were too busy being parents and too afraid of her to torment them, but that wasn’t a good thing, just the absence of a negative. Pondstone still acted like they had been unassociated with their sister’s cruelty.

The fact that Kalenose was trying to suck up to her meant nothing. Maybe he’d matured. Maybe he was just terrified of her. Regardless, she was still waiting on an apology, because even if he acted like it hadn’t happened, it had. He and Hedgeflight had almost killed Duckfeather.

And then there was Dewstar.

She’d almost forgotten how much she hated Dewstar.

There it was, Orchidfur thought, as she recaptured her previous train of thought. Applestar would treat Bellstorm and Duckfeather like any other clanmate, with loyalty. She would protect them.

Orchidfur didn’t trust Dewstar with her kin. At least Applestar was honest. She’d bluntly declined to let her family remain intact from separate clans, but Orchidfur would take that any day to Dewstar’s storm of apologies and excuses. He claimed to be on their side, but wouldn’t risk Applestar’s wrath to actually do anything.

Plus, he’d probably let his own grandkids starve to death before he would risk a battle. Maybe.

It was possible that Orchidfur was exaggerating, but honestly, she wasn’t sure where Dewstar would finally draw the line. The old Shadowclan border wasn’t even visible from the new one anymore, and unless Starclan had gotten rid of leaf-bare, they were going to be missing that territory.

She couldn’t leave her kin to face that alone.

Orchidfur snapped out of her thoughts at a light burst of laughter from Raystem. She glanced up, to find that the rogue, Elm, had scrambled up one of the big pines like a squirrel, sending needles tumbling down.

“Are you sure you weren’t born in Skyclan?” Raystem called up after him, tilting her head back to follow his progress. Orchidfur had to admire that, for someone who had been born in the twoleg place, he seemed pretty at home off of the ground.

Elm peered down at them, smiling good naturedly. “Quite sure, but I’m beginning to wish I was.”

Orchidfur watched him spring from branch to branch, his paws light. He had good balance, she noted, but he had a tendency to overshoot, like he was used to a bigger surface.

She also got the distinct feeling that he was showing off, and, based on the impressed looks on Raystem and Dewstar’s faces, he was succeeding. She didn’t know what she thought of him yet. On one paw, he seemed friendly and polite, with a legitimate interest in the clans. On the other, he was definitely hiding something, and the more Elm talked, the less Orchidfur believed that he was motivated solely by a bruised pride.

But in the end, it wasn’t really important if she liked him. She knew him.

Orchidfur understood perfectly well that they hadn’t met. She’d never been inside of the twoleg place, and, with his patched pelt and flashy eyes, she figured she would remember him. It wasn’t his pelt, however, that she remembered.

It was something else. Something she couldn’t quite put a word to.

And it wasn’t just him. She thought back to the connection she’d felt to Stormflight, as well as Valleystep when she’d met them briefly in Windclan. She’d originally discarded the feeling as a residue from a gathering encounter, but now she was less sure. Like Elm, both were memorable. Stormflight’s icy eyes and uppity opinions, as well as Valleystep’s particular brand of humor, would have stuck.

If they’d met at a gathering, she would know. But, no. Orchidfur knew them, but she did not remember them.

Elm dropped down out of the tree beside her, startling her. He shook a few pine needles from his fur, his eyes gleaming. Orchidfur had never seen anyone so enthused about trees. “Anyone want to race back to camp?” he asked, nodding upwards.

It was a question that absolutely did not match with the diplomatic, dignified approach he’d been using before. His smile flickered, as if he was embarrassed, but Raystem was already nodding.

“No thanks,” Orchidfur replied, and Dewstar nodded his agreement. She couldn’t tell if the rogue was being legitimate or not, but she wasn’t in the mood to fall out of a tree today.

She also, unfortunately, wasn’t in the mood to talk to Dewstar, but with her sister and new acquaintance off shooting through the branches, she had no choice. Her pelt prickled as Dewstar glanced awkwardly over at her.

“So….” he began, staring after their companions as if he too wished they would come back, “How’re you holding up?”

“Fine,” Orchidfur muttered, shrugging. She could imagine Applestar or Bellstorm asking Duckfeather the same question, and his honest, good natured response. She took a deep breath, and tried again. “I’ve been better, I guess, but I’ll be okay. I just need time.”

Dewstar nodded, like this was an answer he approved of. “Well, that’s good. I’m...I’m very sorry that things didn’t work out in a more pleasant way.”

Orchidfur smiled and bobbed her head agreeably, like a cheerful kit. Internally, her thoughts bubbled with frustration. If he was so sorry, then why hadn’t he tried to change the way things had turned out? “Figkit and Thymekit are getting big,” she interjected, trying to direct the conversation to a more comfortable topic.

She waited until Dewstar had started rambling about his grandchildren’s antics to pick up her pace, subtly cutting down the time she had to spend alone with him. He either didn’t notice or just didn’t mention it, likely looking forward to when he could pat himself on the back for being a caring clanmate.

When they got back to camp, Hayfire was waiting for them, accompanied by the two Riverclan medicine cats. It had been less than a quarter moon since she’d last seen them, but it felt like it had been longer.

Dewstar glanced questioningly at his mate, confused, but Orchidfur wasn’t particularly surprised.

“They say they need to talk to the rogue, Sablewind, Orchidfur,” Hayfire said, equally bewildered. Elm tilted his head slightly to one side, but allowed himself to be escorted over to the corner of camp. Orchidfur sat down next to him, eyeing the medicine cats curiously.

They smelled strange, carrying a mix of Windclan and Shadowclan scents on their pelts in addition to the fishy Riverclan stench and the sharp air of herbs. While Stormflight seemed fresh, Pepperheart was looking rather weary.

“Maybe third time’s the charm,” Stormflight said, “The spying rogue and the ancient apprentice seem much more reasonable than the other two were.” Their eyes twitched to Orchidfur, a slight, not entirely friendly smirk on their face.

Normally, being called an ‘ancient apprentice’ would have been irritating, but Orchidfur was too caught up with the little twist of familiarity their abrasive humor sparked up. Who else talked like that? The answer was on the tip of her tongue, frustratingly out of reach.

“I’m a warrior now, actually,” Orchidfur corrected, glancing sideways at Elm. If he sensed anything about the black medicine cat, he didn’t show it. “Orchidfur.”

“Congrats,” Stormflight said. They paused, taking a deep breath. “We have soem things to tell you,” they began, with the careful air of someone braising themself for something.

“Actually, I have some things to tell you,” Pepperheart interjected, shooting Stormflight a sharp look. “Stormflight is going to speak with Sablewind.”

Stormflight scowled, straightened up to their full height, and squared their shoulders. Orchidfur couldn’t tell if it was intentional, or if their natural reaction to rebuke was always intimidation. Pepperheart’s expression didn't change, but leaned back slightly.

Again, it reminded her of something.

“Right,” Stormflight said after a moment, turning on their heel. “Not,” they added over their shoulder, “that I’m not perfectly capable of having either conversation.” Orchidfur watched them stalk off, feeling that whatever had spurred the wordless argument likely didn’t warrant them storming away like a ‘paw.

“Thank you, Stormflight,” Pepperheart said lightly, curtly ignoring his apprentice’s tone. He relaxed as they disappeared into the medicine den, and eased himself gingerly to the ground. He studied them both with searching yellow eyes, visibly weighing his words.

“Before we begin, I want to address something. What I need to tell you is very important, but also rather implausible. I’d appreciate it if you tried to suspend your disbelief long enough to consider what I have to say. Can you do that for me?” he asked.

Orchidfur nodded without hesitation, her pelt prickling with anticipation. The medicine cats’ appearance couldn’t be a coincidence. She had a feeling that this  conversation, implausible as it might be, would fill in some blank spaces.

Elm looked both curious and bemused. “I suppose so,” he replied.

Pepperheart drew in a deep breath, then began, the two of them listening intently. The little ginger tom’s tone was uncertain, flitting between hesitance and rushed, disorganized rambles, but Orchidfur didn’t interrupt as he spun out the theory.

“Orchidfur, you carry both Mapleshade and Riverstar. Elm, you are Darktail and Shadowstar,” Pepperheart finished. “I know it sounds ludicrous, but bear with me. Thus far, the conversations we’ve had with the other cats haven’t been particularly informative, but I have gathered some tells of this condition. Bursts of out of place emotions, unfounded prejudices, and other details lingering from your past lives.”

His gaze swiveled hopefully between Orchidfur and Elm, hopeful but not expecting. “Does any of this ring true for you?”

Elm glanced sideways at Orchidfur, waiting for her reaction. She could tell by his slight, patient smile that he hadn’t bought a single word of that, and she didn’t blame him. She couldn’t imagine how she would react to those words with less than two days worth of clan knowledge.

But she’d been in the clans for over two years, not two days, and while she was naturally skeptical of many things, she’d noticed details that simply couldn’t be explained away.

Orchidfur thought back to when she’d seen Locustshade snap. She’d tried multiple times over the moons to make sense of it, and still it always came back the same. Dewstar had died and come back to life. Maybe Starclan existed and maybe it didn’t, but she had no other answer.

“I can’t say that any of those aspects really fit me,” she replied slowly, “But...those other three cats. Are Stormflight and Valleystep two of them?”

Pepperheart’s eyes widened with surprise. “Yes, yes they are,” he said.

Orchidfur nodded slowly. “I thought so. I’m not sure if I believe that I’m hosting two long dead celebrities, but I think you’re at least partially right. Something’s going on. I guess I don’t know,” she finished, shrugging at Elm’s skeptical look.

Pepperheart smiled, as if this was the best news he’d heard yet. “That’s understandable. It’s a lot to think about.” He tilted his head towards Elm. “What about you?”

Elm was still wearing his neutral, good natured smile, but Orchidfur was certain he was just humorign them. “Well, that was all very interesting,” he said politely, “But I’m afraid the majority of it didn’t make sense, and what little I understood, I don’t believe. Sorry,” he added.

Pepperheart’s expression dampened slightly, but he didn’t try to argue with the rogue. “Fair enough. I suppose two out of five is better than one.” He rose to his paws. “Stormflight and I need to get back to Riverclan before Hawthornstar starts thinking we’ve gotten ourselves abducted, but thank you for your time. Elm, I’d appreciate it if you’d think about it a little more.”

“Okay,” Elm said slowly, “But no promises.”

“And Orchidfur,” Pepperheart added, “We’ll be in touch.”

Elm turned to her as the medicine cat slipped away, a wry smirk sneaking onto his face as if he couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry, but do you really believe them? Because I can’t tell if you were being legitimate or just polite.”

Orchidfur stared after Stormflight’s retreating form, already beginning to sink into her thoughts. “I meant exactly what I said,” she said, flashing Elm a challenging look.

The smirk slithered away as quickly as it had appeared, instantly replaced by a more respectful smile. “Of course,” he murmured, dipping his head. “I didn’t mean to offend.” Still, she caught a mirthful undertone, as if what he really wanted to do was have himself a good laugh.

Which, as Pepperheart had said, was fair. It still sounded crazy to her, even though she was a clan cat with a more optimistic view on Starclan than most. Elm was entitled to his own opinion.

Still, Orchidfur had the feeling that he wouldn’t be able to remain a skeptic forever.

Chapter 20[]

Stormflight paddled in another lazy circle, their black paws looking distorted beneath the pristine water. It was frigid, with the newleaf sun not having warmed the lake up quite yet, but it was as refreshing as it was mind numbing.

Their aching limbs welcomed the chill, grateful for the relief. Riverclan and Shadowclan had been bickering like an old mated couple, except instead of words they fought with claws, teeth, and whatever dirty tactics Hawthornstar and Rosestar could devise.

They’d help lead enemy warriors to the lakeshore to win the advantage, dug holes to trip their enemies, and narrowly avoided being shoved into a Thunderpath themself.

Many of their clanmates were getting tired of the moons of scrimaging and tail biting, but while Stormflight’s body grew weary, their mind revered the warfare. They didn’t like getting hurt, or even hurting others per se, but they did love winning.

They sucked in a breath, and ducked underneith the water. Their vision blurred, flooded with fuzzy blues and greens, with the bottom faded into a distant smudge. They allowed themself to sink down, and closed their eyes as the liquid slipped around them, tugging them towards its heart.

Eventually, they were forced back to the surface, where they spluttered and splashed while sucking down a breath they’d delayed too long. Despite the self induced ache in their chest, they grinned. How any cat could live without water, they didn’t know.

Speaking of other cats, as Stormflight swiveled around to face the shore, they spotted a dark shape sitting by the edge of the water, watching them silently. They frowned, perturbed, and swam over.

Their discomfort changed to bewilderment as they neared the figure, whose face slid into a small smile. “Evening, Stormflight,” Locustshade called, waving his tail in greeting as they pulled themself out of the water.

Stormflight stretched, then shook, sending droplets flying. Locustshade sprang back, scowling as Stormflight let out a snort of laughter. As their friend struggled to recover his dignity, their expression sobered. “Locustshade, what’re you doing here? You’re trespassing.” They paused, frowning. “In fact, you’re about as far from your own territory as you can get.” To get from Skyclan to Riverclan, he would have had to cross not one but two borders.

“Going to chase me off?” Locustshade asked jauntily, tilting his head slightly. He smelled strongly of mint, his clan scent buried beneath it.

Stormflight hesitated, glancing over their shoulder to see if their clanmates were anywhere near. “No, I suppose not. Just don’t hunt anything, and for Starclan’s sake don’t let anyone else see you.”

“I’ll do it for your sake, how about that?” Locustshade suggested. His gaze drifted out over the lake, his smile amused. “You Riverclan cats really are quite the furry fish,” he mused, gesturing to Stormflight’s sodden pelt. “But you have a lovely territory.”

Stormflight’s pelt prickled at the idea of a strange cat traipsing around in their territory unnoticed. “Thanks,” they said tersely.

Locustshade glanced over at their tense expression, and his smile spread into a grin. “Oh, lighten up, I’m here to see you, not invade.”

“You’re here to see me?” Stormflight echoed incredulously, although when they stopped to think about it, they weren’t sure what else he’d be looking for in Riverclan territory. “Why?”

Locustshade’s expression shifted into charming, vaguely flirtatious that Stormflight wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “Stormflight, my love, I’ve missed you so very much. I just had to see you.” At the face they made, he smirked, shaking his head slightly. “Why not come see you? I was bored, and you’re a far better source of conversation than anyone back in Skyclan. Plus, it has been a while.”

It had. Stormflight couldn’t remember how many gathers that one or both of them had been absent at.

“I heard you got yourself into trouble with Shadowclan,” they commented. Trouble was an understatement. Even from Riverclan, Stormflight had heard nothing but talk of him for a good moon.

Fighting in Skyclan was enough to cause a stir, because as a rule, Skyclan did not fight. A Skyclan cat singlehandedly defending his borders, going behind his own father’s back in the process, killing a Shadowclan cat in the process, before being ordered to stand down by his leader was prime gossip. According to what they’d heard, Dewstar had been bending over backwards to keep Rosestar from retaliating, all apologies for her and admonishment for his son. Hawthornstar had gotten a good laugh out of that.

“Funny, I heard the same about you,” Locustshade countered, but he made it sound like a compliment. Only he ever did.

Stormflight raised a shoulder in a half shrug. “Those foxhearts need to learn to keep their paws in their own borders.”

Locustshade pricked his ears at the rough edge to their words. “Sounds like there’s a story there.”

He’d probably heard the details already, but this was what they did. They talked about the blood they’d spilled, honestly, without the shame their clanmates automatically expected from them.

Stromflight nodded. “Yes, but let’s get away from the lakefront. If anyone catches us, Hawthornstar will have my hide and probably eat yours for lunch.”

“I’d like to see them try,” Locustshade said, but followed them away, towards the Horseplace. Technically speaking, it was neutral territory, so in theory they couldn’t be scolded for speaking to him their. In theory.

“Once again, I didn’t mean to kill him,” Stormflight grumbled as they drew away from the lake. “Which, of course, no one cares about. And, once again, I was fighting for my life and just got a bit carried away.” They snorted. “Apparently, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation, because Flareblaze sent three warriors after me. If they won’t fight fair, it’s not really my fault if someone gets hurt, is it?”

Locustshade shook his head in agreement. “Absolutely not. The fact that you scraped through that with minimal injuries is a miracle. They’re the ones that took it up a notch. Plus, if Rosestar’s so worried about her warrior’s safety, she should stick to her own prey.”

“Exactly,” Stormflight growled, slashing at a reed in frustration. “But, no, we had to go through the whole punishment/apology thing. Us, the clan that got attacked. I got demoted to ‘paw duties for a quarter moon.” It felt so nice to get the anger off of their chest, knowing Locustshade was going to agree without judging. They sucked in a deap, calming breath, and glanced to their friend. “And you?”

Locustshade fell silent, his gaze darkening. “You know the story already,” he said lightly.

Stormflight leaned over, giving him a friendly nudge in the shoulder. “C’mon, spill. What mousedung did that cowardly father of yours put you through this time?”

Locustshade smiled unenthusiastically, unable to match their attitude. “What, other than getting mad at me for doing my job? I had to hunt for Shadowclan, and make a public apology in front of Rosestar and her senior warriors. Then, I watched Dewstar promise it would never happen again, all while everyone ignored the fact that the fight took place a good ten foxlengths away from the border.”

Stormflight nodded sympathetically, not sure what to say. It always seemed that Locustshade’s anger was a deeper, more dangerous beast than their frustration. Sure, they’d been reprimanded, but at least their moms had been awkwardly sympathetic instead of treacherous.

“Want to know something?” Locustshade asked, voice suddenly quiet and tired. “It wasn’t an accident.”

Stormflight faltered mid step, their eyes darting up in surprise. Locustshade looked away, tail twitching with agitation. “It was not even remotely close to an accident,” he continued. “I spotted them across the border, with this one calico leading the way, acting as if she owned the place. And I thought ‘I’m going to kill her’. So I did. The first move of the fight was the killing one.” He glanced over at them, and smiled a slow, blood chilling smile. “And I don’t regret it.”

Stormflight’s eyes widened slightly, their words dying on their throat. They weren’t sure how they were supposed to reply to that. Both of them had killed before, fighting a little rougher than their clanmates were willing to stomach, but it had never been with the intent to leave the other cat dead. Stormflight didn’t fight to kill, they fought to win, those two just sometimes ended up meaning the same thing.

Locustshade looked away again. “It’s fine, Stormflight. I don’t need a response to that.”

They’d reached the horseplace by now, but the conversation had dwindled down to an unusually awkward silence. Stormflight glanced around, satisfied to see that the mousehearted kittypet was nowhere to be seen, probably hiding. Locustshade settled down beside the fence, stretching his long brown legs out in front of him. His yellow eyes crept sideways, scrutinizing their face, and his expression tightened. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”

Stormflight shook their head quickly. “No, I don’t mind, mousebrain.” They flopped down a bit away from him, and forced a smile. “You were still just defending your territory.”

Locustshade’s gaze lingered a bit too long. “I wish we were in the same clan,” he murmured, voice soft. “My mother is the only cat in Skyclan with half a spine, but she still lets Dewstar push her around. I doubt I’ll ever take a mate. I wouldn’t have the patience to deal with one of those mousebrains.”

Stormflight’s pelt felt prickly and uncomfortable. Perhaps they were reading a bit much into those words, but it certainly sounded like he was implying more than they wanted him to be implying. This was dangerous territory they weren’t up to exploring. Their friendship was one of their favorite things in their life, and they didn’t want it messed up with unreciprocated feelings.

Locustshade held their eyes steadily. “Don’t say it, Stormflight. I know. We’re fine the way we are.” He tilted his head up towards the sky, his smile wistful. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Stormflight replied, hoping for a change in subject. They were quite done with the current one.

“If you could get rid of the biggest obstacle in your life, even if it meant hurting the cats you cared about, would you do it?”

Stormflight regarded him warily, uncertain. They were grateful to have left the old conversation behind, but they weren’t sure they liked this one either. They had no idea what he was referring to. “I don’t know.”

He sighed. “Me either.”

Stormflight scooped up the clump of leaves into their mouth, their face crinkling with disgust at the overwhelmingly bitter taste.They gagged as they accidentally squashed a leaf, the juice trickling down their throat.

Pepperheart watched dispassionately as they spat out the crushed mess, unimpressed. “You have to hold the leaves gently, so that you don’t crush them,” he explained, adding a neat stack of greenery to his growing pile.

Stormflight shoved the useless gunk away, and set to collecting a replacement set. Pepperheart carefully folded his supplies, nestled them between his neck and chest, looked up, and sighed.

“Stormflight, about half of those are dock leaves. The other half are just leaves. They’re useless,” he said, shuffling awkwardly over. Stormflight happily stepped aside, allowing him to flick through the pile of plants that looked entirely identical to them. “See, these ones are larger, and smell tangy. That’s dock.”

“Hm,” Stormflight said, picking up the pile more gently this time.

“Do you remember what it’s for?” he asked, his miffed tone showing that he already knew the answer. Stormflight shook their headshead, unable to speak through their luggage. “It soothes scratches,” he muttered, bending precariously over to snatch another pile up in his mouth.

Stormflight paused experimentally as the two of them stood there, loaded up and ready to depart. They cocked their head at Pepperheart, who hadn’t moved either, in a silent inquiry. Was he still afraid to turn his back on them?

Behind the herbs, Pepperheart’s expression tightened. Then, he grimaced, choking slightly as he bit down on his plants. “You are insufferable,” he spluttered, coughing up a lump of crushed dock. The bundle under his chin slipped, littering the ground by his paw with slightly wilted greenery.

Stormflight smiled around their plants. They conceded the point, and gave their mentor a sympathetic flick with their tail as they passed, heading back towards the camp.

Giving Pepperheart a taste of his own medicine was thus far the highlight of their day. Stormflight had been ridiculed, reprimanded, and all they had to show for the walk was a mouthful of revolting plants. Of course, the only successful conversation had to be the one that Pepperheart conducted.

They glanced over their shoulder at Pepperheart, who was reorganizing his scattered supplies. He was so easy, and so fun to intimidate, that it seemed to have become somewhat of a guilty pleasure. Before they’d known about the whole Tigerstar business, they’d been taking their frustrations out on him without any qualms, but now they kept wondering whose idea it was in the first place. Plus, antagonizing him was losing its charm as their ability to regard him as an annoying obstacle and not a clanmate faded.

The worst thing was, they usually couldn’t tell when they were slipping until it was too late. It had happened with the kittypet, whose injuries Stormflight was working their way up to feeling guilty for. They’d really only been planning into baiting her into snapping, dumping her on her rear, and maybe having a nice laugh about it.

Bumble hadn’t fought exceptionally well, but she had fought far better than Stormfight had been anticipating. Her technique had been perfect, but her reactions were slow and her moves predictable, probably because she’d never been in an actual fight.

They were Riverclan’s best warrior. It still should have been simple, to knock her over and call it a day.

Simple, but not particularly satisfying. Stormflight smirked, thinking of the kittypet’s shocked expression at the gash in her chest, then shoved away the wave of smugness as they recognized where it was coming from.

It had been an accident. A mistake. Tigerstar might be amused, but Stormflight wasn’t. They ground a bit of dock beneath their teeth, allowing the sharp tang to distract them from their thoughts before their unhelpful internal companion could drag them into another headache inducing argument.

One thing that perplexed them was the sheer inconvenience of Tigerstar’s influence. Firestar and Blackstar had made it sound like the Dark Forest cats had been equally interested in preserving themselves and the clans. How exactly did prompting Stormflight into pointless violence help anyone whatsoever?

The two of them passed the Dusk Patrol on their way into camp, the sight of which sent a sting of longing through Stormflight’s gut. They watched out of the corner of their eye as Quicktail and Icepaw trotted past, chattering cheerfully, and the rest of the patrol trailing behind them. They looked so determined and dedicated, yet also content and at ease.

They missed that feeling of purpose and camaraderie. With the rogues at large, they wished they could be doing their part to keep Riverclan’s borders safe. They would have liked to meet those foxhearts face to face, and share their thoughts on them kidnapping a kit. And, as they were starting to realize, they had a habit of thinking with their claws instead of their head.

“What took you so long?” Hawthornstar demanded, materializing in front of the entrance. There went Pepperheart’s hopes of sneaking in without a confrontation. Stormflight stepped aside, nudging to Pepperheart to the front while keeping their jaws helpfully occupied with plants.

It had been Pepperheart who had suggested lying to Hawthornstar, which Stormflight wasn’t thrilled about. So, if he wanted to sell their story, he was on his own.

Pepperheart set one of his bundles down to free up his mouth. “I’m sorry,” he said, dipping his head demurely. “The dock was more damaged by the last leaf-bare than I thought, it took us a long time to find a fresh patch. We probably should have swung back by camp to let you know it would take longer.”

Hawthornstar scowled, but seemed to accept that answer. “Lucky for you, we’ve had no new catastrophes in your absence. If someone dies because you’re off frolicking in your flower patches, I’m not going to be happy,”  they added warningly, the edge in their voice suggesting that perhaps they weren’t completely duped. “Next time, one of you will stay here.”

Pepperheart nodded. “Right. Thank you, Hawthornstar.” He slipped past, flicking his tail for Stormflight to follow.

They spat out their plants as soon as they entered the medicine den, and mimicked Pepperheart as he added his dock to a plentiful stack of identical leaves. Stormflight’s ignorance could be interfering, but it seemed to them that they had plenty of it.

“I don’t like lying to our leader,” Stormflight muttered, shooting a furtive glance over their shoulder.

“Stormflight, this entire arrangement is about lying to our leader,” Pepperheart pointed out, gesturing between the two of them with his tail.

Stormflight snorted, shaking their head. They lowered their voice into a hushed whisper before they continued. “Covering up a murder,” the words tasted bitter on their tongue, but they spat them out before Tigerstar could object, “And a special Starclan mission are very different things.”

“You make it sound like hiding fratricide is the more acceptable of the two,” Pepperheart commented dryly.

“It’s not,” Stormflight said, their head beginning to ache as Tigerstar started his usual ‘she deserved it’ protests. “It’s terrible, and definitely not not acceptable.” The look Pepperheart shot them was startled.

It hurt to discuss it, both physically and mentally, but they needed to. Stormflight wanted to pretend it was nothing, but Azollafrost deserved better than to be forgotten. They needed to keep acknowledging what had happened before Tigerstar could convince them it had all been just.

“Anyway,” they muttered, voice rough, “That’s not the point. Our charade is keeping me in the clan. What’s the point of lying about this?”

They kept wanting to call it the prophecy, but unless they counted Firestar’s dumb jingle, they didn’t actually have a prophecy. Mission? Goal? Destiny? It needed a better title than ‘this’.

Pepperheart sighed. “Hawthornstar has never been anything but dismissive of medicine cats, particularly me. They’re tolerant of the medical aspect of our work, but I suspect they’d react similarly to our Windclan friend if we tried to cue them in on the spiritual part.”

Stormflight’s eyes narrowed in perplexion. “Wait, Hawthornstar doesn’t believe in Starclan? Don’t they have nine lives?”

Pepperheart shook his head. “No. Not all leaders believe in Starclan, so not all leaders have nine lives.”

Stormflight’s stomach twisted unpleasantly as they frowned. “Who all does have nine lives then? Hawthornstar’s not the only one, right?”

“I know that Dewstar and Ploverstar have both lost lives before,” Pepperheart said, “I don’t know about Flarestar and Applestar.”

Stormflight rose to their feet, and began to pace. They didn’t like this, not one bit. Riverclan was one of the strongest clans, second maybe only to Windclan thanks to Ploverstar’s prowess. But still, this was a huge disadvantage.

Not only would Hawthornstar die quicker, but it also meant they couldn’t trust them on Starclan related things. If they didn’t believe in Starclan, then they couldn’t communicate with them either.

Stormflight froze, the implications of that sinking in.

Hawthornstar didn’t believe in Starclan.

Starclan couldn’t communicate with Hawthornstar.

Meaning Firestar had been completely bluffing with his threats.

Sure, he could always try to send a message through another medicine cat, but if Hawthornstar didn’t put faith in their own medicine cats, why would they believe one from another clan?

They turned, moving slowly, almost mechanically, to look at Pepperheart. His brow furrowed with confusion, before his eyes sprang wide open as he caught up with their train of thought.

Kicking up plants and dust, he scrambled backwards, away from them, his pelt prickling up into a cloud of fear. Stormflight stood still, mind ablaze with new possibilities.

The fact remained that he was the only living cat that knew about Azollafrost. And, thanks to a general lack of belief, Starclan couldn’t spread the word well. They could take him out to the forest, finish him off quick and easy. Maybe let him get a few blows in just to make it look like they’d been in a fight.

Then, just blame it on the rogues. The foxhearts ambushed them, moved too fast. By the time Stormflight drove them off, it was already over for Pepperheart.

Maybe, Stormflight was too grief ridden to continue their work as a medicine cat without Pepperheart.

The words would be so simple to say, and so easily believed. No one else knew the truth of Azollafrost’s death, so why would they expect anything to be amiss with Stormflight?

They could be a warrior again. They could be free. All it would take would be a few well aimed swipes, and the whole ordeal would be over.

Stormflight felt a smile creeping onto their face, unnatural and dangerous. Their claws unsheathed themselves, curling into the den’s floor in anticipation. They took a single step forward, before they made themself stop.

Pepperheart had backed himself up against the far wall. “Please don’t,” he murmured, eyes darting side to side as he searched for a way around them. Sure, he could scream all he wanted, if Stormflight was dumb enough to try and kill him in the middle of camp. But they both knew help would come too slow.

But, luckily for him, this was not the time or place. Stormflight needed to be discreet.

And, even more luckily, the reality of what they were thinking of doing sunk in through the cloud of violent excitement that was numbing Stormflight’s mind. Not only was this not the time or place, but this wasn’t them. “Excuse me,” they choked out, forced their paws to turn, and without further preamble, they bolted for the exit.

“Stormflight?” Stingclaw’s puzzled voice called after them as they plunged through and out of the camp. “Stormflight, you can’t go out without a partner!”

Stormflight ignored her, focussing on running as fast as they could. Their lungs burned, their paws stung as they stumbled over sticks, but the brilliant bit of it was that they could hardly think around it.

They skidded to a stop in front of the river, nearly toppling over in the process. They sucked down a deep breath, then stuck their head into the water.

It was still crisp and cold from Leaf-bare, even though it was nearly greenleaf. Stormflight was grateful for the numbness it was spreading through their fur, chilling the warm, soothing hunger Tigerstar had been flooding their head with. They opened their eyes, watching the fuzzy forms of fish dart around their head.

Their mind was blissfully silent. Soon, they would be out of air and forced to remove their head from the river, but for now, they enjoyed the quiet.

Stormflight had to remember who they were. They were no soft pelted kittypet lover, nor were they going to be all cushy and nice to everyone they met. Maybe that meant they weren’t the greatest cat ever in the eyes of others.

But they weren’t going to kill Pepperheart just to get him out of the way. That, the thing that wanted vengeance and pointless violence, at least some of that didn’t belong to them.

Being a medicine cat went against their nature, but they could see why it was a role they needed to fill for now. Someone out of the five had to be a messenger for Starclan, and they were grudgingly willing to admit that they probably needed to figure some things out before they could return to battle.

Also, Stormflight needed to prove to Starclan that they weren’t a monster. That they were more than the cat that had thoughtlessly slaughtered their own sister. Maybe time and good behavior could earn them forgiveness, both from Starclan and Azollafrost.

They just needed to be patient.

With a gasp, Stormflight pulled their head out of the water, droplets cascading from their whiskers. Beside them, their mother regarded them with concern. “Are you alright?” Stingclaw asked, tilting her head.

Admittedly, that had probably been a bit of a strange display. They’d bolted out of camp like their life depended on it, and then proceeded to dunk their head in the river.

“I’m fine,” Stormflight reassured her, shaking their ears free of the water. “I just needed to cool off.”

“Okay,” Stingclaw said, still sounding bewildered.

Stormflight trotted back towards the camp, Stingclaw trailing behind them. They peaked into camp, searching for Pepperheart.

They spotted him in the center of camp, chattering with their other mother, Mintrain, as if nothing had happened. But Stormflight didn’t miss that he was surrounded by their clanmates, who were milling around before heading to bed, a location that would have made it very inconvenient for them to kill him.

“Hey, Pepperheart,” Stormflight called, padding over to the two of them with Stingclaw on their trail.

He froze up like a rock, then, with an easy smile, relaxed. “Hello, Stormflight, Stingclaw,” he returned amiably, “I was just telling Mintrain here all about how much progress you’ve made over the past moon.”

And totally not hiding from them, Stormflight thought. They glanced between their mothers, then at their mentor. “Look, I need to talk to you,” they said, “In private.”

Pepperheart’s smile thinned. “I’m talking to Mintrain right now,” he said tartly, as if he was merely annoyed and not scared half out of his wits.

Stormflight scowled, painfully aware that they couldn’t explain themself in front of their mothers. Pepperheart had chosen his shields well. With a sigh, they stepped over closer, as close as they could get without knocking him over, and dipped their muzzle until it was brushing his ear.

He tensed, sucking in a sharp breath like he expected them to twist their head and tear open his throat right then and there with their parents watching. His fur smelled dusty and bitter from the crust of poultice on his half healed wounds, a reminder once again of how easy it would be to dispose of him.

Quietly, voice barely a ghost of a whisper, Stormflight murmured into his ear, “I’m not going to kill you, mousebrain.” He did not respond, his form stiff beside their own. “It would be a really dumb move,” they added, annoyed but not suprised by his lack of faith in their words. “If I was going to do it, it wouldn’t be in camp.”

This seemed to do the trick. Pepperheart stepped away, avoiding their eyes. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he murmured to Stingclaw and Mintrain, “I need to discuss some important medicine cat business with my apprentice.” He flicked his tail, indicating for Stormflight to follow him to the medicine den.

Once inside, he spun around, shoulders hunched and braising for a blow. “What is it?” he demanded.

Stormflight brushed past him, positioning themself at the back of the den. It was a flip flop of their previous locations, when he had been cowering in the very spot. They wanted him to have easy access to the exit, so he could leave whenever he pleased. They lowered themself onto the floor, folding their paws underneath them in an attempt to seem smaller.

Stormflight didn’t want him to be scared for this conversation. Maybe that wasn’t possible, but they were going to try.

“Pepperheart,” they began, then paused.Their young mentor was studying air just to the left of them, avoiding their eyes once again. C’mon, look at me. Please?” It was the please that finally dragged his yellow gaze up to their face.

“Pepperheart,” Stormflight began again, “I’m not going to kill you.”

Pepperheart shrugged slightly. “You already said that.”

“No, I mean I’m not going to kill you, not now not ever,” Stormflight corrected. The pair of yellow eyes narrowed with disbelief, and they sighed. “Look, I know we haven’t exactly gotten off on the best foot. This past month has been very confusing and upsetting for me, and I’ve been blaming you, even though you’ve done nothing. I’m not asking you to trust me. In fact,” they added ruefully, “It’s probably better that you don’t. Look what I accidentally did to that kittypet earlier.

“I just want you to know that I have no plans of hurting you, okay?” they continued, almost pleadingly. They needed him to understand that, to see them as more than just a monster. “Not because I don’t think I could get away with it, because I totally could,” at this, Pepperheart winced, “But because I don’t want to.”

They cleared their throat. Stormflight wasn’t used to this, just saying what they were feeling, and Pepperheart’s stony gaze wasn’t helping. “I know I’m not exactly the safest cat to be around. Even I’m not sure where Tigerstar and Windstar end and Stormflight begins. Maybe that point doesn’t exist. But that cat you saw standing over Azollafrost’s body? That wasn’t me. She was my sister and I loved her more than anything.”

Pepperheart still said nothing, but held their gaze firmly, waiting for them to continue. They shrugged uncomfortably, fighting off a scowl. “We’re probably never going to be best friends or whatever. I still think you’re a winy, annoying wimp. But if you’re going to hate me, do it because you dislike me as a cat, not because you think I’m a monster who's going to kill you.” They hesitated. “Okay?”

Both of them took a long breath. “Okay,” Pepperheart said slowly. Then, after a beat, “I don’t hate you.”

“No?” Stormflight asked incredulously.  

Pepperheart shook his head. “I think you’re a brat and a bully, but I don’t hate you,” he said, with a small smile. “You’re also absolutely useless when it comes to medicine.”

“Well, you're about as durable as a fly,” Stormflight shot back, smirking. This was the kind of criticism they could enjoy. There was no venom, no anger. It was a wonder what the removal of death threats could do to a relationship.

Today, ‘I don’t hate you’ felt like the biggest compliment Pepperheart could have given them. If he could forgive them, maybe they weren’t unredeemable. They had a chance.

Chapter 21[]

Valleykit liked to take a nice, long nap after breakfast, when they felt cozy and full. Sometimes, Fogkit joined them, despite being much more prone to fidget and far less appreciative of a good patch of sunshine, his dark pelt collecting heat and turning him into a warm pillow.

Subsequently, when the panic started, both of them were asleep.

At the time that they’d fallen away from reality, it had been a usual morning. Warriors milling about, Henheart organizing patrols, Ploverstar watching over from the Tallrock.

It started as a little tickle at the edge of their conscience, a voice just out of hearing. Quickly, it grew to a murmur, and the kit mumbled in their sleep, stretching out a paw and poking Fogkit in the eye. Then, before their companion had time to complain, both of them were being whisked into the air.

“What’s going on?” Valleykit asked blearily, gazing at their swinging paws in bewilderment. They’d been dreaming of being carried away by an eagle, and awakening to find themself in the air was a little disconcerting.

But their captor was their mother, Spicecloud, not a bird. At her side, Duskflame carried Fogkit, both running. Valleykit received no reply to their question, and was instead dumped unceremoniously into the nursery.

“What’s going on?” Galeshard yelped, springing from the nest he usually shared with Fogkit. This time, Spicecloud hesitated a moment to fill him in.

“Badgers. Lots. Probably the batch from Skyclan, right towards. The dawn patrol thinks we have maybe a minute to prepare, Henheart’s trying to keep the badgers distracted.” As Galeshard opened his mouth to ask a question, Spicecloud cut him off. “You stay here, guard the kits.”

“Where are you going?” Galeshard interjected, his pelt ruffled with alarm. Valleykit scrambled to their paws, their mind struggling to keep up with their mother’s words. Badgers? Here? They’d thought those usually stuck to the forest.

They scuttled over to their parents, and pressed up against Duskflame’s leg. “Please don’t leave,” they pleaded, fear flooding their voice.

“Sorry, kiddo,” Duskflame murmured, peering down at them. “Ploverstar wants all free paws working on a makeshift barrier around the camp.”

“Galeshard will take good care of you,” Spicecloud added. “Listen to his instructions, okay?”

“Okay,” Valleykit whimpered.

“We’ll be back before you know it,” Duskflame added, trying to detach the kit from his leg without success. “Stay safe and be brave, Val. Remember, you have to be a good example for Fogkit. Don’t worry about us, a few lil’ badgers will be no problem for a clan of well trained warriors.” He turned to Galeshard, his voice growing serious. “Do whatever you have to do, Galeshard. If things turn nasty, get them out of here.”

“Don’t let my kit get eaten by a badger,” Spicecloud added, her voice not without a silent threat.

Galeshard swallowed hard, and nodded. “Right.”

Valleykit tried to cling to Duskflame’s yellowish fur, but their father leaned down and gently snagged their scruff, and set them down next to Fogkit.

Before he and Spicecloud could turn to leave, Ploverstar burst in, pelt bristling and ears pinned back.

“They’re almost here,” he growled, “We’re out of time for the barricade. Spice, help Galeshard protect the nursery. Duskflame, I’m leading an attack and I want you on it. We’re going to head them off, then help Henheart draw them away from camp.”

Both cats nodded, all business now. Duskflame darted after Ploverstar, and Spicecloud stationed herself firmly in front of the den.

For a long minute, it was silent. Galeshard directed Fogkit and Valleykit over to one of the nests, tucked them in within the moss, then joined Spicecloud at the entrance. Valleykit peered over the rim, staring at her russet through the brambles.

Fogkit nestled closer to them, his black side shivering against their ginger one. His stormy eyes were wide. “I’m scared,” he whispered.

“Me too,” Valleykit replied, trying to listen for the telltale sounds of battle. All they could hear was the thundering of their heart in their ears.

Then, the quiet shattered. Someone yowled a frantic warning, which withered into a shriek of pain. Valleykit shrank down into the nest, burying their head against Fogkit’s warm fur in an effort block them out.

The badger’s roars split the air, echoed with snarls from the cats. There were thuds and thumps, shouts of victory and horror. At the entrance, Galeshard and Spicecloud waited tensely.

“I’m going to go help,” Spicecloud said suddenly, turning to Galeshard. “If the badgers defeat the rest of the clan, it won’t matter if there’s two or one of us once they reach the nursery.”

Galeshard hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. Valleykit let out a low moan of protest as Spicecloud stepped away, disappearing from view. Galeshard’s slim charcoal frame shifted to the center of the doorway, seeming small and insufficient without Spicecloud there.

Valleykit listened, trying to pick out their parents’ voices among the clamor. It was hard to tell, but it sounded like the badgers were winning. The clan cat’s screams were growing more panicked and pained, and while their volume dwindled, the badgers just roared on.

“Duskflame! Watch out!”

They froze as Ploverstar’s frantic warning rose above the rest, their pelt going cold. They waited for Duskflame’s reply, but heard nothing.

Their father needed help. Their clan needed help. And yet, here was Valleykit, hiding like a coward.

“What’re you doing?” Fogkit yelped as they scrambled out of the nest, and sprinted over to the back of the den. They ignored their friend’s protest, and instead nosed around at the wall, searching for the hole they had dug under it a moon or so ago.

Swiftly, they wormed through, and were plunged into the chaos.

Badgers, they realized, were quite large. And their claws were quite sharp, as well as their teeth. For a moment, Valleykit was ready to turn around and go back to the nursery, but instead they forced themself to study the battle, searching for their parents.

Spicecloud was fighting beside Henheart and Whisperpaw, the three of them trying to keep a huge, burly badger from barging into the medicine den. A bit away, near the Tallrock, Duskflame was stumbling to his feet while Ploverstar clawed at a second badger’s face.

And all around them, their clanmates were losing. They didn’t see any casualties yet, but Duskflame had a nasty gash on his face and many others were barely fending off their compattants.

Valleykit took a deep breath, then away from the nursery and into the shadows of one of the large boulders around camp, trying to decide where they could be the most helpful. The larger badgers were a bit of an ambitious goal, but they were also the ones that needed defeating the most.

Before Valleykit could decide, the badgers made up their mind for them. They felt a warm breath of air on the back of their neck, heavy with the scent of blood, accompanied by a growl.

Slowly, they turned around, their eyes widening in dismay as they found a badger towering over them. It was smaller than the others, maybe not fully grown, but it was plenty big enough to snatch up a mischievous kit.

Valleykit was suddenly aware of how terribly foolish they’d been. They tried to back away, but their hindquarters just brushed against the stony sides of the boulder. They were trapped.

As the badger raised a clawed paw, their voice rose up into a wail. “Help!”

Valleykit closed their eyes, waiting for the blow. Instead of claws, they found themself shoved up against the rock as a familiar ginger shape wedged itself between them and the badger.

Spicecloud let out a vicious snarl, hardly flinching as the badger’s claws sunk into her chest. She sliced at its face again and again, splattering Valleykit with blood. Long gashes split across it’s snout and forehead, but the badger just snapped and snarled, until Spicecloud darted forwards, and drove her claws through its eye.

With a howl, the badger twisted away, its face a mess of red and torn fur. It bounded away as fast as its hulking form would allow, disappearing over the rise of the camp.

Valleykit let out a breath of relief, their shoulders slumping as they turned to thank Spicecloud. Instantly, the fear returned.

They had expected Spicecloud to be angry, but she wasn’t even looking at them. She was staring down at her chest, seeming almost perplexed by the deap gauge the badger had torn in it. Her thick russet and white fur was staining red and pink, the blood dripping off of her in heavy drops.

She turned to them, and tried to take a step forward. Instead, she tipped forward, sliding gracelessly onto her stomach.

Spicecloud opened her mouth, trying to say something.

Valleykit stared at her, feeling as if they were in a nightmare. Everything felt slow and choking, like they were drowning.

Because, after all, this could not be real. Their mother did not falter. Their mother could not have a gaping hole in her chest. Their mother could not be bleeding out in front of their eyes, the blood painting their paws pink.

Spicecloud went still.

Their mother could not be dead.

Around them, the sounds of battle had quieted, the badgers having departed. Their clanmates were picking themselves up off of the ground, sluggishly drifting towards the medicine den and calling for Duststone. Valleykit dragged their gaze away from Spicecloud’s lifeless body, searching once again for Duskflame and Ploverstar.

Everyone was coated in blood and grime, but even so, they could hardly have missed Duskflame. Their father was hurrying towards them, his motions jerky with pain.

“Spicecloud,” he whispered, coming to a stop beside them. His voice was jagged with disbelief. He seemed to sway, his legs struggling to hold up his battered, grief wracked body.

“Dad-” Valleykit began, their voice breaking off into a sob, as they stumbled over to him. They tried to bury their face against his pelt, but Duskflame stepped away.

Valleykit tilted their head up at him, confused. They wanted him to pull them close, to tell them it would be okay. They wanted him to get Duststone so that she could fix Spicecloud, because it couldn’t be possible that she was really dead.

“Get away from me,” Duskflame growled, his ears pressed back against his head. His voice was low and dangerous, rabid with anger and disgust. Duskflame took a long, shaky breath, his eyes dark and shining. “Get away,” he repeated, as Valleykit’s eyes widened with confusion. “If you had just done what you were told, this wouldn’t have happened. You killed her.”

Valleykit turned and ran.


Galeshard and Fogkit tried their best to talk to them, but Valleykit ignored them until they left. They didn’t want to talk to anyone, not now, not ever. They’d just killed their mother. They wanted to drown in their grief and guilt and never have to see that look on their father’s face again.

Valleykit thought of that look, and shivered. Duskflame had looked at them as if they were nothing. No, worse than nothing. Nothing could be ignored. Valleykit was something else. A piece of rotted crowfood. A thorn in someone’s paw.

They could hardly comprehend how they had been so stupid, so crass, so utterly naive.

Valleykit glanced over at the nursery entrance, but it was still empty. Some part of them was clinging to the hope that Spicecloud would walk through it, and explain how she wasn’t actually dead. Or, almost as good, Duskflame would enter and tell them he hadn’t meant what he’d said and that he still loved them.

But, as the minutes drained by, no one came. Valleykit shrank within themself, their heart aching.

Their mother was dead and their father hated them. Worst of all, it was all their fault. Of course no one was coming. The rest of the clan probably wasn’t missing them either. Valleykit imagined Ploverstar taking one look at Spicecloud’s body, his gentle face corroding into the same feral look that Duskflame’s had. Maybe he’d kick them out of the clan.

That was probably why one had come looking for them. Maybe they were hoping they’d just wandered off, or that Vallekit would fall over dead if they waited long enough.

A sob wracked through them, and they buried their head in their paws. Valleykit had wrecked everything. All with one dumb decision. Again, they asked themself, how could they have been so stupid?

No one was coming. No one wanted them.

Just then, pawsteps drew their attention to the den entrance. A bedraggled, weary Ploverstar leaned heavily against the wall, keeping the weight off of one of his front paws. His entire side was a mess of crusting blood, although Valleykit couldn’t see the actual wound. He looked like one of the badgers had chewed him up, swallowed him, and spat him out again.

“Can I come in?” Ploverstar asked quietly, voice hoarse. Valleykit was so startled that he was here that they nodded without and second guessing.

Their leader hobbled inside on three legs, wincing as he walked. With a pained huff, he slumped down beside them. Gingerly, he stretched the wounded leg out in front of him, before turning to Valleykit. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. I was….” his gaze flickered to the woundless stain of blood on his pelt, “preoccupied.”

Valleykit nodded again, eyeing Ploverstar warily. They were waiting for the disgust to show, for Ploverstar to hate them for killing his friend. Instead, he just reached out a paw, and tugged Valleykit gently toward him, tucking them against his chest.

Ploverstar’s fur was still damp and red with his own blood, but Valleykit nestled against him regardless. They were still too stung by Duskflame’s anger to reject any kind of comfort. The leader rested his chin softly on top of their back.

“Valleykit, I am so, so sorry,” he mumbled, voice tight with grief. Ploverstar tucked his paws around them, as if he could hide them from reality's cruelty. Valleykit opened their mouth to tell him that it was their fault, not his, but a sob bubbled out instead.

Ploverstar held them, letting them cry into his fur until their lungs were ragged and their sobs died into rusty whimpers.

Valleykit was grateful for his company, but his kindness did nothing to change the fact that neither of their biological parents were there. Spicecloud’s absence meant she was really dead, and Duskflame’s meant that he wanted nothing to do with Valleykit.

Again, it was all their fault. They’d done this.



Valleystep hovered near the edge of the nursery, afraid that if they breathed too loud they might disturb the perfect image they saw inside. Kitkit seemed to have a way of making things just too perfect, generally by attaching herself to people’s heads and falling asleep.

At the moment, her perch was Ploverstar, who, for the first time in an almost impossible span of days, was dozing along with her. That in and of itself was a miracle, because one of the few flaws in Ploverstar’s efficiency was his lack of self preservation. Valleystep, Duststone, Henheart, and half the clan had spent far too many hours reminding him that the clan would not instantly combust if he took a nap.

