BlogClan 2 Wikia
Advertisement

Description

The Prophecy Keeper is a WIP fan fiction being written by Floofpaw/ybear.

Fernpaw, medicine cat apprentice of Riverclan, is grateful for how easy things are between them and their mentor. The medicine den is always a comfortable place to be, patient or caregiver. But sometimes they feel older than their mentor, like they are the teacher, and sometimes they wish things were different.

Blacksky has a nightmare, a recurring secret from his past that haunts him in the night. If it is found out, he could be exiled from Thunderclan forever. And one day, he's suddenly reliving an inverted, backwards version of it when he's awake. And it might have a different ending this time.

Hawkflight has always believed that he was a normal cat. He has a simple, easy life with his mate and kits in Skyclan, and that's all he has ever wanted. But suddenly his simple, easy life is turned upside down as a mysterious disease enters the forest, maddening all it touches...

Willowpaw is going to be leader of Shadowclan someday. It's all she's ever worked for since she entered the clan. But one night, the ghost of Shadowclan's previous medicine cat offers her a path to something even greater, a way to leave her mark on the clans... forever.

Shrikekit has always liked the moor and how you can run forever. He's always thought his running was aimless, just gallivanting across the moor to have some fun. But maybe all this time he's actually been running from something... not that he's ever snuck out of camp. No, that was all hypothetical.

Allegiances

Thunderclan

Leader: Stormstar (Pale gray with white paws and tail tip, blue eyes, She/her/hers. )  

Deputy: Featherwhisper (Black with green eyes, They/their/them.)

Mheng that could have been better. No, she has plans. She may be dead, but she's not done. dicine Cat(s)

  • Limeshade (Tabby with green eyes, He/him/his, Apprentice: Emberpaw)
  • Emberpaw (Tortoiseshell with amber eyes, She/her/hers/they/their/them, mentor: Limshade)  

Warriors

  • Blacksky (Small and lithe, black with white paws and tail tip, yellow eyes, He/Him/His, siblings: Mistswoop.)
  • Bumblestream (Golden tabby with brown eyes, He/him/his, kits: Rainykit & Fluffkit, mate: Cypressbite)
  • Mistswoop (Gray with green eyes, She/her/hers, siblings: Blacksky)
  • Hickorywind (Small lithe ginger tabby with amber eyes, She/her/hers, apprentice: Beaveraw)
  • Hazelface (Fluffy golden tabby with yellow eyes, They/their/theirs.)
  • Rooksnarl (Cream ticked tortoiseshell with green eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Bearburr (Brown and fluffy with brown eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Coppercreek (Small lithe tabby with green eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Snailyawn (Siamese with blue eyes, She/her/hers.)

Apprentices

  • Beaverpaw (Small and brown with gray eyes, He/him/his, mentor: Hickorywind.)

Queens

  • Cypressbite (Fluffy tortoiseshell with green eyes, She/her/hers, kits: Rainykit, Thicketkit, mate: Bumblestream)

Kits

  • Rainykit (Fluffy tortoiseshell with amber eyes, She/her/hers, parents: Cypressbite & Bumblestream, siblings: Fluffkit)
  • Fluffkit (Small, fluffy and brown with blue eyes, He/him/his, parents: Cypressbite & Bumblestream, siblings: Rainykit)

Elders

Shadowclan

Leader: Kestrelstar (Fluffy tortoiseshell with silver eyes, He/him/his.)

Deputy: Brindlesplash (Small tabby with white paws and yellow eyes, She/her/hers.)

Medicine Cat(s)

  • Petalwish (Brown with green eyes, He/him/his, apprentice: Rookpaw)
  • Rookpaw (Small and silver with brown eyes, They/their/them.)

Warriors

  • Rainfoot (Fluffy calico with amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Birdpetal (Golden with blue eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Feathercry (Golden with green eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Nightcough (Black with green eyes, She/her/hers, apprentice: Willowpaw)
  • Ashenblaze (Ginger tabby with blue eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Basilsmoke (Cream with blue eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Starlingchaser (Black and white with brown eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Sleektoes (Gray tabby with green eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Hawthorndusk (Small cinnamon tabby with green eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Cloudywing (Calico with brown eyes, He/him/his.)

Apprentices

  • Willowpaw (Dark tabby with green eyes, She/her/hers.)