It was less that the leader was trying to make a martyr of himself, and more that it simply slipped his mind that he needed to eat and sleep.

The second part of the picture was the part that really made their heart hurt. Adjacent to Ploverstar, lounged just far away enough that it almost seemed that his presence was coincidental, sat Duskflame, nibbling at one of his paws.

No matter how many times they blinked, he was still there. It had been a quarter moon or so since they’d brought him home, and they were still struggling to comprehend that he did indeed seem to be truly home this time.

Just yesterday, he’d volunteered to be on a hunting patrol that just so happened to contain Valleystep. He’d laughed at a few of their jokes, complimented their catch.

It had been such a normal thing.

Valleystep kept expecting him to leave. He kept not leaving.

Don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, their mind chanted. They accidentally brushed against the den wall, stirring the leaves. Duskflame looked up, his expression momentarily blank, and Valleystep instinctively readied themself for the searing anger or frigid disgust.  

Instead, Duskflame gave a little nod. “Hey Valleystep,” he said, returning to chewing at his claw. “Why don’t you come in?”

Valleystep did not want to come in. They wanted to stare at their family for a while longer, then hide them away forever so that no one could die, run off, or in any other way mess up this little sliver of restoration.

But, because Duskflame was watching them expectantly, they nodded and ducked under the entryway, settling down between Duskflame and Ploverstar. They peered curiously over at the slim brown and white form. The tensionless, untouched expression on Ploverstar’s face was odd to take in. At rest, he looked almost alien.

“I was beginning to think he’d turned into a plant and was running on sunshine,” they commented, glancing at Duskflame.

“Nope,” Duskflame replied, “Poor old chap needs sleep like the rest of us mousebrains, no matter what he seems to think.”

Valleystep smiled, a smile that was threatening to spill into a goofy, jubilant grin. They were having a conversation-the second one today, they realized with a jolt of giddiness- and no one was getting upset or retreating into themselves. “I guess all it takes is to put a kit on his head,” they said, nodding to Kitkit.

Duskflame gazed at his paw studiously. “Or a few poppy seeds,” he mused, flexing his claws to search for dirt. “Not,” he added, “That I would ever consider such an underhanded method.”

Valleystep gawked at him. Now that they were thinking about it, Duskflame’s pelt carried the whirlwind of tangy, bitter, and bizarre plant smells that was the medicine den’s trademark, and his yellow-orange pelt was flecked with green. Duskflame smiled innocently, swiping his paw over his head.

“Don’t give me that look, pal, we both know he’d run himself into the ground if he could,” Duskflame snorted. “I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.” His smile dimmed slightly. “Plus, I’ve cost him so much sleep, I figure I owe it to him to help him get caught up on his rest. Even if it involves sneaking things into his food.”

Valleystep’s looks had been more of admiration than displeasure. If they were being completely honest, they wished they’d thought of it earlier. “He’s going to be mad,” they warned, “You should have let me do it. Who could be mad at this face?”

The joke slipped out before they could measure its fit for this conversation. They’d gotten so used to just throwing the pointless swagger in between words. It was the type of thing that Duskflame generally ignored, back when Valleystep had also been a thing he generally ignored.

And also, Valleystep’s face was one he’d frequently been mad at.

Duskflame stared at them for a moment, before his face cracked into an impish smile. “Your face? You got that face from me, kid. Who do you think kept Ploverstar on his toes before you were around?”

He paused, tilting his head slightly at Valleystep, his expression tightening. His gaze slipped away, drifting across the den, and he opened his mouth as if to say something, but the words seemed to die before they could float free.

Don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up.

Try as they might, neither of them could make two years of damage disappear in a moon. The wound hung over them like a third member of their conversation, invisible but doing most of the talking.

Valleystep was painfully aware that they had only a vague concept of who Duskflame was outside of sharp silences and hurtful words, snippets of treasured memories they’d hung to. And even that was more than Duskflame knew about them.

Duskflame cleared his throat. “Does the kit have a name yet?” he asked, beginning to lick his paw again. He flicked his tail at Kitkit.

Valleystep shook their head, with a rueful smile. “She’s very picky. The only name she has shown any interest in adopting is Gwilpykit.”

“Well, gwilpies are very admirable creatures,” Duskflame murmured.

Valleystep wondered if he too was thinking of the last time they’d discussed naming the kit, how he’d balked at the aspect of naming his own daughter.  

“Val,” Duskflame said, slowly, as if testing out how it felt to say it like a name instead of a curse. “Val, if you’re having trouble coming up with one…” he shrugged, and stisted to swipe at the already pristine fur on his side with his tongue.

Valleystep felt their heart wobble in its rhythm. “I still mean what I said earlier,” they responded, struggling to keep their voice even, “You’re welcome to help, if she’s okay with it.”

“I’m okay with it,” a soft voice whispered, before Duskflame could reply. The two of them swiveled to stare at the kit, who eyed Duskflame nervously. She ducked behind one of Ploverstar’s ears, suddenly uncharacteristically shy.

Duskflame smiled hesitantly. “Sorry kid, did we wake you?” She poked around Ploverstar, shook her head, and hid again. “Were you eavesdropping?” he asked, voice  carefully teasing. Kitkit nodded, looking very guilty. Duskflame smile gently, lightening his laugh into a soft chuckle. “Like father, like daughter,” he murmured, “You’re turning into a little troublemaker too, I see.” He paused, and that unspoken, mutual sense of discomfort settled in again.

Valleystep knew that Duskflame and Kitkit had been together before, during his long escapades out of camp, but they had no idea how he’d behaved for her before. What they did know was that her mother had died, and Duskflame had promptly dumped her with Plo and themself and then reverted to ignoring everyone.

They imagined that these little blips of normality were what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t gone and broken their family. If Spicecloud was still alive, things could have been this way forever.

Duskflame cleared his throat again. Valleystep was used to Ploverstar’s easy mannerisms, where conversation flowed slow and comfortable like a lazy river, not this torrent of stops and starts. “So, kiddo,” he said, summoning a lighthearted grin that Valleystep recognized from their own face, “Names. You need one, so we’re going to have to buckle down and find one you can live with.” He was stating the obvious, stating what had already been addressed.

Valleystep felt that they wore their smile better. Duskflame had taught them to pretend through discomfort from an early age, and it showed.

Lying was Val’s first language.

“See, Ginger and I had trouble agreeing on it as well,” Duskflame mused, as if the mom in mention wasn’t dead and buried. “Hence why you’re a moon old and still nameless. But I think, all things considered, that this is an argument I should let her win, don’t you think?” He said it like a joke, but it wasn’t really. Either way, no one was laughing.

“Yeah,” Kikit murmured, pressing her face against the top of Ploverstar’s immoble head.

Duskflame folded over to lick down an invisible tuft of fur on his hind leg. “Last time we talked,” he said, which was synonymous for before she died, “Her top pick was Aspen. Aspenkit.”

“Aspenkit,” the kit echoed experimentally, still mumbling into Ploverstar’s fur. Then, quieter, “Okay.”

Valleystep was almost certain that they had suggested that multiple times, but they understood. It made them incredibly uncomfortable to think of Duskflame having another mate beside Spicecloud, especially one who had blatantly been a replacement, but that cat had meant something to their sister.

They hadn’t pressed Aspenkit or Duskflame for details on Ginger’s death, and the two of them had volunteered none. The thought of their goofy little sister grieving  made them sick.

Imagining her thinking it was her fault was even worse. Valleystep desperately hoped she didn’t, but the way she avoided Duskflame’s gaze and shrank at the mention of her mother was all too familiar.

“That’s a good name,” they murmured, leaning over to ruffle the fur on her head. “A good name for a brilliant kit.”


Valleystep looked up as Ploverstar finally emerged from the nursery, his pelt ruffled and his eyes still bleary from sleep. They were almost as glad to see him up and about as they had been to see him napping; it was nearly dark and they’d begun to wonder exactly how many poppy seeds Duskflame had slipped him.

“Good afternoon, Valleystep,” he murmured, then paused, frowning as he gazed up at the lovely sunset that was painting the clouds overhead. “Or, good evening?” he said, rubbing a paw over his eyes,“Great Starclan, how long was I sleeping?”

“Relax, Plo, we would have woken you if the world started ending.”

Ploverstar didn’t look convinced. He settled down onto the ground next to Valleystep, his eyes trailing up towards the distant pinpricks of the newly visible stars, before creeping back to Valleystep.

He seemed to have something to say, and Valleystep had a sinking suspicion they knew the jist of it. Luckily, Valleystep also had something they wanted to talk about.

“Hey, Plo,” they said, beating Ploverstar to the punch, “Could I perhaps enlist you in parenting lessons?”

Ploverstar gawked at them. “Do I know the lucky cat?”

“Regarding Aspenkit, you dusty brain,” Valleystep clarified, poking at his side. Ploverstar relaxed, and nodded. Valleystep studied the faint map of stars above them, trying to figure out how to say it. They were going to have to set their flippancy aside if they wanted to have this conversation.

“I’m worried about her. She acts so cheerful, but seeing her around Duskflame makes it clear that she’s not happy. Her mom’s dead, but she never talks about her, and I guess I just don’t know how to bridge the topic.” They squirmed under Ploverstar’s gentle gaze, and added, “Or even if I should. I never met Ginger.

“And with Duskflame giving her the cold shoulder right after…” Valleystep trailed off, struggling. They found it hard to talk badly about their father, given that they felt they were the one truly to blame. “Someone needs to let her know that she’s done nothing wrong, but I’m not sure if that should be me.”

Ploverstar sighed, shaking his head ever so slightly. “I mean this in the best way possible, but do you realize what a hypocrite you are?” Valleystep stared at him.

“I don’t understand,” they said, bewildered and a little stung.

“Let’s see,” Ploverstar murmured, “Kit loses mother, feels guilty, hides their feelings, ect ect. Sound familiar?” He smiled sadly. “Valleystep, I’ve spent years trying and failing to convince you that you weren’t responsible for Spicecloud’s death.”

Valleystep choked on their words, torn between denial and apology. Maybe they felt the same way about Aspenkit as Ploverstar had about them, but the situations were different. “This isn’t the same.”

Ploverstar shifted closer, until his pelt brushed Valleystep’s, providing a comforting, stabilizing pressure. “Maybe if you try to find a way to forgive yourself, you can figure out how to help your sister.”

“All I wanted,” Valleystep said tightly, “Was a simple answer, not riddles.”

Ploverstar chuckled quietly. “There is nothing simple about parenting.” He paused, amusement fading as fast as it had arrived. “Look, all I can tell you is to just try your best. Be kind, be patient, be there. Tell her you love her and that nothing’s her fault and pray to Starclan that some of it gets through.” His pale eyes searched Valleystep’s face, the plea obvious.

Valleystep looked away, their gut twisting with displeasure. They couldn’t give Ploverstar the answer he wanted. “Thanks,” they mumbled. They gazed intently at the grass beneath their paws, not wanting to see the flash of frustration and sorrow that traditionally accompanied this point in this conversation.

“Please don’t,” Ploverstar interjected, waving a paw under their nose. “Cut that out. The whole feeling-guilty-about-me-feeling-guilty-about-you-feeling-guilty-thing just turns both of us into an absolute mess.” He tilted his head at them thoughtfully. “Val, I’m going to be taking a trip to the moonpool with Duststone in a couple of days, and I’d like you to come with.”

Valleystep swiveled around to look at him. “Why?” They got the feeling that this was what had been on Ploverstar’s mind earlier.

“Well,” Ploverstar said, “For obvious reasons, I’d like to reference Starclan’s wisdom and also clarify some things, although,” he added, “Clarity is not always their strong point. But, regardless, I need to get more information on your….situation.”

“I still doubt there is a situation.”

“Part of my point,” Ploverstar said gently, “I know you don’t believe in them, but if there’s even a possibility that you’re a part of something as important- and as dangerous- as the Riverclan medicine cats said you are, I don’t want to be taking any unnecessary chances.”

“Sticking my head in a puddle is not going to make me believe in Starclan,” Valleystep retorted, their voice rising. “Besides, do normal warriors even get to speak to them?” they added incredulously.

“According to Duststone, Starclan said that all of the chosen cats could communicate with them.”

“I wasn’t chosen for anything.”

Ploverstar nodded slightly, ignoring their tone. “But would it really be such a big deal just to take a little walk and touch your nose to some water? Just humor me, please.”   

“No.” Valleystep surprised themself with the venom in their voice.

Their leader did not respond for a long moment. “I’ve also been thinking,” he mused softly, “About something else. There’s someone there you need to talk to.”

“No.”

“There’s no guarantee, of course,” Ploverstar continued, as if Valleystep wasn’t speaking, “But I really think it might help.”

Valleystep shook their head, unable to muster up the words this time. They couldn’t have explained the fear creeping through their skin anyway. They wriggled away from Ploverstar, and stood.

“Val, please,” Ploverstar murmured, gazing up at them. “Why not? Why won’t you give it a chance? Spicecloud’s not going to blame you, I promise.”

They said nothing, their eyes creeping hesitantly up to the stars. They had always full heartedly believed they were just little pinpricks of light and nothing more, that death was the final goodbye.

Valleystep wouldn’t get their hopes up about Ploverstar’s magic puddle. But they also weren’t going to be able to give it a chance like he pleaded for them to do.

Their mind felt strangely unfamiliar in this moment, like they’d looked in a pool of water and found their reflection to be ever so slightly off. Their heart thudded against their chest like it wanted to escape, any solid thought drowned out with fear and anguish.

Valleystep wasn’t sure what they would do if Spicecloud did blame them. It was one thing to hear Duskflame talk, the poison in his words rotting away at their soul. But he, just like Ploverstar, was watching from the outside. Valleystep was the one who had made the mistake, Spicecloud had been the one who died.

If she hated them too….well, Valleystep wasn’t sure they could live with that.

They wrestled the notion away before they could fixate on it too much, forcing their mind to focus on the opposite.

What if she forgave them?

The image made their paws feel unsteady. So long, they’d clung to that one truth, that they’d caused their mother’s death, like a moth unable to leave the flame. They felt off kilter, trying to imagine her smile, her words, her forgiveness. To hear her say it herself, that they’d done nothing wrong.

They couldn’t do it.

Valleystep closed their eyes as something within them seized up. They saw once again, for a fleeting moment, the light dying from Spicecloud’s eyes as her last words died with her.

The scene flickered. A tabby and white shape, growing smaller in the sky. A tiny, limp body. Faces, familiar and once loved, twisting with anger. Then it was gone, and they were alone with the night and Ploverstar.

The truth was that they didn’t deserve to be forgiven.  

Chapter 22[]

The Thunderclan nursery was decorated with an array of shredded moss, torn apart nests, and three kits in the midst of a full blown tantrum. Duckkit and Raykit spared no expenses as they tried to convince their captors to return them to Skyclan.

“Where’s Marblecloud?” Raykit warbled, flailing her paws against the dusty ground and sending sticks and moss flying. “I want Marbleclouddddd!”

Duckkit slashed angrily at the nursery wall, then yelped as a bramble caught in his paw. “This nursery is stupid. It smells like mousedung!”

Orchidkit watched her siblings tear through the nursery like fluffy little tornados, noting their tactics and their ineffectiveness. She hated the noise, the drama, being lied to, and this camp, but most of all, she hated seeing Duckkit and Raykit look so lost and helpless.

She turned to the cat that was blocking their exit. Bellstorm was staring blankly into space, their expression pained.

This was the cat she’d recently learned was her parent. Orchidkit had looked forward to getting to meet them, but what she hadn’t had in mind was being ripped away from Marblecloud and getting stuck in their clan with them. And they weren’t anything like what she had expected from the deputy of Thunderclan.

Deputies were supposed to be in control. Bellstorm looked like they wanted to cry.

Orchidkit didn’t really understand what was going on, but she did understand that this cat was the reason they weren’t in Skyclan anymore, the reason Raykit and Duckkit were crying. So, she nudged away her curiosity and longing, and sharpened her words in her mind like claws on a stone.

“We don’t want to be here,” Orchidkit said harshly, her voice livid. Bellstorm winced and looked away, their blue eyes sad.

She could see Raykit in their pale gold coat, herself in their neat white paws, and Duckkit in their sturdy shoulders. Mostly, she saw that they were blocking the kits’ way home.

“Take us back to Marblecloud,” Orchidkit demanded. “Take us back to our real parent and our real clan. Can’t you see it’s selfish of you to keep us here?”

Bellstorm shrank, their expression wilting like a flower in the sun. “I’m sorry,” they muttered, ears flicking back uncertainly. “You’ll be back with Marblecloud in three moons, I promise. But, for now, can’t we try to get along? I really would like to know you.”

“Well, we don’t want to know you!” Raykit wailed, beating Orchidkit to it. Bellstorm stared at the ground, and said nothing.

“Excuse me,” a new voice called, and a light tabby she-cat shifted into view. She peered into the nursery, her green eyes harsh. “Kits, do you know who I am?”

“No,” Duckkit growled.

“I am Applestar, leader of Thunderclan. And, as your current leader, I forbid you from talking to your deputy and parent like that, understand? You will respect us.” Applestar fixed each of them in her sights. One by one, the kits looked away, and even Orchidkit was unable to keep herself from flinching.

“I understand,” Raykit whimpered, and Duckkit nodded reluctantly. Applestar looked at Orchidkit expectantly.

Orchidkit ducked away from the leader’s gaze, but didn’t cave. “I meant what we said. Respect has to be earned, and you can start by taking us home.”

Applestar smiled thinly. “What a intelligent, bratty little kit you are. Bellstorm, can you grab some apprentices and get this den cleaned up. Orchidkit,” she added, “Come with me.”

Orchidkit yelped as the tabby leaned over and snagged her scruff, the ground disappearing from her paws as she was swooped off of the ground. Applestar carried her out of the nursery and across the camp.

Several sets of eyes turned to stare at her, making her pelt itch. Orchidkit screwed her face up into a scowl and glared back at them, as Applestar leaped nimbly up onto the huge rock at the side of the camp.

The leader set her down, not particularly gently. Orchidkit wondered idly if Applestar was going to push her off the giant rock to shut her up.

“Look out across the camp,” Applestar instructed, nudging Orchidkit towards the edge. Orchidkit stared obediently at the ground below, making faces at anyone who dared look up. “What do you see?”

“Ground.”

“What else?”

“Some more ground.”

Applestar scowled. “I meant what I said, Orchidkit. You seem very smart, and also very full of yourself. I want to speak to the smart Orchidkit. Can you do that for me?”

“Fine,” Orchidkit growled. “I see cats.”

“And how do the cats look?”

“Happy,” Orchidkit grumbled, watching as several apprentice batted a ball of moss back and forth, while elders gossiped in the shade.

“Not very different from Skyclan, right? I think, if you try, you could be happy here as well. I think you’ll find that Bellstorm is a kind, caring cat who just wants to know their kits, and that they love you very much.”

Orchidkit frowned, and tilted her head up to meet Applestar’s green eyes. “Why can’t Marblecloud, Bellstorm, and the rest of us just live together? Why do you have to keep us apart?”

Applestar shrugged. “Your parents broke rules. There’s a certain way things have to work, Orchidkit, and their relationship doesn’t do that. They were given a choice between having their clans or their family, and they both chose their clans, so we’re making do. It’s not an ideal solution, moving you back and forth, but you’re stuck with it. I advise you to get used to it.”

Orchidkit’s stomach churned at Applestar’s stern words, but on some level she was glad for them. The leader was treating her like an adult, and while her words stung, they were honest. She preferred it to Dewstar’s apologies and empty promises.

“What you’re going to learn very quickly,” Applestar continued, “Is that life simply isn’t fair. You can sit around and complain about it, or you can try to make the most of what you have. Some cats are going to judge you for your parentage. There will be days when you miss the parent you’re not with.” She looked down at Orchidkit, her gaze hard but not unkind. “Let those things strengthen you, not break you. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes,” Orchidkit replied, nodding. Yes, she could do that. She would be strong, but not for Applestar or Dewstar or any of these cats who liked her family better broken than happy. She would be strong for Duckkit and Raykit, so that they could figure out how to be strong, too.

Orchidfur flicked a shredded fragment of sorrel into the proper pile, then pulled a stack of ragweed free of the mess of plants in front of her. A sprig of horsetail went into a third pile, and pawful of catmint into another. Orchidfur was surrounded by piles, the various plants scattered around her like a cluster of stars, beginning to wilt in the heat.

“Thanks again for the help,” Sablewind called from the medicine den, ducking out to push a mess of greenery through the doorway. The medicine cat’s reddish fur was speckled with leaves and crushed berries, courtesy of Thymekit and Figkit.

Orchidfur nodded, sniffing at a mysterious scrap, before adding it to the horsetail pile. If she ever had kits, she vowed to do a better job at parenting than Hedgeflight and Kalenose, namely in the discipline department. At almost six moons old, Thymekit and Figkit were just as immature as they’d always been, just bigger and better at causing destruction.

Today’s victim: the medicine den.

“Supposedly,” Sablewind continued, peering over Orchidfur’s shoulder, “Figkit wants to be my apprentice.” They smiled unenthusiastically. “Lucky me. I suppose I should be glad, but they’re going to have to learn some better organizational skills first.”

“I just hope Dewstar makes them apprentices soon,” Orchidfur murmured back, “Hopefully, when their energy’s being used on training and chores, they’ll be easier to handle.”

“I’ll say,” Sablewind agreed fervently, with a regretful glance at their disorderly supplies.

Orchidfur watched them slip back into their den, then turned her attention back to the task at hand. Not herb sorting, but watching. It was always easier to go unnoticed when it looked like she was working on something else.

She shuffled away a neat pile of dandelion leaves, and let her eyes drift across the camp, ears pricked casually forward.

From the sound of it, Thymekit and Figkit were harassing their parents for battle moves. Across the clearing, Dewstar was chatting with his apprentice, Talonpaw about hunting pigeons. Lavenderdapple dozed in the corner, her sides swollen with unborn kits.

All very normal, all very tame.  Orchidfur dusted away a bit of dust from her fur, and waited.

A few moments later, the Dusk Patrol returned, and with it Elm. She watched out of the corner of her eye as he set a plump squirrel into the fresh kill pile, before turning to Hayfire. He murmured something, prompting a wry grin from the deputy, who shook her head and waved him away.

Elm looked up, his gaze drifting across the clearing, before meeting hers. He tilted his head to the side, and smiled.

Of course, out of all the cats in her clan, the only one with secrets worth knowing was the only one who, time and time again, was smart enough to notice her observation.

He tossed a farewell over his shoulder to the patrol, and padded over, ignoring her miffed frown. Normally, she would have tried to play the situation off and return to her plants and later her observing, but she knew she was caught.

“If I’m not mistaken, that’s at least the second time today,” Elm commented mildly, casting his dual toned gaze over the herbs with interest. “I’d feel complimented if you didn’t pay everyone the same treat.”

Orchidfur grabbed a bit of marigold away from his paws, and shrugged. “Okay,” she said, not particularly remorseful.  

“Want some advice?” Elm asked.

“Not really.”

“If you want to get to know someone, you could always try talking to them,” he said helpfully, nudging a few poppyseeds in the right direction.

Orchidfur eyed him charily, measuring her response. She wasn’t accustomed to having conversations on an even playing field like this.

That’s really what this was, when she thought about it. A game, a competition, a dance, a battle. He’d deflected her inquisitions with an offensive of his own, although she didn’t think he had realized she’d noticed.

“What makes you think I would want to talk to you?” Orchidfur asked, trying to mimic one of his practiced smiles.

Elm glanced up at her, his gaze sharp. “Well, you’ve been watching me like a hawk since I got here.”

Someone should be keeping an eye on you,” she returned pointedly.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Orchidfur said slowly, “I don’t trust you.”

Elm kept his expression smooth, but something in his posture changed, ever so slightly. Now she definitely had his attention. She hadn’t missed how he’d carefully navigated his way through the past half moon or so, saying just the right things at just the right times. “And why not?”

Orchidfur shrugged again, bruising herself with the plants. “Why should I? You’re a rogue, who just happens to show up when we’re having troubles with rogues. That in and of itself seems worth noting. Besides,” she added, “The clans have always been in trouble with rogues. Sol, Scrub, ect.”

Darktail, she thought, remembering Stormflight’s claims.

That was far from it, though. He always seemed to be measuring, hoarding bits of information like they were juicy pieces of prey. Elm had subtly explored every nook of the camp, asked thoughtful questions on the workings of the clans, and chatted himself right into alliances with everyone from the elders to Hayfire. To those involved in the interactions, it probably seemed mundane.

From the outside, it seemed awfully strategic. It didn’t necessarily mean he was a threat, but it certainly did make him intriguing.

Elm frowned, the first legitimate expression Orchidfur could confidently identify on him in days. “You’re quite wise,” he replied levely, “If I were in your position, I’d do the same thing. But I swear, I would never work with those foxhearts. They drove me from my territory, and I don’t forget an insult like that.” He smiled, a sweet, charming smile that only furthered Orchidfur’s suspicions. “I hate them as much as you do.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Orchidfur replied, fixing him with a cutting gaze. “But I think there’s more to that story, if not a completely different story. You have a bigger stake in this than bruised pride.”

Elm held her eyes, and Orchidfur got the distinct feeling that she was being measured. She’d made her move, and now it was up to him to decide how to defend. It was possible he’d just brush her off and continue with his charade, but she was hoping to get some actual information out of this conversation.

Finally, he looked away. A softer, almost breakable expression flitted across his face, washing away in an instant back into neutrality. “They killed my father.”

Orchidfur stared at him, startled. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it hadn’t been this. Elm had seemed anything but grieved, yet his reluctance to admit it certainly helped sell it.

He seemed to take her silence for disbelief. “I got a warning first, but I thought I could handle them. Lo and behold, it turns out they’ve been watching me, and having my father followed.” Elm shook his head. “I could have saved him, if I’d listened, yet he’s still decomposing on a Thunderpath somewhere.”

Elm’s eyes flashed as he turned back to her. “I want to see those rogues pay. Is that a good enough motive for you?”

Orchidfur nodded mechanically. “Yes. Of course. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pressed.” She said she was sorry, but really, she was mostly just pleased that he’d decided to tell the truth. This was an answer she could believe. Revenge was something she could understand.

“I would have done the same,” Elm replied lightly, his voice not quite level. “I’m actually...well, I guess this is the first time I’ve said that outloud. It’s a weight off my chest.”

He ducked his head, and flicked a clump of dock into the wrong pile. Orchidfur frowned, and redirected it.

“Do you think you could give me a lesson in your hobby?” Elm asked suddenly, an easy smile returning. “Watching. I’m plenty good at hiding, but you don’t really hide, do you? You just blend in.”

“A good magician doesn’t reveal her tricks,” Orchidfur replied, shaking her head.

“Well, perhaps another time then,” Elm murmured, straightening. He gave her a little salute with his tail, and slipped away towards the freshkill pile.

Orchidfur watched him go, a bit of unease returning. Even though she’d gotten what she’d wanted, the smile slipping onto his face seemed triumphant. It seemed now that their conversation had been less of a competition than a transaction.

Her trust for a truth. Orchidfur wasn’t sure that was a fair trade.

And everything about it was familiar. Always, always familiar.

“Wake up,” Orchidfur ordered, giving Raystem a sharp poke in the side. Her sister’s yellow eyes blinked slowly open, and she let out an unintelligible mumble of protest. Orchidfur poked her again, then again, with increasing intensity. “Come on, mousebrain, it’s time for the gathering.”

With a yelp, Raystem lept from her nest, nearly plowing into Orchidfur. She shook her pelt free of dusty moss, suddenly wide awake and grinning. “Finally. This has been the longest half moon of my life. Do we all get to go?”

“I don’t know what Applestar’s plans are, but Dewstar’s cleared the three of us to go,” Orchidfur called over her shoulder, joining the gathered group of cats near the exit. Dewstar was doing a headcount, his tail twitching nervously.

“I hope he’s there,” Raystem murmured. “I’d give a moon worth of prey to hear one of his dumb jokes.”

Marblecloud wiggled around Boulderpaw and Goosepaw, shooting Dewstar a hostile look as xe passed. “There you two are,” xe muttered, chewing at xyr lip. Orchidfur could tell that xe was just as impatient to get going as they were, and just as anxious to see the other half of their family again.

“Alright, everyone’s here,” Dewstar called, waiving his white tail through the air before ducking out of the camp. Orchidfur and the others followed close behind.

Orchidfur felt like the run lasted forever. Not just because she wanted to see her other parent and brother again, but because she knew the woods weren’t safe, especially at night. She thought of Greyspring and Timberlight’s bodies, how the rogues had swooped in without the clans knowing.

The whole clan seemed to let out a breath of relief as they crossed over the tree bridge without any excitement, just behind the Shadowclan group. Already, the moonlit clearing was full, with Windclan, Thunderclan, and Riverclan already waiting.

The patrol dissolved into the crowd, and Orchidfur craned her neck, searching the swarm of pelts for Bellstorm and Duckfeather. Her face broke into a grin as she spotted her parent’s pale gold pelt under the giant oak beside the other deputies, with Duckfeather hovering awkwardly nearby. His face brightened as their eyes met, and soon he was cutting through the crowd towards them.

“Hey guys!” he called, darting between cats and earning several glares as he stepped on a multitude of paws. It wasn’t just irritation that brought gazes in their direction, though. Everyone knew Bellstorm and Marblecloud’s history. Everyone wanted to stick their noses where they didn’t belong.

Marblecloud ignored the odd looks xe was collecting, and nuzzled xyr face against Duckfeather’s. “Is it just me, or are you bigger than last time I saw you?” xe asked, leaning back. Orchidfur was pretty sure Duckfeather was done growing, but her brother just grinned. “And,” xe added, reaching a paw up to his ear, “What’s this new nick from?”

“Battle practice!” Duckfeather replied cheerfully, grinning. “I’ve been helping Bellstorm train Brownpaw. They say maybe I can be Blazekit’s mentor once she’s older!”

Orchidfur nodded along, enjoying the easy, gentle drift of the smalltalk as they exchanged stories and jokes, but was internally more attuned to the conversations going on around them.

Usually, gathering talk was nothing but gossip and drama, but this moon, there was an abundance of tense whispers.

Have you seen them?

Dillkit’s still missing.

I swear I scented mint by the border.

Riverclan’s medicine cats came to visit, I wonder why?

Ploverstar’s got our camp all protected.

But they got in so easily last time.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about rogues.

Speaking of which, Orchidfur spotted Elm, looking calm and collected and surrounded by a swarm of cats. Dewstar thought it would be a good idea to bring him so that he could discuss his knowledge of their enemies, but Orchidfur thought it was the equivalent of throwing a kit to a pack of dogs.

“Yes, I’m from the twoleg place,” he was saying, speaking loudly so that his entire entourage could hear, “But I didn’t know any of your rogues until they drove me out of my territory. So, now I want to help you defeat them. Why? Good question. An enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine. Plus, clan life seems far superior to living on my own now that I know better.”

That same lie, told again and again, was beginning to sound almost musical as he artfully walked through his story, selling himself as small, vengeful, and entranced by the superior life of clan cats. His crowd seemed to relax at his bashful grin, his well timed nervous chuckles.

If she didn’t know better, he might have seemed harmless.

Orchidfur turned her gaze away, combing the crowd again for particular faces. There, in the center of the gathering area, was Valleystep of Windclan, putting on their usual performance. “Now, what’s your name? Yes, you, with the lovely face. Fantastic to meet you.” She smiled slightly as she watched them launch into a far fetched tale about rabbit catching, their face alight with clever mischief as they flirted their way through their audience. They were, in all practicality, Ploverstar’s kit. Meanwhile, their biological father had his own set of rumors and gossip attached to him.

Next to the other medicine cats, Stormflight of Riverclan was sitting beside their mentor, looking moody and shooting longing looks into the clumps of gossiping warriors. They leaned over to Pepperheart, and muttered something that earned them a glare. Their muscular form seemed to tower over the soft pelts of the other medicine cats.Their sister had recently passed away, and if they cared, it didn’t show.  

Both had their reputations. Valleystep liked to be the life of every gathering they attended, always collecting friendly faces to smile back at. Stormflight could be counted on to pick a fight and win. Both were very familiar now that she knew to be paying attention, so very much so that she wondered how she’d ever missed it.

Orchidfur wondered who the fifth cat was. So far, she knew they had a half clan cat, a former rogue, a menacing warrior turned medicine cat, and a long legged clown. It was quite the collection.

“Let the gathering begin!” Ploverstar’s voice rang across the clamor, taming it in a quiet murmur. He smiled from his perch on the oak’s broad branch, then continued. “Thank you. The rabbits have been running well in Windclan. Our camp is newly fortified, and we’ve seen no new signs of the rogues. Fogheart is recovering well from his injuries, thanks to Duststone’s hard work. We have a new kit in the clan, Aspenkit, as well as a new warrior, Fernstrike.”

Orchidfur raised her voice along with the others, chanting the names. Sometimes, clan disagreements led to an awkward silence instead of cheers, but Ploverstar was good at keeping his clan free of petty arguments.

The Windclan leader leaned back on his branch as the cheers died away, and nodded politely to the other leaders.

Shadowclan had two new warriors. Riverclan was still looking for their missing kit. There was an uncomfortable glance between Applestar and Dewstar, before Applestar announced Duckfeather’s name and Dewstar said Raystem and Orchidfur’s.

Orchidfur pasted on a friendly smile as all eyes swiveled to them, waiting for them to finish staring and cheering. She’d always despised that feeling, having all of those eyes crawling over her pelt like ants.

As Dewdstar finished speaking, Ploverstar cleared his throat. “I know this is a delicate topic for a gathering, but I think we ought to address the obvious. The matters of the rogues, and the new prophecy.”

A crackle of excitement shot through the clearing, electrifying the air like a bolt of lightning. The calm collapsed into nervous murmurs and shouts.

“What prophecy?” someone called.

Ploverstar smiled politely at Hawthornstar. “Would you like to take the stage? Since your medicine cats were the ones who delivered it?”

Hawthornstar’s dark green eyes stared back at Ploverstar, before their head jerked down in the direction of their medicine cats. A very unpleasant silence fell as they glared down at the top of Pepperheart and Stormflight’s heads, both of which were looking anywhere but towards their leader.

“No,” Hawthornstar said slowly, “Because I was not aware of this ‘prophecy.’”

Orchidfur smiled slightly at the burning I told you so look Stormflight shot at their mentor. The black cat forced themself to meet their leader’s gaze, and gave an apologetic shrug.

“Must have slipped our minds,” they said lightly, earning a nervous chuckle from the crowd.

Hawthornstar’s gaze was thunderous. They swiveled around on the branch, glancing at the other leaders. “Were all of you aware of this?” they asked, glancing from cat to cat. Ploverstar, who looked like he regretted bridging the topic, nodded apologetically along with the others.

“Fantastic,” Hawthornstar spat. “Stormflight, please enlighten me and all the other sorry suckers who don’t know what in Starclan’s name is going on.”

Stormflight shot Pepperheart one last furious glance, before clearing their throat. They looked out uneasily across the crowd, their posture tense.

Orchidfur didn’t find it hard to follow their train of thought.

No one in their right mind was going to believe what they were about to say.

“We don’t have an actual prophecy, just a message from Starclan. For once, they skipped the riddles,” Stormflight said, ignoring the murmurs of disbelief. “Five cats have been selected to save the clans, presumably from the new threat of the rogues.” They shrugged. “You know, the usual prophecy deal.”

“Which cats?”

“How will they save us?”

“What’s special about them?”

“Are you serious?”  

Stormflight smiled thinly. “Well, a lot of the answers to those questions are ‘I don’t know’. But, yes, I am serious.”

Someone in the crowd laughed. Beside Orchidfur, Duckfeather snickered. The deputies by the tree wore expressions of varying degrees of skepticism.

“You do know the cats, don’t you?” Dewstar interjected, frowning. “You visited my camp to talk to Elm and Orchidfur.”

“Yes,” Stormflight agreed reluctantly, seeming to shrink a bit. “We know the cats.”

“Well?” Flarestar pressed, “Who are they?” At Stormflight’s silence, she grinned. “Cat got your tongue?”

Stormflight scowled. “Valleystep, Orchidfur, and Elm are all part of the deal. And,” they grimaced, “So am I.”

“The fifth?” Dewstar prompted.

“Bumble.” Before anyone could ask, Stormflight added, “She’s a kittypet.”

Eyes swiveled to them. Elm smiled a good natured, I have no idea what’s going on smile.

Valleystep tensed as judging gazes cast their way, then grinned. “I’m sorry, Stormflight, but I’m going to tell you now what I said before. I don’t believe a word of it.” Their chuckle lead the charge of a rush of laughter, skepticisms, and taunting shouts.

Orchidfur gave a noncommittal shrug as her family gawked at her, knowing her support would mean nothing against the tide of ridicule.

At the front of the gathering, Stormflight was looking angry. Not angry, actually, downright murderous. Pepperheart eyed them nervously, and murmured something soft to them, prompting an annoyed but significantly safer seeming expression.

“I am only repeating what Starclan has told me,” Stormflight growled, voice gravelly. “You mousebrains can take it or leave it.”

The medicine cats enchanted a sad glance as bursts of laughter overturned Ploverstar’s attempts to regain control on the group. Hawthornstar themself joined the chuckles, all contempt and irritation.

“Very entertaining, Stormflight,” they snarled. “I’m glad you didn’t bother me with that mousedung.”

“Now, it might not be mousedung,” Ploverstar suggested carefully, even as an amused smile crept onto Applestar’s face.

“Look, old man, I believe in Starclan, but I don’t believe in fairy tales,” Flarestar interjected. “Our ancestors may be up there, but it’s been ages since they’ve lifted a paw to interfere with our affairs. Why are they getting off their rears now?”

“Enough of this,”Hawthornstar snapped, waving a paw. “This conversation is a waste of time. We need to focus on the task at hand: what are we going to do about the rogues? It’s been half a moon, and Dillkit is still missing. We are still living in fear.” They surveyed the crowd. “We need to strike back. Elm can draw out his maps for us, we can move now while they’re not expecting us.”

The other leaders were silent for a moment. Some cats called out cheers of support, others booed. Finally, Ploverstar said, “I will not risk Windclan in a battle we don’t know the stakes of.”

“Likewise, Skyclan won’t be fighting,” Dewstar murmured, surprising nobody and especially not Orchidfur.

“Hate to break it to you, Hawthornstar, but we’re still healing from our last fight with you,” Flarestar said flippantly. “If you wanted Shadowclan’s help, maybe you shouldn’t have attacked us.”

Applestar shrugged apologetically. “If there were five clans fighting, I wouldn’t say no. But just two?” She shook her head.

For a brief moment, Hawthornstar looked like they wanted to shove the other leaders off of the branch, before they took a long, audible breath. “No warrior can neglect a kit in pain or danger, even if the kit is from a different Clan,” they murmured, fixing their gaze on Ploverstar. “I never took you for a hypocrite, Ploverstar.”

Ploverstar closed his eyes. “First of all, I said Windclan would not fight, not that we wouldn’t help. You’re welcome to consult me on any strategic or diplomatic matters, and we’ll share our herbs. Secondly, the rogues have had Dillkit for half a moon. They’re either dead already, or, if they are still alive, it seems unlikely that the rogues will actually hurt them. I’m truly sorry, but I will not put my clanmates in danger in this reckless of a move. Our thoughts will be with you, but not our claws.”

“A lot of good your thoughts will do us,” Hawthornstar snarled. They turned, their gaze raking the crowd. “Elm, it’s time to earn your worth. Tell me everything you can about those rogues and where they might be located. Quicktail, help me memorize it.”

Uneasy silence fell as the leader sprang down from the tree and stalked over to where the calico rogue was sitting.

“I’m not sure I’d advise-” Elm began, but Hawthornstar let out a sharp hiss, and he wisely ended his sentence there. He gestured for the cats around him to back away, and began to draw.

His face relaxed as he worked, losing its masks while he drew out the place that had been his home, pointing out the strategic entrance points and handy hideaways as he went. Each claw mark was precise and straight, each street crisp in the dusty ground.

“That’s where they’ll be,” Elm told Hawthornstar. “This area is overrun with rats, and the other side of the street is still occupied by twolegs. But these,” he said, gesturing to a couple of large rectangles, “Have been empty for years.”

He widened his circle, politely shifting the clan cats out of his way. One by one, he sketched a rough portrayal of the individual buildings. “This one has lots of small rooms in it, and most of the windows are broken. Two floors. Some of the doors will open if you pull down on the levers.”

Hawthornstar stared at him, and he launched into a description of what doors were and how levers worked. He explained that he hadn’t been in the others, but that he suspected the layout was similar, although one was half collapsed.

Orchidfur watched with interest, startled to see the open intensity of his expression. Hawthornstar seemed equally entranced. Elm moved on to the best points of attack, where he would guess the enemy would be congregated the most.

“There you have it,” Elm said eventually, with a sudden grin. He seemed elated, thrilled to have explained it all and for Hawthornstar to have understood.

Orchidfur wondered how long he had kept those ideas in his head, why exactly he had such detailed plans on attacking empty buildings, and what on earth he’d thought up about Skyclan camp already.

This was probably the truest form of him she’d seen. It both convinced her once again that she knew him, and that he was the most interesting cat in her clan.

“Thank you,” Hawthornstar said curtly, studying the pictures a moment longer before turning to go. “Riverclan, we’re leaving. This gathering is over.”

As Riverclan filed out, Orchidfur slipped away from her family and into the stream of moving cats. Stormflight tried to shove past her, but she gave them a sharp flick with her tail.

“Hold on a minute,” she said.

They turned to look at her, and Orchidfur flinched at the raw, burning anger in their eyes. Their face was screwed into the fiercest scowl she’d seen on them yet. “Get out of my way and buzz off,” they growled, “I need to stick my head in a river.” She watched, baffled, as they stormed away.

Pepperheart shot her an apologetic look as he hurried after them. “Tigerstar, Windstar, and Stormflight all do not like being laughed at,” he murmured under his breath.

Orchidfur supposed they were taking a pretty big fall. They’d gone from Hawthornstar’s best warrior, equal parts respected, hated, admired, and feared by the rest of the clans, to a laughingstock.

“You said you’d be in touch, but I haven’t spoken to you in a half moon,” she muttered back.

“Yes, I know.” Pepperheart hesitated, his eyes widening nervously as Hawthornstar crossed through his clanmates towards Stormflight. “Let’s meet up in a quarter moon. We’ll come get you. Try to convince Elm to come, we’ll see what we can do about Valleystep and Bumble.”

“What’s our plan?” Orchidfur asked.

“To make a plan.”

Orchidfur snorted, shaking her head. Up ahead, Stormflight was growling something to their leader, who responded in a similar fashion. “Will your leader let you go?”

Pepperheart glanced over at her. “I serve Starclan first, Riverclan second, and Hawthornstar third. We’ll be there.” With a dip of his head, he dashed off to end what was working itself into a heated argument.

“Good luck,” Orchidfur called after him. She had a feeling they were all going to need it.

Chapter 23[]

Stormpaw sat in the shallows of the lake, watching Azollapaw splash about in the mouth of the river. On the other side, Quicktail and Hazemist watched them closely, calling out tips and corrections every so often.

“Stormpaw, quick lollygagging and help your sister,” Quicktail called, shooting a glare as Azollapaw flipped a shimmering fish out of the water and onto the banks.

Stormpaw shot her a mutanous look, pawing at the water dubiously. “It’s too cold for swimming,” they complained. Technically speaking, it was only the beginning of leaf-fall, but evidently the river had missed the message. They were only up to their haunches, but it was enough to make them shiver.

Quicktail’s scowl was unsympathetic. “If you move around, you’ll warm up. Hop to it.” As Stormpaw hesitated, she let out a hiss of annoyance. “Come on, Stormpaw, you’re too old for this.”

Azollapaw glanced over her shoulder, her grin teasing. “Come on, Stormy, too afraid of being out performed to even try?” She stuck out her tongue at them, then dived back under. She emerged with another fish in her mouth and smug smirk.

Stormpaw was smart enough to know when their sister was just trying to provoke them into behaving, but still, it always seemed to work. With a hiss, they paddled out of the shallows and around the curve to where Azollapaw was. They were moving, but it was still cold.

Their sister’s broad smile made it worthwhile, though. For a while, the two of them splashed about separately, getting in each other’s way, before Azollapaw shifted upstream. She herded the fish towards the river banks, where Stormpaw plucked them out with ease.

“That’s plenty,” Hazemist said eventually, as Stormpaw finished off the final fish. They watched as the white she cat trotted over to Azollapaw, her eyes sparkling with approval.

Quicktail gave them a nod. “Well done. See, that wasn’t so terrible, was it? You and your sister make a good team.”

Together, the four of them set off towards Riverclan camp, each carrying as many fish as their mouths could hold. Azollapaw glanced sideways at them, smirked, and started walking faster. Stormpaw rolled their eyes, but picked up their pace to match hers.

Suddenly, Azollapaw froze, her eyes widening. Stormpaw cocked their head to the side, puzzled, and she made an exaggerated motion of sniffing the air.

They mimicked her, their fur bristling a they realized what they were smelling.

Dog.

Quicktail spat out her load of fish, eyes blazing. “You two get back to camp, quick. Hazemist and I will try to lead it in the opposite direction and lose it at the Horseplace. Leave the fish.”

Stormpaw scowled, and met their sister’s eyes in a silent agreement. They weren’t going to abandon the prey they’d spent all day catching, and they weren’t going to let their mentor do all the fighting when they were a warrior in everything but name and perhaps attitude.

It would have been a plan that Quicktail would have objected to, but luckily for them, the dog showed up before she noticed that neither apprentice was moving.

The dog was a huge, hulking creature, but it moved at a lazy, ambling pace. Its face was lined with wrinkles, and as it spotted them, it let out an excited bark and lunged forward.

Azollapaw dropped her fish, and spun to face Stormpaw. “You go left, I’ll go right,” she commanded, then dove to meet the dog. She clawed a shallow cut across it’s nose, then darted away from its snapping jaws.

Stormpaw followed suit. While the creature was distracted, they lashed out at its side and haunches. Back and forth it went, one apprentice dragging its attention away from the other’s attack, until Stormpaw was able to spring onto its back.

They clawed a long row of bloody scratches along its spine, grinning at it’s howl of pain. It spun and twisted, but they dug in their claws and clung tight.

“I think it has had enough, let it go!” Quicktail called from the ground. Stormpaw reluctantly nodded, and lept free. With a whimper, the dog turned and ran, disappearing in the direction of the horseplace.

Stormpaw glanced over at their mentor, expecting a stern word or at least a scowl. Instead, Quicktail was exchanging a grin with Hazemist, who nodded. “I think you’ve proved today that you’re both fine hunters and even better fighters,” Quicktail said, her eyes warm with pride. “The pair of you will make fine warriors, and I’m sure Hawthornstar will agree.”

Stormpaw felt their face explode into a giddy grin. Warriors. They were going to be warriors. They would be lying if they said they’d ever wanted anything else from their life.

Stormflight was distantly aware that they should have shut up several words ago, and that their head had a date with the river, but, as usual, thought processes were taking backstage as rage bubbled through their lips in a form of verbal venom.

“We will continue this conversation back at our own camp,” Hawthornstar had just finished snarling, their bristling dark fur gleaming in the full moon’s light. Stormflight couldn’t even remember how this ‘conversation’ had started, but they enjoyed it.

Their leader was livid. Their clanmates were staring.

But, most importantly, no one was laughing.

“Ooh, afraid your dumb medicine cats are going to embarrass you?” Stormflight taunted, giving Pepperheart a sharp shove as he tried to step between them. They grinned, a hungry, lethal expression of a predator on a hunt. “I hate to break it to you, but I think it’s too late for that.”

They weren’t quite sure why they were trying to goad their leader into a fight. Nothing about this was a good idea.

Hawthornstar’s lips curled into a disgusted scowl. “Quicktail, get the rest of the clan back to camp. I’ll deal with this crybaby.” The leader turned back to Stormflight, green eyes dark with malice. “Would you want to talk about embarrassment, Stormflight? Or do you think that throwing a tantrum will make anyone forget what just happened? Let’s see. You humiliated me, Riverclan, but, first and foremost, yourself.”

Stormflight remembered, not too long ago, how Hawthornstar had regarded them as an equal. They would have laughed along with them if the joke had revolved around anyone but themself.

“This,” they spat, “Is exactly why we didn’t tell you about Starclan’s message. Because,” they lowered their voice, “You’re a weakness. A flaw in Riverclan’s defense. You’re eight lives closer to death than Ploverstar and who knows who else. Because, yes, they do get nine lives.”

Hawthornstar’s ears flattened, their eyes narrowing. “Say what you’d like about me, Stormflight, your words are even duller than your claws these days. But do not jeopardize Riverclan, or pretend you know anything about being a leader. We all play pretend, but it’s dangerous to give up the charade.”

“My claws are dull, are they?” Stormflight murmured, tilting their head. They raised a paw, and unsheathed their claws. Hawthornstar’s eyes followed the motion, a look of disbelief interrupting their anger.

Stormflight’s claws gleamed silver in the moonlight, sharp as they had ever been. The two cats were standing close, close enough that all they would have to do was extend their leg and swipe.

Now, the silence was truly dangerous. Stormflight was too dizzy on adrenaline and the echoes of laughter to listen to the tiny whispers of stop in their ears.

Something small and fuzzy wriggled in front of them. It took Stormflight a moment to realize that this something was Pepperheart, and that the “Stop,” was coming from him, not the voices in their head.