Queens

Kits

Elders

  • Newtcough (Tabby with amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Basilstream (Small dark tabby with white paws and green eyes, They/their/them.)

Riverclan

Leader: Ripplestar (Muscular lilac tabby with brown eyes, She/her/hers.)

Deputy: Hollowslide (Cinnamon silver ticked tabby with blue eyes, They/their/them)

Medicine Cat(s)

  • Stickflight (Tabby with green eyes, He/him/his, apprentice: Fernpaw)
  • Fernpaw (Cream tabby with green eyes, They/their/them, mentor: Stickflight)  

Warriors

  • Brambleblaze (Lilac tabby with gray eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Sleekleaf (White with golden patches and yellow eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Hopthorn (Small and gray with green eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Batfeather (Small light gray tabby with amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Sableleap (Black and white with amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Tansyteeth (Dark gray spotted tabby with blue eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Harebreath (Silver with yellow eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Owlwillow (Golden flecked cream with green eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Flyblossom (Spiky and gray with amber eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Copperberry (Long haired tortoiseshell with gray eyes, He/him/his, apprentice: Rosypaw)
  • Pumpkinshadow (Calico with yellow eyes, They/their/them.)

Apprentices

  • Rosypaw (Golden with green eyes, She/her/hers.)

Windclan

Leader: Laurelstar (Cinnamon with green eyes, They/their/them.)

Deputy: Fallowpounce (Large calico with a torn ear who is missing a small part of their tail with brown eyes, They/their/them.)

Medicine Cat(s)

  • Dustchaser (Silver with amber eyes, He/him/his, apprentice: Rosepaw)
  • Rosepaw (Dark gray with yellow eyes, They/their/them, mentor: Dustchaser)  
  • Starlingpad (Tortoiseshell with a stubby tail and green eyes, They/their/them.)

Warriors

  • Ashenberry (Fluffy and silver with brown eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Moonthicket (Brown with orange eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Wheatwhisker (Golden tabby with green eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Rapidbreath (Long furred gray tabby with amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Graystalk (Gray with green eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Mapleleaper (Tortoiseshell and white with green eyes, She/her/hers.)
  • Smokefern (Fluffy and black with blue eyes, He/him/his, mate: Waspsong, kits: Pricklekit & Waspkit.)

Apprentices

Queens

  • Waspsong (Dilute tortoiseshell with green eyes, They/their/them, mate: Smokefern, kits: Pricklekit & Waspkit.)
  • Gingerherb (Small wiry ginger tabby with green eyes and a lame hind leg, He/him/his/they/their/them, adopted kits: Shrikekit)

Kits

  • Shrikekit (Black and white with green eyes, He/him/his, parents: Gingerherb)  
  • Waspkit (Dilute tortoiseshell with green eyes, They/their/them, parents: Waspsong & Smokefern, siblings: Pricklekit)
  • Pricklekit (Black with yellow eyes, She/her/hers.)

Skyclan

Leader: Flaxstar (Tortoiseshell who was a declawed escaped kittypet with yellow eyes, They/their/them.)

Deputy: Eaglestorm (Golden tabby with amber eyes, She/her/hers, mate: Hawkflight, kits: Starlingkit, Robinkit, and Sparrowkit)

Medicine Cat(s)

  • Yarrowbite (Cream tabby with brown eyes, He/him/his.)

Warriors

  • Woolthroat (Silver ticked tabby with a torn ear and amber eyes, They/their/them.)
  • Arnicashadow (Ginger and white with green eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Wrenwillow (Black with amber eyes, He/him/his.)
  • Swiftsmoke (Ginger tabby with blue eyes, She/her/hers)
  • Dustdust (Tabby with amber eyes, She/her/hers, intensely dislikes her name.)
  • Spidersmoke (Calico with gray eyes, She/her/hers, apprentice: Reedpaw)

Apprentices

  • Reedpaw (Dilute tortoiseshell with blue eyes, They/their/them, mentor: Spidersmoke)  

Queens

  • Hawkflight (Gray tabby with blue eyes, He/him/his, mate: Eaglestorm, kits: Starlingkit, Robinkit, and Sparrowkit.)  
  • Blazewind (Red ticked tabby with green eyes, She/her/hers, permanent queen.)