“Stormflight, stand down,” he ordered.

“Get lost, pipsqueek,” they replied, trying to shift so that he wasn’t in the way.

“Please,” Pepperheart added, with a ridiculous level of politeness. “Stormflight, where are your manners?”

The words were so out of place that they managed to needle their way past the bloodlust. Stormflight glanced down at Pepperheart, and was startled to find that their mentor was once again looking terrified. Their claws were inches from his chest, but his wide eyes were still trained on theirs.

In a lower voice, he added, shakily, “You want me to believe that you’re not a monster? Then get yourself under control and take a minute to think before you go and make a mess of things.”

Behind them, they could hear the other clans gathering, watching the spectacle with bewilderment.

“They’ve really lost their mind,” someone whispered, too loudly, adding themself to the list of cats that Stormflight wanted dead.

“Going to prove them right?” Pepperheart challenged, stepping away from Stormflight. Gingerly, he pressed against their shoulder, trying to steer them away from Hawthornstar. “Walk.”

Stormflight walked. They shot Hawthornstar one final cruel smirk, then, in a swift spring, dove off of the island and into the lake.

The cold water was a sharp contrast to the warm Greenleaf air. They let themself drift down until their paws brushed the shallow bottom.

It was quiet, save for the white noise of water against their ears. They could see only a blur of blue.

No one was laughing at them.

It probably wasn’t a testament to their intelligence that they were still surprised with themself, that the shriveled up little thing named their common sense still had to shout to be heard over the familiar murmur of Tigerstar’s self important savagery.

How had they never noticed this? How had they managed to get this far without getting themself chucked out of Riverclan? Stormflight counted themself lucky that they weren’t already a mass murderer.

Although…

Galeshard had been the first. Then the Shadowclan tom. Sagebranch. And, of course, Azollafrost. That was four already, and Stormflight was still young. They were killing more than one cat a year. And, of course, this wasn’t counting the cats they’d almost killed, whom they’d lost count of.

They’d always thought of this as a strength, that they could put Riverclan first no matter what the cost. And yet, they had almost killed their own leader.

The only reason they had ever fooled themself, they realized with an unpleasant sinking feeling, was because their victims had always fit the ‘enemy’ label. Until Azollafrost.

And then it was all downhill from there. Stormflight had heard enough stories about Tigerstar to know he hated weakness more than anything else. Becoming a medicine cat- no, being forced to be a medicine cat-, trying and failing to follow Starclan’s orders, having to sit out on warrior duties, being laughed at by the majority of all four clans, all of that had pressed their limits in ways they’d never had to deal with before.

Stormflight closed their eyes. Apparently, the only place they could be safe was when they were completely alone and a few feet under water. They wished they could just live beneath the lake’s surface. It would be a huge step up from the mousedung they’d gotten themself buried in above the surface.

They could just swim around forever. Maybe, when Tigerstar got antsy, they could murder some fish and gloat about it to themself to feed that need for control. It would be perfect.

Stormflight cursed Starclan for inventing breathing, and thrust their hindlegs against the rocky floor to push themself back up to the real world. Out of the corner of their eye, they could see the clan cats progressing across the shore, but they forced themself to look away.

“Wait up, will you?”

Stormflight turned to find a very ticked off Pepperheart swimming after them. There was nothing wrong with his swimming technique, but he’d definitely left some of his efficiency with the rest of his height. They circled in place, allowing him to catch up.

For a minute or so, they just swam in silence. Stormflight lazily paddled along at a leisurely pace, and Pepperheart did his best to keep up. Eventually, he asked, “What’s your plan? Are we swimming all the way back to camp?”

“Yep,” Stormflight replied curtly. Then, with a sigh, they added, “I suppose I owe you a thank you?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Pepperheart grumbled, splashing a little wave of water at their head. “I stopped you from getting yourself killed.”

Stormflight snorted. “I could take Hawthornstar.”

Pepperheart shot them a skeptical look. “Maybe. But do you imagine that the rest of Riverclan would have just clapped and cheered for you? At best, Quicktail would exile you. At worst, you’d be torn to pieces by your own clanmates.”

Stormflight shrugged, staring moodily at the water in front of them. He was right, of course. The results would have been the same, if not worse, than having the truth about Azollafrost revealed. The reminder of how little they’d actually changed dragged a grudging, “Well, thanks,” from their mouth.

Pepperheart shook his head. “Look at you, being a decent cat. Not so hard, eh?” When they said nothing, he splashed them again. “Stormflight, I know none of that went the way you would have liked it to. We should have been honest with Hawthornstar from the beginning.” Stormflight shot him a glare, and he revised it. “Fine. I shouldn’t have made you lie to Hawthornstar. You got utterly humiliated, and we accomplished nothing. Plus, you almost killed a leader.”

“Your tone makes this sound like a pep talk,” Stormflight grumbled, “But your words make me want to shut your mouth with a lake.”

“Let me finish,” he snipped back. “When we get back to camp, Hawthornstar will probably stick you on tick duties, then in a few moons they’ll get over it. And,” he added grimly, “With this battle they’re planning, they’ll likely need us too much to punish you properly.”

Pepperheart smiled at them. “You were an idiot. But everyone walked away alive. Nothing that happened was permanent.”

“I think we need to set higher standards than ‘everyone walked away alive,’” Stormflight muttered, but returned his smile.

When they finally reached camp, Stormflight could practically smell the blood of the upcoming battle already. Cats were rushing about, murmuring excitedly. The air carried the tense, expecting weight of anticipation. They’d missed this.

Hawthornstar glanced up as they approached, eyeing them suspiciously.

“Sorry about all that,” Stormflight said casually, with a little shrug. It was pretty terrible as far as apologies went, but it was a big step up from waiving their claws in Hawthornstar’s face.

Hawthornstar scowled, and sighed. “Luckily for you, I have bigger fish to catch at the moment. I need you and Pepperheart to make sure your herb storages are up to par, and if not, go pick some more of your special plants.”

“It’s the middle of the night,” Pepperheart said, too mildly to really count as an objection.

“Wonderful observation,” Hawthornstar snapped. “I suggest you get working, and fast. Also, if you value your jobs, you’d better leave your special destiny nonsense behind, at least until the battle’s done.”

“When’s the battle?” Stormflight asked, watching as Quicktail sped by, murmuring intently to Mintrain.

Hawthornstar’s expression unfolded into a sharp, cunning smile. “We leave in an hour. It’s a shame you gave up your prowess for life as a medicine cat, Stormflight, because it’s going to be quite the fight.”

An hour later, Stormflight and Pepperheart stood, staring at the hastily compiled bundles of herbs in front of them.

Stormflight counted the seconds, checking them against the beat of their heart. The air was positively electrified, the moon overhead full and bright on everyone’s pelts. They breathed in hum, and let the breath out slowly.

They had forgotten what battle tasted like. Their clanmates were dashing around making preparations, Hawthornstar and Quicktail were dealing out orders, mentors were running their apprentices through their drills.

A bit away, Tempestsong was trying to convince his mate, Hazemist, to stay behind with their remaining kits, but she just glowered at him. “I need to get Dillkit back, and if I can’t do that, I want to give those foxhearts a piece of my mind,” she growled. “You stay with the kits.”

Stormflight could hear it in her voice as well. Did it really make them a bad cat, craving the thrill of a fight, if everyone else was hungry for it too?

Pepperheart counted the bundles. “Traveling herbs to give strength, cobwebs for cuts, marigold for infection,” he murmured, tail twitching. Stormflight thought he was probably the only cat not caught up in the excitement, too busy with his plants to get invested.

Hawthornstar trotted over to the two of them. They shot an appraising glance over the herbs, and nodded their approval. “Well done.” Stormflight doubted they actually knew anything about the plants, but then again, neither did Stormflight.

Hawthornstar turned to them, and for a moment it was as if they hadn’t been at each other’s throats an hour ago. “Stormflight, I know you’re not a warrior anymore, but you’re still my best set of claws. I want you to use your best judgement to decide where you’re most needed.”

Stormflight nodded. A shiver of excitement shot through them at the prospect of actually being allowed to fight. They flexed their claws against the ground, a grin curling onto their face. “What’s our plan?”

The tortoiseshell gestured for them to follow them to the center of camp, where Hawthornstar and Quicktail had replicated some of Elm’s sketches. Pepperheart drifted after them.

“We’re thinking that this spot will be a good place for the two of you to set up your herbs,” Quicktail said, pointing to a cluster of blobs in between the first of the three buildings. “You can hide in the bushes if needed, or climb one of the trees. Our attack plan is fairly simple. We do our best to sneak into the first building unnoticed, and if that’s not possible, a patrol creates a diversion. We check it for Dillkit, then move on to the next building.”

She frowned, exchanging a troubled glance with Hawthornstar. “I would have preferred we check all three buildings at once so that we don’t waste our time on empty buildings, but without the other clans, that just isn’t possible.”  

Pepperheart brushed against Stormflight as he tried to peer past the other cats to the plans. “We don’t really have any estimate on their numbers, do we? Just that they’re probably in at least one of these locations. If there’s enough of them to fill all three…” he trailed off, a frown playing on his lips.

Hawthornstar shot an irritated look his way. “If you have a better plan, I’d love to hear it.”

Pepperheart glanced up at Stormflight. “We could be walking into a death trap. I think we should take this slower, and gather more information. The rogues gave us six moons to leave, I say we use it to prepare.”

If he wanted support, it wouldn’t be coming from them. “Pepperheart, these are rogues. We’re warriors. Even if there are a lot of them, we have strategy, skill, and the element of surprise. Oh,” Stormflight added, with a wry smile, thinking of Firestar’s victory over Scrub, “And of course, our undying loyalty to Starclan.”

The looks they received were less than appreciative. Quicktail’s and Pepperheart’s warned them not to poke the hornet’s nest, Hawthornstar’s was that of a poked hornet’s nest.

Hawthornstar let out an irritated huff, but ignored them. “Well, Pepperheart, if you want to be trusted to help plan, perhaps you should stop taking trips behind my back to gossip. We’re going.”

“It’s the middle of the night, for Starclan’s sake,” Pepperheart pointed out, nodding up towards the full moon and its cohort of stars.

Hawthornstar scowled. “I noticed. We can use the darkness to our advantage. Most of our enemies will probably be asleep.”

“I don’t like it,” Pepperheart muttered.

“Are your herbs ready?” Hawthornstar asked shortly, their voice curt and condescending.

Stormflight saw the fur along their mentor’s spine bristle with frustration, but Pepperheart just ducked his head and nodded. “As ready as they can be with such short notice,” he growled.

“Good,” Hawthornstar snapped, before spinning away. Their voice rose as they called to the rest of their clan, gathering a cluster of bodies around them. Only a few hung back, Lambfur, the kits, and a couple of warriors. Everyone else swarmed about the entrance, pelts prickling with excitement.

Pepperheart’s gaze burned into theirs as he glanced back at them over his shoulder, before stalking off towards his den. Bewildered, Stormflight trotted after him, and watched as he began to hand out the strength herbs.

Every muscle of him was tight, either with fear or anger, perhaps both. Herbs crumpled beneath his paws as he shoved them towards the entrance, and he swore under his breath.

Stormflight watched, puzzled. They tried to catch his eyes, but the few glances he gave them were frosty and brief. As the final warrior wolfed down their herbs, they leaned over to him. “Alright, I bite. What’s wrong?”

Pepperheart just glared at them.

Stormflight tiled their head. “I don’t read minds, mousebrain. If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.”

He leaned down, pinching a wad of herbs against his chest. “Oh, I was just considering thanking you for the wonderful support you gave me back there. But I suppose I was foolish to expect anything better. Stupid, blood thirsty Stormflight choose reason over violence? When hedgehogs fly.”

Stormflight leaned back. A bit of anger stirred in their chest, but they squashed it. He was afraid. Of course he was afraid. He was a medicine cat who couldn’t fight, who shared none of their drive for battle.

Tigerstar was disgusted. Stormflight managed to maintain a delicate neutrality as they spoke. “Look, our location seemed safe enough. I know you’re about as tough as a sprig of spring flowers, but I’ll be with you at least some of the time, and I can fight well enough for two.”

Pepperheart looked up sharply, letting the herbs fall away from him. “I’m not afraid of getting hurt, you fool,” he snarled.

“Then what’s got your fur all ruffled?” Stormflight asked, their patience waning. They wanted to get on with the fight, and pep talks had never been their strong suit.

He snorted. “I’m afraid of watching someone’s life bleed out under my paws. I know you like that sort of thing, but it’s a medicine cat’s worst nightmare.”

Stormflight stared at him, struggling to formulate a response. Anything they might have said was swallowed up by a yowl from Hawthornstar, echoed by the caterwauls of their clanmates.

Pepperheart leaned down to scoop up his herbs, his expression softening as he glanced back at them. “Don’t waste your time trying to play medicine cat,” he murmured. “Keep our clanmates safe on the battlefield, and I’ll patch them up later as best I can.”

He flicked his tail, directing them towards where the rest of their clanmates were.

The dark, broad expanse of the sky above them seemed vast and empty, despite the full circle of the moon and the dappling of stars. Hawthornstar led them out in silence, their tortoiseshell blending in with the hungry shadows.

Pawsteps were quiet against the grass, and then the cement as the weary glow of the twoleg place.

Stormflight wrinkled their nose up against the smoggy stench of exhaust and rotting food, and the stale, rusty scent of blood. Shapes moved in the maws of the little side streets, rustling against the gravel.

Hawthornstar flicked their tail to the side, indicating a set of three identical buildings sitting across the spread of cement. The clan cats clung to the grass edge, darting between the shadows of the scrawny trees.

When they neared the cluster of bushes where Pepperheart was supposed to set up his makeshift camp, Stormflight dropped their herbs at his paws. His expression was glum, like the first casualty had already occured.

Stormflight glanced over their shoulder, drumming their claws antsily against the brittle grass, to where Hawthornstar was murmuring hushed orders. “I’ll try to drop back if things get rough,” they murmured under their breath, their voice unsteady with excitement, “To protect you and any wounded.”

“I suspect I’ll be seeing you soon then,” Pepperheart replied humorlessly.

Stormflight laughed breathlessly. “Did Starclan cue you in on something you're not telling me?”

“I don’t need Starclan to know this isn’t going to end well,” Pepperheart replied, tilting his head up at the moon. “I don’t know if they still have enough power to see us, but if they can, they’re shaking their heads.”

This should have sounded ominous. Stormflight knew Pepperheart was smart, probably smarter than Hawthornstar, and so much about these rogues remained a mystery. It was the middle of the night, and they were about to break into a big abandoned twoleg den.

So many things could go wrong.

But they just couldn’t bring themself to be scared. That was something that Tigerstar, Windstar, and Stormflight could all agree on.

Pepperheart studied their face for a moment, the reflection of the moonlight in his eyes masking much of his expression. He shook his head slightly, but whether he was amused or disappointed or something else escaped Stormflight. “Please try not to get yourself killed,” he said eventually.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Stormflight huffed, smirking. “Now, Pepperheart, if you die, could you do me a favor? Tell Firestar that it wasn't my fault and that he doesn’t need to send the dogs after me.” They flicked their tail against his shoulder. “Stay safe, shorty,” they said quickly, before racing off to join the rest of the clan.

Reason set aside, everyone was hungry for blood tonight.

Chapter 24[]

Stormflight’s stared after the retreating ginger form, their heart beating an unsteady rhythm in their chest. It was difficult to think with the moonlight dancing on the lake, the adrenaline pounding through their veins, and warm, bloody water lapping at their paws, but even so, a feeling of sinking dread was creeping over them.

They glanced over at Azollafrost’s sopping body, and the ring of red spreading around her. They cursed themself for not being more careful.

Then, with a snarl, they darted after Pepperheart. Their wet paws slipped against the slick grass, their claws leaving deap marks as they fought for friction. Stormflight wasn’t entirely sure what they were going to do when they caught him, but they were sure of one thing: they needed to catch him before he got back to camp.

No, scratch that. They knew what they needed to do. Pepperheart couldn’t reach camp alive, not after seeing what he had.

Stormflight had just killed the only warrior in Riverclan they considered an equal. How hard could it be to finish off one puny medicine cat?

The answer: really, really easy. Just as Stormflight was beginning to bridge the gap between the two of them, Pepperheart stumbled over his own paws, and tumbled down through the reeds beside the river with a splash.

Stormflight dove forward, wincing as the plants lashed against their face. Pepperheart rolled upright, his eyes flashing wide, terrified yellow, before they sprang and pinned him down.

The medicine cat let out a panicked whimper as Stormflight raised a paw, pressed it against his muzzle, and shoved his head backwards, under the water.

Pain shot through them as the medicine cat bit down on their paw, hard. Stormflight flinched just enough to allow him to resurface.

“Wait,” he spluttered, shaking water off his whiskers. “Think about this. We’re well within shouting distance of the camp, and everyone will be awake for Mossberry’s vigil. And, you were the last cat seen with Azollafrost. It won’t take long for them to figure it out.”

The first statement was relevant, because Pepperheart couldn’t shout around a lungful of water. But he was right about the second bit. It wouldn’t look good if Azollafrost was found dead after a hunt with Stormflight, and even worse if Pepperheart went missing as well. Stormflight hadn’t realized that Mossberry had died while they were out of camp, but that would mean that they would be one of the few cats without an alibi.

Stormflight swallowed hard. “That wasn’t what it looked like,” they said lamely.

Pepperheart stared at them, eyes narrowed. “Oh, I think I know exactly what that was,” he hissed, voice heavy with disgust.

They obviously needed to pick a better tactic. They unsheathed their claws, and plunged the medicine cat’s head back under the water. They held him down, counted to twenty, then released their hold.

“Perhaps I can convince you otherwise,” Stormflight snarled, baring their teeth.

Pepperheart let out a ragged cough, choking up a mouthful of water before he tried to speak. “I doubt it,” he said breathlessly, “But,” he added quickly, as Stormflight raised their paw again, “I’m not going to turn you in.” Pepperheart spoke slowly, as if the words were being dragged out of him. “In fact, I’m going to help you, if you promise to do something for me.”

Stormflight leaned back, eyeing him with distrust. “Why?”

Pepperheart scowled, tilting his head back to glare balefully at the sky. “It wasn’t my idea. Starclan wants to protect you, on one condition.”

Stormflight smirked at that. Starclan, protecting them? They’d never seen any sign of their existence before, and this wasn’t quite their style. But, if it kept Pepperheart’s mouth shut, they weren’t going to complain. “What’s the condition?”

Pepperheart’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes dulled, like he was already kissing his life goodbye. “You become a medicine cat.”

Stormflight gawked at him. “What?” They shook their head, and raised their paw. “You’re crazy. Say hi to Azollafrost for me,” they growled, leaning forward to push him under again.

The ginger’s eyes widened in alarm. “Don’t do this. If you agree, this stays our little secret. As far as anyone will ever know, I came across you and Azollafrost fighting a fox, and she didn’t make it. No one will think to suspect otherwise. If you kill me, then it’s only a matter of time before someone figures it out.”

Stormflight hesitated, then dunked him under again.

As he flailed against their paws, they tried to decide whether or not the medicine cat should be allowed another breath. He was right about one thing. Without his vouch, their life would get much more complicated. Maybe they’d be able to sell their innocence, maybe not.

Stormflight scowled as weak claws nicked their leg, and pressed Pepperheart’s head against the rocky bottom.

Did they really want to kill him? The quiet voice of reason felt out of place in their head. Of course they did, they had to. Besides, Stormflight had never been overly fond of him.

They’d already killed one cat today.

They were running low on options.

If Pepperheart kept his word, they’d never be connected to Azollafrost’s death.

Stormflight tried to imagine giving up their life as a warrior, spending their days sorting herbs and fussing over kits with bellyaches, never feeling the rush of battle or defending their clan again.

For a moment, they felt like they were the one drowning.

With a ragged snarl, Stormflight ducked down to snag Pepperheart’s scruff, and tossed him onto the bank. They swatted roughly at his face, prompting a muffled groan. “Fine,” they spat through gritted teeth. “It’s a deal.”

Pepperheart’s reply was a gurgle. Stormflight waited, feeling numb and cold, as the waterlogged medicine cat cleared his lungs of the river water he’d swallowed.

He rose to his paws, and shook his pelt free of the mud and reeds that it had acquired.

As they turned to leave, Pepperheart looked up at the sky. His voice was low as he murmured, “I hope you’re happy.”

Stormflight stalked back in the direction of where they had left Azollafrost, consoling themself with the promise that, someday, somehow, they would be able to find a way out of this.

Stormflight’s paws felt light as they fell into stride between their mothers. Mintrain leaned over, and murmured, “Be careful, okay Stormy?”

Their chest twisted at the nickname, the nickname Azollafrost had always favored. “Of course,” they replied, with a nod.

Stingclaw shook her head in disbelief. “Just don’t get yourself into trouble you can’t get out of.” All three of them knew that careful was far from Stormflight’s strong suit, and also that to a certain extent, their recklessness was what made them such a skilled fighter.

“There’s no shame in retreating if things turn for the worse,” Mintrain added, looking at both of them. “I don’t want to have to sit vigil for any more of my kin.”

Now, that wasn’t a twist that Stormflight felt. It was more of a wrenching, shattering thing. Another iteration of the usual: they missed Azollafrost, they’d killed Azollafrost, they’d done nothing wrong, they wanted to rip Tigerstar out of their head for messing with their mind.

The silence that fell seemed to be a mile long. The three of them hadn’t really talked about Azollafrost’s absence, and Stormflight could practically see the strings holding their family together fraying before their eyes.

Stormflight couldn’t talk about Azollafrost’s death, not with their mothers at least.

Both had always insisted, every time Stormflight had gotten in trouble as an apprentice, that they loved them no matter what. That they might be angry at first, but that in the end things would be okay.

They doubted that applied to murdering their own sister.

Stormflight couldn’t recall quite when they realized their mothers’ love had to be conditional, but it was an empty feeling, knowing that Mintrain and Stingclaw were loving a lie.

Stormflight had put a crack in the hearts of all three of them when they’d removed Azollafrost from their lives. They were pretty sure the truth would shatter them all.

It was a relief when Hawthornstar halted between a low hanging opening in the building, what Elm had called a ‘window’, it’s edges jagged with broken glass. Beneath it was a wiry bush, which the leader used to scramble up onto the ledge.

One by one, Riverclan passed through it. One of the apprentices, Lickenpaw, let out a soft hiss of pain as one of the little spikes scraped against her leg, a little blossom of blood darkening her white fur, but she growled “I’m fine,” before anyone had time for concern.

The building smelled stale, it’s floor coated in some sort of stained, raggedy pelt. There were rocks and bursts of shattered glass. But, over the grungy scent of dust and mold, Stormflight caught a wiff of mint and cats, perhaps something else as well.

“This is it,” Quicktail murmured, her shoulders tensed. “Everyone, be on your guard.”

Hawthornstar stopped before the first ‘door’, and rose tentatively up on their hind paws. They stretched up to give the slim metal rod a tentative prod, then, when it wiggled, pulled it down. The door swung in.

Down came a large stick, landing right between Quicktail and Hawthornstar with a loud clatter. All around Stormflight, pelts bristled and ears flattened. Hawthornstar sniffed at the stick, which had some sort of thick, moldy string at one end. “Just a stick, you mousebrains,” they hissed, giving the little crevice a quick glance. “No Dillkit.”

Stormflight peered inside as they passed, noting with bewilderment the abundance of sticks and strange boxy things. Why in the name of Starclan did twolegs need so many sticks, and why had they given them their own den?

The next door wouldn’t open, and neither would the third. The fourth, however, swung free easily, banging noisily against the wall. Stormflight had only a few seconds to note the stretch marks on the wood, the stench of wood, and a soft rustle before control dissolved.

“Stop them!” Hawthornstar hissed, diving forward as a slim silver and white cat darted for one of the walls. Stormflight shot after them, nudging stunned clanmates out of the way.

The cat didn’t try to run or fight. Instead, they sprang up onto a wooden platform, prodded at a dangly plastic thing with little buttons, and yowled “We’re under attack! Clan cats on the first floor!” into it.

Stormflight scrambled up onto the platform, sending tiny sticks and dust flying. The silver and white cat snarled, swiping out at their face, but they ducked forward, headbutting them in the chest. The cat tumbled backwards onto a large, squishy expanse of pelts and tiny clouds, rolled off, and wriggled underneath it.

They leaped after the cat, and poked their head under the veil of fabric. Stormflight could see a pair of frightened blue eyes staring back at them.

“Leave them,” Hawthornstar ordered. Stormflight shook their ears free of the fabric, and turned to find Hawthornstar staring at the plastic contraption the rogue had been playing with, green eyes narrowed. “I don’t know how this thing works, but I think we’ve lost our element of surprise. Quicktail, what do you think?”

Quicktail hovered uncertainly near the door. “Isn’t it just plastic? Whenever I've encountered those little water containers or food pelts, they haven’t done anything. It’s like stone, but bendier.”

Hawthornstar poked experimentally at one of the buttons, which emitted a soft beap. The leader jumped back, startled, and shook their head. “It does something.”

Underneath the squishy thing, the rogue let out a snort of laughter. The clan cats exchanged uneasy glances. Hawthornstar cleared their throat. “We’ve come this far. We can’t give up on Dillkit this quickly. Come one, hopefully it’ll take them a few minutes to circulate the alarm.”

They pressed forward, snaking down the long tunnel and checking the rooms. Some were locked, some were already open, and most of them were empty. One revealed a cluster of cats, all soundly asleep. Hawthornstar sniffed the air, shook their head, and they tiptoed onward.

Suddenly, Stormflight’s ears caught a soft tickle of noise, distant and far away. It seemed to echo, growing louder, until it was recognizable as several different voices, each passing the message on.

“Attack! To your stations!”

“Attack! To your stations!”

“Attack! To your stations!”

The last one came from just down the hall. A scrawny black tom burst from one of the nearby rooms, tipped his head back, and shrieked, “Attack! To your stations!” He spotted them, his eyes bugging out.

Before the clan cats could move, shapes flooded into the hall, on either side. Hawthornstar’s dark eyes darted back and forth, before they yowled a message of their own. “Riverclan, attack! Drive them back, search the building! We’re not going home without our kit or a fight!”

Stormflight shouldered their way to the front, meeting the stream of cats coming from the depths of the building. They dodged away from a bulky ginger, slammed the head of a tortoiseshell against the wall, and began to work their way forward. Quickly, the rogues clustered around them, trying to stop their progress, but their clanmates had sprung into action as well.

The hall was quickly growing cramped, with the fighting plugging up any chance of moving in either direction. Stormflight sent their opponents tumbling with a couple of furious swipes, then darted off to the side, against one of the walls. They crouched, and, straining, managed to spring up high enough to haul themself through the window.

Sharp shards of glass tore into their fur as they wriggled through, and they landed gracelessly on the cement below. Luckily, they didn’t have far to fall, just a foxlength or so, but their shoulders still ached as they stumbled to their feet.

Stormflight hesitated, but no one followed them out. They shook their pelt free of the dust and glass it had accumulated, and did a quick assessment of their injuries. Beyond a few shallow cuts from the glass, they were fine.

Quietly, hoping the shadows and darkness would hide their dark pelt, they edged along the wall of the building. They could hear the fighting within, the shrieks and screams wafting freely through the shattered windows. Distantly, in the adjacent building, someone was still yowling “Attack! To your stations!”

Eventually, though, the walls were silent. It seemed that most of the forces had condensed around the clan cats, leaving the rest of the building fairly unprotected. Stormflight balanced awkwardly on a spindly bushes’ boughs, and hoped through another broken window.

They landed quietly on the other side. They hesitated, checking the halls, then dropped and rolled on the foul smelling pelt on the ground, picking up dust and dirt and who knows what else. The important part was that it would at least dull their scent.

A couple cats dashed by as they prowled deeper into the building, but didn’t spare them a second glance. They turned down a different hall, sniffing the air for the familiar scent of Dillkit.

As they poked their head into one of the rooms, though, their luck ran out. A crinkle of paws on crusty fur drew their attention, allowing them to spin around a second before a rogue barreled into them. The pair tumbled backwards into the room, crashing against the open door. Stormflight bit into their shoulder, wincing as the rogue’s claws flailed at their face. The other cat tried to twist free, but Stormflight used their greater weight to shoulder their opponent off balance and to the ground.

They raised a paw, and brought it down hard. Red splashed onto their chest and face as dark blood gushed from the other cat’s head. Stormflight stepped away, taking a minute to look at the limp body. They couldn’t tell if the cat was dead, dying, or just stunned, but they weren’t going to stick around to find out.

They turned to leave, only to run directly into a group of yet more rogues. Quickly, Stormflight tallied up their numbers, weighing their odds. Six, about three more than they would have been willing to try.

“What’s going on?” one of them demanded, peering past them. The rogue’s eyes widened at the sight of their wounded ally.

“Uh,” Stormflight replied, trying to come up with a reasonable excuse to be emerging from a room with an injured cat, covered in blood. “Well, you see, they uh….got hurt, so I dragged them away from the fighting.” They hoped their fur was dark enough that the rogues wouldn’t be able to see the still hot blood splattered on them, clearly from a very recent fight. “I was going to go get help.”

The rogue narrowed their eyes at Stormflight, frowning. Then, a howl of warning came from the direction Stormflight had been heading away from, carrying with it the sounds of battle. It seemed that their clanmates were making headway with the main fight.

Thankfully, this seemed to distract the six rogues. The one who had spoken nodded briskly, then shot off in the direction of the fighting. Stormflight let out a sigh of relief, and continued on their way.

Blood was running down their chin, making it a little hard to breath. Stormflight reached a cautious paw up to their face, and prodded gently at a broad gash across the bridge of their nose. It burned, but they weren’t too worried about that.

“This better not scar,” they muttered to themself, wiping away the worst of the blood.

Normally, they would have welcomed a souvenir to document the event. But Stormflight thought they resembled their unhelpful mental neighbor a bit too much already.

Eventually, the hallway ended and they came across a series of ledges leading up to a second level. Stormflight sprang up them, and began opening doors once again.

Up until now, they’d seen no kits, elders, or even apprentice aged cats. But the first door they opened housed all three. An older, grizzled tom, a pair of apprentices, and a gaggle of kittens gawked at them.

“Hello,” Stormflight said cheerfully. “I’m just checking to make sure that there’s no clan cats hiding in here.” They squinted at the kits. None of them were Dillkit.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” the older cat growled, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Well, I’m kind of new,” Stormflight replied with a shrug. “And I live in one of the other buildings.” They forced a smile. “No clan cats here, by the looks of it. Stay safe!”

They continued on. Most of the rooms were empty, but some of them housed families like the first.

“Hey, you!”

Stormflight backed out of the empty room they’d been investigating, and spun around to find a large collection of rogues sprinting towards them. They didn’t pause to count them-there were plenty- and didn’t try to lie their way out. They just sprinted in the opposite direction. Even Tigerstar knew when it was time to make a retreat.

Stormflight was faster than the rogues, but Stormflight also had absolutely no idea where they were going. They turned a corner, sprinted down another hallway, then plunged down another set of ledges, tumbling down a few in the process. They pawed open the door at the bottom, and found themself back on the first level.

The fighting appeared to have moved further into the building, but the floor and walls were streaked with blood. They pelted onwards, trying to see if there were any windows low enough for them to leap through without having to waste time climbing.

The rogues herded Stormflight further down the hallway. They put in an extra burst of speed, increasing their lead by enough that they could round the corner and duck into a room without the rogues seeing which door they’d gone through.

Breathing hard, Stormflight waited for their pawsteps to slow, then slipped out behind them and took off again. They found another set of ledges, and half ran, have fell down them. They opened another door.

This level seemed different. Stormflight could tell by the damp, cool air that they were below the ground level now, and without moonlight and windows, it was pitch black. They sniffed the air, hoping that Dillkit hadn’t been stuck in this gloomy area for a half moon.

Instead of warm, milky kit scent, Stormflight smelled a strong, overwhelmingly musky scent that they would have recognized anywhere.

Their heart pounded in their ears as they backpedaled, but a stocky leg reached out and knocked them off balance. A huge paw pressed against their chest, pinning their legs, and a white striped face loomed over them. A wet nose sniffed their face.

The badger let out a huff of breath, it’s breath smelling foul. Stormflight kicked out with their hind legs, awkwardly scratching at the badger’s underside, but it didn’t seem to notice. Beady eyes seemed to study them.

Then, the paw was removed, and the badger took a step back. It growled, and it took Stormflight a minute to realize that it had formed words.

“Run away, cat.”

Stormflight didn’t need to be told twice. If Dillkit was on this level, then it was too late to help them. They scrambled back up the stairs as fast as they could, their pelt bristling with fear.

Cats they could handle. Cats were easy, predictable, just the right size. Badgers were another story. Hopefully, they’d eat all the rogues and save the clan cats the trouble.

On the first level, things were still quiet, and the rogues that had been chasing them seemed to be gone. Stormflight sat and leaned back against the wall, trying to reconcile themself with the fact that, for the first time ever, really, they had almost died. It wasn’t a feeling they appreciated.

If Stormflight listened closely, they could still hear the fighting. It sounded like maybe some of their clanmates had made it to the second floor, but also like some had been driven back outside. They thought of slim little Pepperheart and his utter uselessness when it came to fighting. They’d promised to double back if things got bad, and things seemed to have gotten bad.

With a huff, Stormflight pulled themself up and over the window, landing lightly on the cement below. They saw some of their clanmates scuffling near the building, and a few fleeing out in the night, back to Riverclan. They shook a bit of blood from their nose, and ran over to where they’d left Pepperheart.

He was crouched over the hunched shape of Palewing, hurriedly smoothing smushed plants and cobwebs over a gash in her stomach. Sagepaw was stretched out a bit away, one of his legs already bundled in a swath of white. Pepperheart glanced briefly up as they approached, before returning his gaze to his patient. “Great Starclan, you look terrible,” he mumbled around a mouthful of plants.

Stormflight glanced down at their bloodstained, dust streaked, rumpled fur, and scowled. “Thanks. It’s good to see you too, tiny.”

Pepperheart nodded distractedly. “Is that blood yours?”

“Nope.”

“Good,” he muttered, squashing some more plants against Palewing’s injury. “Then chew those up.” He gestured towards a disgusting looking pile of herbs.

“You know I don’t know what any of these are,” Stormflight grumbled, reluctantly sniffing at the herbs.

Pepperheart’s ears flattened against the back of his head as he glared at them. “Chew. The. Plants. I’m aware you’re useless as a medicine cat, but….” he trailed off, growling to himself. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it,” he finally added.

Stormflight frowned, and scooped up a mouthful of herbs. They chewed them up into a pulp, and shoved them over to him. “Have many cats been by?” they asked. “Three isn’t too many injuries.”

“Well,” Pepperheart muttered, “Willowface has a broken leg, so I had Stingclaw take them back to camp. Hazemist had a nasty gash over her head, but she insisted on going back to the battle after I put some cobwebs on it. And who knows how many of our clanmates are trapped inside, too injured to leave, but yeah, things are going great.”

He glanced up, his yellow eyes widening. He nodded towards the building. “And there it is.”

Stormflight followed his gaze. Through windows and holes in the wall, cats were spilling out of the building. It didn’t take long for them to notice their clanmates running towards them, rogues on their heels.

“Get running,” Quicktail growled as she shot past, nudging Lichenpaw and Icepaw ahead of her. “This battle is lost, we’re retreating.”

Pepperheart closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded. “Hey-” he called, snatching a random clanmate from the crowd, “Poppyflame, are you mostly uninjured?” The brown cat nodded. “Good. Help Sagepaw walk back to camp.”

Stormflight watched their clanmates dash past, and watched as Pepperheart turned calmly back to Palewing’s still bleeding side. He caught their gaze, his smile wry. “Well, I told you so,” he said lightly, pressing more cobwebs to the she-cat’s side.

Hawthornstar skidded to a stop beside them. “Is she well enough to be moved?”

Pepperheart shook his head. “Not even close. If we move her, she dies. She might die anyway.”

The rogues were drawing nearer, their pawsteps pounding against the concrete. Agitated, Stormflight paced back and forth. “Pepperheart, what are the odds that she’ll make it?”

“Zero if we move her, zero if we leave her,” he growled, eyes flashing.

“What are the odds if you stay?” they demanded.

Pepperheart scowled, his expression hardening with anger. “Slim,” he spat, tail lashing with frustration. “But she’s not dead yet, and I think if I can get the bleeding stopped, she’ll stand a chance.”

Hawthornstar shook their head. “We need to get back to camp,” they said, their face creased with regret. Stormflight knew what they were thinking: they’d come hoping to find a clanmate, and they’d failed. Not only that, but they were losing another in the process.

“Then get going,” Pepperheart snapped, squaring his shoulders. “I’m staying.”

Hawthornstar opened their mouth to argue, but then the rogues were upon them. Stormflight recognized the dark grey tabby from the previous attack towards the front. With a yowl, the rogue sprang forward, dealing out a swipe that sent Pepperheart flying.

“Get away from him!” Stormflight snarled, dodging away from the other rogues so that they could bite at the rogue’s neck. This was one cat they really didn’t care if they killed.

Pepperheart stumbled to his feet, blood dripping down his forehead. Stormflight drove the dark grey cat backwards, but there were rogues all around them now, pressing in from either side. A short distance away, they saw Hawthornstar fighting for their life as well.

“Enough. Dallas, stand down.”

The voice was quiet and gentle, but with enough authority to freeze every paw in the parking lot. Stormflight backed up to stand protectively over Pepperheart as the rogues swiveled around. The dark grey tabby dipped their head reluctantly.

Stormflight took one look at the cat who had spoken, and felt their insides freeze up.

At this point, they knew the encroaching emotions of Tigerstar well. His anger, his greed, his cruelty. But never before had he flooded them with fear.

And, undeniably, Tigerstar was very, very afraid.

The she cat was small, around Pepperheart’s size, but where Pepperheart was skinny, she was lean with muscle. Her fur was silky and thick, the wisps darker than the night sky, save for the snowy tip of her tail. Her eyes were a clear, intelligent dark blue.

Around her neck was a purple collar, pierced through by sharp bits of twoleg metal that glittered like fangs.

The match wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough.

“Hawthornstar, correct?” the she-cat murmured, smiling at the leader. Hawthornstar nodded numbly. “I’m Agave.”

Hawthornstar eyed her warily. “What are you, some sort of cheap Boneclan replica?” they growled, gesturing at the cats around them.

Agave laughed, sounding honestly charmed. “Not even close, clan cat. We call our group the Guild, and I am our Speaker.”

“What should we do with them?” the dark grey tabby asked, tilting their head to the side.

Agave studied the three of them for a moment. The night was utterly silent. “We gave them six months to clear out,” she said eventually, staring at Hawthornstar. “I plan to honor that promise, but, please note, this is your first and last warning.” She waved away the other rogues. “You may take your wounded and leave.”

“What?” the tabby yelped, eyes widening. “We have a leader and two medicine cats. They’d make fantastic hostages!”

Agave just shook her head. “Dallas,” she scolded, her voice softening, “Let them go.”

The grey tabby-Dallas- seemed to fidget under her warm gaze. “Yes Ma'am,” they murmured with a slight smile, and stepped aside.

Pepperheart darted around Stormflight, and rushed over to Palewing’s side. He pressed a paw gently against her neck, and his expression crumpled with defeat. “It’s too late for her,” he muttered. “Stormflight, could you help me carry her back to camp?”

They nodded, their pelt prickling with rage at the exhaustion on his face. Their claws itched to tear at Dallas’ neutral face, but one glance at Agave quelled that urge.

“By the way,” Agave added, still smiling, as Stormflight seized Palewing’s scruff, “Your kit is alive and well. But, if I see clan cats here again, they might not stay that way. Understood?”

Hawthornstar glanced at Palewing’s body, their voice tight as they growled, “Understood.”

As the clan cats turned to go, Agave caught Stormflight’s gaze. Her smile remained in place, but something seemed to drain out of those dark blue eyes. Their warmth frosted over, replaced by something that seemed both ancient and lifeless.

Hate.

Chapter 25[]

Lizardsight and Turtle were fighting.

Bumble had never heard her fathers fight, not when their time together as a family was so few and far between. But, here she was, ear pressed against the window in an effort to catch the words lodged in the loud voices and frustrated tones.

“They told us to go inside,” Robert muttered to her, tugging at her tail, but she swatted him away.

“We are inside,” she retorted.

“They told us to go inside so that we wouldn’t hear them argue,” he pointed out. Despite himself, his eyes drifted to the window pane, as if he too was curious.

Bumble glanced at Scone, who rolled her eyes. Out of all of them, Robert changed the least over the seasons. He didn’t seem to realize that they were adults, and that it was okay once and a while not to act like a kit.

“Can you hear them?” Scone asked, tilting her head up at Bumble.

Bumble shook her head. “No, but I can guess what they’re talking about,” she replied. Three nights ago, Turtle had caught her sneaking out into the forest again. One night ago, they’d heard fighting from the border again. Ten minutes ago, Lizardsight had turned up, a fresh wound blazed across his chest.

Turtle wanted Lizardsight to stay. Lizardsight wanted them to come with him. And Bumble knew first hand that sometimes Turtle got angry when he was scared, which, based on the sheer volume his fur had risen up to, he was.

Turtle turned to gesture at the house, and Bumble ducked behind the curtain before either of her fathers could spot her. As he turned away, she pawed at the metal latch on the window, then carefully eased it open.

“Turtle, calm down. You’re not making sense,” Lizardsight was saying.

Turtle let out a loud hiss of frustration. “What don’t you understand? You're going to get yourself killed! One of these days, you're not going to come back from a fight, and I happen to like the world better with your face in it.”

“I’m a warrior,” Lizardsight replied with a shrug. “Danger comes with the territory.”

“Then leave the territory!” Turtle insisted. “Leave it all behind. The violence, the fighting, the dying. It’s safe here, and we’re here. Why do you choose danger time and time again over your family?”

Lizardsight was silent. He tilted his head up, his eyes catching Bumble’s through the window. He knew she understood. The twoleg den was just too small and too safe for cats like them.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Turtle continued, his voice softening as he ran through his frustration. “I just get tired of watching you leave without being able to know for certain that I haven’t already said goodbye for good.”

Lizardsight smiled at his mate. “Aw, come on, what’s life without a bit of suspense?” At Turtle’s stormy expression, he leaned over and brushed his head against his shoulder. He glanced up at Bumble again as he spoke. “I promise I will never leave without saying goodbye.”

Bumble’s brain hurt.

There were three reasons for this.

One: Turtle seemed to be stuck in helicopter parent mode. She’d claimed she was tired and wanted to be left alone in hopes of dislodging him from his perch on the couch beside her, which now had so much of his fur on it that he was barely visible, but that had made it worse. Turtle kept up a stream of nervous chattering that revolved around evil clan cats, doubts on twoleg medicine, and the insistence that he was never, ever, letting anyone leave the house again without supervision.

Two: She had a lot to think about. Bumble couldn’t begin to decide how much of Stormflight’s story she believed, because every time she thought about them, her thoughts exploded into rage without permission.

Which brought her to number three: her mind was at war with Ashfur’s.

It was getting worse, and she was terrified.

The color orange sent her tumbling through the usual Flarestar cycle, filled with memories, venomous thoughts, and sharp, painfully vicious emotions.

Any mention of storms, tigers, the clans, fighting, danger, and essentially all the words Turtle was saying plunged her down a different tunnel of anger, hate and vengeance.

Bumble had spent the nights since returning from the vet slipping in and out of dreams, most filled with blood and violence. Although it made her sick to think about them in detail, they hadn’t been nightmares. There was one in particular, where she’d brutally slaughtered a dark tabby wearing Stormflight’s eyes, that had left her feeling so gruesomely satisfied that she’d literally lost her lunch.

“Are you okay?” Turtle asked. Bumble couldn’t count high enough to quantify how many times she’d heard this question.

She nodded mechanically, forcing a smile. Bumble felt too dizzy to acknowledge any guilt that lying to her father might have sparked. Besides, how could she even start the conversation?

“Dear dad, I have a long dead monster living in my head,” Bumble murmured to herself, appreciating the concrete, trueness of her voice.

Turtle looked up sharply. “What was that, dear?”

“I said I was thinking of going to bed,” Bumble replied quickly, pressing her face against the couch cushion. “I need a nap.”

Turtle hesitated, then nodded. “Well, don’t be afraid to let me know if you need anything.” He glanced anxiously at the mostly healed scratch on her chest, which had stopped bleeding a week ago.

At this, Bumble did feel a prickle of guilt. She’d claimed that it was still bothering her, because it was a more believable explanation for her lethargicness than the truth, but of course that stressed her father.

Bumble slid off of the couch, and made her way over to the plush blue cat bed in the corner of the room. She curled herself into a tight ball, and buried her face in the fluff of her tail.

“Please stay out of my dreams,” she murmured to Ashfur, although she was pretty sure it didn’t work like that. Why couldn’t she dream of some of Thunderstar’s memories for a change?

She was on fire. It tickled at her paws and her belly, her yellow fur curling as it withered into little black crisps. It didn’t hurt, but she was still in pain.

Bumble looked up from her own burning body, noticing another figure. This one was slim, elegant, her fur the color of the flames. This cat’s fur did not darken or fry, but instead flickered and sparked like the fire threatening to consume her.

“This isn’t your dream,” the cat said. Bumble blinked, startled by how really her voice sounded.

Bumble glanced around. Was this a dream? She couldn’t recall what had extended beyond the fire a moment before, but now it was clearly a forest.

It didn’t really matter. She was still on fire. She was still burning up.

“This isn’t your dream,” the cat said again, louder. Bumble looked up sharply, and flinched. Instead of the pretty ginger, her companion was now a pale grey tom, his outline seeming fuzzy.

Bumble felt annoyed. No, he felt annoyed. Or were they both annoyed?

The tom’s outline sharpened. His pale pelt was splattered with burn marks- or maybe just spots?- and his dark blue eyes were hotter than flames.

He regarded the scene around him with disgust. “This really is rather ridiculous, isn’t it?” He screwed up his face, then spat on the fire. Instantly, it fizzled out. “There. Not so hard, was it?”

Where had the flames gone? Bumble swiveled around, trying to figure out what had happened. She wasn’t burning anymore, but she was scared.

The tom’s form wavered, quivering like the fire he had banished. Smoke came from his ears, heat radiating from his pelt. Where had the flames gone? Nowhere. They were right there, growing from the grey fur like branches from a tree.

“Do you want to burn?” the other cat complained, waving a paw through the air and dispersing the fire. “You told me to stay out of your dreams. I’m trying.”

The fire was gone again, but still, Bumble was afraid. What was she afraid of, if not the fire?

She stared at the tom. He stared back.

That was it. She was afraid of him.

“Get out of my head,” Bumble shouted, and the tom and the fire disappeared. She blinked her eyes open, staring at the couch. Olivia sat on it, humming and threading string through a needle with her long, nimble fingers. Bumble watched as the twoleg poked the point into the blanket she was patching, her heart beating like a trapped bird’s wings.

She’d just spoken to him. Ashfur. He’d heard her request, and, oddly enough, had tried to abide by it.

Even more importantly, he was real. Unless she’d dreamt that as well, but Bumble didn’t think so. That part of the dream had felt different.

“Give me some sort of sign,” Bumble muttered, “Are you actually there? How do I get rid of you?”

She heard and felt nothing new. Bumble let out a soft hiss of frustration, and tried to think.

There had been a moment there, at the end, where she had fought back. She’d shoved his conscience away, and then woken up. It had been little, but she had felt a tiny change of some sort.

Bumble took a deep breath. What did she have to lose?  Braising herself, she imagined the face of the cat from her dreams. The usual flood of emotions came crashing down, but she pushed back, gritting her teeth as her headache blossomed into a torrent of pain.

This wasn’t her feelings, nor her memories. These weren’t her, they didn’t belong in her head, and she was going to get rid of them. Bumble imagined tying them up into a knot and tossing them away.

Something shifted.

Her head felt like it was splitting in two, but she continued on, fighting the things that weren’t hers. The migrain grew words, tearing at her head like it had claws. For a flash, she saw fire, before she lashed out and sent the image slipping away.

Hold on a second, Bumble. Don’t do this. No-

Bumble stopped, her eyes flying open in surprise. Those thoughts had been so foreign in her mind that for a moment she had assumed someone in the room had spoken them outloud.

A huge wave of relief washed over her, tinted with annoyance. Her mind no longer felt like it was at war with itself. It just felt….big. Like she had twice as many emotions as she was supposed to.

Good. Thank Starclan. Please never do that again. And, yes, that’s exactly how it feels, because it’s exactly what it is.

Bumble’s eyes widened with recognition. “Ashfur,” she said, hardly believing it.

You better believe it. The other mind bubbled with amusement. I wish I had a physical form so that I could let out a sigh of relief, he thought.

Some of the message came through not quite as words, more of intentions and emotions. You have no idea how boring the past three years have been. I’m not sure what you did, but- no, no, no, don’t do that! Bumble, do not-

“Get out of my head,” Bumble demanded again, and pushed him out. For a moment, she felt his conscience grasping at her own, and then he was simply gone.

The silence in her mind felt crisp and clean, like she’d taken a mental bath. She was light.

She was empty.

For a moment, Bumble was vaguely concerned by that, and then she was too faded to care.

Once, when Bumble had been a kitten, Olivia had brought helium balloons home to them. They had been red, shiny, and bouncy. Olivia had tied one end of their strings to a stick, and watched them bat at it. Robert had popped the first one and they’d been warrier after that. They had watched the remaining balloon bob up and down suspiciously, until they decided it wasn’t going to hurt them. In fact, Scone suggested, maybe it was nice. Maybe it was alive, since it moved. Maybe they should set it free.

So, Bumble had cut the string with her stubby baby claws, and watched as the balloon sprang up, free and unweighted. It flew through the sky, higher and higher, growing more distant until they hadn’t been able to see it anymore.

Bumble was a balloon.

She was free, she was flying, she was going up, up, up, getting smaller, disappearing.

Then, with a searing pain, the world became real again. Bumble let out a startled cry, digging her claws into the soft surface of her bed. Everything felt too vibrant, too physical. The press of her weight against the ground was too heavy, her panicked gasps were too loud.

Never do that again, Ashfur thundered in her head, his voice the most deafening thing of all. Never. Again. Do you understand me? You will never do that again.

Bumble winced at the wave of rage and terror that backed up his words. Her mind felt tight and cramped, but, as she realized just how blank it had been a minute before, she didn’t mind.

That’s right, little lady, you almost made us all go poof. Sure, no more Ashfur, but guess what, no more Bumble either. And no more Thunder. We all would have been gone.

Bumble suddenly wondered if it was normal for Ashfur to be able to talk like this.

Hello to you as well, Thunder. Yes, we are capable of sentient thought now. Actually, I’ve always been capable of it, because you wouldn’t share.

Bumble had no idea what he was talking about.

Thunder, you literally walled me up in a little corner of our mind. We’re supposed to blend together. Instead, you rejected me and left me perched on the outside, perfectly pure and perfectly alone.

Bumble shook her head, trying to clear it. Her migrain was gone, but everything felt fuzzy. She frowned, trying to process what Ashfur had thought, and felt her own confusion bounce through his mind like an echo.

Our mind, Bumble. We’re three souls in one mind. It’s cozy, but as you just proved, we can’t exist without each other. His tone darkened with anger, and Bumble felt for an instant how much that bothered him.

Ashfur’s presence sharpened against hers. Well, he thought silkily, that’s inconvenient. I’m not sure I like having you feel my emotions any more than I’ve enjoyed weathering yours for the past few years.

That was what he said, but Bumble still caught what he had actually been thinking: Great Starclan, I hate this. He was terrified of the fact that she could see all his insecurities, if she just prodded at his existence a little bit-

I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sweetheart, Ashfur thought softly, every word laced with venom. He shifted away from her, withdrawing his conscience ever so slightly. There are things in my head that would make your fragile little mind shatter.

So, Bumble, tell me: how does it feel to know that you’re not enough of a cat to exist without me? Ashfur asked, all sharp edges now. Bumble couldn’t feel what he was feeling, only a cold, chilly distaste.

For a moment, Bumble felt like she couldn’t breath. It was more than just words, when it came from her own head. When Ashfur thought it, she thought it.

She was less than whole. She was a fragment, a shadow, a figment of a real cat. Bumble felt very small and very useless, like all the eyes in the world had turned to her and then recoiled with disgust. Distantly, she noted that everything she felt also vibrated through Ashfur, that these were his thoughts as well.

No, actually, she wasn’t small or useless, Bumble mused, the thoughts like a warm ray of sunshine on her fur. She was Bumble, and she was absolutely fantastic and deserving of life. These were Ashfur’s truths, not hers. It wasn’t her fault she was harboring an insecure, selfish, sad excuse for a cat in her mind.

Oh, shut up, Thunder, Ashfur snarled, poking a hole in the little bubble of happiness.

“Wait,” Bumble said out loud, frowning, “You’re talking to Thunderstar? I can’t feel him.”

You can’t? Ashfur echoed, utterly bewildered.Then came annoyance. Well, that just shows how little influence I have over you. You can’t feel him because you can’t distinguish between your thoughts and his. If he had a physical body, he would have been scowling. You overlap too much.

Bumble frowned, not understanding. Why did she only get to talk to Ashfur? She suspected Thunderstar would be the more pleasant of the two.

Oh, boo hoo, Ashfur grumbled. Fine, I’ll see what I can do. He was silent for a moment, concentrating.

Bumble felt an unpleasant tug, and suddenly she wasn’t seeing the room anymore. Olivia and her sewing disappeared, replaced by the image of a pale grey cat staring lovingly at a beautiful golden she-cat.

Feel that wave of disgust, anger, and that wish that I existed outside of your head so that you could claw my ears off? Ashfur asked smugly, every bit of his essence terribly amused. That would be Thunder. Try kicking him out like you did to me.

Bumble scowled, curling her claws against her bedding. The displeasure felt like her own, not like Ashfur’s intrusive ones, but once she stopped to think about it, the image should have meant nothing to her. She didn’t know those cats.

She shouldered her conscience against the emotions, and felt a little stretching sensation.

Ashfur, you foxheart, stay out of my memories, a third voice thought angrily. This one was quieter, less jarring in her head.

A bit late for that, I’m afraid, Ashfur replied cheerfully. Our life is very boring when you can’t actually contribute. All I had to entertain myself with was my own wit and what’s in your head. Some of which is actually very entertaining.

There was a twitch, and Bumble was watching a big ginger tom fall down in the mud. Then the same cat fell out of a tree. Now he was flailing in the river. Now he was young and being sat on by a little black kit.

This one’s my favorite, Ashfur said gleefully. Some of his amusement slipped past his barrier, and a giggle burst from Bumble’s lips before she could reconcile it with the mutanous frustration she was getting from Thunder.

This time, the ginger tom was walking through the forest alone. He spotted a butterfly, and raced after it. Midleap, his hindlegs caught on a log, sending him tumbling into a thornbush. As he emerged, wincing, the bug landed on his nose.

I think that’s enough of that, Thunder protested, sounding entertained despite himself. Or was that Bumble’s amusement, or maybe Ashfur’s? Everything seemed to bleed between the three of them, as their emotions floated around in one space.

Ashfur allowed the scene to fade. Is it just me, or are we feeling a little lightheaded? He poked at Bumble, who startled.

He was right. She hadn’t noticed, but the floating feeling had begun to creep back in, the subtle suggestion that she could drift into the void if she allowed herself. With a wave of disappointment, Bumble realized this wasn’t going to work. She couldn’t keep Ashfur and Thunderstar pushed away from her like this for long.

“Why do you keep messing with my head?” she demanded, aiming the question at Ashfur. Even if she couldn’t get rid of him, maybe she could at least shut him up.

Ah, Ashfur said lightly, Well.

He’s a terrible cat, Thunderstar answered angrily, that’s why.

No, actually, Ashfur objected frostily, I’m not purposely doing anything. I’ve actually been trying very hard for the past few years to get any sort of influence, without success, but with all these clan cats coming to visit, everytime I so much as think about...

Bumble saw Stormflight’s face, and her face curled into a snarl before she felt Ashfur restle the rage back.

That happens, he grumbled. It’s not me. Or, not this version of me. It’s some sort of blown up version of my subconscious. At Bumble and Thunder’s disbelief, he sent them a mental image of his own scowling face. Seriously, why would I want to get Bumble killed by attacking a random clan cat? I’ve been stuck in the Dark Forest with Tigerstar for decades. I’ve come to terms with the fact that killing him isn’t practical.

Ashfur’s emotions did not align with that sentiment, though. Bumble could still feel the underlying bitterness, the vague image of two limp shapes, one grey, one white, before Ashfur yanked them away.

As for Flarestar, Ashfur added, She’s not Squirrelflight. Yes, they’re both ginger, but how stupid do you think I am?

Bumble shivered at the connotations the name carried in his mind, that same sickening feeling of love and hate and possessiveness she’d been grappling with for weeks.

Very, Thunder suggested.

Fine, she looks quite a bit like her, Ashfur revised, but still, I promise, I have no desire to relive those memories just to mess with some poor kid I’m sharing a brain with. Plus, that wasn’t entirely my fault, he added snidely. I’m not the only one who’s had issues with treacherous she-cats. Star Flower and Squirrelflight would be best friends.

Squirrelflight wasn’t treacherous, Thunder thought, a moment before Bumble could.

The wave of anger from Ashfur was enough to make Bumble sway. That’s not an argument I feel the need to have, he commented frostily.

Bumble closed her eyes. “Well, is there any way for you to control it? Because it’s very inconvenient.” It was also, if she was being honest, absolutely terrifying to lose control of her own head.

There’s no shame in being afraid, thought Thunder, his words a comforting rumble. We’re scared too.

Speak for yourself, badger breath, Ashfur retorted.

Really? Thunder murmured, The fact that your insecurities are jeopardizing our mission and there’s nothing you can do about it doesn’t bother you at all? You do realize that if your grudges get Bumble killed, we’ll fade for good, right?

Ashfur said nothing for a long moment, his portion of her mind rigid and blank. That in and of itself was enough to confirm Thunder’s words. I never said there was nothing I can do about it, he replied tartly. I’ll see if I can figure out a way to counter it.

“I think keeping you at a distance like I’m doing now helps,” Bumble said. “I guess I’ll just try doing this when things get bad.”

Her words sounded foggy, like she was hearing them through a wave of water. This definitely wasn’t something she could sustain for a long period of time.

Looks like it’s time for us to go, Ashfur said. He hesitated, then to Thunder, added, we really ought to talk about it.

What?

You know what, Ashfur grumbled. Bumble tried to prod his conscience for this mysterious ‘it’, but he was out of reach. She really needed to pull them back in before the three of them floated away again.

Oh, Thunder thought, a wave of reluctance rolling through him. That.

“What is it?” Bumble asked, growing a little nervous.

Bumble, you’ve probably figured out by now that you’re not a normal cat, Thunder murmured, sounding apologetic. And abnormal cats generally don’t get to live normal lives. Everything Stormflight said was true. We have to save the clans.

Bumble thought she could see where this conversation was going, and she didn’t know how she felt about it.

You need to become a warrior, Thunder confirmed.

Bumble opened her mouth, then closed it again. She didn’t know how to respond to that.

You’ve always wanted to be a warrior, Ashfur added sweetly, pulling up a memory of Lizardsight teaching a young Bumble to hunt. He pressed the happiness of the moment against her, and a smile krept unbidden onto her face. It was foolish to pretend you were supposed to be something else.

Bumble batted away the memory, the happiness instantly shifting to anger. “Don’t use my memories to manipulate me!” she yelped, shaking her head as if she could rid herself of the irritating tom.

Bumble took a deep breath. “Yes, being a warrior sounds nice,” she said slowly, “But it’s a dangerous life and I don’t want to leave my family.” The very concept of saying goodbye to her siblings and Turtle made her feel sick. But at the same time, she yearned for that freedom she’d felt when Lizardsight had taken her out of the yard.

It’s not a decision to be made lightly, Thunder agreed. But, as much as I’d like to tell you to do what you want, I can’t. Our mission is in the forest.

Bumble ground her teeth. “That’s your mission. You can’t just take command of my life!”

That wasn’t what I meant, Thunder revised hastily. Just….think about it, please.

This is ridiculous, Ashfur interjected, carrying with him searing disdain. You have the entirety of all living and dead clan cats riding on your shoulders, and you want to let them all disappear just so you can rot away in this dump? You know this isn’t where you’re supposed to be. The forest calls to you. Suddenly, Bumble was seeing the expanse of Starclan, all diluted colors and fuzzy sparkles. We’re fading.

Ashfur, shut up, Thunder said, but the Dark Forest tom plowed on.

No, you shut up, you big softy. I will not let her destroy everything over a few kittypets, Ashfur snarled.

“Those kittypets,” Bumble said, “Are my family.

Isn’t Lizardsight your family? Ashfur asked, snide and cruel. If Starclan fades, he will go with it. At the rush of cold fear that bolted up Bumble’s spine, he seemed to smile. That’s what I thought.

Bumble swallowed down a wail as Ashfur summoned up an image of Lizardsight’s face. It was not him as Bumble tried to remember him, cheerful and mischievous, but the limp body she’d helped Turtle carry back to Shadowclan.

“Be quiet, both of you,” Bumble said, her voice an unsteady tremor between a sob and a snarl. “I will think about it, but if I agree, it won’t be because you bullied me into it.” Before either could retort, she tugged them back in. The release felt as though she’d let out a breath she’d been holding too long.

Bumble closed her eyes, and leaned her head forward so that she was resting her brow on the soft rim of her bed. Great Starclan, she wanted him gone. Thunder was nice enough, but she utterly loathed Ashfur and his mind games.

She paused, realizing he was probably listening, all alone in her head. Well, Bumble didn’t care if he knew she despised him.

The door from the hallway eased open, and she flicked an ear in its direction without looking up. Turtle shuffled across the floor, and hovered by the edge of the little bed. “Bumble, what was all that?” he asked, nudging her chin up with a paw. His eyes were wide, confused, and worried.

“All what?” Bumble stammered, forcing a smile. She couldn't explain it in a way that would seem remotely believable to most cats, let alone her father.

Turtle frowned, his eyes heavy with worry. Bumble knew he wasn’t that old, but right now, he seemed ancient. “I was listening from the other side of the door. Were you talking to someone?”

Bumble feigned confusion. “No, I was asleep,” she said, picking at a stray string on the bedding. “I was having a nightmare. I guess I was talking in my sleep.”

Turtle seemed to accept that answer. He stepped over the rim of the bed, and settled down beside her, his fur warm and comforting. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked gently.

Bumble shook her head.

“That’s okay. Let me know if you change your mind,” he murmured, resting his chin lightly on the top of her back.

Bumble closed her eyes, her throat feeling tight. She and her siblings were full grown, yet her father still insisted on fussing over their nightmares and every little thing like they were still kits.

Bumble had never minded, and she was still grateful for the comfort now, even if it was suffocating at times. But how could she tell this cat, who feared losing her more than he feared anything, that she was leaving?

Because, yes, she needed to leave. She’d always needed to leave.

Give me time, she thought to Ashfur. I have to figure out how to say goodbye without breaking their hearts.

And, although she wasn’t willing to put the thought to words, her own heart. Bumble’s world had always been composed of this den and her kin, and while the former was too small to encompass her, the latter was everything she’d ever loved.

Chapter 26[]

Bumble sat balanced on the edge of the rickety fence, her claws dug deep into the wood to keep herself from diving off and rushing into the forest. On the ground behind her, Turtle paced, his stride interrupted every few seconds when the loud screeches made him flinch.

The fence swayed precariously as Robert scrambled up beside her. He nearly tipped himself over the other side, before Bumble unlatched one of her paws from the fence and steadied him.

He followed her gaze into the trees, pelt prickling.

Sometimes, Bumble found it difficult to believe that he and Turtle weren’t related by blood. Their father was thinner and had orange eyes instead of green, but both had thin tabby pelts and a similar palette of emotions.

Right now, all of them, Scone and Bumble included, resembled Turtle: scared half out of their pelts.

Another yowl echoed through the trees, and Bumble’s ears flicked back. She had no way of knowing if Lizardsight was even at the battle, but to her ears, every voice sounded like it might have been his.

She loosened her grip on the fence, and leaned forward. “Don’t be foolish,” Robert murmured under his breath, without looking away from the forest.

Bumble flashed him a reluctant smile, and drummed her claws anxiously against the wooden planks. “Right.” She surveyed the worried faces of her family, and added, “Lizardsight knows what he’s doing. We just have to trust him to come back to us, like he always does.”

She wished, for once, she could go to him, but Bumble was trying to be comforting. The last thing Turtle needed right now was to have to drag her away from the forest again.

Turtle’s fake smile had all the same creases of his lying face. “Of course. I’m sure he’s fine,” he replied, voice a little too high.

“Relax, Dad,” Scone interjected, twining her tail with Turtle’s. “Remember that time he showed us some of his battle moves? I bet he’s the best warrior out there.” Bumble shot her sister a grateful smile.

Then, Robert made a funny choking noise. Bumble turned back towards the forest, and felt her legs turn to water as she half jumped, half slithered off of the fence. Pawsteps uneven with panic, she dashed over to Lizardsight’s stumbling form.

“Hey, Bumblekit,” Lizardsight mumbled, smiling weakly at her as she shoved her shoulder under his, trying to take some of his weight.

Her yellow fluff quickly stained a rusty orange as it brushed against his bloodstained fur. Bumble focussed on helping him walk, and tried not to notice where the blood was pouring from, or measure the quantity of it.

Robert, Scone, and Turtle met them halfway back to the fence. Turtle took one look at the blood, and breathed, “I’m getting Olivia.”

“Don’t do that, you mousebrain,” Lizardsight replied, his voice lurching as Bumble carefully lowered him to the ground.

“You need a vet,” Turtle said pleadingly.

Lizardsight just shook his head. “Just stay, Turtle,” he murmured, his voice slurred and his lips wet with blood. He licked it away, then glanced at the deep gash in his stomach. “I think I may have forgotten some of my insides at the border,” he grumbled, winking at Bumble.

“That’s not even remotely funny,” Robert said, his eyes wide with horror. For once, Bumble agreed.

“Surely there’s something Olivia can do?” Scone asked desperately, glancing over her shoulder at the twoleg’s den.

Lizardsight glanced around at them, a sad smile curling on his face. “It’s not going to happen, loves. I’m not spending my last few minutes being carried around by an overgrown monkey.”

Turtle opened his mouth as if to speak, but the words dried up before they hit the air. Slowly, as if in a trance, he lowered himself to the ground and curled his thin form around Lizardsight’s broken one. “You said you wouldn’t leave,” he whispered.

“No,” Lizardsight corrected gently, “I said I’d always say goodbye first.” He leaned his head against Turtle’s, then twitched his tail at Bumble and the others. “C’mere, kids, one more story for old time’s sake?”

Bumble glanced at Scone and Robert, then nodded.

They didn’t fit the way they used to. Scone was far too big to perch on Lizardsight’s head, and Bumble couldn’t squeeze under his chin. Still, they managed to crowd around him.

Lizardsight watched every movement like a drowning cat gasping for air, his smile growing. After all this time, Bumble still loved his eyes. Golden and dappled like his namesake, full of quiet joy. “Look at my little warriors, all grown up,” he said to himself. Then, he cleared his throat. “Once, a long time ago, there was a Tigerclan warrior named Glowshade.

“He was the best warrior in Tigerclan, capable of fighting four enemies at once without losing a single drop of blood. His clanmates all loved him. He was happy, and thought he could never be happier.

“But then, he looked up, and noticed the stars. They were more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen. He started talking to them, when he was alone. Eventually, Glowshade fell in love with one of them.”

Lizardsight took a raspy breath before continuing, talking faster and quieter. Bumble clung to every word, trying to cement them in her memory.

“The star wanted Glowshade to come into the sky with him, but Glowshade’s clanmates wanted to keep him as well. And Glowshade wanted both, but his clanmates were on the ground and the star wasn’t. So, everynight, Glowshade would creep into the night and find his star, then return to the clans by day.

“One day,” Lizardsight wheezed, “Glowshade got lost somewhere in between. He couldn’t reach the ground, but he couldn’t find his star either. Slowly, he faded…..”

He took a deep breath. “..into the night. He wasn’t afraid, though, because he knew eventually his body would find its way back to his clan, and his soul would join his star in the sky.

“In fact,” Lizardsight whispered, “He was very, very glad. He truly was as happy as he ever could have been, because he could finally be with everyone he loved.” His eyes drifted shut as his smile spread, and then he didn’t say anymore.

The story was over.

For a long time, no one moved. Then, eventually, Turtle croaked, “We need to take his body back to Shadowclan.”

Bumble forced herself to her paws. “I’ll help you carry him,” she managed to reply.

They took his body back to his clan, but even as Bumble whispered her goodbyes under her breath so that the clan cats couldn’t hear her, she looked up at the sky, to where Lizardsight’s soul had gone.

Bumble yelped as Scone shoved her, sending her tumbling through the thin, sparkling fan of water that the sprinkler had thrown up. Her soaking yellow and black fur was already streaked with mud and bits of grass, and she shivered as the water pressed it back against her sides.

“I’m going to get you for that!” Bumble threatened, crouching. She could see Scone’s dappled form through the shimmering veil, mirroring her movements. They sprang at the same time, and met right on top of the spray, liquid blurring her vision as she blindly flailed at her sister’s face.

Scone’s laughter rose into a merry shriek as Bumble triumphantly flipped her over onto her side, and sat on her. She primly licked a bit of mud off of her paw.

“Not fair!” Scone protested, “You’re bigger than I am.”

Bumble was fairly certain that most of her mass was just fluff and trapped air, and that her advantage came more from training with Lizardsight, but she didn’t protest. “All’s fair in love, war, and water fights,” she proclaimed. She lifted a soggy paw, and patted her sister on the head. “Cheer up, at least you could still beat Robert.”

Scone scrunched her face up as she looked over at their brother, who was watching from a safe distance away. “Yeah, if he wasn’t too lame to hang out with us.”

“Robert!” Bumble shouted, for the hundredth time that day, “Come play!”

Robert leveled a scornful glare at them. “No.”

Pleaseee?” Bumble implored.

“No,” Robert groaned, burying his face in his tail. “I’ll stay over here, where it’s nice and dry, thanks. Plus, you’re behaving like kits.”

Bumble stuck out her tongue at him, then busied herself with smearing mud in Scone’s fur while her sister squealed and tried to squirm away.

They were absolutely behaving like kits, but that was the point. Being a kit had been fun, and hot summer days and sprinklers were the perfect accessories for being one.

Besides, it was just the five of them here. Bumble and Scone were enjoying themselves, Turtle and Olivia were watching with amusement, and, per usual, Robert was being a pain in the rear. There was no reason not to behave like kits.

Scone splashed a pawful of muddy water at Bumble’s face, and she jerked her chin up to keep it out of her eyes.

She spotted a bird overhead, and felt her attention abruptly yanked away from her game. It was a brightly plumed oriole, it’s feathers ebony black and vibrant orange.

Orange.

Bumble knew what else was orange. Flarestar, Squirrelflight, and the fires they started in her head. Bumble felt her mind begin to twist in it’s now familiar, unfriendly way, flooding her thoughts with memories and pain.

“Not now,” Bumble pleaded under her breath, boxing at Scone’s ears to make sure she wouldn’t hear. As quickly as the onslaught had hit, it faded away, leaving only a slight headache.

It had been three days since she’d spoken to Ashfur, three days since she’d asked for time, and three days since she’d put any effort into how to say goodbye.

She’d claimed a miraculous recovery from her chest wound, which really was, save for the occasional ache when the game got too rough, completely healed, and had immediately set to work spending her time as best she could. Bumble was trying to make some good memories before she had to leave.

For the most part, Bumble’s head had been blissfully clear. Now, as long as she didn’t let her mind get caught on the image too long, she could even picture Flarestar or Stormflight’s face and feel only the tiniest twitch.

It was clear that Ashfur was figuring out how to bridle his unhelpful subconscious. And yet, here she was, going down the rabbit hole over a bird.

Bumble was smart enough to recognize a message when she felt one.

Ashfur was getting impatient.

Bumble still wasn’t ready to leave.

She shoved away her thoughts, and leaned down to murmur in her sister’s ear. “I think Robert looks lonely, sitting alone by himself,” she whispered, nodding to where their brother was nibbling at his paw in the shade.

“Hmmmm,” Scone hummed, following her gaze. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I think so,” Bumble purred.

“We’re very wise,” Scone commented, grinning broadly. Bumble stepped off of her, and she rolled to her feet. Then, moving just slowly enough for Robert to see what was coming, he stalked over to him, snagged his scruff, and dragged him back to the sprinkler.

Robert flailed and yowled the whole way, but once his fur had soaked through and he realized there was no escape, he just sat and scowled at them. “You two are ridiculous,” he muttered, pawing at his muddy fur dejectedly.

“That’s why you love us, right?” Scone teased, splashing him with her tail.

“Sure,” Robert replied sourly. “Let’s go with that.”

As Scone proceeded to push his head into the sprinkler’s firing range, Bumble felt a wave of dizziness wash over her as the image of a lovely ginger she-cat was shoved forcefully to the front of her mind. She stumbled, her paws slipping across the mucky ground.

With an angry hiss, Bumble jerked back against the thought, ignoring the disorientating sliding of Ashfur’s conscience away from hers.

“Something wrong?” Scone asked, looking up from the painting she was drawing on Robert’s side in mud.

“Thorn in my paw,” Bumble mumbled.

What are you doing? She demanded internally, lashing out with her anger as if it had claws.

Ashfur simmered with irritation, annoyance, and a slight undercurrent of fear that Bumble probably wasn’t meant to catch. I’m just trying to get you back on track, Bumble.

“I think I’m going to sit out for a bit,” Bumble called to her siblings. She found a shady spot beside the fence, and curled up beside it. “I’m working on it,” she murmured to Ashfur.

No, you’re not, he replied. You have a job to do. Quite procrastinating.

Bumble gritted her teeth, trying to come up with a reasonable counter, which was a useless pursuit, given that Ashfur could read her mind.

Sure, he snarked, plucking the thought easily from her conscience, You don’t want to leave. You want, as the twolegs would say, to have your cake and eat it. I hate to break it to you, but you can’t.

Bumble knew that, but it wasn’t that simple. It just wasn’t fair.

Ashfur just loved that last bit. Oh, I know, sweetheart, but guess what? Life. Isn’t. Fair.

Yeah, Bumble shot back, scooping into the emotions behind his words, If life was fair, your parents might have been alive for your warrior’s ceremony and Squirrelflight might have loved you. But it didn’t pan out like that, did it?

On second thought, that might have originated from Thunderstar. Bumble almost felt guilty at the wave of rage that boiled off of Ashfur, before his corner of her head frosted over with chilly numbness, as he constructed his invisible wall. His tone was equally frigid, but at least the patronizing amusement was gone. Thunder, if you want to exchange low blows, you might want to reassess yourself first. I have a whole montage of the worst moments of your life all prepared.

Then, to Bumble, he said, If you’re not going to couporate, then I have no reason to hold back the chaos for you.

“You are such a manipulative creep,” Bumble mumbled, closing her eyes.

Ashfur was indifferent. I’ve spent the past few years having almost no influence whatsoever on this life. Now, I finally have some power. I’m going to use it, he said unapologetically. Remember, you want to go in the forest as well.

“I just want to do it on my own time,” Bumble muttered. She gazed over at her siblings, who had managed to wrestle Turtle into the sprinkler. Her paws itched to join them, and her heart ached to stay with them.

Ashfur didn’t reply, but his mind wandered to someone pale grey with darker flecks, and kind green eyes. For once, this memory wasn’t tainted with anger.Both Thunderstar and Bumble were startled by this sudden lack of awfulness, but Ashfur snatched it away before either could comment.

You’re acting as if you’ll never see these soft pelts again, Ashfur continued. I’m sure your leader girlfriend- he paused, wrestling down a mirage of fire and anger- will let you visit. She let Lizardsight sneak off for all those years, after all.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Bumble spluttered, feeling her pelt prickle with discomfort. “We’ve hardly even spoken. I have no idea if I even like her like that without  your messed up subconscious in my head.”

You sure protest a lot over one little comment, Ashfur mused idly.

That wasn’t it. It made Bumble very uncomfortable that she couldn’t trust herself to have a simple crush without wondering if it was all just her inner Ashfur, and she wanted to make it clear that she wasn’t confusing a possible attraction for some sort of entitlement.

Unlike somebody.

Bumble didn’t even know if she liked she-cats in general, or anyone for that matter, as more than friends once you took away Ashfur.

That’s one of the perks of living in a clan, Ashfur pointed out in a dry tone, There’s more than three other cats, and none of them will be related to you.

I don’t think she wants to join Shadowclan to expand her mate options, Thunderstar protested, shooting a wave of apologeticness at Bumble. Then, softer, in not so many words, he added, You’re making her uncomfortable. She understood that to an extent, Bumble being uncomfortable meant that Thunder was uncomfortable.

Obviously, Ashfur replied, every conversation with me makes her uncomfortable. Ms. Sunshine and Butterflies doesn’t like having mean ol’ Ashfur in her head. But we’re getting off topic. Bumble, go play with your kittypet kin or do whatever else you feel like you need to do, but I want us in Shadowclan by nightfall.

He didn’t need to say the or else. Bumble could feel it.

Nightfall. Bumble glanced up at the sky, her insides twisting at the midday sun. She had an afternoon. One afternoon to cut ties to the three cats she’d spent her whole life with.

You can come visit. The thought vibrated through all three of them, each trying to console her.

“Okay,” Bumble said, her voice quiet. She let their conscience slip back into hers, their voices falling silent.

Well, if she had one afternoon left with her family, she wasn’t going to waste it moping. With a fierce battle cry, Bumble rose to her feet and dove back into the fray.

Several hours later, Bumble finished lapping the mud from her drying fur, and sat watching the sinking sun, feeling no more willing to leave than she had earlier in the day. The creeping shadows seemed to tighten around her throat everytime she tried to open her mouth to begin the dreaded conversation.

Her tongue felt dry, and her heartbeat listlessly in her chest. Ashfur was starting to prod at her again, allowing little snippets of disjunction to slip through. Bumble licked nervously at her lips, gazing to where Scone was helping Robert get the mud out of his ears.

Do it, she told herself. She took a deep breath, then kept sitting there.

The last time Bumble had felt like this, it had been because she’d knocked one of Olivia’s daffodils off of the windowsill. She’d been about four months old, and it had taken her hours to work up the courage to confess to the crime.

By that standard, she figured she needed a few months for this.

Bumble opened her mouth. Closed it.

She thought back to Lizardsight and his story, how he’d looked up and seen the sky. She needed to stop thinking of this as goodbye, and more of progressing in her story. Bumble needed to go look for her star, be it a cat or a clan or something else.

She took a deep breath.

“I have something to tell you,” she said, too quiet. Scone looked up at her, head cocked inquisitively.

“What was that, sis?”

It wasn’t too late to turn back. At this point, Bumble could still whip up a quick facade, let the conversation drop, and wake up in this den tomorrow. Except, that wasn’t an option.

“I have something to tell you,” she said, louder. Now she had Robert and Turtle’s attention as well, Robert looking baffled and Turtle worried.

There was a beat of silence as they waited and she floundered in her own panic. “I’m going to join Shadowclan, and I’m leaving tonight,” Bumble announced, the words flooding out like a rain flooded stream.

They all stared at her. Bumble could see her words processing in their heads. Scone smiled slightly, as if she’d been expecting it. Robert looked miserable. Turtle looked….

Well, for a moment, he looked like he had the day Lizardsight had wandered home with his life bleeding out of him. Then, the expression was gone, as he rejected the statements. “No, you’re not,” he said.

Bumble closed her eyes, not wanting to watch his face as she said, “I wasn’t asking for permission, Dad. I’m going. I’m sorry.”

Turtle’s voice choked, like he was drowning in the air. “You can’t. After all I’ve done for you? After all the clans have taken from us? You can’t. I won’t let those monsters steal another family member from me. This is your home.”

Bumble counted to five, then opened her eyes again. “Dad,” she said gently, “I love you all very much, but I don’t belong here. I want to live under the trees and the stars, like Lizardsight did.”

“You want to die at my paws like Lizardsight did?”

It was easier for her to breathe now that she had started. The words felt right, like she’d been waiting to say them for a long time. “Lizardsight died happy. He told us himself, he had all he’d ever wanted. If I die here, I’ll die wondering what’s out there.”

Turtle let out a hiss of frustration. “I’ll tell you what’s out there! Danger and violence! He and you were always caught up in the glory of it all, but it’s nothing but a fantasy!”

“I’m going,” Bumble repeated. “I’m going to go no matter what you say, so…” She tried to catch Turtle’s gaze, her own expression pleading. “So could you please not make this conversation harder than it has to be?”

Turtle visibly reigned himself in, his expression twisted with bitter grief. “You’re going,” he echoed dismally.

“Yes,” Bumble agreed. “I’ve thought it over a lot, I promise. It’s not a choice I’m making lightly.”

Her father studied her face searchingly. Bumble could tell what he was thinking. She could see him wondering how and when he had gone wrong, how he had raised this crazy creature that wanted nothing but to run into the wilderness and die like her late father.

She wished she could put into words how this wasn’t something she wanted. She needed to do this, and not just to keep Ashfur from destroying her mind.

Turtle looked like he wanted to say a lot of things, but he managed a weak smile. “Okay,” he whispered.

“You’ll visit, right?” Robert asked, his green eyes wide.

Bumble nodded quickly. “Yes, of course.” She studied her family, her heart feeling too big for her chest. She hadn’t expected this to be so quick. Maybe they’d all known this day was coming, in one way or another.

She glanced over at Scone, who had been uncharacteristically silent. “I’m going with you,” she announced, rising to her feet.

What?” Robert and Turtle moaned in synchrony, their eyes widening in desmay. Bumble was just as surprised, but on second thought, maybe she shouldn’t have been. Scone had never been tied to the forest like her, but she’d never been easily cowed.

Scone shrugged, giving Turtle an apologetic smile. “At least until she’s settled in. Maybe I’ll stay after that, maybe not, but I figure I owe it to Lizardsight to at least give his life a try.”

Turtle looked like he was on the verge of losing his lunch, but he just nodded numbly. “At least you’ll be together,” he mumbled, tilting his head up to the sky. He took a long, braising breath, then murmured, “Lizardsight, if you really are up there, please look after our daughters.” He stepped forward, and gently touched noses with Bumble. “Stay safe,” he whispered, “I love you.”

“You’re a great dad,” Bumble said back, “This is just something I have to do.” She wished she could get him to understand that he’d done nothing wrong.

Robert hovered awkwardly, his face set in a worried frown that made him look older than he was. “You’re really going this time,” he said, not really a question. Bumble wasn’t sure what other time there had been, but she nodded.

“Yeah.”

She could see some brave part of him trying to convince him to follow them, probably motivated more by obligation than anything else. He looked out the window at the trees below them.

“Someone has to keep Dad company,” Bumble suggested, letting him off the hook. She wrinkled her nose into a teasing scowl. “Plus, Scone and I have been trying to figure out a way to ditch you for years.”

Robert half heartedly pulled on his snobbish glare. “My exact thoughts on you two,” he said, but without any venom.

“Well, you’re not getting rid of us that easily,” Scone interjected. “We’ll be back to visit by the end of this quarter moon, and you better not move any of my toys.”

“I can’t wait,” Robert replied, in a tone that tried and failed for sarcasm.

Saying goodbye to Olivia was almost worse, because Bumble had no way to tell her twoleg that she was going away but that she’d be okay, and that she’d visit. She knew Olivia would worry about them, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Bumble let the twoleg stroke her fluffy fur for a few moments, then nodded to Scone. It was time to go.

Turtle and Robert saw them as far as the gate, and then they were off. Bumble felt like someone had lifted a mountain off of her shoulders as she slipped beneath the shadows of the dense foliage and across the Shadowclan border.

As they neared the camp, Bumble pulled Ashfur aside, shivering at the bristly brush of his conscience against hers. She had considered telling Scone about him and Thunder, but had eventually opted to stick to a limit of one life changing announcement a day.

She wouldn’t believe you anyway, Ashfur commented unhelpfully. No one would.

He always knew just what to say to make her pelt prickle, but this time she knew she was wrong. Stormflight does, she pointed out, they’re stuck in the same boat as me. Besides, don’t act like you know my sister better than I do.

I know everything you know, he retorted, and more.

Bumble flicked her ear as if to rid herself of a troublesome fly. This wasn’t what she’d wanted to talk about. We’re almost to Shadowclan. I’m definitely going to have to talk to Flarestar. Do you have that under control?

Ashfur didn’t reply immediately, and Bumble got a glimpse of his uncertainty and discomfort. The answer, it seemed, was a big maybe, which he didn’t like any better than she did. I’ll try my best, he said. It might be best to keep me separate like this. Having someone to talk to helps to keep me anchored.

Anchored. As if his inner emotions were something he could drift out to sea on.

Amblefoot was standing guard outside of the camp when they arrived. They glanced nervously at them, as if expecting to find another dead body, and let out a sigh of relief when there wasn’t one. “Hello again,” they said amiably, tilting their head to one side. “What brings you back?”

For a brief moment, Bumble panicked. Or, more accurately, Ashfur panicked and it made her very nervous. What if Shadowclan wouldn’t take her? What would that mean for the clans? For her?

They’ve never been too friendly with kittypets, he stressed, and she looks about as kittypet as kittypets get-

Calm down, both of you, Thunder interjected, Flarestar knows she’s Lizardsight’s daughter. She’ll let us join. And if not, then we try one of the others. Specifically to Bumble, he added, Amblefoot is waiting.

Bumble looked back to the deputy, who was indeed waiting patiently. “We’d like to join Shadowclan,” Bumble blurted out.

Amblefoot stared at them, then smiled slightly. “Okay,” they said. “You’ll have to check with Flarestar, but I’m sure she’ll say yes. Although,” they added, “I will warn you, some of our clanmates may be less than thrilled. The rogue trouble has made everyone a little head shy about newcomers.”

Suddenly, a lithe ginger shape wriggled between Amblefoot’s broad shoulders and the wall of the entrance. Flarestar’s sudden appearance sent Bumble’s head spinning. If Amblefoot was a sturdy boulder, she was like a-

Bad metaphor, Thunder warned, but of course by that point it was too late.

Flarestar moved like a squirrel.

“What’s this I’m hearing?” Flarestar asked, head tilted jauntily and her eyes sparkling. “New recruits?”

Ashfur, Bumble snapped internally, as her mind began to cloud. Get yourself together.

We’ve had this talk, he replied, sounding faint. This isn’t quite me. It’s a exaggerated form of my- He stopped talking, but his subconscious finished for him. Insecurities. Faults. Really, just an exaggerated Ashfur.

Maybe this wasn’t what he wanted at this particular moment, but if he had been a good cat while he had been alive, Bumble could be getting flooded with wholesome, happy memories, instead of trying to convince herself that Flarestar wasn’t her ‘treacherous’ ex-girlfriend or whatever Squirreflight had been to Ashfur, and that she did not need to kill her, announce her love for her, or do anything in between.  

Well, it’s definitely not us, Thunder countered. He was trying to help Ashfur, Bumble realized, trying to distract him. You know who else Flarestar looks like? Lightning Stripe.

Images of fire were replaced with an enthusiastic little ginger tabby with amber eyes, just like Flarestar. Rage and jealousy faded into soft, paternal love, which was also out of place but a lot less disturbing.

There, Ashfur said, and Bumble felt him separate himself from the chaos, much like how she separated herself from him. He shoved it back, triumphantly. I think we’re good now.

“Earth to Bumble,” someone was whispering. Bumble blinked, and found Scone subtly nudging at her side while the Shadowclan cats waited, perplexed, for her to join the conversation.

“Uh, yes,” Bumble replied, not sure what she was agreeing to.

“Brilliant.” Flarestar grinned. “We can always use extra paws. Let’s get this ball rolling then!” She led them into the camp.

Bumble pulled her internal companions back under, not wanting to get caught chatting with them again. She glanced around the camp, smiling at the cats who were watching her, some curious, some wary. Her new clanmates. There was an overwhelming abundance of them that she hadn’t comprehended the last two times she’d visited, when she wasn’t looking at them as cats she might soon know.

“Do you two know anything about hunting or fighting?” Flarestar called over her shoulder, as she bounded up the tree that hung over the camp.

“Nope,” Scone replied.

Bumble cleared her throat, casting a guilty look in her sister’s direction. “Actually, I do. I haven’t had much practice lately, though.” Scone glanced up at her, her surprise quickly melting into hurt as she made the jump to who had taught her. As far as Bumble knew, Lizardsight had never asked her siblings to go out on their excursions, and Bumble had never asked.

Flarestar seemed happy with her answer, though, impressed even. “You take after your dad, I see,” she said. “How about we’ll get you both started as apprentices, for now at least?”

Bumble nodded, only a little disappointed. She could use a refresher on Lizardsight’s lessons, after all.

Flarestar settled down on the overhanging branch, her plumed tail flicking lazily back and forth. “Cats of Shadowclan, gather around!” The clan cats clustered around, pushing Bumble and Scone towards the center of their circle. “Say hello to your new clanmates,” she continued, smiling down at her clanmates from her perch.

“Kittypets?” a grey tom said skeptically, his eyes sweeping over the two of them with disdain.

“Yes, Wolfbounce, kittypets,” Flarestar said somberly. “However will we survive with our precious clan blood diluted by these twoleg lovers?” She smirked, and waved a paw dismissively. “There is no such thing as ‘clan blood’. We all probably came from kittypets originally.”

Wolfbounce glared at the two of them. Bumble gave him a friendly smile, but Scone just glared back. “How do we know they’re not spying for the rogues?”

“Wolfbounce, I leave plants and Starclan to you. Leave thinking to me,” Flarestar replied, rolling her eyes. She shot Bumble an appraising look, then added, “Besides, don’t you know who this is?”

“Should I?” the medicine cat growled.

“Her name is Bumble,” Flarestar said, “From Stormflight’s prophecy, which you keep telling me I should put my faith in.”

“But-”

“Practice what you preach, Wolfie,” Flarestar said, with a silky smile. Her tone was friendly, but her gaze was sharp as claws. Wolfbounce dipped his head slightly.

Everyone was looking at Bumble, and not with the same hesitant interest they had before. Now, she was some sort of strange, foriegn creature. She craned her head up at Flarestar, who mouthed, “Sorry.”

How much did Shadowclan know, and how much did they actually believe? Bumble hadn’t realized how far Stormflight had spread the word. She really hadn’t been expecting an announcement like this, and she wasn’t enjoying the new atmosphere. She wanted to figure out how to be a clan cat before she figured out how to be a prophecy cat.

“What’s she talking about?” Scone whispered under her breath, glancing anxiously at Bumble.

“I’ll tell you later,” Bumble murmured back.

Anyway,” Flarestar continued. “Scone and Bumble will be joining us as apprentices, for the time being at least. However, since they’re far from kits, I still want you to treat them with the respect you would give any warrior. How would you two like to be named?” She asked.

“I’d like a clan name,” Bumble said, smiling despite her unease.

Scone shrugged. “You can tack ‘paw at the end of my name if you’d like, I don’t really care.”

Flarestar nodded. “Scone, from this day forward, until you receive your warrior name, you shall be known as Sconepaw. Hickorymist, you will be her mentor.” A light tabby she-cat stepped forward, her smile friendly.

Flarestar turned her attention to Bumble. “Bumble, you will be known as Bumblepaw.”

Bumble felt her fur grow warm. Lizardsight had always called her Bumblekit, as if he wished she were a clan cat like him. Now, finally, she was Bumblepaw.

“And I’ll be your mentor,” Flarestar added after a moment, flashing her a friendly smile. Bumble stared up at her, stomach lurching.

She thought, first, with no little relief, that Flarestar really was kind of pretty, even without Ashfur messing with her head.

A moment later, she realized just how truly terrible this could go.

Chapter 27[]

Stormpaw’s face broke into a grin as Rosestar’s voice echoed across the bloodstained clearing, the old she-cat’s voice weary with defeat.

“Shadowclan, retreat!”

They raised their voice to match their clanmates as they gloated and taunted the retreating cats, cheekily nipping at the Shadowclan warrior’s heels to make sure they kept running.

As the last of them disappeared past the treeline, Stormpaw turned to survey the battlefield. The grass was streaked with dark splotches of blood, and several of their clanmates were limping over to Airsong for medical attention, but everyone seemed to be more or less alive.

If someone had asked Stormpaw what the battle had been about, they wouldn’t have said territory or prey. Their answer would have been winning. Who cared what little squabble had sparked the conflict this time? Riverclan had won.

Their muscles ached, and their pelt was littered with several minor wounds, but they were elated. That feeling of watching the other side turn tail and run was what they wanted to feel for the rest of their life.

Head held high, Stormpaw trotted over to Quicktail, who was cleaning a long scratch on her leg. “Did I do well?” they asked, already knowing what her answer was bound to be. They just wanted to hear her say it.

Quicktail’s expression wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as they’d been hoping. “Yes,” she said slowly, “You performed well.”

“Did you see how I took on Flarepaw and Amblefoot at the same time? And then Azollapaw and I drove off three warriors all on our own?” Stormpaw prompted, their pelt fluffing up with pride.

“Yeah, I saw,” Quicktail murmured. “You fought like two warriors, not one apprentice.”

Stormpaw smiled hesitantly, but saw that their mentor was frowning. “What’s wrong? Isn’t that good?”

Quicktail pursed her lips, thinking about it. Stormpaw felt their pride wilting, wondering what in the name of Starclan they needed to do to impress her. They were already probably one of the best fighters in the clan, at least in their own opinion.

Her voice was wary when she spoke. “You fought well, Stormpaw, but maybe too well.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “When you were fighting Flarepaw and Amblefoot, I saw you use some moves I didn’t teach you.”

Stormpaw shifted uneasily. They had picked up some pointers from Locustpaw at the last gathering, and they’d thought they’d used them well. Was Quicktail worried that an apprentice was a better mentor than her or something? “So?”

Quicktail’s mouth was a thin line. “There was one move where you swept Flarepaw’s paws out from underneath her, real smoothly…”

“Okay,” Stormpaw prompted, watching her with nervous expectation. Had they messed up the move?

“And then you knocked her head against the ground and went for her throat,” Quicktail finished, tone darkening. “If Amblefoot hadn’t pulled you away, you would have killed her.”

Stormpaw tried and failed to remember that moment. All they recalled was that they had been winning. Still, they didn’t understand why Quicktail was so upset. Flarepaw had been fine, and they’d driven off two enemy cats. “What’s your point?” they demanded, offended and hurt at their mentor’s displeasure.

“My point is that you’re not being careful enough!” Quicktail exclaimed, her ears flattening. “It’s against the warrior code to kill, and you’ve already done it once! And, besides, you were fighting another apprentice. Flarepaw doesn’t deserve her life cut short just because Rosestar is a foxheart.”

Stormpaw shook their head slightly. “I don’t get it. I won. And I didn’t kill her. Why can’t you be happy with something I do for once?”

Quicktail scowled. “Stormpaw, I am happy with your skills. You’ll be a great asset to Riverclan. You just need to learn to temper your strength with common sense.”

Stormpaw’s pelt bristled with indignation. With a frustrated growl, they turned away. Temper their strength? Be careful? They fought too well? Could Quicktail hear herself?

It was as if she wanted to train a kittypet, not a warrior. As far as they were concerned, they’d done nothing wrong.

Stormflight had never liked the medicine den. Every breath welcomed an assault of overlapping herb scents, it was small, and Stormflight was constantly knocking piles of leaves over. But, as much as they had hated it before, the last quarter moon had taught them to hate it even more.

Now, it smelled of festering wounds, was packed full of cats, and Stormflight was constantly knocking their injured clanmates over.

They sat scrunched up in one of the back corners, doing their best to stay out of Pepperheart’s way as he dolled out poppyseeds and replaced poultices.

Pepperheart sidestepped around Hazemist’s dozing form, and gingerly unwrapped the thick roll of cobwebs around Sagepaw’s wounded leg. He sniffed it, frowned, and wiped away a mess of fluid and soggy poultice.

“How is it?” the apprentice asked, staring up at Pepperheart with wide, nervous eyes.

“It’s healing nicely,” Pepperheart replied, suddenly chipper. He tossed the grungy bandaging to the pile just outside of the den, then swept back to where Stormflight was. “I need you to prepare me a poultice of horsetail and goldenrod,” he instructed, his sunny tone vanishing as quickly as it had arrived.

Stormflight nodded, and turned towards the storage. As they reached for a bundle of leaves with small yellow flowers, Pepperheart swatted at their paw.

Watch it,” Stormflight snarled, resisting the urge to swat him back.

“That’s hawkweed, you mousebrain,” Pepperheart said tersely, “It’s for coughs. That’s goldenrod.” He dumped a pile of identical looking yellow flowers at Stormflight’s paws.

He had been stressed and irritable lately, which was bad for both of them, because when he snapped at Stormflight they had a tendency to snap back. Stormflight took a deep breath, mustered up a thin smile, and took the herbs without a comment. “How is his wound really?” they asked, nodding towards Sagepaw.

Pepperheart glanced over his shoulder, expression softening from anger to thinly restrained despair. “Infected still, and getting worse. The burdock root numbed his wound, so he’s not in any pain, but it didn’t help any more than the marigold or garlic did.” He rummaged around in the piles behind them, frowning. “He’s also developed a fever, and we’re out of feverfew…..borage will work though, but we’re low on that too, because Hazemist’s been taking it for her kits…”  

At that point, Stormflight tuned him out, and set to work chewing up the goldenrod and what they hoped was horsetail. Everything seemed to either be a green leaf or a yellow flower, and they couldn’t tell most of it apart.

Pepperheart swore as he knocked over a tall pile of something that fell under the green leaf category, then hissed, “Pick that up, will you?” before bustling off to the next patient.

Stormflight glared after him, their belt bristling with indignation. They hated plants, sick cats, but they especially hated taking orders, and the fact that he was a tiny, scrawny medicine cat who was younger than them wasn’t helping. But, again, they just nodded and set to work.

Stormflight considered dealing with Pepperheart’s short temper good practice for not killing people. Besides, they mused, even if they did end up attacking him over his recent moodiness, it wasn’t as if it would be a new thing.

Once the mystery plants were stacked and the disgusting poultice was chewed and delivered, Stormflight drifted to the side again, to watch Pepperheart work.

He could tell at a glance what the wound needed, taking only a few seconds to reference his mental collection of herbs. As much as he growled at them, his bedside manner was immaculate with his patients, although Stormflight thought he was going a little heavy on the white lies.

While he attacked treating his clanmates with a frantic dedication, Stormflight found themself noticing that Pepperheart seemed to be forgetting that he was a living, breathing thing as well. Or, he remembered, but simply placed himself at the bottom of his priority list.

Stormflight was pleased to find that they cared. That was something they had started doing: taking note of when they did something vaguely good. It wasn’t much to brag about, being able to say that it bothered Stormflight to watch their mentor push his meals away and forgo sleep for traveling herbs and endless rounds about the medicine den, but hey, it was a big step up from murder.

Maybe, they mused, there was an herb that could help him. Surly amongst all these plants there was something for nerves?

Marigold was for infections. Cobwebs stopped bleeding. Poppy seeds might work, but they’d make him drowsy.

Also, Foxglove seeds were absolutely not poppy seeds, despite how they appeared, and if Pepperheart ever caught Stormflight confusing the two again he’d never let them near his den again, because, apparently, they’re poisonous.

That was the grand summary of what Stormflight had managed to grasp about plants. Mostly, their only use was chewing up plants and occupying space while trying not to kill anyone.

Oddly, it was much less fun to be Stormflight the failing medicine cat than it had been to be Stormflight the oblivious murderer, Stormflight thought irritably. They’d been trying their best to behave themself, to follow Starclan’s instructions, and yet all they had to show for it was a demolished reputation.

And Pepperheart, they supposed, even if he was a prickly little hedgehog at the moment. He was no Azollafrost, and admittedly their relationship had been a little…..rocky at first, but Stormflight appreciated the fact that he didn’t hate them.

“Stormflight,” Pepperheart called, interrupting their pondering, “If you’re just going to sit there being useless, I have a job for you.”

Stormflight looked up as he approached, and snorted. “Can you see in that?”

Pepperheart pushed the oversized wad of cobwebs that Stormflight had sloppily plastered onto his forehead impatiently up and out of his eyes, scowling. It took up a good half of his face, but at least it covered the deep gash that Dallas had put above his brow.

“It wouldn’t look so ridiculous if you had paid attention to my instructions,” he muttered. He glanced around, then leaned closer. “I told Orchidfur we’d be in touch. Since you’re not much help here, why don’t you go round up the other chosen cats as best you can and have a meeting?”

Stormflight scowled. After the gathering fiasco, they would have been content to let the whole ‘chosen cat’ business die down a bit before they started stirring up any new trouble. “Hawthornstar will have my head,” they objected.

“Hawthornstar doesn’t need to know,” Pepperheart replied, with a shrug. “I’ve already stashed a bundle of thyme for you to ‘collect’ outside of the camp. You have a cover.”

They remained unenthusiastic. The last time they’d gone behind Hawthornstar’s back like this, it hadn’t ended well. In fact, the last time they’d tried talking to the other ‘chosen’ cats, that also hadn’t ended well.

“We’re not without allies, you know,” Pepperheart continued, in the same hushed tone. “Ploverstar’s on our side, and all of the medicine cats.”

“Yes, but Bumble and I didn’t exactly get along, and Elm and Valleystep think I’m out of my mind,” Stormflight retorted. “At the rate things have been going, this meeting is going to be just me and Orchidfur.”

“Starclan gave you a job, and I’m not going to let you give up on it,” he replied fiercely, eyes flashing.  

Stormflight’s pelt bristled at the accusation that they were giving up. Taking a break? Yes. Giving up? Stormflight didn’t just give up on things. They didn’t just fail.  

“I also think,” Pepperheart continued, gaze flickering away, “That it might help you to talk to the others. I’m not going to let you give up on yourself either, Stormflight.”

Stormflight stared at him, the stinging retort they had been preparing dying on their tongue. They had been all ready for an argument, and here he was, being nice again.

Pepperheart seemed to take their silence as an agreement. “Good luck,” he said, snatching up a bundle of herbs from beside them before turning away. “You should head out now, so that you can get back before nightfall.”

Stormflight cursed their silence as they stalked out of the camp, tail twitching with annoyance. So much for that debate. It really didn’t seem fair for Pepperheart to suddenly flip the tone like that, setting them off balance. It was hard to focus on being irritated when he randomly decided it was time for a pep talk or whatever he’d been going for there.

And now they were stuck on a task they didn’t want to do, just because they hadn’t been able to think of a reply. They had to admit it though, in a way they liked the little reminders that he thought they were salvageable.

They were going soft.

Which, Stormflight retorted to their inner Tigerstar, was a good thing. Based on their track record, they needed a bit of softening up.

And yet, the idea of morphing into a perky, content medicine cat still made them feel sick, especially when they recalled how alive the recent battle had made them feel. Surely they were worth more to their clan as a warrior than a bumbling medicine cat?

Stormflight sighed, trying to keep their pelt flat as they slunk across the camp. Their clanmates’ eyes seemed to follow them as they moved, and whispers echoed in their wake. They could have sworn that earlier they’d heard Tempestsong warning his kits not to get too close to them.

Pepperheart had been right about Hawthornstar not punishing them, but Stormflight thought it had less to do with necessity and more to do with the leader knowing that the backlash from their fellow warriors would be more than enough.

Stormflight had always had a tendency to stray outside of the usual lines, but before it had been in ways their clanmates could admire and turn a blind eye towards. Now, they were floating outside of the box and everyone could see it.

Dangerous.

That one they had never minded before.

Strange.

Stormflight could get used to that. Maybe. They’d gone from dedicated warrior to awkward medicine cat, but it wouldn’t stay novel.

Crazy.

Now, that one did ruffle their fur. It nagged at them like a toothache, knowing that this was how their clanmates saw them now. And, also, considering Stormflight was hosting a long dead villain in their head, were they really wrong?

Even Mintrain and Stingclaw cast them strange looks when they thought Stormflight wasn’t paying attention. Not distrust- not yet, anyway- but confusion and worry. They hadn’t understood why they’d become a medicine cat, and they understood them less now.

No one tried to stop Stormflight as they slipped out the exit without a companion. Maybe everyone was aware that the rogues had already had a chance at them and had let them walk away free.

Or, Stormflight thought grimly, shooting a glare over their shoulder at no one in particular, Stormflight had become more work than they were worth and no one would mind them disappearing.

Stormflight tilted their head up at the sky, wondering if Starclan still had the strength to see them or not. Just in case, they shot Firestar a glare. “I can see why Tigerstar couldn’t stand you,” they murmured. Firestar was probably itching to be in their place, to have another shot at playing hero.

Stormflight wasn’t really seeing the appeal so far.


First up was the kittypet.

Stormflight hesitated at the Riverclan border, then grinned. Well, there was a bonus they hadn’t thought about. They were a medicine cat, which sucked, but also, they were a medicine cat. Meaning, as long as they had a ‘good’ reason, they could waltz around in Shadowclan territory as often as they wanted.

Of course, since their relationship with pretty much anyone in that clan was a little iffy, Stormflight wouldn’t be surprised if someone attacked them for trespassing anyway. They also wouldn’t be heartbroken about it, either.

It felt strange, being able to just stroll around through the pine trees alone, knowing they were more or less allowed to be here. Without Pepperheart around, they didn’t really feel like an official medicine cat. It was easy to imagine that they were still, leading an attack or spying. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Stormflight reached the twoleg den without running into any patrols, and honestly felt a little disappointed about it. They had always enjoyed antagonizing Shadowclan, back in the good old days, and they weren’t looking forward to this conversation.

The den itself made them nervous. The very idea of hairless monkeys making something so huge had their fur crawling. Twolegs were freaky things, in Stormflight’s opinion, and all too powerful for their comfort.

And then there were its occupants. Stormflight was well aware of where at least some of their opinions on kittypets came from, but knowing that didn’t make the sentiment fade much.

They didn’t want to murder them, but Stormflight still would rather die than be a pet.

Still, Bumble seemed acceptable enough, and they probably owed her a pretty big apology after last time, so they resolved that they’d try their best to be polite. Maybe they’d even muster up a little apology.

Great Starclan, being a good cat was a pain.

The older tabby tom was in the garden when they approached, curled up under the mint plants and staring blankly at thin air. Stormflight squeezed under the gate, the metal brushing against their broad shoulders. “Hey,” they called, raising a paw in greeting. “May I speak to Bumble?”

The tabby’s eyes widened as he sprang to his feet. “No, you can not,” he snarled. “For the record, she joined one of your precious clans. And even if she was here, I still wouldn’t let you anywhere near any of my children.”

“She did what?” Stormflight echoed, then froze as the tom tilted his head back.

“OLIVIAAAAAAAAAAA,” he yowled, so loud it hurt their ears. Stormflight gawked at him in shock, their ears ringing. The tom glared. “We’ll see who’s a tough kitty now,” he said.

The door to the den opened, and out lumbered a towering, wrinkly twoleg with silver hair. She let out a worried squawk.

“Olivia, this is the cat that hurt Bumble,” the tom snarled, pinning his ears back and gesturing pointedly at Stormflight with his paw. Stormflight wasn’t sure if Olivia understood any of his words, but she certainly got the idea. With an angry yowl, Olivia yanked what looked like a large dead snake out of one of the bushes.

Stormflight watched with equal parts concern and curiosity. They definitely couldn’t take out a twoleg, but what was she going to do, throw the snake at them?

There was a startling hiss, and water shot out of the snake’s corpse, spraying sharply against their face. Stormflight snarled and spluttered, wincing as it peppered their ears and nose.

“Leave it to a kittypet to hide behind his twoleg,” Stormflight growled at the tabby, then wriggled back out of the garden.

“And stay out!” the kittypet shouted after them.

Angrily, Stormflight glared at him through the fence. They didn’t mind getting wet, and, with the greenleaf sun beating down on their dark fur, it was actually pretty nice. But, they greaty preferred swimming to being sprayed by a bald, violent monkey.

They itched to show the puny twig who was boss. Without Olivia, the tabby wouldn’t stand half a chance. He’d been all skin, bone, and squish, no muscle. One bite would do it.

Except Stormflight didn’t want to murder him, they reminded themself forcefully, stalking into the forest before they could do something they’d regret. “Murder is off limits, mousebrain,” they muttered to themself.

So, Bumble had gone to the clans. The obvious guess was Shadowclan, since it was closest and had the lowest standards. They were probably begging for members to help aid in their feud with Riverclan.

Actually, they forced themself to remember, Bumble hadn’t fought terribly. Impeccable technique, but she was still green as grass when it came to a real fight. She had potential. Maybe all kittypets did.

It made their head hurt, trying to disagree with Tigerstar’s hatred. Stormflight let out a huff of annoyance, and focussed on walking. They were still a work in progress.

The guard outside of Shadowclan camp bristled as they approached, her ears flattening. Stormflight recognized the she-cat from a gathering, a particularly fun one where she had snarled in their face and by the end of the conversation there had been fur flying.

They thought she might have been Sagebranch’s mate or sister or something like that. Her name was Sycamore-something.

“What do you want?” she growled, squaring her shoulders as if she could keep Stormflight out of the camp if they felt like fighting their way past them.

“I want to speak with Flarestar,” they requested, as diplomatically as they could. At Sycamore-something’s scowl, they added, dying a little inside, “Please.”

“Fine, but you better not try anything,” the Shadowclan cat growled, stepping aside to let them pass. Stormflight nodded stiffly, and prowled into Shadowclan camp.

Flarestar was perched up on the branch over the camp, watching them with interest. “Good day, Stormflight. I’d say it’s nice to see you but, quite honestly, it’s not.”

Stormflight let out a sharp breath that wanted to be a growl.

“In fact, none of us like you,” Flarestar continued, tilting her head to one side, “So I hope you have a good reason for showing up. It would be such a shame if we had to kick you out.” Her smile was all teeth.

A glance around the camp revealed that Flarestar was correct about the general opinion. Killing two of their cats had earned Stormflight no friendships here. Stormflight cleared their throat, doing their best not to get drawn into the leader’s taunts.

“Well, it’s not nice to see you too,” they grunted, tail twitching with irritation. “I’d like to speak with Bumble, if she’s here.”

Flarestar’s smile hardened. She slipped nimbly from the branch, landing beside Stormflight. “Whether or not she’s here is none of your business,” she murmured, eyes flashing.

“Actually, I think it is,” Stormflight replied tightly. “She’s like me. I need to speak with her. We’re gathering up all the chosen cats for a meeting.”

Right, the whole special destiny thing,” Flarestar drawled, rolling her eyes. “I’m surprised Hawthornstar kept you around after that. Not,” she added, smirking, “That I minded. It was very entertaining.”

Stormflight glared down at her. If she knew what they were willing to do when in a bad enough mood, she might have thought better of baiting them while standing within reach. But, attacking a leader while surrounded by enemy cats? Not a great idea.

“You said you believed in Starclan,” Stormflight murmured. “And I know Wolfbounce believes in this. Why can’t you keep an open mind?”

Flarestar’s grin widened, and she dropped her voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “Oh, I am. If Wolfbounce believes something you said, then I trust his authority. I just thought it would be more fun to laugh than get laughed at.”

Stormflight’s only reply was a low growl. Flarestar chuckled, the sound light and cheerful like she was watching a kit do something cute. “Oh, relax. Riverclan cats have such thin skin. That said,” she added, tone growing serious, “I trust you about as far as I could throw you. I notice that Pepperheart isn’t here?”

“He’s busy,” Stormflight growled.

“Ah, so you had your battle!” Flarestar gestured to the blaze of broken skin across their snout. “I trust it went well?” She smirked when Stormflight didn’t reply. They didn’t want to make Riverclan look vulnerable, but they couldn’t exactly claim that they’d dealt with the rogues.

“Well, regardless, it comes down to this: I’m not letting one of my clanmates go out alone with the cat who has already killed two fully trained Shadowclan warriors, and nearly took their own leader’s whiskers off.”

Flarestar paused, her amber eyes darkening with indecisiveness as she weighed her next words. She leaned close, near enough that her thick ginger fur brushed against Stormflight’s.

“Does Bumble know yet?”

Stormflight frowned, puzzled. “Know what?”

Flarestar studied them for a moment, then shrugged. “So you don’t know either. Well, I won’t make trouble where there isn’t any, then.”

“What are you talking about?” Stormflight demanded, but Flarestar was looking at something over her shoulder.

“Bumble caught a squirrel!” a round brown and ginger she-cat announced proudly, bouncing into the camp. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of Stormflight, and they realized she was one of Bumble’s siblings. “What’re they doing here?” she asked, all hostility now.

Bumble stumbled in after her, touting a squirrel almost as big as she was. She dumped it on the fresh kill pile, then looked over at Stormflight.

Stormflight saw the flicker.

Hate. Anger. The need to hurt them, to get revenge. Then, the kittypet’s gaze grew distant for a moment, then cleared. She pulled on a hesitant smile, all hints of violence gone as if they’d never been there.

“Hi, Stormflight,” Bumble said warily.

How in the name of Starclan had she done that so easily?

“Hey,” Stormflight replied, nodding. Last time they’d spoken to her, they’d been goading her into attacking them. They glanced at her chest, noting with relief that the mark they’d made was barely visible under her ridiculously fluffy yellow and black fur.

“They were just leaving,” Flarestar announced, nudging Stormflight sharply towards the exit. Stormflight dug their claws into the ground, noting with amusement that the leader couldn’t even make them tilt.

“Actually, we need to talk,” Stormflight said to Bumble.

“Bumblepaw, you don’t have to do anything,” Flarestar corrected, shooting Stormflight a fierce glare. “It is well within our power to make them leave.”

Bumble- Bumblepaw now, apparently- glanced between the two of them. “It’s fine, I’ll talk to them,” she said with a little shrug.

Flarestar scowled, then went over to Bumblepaw’s side. Stormflight actually found it a little annoying that she’d been made an apprentice. She was around their age, and a decent enough fighter to make a mediocre warrior. With practice, probably a good one.

The fluffy she-cat stiffened as Flarestar leaned close to murmur something in her ear, the same process repeating on her face. Hate. Blank. Then back to normal. Stormflight glanced inquisitively at the leader, before the realization hit them. She did look a bit like the famous Squirrelflight.

They prick their ears, scowling as they caught snippets of the conversation. Flarestar was giving Bumblepaw a crash course on Reasons Not to Trust Stormflight.

Bumblepaw gazed past the leader, eyeing Stormflight thoughtfully as she talked. Stormflight looked away, and then, thinking better of it, shot her what they hoped was a friendly smile. To their astonishment, the she-cat smiled back.

“Thanks, Flarestar, but I’d still like to talk to them,” Bumblepaw said when Flarestar finished. At Flarestar and her sister’s identical frowns, she added, “I’ll be fine.”

Stormflight gawked at her as she trotted over to their side, her expression open and curious. Even if they hadn’t known beforehand, they would have guessed she wasn’t clanborn.

She just seemed too….clean. Fresh. Good. Innocent. Stormflight wasn’t sure what the word they were looking for was.

They cleared their throat, and, before Tigerstar could object, growled, “Look, I’m sorry about last time.”

Bumblepaw seemed startled, but pleased with that. “I get it,” she said, blinking at them. “Also, I believe you.” She frowned slightly, her yellow eyes darting across Stormflight’s soaking, dirt smeared pelt.

“Your father and his twoleg attacked me with a dead water spraying snake,” Stormflight informed her, scowling down at their fur. Bumblepaw snickered, and they jerked their chin up again. “What?” they demanded.

“That would be a hose,” she informed them, visibly trying to reign in her amusement. “It lets the plants drink. It’s not a snake.”

Stormflight shrugged, surprised to note that they were annoyed, not furious, at being laughed at. She had a kind laugh.

“So,” Bumblepaw said, “You wanted to talk about something?”

“Yes, we’re having a meeting with all of the chosen cats and I’d like you to come.”

Bumblepaw frowned slightly. “Where’s everyone else?”

Stormflight scowled at the flicker of nervousness on her face, as she realized, as Flarestar had, that they would be alone. They’d earned that distrust, but still, it was irritating. “I’m picking you up first.”

The she-cat hesitated, opened her mouth to say something, then froze. Stormflight watched with curiosity as her gaze grew distant, like she was listening to someone else talk. A moment later, she nodded. “Okay.”

Stormflight was struck with the realization of how remarkably smooth this conversation had gone. No one was fighting, and she’d agreed. As they led her out of camp, Flarestar stepped in front of them.

“I want her back in camp by nightfall, and if you don’t return her unharmed, I will have you killed,” Flarestar said amiably, smiling pleasantly like they were discussing the weather. “Sound like a deal?”

“I’d like to see you try,” Stormflight murmured under their breath. Then, louder, as Flarestar’s eyes narrowed, they said, “Of course.”


“What’re the others like?” Bumblepaw asked as they neared the Skyclan border, her pawsteps springy with excitement.

“Well, the two we’re about to talk to are both in Skyclan,” Stormflight said, “Orchidfur’s kind of quiet, but in more of a plotting to kill you way than in a shy way. She seems decent enough, and she actually believes us. Then there’s Elm, who was a rogue, and he’s friendly, I guess.” They frowned, trying to come up with a more adequate description of the calico tom. Friendly wasn’t it, that was for sure. “He also sometimes makes me wonder if he’s plotting to kill us all.”

“Lovely,” Bumblepaw said, with a nervous smile. “And the fifth?”

“Valleystep of Windclan,” Stormflight growled, remembering the ginger and white cat’s laughing face at the gathering. “They think we’re all crazy. When they’re not laughing in my face, they’re making a fool of themself. They probably won’t come to the meeting, but I guess we’ll invite them anyway. Elm might not either, but we’ll see.”

“How can they not believe us?” Bumblepaw asked, eyes widening with surprise. “It’s really inconvenient, having two extra souls in your head.”

“Theoretically, we’re the only ones who have noticed,” Stormflight grumbled. “I guess the others don’t have it as bad.”

“Oh,” Bumblepaw murmured, seeming to deflate a little bit. Stormflight wondered if she was doing what they’d done too many times, wondering why she had to deal with this when others didn’t. They were willing to bet she hadn’t killed anyone, though.

The cats at Skyclan camp were wary, but much friendlier than Flarestar had been. Dewstar called Elm and Orchidfur over.

“We’re rounding everyone up for a meeting,” Stormflight explained, as the other members glanced curiously at each other. “This is Bumblepaw, Bumblepaw, these two are Orchidfur and Elm.” They looked over at Elm. “Are you coming with us?”

Elm nodded. “More out of curiosity than anything else, but yes, I figured I might as well.”

“Good,” Stormflight murmured, turning back towards the exit.

They were already braising for the next conversation, the one they knew was going to fail. Ploverstar believed them, but Valleystep would rather laugh than try and understand.

Chapter 28[]

Valleypaw had always sort of been under the impression that no Clan was dumb enough to mess with Windclan. Specifically, dumb enough to mess with Ploverstar. In all of their short life, they’d never been in so much as a border scuffle, because Ploverstar always found a way to sort things out without getting violent, but also without being Dewstar.

Today appeared to be the day they were proven wrong. They watched nervously as Ploverstar sat, perched up on his boulder, head tilted thoughtfully like there wasn’t a giant Riverclan patrol headed towards camp.

“Well,” the leader said eventually, turning to Henheart, “What do you think?”

The Windclan deputy twitched an irritable ear back. “They’ve been pressing our borders for moons. We gave them a warning. No one can claim that they accidentally wandered over, because the horseplace is between us. Hawthornstar wants a fight.”

Ploverstar nodded reluctantly, a slight frown playing on his face. “Of course they do. Well, I suppose we’d better give it to them.” He glanced around at his gathered clanmates, and continued, “It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper battle, so let me remind you all how this is going to go.

“I want you to partner up, and stay next to your buddy. That way, you can help each other out. Use your speed to your advantage, even if it means running away. We may be ‘cowards’, but Riverclan will be losers. If my estimate is correct, they’re about halfway to camp right now. We’ll execute the circle formation. Everyone got it?”

Valleypaw nodded, rocking back and forth on their paws. A battle. An actual battle. Against Riverclan. The last time they’d seen a fight, they’d been watching their mother die. They drew in a breath, trying to wipe the worry from their face, then turned to Fogpaw. “Hey, handsome, want to be my partner?”

Flirting with Fogpaw was a very entertaining pastime, they had discovered recently. Flirting in general, actually. Valleypaw liked complimenting people, even if they couldn’t quite figure out how to say them like they weren’t jokes.

“Actually, I’d kind of like to be with Galeshard,” Fogpaw replied, flicking his tail towards his father. He seemed nervous saying this, like he knew his words sent a sting of disappointment through Valleypaw, so they plastered on a broad grin.

“Afraid I’m going to get you killed?” they teased.

Relieved, Fogpaw nodded. “Yep. Exactly. Good luck, Val.”

Valleypaw made sure the smile stayed in place as they watched Fogpaw trot over to Galeshard. They noted the way the warrior seemed to naturally curve protectively around his son, the nervous pride evident on his expression as he drilled Fogpaw on his moves both soft and fierce. The jealousy boiling Valleypaw’s heart was so strong it hurt.

They swallowed down a whimper, forcing themself not to look for Duskflame. Fogpaw would notice and feel like he had to switch partners, and besides, they knew he wasn’t in camp.

“Do you still need a partner, Val?” Ploverstar asked, suddenly at their side. Valleypaw often wondered how he did it, magically materializing whenever they were feeling lonely. His steady presence was almost enough to make them forget who wasn’t there.

Almost.    

Ploverstar took their silence for a no. “How about you stick with me then? Henheart’s staying here to protect the camp, so I’m on my own as well. Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss helping my apprentice in their first battle.” He grinned when they nodded, like it was him that had needed rescuing. Then, he tipped his head back, raising his voice to address the whole clan. “Windclan, follow my lead! Let’s teach those fishfaces some manners!”

The clan flowed after them, moving like the wind itself across the open spread of their territory. The Riverclan cats spotted them right away, but even as Hawthornstar urged their forces forward, Ploverstar led Windclan around them in a broad arc.

Valleypaw had participated in drills of the circle formation before, but they’d never seen it put into practice. The Riverclan cats closest to them hesitated, puzzled, as they raced around them, realizing too late that they had been surrounded.

With a yowl, Ploverstar drew the loop tight, plunging into the fray before the other clan had time to rearrange. The Riverclan cats were forced into a tight circle, fighting back to back, while Windclan darted in and out, landing quick blows and then dashing on before the other warriors could orientate themselves.

Valleypaw ducked under the claws of a stocky tom, nimbly slicing a long cut along his leg. As the warrior turned to face them, Ploverstar swooped in, clawing at his face and pushing him back even further. Then they moved on to the next warrior, continuing their rotation.

“Time to wrap this up!” Ploverstar hollered over the clamor, once it became clear that Riverclan was losing soundly. The circle opened up on one end, giving the trapped cats room to retreat, while the cats on the other side crashed forward, attacking head on now.

Valleypaw caught sight of Fogpaw and Gailshard attacking Quicktail, the Riverclan deputy, and a muscular black apprentice, before Ploverstar flicked his tail for them to follow. He wove between the battling cats, making his way to where Hawthornstar was.

The Riverclan leader wasn’t fighting, but instead stood, eyes darting across the battlefield, seeming to Valleypaw like they were desperately trying to devise a way to scrounge a victory out of the mess. When they spotted the two of them, Hawthornstar’s gaze darkened. “Ploverstar,” they snarled, squaring their shoulders in preparation.

“Hello, Hawthornstar,” he replied politely, before throwing the full bulk of his weight against their chest. As the two toppled over, Valleypaw sprang to bat at the tortishell’s underbelly, while Ploverstar scrambled to pin them. Hawthornstar lashed out, cutting open a long, bloody slice along his side, but between Valleypaw and Ploverstar they were able to hold the leader down.

Ploverstar’s voice was unsteady, the pain in his voice matching the waterfall of red snaking down from his ribs to his belly. “Yield, and call for a retreat,” he growled into Hawthornstar’s ear.

“No,” Hawthornstar hissed, their claws digging up grass as they tried and failed to wriggle free.

“This attack was foolish,” Ploverstar said, tightening his grip on their shoulders. “You can not spend your time bickering with Shadowclan and still expect to have the strength to fight with us as well. And,” he added, twisting their head so that they could look around at the fighting around them, “Our borders have remained quite in the past, and I assure you, it is not because we are weak.”

The Riverclan numbers were dwindling. For every cat still fighting, Valleypaw could see one more turning tail and running away. Hawthornstar spat, the grass staining red, and snarled, “Fine.”

“Say it,” Ploverstar prompted.

“I yield.”

And?

With a withering glare, Hawthornstar cleared their throat. “Riverclan, retreat!” Ploverstar and Valleypaw stepped back, allowing the disgruntled leader to scramble to their feet. The enemy warriors flowed past like the body of water they were named for, the wounded cats lagging behind, leaning on their clanmate’s shoulders.

One, however, didn’t move. Valleypaw felt their blood run cold as they stared. The black Riverclan apprentice from earlier was standing perfectly still, save for their heaving sides, their expression slowly fading from a sharp, shark-like grin to confusion. At their paws was an immoble, dark furred shape.

For a terrible moment, Valleypaw thought it was Fogpaw lying inert. But then an equally terrible howl broke through the air, and the Windclan apprentice was raising to his father’s side. The Riverclan ‘paw took a step back, staring at Galeshard’s body like they weren’t sure how his throat had gone from functional to simply gone.

Ploverstar sucked in a sharp breath, let it out slowly, then walked briskly over. “Go home, Stormpaw,” Ploverstar commanded.

Valleypaw felt their paws moving, dragging them towards Fogpaw, but they weren’t sure what in Starclan’s name they were going to do when they reached him. Ploverstar murmured something in Fogpaw’s ear, but Fogpaw just let out a wordless snarl, shaking his head.

“He wants space,” Ploverstar told Valleypaw, nudging them back towards camp. Valleypaw nodded numbly, and left their friend to his grief.


….


“Fogheart, Fogheart, my biggest fan, if he can’t do it no one can!” Valleystep chanted, trotting back and forth across the medicine den, face split with a dazzling grin. They waved their tail, to which they had secured a bundle of lavender blossoms with cobwebs, through the air like a bird’s wing, the petals rustling together.

“Valleystep, I’m embarrassed that I know you,” Fogheart grumbled, awarding them with a stony glare for their efforts. “You look ridiculous.”

Valleystep glanced down at themself, their grin only growing. Maybe they did look a little silly with flowers attached to their legs and tail, but they sure did smell nice. Perhaps this was how Spottedlight had done it. “Fogheart, you know I’ll go to any length to embarrass you,” they replied cheerily, tossing a bit of lavender at him.

It bounced off his nose and landed at his paws, where he regarded it with disdain.

“Besides,” they continued, “Today’s a special day! Special days should always require flowers and humiliation.”

“Hmph,” Fogheart muttered.

Today was indeed special, because Duststone had finally given Fogheart permission to leave the medicine den. Not to move out for good, but being able to go for a walk was still something. Valleystep had been there when Duststone had popped his leg back in place, and to celebrate the first time their friend had walked again as well, although they hadn’t had the brilliance to think of flowers at the time.

“You haven’t got the whole clan out there with flowers, right?” Fogheart asked, suddenly nervous. “Because if you do, I’m not leaving this den.”

“Nah, just Aspenkit,” Valleystep reassured him, flicking their flowery tail towards the exit. A little speckled face poked in, beaming, a giant sprig of lavender tucked behind her tiny ears. “She’s very excited about getting to take you for a stroll.”

Truth be told, their sister could use a little practice on the whole walking thing. She had the mechanics down, but had a tendency to go too fast and careen out of control, usually tripping someone. Valleystep had given her very specific instructions on how not to kill Fogheart on his first day out.

“Well, ready to get going?” Valleystep suggested, cocking their head to the side.

Fogheart was silent, staring down at his leg in silence. It was the one the rogue had dislocated, the one that Duststone said might heal fully or might not. She’d explained it all with a pile of old rabbit bones, but most of it had gone far over Valleystep’s head. The long gashes along his sides had sealed up, leaving ragged scars.

Valleystep crouched down beside their friend’s nest so that their eyes were level with his stormy ones. “If you want to wait, that’s fine.”

“No,” Fogheart growled, shaking his head, “I’m tired of this stupid den.” He glanced at Valleystep’s flowers, and added, “Could you maybe ditch the flowers, though? No offence, you look...” he frowned, eyeing their decorations balefully, “..interesting, I just don’t want everyone staring.”

“Of course. The flowers were for you, not the clan,” they replied, shaking the purple fronds from their paws and tail. With a cheeky smile, Valleystep tucked a little stem behind his ear. “Shall we?” they prompted, “Or would you like me to chant again?”

“Anything but the chant,” Fogheart grumbled. With a hiss of discomfort, he propped himself up on his front legs, then, wobbling, leaned forward and scrambled upwards on one hind one. Valleystep darted in to steady him as he balanced on three legs. “I’m good,” the tom muttered, stepping carefully out of his nest.

“Alright then,” Valleystep said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

Aspenkit trotted over to their side as Fogheart led the way out of the den, hopping a little to keep the weight off of his hind leg. Valleystep considered telling her to take her flowers off, but they figured a kit with a flower crown was probably more normal than a full grown cat. Which, they thought, was very silly.

A couple cats called out words of encouragement or greeting as they spotted Fogheart, who shrugged the comments off with an embarrassed smile. Valleystep could tell he hated the attention almost as much as he hated having to limp.

“It’s good to see you up and about again, Fogheart!” Duskflame mumbled cheerfully, ambling over to them with a freshly caught rabbit.

Fogheart’s forced smile thinned even further as he eyed Duskflame warily. His tone was drier than a dead flower in a drought when he replied. “It’s good to see that you’re contributing to the clan again, Duskflame.”

Duskflame’s good mood visibly wilted. “Well, have a nice walk,” he said gruffly, and hurried off.

Valleystep turned to Fogheart, their gaze imploring. “I really wish you wouldn’t.”

Fogheart shrugged unapologetically, his grey eyes hard as stone. “He’s spent the past two years messing with your head and freeloading. Now, suddenly, he’s walking around like he’s Starclan’s gift to everybody. I’m not going to give him a pat on the back for finally doing his job.”

“It wasn’t his fault,” Valleystep objected. “He was grieving.”

Fogheart scowled. “Sure, he lost his mate. But you know what? You lost your mother and Ploverstar lost his deputy too, when Spicecloud died. And, my mom died giving birth to me, but did you ever hear Gailshard telling me that I killed her?”

“Please don’t argue,” Aspenkit interjected, her eyes wide and nervous under her crown of purple blossoms. Both fell instantly silent.

“Sorry kiddo,” Valleystep murmured. Fogheart nodded, but his gaze still seemed to say you know I’m right.

Just then, Ploverstar appeared, his presence rescuing them from the momentary lapse into awkward silence, but he was wearing the dreaded face of apology. “Valleystep,” he murmured, “You have visitors.”

Valleystep glanced past him towards the exit, and felt their stomach do a summersault at the sight of the four cats there. They recognized the calico rogue from the gathering, and, of course, Stormflight, looking as irritable as ever.

Before they could reply, Ploverstar continued, “They want you to go to their meeting. I think you should hear them out.”

“Sorry, Plo, but the answer’s still no,” Valleystep said. They forced their shoulders to loosen, and their stride to remain long and casual as they approached the other cats. They could feel the weight of their clanmates’ curious gazes on their back.

They studied the gathered cats for a moment, then grinned. “What’s this? A party? For me?

Their reward was a scowl from Stormflight, but the others seemed at least vaguely amused.

Valleystep always tried their best to be amusing, partially because it kept life interesting, and mostly because it had a tendency to blunt people’s opinions of them. Either they were funny, or they were annoying. No one would really ever hate someone so carefree and clownish.

They were beginning to think that Stormflight’s sense of humor was broken. Or, more likely, they were the sort of person that would shove someone face first into a mud puddle and find it hilarious.

Or they really just didn’t like Valleystep.

“Are you coming to the meeting or not?” the medicine cat growled, glaring up at them.

“I know you came all this way to bask in my presence, but I’m going to have to pass again,” Valleystep said, with a shrug. “I still think the whole special destiny thing is a bit extravagant, even for me.”

It really was a shame that they couldn’t trust Stormflight. It would have been fun to play along. Besides, the others seemed interesting.

And, if they were being honest, Valleystep thought, glancing between the tom’s lovely mismatched eyes and the slim tabby beside him, Stormflight had collected a good looking bunch. Murder set aside, even Stormflight had nice eyes.  

Eyes which, if looks could kill, would have ripped their throat out a hundred times already.

“Just come along, will you?” Stormflight snarled.

“No thanks,” Valleystep replied cheerfully, taking a careful step back.

“You can’t just refuse destiny,” they pointed out.

“I think I’ll give it a try.”

“Why,” they growled, “Are you so against attending a simple meeting?”

Before Valleystep could figure out a witty response to that, Fogheart limped to their side, glowering at Stormflight with searing hate. “Leave them alone,” he ordered, ears pinned flat against his head.

“Mind your own business,” Stormflight snapped, their gaze flicking over Fogheart with disdain. Valleystep didn’t like the way they eyed his injured leg, like they were already imagining how easy it would be to take Fogheart out in a fight.

“It is my business, you foxheart,” Fogheart snarled. “You already killed my father, I’m not going to let you take my best friend as well. Yeah, you heard me,” they added, glancing at the other cats. “They’re a murderer.

Neither the calico nor the fluffy yellow one looked as alarmed as Valleystep would have hoped. The she-cat seemed a little troubled, while the tom looked like he’d just learned an interesting trivia fact.

The tabby she-cat gave a little half shrug. Valleystep suspected she was already familiar with Stormflight’s track record, but the fact that it didn’t worry her was surprising.

She noticed their gaze, and held it, her amber eyes curious. Valleystep flashed a quick smile, wishing again that they could meet these cats under different circumstances.

“Oh,” Stormflight said, staring at Fogheart like they’d just noticed him. “You.” They seemed surprised.

How terrible of a cat did you have to be to murder someone’s father and then not recognize him?

“Yes, me,” Fogheart hissed, eyes flashing with rage.

Stormflight glanced again to his leg, and their face twitched up into a sneer. “We never did get to finish our fight last time, did we? But we both know how it would have ended.” They lowered their voice, quiet enough that their companions couldn’t hear. “Want to give it another go, rabbit breath? I’d be happy to reunite you with your father.”

And then, like he’d just sprouted out of the ground, Ploverstar was standing between them once again. He turned calmly to Stormflight. “I think Valleystep has told you their answer quite clearly. Good luck with your meeting, Stormflight. If you visit again, please refrain from threatening my warriors.”

Stormflight blinked rapidly, a quick hint of panicky shame flashing across their face. They took a swift step away from Ploverstar and Fogheart, and nodded. “Right. Valleystep, let me know if you change your mind.” They spun on their heels, and led their little band of cats out of Windclan camp.

Valleystep let out a long breath, their paws shaking slightly. What didn’t Stormflight understand here? They didn’t trust them, because they were the reason their best friend was an orphan. Threatening said friend when he was injured definitely didn’t help.

“You should have gone,” Ploverstar murmured.

Valleystep shook their head. “Ploverstar, even if what you claim is real, I want nothing to do with it.”

They had a sister to raise, a father to get reacquainted with, and a best friend to support. That made their life plenty busy as it was, no special destiny required.

Chapter 29[]

Orchidpaw’s first gathering was a nightmare. Luckily for her, she’d known it would be just that, so, by the time the first taunts and jeers broke the air, she had already retreated so far within herself that she couldn’t hear them.

It was never fun, being the product of the scandal of the year. The Thunderclan deputy, having kits with a Skyclan cat? That wasn’t something that blew over in six months.

Duckpaw and Raypaw were trying to hide behind their mentors, looking like they were on the verge of tears. Marblecloud was snarling clawed words at anyone who looked at xem funny, and Bellstorm was smiling politely while Applestar watched them carefully.

Orchidpaw just sat in silence, studying the stars and cursing the leaders for being dumb enough to send all five of them to the same gathering. Perhaps it was intentional. Perhaps Applestar wanted to remind Bellstorm that their mistake had indeed been a mistake, or perhaps Dewstar wanted to make sure they didn’t inconvenience him any further.

Regardless, Orchidpaw didn’t care. She had enough hate for both of them, and for any cat who would make their siblings sad. However, she’d long since learned that hate was a thing best kept inside, where no one could see it. Where it would be safe.

She had been about a half hour into her internal silence, ignoring the entirety of the gathering around her, when someone came crashing into her.

Orchidpaw pinned her ears back, a snarl prepared on her lips, when she took in the startled, horrified ginger and white face.

“I’m sorry!” they yelped, helping her back to her feet. The cats around them were glaring.

“It’s fine,” Orchidpaw grumbled, too startled to hear an apology to be truly angry. The apprentice was tall and wiry, and smelled of Windclan. She paused, squinting at their face. “Do I know you?”

“Uh, I don’t think so?” they replied, tilting their head to one side. “This is my first gathering.”

“Mine too,” Orchidpaw replied, frowning. Maybe they were right. Maybe they weren’t as familiar as they seemed.

The apprentice grinned, then glanced over their shoulder. “Well, I’d better get back to my clan. See you around!”

Orchidpaw nodded, staring after them. Then, she went back to not listening to the whispers and not seeing the stares, and spent the rest of the gathering like that. Not really there.

By the time she got back to camp, she had forgotten all about the ginger and white Windclan apprentice who she knew from somewhere.

Orchidfur glanced over her shoulder, back at Windclan camp. Across the grassy span of the territory, she could see the shapes of Valleystep and their friend heading in the opposite direction, one leaning against the other, and the tiny shape of the kit still bouncing about at their paws.

She couldn’t decide if she’d found their effusive energy entertaining or just annoying. Either way, she was frustrated with the fact that they were walking away instead of with them.

And there was another reason for her to be irritated. Stormflight wanted the four of them to trust them, and yet they couldn’t go five minutes without picking a fight with someone. It was a little disquieting to watch them tower over the scrawny, injured Windclan tom like he was a piece of prey, especially since she’d seen them almost fight their own leader a quarter moon ago.

“Well,” Elm murmured under his breath as she caught up with the others, “I’m glad I decided to tag along, if only to make sure we all make it home in one piece. Safety in numbers, right?”

Orchidfur shot an appraising look at the Stormflight’s retreating form. “In theory.”

He’d been suspiciously easy to convince to come along, even after the fiasco at the gathering. It had taken a little badgering, but still, Orchidfur had a feeling that this was an apology of sorts for his initial reaction to Pepperheart’s news.

Stormflight paused, their blue gaze sliding over the two of them like a wave of icy water. “If you’ve got something to say to me, say it to my face. If not, let’s get a move on.”

“Of course,” Elm replied, all cordial smile, dipping his head. “Lead on.” Stormflight’s face twisted into an unpleasant sneer at this, as if his respect was more offending than anything else he might have said, then spun around and headed off in the opposite direction once again.

The former kittypet, Bumblepaw, tried at first to match their pace, but as she leaned over to murmur something to them, Stormflight shoved her away. “No, I don’t want advice from some kittypet,” they snarled.

Orchidfur let out a soft growl, her pelt prickling at the words. From her experience, insulting kittypets tended to be only one step away from insulting half-clan cats. Beside her, Elm’s expression remained smooth and unbothered, but as the yellow she-cat dropped back from Stormflight, he murmured, “You shouldn’t let them talk to you like that.”

Orchidfur was surprised by the fervency in his voice. She’d seen him put on a rainbow of facades throughout the past moon, whatever it took to make a good impression on whoever he was speaking to, never once reacting to the clan cat’s suspicion and accusations.

At her glance, he shrugged. “I don’t like bullies.”

Bumblepaw shrugged, her smile rueful. “This probably doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not really their fault. I might try talking to them once they’re in a better mood.”

“Ah,” Elm replied. “Right. Who was it that they’re hosting again? Tigerstorm?”

“Tigerstar,” Bumblepaw replied, “He’s the clan’s main villain in most of the stories. He took over Shadowclan and Riverclan, died, then came back to help lead the final battle, but he’s also known for hating half-clan cats and kittypets.”

Both Orchidfur and Elm regarded her curiously. “How long have you been in Shadowclan?” Elm asked, tilting his head to the side. “I’ve been with Skyclan for half a moon, but I’m afraid I still haven’t quite gotten caught up with the lore.”

“Only a few days,” Bumblepaw said, then, with a little smile of realization, added, “But one of my fathers was a Shadowclan cat. He used to tell us a lot of stories when he came to visit.”

“My father used to tell lots of stories as well,” Elm said, “But nothing particularly historical, since we didn’t know much about the clans. Which is a shame, since what I’ve learned has been fascinating. Did your whole family join Shadowclan?” he added, smiling warmly at the kittypet.

Orchidfur narrowed her eyes at him, trying to figure out if he’d been telling the truth or was merely being conversational. She saw none of the momentary fragility that she’d spotted when he’d admitted the rogues had killed his father. Elm talked about him like he was any other living cat, with no particular inflection.

That was something she’d noticed about Elm. He knew how to keep a conversation going, but rarely said anything noteworthy about himself.

“No,” Bumblepaw was explaining. “Just me and my sister. My other dad and brother aren’t…” she trailed off, then shrugged again. “They like being kittypets. I miss them, but sometimes things just don’t work out perfectly.”

This caught Orchidfur’s attention. She studied the other she-cat with renewed interest, a smile playing on her face. She seemed nice. Maybe too nice, actually, because Orchidfur couldn’t really imagine how someone so open and friendly would fit into Shadowclan, but her situation was certainly relatable.

Not that she’d bring it up, of course. Orchidfur would leave the sucking up to Elm. Shadowclan had a long history of traipsing across Skyclan territory like it was rightfully theirs, and while Dewstar would probably never unsheath his claws and let them fight back, Orchidfur already had enough split interests as it was. Still, the one sided connection was enough for a little bit of comradery.

Elm chatted amiably with the yellow she-cat as they plodded after Stormflight, occasionally trying to rope Orchidfur into the conversation, but she was content to observe and take note. The more the former kittypet talked, the more she backed up Orchidfur’s initial impression.

Nice, open, but also unafraid, which Orchidfur hadn’t noted at first. Either brave or stupid then, but Orchidfur was leaning towards brave.

Once they reached the horseplace, Stormflight stopped and allowed the three of them to catch up. Their expression was dark and unhappy, but considerably calmer than earlier. “We’ll talk here,” they growled, gesturing to the grass beside the fence. “I don’t want Riverclan to spot us.”

“Your clanmates aren’t on board?” Bumblepaw asked, peering past the fence at the giant shapes of the horses within.

“Not exactly,” Stormflight grumbled. “But that’s not important. Shall we get started?”

“Before we do,” Bumblepaw interjected, “Stormflight, a little bit ago you called me a kittypet, as if it was an insult. I’ve never really felt at home as a kittypet, but that’s still my family you’re talking about, and I’d really appreciate it if you kept those thoughts to yourself.”

Stormflight’s mouth tightened into a thin line as Bumblepaw stood her ground, holding the clan cat’s gaze calmly. Orchidfur watched intently, waiting for the rage to make its appearance, but Stormflight finally gave a curt nod. “Right. Sorry,” they growled, “I just-” they let out a frustrated sigh.

“I get it,” Bumblepaw replied, giving their shoulder a friendly poke with a paw. “You can start the meeting now.”

Stormflight, looking a little startled by Bumblepaw’s chipper mood, cleared their throat. “I was thinking we could compile everything we know about this, well, not-prophecy. I’m honestly not sure how we’re supposed to safe the clans or do whatever Starclan is expecting from us, but it seems like a good place to start.”

Bumblepaw nodded supportively, while Orchidfur and Elm exchanged a quick look. She knew she had some connection to these cats, based on the little tug of her mind that kept asking, where do I know them from?, but that was about it.

“I’ll start, since I’m the one Starclan’s dumping information on,” Stormflight muttered. “First of all, I would like to address that: yes, there are dead cats hanging out in the sky. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

Elm’s mouth twitched, just a tiny bit.

“They’re right,” Orchidfur added, hoping he might listen to her better than Stormflight. “I’ve never been to Starclan, but I have seen Dewstar die and come back to life.”  

“Orchidfur, with all due respect,” Elm said slowly, “Are you sure he was really dead?”

“What I’m sure of was that one minute he was lying still in a puddle of his own blood, and then the next time I saw him, there was no wound,” Orchidfur said, glaring at him. He didn’t respond, but merely studied her face. “I’m not making this up,” she added dryly, scowling.

Elm nodded. “I know. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s more that my concept of reality doesn’t line up with any of this”

“We’ll have to go on a field trip later so I can stick your head in the moonpool,” Stormflight said. “Elm, just humor me, will you?”

“That’s what I’m doing,” he replied.

“Starclan is weakened, which is why they are so scarce these days,” Stormflight continued. “The less cats believe, the less they can do to show themselves. We’re also supposed to help them, somehow. But the important deltail right now is that we each have two dead cats in our heads. I have Windstar and Tigerstar, Bumblepaw has Thunderstar and Ashfur, Orchidfur has Riverstar and Mapleshade, and Elm has Shadowstar and Darktail.”

They paused to study their paws. “The experience probably varies from cat to cat, but in my case, I’ve definitely been affected by Tigerstar. I don’t usually notice when he’s in control until I’ve done something stupid, but in hindsight I think he’s been steering my paws since I was born.”

“It’s not really him, exactly,” Bumblepaw interjected, “Probably, anyway. If you think about it, it makes sense. Tigerstar was a monster, yes, but he was a smart monster. The thing that makes you act out is sort of a collection of his strongest emotions.”

Stormflight looked up sharply, their expression clouding with confusion. “You know this how?”

“Uh,” Bumblepaw said, eyes widening as she realized that none of the rest of them knew what she was talking about, “I talked to Ashfur.”

You talked to him?” Stormflight yelped, springing to their paws. Pelt prickling, they paced in front of the yellow and black she-cat. “How?” they demanded.

“For me, it was pretty obvious when my thoughts were his. It only started happening recently,” Bumble explained. “I got fed up, and I tried pushing back against him, and I sort of...popped him out of my head? It wasn’t great. But then I found a way to hold him apart enough for me to talk to him and Thunder.” She paused, frowning, and added, “He says to tell Tigerstar hi for him.”

“You’re talking to him right now?” Stormflight’s expression seemed to be frozen in comical shock.

Orchidfur glanced once again to Elm as the other two cats delved into a conversation, which was dominated mostly by Stormflight demanding answers and details and Bumblepaw rushing to fill them in. Elm ducked his head so that they couldn’t see, and smirked.

“I’m truly sorry, but I still think this is crazy,” Elm whispered.

“I can definitely see where you’re coming from,” Orchidfur murmured, watching Stormflight and Bumblepaw warily. “It’s just….I swear I’ve met all of you before.”

“I’m still entirely certain you didn’t, in my case at least,” Elm said.

“My point exactly,” Orchidfur replied.

Elm eyed Stormflight, who was claiming to be trying to communicate with Tigerstar. “I really don’t think you’re the type of cat who’d make this up, nor the kind who’d confuse details,” he murmured. “But I also can not begin to believe in magic sky cats.”

“What’s that, Elm?” Stormflight asked, breaking off their conversation with Bumblepaw. Before, they had been petulant at best, but now, even with annoyance flickering on their face, they seemed to be fighting a grin. “Not a believer still?”

“Not at all, sorry,” Elm confirmed. “I still don’t even know who Darktail and Shadowstar are, let alone how they might be in my head.”

“And you, Orchidfur?”

“I feel like I know you all, but I’ve never experienced…” she trailed off, waving a paw at Stormflight and Bumblepaw, “Any of that.”

Stormflight nodded slightly, staring at the two of them intently. Then, their face lit up into a devilish grin, their eyes glinting. It was not, Orchidfur thought nervously, an entirely safe expression. “Well, to each their own,” Stormflight said, tone a little too cheerful. “Here, let’s get you home then. This way!”

They turned and trotted off towards the Riverclan border, signalling with their tail for them to follow.

“Well,” Elm said slowly, “They’re definitely up to something.”

Orchidfur nodded her agreement, eyeing Bumblepaw. The fluffy she-cat’s brow was furrowed with worry, but when she noticed Orchidfur’s gaze, she shot her an uncertain smile. “I think they’re just going to take us home, like they said.”

Elm waited for her to turn around, before he leaned over to Orchidfur. “And she is definitely lying.”

“Well, I guess we’d better follow them and find out what’s going on,” Orchidfur said, her pelt prickling with unease.

Stormflight led them straight into Riverclan territory, towards the lake but not along the edge of the border like Orchidfur would have expected them to go. For someone who didn’t want to be spotted by their clanmates, they were taking them awfully close to Riverclan camp.

They stopped at the river. Orchidfur frowned at the rushing froth that raced past the shore, noting a trail of rocks protruding from the water. Stormflight stepped to the side, gesturing for Elm to step forward. “Gentlemen first,” they said, grinning.

Elm paused. Orchidfur could guess at the debate in his head, as he wondered whether this was something worth arguing about. It was certainly a strange request at best.

He shrugged, and stepped out onto the rock. Stormflight waited for him to jump to the next one, before sliding in behind him.

Orchidfur realized what they were going to do a moment before they moved.

She remembered how exactly Darktail had been killed, all those years ago.

To his credit, Elm reacted as well as he could have. As Stormflight lunged forward, he managed to swivel out of the way without toppling from his perch. He might have been able to hold his own, if he hadn’t had the disadvantage of actually wanting to stay on the rock. Stormflight ignored the blow he delt to their shoulder, and threw the entire weight of their body against his side.

With a splash, both flew off the rock and into the river. Stormflight kicked off against Elm, dunking him underwater and allowing them to paddle back to the shore.

Orchidfur learned a few things in those next seconds.

First: Despite his many skills, it appeared that Elm could not swim. At all. For a moment, his white paws flailed at the surf, before his back slammed against a rock and he disappeared underneath. Orchidfur waited for him to resurface, but he didn’t.

Second: Bumblepaw was the kind of cat who would jump into a raging river after an almost complete stranger without thinking twice. One moment she was letting out a squawk of alarm, the next the space beside Orchidfur was empty and her yellow fluff was being swallowed up by the river.

Third: Orchidfur was not that kind of cat. She watched, paws frozen, as Bumblepaw struggled to keep her head above the water, barely staying afloat. It seemed like she also couldn’t swim, which was a shame, because Orchidfur had never learned either.

Stormflight clambered onto the shore beside Orchidfur, watching the scene. “Bumblepaw, you mousebrain, you weren’t supposed to jump in,” they hissed under their breath, shifting their weight from one paw to another. They seemed nervous, but they didn’t jump in to help.

Orchidfur spun to face them. “What are you doing?” she snarled, ears flattening against her head.

“Hmm,” Stormflight mused, a small smile flitting across their face, “It seems like perhaps I’m letting them drown. They could really use a paw, don’t you think?”

I can’t swim,” Orchidfur yowled, unsheathing her claws. “Go help them!” At Stormflight’s smirk, she added, voice dropping into a low snarl “Or I swear to Starclan, I will slit your throat.” She meant it. How could she have trusted this cat, even the slightest bit? She wouldn’t necessarily call Elm a friend, but she also didn’t want to watch him and her kind new acquaintance drown.

Stormflight glanced down at her claws, their smile only growing. “As fun as that fight would be, no. You’ve got a job to take care of. Orchidfur,” they added, tone growing serious as she squared her shoulders to attack, “Do you remember how Mapleshade lost her kits?”

Orchidfur stilled. She turned to stare across the water, searching the white froth for the other cats, her stomach churning with terror as she saw Bumblepaw get sucked down through a series of rapids. She remembered.

Her paws were no longer rooted to the ground like they had been before. Now, they itched for her to jump in, to save Elm and Bumblepaw.

“I can’t swim,” Orchidfur repeated, both to Stormflight and the part of her who thought this was a good idea.

“Tell you what,” Stormflight said, “If you try to save them, I will too. It’s a win win. Deal?”

Orchidfur found herself nodding. “Deal,” she snapped, and then she was jumping.

The water was freezing, shockingly cold. As it tugged at her limbs and splashed over her head, she was reminded of why she hadn’t jumped in after Elm right away: she still couldn’t swim.  

She sucked in a deep breath before she went under, fighting both panic and the current. Her shoulder brushed against a rock, sending her tumbling head over tail. All she could see in either direction was water, clouded with bubbles and loose dirt.

She stared at her paws, watching them swipe helplessly at the water, unable to get the right motion and rhythm going to combat the river’s wims, her ears clogged and her vision blurry.

Her fear, which had already been creeping in on her, exploded across her mind into full blown terror. She was going to drown, and she knew it. Not only that, but she was going to fail. They would drown as well.

Her kits were going to die because of her. Again.

Orchidfur’s limbs flailed, scraping roughly against the river bed. Her head jerked back as her chin hit next.

They were all going to die.

Her paws pushed off against the bottom, then started moving back and forth like they had a mind of their own. In a steady manner that didn’t match the chaos in her head, Orchidfur found her body working its way up towards the surface.

Her head broke the surface, and she choked in a breath, throat burning. Once she was certain she wasn’t dead, she took a moment to consider what she was.

She was swimming.

How in Starclan’s name was she swimming? Orchidfur was quite certain that, as the past minute had clearly demonstrated, she did not know how to swim. In fact, now that she was thinking about it, she still didn’t know how to swim.

She frowned, staring at her legs through the surface. Riverstar? It seemed as good of evidence as any.

Regardless, she had more important things to do than question the strange miracle. Orchidfur squinted through the spray of water, searching for Bumblepaw and Elm.

“I’ll find Elm, you help Bumblepaw,” Stormflight called over the rush of the river as they swept past, looking as at home in the water as they did on land. Orchidfur followed their gaze, and spotted Bumblepaw clinging to a tangle of branches further down the river.

Orchidfur stared, her heart twisting at the sight of the she-cat’s sodden fur and frightened eyes.

She saw a kit’s face somewhere there, begging her for help. In her mind, the kit disappeared into the waves, just out of reach.

With a strangled sob, Orchidfur dove forward. She couldn’t tell what she was looking at anymore, Bumblepaw or her kits, but she had to save them either way. The rest of her seemed to know what it was doing though, because soon her paws were brushing fur.

She grabbed the fuzzy thing, her vision still blurred with small shapes just beyond reach. Frantically, she dragged her towards the shore, with Bumblepaw guiding her as much as she was her.

Bumblepaw collapsed beside her, coughing and spluttering but very much alive. Still though, Orchidfur stared at a limp, small shape, shaking the kit. “Wake up, I saved you, wake up,” she sobbed.

“I’m okay!” Bumblepaw yelped, wriggling away. Orchidfur’s only response was a wordless sob. “I’m fine, just a little waterlogged,” Bumblepaw insisted, pressing against Orchidfur. “I’m okay. You’re okay. See, look, Stormflight has Elm.”

Except it wasn’t fine, because the calico shape hanging from Stormflight’s mouth wasn’t moving. Orchidfur’s wail cut off into a whimper as the reality crashed down. Her kits were dead, and it was all her fault. Her poor, poor beautiful kits.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Bumblepaw insisted, trying to reassure her. She licked at Orchidfur’s sodden fur, a soothing pur rumbling in her chest. “Just try to take some steady breaths. Can you do that for me?”

“He’s dead,” Orchidfur insisted.

“No, we weren’t in the water that long,” Bumblepaw murmured. “I know it looks bad, but sometimes people get water in their lungs and need to have it out before they can get better. I saw it on TV once. See, look, Stormflight knows what to do.”

Now Stormflight was pounding at the limp form.

“My kits,” Orchidfur warbled.

“I- what?” Bumblepaw asked, pulling away enough to frown at her. “Oh. Orchidfur, this isn't you thinking. This is Mapleshade. You don’t have kits. At least, I don’t think so, but even if you do, they’re not in the river.”

Bumblepaw was talking, but Orchidfur could hardly hear her. She stared at the inert shape, unable to look away, fixated by the pure horror of it. Three limp little shapes lay in front of her, unmoving. Dead, dead, dead.

Elm coughed, limbs jerking as he choked up a stream of water. Stormflight stepped back, allowing him to rise shakily to his feet.

“How was your swim?” they asked him, “Anything broken?”

“I-” Elm’s voice was shaky. “I don’t think so.” Then, after a beat, he snarled,“What on earth were you thinking?

“I was thinking this might be a good way to draw out your other halves,” Stormflight replied calmly. “Did it work? Did you feel anything? Flashes of memories? Excessive fear?”

Orchidfur watched numbly, not processing the rage practically radiating off of Elm. Any other version of her would have been fascinated to see what happened when something finally ruffled his fur.

Excessive fear?” Elm roared, teeth flashing as his ears folded back. “Forgive me, but I think fear is a perfectly normal response to drowning.”

“Well, yes, but-” Stormflight began, but he interjected with a fierce hiss.

“There is no but. I don’t care what you were trying to do, and quite frankly, I don’t care about any of your nonsense. What I care about is the fact that you nearly got me killed!

Orchidfur blinked, the sheer volume of his voice just barely reaching her. Yes, Elm was mad, but nothing mattered because her kits were dead. A new sob rose up in her throat, and she buried her face in the soaking wad of Bumblepaw’s thick fur.

Elm looked up, his anger set aside for a moment, his face clouding with confusion. “Orchidfur, are you alright?” When she didn’t reply, he looked to Bumblepaw. “Is she hurt? What’s wrong?”

“I think she’ll be okay,” Bumblepaw replied, “She just needs some time.”

“She’s fine,” Stormflight said, leaning over to look in Orchidfur’s eyes. “Orchidfur, think. This isn’t like you, is it?”

No, it really wasn’t. Orchidfur had been in scary situations before, but she’d never found herself unable to function like this.

And, she realized, her sorrow fading into confusion, she didn’t actually have kits. And no one appeared to have drowned. She shook her head, and the images faded away, leaving only reality.

“Well, that’s one out of two,” Stormflight murmured, pulling back. “Well, Elm? I know you’re irked, but did it work?”

Irked?” Elm spat, “Why, Stormflight, I’m positively livid. In fact, I might even say murderous.

His claws glinted in the light as he took a step forward, standing so close to Stormflight that their whiskers almost brushed. Stormflight gazed back at him, unconcerned.

Orchidfur weighed the two of them in her mind, trying to figure out if Elm stood a chance, having nearly drowned an all. There was also the question of whether or not she wanted to see Stormflight dead. They certainly deserved it, after all.

“Knock it off,” Bumblepaw ordered, springing to her paws. She shoved her way between the two of them, then turned to glare at Stormflight. “Stormflight, I know what you were trying to do, but this was too much. You need to stop and think. And Elm, please don’t kill Stormflight, we need them.”

Stormflight took a step back, stubbornly unapologetic. “Maybe it was a bit much, but it worked. Don’t deny it Elm, I can see it in your eyes. No one’s hurt, and you wouldn’t have drowned anyway. These rapids empty out into shallow spot just a little bit downstream.”

For a moment, Orchidfur thought Elm would go for Stormflight’s throat, Bumblepaw or no Bumblepaw. Then, with a snarl, he spun around and bolted in the opposite direction.

Orchidfur climbed to her feet, legs still a little shaky. She stared coldly at Stormflight, who regarded her with a bit of regret. “How’re you feeling?” they asked.

“Better, no thanks to you,” she growled, shaking water and mud from her fur. She hesitated, then added, “It worked. But next time you try something like that, I’ll help Elm make good of his threat.”

Without waiting for a reply, she took off after Elm.

Chapter 30[]

“Hey you! With the box!”

Elm paused, glancing over his shoulder. He was used to people referring to him like that. Not many cats knew his actual name, but plenty of cats knew the kit with the box.

Elm didn’t mind. He liked boxes. They were very fun objects.

“How can I be of assistance?” Elm chirped, nearly tipping over as he tried to turn sharply while balancing the box on his head. It was covered in sketches, mostly awkwardly drawn smiley faces, but he was proud of it.

He knew as soon as he saw the older cat’s face that this was not a conversation he was going to enjoy.

“You can be of assistance by not stealing my property, you little brat,” the giant tom snarled, giving the kit a sharp shove in the chest. Elm went tumbling, his box falling off of his head.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he squeeked, scrambling to his paws. His eyes darted side to side, looking for a way out of the situation. He was too far from his home box to call for his parents, and if he ran the larger cat would catch him. He was trapped.

The tom scoffed. “I know you’ve been stealing my prey.”

Elm had done no such thing. Everyone knew this tom. He was a bully, and good at it too. Stealing from him was suicide. “I think maybe you might have confused me with someone else,” he said slowly, putting on his most innocent expression.

“I know it was you,” the tom hissed, swiping at him again, this time with claws unsheathed. Elm stifled his yelp of pain, but was unable to stop himself from gawking at the large scratch on his chest.

He was bleeding. This cat had just clawed him. Elm had never been in a situation like this before.

The kit scrambled away as the tom advanced, trying to duck out of the way of the heavy blows, but he was still a kit fighting a full grown cat. Soon, he was slumped in the mud, his little box trampled in the scuffle.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t just kill you now,” the tom snarled in his ear, holding him down with one giant paw.

Elm whimpered, his heart trying to escape his chest. “Because it will benefit you more to let me live,” he said, thinking fast.

“How so?”

“See, if you kill me now, you’ll be keeping me from stealing anymore prey. But if you let me live, I’d never be dumb enough to do that again anyway,” Elm said, the words tumbling out in a desperate, hasty stream. “And, to make it worth your while, I can replace the prey I took, plus some. I’ll hunt for you!”

“Hmm,” the tom mused. “Well, that does sound like a good idea. Plus, if you don’t do a good job,” he paused ominously, his claws digging into Elm’s back, “I can always kill you later.”

“Exactly! It’s a win win!” Elm agreed frantically, voice high and squeaky from the pain. The tom stepped back, allowing him to climb to his feet.

Elm limped away, tail dragging and shaking like a leaf in the wind. His box was sitting behind the tom, but he didn’t dare go back for it. He could find a new box. He could not, however, find new internal organs.

The next day, Elm taught himself to hunt. He was terrible at it, more because of lack of height and experience than effort, but he managed to catch a few scrawny mice. He delivered them to the cruel tom, who laughed at his meagre offering and gave him a few more scratches to motivate him to do better.

The day after that, Elm caught a squirrel. The tom still scratched him, but Elm wasn’t scared of him anymore. He knew he was too useful to kill. Still, the initial fear had made a good foundation for hate.

After that, the tom started complaining about the prey tasting funny, but by then Elm was bringing in the best prey he’d seen in ages. The tom’s claws stung, but as Elm limped away, he was smiling.

Then, a quarter moon or so later, Elm woke up and did not go hunting. It was no longer necessary.

The ally was full of whispers that day, all relief and bewilderment. Cats were walking past the bully’s end of the street without fear, pausing only to stare at something slumped against the wall.

Elm took his time walking down that street, wearing a grim smirk that didn’t sit well on his round kitten face. He stopped with the rest of the crowd, and stared silently at the tom’s corpse.

“Do you know what happened to him?” he asked the cat next to him, putting on his innocent kit face again.

“No one’s sure,” she marveled, shaking her head. “He had plenty of food, so he didn’t starve, that’s for sure. Maybe he was sick?” she shrugged.

Elm waited for her to leave, then, to the dead body, murmured, “It was rat poison.”  

He took his box out of the corner, gently smoothed out the crinkles as best he could, put it back on his head, and walked away, still smiling.

Elm woke without stirring, his eyes still closed. He forced his breathing to calm to a steady repetition, mimicking that of the sleeping cats around him. The rhythm slowly calmed the frantic beating of his heart, the only sign that he was not peacefully dreaming like everyone else.

The fear was fading, but the memory would not, no matter what he did. Analysis, reflection, breathing exercises, evening walks, none of it did him any good.

It kept coming back. The dream was like a loose tooth he could neither rid himself of nor leave alone. Awake and asleep, his mind kept returning to it, as it did now, half a moon after the event had happened.

Elm was on the tail end of two years old. He’d spent most of that scrambling to stay on top of the heap in the allies, and the other, most recent moon trying to navigate the strange lives of the clans.

And yet, that day at the river was undeniably the most terrifying thing he’d ever experienced, and he hated it.

Without his permission, he found himself playing through it again.

His first of many mistakes that day had been agreeing to go with Orchidfur in the first place. At that point, he hadn’t believed a word, no matter how highly he thought of Orchidfur. Elm should have stayed away.

Then, after he’d seen Stormflight snarling at the Windclan cats, he should have walked away.

When they asked him to step out onto the stones, over the agitated river, and turn his back on them, he should have turned and ran in the opposite direction.

And then there was the big one. Once the lunatic had shoved him in the water, Elm should have swam. That was what you were supposed to do in water: swim.

Until he’d moved to the lake, Elm had never been near a body of water big enough to swim in. So, no, he did not know how to swim.

But Elm knew the mechanics of swimming. Everyone knew the mechanics of swimming. The number of cats who knew how to swim suggested that swimming was not all that difficult.

Therefore, Elm should have been able to figure it out, or at least give it a good shot.

What should have happened, what Elm wished so badly had happened, was this:

The water would close over his head, the current would catch at his pelt, his lungs would scream for air, and he would think. He’d calmly attempt to make the best of the situation, and, more likely than not, he would have been able to get out without drinking half the river.

Elm had panicked, frozen up, and as a result, nearly drowned. Which was normal, but not for Elm. That simply did not happen to him. For Starclan’s sake, as the clan cats would say it, he’d walked away from his own father’s death acting like he found it mildly inconvenient.

Not only was it out of character, but….

He didn’t like thinking about it. It made his blood run cold, made him recoil from the idea like it was the most revolting piece of crowfood in the world.

As soon as Elm had hit the first rock, his mind had simply stopped corresponding with his body. He had still been drowning, but that was all that remained the same.

The current was gone, the calm water churned up by the limbs cutting through it as he had grappled with another cat, digging his claws into tabby fur, just beginning to feel a bit of fear. Mostly, only determination and an especially brutal anger.

Then, he’d run out of air, but the fighting hadn’t stopped. The tabby had attempted to push off of him with his hind legs, making a desperate attempt to resurface, but he’d grabbed onto the other tom’s leg, pulling him down even as the world flooded with black.

In the last moment, he’d realized that he’d failed. And he’d been very afraid.

And then Elm had awoken to Stormflight's obnoxious face, water bubbling from his lips and struggling to regain the composure he’d lost in the river.

If he were being completely honest, having almost drowned didn’t actually bother Elm that much. It had been alarming, yes, and it had confirmed that Stormflight could not be trusted, but he hadn’t actually died. Under normal circumstances, he would have been, as Stormflight had said, irked.

It wasn’t drowning that spooked him. It was why he’d almost drowned.  

Elm’s mind was his best weapon. Anyone with motivation to exercise could be strong, but most cats seemed to think muscles were all you needed to get through life. No, it was his brain that had kept Elm alive in the allies.

The knowledge that his mind was not solely his own frightened him more than any physical threat could have.

Elm opened one eye, and gazed silently out at the Skyclan warrior’s den. Everyone else appeared to be still sleeping, although a glance out the door suggested that Dawn Patrol would be leaving shortly. Hayfire’s nest was already empty.

He carefully stepped over Raystem’s front paws, which were stretched across to Orchidfur’s adjacent nest. Raystem was wearing a gentle, unworried smile, while Orchidfur’s face was creased into a frown.

Elm wondered if she had nightmares about the river as well. He was grateful that she hadn’t brought the subject up, because he suspected it would be terribly awkward for both of them.

He was actually fairly embarrassed of how he had acted around Stormflight, snarling out threats like some sort of rabid animal. The threats he wouldn’t have taken back, but he didn’t like that there had been three witnesses to his lapse in composure.

He doubted Orchidfur appreciated him and Bumblepaw seeing her as a sobbing, hallucinating mess, but it was much easier for Elm to accept emotions in others than in himself. Probably because the former gave him tools to work with, and the latter left him vulnerable.

Elm needed to do something to shake off this slump.

He’d been in the clan a moon, and he’d done a pretty stellar job of fitting in if he did say so himself.

He went on every dawn patrol, more because he slept so lightly that he always woke up when the left anyway than out of any political strategy, but it had turned out to be an excellent strategy for making friends. Hayfire was impressed by his dedication, and the warriors were grateful that he saved one of them from the early rise.

He babysat Figkit and Thymekit, even if it involved pretending to be asleep so that they could cover him in flowers or, more often, tie him up with brambles. The kits thought he was the coolest, and Kalenose seemed to have forgotten the whole incident involving Elm’s claws and Figkit’s throat.

He listened to the elders’ stories. He fetched herbs for Sablewind. He complimented the apprentices battle moves.

Yes, Elm had fit in fine. Now that he had a solid foundation, he could start working his way up. The warriors liked him, and, more importantly, they trusted him. Next came respect.

Elm knew enough from listening to the elders to know that the clans had pretty much always had trouble with outsiders. Not once but twice, with Sol and Darktail, the scheming villain had earned their trust only to try and take over.

Elm needed to make it very clear that he had no interest in doing that. He just wanted enough influence to make sure he could properly steer the clans to victory over the rogues.

Although, he thought, allowing himself a small smile, if he became leader, there were a few ideas he’d like to see put into place. If Skyclan ever needed a new deputy, he certainly wouldn’t say no.

First, Elm needed to officially join the clan. Then, he wanted an apprentice. It seemed to him that training a young cat to warriorhood was a big step up on the food chain, from just a warrior to a warrior who, even if they were never selected, was eligible to be deputy.

Elm glanced about the mostly empty camp, easily spotting Dewstar and Hayfire chatting in the far corner. Wearing a friendly smile, he crossed the clearing. “Good morning!” he called cheerfully.

“You’re up early,” Dewstar commented, eyeing him with surprise.

Hayfire let out a chuckle. “That mousebrain’s been on every dawn patrol that’s gone out since he showed up. It’s nice to have someone who doesn’t complain.”

Elm grinned. “I would never turn down a good morning walk. If I don’t wake up early, I just don’t feel quite right the rest of the day.” He paused, pretending to weigh his next words. “I was hoping to talk to the two of you before the others wake up.”

“What is it?” Dewstar asked.

“I’ve been here a moon,” Elm said, “Although honestly, it feels like it’s been much longer.” He took a deep breath. “I would like to become a warrior of Skyclan, if that’s alright with you.”

“Of course it’s alright!” Dewstar replied immediately, his face breaking out into a grin. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask you about it, I forgot you weren’t an official member yet. You’ve fit right in.”

Elm grinned. Yes, yes he had.

“And,” Hayfire added, more seriously, “You’ll be a key asset if we’re going to survive these rogues.”

Elm nodded, internally dismissing a wave of irritation. Shortly after the meeting, Riverclan had sent messengers to fill the other clans in about the battle with the Guild. Elm was unsurprised with the results, but frustrated with the lack of details. He couldn’t help much if he wasn’t filled in.

“We can do the ceremony this morning, if that works for you,” Dewstar said. “Do you want a warrior suffix, or would you rather stay just Elm?”

“I’d like a suffix,” Elm replied, although he still found the name system a little silly. He wasn’t sure he would ever be able to think of himself as Elmpelt or whatever Dewstar named him, but he wanted his name to fit with the other warriors’. Besides, why not? It would be fitting. A new name to acknowledge the new chapter of his life.

“Also,” he added, “If there’s ever an opportunity that you’d think I’d be right for, I’d be interested in training an apprentice.” Elm smiled, aiming for hesitantly enthusiastic instead of strategic.

He had a whole spiel planned, about how he might have a unique perspective to offer, and how an apprentice might help him settle into clan life, but Dewstar just nodded.

“Sure, maybe you can be Thymekit’s mentor,” Dewstar mused, gazing at the nursery thoughtfully. “She and Figkit need to be apprenticed soon, but they’re such trouble makers that I wasn’t sure who to go with. You seem to get along well with them, though!” he added, beaming. “I saw you letting them decorate you the other day.”

Elm allowed his smile to curve into a broad grin, his elation legitimate. He hadn’t expected such a quick agreement! And to think, Dewstar would trust him to train his own granddaughter? “That would be great, she’s a good kid,” he replied.

Hayfire was frowning, however, eyeing her mate skeptically. “Are you sure you can handle that, Elm?” she asked slowly, shooting Dewstar a look. Elm was pretty sure what she actually meant was, Are you sure we should let this cat who has only been in the clan for one moon train our youthful kin?

Elm recovered quickly. “Yes, I think so, but no worries if you have someone else in mind for her. I just wanted to let you know that I was interested, that’s all.”

That seemed to reassure Hayfire slightly. “It’ll probably work fine,” she replied, “If you have any troubles, don’t be afraid to ask one of us for help.”

Essentially, she wanted to keep an eye on him. But Elm had nothing to hide. Nothing visible, anyway. “Thank you so much!” he chirped, smiling so wide it hurt. “I look forward to the ceremony.”

“We’ll do it once the dawn patrol gets back and everyone’s up,” Dewstar said. “Speaking of which, how

would you like to lead the patrol?”

“I’d like that very much,” Elm replied, dipping his head respectfully. Internally, he congratulated himself for a job well done. Soon, he would be an official member of Skyclan, and everything else would fall into place easily.

“Skyclan, gather around for a clan meeting!” Dewstar yowled, perched atop a branch of one of the overlooking trees. Thymekit and Figkit shot out of the nursery like their tails were on fire, chattering excitedly.

Elm glanced thoughtfully at Thymekit, smiling slightly. The dark grey she-kit was energetic, yes, but he had a feeling that he could find a way to redirect that enthusiasm into something less destructive and more productive.

That said, Elm didn’t actually have any experience with teaching, and the kits had filled the elder’s nests with berries to see if they could dye them red just two days ago, so it was entirely possible that this was going to be a mess.

“Are we going to be apprentices now?” Thymekit asked, bouncing around at her parent’s feet.

“I don’t know, but I’m sure Grandpaw will tell you soon,” Kalenose purred, grinning. Beside him, his mate, Hedgeflight, smiled proudly.

“I’m going to hang out with Sablewind every day!” Figkit exclaimed, “And learn plant magic! This is going to be the best.

Elm found a seat next to Orchidfur, Raystem, and Marblecloud, his whiskers twitching with amusement at the kits' antics. No, he was sticking with his first analysis. This was going to work out.

“Sablewind’s looking a little nauseous,” Raystem whispered, flicking her tail towards the medicine cat. Elm followed her gaze, noting that Sablewind was looking significantly less thrilled about this meeting than her future apprentice was.

“Elm, would you step forward?” Dewstar called, catching his eyes across the crowd.

As Elm rose to his feet, Orchidfur turned to look at him, eyes narrowing. He shot her a smile, wondering internally what on earth he was going to have to do to get her to trust him. He wished he could reassure her that he only wanted power to help the clans win, but he predicted she wouldn’t find that all that reassuring.

The kits were looking crestfallen at this turn of events, so, when he passed them, he leaned down and murmured, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn.” Both let out a happy little squeak.

“Elm has been with us for a moon now, and it is time that he officially becomes a member of Skyclan,” Dewstar announced. “He has proven himself worthy of the rank of warrior, and has shown the proper respect to our code and customs. Elm, do you promise to defend the warrior code and our clan, even at the cost of your life?”

“Of course,” Elm replied, grinning.

There wasn’t much Elm would lay down his life for if it could be avoided, but a little white lie wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“Then by the powers of Starclan, I give you your warrior name. From this day forward, you shall be known as Elmstrike. Welcome to Skyclan, my friend,” Dewstar said.

“Elmstrike! Elmstrike! Elmstrike!”

Elm gazed across his clanmates, listening to them chant what was now supposed to be his name. Dewstar had picked a good one. It sounded like it deserved respect.

Dewstar hopped down from his branch, and there was an awkward moment as he tried to rest his head on top of Elm’s head. Presumably, it was part of the ceremony, but Dewstar was too short to reach, so Elm had to bend down.

Dewstar waited for silence to fall again. Elm stepped to the side, but remained near the front.

“Additionally, Figkit and Thymekit have reached six moons old and are now ready to become apprentices,” Dewstar added, glowing with pride as his grandchildren scrambled through the crowd to stand at his paws. “Figkit, my impression was that you wanted to train as a medicine cat. Is that correct?”

“Yes!” they chirped in reply.

“Then from this day forward, until you receive your full medicine cat name, you shall be known as Figpaw. Your mentor will be Sablewind, who I know will help you learn the art of medicine and the language of Starclan.”

Elm watched carefully as the medicine cat touched noses with their new apprentice, knowing he was up next.

“Thymekit, you shall now be known as Thymepaw,” Dewstar continued, “And your mentor shall be Elmstrike.”

Thymepaw’s face cracked into a broad smile as she turned towards Elm. “Thank Starclan,” she whispered as she stretched up to bump noses with him, “I was worried I’d get someone boring, but you’re cool.”

Elm’s only reply was a smile. It remained to be seen if he’d still be the cool mentor after her first encounter with the elders’ ticks.

Once the meeting dispersed, Elm followed Thymepaw over to where her parents were already congratulating her littermate. Kalenose looked up, eyes sparkling with pride. “And there’s my little warrior! Elmstrike, congrats to you as well.”

Hedgeflight nuzzled at her daughter, purring, but when she caught Elm’s gaze over the apprentice’s head, her eyes were narrowed warningly.

“I’ll take care of her,” Elm promised, hoping he’d be able to follow through on that vow.

“You’d better,” Hedgeflight replied, giving both kittens a quick lick over the top of the head. “Alright then, don’t let us keep you away from your exciting day. Go see what your mentors have planned for you.”

Figpaw bolted towards Sablewind, who looked like they were considering running in the opposite direction, and Thymepaw swivelled around to stare up at Elm expectantly.

“Well, what would you like to do first?” he asked. He’d have to set up a stricter curriculum later, but for today at least, he could be a fun mentor.

“I want to see the territory, do some battle moves, catch a bird, climb a tree, and learn the warrior code!” she chirped.

That certainly narrowed it down.

“How about we start with the territory, and see how you feel after that?” Elm suggested, nodding towards the exit. As Thymepaw nodded enthusiastically, he led her out and into the forest.

“It’s so big,” she marveled, dashing from tree to tree as Elm tried to plot out an internal map of their walk. He was a little worried that they’d get to the opposite side of the territory just in time for her to run out of energy.

First, Elm took her down to the lake. Thymepaw let out a squeal of excitement at the sight of the sparkling water. Before he could get a word out, she plunged right in.

Elm shivered as the memory krept back into his head without permission. He forced his voice to remain steady as he called after his apprentice. “Thymepaw, come out of there, please.”

“Aw, how come?” she asked, reluctantly plodding back over to him, looking crestfallen. “It’s so hot out, and I’ve never been to the lake before.”

“I know,” Elm replied, “But I don’t know how fast it gets deep, and neither of us can swim. Besides, we have a lot to see today, and, in the future, I’d appreciate it if you ask me first before doing anything like that.”

Thymepaw’s face wilted into a frown as she studied her paws. “Okay, Elm,” she muttered dejectedly, shooting a longing look back at the lake.

Elm glanced between Thymepaw and the lake, bemused. She was acting as if he’d told her the world was ending and it was solely her fault. All he wanted was for her not to drown herself on day one of their pairing.

“It’s Elmstrike now,” he reminded her gently, “And tell you what, if you behave yourself today, we can go swimming tomorrow. Sound like a deal?”

“Okay!” Thymepaw exclaimed, all solidified joy once again, “I’ll be good! Let’s go see the rest of the territory!”

Elm stared after her as she ran away along the lakeshore, before taking off after her. Sometimes, he really, really did not understand children.

He took her along the Thunderclan border, showed her the training clearing, pointed out where the twolegs were camping, all relatively incident free, although she did get stuck in a tree and nearly got herself adopted by the friendly campers.

Elm had also been entirely incorrect about her running out of energy. He’d ask her to wait up so he could explain something, she’d apologize and slow down for approximately five seconds, then he’d realize she was racing off the next thing and he was talking to himself.

What he was really longing for was a leash.

Final on their tour was the Shadowclan border, or more accurately, the wobbly scent line that signified Dewstar’s incompetence. Thymepaw fell still, her expression falling from its usual giddy excitement to a subdued sadness.

“This is where the border is now,” Elm explained. “At one point in time, it was farther in that direction.” He gestured towards the Thunderpath, which was barely visible through the tree trunks.

“I heard the elders talking about this the other day,” Thymepaw murmured, sniffing at the air. “I didn’t want to believe them.” Nervously, she added, “They said it’s all Dewstar’s fault. That’s not true, is it?”

Elm paused, weighing his options. He didn’t want to lie to his apprentice or give her a false impression of the issue, but he also didn’t want to talk badly of Dewstar behind his back, especially not with his granddaughter.

“It is true that he allowed Shadowclan to take this territory without a fight,” he said carefully, “But as a leader, it is his responsibility to do what he thinks is best for the clan. He was trying to keep us all safe.”

Thymepaw frowned up at him. “You don’t agree.”

“Do you?” Elm asked, tilting his head. She hesitated, looking almost frightened, so he prompted, “Go on. Leader’s word is law, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own opinion, and I’m not going to tell you how to think.”

Thymepaw looked away, staring at the border. “I don’t know.” Elm waited, watching her think. “Do we need the prey there?” she asked, gesturing towards the old border.

“As far as I’ve seen, Skyclan does fine on its current territory,” Elm replied, “But then again, I’ve never seen it during Leaf-bare.”

The apprentice fell silent again.

Elm studied her face, feeling a sting of concern at the worry on her face. “Are you okay? If this is too heavy of a topic, we can move on.”

“No, I’m fine,” she murmured, breaking out of her silence. “I’m just...thinking. I love Dewstar, but I can’t figure out why he’d let this happen. We’re warriors! We’re supposed to fight! The other clans must think we’re all cowards.”

“That’s true,” Elm said, gazing at the border. “From what I’ve gathered, the other clans don’t take Skyclan very seriously. But with the Guild to deal with, you might be grateful for the peace.”

“I suppose,” Thymepaw mused. Her claws dug into the ground, like she was thinking of fighting Shadowclan. Then, turning away, she smiled at him. “I was right, you are a cool mentor. Much cooler than Kalenose and Hedgeflight, they treat me like I’m a baby.”

Elm smiled back, the purr that rumbled in his throat startling him.He hadn’t expected to feel so enthusiastic about this. Being a mentor had started out as a box to check on his to-do list, but he could already tell that this was going to be a good experience.

“Well, you’re a cool apprentice,” he said, meaning the words.

It wasn’t until they were nearly back at camp that he realized he was still grinning. It was troubling.

Don’t get attached, he warned himself. He was her mentor, not her father, not her older brother, not her family.

She was not Elm’s kin. All of Elm’s kin were dead. Hunter was dead because of him. Guilt and grief were not constructive, but neither was making himself vulnerable for no reason.

The apprenticeship would last six moons. The Guild had given the clans six moons of peace.

Elm couldn’t allow himself to forget that. Nothing lasted forever, and good things tended to end earliest.

Currently, Elm had nothing to lose, and he liked it that way.

Chapter 31[]

Lizardsight krept carefully out of the Shadowclan warrior’s den, each pawstep precise and silent. He steered clear of Cloverspots’ nest, shooting the sleeping she-cat a baleful glare. The deputy was Rosestar’s older sister, which meant she was essentially immortal and twice as grumpy, but despite her ancient age, she still had the hearing of an owl.

Which, in Lizardsight’s opinion, simply wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t be allowed for someone to live so long and still be so good at thwarting the younger generations’ misbehavior.

Mostly, his misbehavior. So far, he’d managed to keep Turtle and his kits a secret from his clanmates, but it was only a matter of time before someone caught him. Chances were, however, that someone wouldn’t care enough to report him. He was a good warrior, and he didn’t let his quarter-moonly visits tax his responsibility.

There was a lovely little hole in the back of the camp wall that was perfect for sneaking out. The kits never slept through the night anyway, so moonhigh worked fine for now.

His lovely, perfect kits. Lizardsight didn’t trust Olivia as far as he could throw her, but she had done a good job. She’d not only brought the kits back, but she’d somehow procured the milk that neither Turtle or Lizardsight were capable of producing.

Robert was the worrier, always reminding his siblings of the rules and following Turtle around the yard like he was afraid of getting lost.

Scone was the clown, constantly baiting her siblings into games of chase or pouncing on her fathers’ tails.

And Bumble. Bumble was the little warrior, never one to back down from Scone’s challenges, but more invested in winning. She crouched like a clan cat, her posture perfect as she trampled Turtle’s precious flowers.

Lizardsight wanted them all to be with him day and night, every day of the moon, but he especially wanted to take Bumble into the forest. The way she stared out past the gate reminded him of a dog straining at the end of it’s leash.

“Where are you going?”

Lizardsight jumped half out of his skin, and spun around to see a tiny ginger shape sitting at his paws. Flarekit, Rosestar’s one moon old daughter, barely old enough to walk and yet plenty old enough to get him in a world of trouble.

“Are you being bad?” the kit asked, staring up at him with wide amber eyes.

“Uh,” Lizardsight began, smiling innocently, “Nope. Just going to the dirtplace.” He was walking in the opposite direction of the dirtplace, but moon old kits weren’t that smart.

“It’s that way,” Flarekit said helpfully, nearly toppling over as she tried to point with one of her paws. She squinted at him, then beamed. “You’re being bad,” she decided triumphantly, waddling over to sit on his paw. “Mommy would be very mad at you if she knew.”

“Yes, yes she would,” Lizardsight agreed, trying to gently detach the kit from his leg. She held on like a leech.

“Should I call her?” Flarekit asked, grinning widely.

“No, please do not call her,” Lizardsight whispered frantically, shooting a nervous glance in the direction of Rosestar’s den. “We don’t want to bother her.”

“But I like bothering Mommy,” Flarekit said cheerfully, hugging his leg.

“Please don’t,” Lizardsight pleaded, still failing to pry her off of his leg. He glanced up at the night sky. Turtle would be getting worried.

Flarekit peered up at him, her expression sly. “Maybe I would forget about you being bad if you find me a nice present.”

Lizardsight gawked at her. The kit’s sweet, innocent face stared back at him. “Great Starclan, am I really being blackmailed by a moon old kit?” he asked no one in particular, closing his eyes in exasperation.

“Yep,” Flarekit confirmed.

“Fine. It’s a deal. Just don’t tell your mom, okay?” Lizardsight groaned, “I’ll find you a really good present.”

Flarekit seemed to consider this. Then, with a crisp nod, she released his leg and wobbled back to her den, pausing only to wink at him over his shoulder.

“Great Starclan,” Lizardsight repeated, then slipped out of the camp.



“Good night, Amblefoot!” Bumblepaw said cheerfully, giving the deputy a smile as she approached the camp. She was returning from her weekly meetup with the other half of the family, and after a night of practicing her moves by pestering her brother, she was in an impeccable good mood.

She always tried to be especially friendly with Amblefoot, who had the good grace not to comment when Flarestar repeatedly placed them on the first shift of guard duty with the instructions to let Bumblepaw and Sconepaw go where they pleased. Bumblepaw got the feeling they didn’t approve, or, more likely, they’d rather be sleeping.

“Good night,” Amblefoot replied, yawning. They sniffed the air, frowning slightly. “You two smell like kittypets again. You’d better go roll in the grass for a bit, or else your secret won’t stay secret.”

Bumblepaw didn’t think it was much of a secret, given that the leader and deputy were both in on it, but she obediently shoved Sconepaw over into an adjacent patch of grass. Sconepaw retaliated with a neatly executed swipe at Bumblepaw’s legs, sending her toppling over.

“I suppose that works as well,” Amblefoot said, whiskers twitching with amusement as the two of them scuffled about. “Be quiet though, we don’t want-”

“What’s going on here?” a gruff voice demanded, and dark grey from joined Amblefoot by the entrance, nearly invisible in the darkness. Bumblepaw scrambled to her feet to find Wolfbounce’s disapproving gaze clawing at her pelt.

The medicine cat turned to Amblefoot, his silence demanding answers.

“Go back to sleep, Wolfbounce,” they instructed, giving their clanmate a light nudge.

Wolfbounce didn’t move. He stared at Bumblepaw, eyes narrowed. “I know what this is,” he growled.

“Wolfbound, as your deputy I am ordering you to go back to sleep,” They repeated, smiling amiably. “And believe me, it’s in your best interest to keep this to yourself.”

The medicine cat rolled his eyes, still not moving. Amblefoot stared at him pointedly.

After a long silence, Wolfbounce said, “Bumblepaw, I’d like to speak to you in private.”

Sconepaw scowled, her pelt bristling with indignation. “I’m sure whatever you have to say to her could also be said with Amblefoot and me present.”

Wolfbounce shook his head, his stony expression inviting no compromise. He flicked his tail to Bumblepaw, then turned and went back into camp.

“I’m sorry about that,” Amblefoot appologized, sounding tired. “He’s a pain. You don’t have to talk to him.”

Bumblepaw hesitated, then shrugged. “I’ll talk to him.” At Sconepaw’s frown, she added, “I’ll be fine.”

Her stomach fluttered uneasily as she ducked into the medicine den. Wolfbounce kept his herbs clustered at the sides of the dark den, creating a crowded, cave-like feel to it.

Bumblepaw knew the Shadowclan medicine cat didn’t like her, even though she tried her best to be nice to him, which was difficult given he had never been anything but unfriendly towards her.

“I still can’t believe Starclan chose you,” Wolfbounce muttered, not looking up from the herbs he was sorting. It was nearly pitch black in the den, but he seemed to know which leaves were which regardless.

“Sorry?” Bumblepaw replied uncertainly, her pelt prickling.

“The rogue, the half-clan she-cat, and the Ploverstar’s pet are also not cats I would have gone with,” he continued, “But I try not to question my ancestors. That said, their actions recently are confusing. Allowing that Riverclan brute to become a medicine cat, and even their spokesperson for this endeavor? Ridiculous.”

“Stormflight isn't that bad,” Bumblepaw objected, mentally kicking Ashfur as her mind recoiled at the idea of Tigerstar’s host being anything but bad.

Sorry, Ashfur apologized, not sounding at all sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

What else do you have to do but pay attention to my life? Bumblepaw questioned, fighting to keep her expression from changing. Wolfbounce was studying her oddly, wearing an almost pitying expression that she hadn’t seen on his face before.

I was trying to figure out whether or not Hollyleaf and I are related, Ashfur replied, Unfortunately, I don’t think we are. If you kill your dad, it’s patricide. If you kill your brother, it’s fratricide. What do you call murdering your almost adopted step-father?

Justified, Bumblepaw suggested, and promptly set to the difficult task of ignoring him.

“Stormfight isn’t that bad,” Wolfbounce was repeating, still eyeing her, voice heavy with disbelief. “How can you, of all cats, say that?”

Bumblepaw frowned at him, confused. “I think that I’m actually more likely to say that than most cats, since I know what they’re going through. I’ve only just started having troubles with Ashfur, and I can yell at him. I can’t imagine having Tigerstar in my head my whole life without being able to separate him.”

Wolfbounce laughed roughly, shaking his head. “Bumble, I’m not sure you have all the pieces of that puzzle,” he said. “What all has Flarestar said to you about them?”

“That they’re unsafe and that they’ve killed three cats,” Bumblepaw said. “Why?”

“Well, then I’ll leave it at that,” Wolfbounce replied.

Suspicious, Ashfur murmured in the back of her head.

“Anyway,” Wolfbounce continued, “I didn’t ask you in here to lecture you.”

He could have fooled her. Bumblepaw sat, waiting for him to continue. Wolfbounce scowled, drumming one paw against the pile of herbs. “I know I’ve probably come off as a foxheart,” he growled after a bit, “And maybe I am. But it frustrates me to see an outsider picked as our savior once again, even if your father was from Shadowclan.”

“You know about that?” she blurted, eyes widening.

Wolfbounce snorted. “Unfortunately. Flarestar, Flareblaze at the time, would never let me report him to Rosestar. Regardless, Bumble, you are one of Starclan’s chosen ones, and therefore I must respect their decision, no matter how much I disagree. Hence, I want to warn you of a couple things.

“One: no matter what you think of Stormflight of Riverclan, do not forget what they are capable of,” Wolfbounce said, his gaze flashing. Bumblepaw shivered, remembering the look on Stormflight’s face as they’d watched Orchidfur and Elm leave. Maybe a little regretful, yes, but mostly triumphant.

“Second: you are a clan cat now, not a kittypet. You are a living, breathing omen. Even if Flarestar allows you to jump back and forth between both worlds, I’m afraid your destiny is tied to this one. I hope you realize that the balance you have now may not always be possible.”

“If you’re trying to scare me away, you should know that isn’t going to happen,” Bumblepaw warned, her fluffy pelt poofing up further as her frustration with the conversation grew.

“I’m not trying to scare you away,” Wolfbounce snorted. “I’m just trying to be realistic here. A time will likely come when you have to choose between the clans and your kin, and I need to know you’re prepared to make the right choice.”

Bumblepaw stared at him. He stared back.

What a patronizing idiot.

Bumblepaw wasn’t sure who had thought that, but even if it hadn’t been her, she agreed. Her chest felt tight, her jaw aching from gritting her teeth. “I’ve already made that choice,” she murmured, eyes narrowed.

Wolfbounce might have had some other warnings, but Bumblepaw was tired of the conversation. “Good night, Wolfbounce,” she called over her shoulder.

Sconepaw was waiting for her in the otherwise empty apprentice’s den. Bumblepaw collapsed into her next, letting out a long huff of exasperation.

“He’s a jerk,” Sconepaw agreed, before Bumblepaw could get a word out. Pretty much anything she might have said about the conversation was summed up by that. “What did he want to talk to you about anyway? And why is Stormflight so interested in you?”

Bumblepaw hesitated, studying her sister’s face uncertainly.

Don’t do it, Ashfur warned, she’ll think you’re crazy.

She’s your sister, Thunder countered, I say go for it.

“Can I tell you something big?” Bumblepaw asked.

“Of course,” Sconepaw replied fervently. “You can tell me anything, anytime.” She paused. “I also need to tell you something big.”

Bumblepaw’s throat felt dry. It was one thing to tell her family that she wanted to be a clan cat, but a completely other thing to say she was a special cat with a Starclan chosen destiny and two extra voices in her head. “Maybe you should go first.”

“I think….” Sconepaw squirmed, fiddling with the edge of her nest, “I think I’m going to go back to Turtle and Robert. I’ll at least want to wait until you get your warrior name. This has been pretty cool, but I don’t think I could do this for life. I just feel like I’m playing pretend.” She blinked at Bumblepaw over the rim of her nest, gaze worried. “I’m really sorry.”

Bumblepaw quickly shook her head. “No, don’t be sorry, you made it clear from the start that this was just an experiment. I’m grateful that you’ve stayed with me this long.”

To some extent, she was almost relieved. It was awesome having her sister here, but it also worried her when she thought about Scone going to battle or facing a leaf-bare.

“We’ll always be sisters, even if one of us is a kittypet and the other is a warrior,” Scone promised, reaching a paw across the gap in their nests. Bumblepaw unfolded one of her own yellow paws, and rested it on top of her sister’s.

“Of course,” Bumblepaw agreed, although internally her mind was wandering back to what Wolfbounce had said. She’d chosen the clans.

But Lizardsight had been a clan cat through and through, yet he’d gotten away with leading a double life. She was going to try her very best to do that as well.

“Your turn,” Scone prompted, giving Bumblepaw’s paw a pat.

Bumblepaw cleared her throat, and told Scone. Everything.

When she was done talking, Scone was silent, staring at her, eyes wide.

Told you so, Ashfur commented.

“I don’t understand, but I believe you,” Scone said eventually, scooching her nest closer so that she could rest her head against Bumblepaw’s shoulder. “I can tell you’re telling the truth, even if it doesn’t make sense to me.” Her gaze was worried. “Maybe I should stay after all.”

“No, I’ll be okay,” Bumblepaw protested, “You should do what feels right for you.” After a beat, she grinned. “Also, you just helped me prove Ashfur entirely wrong.”

“Ha! Tell that sucker that he’s an idiot for me,” Scone purred.

Tell that scrawny kittypet that she’s a coward for me, Ashfur growled, but Bumblepaw could feel the bitter tinge of jealousy in his tone.

Ashfur, you’re an idiot, Bumblepaw thought pleasantly. Just because he had blown his chance at being a good brother didn’t mean she was going to let him kill her mood. “Done,” she said to Scone.

They drifted off to sleep like that, nests pulled together and curled up like they were kits again.


Training with Flarestar was always...interesting. On the good days, Bumblepaw bumped Ashfur out to make controlling the memories easier for him, and only had to endure his unhelpful commentary. On those days, it was like she was hanging out with a friend. She imagined that having a mentor her own age was probably a lot more fun than listening to some older cat lecture, especially since there wasn’t much Bumblepaw didn’t already know.

On the bad days, Flarestar mopped the clearing with her while she flailed around, trying to swim in her own head. Today was one of those days.

“Are you okay?” Flarestar asked, peering down at Bumblepaw, who she had recently knocked over after Bumblepaw forgot she was supposed to be dodging. “You’re not overheating in that ridiculously fluffy fur of yours, right? Starclan will be irked if I accidentally let the sun cook you.”

“I’m okay,” Bumblepaw croaked. The only heat she was having trouble with was the fire playing on a loop in her head. Ashfur, get your act together. I can’t train and deal with this at the same time.

There was no reply. Sometimes it seemed to Bumblepaw that Ashfur simply got absorbed into the memories instead of controlling them.

“Well, get up then,” Flarestar snorted, poking her.

“In a second,” Bumblepaw replied, wanting to wait for her head to clear before she tried any more battle moves.

Flarestar studied her, shrugged, then flopped down beside her. “This is very nice ground,” Flarestar mused, flicking a bit of sand at Bumblepaw. “Maybe today’s lesson should be cloud watching, since you seem to already know all the moves I’ve tried to teach you so far.”

Tell that stupid puffball that she’s not helping, Ashfur pleaded, his thoughts seeming clearer now. Or at least move over a bit.

Bumblepaw subtly shifted over. Flarestar didn’t notice. “That one looks like Wolfbounce when he’s in a good mood,” she was saying, waving a ginger paw up at the gap between the trees.

Bumblepaw squinted. “I don’t see it.”

“Exactly,” Flarestar chortled, laughing at her own joke. “That one’s definitely a squirrel.”

“Or a cat with a fluffy tail and short legs,” Bumblepaw argued, grinning.

“So...you?”

“I’m not short!” Bumblepaw objected, giving her a swat with her paw. “You’re shorter than I am.”

“You’d do best not to tease your leader,” Flarestar warned, whiskers twitching with amusement, “I might decide to demote you to kit. Speaking of which, it’s about time I made you a warrior already. Shoulda done it from the start, honestly. You didn’t need any more training. You could mentor me.”

Bumblepaw’s eyes widened in delight, her pelt growing warm at the other she-cat’s praise.

“It’s been fun though, having something to do other than lead,” Flarestar continued, glancing sideways at her. “Honestly, it’s been a bit since I’ve had someone I could just call a friend. That’s partially why I made you my apprentice,” she added, looking a little embarrassed with the fact. “I wanted an excuse to get to know you.”

Great Starclan, this is cheesy, Ashfur complained. I hate soliloquies.

Shut. Up. Bumblepaw replied. “Well, it’s been nice having a friend!” Bumblepaw murmured. “You’re pretty much the first non-sibling cat my age I’ve ever met.”

“Siblings,” Flarestar said wistfully, “Those sound nice. The closest thing I had was Wolfbounce, and he was six moons older. Plus...well, you’ve met Wolfbounce.”

“What’s it like being a leader?” Bumblepaw asked, wanting to keep the conversation going. Flarestar’s response was a sigh.

“A lot of work,” she said, chuckling a little. “Also, kind of weird, since I’m young. Sometimes I forget who I outrank, and, likewise, that I now have the same rank as all the old leaders I used to listen to jabber at the gatherings. Mostly, it involves constantly worrying about everyone, because you know if something happens, it’s your job to figure it out.”

“Yikes,” Bumblepaw murmured.

“Yikes indeed,” Flarestar replied. Suddenly, she jumped to her paws, and announced, “Let’s go have that naming ceremony!”


Flarestar seemed excited to have things underway, because she didn’t bring up an assessment or anything like that. Instead, she just hopped up into her tree, and called the clan together.

“Well, friends, since my apprentice can now outfight me, I think it’s time to either make her a warrior or for me to demote myself,” Flarestar joked, earning a round of laughter from the clan. “Which is why, from this day forward, I’d like you to call me Flarestarpaw. Amblefoot will be my mentor this time around as well, and I’m putting myself on tick duty. Thank you all for your time.”

Amblefoot smiled patiently, looking infinitely older than the goofball currently leading the discussion.

“Just kidding,” Flarestar added, smirking.

“I figured,” they replied dryly.

“Anyway, as Bumblepaw’s mentor, I can confirm that she fights and hunts well enough to fit right in at the warrior’s den. Bumblepaw, do you promise to serve Shadowclan loyalty, even at the cost of your life?”

Bumblepaw felt Wolfbounce’s eyes burning on her back as she nodded. “Of course,” she purred.

“Then from this day forward, you shall be known as Bumblenose. Shadowclan thanks you for your service.”

Bumblenose felt her pelt heat with pride as the clan chanted her name, Scone’s voice the loudest. She caught her sister’s eyes across the clearing, knowing this would probably be one of the last times they were together like this. There would be visits, of course, but it wouldn’t be quite the same.

It’ll be worth it, Thunderstar promised in her head. Lizardsight would be proud of you.

I know, Bumblenose replied. She didn’t need Thunderstar’s reassurance to be sure of that. She tilted her head up towards the clouds, knowing that once the sky faded into night, she’d be able to see his stars. If only he could have been there to cheer for her.

Flarestar jumped down from the tree, and trotted over to brush her head against Bumblenose’s. “Congrats,” she murmured, her breath warm against Bumblenose’s ear. When she leaned back, her eyes were sparkling, her smile playful.

For a brief moment, all she saw was Flarestar and her smile. Then the leader’s eyes were emerald green and the world was crackling with flames and Ashfur was fighting the memory back.

This is going to be an issue, isn’t it?

It could have been anyone’s thought.

Chapter 32[]

“I hate patrolling in this snow,” Stormflight muttered under their breath, kicking up a flurry of snow with their paws as they followed Azollafrost, Mossberry, Mallowpaw, and Quicktail towards the Windclan border.

“Oh, come on, Stormy, it’s not that-” Azollafrost called over her shoulder, before her visible half disappeared into the drift she was climbing. “So this is where the slope got to,” she muttered, her voice muffled. Only her silver ears were visible over the top of the hole she’d created.

Stormflight peered down at her, smirking. “You were saying?”

Azollafrost’s tail appeared as she plowed onward. “It’s not that bad! Actually kind of fun!”

Stormflight watched as the other three cats disappeared in after her, the snow completely swallowing the apprentice, and scowled. “It’s cold.”

“Stormflight, get a move on!” Quicktail called, from somewhere up ahead. Her tail flicked above the snow. When they hesitated, she added, “I’m not your mentor anymore, but I’m still the deputy!”

It seemed to Stormflight that she was essentially still their mentor, given the way she acted. They’d been a warrior for over a season, yet Quicktail seemed to be having a hard time remembering that.

“Young warriors think they own the place,” Mossberry grumbled. “This isn’t bad at all. Back in my day, we had to walk through this stuff just to get to the dirtplace. You should consider yourself lucky that Hawthornstar has the apprentices clear the camp out now!”

Stormflight scowled, and grudgingly plunged into the drift after the rest of the patrol. Luckily, they got the perk of following in their clanmate’s footsteps instead of having to squash down the snow themself.

“Mossberry, you’re not old enough to talk like an elder,” Quicktail complained. “You’re younger than me, and I know for a fact that I am too young to talk like that.”

Quicktail had been deputy for moons and Stormflight had been her second apprentice. In Stormflight’s mind, that made her old.

“Mossberry, your day was what, a year ago?” Azollafrost asked, kicking a bit of snow back into the other warrior’s face.

“It doesn’t matter how old I am, I feel old,” Mossberry grumbled. “It’s this snow.”

“See, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like it!” Stormflight exclaimed triumphantly. “Water should only come in one form. Besides, this patrol is pointless. Windclan’s not going to be out and about in this weather!”

“They might,” Quicktail argued, but she didn’t sound overly enthusiastic either.

When they reached the horseplace, Quicktail scrambled up onto one of the fence posts, sending a small blizzard down on the rest of them. “Everyone, spread out and mark the border. Stay near the fence so you don’t get lost. The faster we get this done, the faster we can go home!”

Shivering, Stormflight shouldered their way along the fenceline, towards where the shrub Riverclan used as a marker should have been. All they could see was snow, snow, and more snow. It seemed silly, marking a border that was just going to get covered back up in five minutes. They opened their mouth to tell Quicktail exactly that, when their paw landed on something squishy.

The squishy thing squirmed.

Stormflight gave it an experimental poke. It poked back.

Frowning, Stormflight dug away the snow around their paw, until they uncovered a tiny, spotted ginger tabby kitten.

“Uh, Quicktail?”

“What?” the deputy hollered back, “Don’t tell me Windclan’s actually been trespassing? Or is it the kittypets?”

“Actually, I found a kit.”

“A what?”

“A kit!”

Quicktail trotted along the fence until she was above Stormflight. She squinted at the kit, then her eyes widened. “Great Starclan, that is a kit!”

Stormflight smiled thinly. They knew the difference between a kit, a mouse, and a dog. They were a genius that way.

“What is he doing out here?” Quicktail worried, glancing around. “It’s far too cold for anyone to be out alone, let alone a kit!” She hopped off the fence, and nosed at the little lump. “I’m amazed he’s still alive. Azollafrost, Mallowpaw, Mossberry, get over here!”

Quicktail nudged the kit towards Mossberry when the warrior arrived. “Here, you and Mallowpaw take him back to camp. I’m going to go check and see if he belongs to the kittypets, Azollafrost, Stormflight, check and see if he has any littermates nearby!”

Azollafrost chewed at her lip, looking worried. “The snow’s so deep….if we’re off by an inch, we’ll completely miss them.”

“Well, all the more reason to get started,” Stormflight replied, already pawing at the snow around them. They cleared out a long row along the fenceline, while Azollafrost worked around the original point where they’d found the kit. Quicktail returned after a bit, and set to work helping them.

“None of the kittypets have kits,” Quicktail informed them, as she pulled a branch of the shrub out of the snow to check beneath it. “I don’t know where else to check. He’s too young to have walked all the way from Windclan.”

“Must be a rogue,” Stormflight guessed.

“But where in the name of Starclan are his parents?” Azollafrost asked. Not here, that was for sure, thought Stormflight.

They worked for hours. The kittypets came out for a bit, but quickly grew cold. Either that, or the reddish one recognized Stormflight from their last encounter. Hawthornstar arrived with a second patrol after a while.

“Airsong’s taking care of the kit,” they informed them, as they gestured for the other warriors to fan out around the area. “She’s named him Pepperkit. She says he’s malnourished and has hypothermia plus some frostbite, but she thinks he’s going to live.”

Eventually, as night began to fall, Hawthornstar called off the search. “If there’s any other kits out here, they’re dead by now,” they said grimly, shaking their head. “We need to get back to camp before Airsong ends up treating anyone else for hypothermia.”

Azollafrost hesitated, staring out at the snow. “It’s not quite dark yet,” she protested.

“C’mon, let’s go,” Stormflight murmured to her, giving their sister a nudge. Their paws were long past numb, and their fur was soaked with icy water. They couldn't imagine a kit surviving out there for more than an hour or so.

Azollafrost gestured at the snow beside her. “There could be a kit right under there.”

“We saved one. Hawthornstar’s right, at this point the best thing we can do is head home,” Stormfight insisted. Azollafrost nodded reluctantly, and followed them back towards camp.



“Stormflight, wake up.”

Stormflight. Wake. Up.”

“Stormflight, please don’t murder me for this.”

Stormflight woke with an unpleasant start, the fur on the back of their neck suddenly soaking wet. With a yelp, they scrambled to their feet, glaring at the ginger tabby holding a large, damp piece of moss. Pepperheart gave them a thin, unapologetic smile, tossed the moss away, and returned to briskly sorting his herbs. “Good morning,” he said over his shoulder.

Blearily, Stormflight shoved their head out of the medicine cat den, and scowled. “This is not morning.” The sky was speckled with stars, and showed absolutely no sign that the sun would be making an appearance anytime soon. Stormflight was just glad that the last of the injured cats had finally moved out of the medicine den, so it was only them and Pepperheart again.

“Well, good night then,” he revised. “Smallspring’s gone into labor, so I’m afraid your beauty sleep will have to wait.” He pushed the piles he was sorting towards Stormflight.

“Borage is for better milk production,” Pepperheart said, patting a pile of fuzzy leaves. “It can be identified by it’s hairy leaves or it’s blue or pink, star shaped flowers.”

“Burnet gives strength. Raspberry leaves ease pain and stop bleeding. Sticks have no medicinal value, but can help distract the queen from the pain.”

“Okay,” Stormflight said, staring at the plants, trying to remember them, but already they were forgetting what was borage and what was burnet or raspberry leaves. They remembered sticks. Sticks were easy enough. They glanced reluctantly over at Pepperheart. “I take it that means I have to help?”

“Yes, Stormflight, you have to help,” Pepperheart said, with a loud sigh. “Delivering kits is one of the best parts of being a medicine cat. You should feel honored.”

Stormflight scowled, their nose wrinkling up. “I’ve seen kittings before, Pepperheart. There’s lots of yowling and bleeding and newborn kits are just slimy blobs anyway. Doesn’t seem like much of an honor.”

“I would have thought that a former warrior could handle a bit of yowling and bleeding,” Pepperheart replied dryly, unimpressed by their disgust. Stormflight’s scowl tightened. They didn’t like being called a former warrior, even if it was technically true.

“I’m just not sure you want my big, unqualified paws getting in your way,” they grumbled.

“Stormflight, I get it. You’re squeamish,” Pepperheart began, smirking at their squawk of protest, “But I really need the extra set of paws. I’ve only helped deliver three litters, and Airsong always did most of the work. These kits will be the first ones born since her death.”

“So, you’re scared you’re going to mess up, huh?” Stormflight said. They’d meant it to be a teasing remark, but Pepperheart’s glare was quick and fierce. He said nothing, his lips pressed tightly together.

“Do you remember who Smallspring’s mate was?” he asked curtly, straightening the pile of burnet leaves, even though they were already perfectly organized.

Oh. Now that Pepperheart had asked, yes, Stormflight did. “Mossberry, right?” they asked, their pelt prickling uncomfortably. When Pepperheart didn’t reply, they grudgingly added, “Sorry.”

Stormflight didn’t entirely understand the guilt that Pepperheart felt around the deaths of Mossyberry and Scarletpelt.

Yes, they hadn’t been that badly injured, yes, maybe Airsong could have done a better job, but Airsong was dead and the two warriors certainly wouldn’t have fared better without Pepperheart. Besides, it was Shadowclan cats who had dealt the blows, not Pepperheart.

Whenever a battle didn’t go the way Stormflight would have liked, that was what they did. Blame Shadowclan, the rogues, whoever they’d been fighting. It made it easier to fight better the next time, knowing that it was vengeance.

Looking at Pepperheart, they guessed it didn’t work that way for medicine cats.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Stormflight said awkwardly, giving Pepperheart a rough pat on the back. “How long until the kits arrive?”

“Maybe a few minutes, maybe a few hours,” Pepperheart shrugged, beginning to gather up his herbs. “Her contractions are still pretty far apart, and-”

“Bleh, skip the details, will you?”

“Your professionalism is awe inspiring,” Pepperheart muttered, rolling his eyes. With a flick of his tail, he led them out of the medicine den and towards the nursery.

Smallspring was on her feet and pacing when they arrived, her expression tight with discomfort and fear. Her eyes brightened at the sight of Pepperheart. “You’re back! Thank Starclan. Is it supposed to be taking this long?” she added, her voice spiking higher in pain.

“I’d be more worried if it wasn’t,” Pepperheart reassured her, arranging his herbs at the edge of the den. “You’ve only just started, and thus far everything’s looking fine. Here, why don’t you eat some of these? They’ll help keep your strength up.” He nudged a pile of burnet towards the queen, who looked grateful for something to do.

Hazemist was watching from the adjacent nest, her kits nowhere to be seen. “I sent them to sleep with the apprentices,” she said at Pepperheart’s questioning glance. “I figured we wouldn’t want them underfoot.” She paused, eyeing Stormflight warily. “What’re they doing here?”

“Helping,” Stormflight growled unenthusiastically, hovering uncomfortably by the door.

“Don’t mind them,” Pepperheart said, flicking his tail dismissively. “Speaking of help, Hazemist, you’re an experienced queen. Would you be willing to give us a paw as well? Since Stormflight’s being a big baby,” he added, shooting them a smirk.

“Of course,” Hazemist agreed, “Just let me know what to do.”

The longer the night progressed, the longer Stormflight was very certain that they did not want to be a medicine cat.

They were tired, grossed out, and just wanted to go back to bed. Of course, if this were a raid or a battle patrol, they would have been wide awake, but it definitely wasn’t one of those. In fact, it seemed to be mostly waiting.

Thankfully, thanks to Hazemist’s presence, Pepperheart was merciful enough to let them spend most of the time running about fetching various herbs or fresh moss instead of in the nursery itself.

At one point, Smallspring let out a hiss of pain, and bit down so hard on her stick that it snapped clean in half, fragments splintering in her mouth. Pepperheart rushed to her side, pausing in his comforting murmurs only long enough to glance at Stormflight and order, “New stick.”

When they rushed out of the den, they left Pepperheart trying to clear the slivers of wood from Smallspring’s mouth while Hazemist did her best to calm her down. By the time they got back with the stick, everyone was shouting.

“I want my mate, you foxheart! You of all cats don’t get to tell me that I’ll be fine!” Smallspring was shrieking. The queen’s eyes were wild with pain and anger.

“Smallspring, calm down!” Hazemist shouted over her, which even Stormflight knew was not how you got anyone to calm down.

Pepperheart glanced over at Stormflight, blood trickling down his snout from the re-opened gash across his forehead. He snatched the stick from them, but when he tried to give it to Smallspring, she hit him with it. “For Starclan’s sake,” he groaned, rubbing his head.

“I don’t want a stick, I want Mossberry!” she snarled, “And if you were half the medicine cat Airsong was, I’d have him!”

“Hey!” Stormflight snapped, their ears flattening back against their head, “Leave him alone! He didn’t kill your mate!” They loomed threateningly over the queen, who looked all too pleased to have someone new to yell at.

“Alright, you can both leave now,” Pepperheart growled, shoving Hazemist and Stormflight towards the entrance. “You’re not helping, and we do not talk back to the patient.”

“Even if the patient is assaulting the medicine cat?” Stormflight called over their shoulder, stumbling to the side to avoid plowing over Hazemist.

“Yes!” Pepperheart said, shooting them a glare.

Stormflight poked their head back through the doorway, feeling significantly more motivated to supervise not that things had taken a violent turn. They watched as Pepperheart grabbed a raspberry leaf out of his supplies, pressed it to his forehead, then went back to work.

Smallspring hissed as he took a step towards her, swiping at the space between them. Pepperheart frowned, then murmured, “Look, I know you’re angry with me. I’m sorry I couldn’t save your mate. But, right now, getting your kits born safe and sound is the main job for both of us. Let’s get that done, and you can hit me later if you still feel like it. Deal?”

Smallspring glared at him, then growled, “Fine.

Assured that their mentor wasn’t going to be murdered, Stormflight retreated back outdoors. They glanced sideways at Hazemist. “Is this….normal?”

Hazemist’s eyes narrowed at them, her expression not entirely friendly, but after a moment, she shrugged. “I spent most of my first kitting resisting the urge to claw Tempestsong’s face off for telling me I was doing fine. I can’t imagine going through it without him.”

Stormflight couldn’t imagine doing it, period. If they ever had kits, they were definitely adopting.

It was morning by the time Pepperheart allowed them back in. Both he and Smallspring looked exhausted but triumphant, to the point where Pepperheart could have been mistaken for a proud father.

“See, aren’t they cute?” he whispered, flicking his tail towards the four little shapes nestled against Smallspring’s ginger tabby fur.

Stormflight eyed the kits warily. They looked very small and delicate, almost alien in their sheer helplessness.

“I suppose,” they mused, shrugging.

Pepperheart smirked at them, giving them a nudge with one paw. “You suppose? C’mon, Stormflight. You can do better than that. I promise I won’t tease you for this, you’ve already given me plenty of ammunition tonight.”

“I am not squeamish,” Stormflight insisted, giving him a rough shove back, their pelt prickling with embarrassment. Oh well. At least they were earning a smile from him.

It struck them suddenly that Azollafrost would have jumped at the chance to bug them about this. They never would have heard the end of it.

“Oh, I believe you,” Pepperheart replied, still smirking. He wiped a bit of blood away from his eyes, then leaned over to Smallspring. “Have you named them yet?”

“I’m thinking Shellkit, Flashkit, Foamkit, and Ripplekit,” she replied, staring contently at the nursing kits. She looked up as Pepperheart dug another raspberry leaf out of his makeshift storage, her expression darkening. “Oh, Pepperheart, your face! Great Starclan, I’m sorry, I just…” Smallspring ducked her head in shame. “I really wanted to hit someone, and I guess you were closest.”

“I’m a medicine cat. I’ve dedicated my life to making cats feel better. And even if that involves getting clawed a few times, it’s worth it,” Pepperheart said, smiling warmly. “The kits are here and healthy and that’s all that matters.”

“Thank you,” Smallspring purred, leaning over to give the top of his head a brisk lick.

Maybe, just maybe, Stormflight could see why Pepperheart liked this job. They glanced again at the new kits. How was it that these things were going to grow into fierce warriors some day? How had Stormflight gone from cute and tiny to the monster they were now?

Oh, right. Starclan stuck a Tigerstar in their head.

Stormflight hoped that there were truly only five of the chosen cats, and that none of the squirmy blobs before them were going to have to deal with the mess they’d inherited from the stars.


“Where’s Pepperheart?” Bearsnout called as Stormflight trotted down the slope to the moonpool, the half moon shining overhead.

It had been half a moon since the gathering, and Stormflight was not looking forward to the next one, but they were looking forward to a chance to interrogate Starclan a bit tonight.

“We have a new litter in Riverclan,” Stormflight boasted, shooting a smug look in the direction of Wolfbounce. As far as they were aware, Shadowclan still had no kits, and besides Bumblepaw and Sconepaw, who were too old to really count, no apprentices either. “Four healthy kits. He’s staying back to keep an eye on them, but they’re already big and strong.”

In reality, the kits were one day old and still tiny, but it was the thought that counted.

“Aww,” Bearsnout purred, grinning. “That’s wonderful. Did you enjoy helping with your first kitting?”

“Stormflight probably eats kits,” Wolfbounce grumbled. Stormflight shot him an irritated look. They had enough rumors circulating about them as it was, and they were currently very pleased to say that kit eating was not one of them, and they planned to keep it that way.

“It was pretty cool,” they said, thinking of the part at the end. Stormflight glanced around, noticing that there was only one warrior present, Whispersong of Windclan, who was standing a polite distance away. They had been under the impression that most of the clans hadn’t been allowing cats to go out alone. “No escorts tonight?” they asked, glancing at Bearsnout, Sablewind, and Wolfbounce.

“Shadowclan’s not afraid of a few rogues,” Wolfbounce scoffed, rolling his eyes. Funnily enough, Stormflight seemed to remember him being plenty scared when Dallas had paid them a visit a couple of moons ago.

Bearsnout and Sablewind exchanged an uncomfortable glance.

“Skyclan’s not afraid either!” Sablewind’s tiny new apprentice chirped, their chest puffed out proudly.

“That’s a lie, Skyclan’s afraid of everything!” Bubblepaw snickered, giving the tabby apprentice a jab with his paw.

The adult medicine cats ignored the ‘paw’s argument.

“Based on what we heard about Riverclan’s fight with the Guild, Dewstar figured a pawful of warriors wouldn’t make much of a difference,” Sablewind explained, their tail twitching nervously.

“Applestar too,” Bearsnout agreed.

Stormflight wondered if this was true, or if the leaders just lacked the stamina to keep their clans locked up tight for a long period of time. Hawthornstar hadn’t loosened up, that was for sure.

“Well, you don’t have an escort either,” Wolfbounce huffed, shooting them a glare.

“The Guild already had a chance at me, and they passed me up,” Stormflight said, “Plus, I can fight.” They paused, watching the other medicine cats.

This was one of the few places they could talk honestly without getting stared at like a lunatic. All of the medicine cats, except perhaps the goofy apprentice Sablewind had brought along, were in on it.

“Any luck?” they asked, knowing they’d know what they were talking about.

“Flarestar believes us, but won’t show public support,” Wolfbounce said, “But you already know that. It’s your fault, you know. If we’d spoken to the leaders privately first, we could have skipped the whole fiasco.”

Stormflight’s fur bristled with indignation. “My fault?” they growled, glaring down at him.

“You heard me,” he said, although he looked significantly less sure of his answer with them towering over him. Stormflight sent a quick thank you up to Starclan for making so many of the medicine cats short.

“Hindsight won’t help us now,” Bearsnout soothed, stepping between the two of them. “What’s done is done.” Turning to Stormflight, she continued, “Applestar doesn’t believe in Starclan, nor does she believe in the chosen cats, but I’ve managed to convince her that if the idea of five special cats saving us all might help cats feel safer, and be good for morale. If the ridicule dies down, she’ll side with us.”

“Dewstar fully believes in us, but…” Sablewind shrugged. “You’ve all met Dewstar. If the others disagree, he won’t speak out.”

“Ploverstar is completely on our side. He said he’ll see what he can do to sway the public view,” Dustone meowed.

Stormflight nodded, relieved. The other four leaders might now be willing to stand up for them, but if they had Ploverstar, who needed them anyway? He was well respected enough that no one would laugh at him directly, and wise enough to know how to navigate politics better than anyone else.

“That said,” Duststone continued, dropping her voice, “Stormflight, he wants me to tell you to stay away from Valleystep. Whatever your strategy is, it’s not working.”

“It’s Fogheart’s fault,” Stormflight growled, their claws scraping against the stone.

“It is not,” Duststone replied curtly. “Your attitude is the problem. Leave Valleystep to Ploverstar and me, we’ll see if we can change their mind.”

Bearsnout let out a long, tired breath. “Well, it sounds like there isn’t much new to say. Shall we begin?” She nodded towards the moonpool.

“Wait! First we have to do Figpaw’s ceremony,” Sablewind interjected, jumping to their feet.

“Yay!” the dark tabby apprentice squealed, hopping about at their feet. It seemed to Stormflight that Figpaw and Bubblepaw ought to set aside their differences and form a club for hyper idiots.

Sablewind cleared their throat, staring up at the full moon. “Starclan, in these dark times, I ask you to welcome a new light to our midsts. Figpaw, are you ready to dedicate your life in the service of healing and Starclan?”

“Yes!” they exclaimed, “I love plant magic!”

Sablewind gaze at the stars grew significantly more exasperated. “Then from this day on, Figpaw, you are a medicine cat. May Starclan guide your paws well.”

“Figpaw! Figpaw!” Bearsnout, Duststone, and Sablewind chanted enthusiastically. Stormflight raised their voice alongside them, but glanced sideways at Wolfbounce, who was watching the little apprentice dance around yowling “Plant magic!”, looking like he was feeling the same lack of excitement as Stormflight.

“Let’s get on with this,” Wolfbounce grunted, gesturing towards the pool. Stormflight nodded, and crouched down to dip their nose to the water.


They opened their eyes, braising themself for the skeletal gloom of the Dark Forest, internally wondering if this was the time they were unable to find a guide and got lost in the fog.

But the sight that met their gaze was a significant step up from last time. A grin split Stormflight’s face as they stared down at their paws, and at the faded border in between them.

Under one paw was the soft, dilute green grass of Starclan, and under the other, the brittle shell of the Dark Forest floor. Stormflight ran a paw over each, marveling at it. Obviously, Starclan wasn’t ready to welcome them yet, but this was a big step up to waking up in the middle of the Dark Forest.

“Consider this a reward for your good work,” Blackstar called, approaching from the Starclan side. He studied their paws for a moment, then added, “And I truly mean that. Good work. I understand how hard change can be. That said,” he continued, giving their Dark Forest paw a pat, “To get that moved, you’re going to have to stop drowning people.”

“I did that to prove to them that they were chosen!” Stormflight objected, glaring at him.

“And the fact that you weren’t overly worried about the potential side effects of that was a little concerning,” Blackstar countered levely. “I tried to argue a little more leeway for you, but Firestar was very adamant about that. No drowning, and no randomly attacking people. Still, half and half is an improvement.”

Stormflight rolled their eyes, irritated at the mention of Starclan’s golden boy, then paused. “Wait, if I were to die today, where would I go? Starclan or Dark Forest?”

Blackstar studied the border thoughtfully. “Starclan, I think, unless you died doing something foolish, like trying to kill your own leader. This is really just symbolic,” he added at their confusion. “We chose where you wake up.

Stormflight let out a breath they hadn’t known they were holding. They were fit for Starclan now, or at least probably fit for Starclan. “And earlier I would have gone to the Dark Forest?”

“Yes,” Blackstar confirmed. “Fresh out of killing your sister, not yet feeling guilty, not yet feeling guilty for anything you’d done? You would have fit in well with Brokenstar and Locustshade.”

Stormflight shivered, staring at the gloom that lay beyond their right paw. It wasn’t that knowledge itself that made them nervous, it was the fact that they knew just how precarious their perch on the scale was. They knew how easy it would be to go back to being the way they were before, the way they couldn’t quite wean themself off of.

“Right. Well, I have some questions for you,” Stormflight said.

“Fire away,” Blackstar replied, waiting.

“First of all, why are you all being so suspiciously straight forward all of the sudden? No prophecy, no omens, no riddles? When, in the history of the clans, has Starclan ever just said ‘Hey, you’re special. Go save folks?’” Stormflight pressed.

“Good question,” Blackstar said. “If Starclan had been less obscure back in my day, a whole lot of trouble could have been avoided.”

“Eh, I think you still would have fallen for Sol,” Stormflight said, smirking.

Blackstar shot them a glare, but did not comment. Stormflight found his silence very telling. Instead, he lead them through Starclan territory, to a large, glassy pond of water.

Around it clustered a dozen or so cats, their pelts mostly starry and faded. They all looked up as Stormflight approached, their eyes widening with surprise.

“You’re showing them the pools?” one exclaimed, a wizened, bluish grey she-cat.

“Yes, Bluestar, I think it’s time,” Blackstar agreed. Stormflight stared. Bluestar? The Bluestar? They’d never liked her, probably courtesy of Tigerstar, but still, each new cat they met in Starclan seemed to be a celebrity. “Besides, they’ve already seen it, I just want to explain how it works more.”

“Pst,” a voice whispered in their ear. Stormflight turned to see Airsong’s smiling face beside them. “Thank you for taking care of Pepperheart,” she said, pressing against Stormflight’s side. “Tell him I say hi, okay? And that I’m proud of him. He did so well on that kitting.”

“Uh,” Stormflight said, startled by her friendliness, “Okay.” They couldn’t remember ever speaking more than a few words to the old medicine cat when she was alive.

Airsong’s smile grew. “I was worried at first. Between my absence, the threat of you and the lies he had to tell to keep you safe, and Mossbery and Scarletpelt’s deaths, he was in a rough spot. But now that you’ve smoothed things over, you’re good for him.” Airsong sounded like a fond mother, which Stormflight supposed was essentially what she had been to Pepperheart.

“Okay,” Stormflight repeated, internally squirming. They didn’t like talking about feelings, certainly not Pepperheart’s, and especially with someone other than him.

Airsong gave them a pat on the shoulder, then trotted off into the starry forest. Stormflight turned back around, just in time to catch a glimpse of a sliver of silver disappearing in the opposite direction.

Stormflight stared after it, their pulse speeding up. They could be seeing things, or they could be seeing their sister’s pelt.

“Fine,” Bluestar growled, drawing their attention back towards the pond. “I still think this is a bad idea.”

Blackstar ignored her, gesturing for Stormflight to join him by the edge. “This is our equivalent of the moonpool,” he explained. “We can see the lives of those who believe in us through it.”

Currently, the screen showed Elm, his calico pelt diminished to subtle dapples by the pond’s foggy surface. He was quietly pacing the perimeter of Skyclan camp, expression mute of emotion.

“What’s he doing?” Stormflight asked, frowning. “And how can you see him? He’s quite adamant about not believing in Starclan.”

“So were you,” Blackstar pointed out. “First of all, Elmstrike believes now, despite his best efforts, thanks to your swimming lesson. But even if he didn’t, Shadowstar and Darktail know that Starclan is real, and that is enough. To answer your first question, we’re not sure.”

“We used to be able to sense intentions and emotions through this,” Bluestar growled, “And if we jumped in, we could walk in dreams and influence the living world enough to cause omens. Not anymore, though. Just images.”

“We’ve been watching this one closely,” Blackstar continued, frowning at the pond. “The speed at which he’s gained his clanmate’s trust is...troubling. It’s hard to tell what he’s up to though, because he’s so guarded, even in private.” Blackstar gestured towards the tom’s blank expression. “It’s the middle of the night and he’s completely alone, yet could you guess how he’s feeling?”

Stormflight watched Elm pace back and forth, then shrugged. “I have no clue. Can you see everyone through this?”

“Only those who believe in us,” Blackstar said. “It doesn’t take much to get a connection, even a sliver of doubt in their disbelief will do it. Still, we can only see a couple dozen cats.” He glanced at Stormflight, and smiled. “We’ve gained several new views lately. Despite the backlash you received, your announcement at the gathering did help.”

Stormflight watched as he poked the water, switching the point of view. Almost everyone was asleep, but they caught a glimpse of themself, peering into the pool. “That’s kind of creepy,” they commented.

“Yes, but these pools are our only connection to the living, and what comes next,” Blackstar said.

“What comes next?” Stormflight echoed.

Blackstar nodded. “We’re not sure what exactly lies beyond Starclan, but we know there is a higher power even than us. That is where we receive our glimpses of the future.” He pondered the pool thoughtfully. “But the less belief we have, the foggier those glimpses get. See, the reason our prophecies are so vague is because it’s all we receive most of the time. These days, we know barely more than the clans do about the future.

“The prophecy that motivated Riverstar to create you and your four friends happened three years ago, a few seasons before you were born,” he continued. “It was the vaguest and scariest one we’d seen, and since then, the only snippet of the future the ponds will show us is that one.”

“What was it?” Stormflight asked.

“Nothing,” Blackstar murmured. “An empty forest. A void where Starclan used to be.” His voice was quiet as he summarized, “A world without the clans.”

A shiver ran up Stormflight’s spine, their insides going cold. “How do we stop it?”

“We don’t know,” Blackstar replied, his smile sad.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” Stormflight asked, gesturing at themself. “Riverstar created me, right? He and Tigerstar organized my existence? Why?”

“Again, we don’t know. Maybe he had an idea, maybe he just wanted a way to secure himself a little more time. I’m sorry, Stormflight,” Blackstar said, his voice soft, “But Starclan doesn’t have the answers anymore.”

Stormflight stared at the pond, then back at Blackstar, replaying his words in their head a couple times to make sure they had heard them correctly. Surly, they hadn’t?

They had.

“You don’t get to say that,” they snarled, their anger flaring up to replace the fear welling in their fur.

“Pardon?” Blackstar asked, leaning back.

“You can’t just-” Stormflight gritted their teeth, searching for the words. “You hijacked my life. You can’t just tell me you don’t know what you’re doing.” They unsheathed their claws, and tore them across the ground, their paw sinking straight through the wispy grass.

“Stormflight, calm down,” Blackstar murmured, backpedalling as they stalked forward. “Think about this.”

“I am thinking about this,” they snarled, their lips curling back in disgust, “And the more I think, the less I want to calm down.” Around them, the Starclan cats were bristling, preparing for a fight. There were too many of them for Stormflight to win, and they didn’t care.

“Easy, Stormflight,” Bluestar breathed, eyeing them warily. “This isn’t you.”

“Ah, you’re wrong there,” Stormflight laughed, shaking their head. “It is. I’m not Bumblepaw. I can’t just kick my demons out and go back to being an angel. Tigerstar is me. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“Don’t say that, you’ve made so much progress,” Blackstar objected soothingly.

“Mousedung! I did bad things before, I do bad things now, and guess what, I’m probably going to do a whole load more before someone has the brains to put me in my grave!” Stormflight yowled in his face, “The only thing that’s changed now is that you’ve taught me to hate myself for them! Even if I get better at controlling myself, someday I’m going to mess up again, and someone’s going to get hurt.”

Blackstar was eying their unsheathed claws nervously. Stormflight wondered how long it had been since any of the Starclan cats had fought. Probably too long. “Stormflight, remember, we don’t need a monster,” he murmured, using Firestar’s words.

Stormflight snorted. “You don’t need me at all. You’ve been pretending I’m some sort of chosen cat, but really I’m just a mess that Riverstar dumped you with, aren’t I? You’re just hoping I’ll shape up into something you can use!”

That perfectly summed up how they felt. Used.

Because of Starclan, they were forced to become a medicine cat. Because of Starclan, they were the least respected cat in the clans. Because of Starclan, they were a monster. Because of Starclan, they didn’t have a sister.

And now Blackstar was admitting that he had no idea what came next?

They took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep being your obedient little puppet, because it’s too late for me to be anything else. But I swear, if you don’t tell me what to do next, someone’s going to die tonight. And it’s not going to be just me.”

Blackstar stared at them. “Stormflight, we’ve already told you everything we know.”

Not good enough,” Stormflight hissed, raising a paw to study their claws.

Were they really going to go through with this? It felt different than when they normally lost control, but no less inevitable.

Yeah, they were going to do it. At this point, Starclan was the only thing guiding their life. Stormflight didn’t want to be a medicine cat, but they couldn’t be a warrior. Their kin was either dead or distant.

Slaughtering a bunch of long dead heros would certainly be a fitting ending.

“Well, it’s obvious enough that the prophecy is trying to tell us that if not stopped, the Guild will destroy the clans,” Bluestar interjected, “So you should try and figure out what the Guild is up to. Plant a spy if you have to. Maybe there’s a weakness for you to use.”

“Also,” Blackstar added, “Tell stories.”

Stormflight frowned at him. “What?”

“Tell stories,” he repeated. “Part of Starclan’s strength comes from belief, but to an extent, just being remembered is enough to help. That’s why most of the cats here are either newly dead, well known leaders, or prophecy cats. We’re all that the living can recall. If you make sure cats know our stories you can keep us from fading. Maybe you’d even be able to bring some of the faded back.”

Stormflight considered this, making note of the two suggestions. “That’ll do, I suppose,” they said, letting out a deep breath. At the very least, they felt they owed it to Azollafrost to make sure she was remembered.

Airsong had crept back into the crowd at some point during their outburst. “And keep Pepperheart safe,” she added, her voice confident over the crowd. “You’re mad at us for not having a destiny prepared for you, but you need to figure out what you want out of your own life, Stormflight.” Her eyes were steady and stern as she stared at them. “Keep Pepperheart safe. He matters to you now, doesn’t he? That’s a good place to start.”

Stormflight glared at her. They had known what they wanted with their life, and then Starclan had taken that away. But she was right, Pepperheart did matter. Internally, they added Airsong’s instructions to their list.

Without another word, they turned and ran, not wanting to deal with whatever consequences the leaders would come up with for their outburst. The grass slid through their pelt, their paws skating across nothingness.

They turned at the border, also not wanting to deal with Brokenstar or Locustshade. Brokenstar would be too amused, Locustshade would be too easy to relate to. Stormflight ran on, waiting for Starclan to let them wake up.

Something pricked their back of their neck, some unknown sixth sense making them skid to a stop. Stormflight spun around, searching the trees, looking for whoever was following them.

Their heart skipped a beat as they caught sight once again of a silver pelt weaving between the translucent trees, a cat’s form barely visible around the misty plants.

“Azollafrost?” they called, taking a step forward. The shape froze. “Azollafrost! Come out, we need to talk!” The shape turned and ran. Stormflight pelted after it, slipping on the frictionless ground.

They crashed right through a tree without even feeling it, the wisps reforming behind them. “Come back!” Stormflight shouted, even as they lost sight of their sister. “Please!”

The forest was silent.

“I’m sorry!” they howled in the direction of the ghost, hoping she was still within earshot. “I am so, so sorry!” Their throat burned, but there was still no reply. Because there was no one listening anymore, they let their voice drop to a whisper. “I still miss you.”


“How was the meeting?” Pepperheart called as they stepped into the medicine den, his tone cheerful.

Stormflight couldn’t muster up a reply. Not now. Not after Starclan had told them there was no reason for their existence, not after Azollafrost had turned her back on them and ran. They ignored his worried gaze, and slouched into their nest.

“What’s wrong?” Pepperheart asked, hovering by their shoulder.

Stormflight closed their eyes, reaching for sleep that wouldn’t come. Pepperheart didn’t move.

“You’re the only cat I don’t hate right now,” they growled eventually, glaring at the inside of their eyelids. They were including themself in that sentiment.

There was a long, long pause as Pepperheart tried to figure out how to reply to that.

“Well, what a funny coincidence,” Pepperheart said. “You’re my best friend, too.”

Best friend?

Was that what they had said? No, but they supposed that was what it meant once they thought about it. If they hated everyone else, then obviously they liked Pepperheart the best.

Best friend.

Stormflight had killed their last one.

They were going to follow Airsong’s advice and make sure it didn’t happen again.

Chapter 33[]

Hunter didn’t understand why his son was so obsessed with boxes, but he was probably just glad to encourage his seemingly harmless hobby of scratching marks in the sides, anything to keep him out of trouble.

Wouldn’t it be funny if he knew it was Elm keeping him out of trouble?

Regardless, Elm had his boxes, so that was a win. The boxes kept his mind off of Luna’s absence, distracting him from the facts that were growing increasingly hard to ignore.

Luna was coming back.

Except, no, she wasn’t. Elm knew that, but he refused to admit it. Instead, what he was doing was returning to the project he had started several moons ago: the organization of the allies.

Calling it a project was making a molehill out of a mountain. He’d gone through a dozen boxes already, tallying up the population, taking stock of the resources, trying to gauge support.

The first two had gone well. By his calculations, there was enough food to go around, it just wasn’t distributed properly. The best hunters and scavengers kept all the food for themselves, growing fat and letting the excess rot, while everyone else starved.

The third bit was much, much harder. Out of everyone he’d surveyed, only a few dozen had expressed any interest in actually contributing. In most cat’s minds, this was a good plan for everyone else to do.

Hopefully, it would gain momentum once he started.

He was starting today.

Elm could hardly contain his excitement, and couldn’t ignore the whisper in his mind saying how brilliant it would be for Luna to come home and find her son had fixed everything.

He double checked his tallies, took a deep breath, and grabbed a fresh box. Elm bit down on the rim, and dragged it off.

Elm started the collection off with three mice he’d caught that morning. It was a big sacrifice, considering his stomach had been aching for days, but he wanted to make it look like more people were involved than there were.

His first stop was a kind, older tom who always smiled when Elm walked by with his boxes.

“Oh, of course!” the tom purred when Elm asked if he was still interested in his idea. The old cat dug about in his makeshift den, and came out with a leg of chicken. “Will this do?”

“Yes, thank you!” Elm purred, beaming as the tom dropped the chicken in the box next to the mice.

For a foolish moment, he thought he might actually make it work.

His mood began to fall as the next few cats turned him away. One she-cat gave him a few bread scraps, another some worms. Elm tried to remind himself that this might be all they could afford to give, but he could have sworn he saw a mocking gleam in their eyes.

The day dragged on, Elm grew tired, but his box did not fill. Several cats laughed at him, some tossed rocks and garbage beside the mice and the chicken. He was chased off, snarled at, threatened, and mocked.

And he had three mice, a leg of chicken, a few bites of bread, and a pawful of worms for his efforts.

It wasn’t enough. He knew it wasn’t enough.

“Hey, you!” a scrawny, dark grey tom called, jumping down from a nearby wall as Elm made his retreat. Elm froze, his expression darkening as several cats peeled away from the shadows.

He knew this group. “Hey, Bane,” he murmured, slowly unsheathing his claws. Elm normally wouldn’t mind an excuse to kick Bane’s rear, but he had to keep his investments safe, no matter how lame they were.

“I’ve got something to donate,” Bane cackled, grinning at him, “Do you take dead bodies? Wait, never mind, you won’t be around to turn it away.”

“I will gladly accept your corpse, thank you,” Elm replied cordially, nudging his box backwards. He held Bane’s gaze, smiling calmly at the other cat.

He and Bane were the same age, a few moons short of a year old, but somehow the other kitten had managed to build himself a possy to hide behind. Elm hated bullies, but he especially despised cats who couldn’t do their own dirty work.

“Want to know a good strategy to win a fight when you’re outnumbered?” Elm asked Bane, ignoring the cats circling around him. “Go for the leader. Once they’re dead, the others won’t know what to do.”

He saw Bane slowly going over his threat in his head, trying to figure out what it meant. Elm shook his head disapprovingly, and darted forward, claws outstretched.

He’d been planning to kill him. The realization surprised Elm as Bane managed to scramble to the side, causing him to jab his shoulder instead of his throat. Elm had only killed two cats before, and that had been because he had to.

He didn’t need to kill Bane, but he sure wanted to.

Elm wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Bane let out a howl as he stumbled back, blood pouring from his shoulder. Without so much as a last word, the coward fled, taking his friends with him.

Elm stared after them, and then turned and looked at his sad collection of food. He’d put so much time and preparation into it, and it had failed.

He let out a shaky breath. He knew when to quit, and that was now. Obviously, logic and brains were nothing without power. Maybe someday he’d have it, but Elm wouldn’t waste it on this dump.

The cats here had had their chance, and they’d wasted it. “No more playing nice,” Elm murmured to himself. From now on, it was Elm and Hunter first, the rest of the world second. Luna, he decided, wasn’t invited. She was either dead or she’d abandoned him.

He tried to not care about that realization.

Elm spent the next hour trying to talk himself into keeping the old cat’s chicken. Leaf-bare was approaching, and he and Hunter needed all the strength they could get. But, in the end, he returned it, ignoring the tom’s questioning glance. He wanted to survive the bullies of the streets, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to be one.


“You are no longer a cool mentor,” Thymepaw groaned, swatting Elm’s paw away as he attempted to shake her away. “It’s the middle of the night!”

“You said you wanted to go on dawn patrol with me,” he reminded her, giving her a poke. “This is the time that the dawn patrol wakes up.” He glanced outside, to where the rest of the patrol was waiting, and poked her again. “Therefore, it’s the time that you wake up today.”

Poke.

Poke.

“If I have to physically remove you from that nest, you’re going to take the other apprentices’ tick duties for a moon,” Elm warned.

Poke.

Poke.

Still no reply.

Elm checked his apprentice’s breathing, confirming that she was both alive and awake, meaning she was ignoring him. “Are you going to make me count like you’re a kit?” he asked, exasperated. “I warned you it would be early, but you said you didn’t care. You are going on dawn patrol.”

Thymepaw’s only response was a muffled grumble.

Poke.

“One,” Elms said, his irritation legitimate. What was it with other cats and waking up early? No one behaved sane before the sun came up. Dawn patrol was never dull, as a result.

Poke.

“Two,” he growled, glaring at the back of his apprentice’s head.

“G’way,” Thymepaw mumbled. “I’m too sleepy.”

Elmstrike sighed. “Three.”

Poke.

Well, this was downright ridiculous. Elms sighed, and bent down to snag the drowsy kitten’s scruff. “Consider yourself in trouble,” he warned, before swinging her up into the air.

She was both too old and too big for this. Her entire back half dragged on the ground, but she remained limp, like she’d left her bones back in the nest. Elm hauled her out of the den and across the camp, letting out a hiss of annoyance as she dug her paws into the ground.

He dropped her at the paws of the rest of the dawn patrol. Thymepaw let her face flop to the ground. “You’re mean,” she complained to the dusty floor, seeming content to lay there forever.

The patrol stared at her, then at Elm. Pondstone, Orchidfur, Hayfire, and Goosepaw regarded her with a mixed collection of astonishment, embarrassment, and annoyance, while Hedgeflight was looking downright murderous.

“Thymepaw, what in Starclan’s name is this?” she growled, storming to her daughter’s side. “Are you an apprentice or a fish? Stop flopping around and get up!”

Thymepaw stood so quickly that she couldn’t quite get her legs underneath her in time. She stumbled against Elm, who patiently propped her back upright. “You didn’t tell me my mother was on this patrol!” she squealed, shooting him a betrayed look.

“What would have been the fun in that?” he murmured back, watching with a mixture of amusement and a muted jealousy that he opted to ignore. Yes, it would be lovely to be yelled at by either of his parents again, but that wasn’t going to happen, so he might as well enjoy the silence.

Hayfire snorted, shaking her head slightly at her kin’s antics. “She inherits all of that from our side of the family, Hedgeflight. Now, hurry up, this patrol’s running late. Elmstrike, everything under control?” she added, narrowing her eyes at him.

Here this was again. The I’m keeping an eye on you look.

“Yes m’am,” he replied, grinning like he didn’t find her stare troubling. Was Hayfire merely concerned that he couldn’t handle his apprentice, or was it true distrust?

“Good,” she replied, nodding her approval.

Probably just concerned, Elm decided, following Pondstone out of the camp. She’d better just be concerned, he’d put a lot of effort into forging their relationship.

It was mutual, or as mutual as it could be when he was what he was. She respected his dedication, he appreciated her organized control over the clan. Of course, that was exactly how he’d planned for things to work out.

Elm personally thought it was possible for something to be strategic without being entirely fake. Elm glanced around at the rest of the patrol, musing over the steps he’d taken to get here, trotting alongside them like he’d always been there. Entirely  was the key word. He could only get so far on bonds built on the foundation of a performance.

Maybe he could have fit in with these cats anyway if he’d let things unfold how they wished, but then again, maybe not. Either way, it would have taken longer, and time was not a resource he liked to waste.

It was a shame that friendships were such dangerous things. Spinning too many strings had a way of making the world feel hollow.

Thymepaw fell in stride with him, dragging Elm from his thoughts. She had the good sense to look embarrassed with her little display. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, kicking at the dry grass at their feet.

“Hmm,” Elm hummed, tilting his head. “Are you actually sorry, or did your mother tell you to say that?”

Thyempaw’s embarrassment grew. “Both,” she admitted. “Do I really have to do tick duty for a moon?” she added, eyeing him.

Elm laughed at her comically sad expression. Did that face work on her parents? He couldn’t imagine Hedgeflight falling for it, but Kalenose was another matter. Elm wasn’t fooled. “We’ll see,” he mused, “Perhaps good behavior might lessen that sentence.”

“I won’t let you down!” Thymepaw exclaimed, her face splitting into a grin.

Well, perhaps he’d been fooled just a little bit. Her enthusiasm was infectious.

Elm felt the familiar burn of Orchidfur’s gaze against the back of his head, sudden and fierce. He flicked an ear to the side, just to let her know that he was aware she was watching him again.

These were the two cracks in his facade.

Every cat wanted something, and the easiest way to gain their trust was to give it to them.

Thymepaw wanted a mentor and a friend, and Elm had fit that position automatically without having to think about it. No falsities required.

Elm was fairly certain that at this point, the only thing Orchidfur wanted that he could give her was his swift exit from the forest. In gaining the trust of the rest of Skyclan, he’d inadvertently deepened her distrust.

Because she wasn’t fooled by any of this. It didn’t bother him nearly as much as it ought to, knowing that she could see the web he’d woven.

The patrol stopped at the Shadowclan border, chatting and grumbling as they fell silent.

The Shadowclan border was not where it had been yesterday.

“Those cowards took another five foxlengths, at least!” Hedgeflight snarled, her eyes flattening with fury as she sniffed at the freshly marked bush. Her apprentice, Goosepaw, scowled in agreement, her eyes sparkling with frustration.

Thymepaw glanced nervously up at Elm. “Elmstrike, what do we do?” she asked.

A fair question. Did they leave it as it was, concede the territory, and sink further into their slow defeat? Or did they risk the wrath of both Dewstar and Shadowclan by holding their ground?

Elm looked expectantly to Pondstone, who was technically leading the patrol. The other cat’s eyes widened in alarm, as they realized that, yes, they were in charge of choosing. “Dewstar always says to report back to him and let him handle it,” they muttered nervously.

Hedgeflight spun around to glare at her littermate, eyes flashing with anger. “Dewstar isn’t here, Pondstone. We need to remark the border where it was yesterday. No, actually, we should move it in five foxlengths, to give them a taste of their own medicine.”

“But we will budge,” Orchidfur murmured, quietly working herself into the debate. She glanced at Hedgeflight, her expression dismissive. “We always do.”

Thymepaw bristled at Orchidfur’s tone, and jumped to defend her mother. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we should! We need to fight back!”

Hedgeflight nodded fervently. “Exactly. Orchidfur, I know things might have been done differently in Thunderclan, but the warrior code demands us to defend our borders.”

Orchidfur’s eyes danced with disdain as she regarded the other she-cat coldly. “You’re as naive as your daughter if you think Dewstar will back that decision. Remember what happened to Locustshade.”

There was something about the pattern of those words that seemed to make them mean more to Hedgeflight than they did to Elm. The reddish she-cat flinched, panic sparking in her gaze.

Elm knew something had happened between Hedgeflight, Kalenose, and Orchidfur. That much was easy to figure out. She loathed the two of them, and they both feared her. Pondstone was an awkward accessory to it all, somehow, as was Raystem and likely Duckfeather as well.

He wondered what naivety, Thymepaw, and Lucustshade strung together in Hedgeflight’s mind. He had a sneaking suspicion that it was a threat, and hoped it was an empty one. Whatever Orchidfur’s beef with Hedgeflight was, Elm wouldn’t let Thymepaw get caught in the middle.

“Why don’t we just mark where they set the border, and see what Dewstar has to say?” Pondstone interjected cautiously, trying and failing to regain control of their patrol. Hedgeflight opened her mouth to disagree, and Elm decided to take pity on his hapless patrol leader.

“I think we should mark where it was yesterday, and then see what Dewstar has to say,” Elm suggested, “That way, we send Shadowclan a message, but we don’t rush into anything too fast.”

“Okay,” Hedgeflight agreed grudgingly. Orchidfur just stared at him, her mouth set in a thin line.

“Very diplomatic,” she muttered under her breath as she passed.

They both knew there was no point in remarking a border that had already fallen, nor in checking with a leader who always answered the same way.

But, it had made Elm look good, finding a way to make everyone get along while seeming like he was on both sides.

She could see the strings.

He really needed to do something about that.


Elm sent Thymepaw off to tend to the elders’ ticks, with the promise that she only owed him a quarter moon of it, before he sought out Orchidfur. She was chatting with Raystem, but her eyes caught his approach long before he reached them.

“Raystem, do you mind if I snag your sister for a bit?” he asked cheerfully, smiling at both of them. Raystem returned the smile, Orchidfur didn’t bother. “If she’s alright with that, of course,” he added easily, glancing at her. She nodded curtly.

“Sure! I promised Pondstone I’d go hunting with them anyway,” Raystem replied, already rising to her feet. Elm waited for her to leave, before turning back to Orchidfur.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Elmstrike?” Orchidfur asked dryly.

As if she didn’t know. “It’s a lovely day out,” he said, pointing up at the blue sky. “Want to take a walk?”

She allowed him to lead her down to the lake. Elm still marveled over the sheer beauty of the expanse of water, and the softness of the sand beneath his feet. The logical side of him claimed he’d chosen this spot because it was poor hunting ground and they were unlikely to be desturbed, but he wasn’t fooling himself. He just liked the lake.

That in and of itself was some sort of victory, a reminder that he was himself and not Darktail. Darktail may have drowned here, but to Elm, it was lovely.

Orchidfur settled herself carefully down on the sand, watching him expectantly.

“Orchidfur, what am I going to have to do to earn your trust?” Elm asked, figuring he might as well get the question over with. The directness earned him a slim, humorless smile.

“Stop trying to gain it,” she suggested.

A smart answer, but not one he liked. “Has it occurred to you that perhaps I just want to be friends?” he suggested, folding his paws neatly beneath his chest.

“You’re the best friend of everyone in the clan,” Orchidfur shot back, “Why do you need to be mine as well?”

He needed her friendship more than he needed the trust of anyone else in the clan, because she was the only potential threat to his position. Orchidfur was too aware. An alliance turned that intelligence to his side.

“Have you heard the saying, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer?’” Elm asked. Her eyes narrowed.

“We’re enemies?” she asked skeptically. The distrust hanging between them was so thick that Elm might have been able to slice it with his claws.

“I don’t think so, but we’re not exactly friends either,” he pointed out.

“No, we’re not,” Orchidfur agreed.

“I’d like to be.”

Orchidfur gazed at him across the sand, letting his words land without changing expression. Every hair on her pelt was heavy with disapproval. “I wouldn’t have agreed to this walk if I’d realized we were just going to exchange pretty words,” she growled, rising to her feet.

“I-” Elm began to protest, but she shook her head.

“We both know it’s a game, Elmstrike.”

It was not a game, he wanted to protest. It was not some innocent, silly thing that he did for fun. But the difference was not worth pointing out. He knew what she meant.

Elm had a strategy, a goal, and he planned on achieving it.

“My trust is not something you can win,” Orchidfur added, as if anticipating his next words.

Elm tilted his head to the side, studying her thoughtfully. “So how would I go about earning it?”

Again, there was that splinter thin claw of a smile. “You could try being trustworthy. Just be yourself and let me form my own opinion about you.”

Elm considered his response. He needed to make a decision here: speak honestly and risk the danger that came with the truth, or lie and waste both their time on a stubborn illusion she’d never fall for.

He opted for the first option. Why not? Why not, when she already knew too much?

Elm felt an uneasy, dizzying wave of excitement at the recklessness of it. It was a foolish move, but at this point, he had nothing to lose. Besides, it had been so long since he had been purposefully honest that the very concept of setting aside his web was thrilling.

He grinned.

Why not?

Orchidfur smiled, an actual smile this time, as she realized she’d won this round.

“Orchidfur, I am always myself,” Elm began, ignoring the disbelief that instantly colored her expression. “I am charming. I am dedicated. I am goofy. I am responsible. I, like many cats, have many different parts to me. I’m just very good at showing the version of me best suited for the given situation.

“And,” he continued, unabashed, “That in and of itself is me as well. I am an actor, a schemer, whatever you would like to call me.”

“A liar,” Orchidfur suggested.

“Only partially,” Elm objected, “I’ve always found half truths more effective than lies.”

“A rose by any other name is just as sweet,” Orchidfur murmured. Elm considered that, and nodded. Fair enough. He was a liar, then.

“I know how to recognize when I’ve been caught,” Elm replied, smiling. He really shouldn’t have been enjoying this conversation, but he was. Truth tasted funny on his tongue, but, logic set aside, he liked explaining himself. “So, ask your questions.”

“What’s the point? Why are you taking over the clan?” Orchidfur asked.

Elm let himself laugh. “Taking over? Come on, I’m not that tactless. If I ousted Dewstar, the game, as you call it, would be over in seconds. The other leaders would never stand for it. And you already know the point,” he added.

Hunter. Hunter, Hunter, Hunter.

“So, what? My clanmates are just tools to get your vengeance?” Orchidfur accused, her teeth flashing in her snarl.

“No,” Elm replied seriously. “They are not tools. Our interests align. I want to help you destroy what we all hate. Everyone wins. Besides,” he added, gazing out across the lake, “I like it here. As a rogue, I hated the chaos of the allies, but it was too big of a project for me to take on by myself. The clans are not perfect, but they’re as close to it as I’m likely to find.

“There’s order, enough safety for cats to live instead of just survive, enough for you all to form friendships and comradery. I like being part of that.”

“And yet, instead of just joining the clan like a normal cat, you’ve manipulated everyone into loving you,” Orchidfur said harshly.

“I already told you who I was,” Elm murmured, voice soft, “I value efficiency over honesty.” The words were true, and he wasn’t going to be ashamed of them. That said, something twitched in him, a little whisper that things didn’t have to be the way he made them.

He knew that, he reminded himself. Elm was aware of the choices he made, and he was sticking by them.

Orchidfur stared at him, then out at the lake, then back at him. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked slowly, sneaking another glance at the water.

Elm followed his gaze. “Because you already guessed most of it. Don’t worry,” he added, “I didn’t bring you out here to drown you, if that’s what you’re thinking. You can swim and I can’t, remember?”

Orchidfur looked away from the water slowly, holding his gaze as she said, “Yes. I know that.”

Oh. Well then.

Elm hadn’t considered that.

Suddenly, he found himself laughing, his sides shaking with mirth.

Here Elm  was, assuming she was worried about what he was going to do, when in reality, Orchidfur was thinking of killing him. He wasn’t used to this, not being the only plotter.

And he was definitely enjoying it too much.

“You’re not going to do it,” Elm said, shaking his head, keeping his tone nonchalant.

“No? Why shouldn’t I?” Orchidfur challenged rising to her paws. Elm didn’t move.

“First of all, as I just said, I am not going to harm your clan, so you don’t need to kill me,” Elm pointed out.

“I’m supposed to just take your word on that?”

Elm shrugged. “Up to you. But, secondly, you wouldn’t get away with it. Not,” he added quickly, “That I think you couldn’t do it. I’d say we’re pretty evenly matched, and the water would give you the upper hand. That said, plenty of cats saw us leave camp, and the chances of you escaping the fight without some serious injuries are slim.”

Orchidfur scowled, her eyes raking his fiercely. After a long moment, she sat back down. “I don’t know how you thought this would make me trust you,” she murmured, letting out a huff of irritation.

“Well, do you trust me more or less now?” Elm asked, tilting his head.

“Marginally more,” she admitted.

“Then I’ll consider this a success,” he announced cheerfully, resting his chin on his paws. “To be honest,” he continued, smirking at his words, “I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.”

“Why? We were just discussing killing each other.”

“It seems to come up often around here,” Elm mused. “Just a half moon ago, we were threatening Stormflight. And I’m not sure what you said to Hedgeflight, but it was masterfully done. Very subtle. Very classy.” He stood suddenly, making her tense, before he took a few steps back. “Can I try explaining something else to you?”

“Might as well,” she replied.

“Okay, then hold still,” he ordered, moving closer. Elm dug his paw into the sand, and drew a large, neat circle around Orchidfur. She looked at him like he was insane, but he ignored her, returned to his spot, and drew a circle around himself as well.

“I already did my best to explain myself, but I’m not sure you quite understand,” Elm said.

“True,” was her only reply.

“The way I see it, every cat has an invisible circle,” Elm continued, gesturing towards the lines he’d drawn. “In that circle are the things that matter, and outside are the things that don’t. Most ‘things’ fit one of three descriptions. Other cats,” he said, drawing a little circle between them, “Internal factors, like goals, fears, that sort of thing,” he added, drawing a squiggle, “And ourselves.” He pointed at himself.

“Okay.”

“What’s in a cat’s circle pretty much defines who they are,” Elm said, studying the lines seriously. “Take Stormflight. In their circle, they have their ego. Their fears. Their sense of duty to their clan. Tigerstar. Probably their family, maybe friends if they have any. Essentially, they have a very full circle, and it’s mostly internal factors.

“Hence, we have Stormflight: very untrustworthy, and very weak.”

Orchidfur’s gaze flitted down to the shapes, then back to him. “That seems a bit harsh.”

Elm shrugged. “It’s true, as far as I can tell. The same concept can be applied to pretty much anyone. Bumblepaw, for instance, is pretty much the opposite of Stormflight. I’d guess that there’s not a lot of fears in there, but, based on the fact that she jumped into a river after me without knowing how to swim, pretty much all cats fit in her circle.”

Elm stepped carefully out of the circle, making sure not to disturb the lines, and walked to Orchidfur’s circle. “Let’s see,” he murmured, noting the way she stiffened. “Duckfeather, Raystem, Marblecloud, and Bellstorm definitely go in there.” He drew four small circles by her paws. “But what else?”

She regarded him with narrowed eyes, and said nothing. Elm flashed her a grin, and moved his paw across the line, out of the circle. “Not Hedgeflight,” he mused, slicing his paw through the sand, “Not Kalenose, or Dewstar. What about Pondstone?”

“Pondstone’s fine.”

“But you don’t like them, do you? Too much like Dewstar,” he said agreeably, drawing Pondstone’s circle on the outside. “Maybe not anyone else, hmm?”

Orchidfur bristled, her ears flattening against her head. “I care about my clanmates.”

“Do you?” Elm asked, truly pondering this question. “Would you jump in the river for them, if you thought you would probably drown? Would you die for any of them, if you had no Riverstar and no Mapleshade?”

She glared at him as he drew more circles. “The thing about things in your circle,” Elm said, gazing at the four shapes he’d drawn inside, “Is that they make you vulnerable. If you can figure out what’s in someone else’s circle, you can probably figure out how to use it against them. And,” he added, reaching out to rub away one of the circles, “When something happens to those things, it usually hurts. A lot.”

Orchidfur’s claws dug into the sand, her white paws slipping out of view as she buried them. “Was that a threat?” she growled, baring her teeth.

“No,” he replied quickly, stepping back, “Just a warning.”

That was enough of that, he thought. Elm had pushed her too far already, but he just wanted her to understand. He took a deep breath, and stepped back into his empty circle.

“I like to figure things out,” Elm murmured, drawing a squiggle. “I like to succeed. It’s important to me to finish what I start. I need to be in control of myself. I am too proud.” Orchidfur watched silently as he drew more squiggles. “And vengeance,” he added, making the last one big and bold. “I think that last one belongs in your circle as well.”

She hesitated, then nodded, carefully drawing a squiggle of her own, then another. She didn’t speak as she worked, but slowly, she filled her circle with more ideas.

After a moment, she looked up. “There’s not much in your circle,” she commented, gesturing to his meager selection of squiggles. “And...no other people.”

Elm nodded, gazing down at his sketches. “There used to be,” he admitted, drawing two large circles and then rubbing them out. “After my mother left, I tried my best to move my father to the outside, but I failed.”

“And now,” Elm added, “It’s a lot harder to hurt me than it is to hurt you.”

“Love is not a weakness,” Orchidfur said sharply. Elm  eyed her, wondering if she actually meant that or if she was trying to convince herself as well as him.

“Yes, it is,” he disagreed. “But it's also a strength.” He smiled slightly, then added, “My circle’s very safe. It’s also very empty.” Elm stepped out of it once more, enjoying the feel of the sand beneath his paws, then turned back to camp. “I have to get that big squiggle out of the way, Orchidfur.” Vengeance, his thoughts echoed.

“Then what?” she asked, following him uneasily.

“I don’t know,” Elm admitted honestly. “Maybe then I’ll let a few more things in. Perhaps I’ll let this game, as you called it, become real.” He glanced over his shoulder at her, and added, “My plans from here on out are relatively simple. I train my apprentice, I settle in as a respected warrior, and I use that perch to guide Dewstar and the rest of the leaders to victory.

“At this point, now that I’ve gotten this far, I don’t have as many reasons to lie. If I loosen my web, will you keep what you know to yourself?”

“I’ll decide that as I go,” she replied, her amber eyes sharp with an unspoken warning. But that hadn’t been a no.

Elm nodded, accepting that answer. Orchidfur obviously didn’t trust him yet, which was more than fair. She’d be absolutely idiotic to trust him. But he was pretty sure she understood now, and that was enough for him to work with.

Elm had to admit, it felt good to be understood.

Chapter 34[]

Valleypaw loved greenleaf, when the days grew hot and the grass grew dry. There were more rabbits than Windclan could eat, and everyone was plump and happy. Ploverstar let their training slide a little, since they were approaching their assessment and passing each test he gave them with flying colors, so the two of them spent more time talking than they did learning. They talked about anything and everything, almost entirely nonsense.

They were debating whether or not rabbits knew how to count when Ploverstar abruptly fell silent. He gazed across the flat expanse of his territory, his pale amber eyes thoughtful, and murmured, “Your parents fell in love during greenleaf.”

Valleypaw froze, staring at their mentor. They never got to hear stories about their parents, because Duskflame was, well, Duskflame, and Ploverstar always seemed sad when he talked about Duskflame and Spicecloud before Valleypaw came around.

“Spill,” Valleypaw demanded, grinning. “I need details.”

Ploverstar smiled wistfully. “Duskflame was a handful,” he mused. “I’m not really sure how we became friends, he was always getting me in trouble. Usually, it involved Spicecloud somehow. I realized he was in love with her a long, long time before either of them did, but even when it became obvious, he wouldn’t admit it. Said it would take a cat faster than the wind to win his love.

“Which, of course, doomed him,” Ploverstar added, smirking at the memory. “Spicecloud never would back down from a challenge. She asked him how fast he thought the wind ran, and he said probably about as fast as a full grown hare at a full sprint.”

He shook his head. “I still don’t know how she did it. We were out hunting just the three of us, and this big hare bolted out of a nearby bush, and she just took off after it. She must have been practicing, because nothing it did could lose her.” Ploverstar grinned. “And she caught it, all by herself, and made it look easy. She dropped it at his feet and asked him to be her mate.”

“They had the most disgusting new couple period,” Ploverstar added, wrinkling up his nose. “Always calling each other pet names. It was terrible. But it does make a pretty good story, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Valleypaw marveled, their mind already at work.

The next day, when Ploverstar went to wake their apprentice for dawn patrol, he found their nest empty. He didn’t have to look far, though, to find them chasing rabbits around outside of camp.

The leader sat and watched for a long time, as the apprentice tried and failed time and time again to catch the rabbits. Their legs were too small, the rabbits too nimble, but they kept trying again.

“Why do you insist on loving someone who won’t love you back?” Ploverstar whispered to the early morning, as Valleypaw stubbornly dashed back and forth.

Ploverstar regretted telling them that story. He’d probably given them false hope. And it hurt, watching Valleypaw try so hard for someone who wouldn’t appreciate it. He didn’t want to see them get shot down yet again.

He wondered if Valleypaw would do the same for him, if circumstances were different.

Would they? The question kept creeping back to him.

It didn’t matter.

They’d always be his child to him, even if Valleypaw didn’t consider him their father. And Ploverstar would never, ever want them to feel like his love was something that had to be earned.

...

Valleystep was in love with the wind in their fur, the dry greenleaf grass beneath their paws, the dust in the air, and the sound of their father’s cheering voice drifting across the gentle hills of Windclan territory.

The rabbit in front of them was significantly less in love with its current predicament. It kept darting back and forth, trying to shake the cats off of its fluffy little tail, but Valleystep had been doing this long enough to guess its moves before it made them.

“Wait up, long ears!” Duskflame whooped, a couple dozen foxlengths behind. Valleystep wasn’t sure if those were their ears Duskflame was referring to or the rabbits, but either way, they didn’t care.

They’d spent moons racing rabbits with the hopes that someday Duskflame might spare them a kind word. In the past, Duskflame had avoided hunting patrols, especially if Valleystep was on them.

But this morning, he’d asked Valleystep and Ploverstar if they wanted to go hunting. He hadn’t needed to ask twice.

Valleystep would have liked to let the run stretch out longer, but while they were in fantastic shape for a cat, they were in very mediocre shape for a rabbit. They could match its speed, but not its endurance.

“Yo, Plo!” Valleystep shouted into the wind, “I’m going to drive it back towards you!”

They lengthened their strides, ignoring the burn in their legs, pushing themself until they were side by side with the rabbit. It skittered to the side, in the exact direction Valleystep had been hoping for.

Ploverstar eased himself to his feet, stretched, and lunged forward just in time to snap the rabbit’s neck as it swerved too late to avoid him. The leader straightened, his eyes widening as he realized what else was swerving too late.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” Valleystep yelped as they plowed directly into him, sending them both tumbling. Their muzzle was shoved into the dusty ground by some wayward limb, filling their mouth with dirt.

Duskflame had caught up by the time the two stumbled to their feet, both pelts coated in dead grass and dirt. Valleystep spat out a wad of mud, coughing. Their father smirked, shaking their head. “Aren’t you both so glad you agreed to this outing?”

“Very,” Valleystep said, pawing at their mouth. “I can tell Ploverstar’s just overwhelmed by my fantasticness right now.”

Ploverstar winced as he shook the dust from his pelt. Slowly, he rolled one shoulder. “Thrilled,” he said, with a weak smile. “I’m afraid I’m too old to keep up with you, Val.”

“Mousedung, we’re the same age!” Duskflame objected, giving the leader a swat in the shoulder, resulting in a squawk of discomfort.

“You were also too old to keep up with Valleystep,” Ploverstar pointed out, “The only difference is that I had the sense not to try.”

Valleystep glanced between the two of them, shaking their head. “You are not old, Ploverstar, we’ve been over this. You are weighed down by wisdom, which is a burden a young fool like me doesn’t have to deal with.”

Ploverstar shot Duskflame a teasing look. “What’s your excuse?”

Duskflame grinned, paused, then looked at his paws. “Too much time hanging out with kittypets, I reckon,” he said, shrugging.

“Well,” Valleystep interjected, “Nothing practice won’t cure!”

“Sounds like a good plan,” their father said, with an awkward smile

Ploverstar gazed happily at the two of them, giving Duskflame a slight nod of approval. “You two should definitely do this again sometime,” he said, leaning to pick up the rabbit.

“For sure!” Duskflame agreed.

Valleystep’s eyes narrowed. “We three should do this again sometime,” they corrected, watching both tom’s expressions carefully.

The little exchange of glances was probably meant to be subtle, but Valleystep caught it easily. Duskflame’s mouth tightened slightly, his eyes sliding to Ploverstar’s, who looked away first.

“Well,” Ploverstar murmured around the rabbit, “You have some catching up to do.”

“Plus, Ploverstar’s busy, we shouldn’t bother him too much,” Duskflame added, smiling enthusiastically at Valleystep.

They did not like this little quirk in the conversation. What was this? Ploverstar wouldn’t meet their eyes, and Duskflame’s good mood seemed a little forced. Valleystep fought back a frown, bewildered. Did Ploverstar really not want to go hunting with them anymore? Or did Duskflame not want Ploverstar to go hunting with them?

They weren’t sure which option would bother them more.


Once they returned to camp, Valleystep swung into the nursery, looking forward to escaping into the easy happiness of Aspenkit’s company. They’d left her with Fogheart and Duststone, and last time they’d seen her, she was trying to make flower crowns out of dock leaves.

Valleystep expected an instant welcome, maybe a surprise attack. Instead, all they found was Fogheart dozing in his nest, his injured leg propped awkwardly over the brim of the nest. They didn’t see Duststone, and they didn’t see their sister.

Frowning, they gave Fogheart a sharp nudge in the shoulder. “Hey love,” they murmured, “Where’s the kiddo at?”

“Eh?” Fogheart asked blearily, blinking sleepily.

“The kiddo. Aspenkit. My sister.” they repeated, nudging him with each word. “I left her here to torture you and you don’t appear to be being tortured.”

Fogheart’s eyes widened as he glanced around the den, his mouth opening and closing a couple times before he choked out, “I have no clue.”

Valleystep took a deep breath, rocking back on their paws.

“Duststone went out to collect herbs, I was watching her, she started rambling about flower crowns, and I guess……” his grey eyes caught Valleystep’s, heavy with guilt. “I fell asleep.”

“She’s probably in camp somewhere,” Valleystep replied, forcing a shrug. They walked briskly from the den, trying to keep their breathing steady even as the undeniable chill of panic began to settle over them.

She wasn’t in the nursery.

Or the elder’s den.

“Valleystep?” Ploverstar asked, spinning around as Valleystep burst into his den. They ignored him, their eyes clawing their way around the room. “What’s wrong?” Ploverstar demanded.

Valleystep just stared at him, the words congeling in their throat like clotting blood. They wanted to grin, to make a joke out of it, to make it seem like it wasn’t a big deal, like they usually did when they were upset. But this wasn’t hurt feelings or internal worries, this was terror, and it didn’t seem to follow the same rules as the all too familiar guilt and sadness they usually dealt with.

“Hey,” Ploverstar murmured, voice calm and steady, “Take a breath. Tell me what’s going on. Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out.”

Valleystep forced down a deep breath, feeling their throat loosen a little bit. Ploverstar was the leader, he would be able to figure this out. He’d find their sister. “Aspenkit’s not in camp.”

Ploverstar’s eyes widened in alarm, but he kept his tone steady. “Okay. We’ll make a clan announcement, talk with the guards, see if anyone’s seen her.” He pushed past Valleystep, and quickly scrambled atop the Tallrock. “Windclan, gather around!” he shouted, the urgency clear in his voice.

“Does anyone know where Aspenkit is?” he asked, as Valleystep hovered uncomfortably by the foot of the rock.

They stared at their clanmates, internally begging them to nod, to magically summon a kit from behind their backs. Instead, everyone exchanged confused and worried glances.

“I haven’t seen her since you took her to the medicine den,” Orangeblaze confessed, Tunnelkit peeking around his legs.

“I’ll go ask the guards,” Henheart replied, before Ploverstar could ask. There was a tense silence as she dashed around the perimeter of the camp. Valleystep felt their heart sink as the deputy returned, grim faced. “She must have slipped past them,” she growled, tail lashing. “I put them on tick duty for a moon.”

“Let’s worry about finding Aspenkit now, and punishments later,” Ploverstar said. “Who was the last cat to see her?”

“That would be me,” Fogheart called, limping slowly towards the meeting. His eyes flickered to Valleystep, then quickly away.

Valleystep wanted to be angry at him for this. They’d trusted him, and he’d let their baby sister walk right out of camp. But Fogheart looked dejected enough, like he’d already told himself anything Valleystep might say, and besides, it was hard to feel anything but panic right now.

“When was that, Fogheart?” Ploverstar asked gently, no blame in his voice.

Fogheart looked at the ground, scowling. “I don’t know. Probably at least an hour.”

Ploverstar nodded slowly, the silence the worst thing that Valleystep had ever heard. He had an idea, right? Surely he knew how to solve this?

“Aspenkit can’t disappear!” Tunnelkit wailed, burying his head in his father’s side. Orangeblaze gave his kit a quick lick over the head.

“She’ll be back soon.”

“She better be! She promised me a flower crown!” Tunnelkit warbled, voice laden with heart broken betrayal.

Valleystep froze. Fogheart’s chin jerked up as he came to the same conclusion a beat later.

“Ploverstar, before I fell asleep, Aspenkit was complaining about how the herbs made bad crowns,” Fogheart said hurriedly, frantic to redeem himself for his failure. “She must have gone out to get flowers!”

Of course she had. Valleystep closed their eyes, trying to remember all the flower patches on Windclan territory. There were a lot of them, and Aspenkit had never been to see any of them. So, essentially, they hadn’t narrowed it down at all.

Why had they left her with Fogheart? Valleystep loved their friend, but they should have known better. Fogheart was healing from a serious wound, and still taking poppy seeds for the pain. It wasn’t fair to blame him, but it also wasn’t fair to not see the issue with the set up.

Why had they assumed it would be okay, when they knew just how dangerous things were right now? What if the Guild got their paws on her?

Rogues aside, there were dozens of ways for a kit to get in trouble alone on the moor. She could drown, get picked off by a hawk, get a twoleg den dumped on her, catch some disease and die…

It was safe to say that they needed to find her, and find her quickly. Valleystep listened anxiously as Ploverstar assigned patrols, their mind already racing across the territory without them.

They could see it all so clearly. The water closing around her head, the bird lifting her up, up and away, the den collapsing, the strength fading with every cough.

Or she might starve. They’d forgotten about that one. If no one found her, there was no way she’d be able to keep herself fed.

So many ways for a kit to die.

“...and Valleystep,” Ploverstar said, snapping them abruptly back to reality, “You’re with me.” The leader smiled slightly, nodding to them. A we can do this kind of nod.

They had to do this. Valleystep could not accept the alternative.

“Pairs, fan out, but stay within shouting distance of each other,” Ploverstar instructed, “If you find any sign of her, send a messenger to gather the others, especially if you scent rogues or badgers. Do not engage on your own, wait for help to arrive. Everyone got that?”

Valleystep nodded slowly.

They hadn’t even thought about badgers either. That would just be too ironic, losing any more kin to one of those beasts.

“Hey, actually, I can be Val’s partner!” Duskflame said as Ploverstar jumped down from the rock, shouldering his way through the crowd to stand beside them. Surprise lit across the leader’s face, followed by a bittersweet smile.

“Are you up to that? We do need some cats to stay behind and guard the camp,” Plo replied, glancing to Valleystep as if waiting for them to say which one he wanted as a partner.

The answer was not a simple one, and certainly not a yes or a no. Ploverstar was what Valleystep needed right now, a steady calm in their storm of fear, but they couldn’t just say no to their father when they couldn’t be sure if he’d ever ask again.

“I can take care of my kits now,” Duskflame insisted, his pelt brushing gently against Valleystep’s, warm and reassuring.

When had anything about Duskflame ever been warm and reassuring?

They could not let this opportunity slip away.

But…..had they just imagined it, or had there been an emphasis on the ‘my’ there?

“Right,” Ploverstar murmured, ducking away from Valleystep’s confused gaze once again, “Of course you can. You two stay safe, I think Henheart needs a partner anyway.”

It hurt Valleystep’s head, being torn between the happiness of their father’s attention and the sight of Ploverstar walking away, letting his tail droop to the ground when he probably thought they weren’t looking anymore. What was going on?

What mattered was that their little sister was in danger, they reminded themself. They could figure this out later.

“Let’s go,” they called to Duskflame, already shooting out the door. Their father struggled to keep up as they cut across the open territory, their eyes searching for rabbit dens or hollow logs or anything she could be hiding in.

The first tunnel they stumbled upon was small and partially caved in. Valleystep slowed to a stop, sniffing the air for their sister’s scent.

“She couldn’t fit in that, could she?” Duskflame asked, peering down at it.

“She probably could, actually,” they disagreed, poking their head into it. It was dusty and dark, barely wide enough for them to fit their shoulders through.

“Val, wait,” Duskflame warned as they tried and failed to squeeze further in, “Even if she could fit, you definitely don’t. Besides, why would she have gone in? Flowers don’t grow in abandoned rabbit dens.”

But did Aspenkit know that? Valleystep couldn’t recall ever telling her that. It seemed like logic, but she was a kit, and kits made dumb decisions that got people killed. With a sigh that kicked up a face worth of dust, they backed out of the tunnel and took off again.

She wasn’t by the clump of lavender that Valleystep had used for decorations to annoy Fogheart, and she wasn’t by Duststone’s marigold patch. To their relief, she didn’t appear to have wandered near the lake, although, they thought, watching the waves gently lap at their paw, it could just mean she’d already drowned.

“Her scent isn't here,” Duskflame reassured them gently, trying to steer them away.

But it was so easy to see it happening, so, so easy. She was adventurous and silly, maybe she thought swimming looked like fun after such a hot day. She wandered too deep, and…..

There it was again: the water swelling over a tiny head, paws flailing at the surface before being swallowed again.

The water was cold on their paws, the sun beating down on their pelt like a thousand paws, the world spinning slightly before them, making the lake the sky and the sky the lake. Valleystep was too terrified to move, staring at the surface of the lake, searching for ripples.

She might have just gone under. Maybe they could still save her.

Duskflame darted in front of them as they took a step forward, the water splashing against Valleystep’s chest. Valleystep stumbled as his shoulder braised against theirs, still trying to walk into the lake. “Valleystep, stop,” Duskflame ordered, sounding bewildered and scared. “What’re you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” they growled, trying to sidestep around their father.

“I think you’re doing something stupid,” he snaped, shifting to block his way. “You don’t know how to swim.”

Valleystep glared down at their father’s pale eyes, anger flaring around the fear. Didn’t he care that Aspenkit was in danger? “How would you know whether or not I can swim?” they snarled, the cruel words tasting foul on their tongue the moment they spoke them, “You weren’t around.

Duskflame flinched, and Valleystep took the opportunity to dive past him. The water closed around their shoulders and then their head as they pressed deeper into the lake, their long legs barely enough to keep their nose above the water.

And then they took another step and they were swimming.

Valleystep was oddly not surprised by this fact. They’d never learned to swim, but somehow, they’d been expecting this. It felt natural, like walking or running. Well, they certainly weren’t going to complain.

“Val!” Duskflame shouted as they dove under the surface, his voice instantly muting as they squinted through the blurry water, searching for the tiny orange shape they were expecting to find.

It was probably already too late. She was probably already dead. But Valleystep still had to find her.

Something sharp and rough closed around their scruff, and suddenly they were yanked back up to the surface. “Why would she be in the lake?” Duskflame spluttered, releasing them.

Valleystep stared at their father, watching him flounder. Duskflame’s strokes were big and sloppy, barely enough to keep him afloat, but still, he’d jumped into a lake after them. They opened their mouth to answer his question, then realized they didn’t have an answer.

Why would she be in the lake?

“I swear to Starclan, I still haven’t smelled her yet,” Duskflame gasped, paws flailing. “There’s no flowers here, either.” For a moment, his head dipped under water, before he pushed off the bottom and reappeared. “Could we maybe,” he choked out, “Talk about this on shore?”

Valleystep nodded, and the two of them paddled back in. Duskflame shook his pelt free of the water, then turned to glare at Valleystep. “Well? What in Starclan’s name were you thinking?”

They really didn’t know.

But what they did know was that, for a moment, they had been absolutely certain that their sister had just drowned.

“I was thinking it was a nice day for a swim,” they announced cheerfully, flashing a grin that they absolutely did not mean. Duskflame stared at them. “C’mon, let’s get moving.”

“Right,” their father replied slowly, frowning. “Because that’s totally what was on your mind.”

Valleystep ignored him, their damp fur sending chills down their spine as they shot away from the lake. Just because she hadn’t drowned didn’t mean she was safe. They didn’t have time to worry about that strange lapse in judgement.

“Valleystep, slow down!” Duskflame hollered from behind them, lagging as usual. Valleystep scowled, then reluctantly eased their pace to a jog to let Duskflame catch up. “We’re supposed to stick together,” Duskflame reminded them.

Valleystep nodded, sniffing the air hopefully for a scent that still wasn’t there. “Sorry.”

Duskflame was silent for a moment, before he hesitantly asked, “Is everything alright? Other than Aspenkit being missing, obviously. But I know you’ve been having issues with that Riverclan medicine cat and this prophecy business, and with Fogheart being stuck in the medicine den….” he shrugged. “It just seems like it’s probably a lot.”

It was a lot, but Valleystep wasn’t really sure what he was getting at.

Duskflame let out a growl of frustration. “I know that I wasn’t there when you needed me, but I am now. So you don’t need to rely on Ploverstar anymore.” He eyed them hopefully, a nervous smile on his face. “What I’m trying to say is, you can talk to me. If you want to.”

Valleystep’s paws stopped moving on their own accord as they spun around to stare at him. They expected to feel ecstatic, but really, they were mostly uncomfortable with Duskflame’s expectant silence.

They let out a slow breath. This was what they’d always wanted, right? If Duskflame was making an effort, then they had to as well. “The chosen cat thing is pretty ridiculous,” they admitted, trying to untighten their tone. “And Stormflight makes me nervous. Why do they need me for their game of pretend? Fogheart thinks maybe it’s some elaborate scheme somehow related to his father’s death.”

“Well, they definitely aren’t safe,” Duskflame agreed, nodding. “I’m glad you have the smarts to stay out of that mess.”

“Yeah, Ploverstar wants me to ‘consider what they have to say,’” Valleystep snorted, “And I’m not remotely interested in joining a little magic cult.” Especially not when Aspenkit needed to be looked after, but they didn’t want to add that bit and hurt Duskflame’s feelings.

“Ploverstar wants what?” Duskflame hissed, suddenly angry. Valleystep flinched at the sharp tone, automatically wishing they hadn’t brought that up.

“You know how he is,” Valleystep said awkwardly, ducking their head, “He just has some more...old fashion beliefs. He thinks Stormflight’s telling the truth.”

“So he’s trying to pressure you into thinking like he does?” Duskflame demanded.

“No!” Valleystep objected, shaking their head. “No, he doesn’t pressure me. This is Ploverstar we’re talking about, Duskflame. He just gives advice.”

“You don’t need his advice anymore,” Duskflame said fervently. “And you don’t have to listen to him, you know that, right? He’s not your father.”

Valleystep nodded, their throat tightening with discomfort at every word coming out of their father’s mouth. Valleystep wanted to disagree with it all, but they couldn’t manage it.

Valleystep was always going to need Ploverstar, even if Duskflame was going to be there.

They’d never felt like  they had to listen to Ploverstar, because Ploverstar was only ever gentle and kind.

And, true, Ploverstar wasn’t their father, yet they wanted to object to that bit as well.

“If you ever need help with him, you can always come talk to me,” Duskflame reassured them, leaning over to bump gently against their shoulder. “He’s a good cat, but he thinks he knows what’s best for everyone, and sometimes he’s wrong.”

“I guess,” Valleystep mumbled, studying the ground. Duskflame stared at them, obviously expecting them to say more, his face falling when they didn’t.

“I want to be able to help you,” he murmured, biting at his lip uncertainly.

Valleystep wanted that too. But so far Duskflame’s idea of helping seemed to involve pushing away the one cat who had always been there for them. Valleystep was pretty sure now whose idea it was for Plo not to come hunting with them anymore.

They were about to make some lame joke to break the awkward silence, when they froze, their pelt going cold as they sniffed the air.

There, suddenly everywhere, was Aspenkit’s scent.

And with it, bold and obvious, the overwhelming fresh tang of mint.

“Hey!” Duskflame yelped as Valleystep bolted, nearly crashing into him, but they ignored him and every bit of protocol Ploverstar had covered earlier. If the Guild already had Aspenkit, Valleystep wasn’t going to waste time getting help.

They left Duskflame in the dust, their strides longer and stronger, and their veins pumping with enough adrenaline to fill a small lake. They didn’t think. They just ran.

Pink and blue flowers crushed beneath their paws, the sweet smell smeared over by mint. Mint, mint, mint, flooding their nose. Valleystep couldn’t even smell Aspenkit around it.

Two shapes, one slightly larger, one smaller, came into view. Valleystep stopped.

The smaller one was Aspenkit, alive, unharmed, and beaming, a ring of delicate flowers settled lightly on her brow and another bundle of them at her paws. She seemed to be having the time of her life.

Beside her was a slim black she-cat, so small she almost could have been a kit herself, but with the unmistakable build of someone who could be dangerous if she was so inclined. Her plumy fur was riddled with flower petals, her expression friendly as she looked up at Valleystep. Her neck bore a worn purple collar punctured by stray bits of metal.

What was it that the Riverclan messenger had said?

The leader looked like a lady Scrub.

This was Agave.

“Hello, Valleystep!” Agave called, smiling at them. “Care to come join us?” She reached over to tuck another flower behind Aspenkit’s ear, holding Valleystep’s gaze as she shifted closer to the kit.

It was obvious that this wasn’t a suggestion.

Maybe Valleystep should have gotten back up after all.

They nodded slowly, and krept over to them, their eyes raking Aspenkit’s pelt, searching for injuries.

“This little darling says she’s your sister, is that right?” Agave purred, her dark blue eyes sparkling as she passed them a bundle of flowers. Valleystep nodded, not sure what else to do. “You are so lucky,” Agave gushed, “We’ve been having such fun! When I found her wandering around on her own, looking for flowers, I couldn’t resist showing her my favorite patch.”

“Agave’s my new friend!” Aspenkit chirped, watching contently as Agave skillfully wove a couple dozen blossoms into the shape of a crown.

The Guild’s Speaker grinned as she stretched up to place it on Valleystep’s head. “Aspenkit, why don’t you go get some more flowers for us?” she murmured, “I want to have a chat with Valleystep, so they know how to make flower crowns the best way.”

The scent of mint on her was making their nose tickle. How had Aspenkit missed it? They’d told her to stay away from anyone smelling of mint!

Aspenkit nodded happily, and trotted off through the flowers.

“You know who I am, right?” Agave murmured, a smile still playing on her lips. Her tone was amiable, even teasing. When they didn’t reply, she chuckled. “No need to be so stiff, Valleystep, I know you’re not shy.” She gave them a light poke on the shoulder. Friendly. Like they were friends.

They were still terrified of her.

“I know who you are,” Valleystep croaked.

Agave’s face split into a warm smile. “Fantastic! Then we don’t need to waste time on introductions.” She hummed some soft, cheerful tune that Valleystep didn’t recognize, and brushed a stray flower out of her eyes. “Valleystep, I know this whole thing probably seems like a threat,” she murmured, “A show of power. It’s scaring you. And you know what?”

“What?” they supplied obediently. They couldn’t risk anything right now, not when Aspenkit was so close and they had no idea if she had backup.

Speaking of which, where was Duskflame? Hopefully, off getting the help that Valleystep had forgone for the sake of recklessness.

“This is absolutely, entirely a threat and a show of power,” Agave said, with a cheeky smile. “And I’m glad you’re afraid, because you should be.”

“The Guild is strong,” she continued, absentmindedly weaving another flower crown, “Very strong. Riverclan learned that the hard way. I’d be lying if I said we don’t want to fight, because most of our members do.” She shrugged, almost apologetic. “I don’t blame them, but it would be better for everyone if this was settled peacefully.”

Valleystep nodded numbly.

Agave grinned like they’d said something clever. “See, we gave you six moons to leave, but you don’t appear to be leaving, do you? Valleystep, can you tell me something? Do the clans have any plans to move?”

Valleystep had a feeling that silence would be the wisest answer, but the truth was the safest one. “No,” they admitted.

“I didn’t think so,” Agave said, with a sigh. “Which is why I’m here. Ploverstar seems like the most reasonable of the leaders, so I want you to remind him of our deal. The clans leave, no one gets hurt. The clans stay, and we destroy you.

“I promised six moons of peace, and I’m a cat of my word. That’s why I didn’t harm your sister today. I didn’t even steal her away, or take her as a hostage. But, if six moons pass and the clans are still here?” She shrugged. “Like I said, I’m a cat of my word. She seems like a good kid. Don’t make me take her from you.”

Agave unsheathed her claws, curling them gently around a little flower bud. She leaned close, the metal on her collar scraping against Valleystep’s shoulder as she murmured, “I don’t want to have to do it, but I will.”

Valleystep was choking on the mint now, barely able to breathe the scented air down.

She wasn’t wearing it as a disguise anymore, they realized. It was a calling card.

“Oh, sweetie, those are wonderful!” Agave purred as Aspenkit came trotting back, barely visible beneath the giant clump of flowers she’d picked. The black she-cat flicked the flower bud away, smiling as if the conversation hadn’t happened.

Valleystep’s claws itched as her pelt brushed their sister’s when she leaned down to take some of the flowers.

Agave shot them a mischievous, knowing smile, her claws flashing nimbly as she wove another crown. She placed it around Aspenkit’s neck. “There. Now you look even prettier than you did before.”

“We both have necklaces now!” Aspenkit chirped, staring up at the she-cat, the admiration in her eyes making Valleystep feel sick. At least she didn’t have the good sense to be afraid.

“I know, isn’t it great?” Agave purred. “Now, it’s been a joy hanging out with you, little one, but I need to get going.”

“Awww,” Aspenkit groaned, her smile wilting. Agave gave her a pat on the head, then turned to go.

When she passed Valleystep, she murmured, “See you around, Val.”

Aspenkit watched her go sadly, fiddling with the leftover flowers. “She was so nice,” she murmured wistfully. “Like Mommy used to be.”

The kit squealed as Valleystep stepped over to her and abruptly hugged her against their chest.

“You’re squishing my flowers!” Aspenkit complained, but Valleystep just buried their face against her scruff, unable to loosen their grip. They were trembling, they noted numbly, so hard that they were shaking the kit.

They took a deep breath, filling their nose with the scent of Aspenkit, Aspenkit who was alive and well, and tried to rid their mind of Agave’s smile and their lungs of the mint.

“What’s wrong?” Aspenkit asked, worried for the first time that conversation.

“Aspenkit, that was the leader of the Guild,” they croaked.

“Oh.”

They leaned back just far enough to peer down at her face. “You’re not allowed to leave the camp on your own, you’re not not allowed to talk to strangers, and I could smell the mint a mile away! What were you thinking?”

Aspenkit looked away, her voice heavy with shame. “I wanted flowers. She said she accidentally tripped in some mint. She seemed nice.”

Valleystep was literally incapable of staying mad at her. “Just never do that to me again.”

“Valleystep!” someone called, making them look up. Ploverstar was shooting across the moor, Duskflame on his heels, both looking panicked. Behind them, the rest of the patrol was struggling to keep up.

The leader stopped beside them, scanning the flower patch.

“You missed her,” Valleystep said.

“Are either of you hurt?” Ploverstar fretted, sniffing them over, relief flooding his face as he answered his own question. “Thank Starclan,” he breathed, smiling.

“If those foxhearts go near either of you again, I swear I’m going to skin them alive,” Duskflame growled, shouldering past Ploverstar so that he could pull the two of them close, like Valleystep had done to Aspenkit just a bit ago. “I’m going to keep you safe,” Duskflame promised, “I’m your father. It’s my job, and I know I’ve done bad at it before, but I’m going to do it now.”

Over Duskflame’s shoulder, Valleystep saw Ploverstar’s smile fade. He closed his eyes for a moment, nodded to himself, and walked away, leaving the three of them.

The three of them. Family. Maybe this was how it was supposed to be.

That was the second biggest lie Valleystep had told themself today. This first was that they still didn’t believe Stormflight, not even the slightest bit.

Chapter 35[]

Ashfur remembered the day he had realized the double dead could come back. It hadn’t been a good one.

He’d just returned to the Dark Forest once again, this time as a prisoner, not a ruler. Everything had been going so well until it hadn’t, until the living had restored control to Starclan and swept his power out from underneath him.

The Dark Forest was a silent place then, when it was fresh with another defeat and recovering from his tampering.

The other five residents, Mapleshade, Snowtuft, Silverhawk, Darktail, and Darkstripe, had given him an even colder shoulder than they usually gave each other, because his failure was worse than having never tried at all. He’d offered them promises he hadn’t been able to keep.

It was probably for the best, anyway. Ashfur had needed time to think and to ferment in the utter failure that had been his entire life.

It had all been going perfectly miserably when he heard someone whisper, “Ashfur.”

He’d spun around and around, searching for the voice, but no one was there. Just the trees and the gloom, like always.

The voice was silent just long enough for Ashfur to forget about it. Then, “Ashfur,” it whispered again.

He hadn’t been afraid. It was the Dark Forest, of course it was haunted. But after the first quarter moon, it got very annoying. Part of handling the Dark Forest required a certain amount of detachment. The best days were the ones where he walked and walked without thinking, without taking in anything.

Ashfur.”

It was hard to relax with voices whispering in your ears.

Then, one day, Ashfur began seeing little glints of amber, bright and sharp and out of place in the monotone gloom, and wisps of the scent of blood on the wind. When he finally ran into another Dark Forest resident, Silverhawk, the tom admitted he’d been hearing it too.

Ashfur.”

The Dark Forest didn’t have seeing pools like Starclan did, but they did have the thick, suffocating fog that fringed its edges. If you walked to the edge and stared long enough, you could catch glimpses of things that were otherwise invisible.

Ashfur walked to the edge, and sat down. He gazed at the fog.

“Ashfur.”

He sucked in a sharp, pan