Kits

  • Starlingkit (Gray tabby with yellow eyes, They/their/them/xe/xyr/xem, parents: Hawkflight & Eaglestorm)
  • Robinkit (Golden tabby with amber eyes, She/her/hers, parents: Hawkflight & Eaglestorm)
  • Sparrowkit (Gray with amber eyes, He/him/his, parents: Hawkflight & Eaglestorm)

Cats Outside the Clans

Kittypets

  • Misty (Silver tabby with blue eyes, She/her/hers/they/their/them.)

Rogues/Loners

  • Ravenflight (Fluffy and white with amber eyes, He/him/his.)

Prologue

Bleakstem cowered at the edge of the raging battle, a bundle of herbs clutched tightly in her jaws. She felt sick as she watched blood stain the grass in the clearing and heard her clanmates yowling out in pain.

This is my fault, She thought, staring in horror at the viscous melee. I caused this.

Bleakstem wished she could come forward and tell them it was all a mistake, but she was too afraid. If they knew this battle had only started because of her tampering, what would they do to her?

She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

A howl of fear and pain rose above the others, achingly familiar and piercing Bleakstem’s heart like thorns.

Maplewind.

Bleakstem spotted her clanmate backed up against a tree on the other side of the clearing. Two powerful toms were battering her with a barrage of swipes. She was fighting well, but she was outnumbered and cornered and slowly but surely losing the fight.

The logical part of Bleaksetm’s brain shut off as she found her paws carrying her towards the fight. She darted through the fray; she was mostly ignored as none of the warriors would stoop low enough to attack a medicine cat outside of self defense. Before she reached them, however, one of them noticed her approach and stepped to block her path.

Bleaksetem’s lip curled in a snarl.

“Swiftfang.”

The Riverclan warrior gave her a curt not, glaring menacingly.

“Bleakstem,” He greeted her chillily. “I suggest you step away before you get hurt. Just because you’re a medicine cat doesn’t mean I won’t shred you if you get in our way.”

Bleakstem lifted her chin, hiding her fear under a confident, authorative mask.

“I think you’re the one in my way, Swiftfang, and I extend the same suggestion to you.”

Swiftfang snorted.

“Pretty words,” He meowed. “But I think we both know who’s suggestion carries more weight.” With that, he lashed out a paw and slapped her across the muzzle. Bleakstem staggered backward from the force of the blow, flinching as pain lanced through her.  He turned back to his clanmate. “Come on Brambleshade; we’re losing. Let’s take home a hostage and make Shadowclan pay us a nice ransome, shall we?”

Brambleshade grunted in agreement and the two burly toms shouldered a battered Maplewind between them, two injured and weary to put up a fight. Horror shrilled through Bleakstem.

No! This won’t happen because of me.

With an enraged growl, she flung herself onto Swiftfang’s shoulders, tearing clumsily at his pelt with her forepaws. With an annoyed hiss he flung her to the ground.

“I seem to recall telling you to get out of the way,” He growled.

Bleakstem got to her paws.

“And I think I told you the same thing.”

Brambleshade rolled his eyes.

“Swiftfang, why don’t we take home two hostages?”

“Good idea,” Swiftfang purred, taking a menacing step towards Bleakstem. Without any further warning, he launched himself on her and slammed her to the ground. Panicking, Bleakstem lashed out blindly.

Shadowclan will not have to pay a ransome because of me!

Bleakstem flinched in surprise as she felt something sticky and wet coat her paw. Swiftfang stared down at her with a mingled expression of shock and horror.

“You- you,” He choked out, coughing blood onto Bleakstem’s muzzle. He slumped to the side, twitching jerkily before growing still, a river of red pouring out of his throat.

Brambleshade stared at Bleakstem, eyes rounding in shock.

“You killed him,” He breathed. He glanced around, seeing his clanmates fleeing into the trees towards the Riverclan border. He turned back to Bleakstem, fury sparkling in his eyes.

“I won’t forget this,” He growled. “And I’ll make sure you won’t either. An eye for an eye.”

Bleakstem realized what he was going to do a moment to late. He lashed out at his hostage, slitting her throat in one clean swipe.

“I’d say we’re even,” He growled, before dashing into the trees.

Bleakstem stood, frozen to the spot, as Maplewind’s body grew cold.

No. This is my fault. Brambleshade may have struck the killing blow, but I’m the murderer here. I killed her.

A growl rose in Bleakstem’s throat.

“We’re not even,” She hissed under her breath, staring at the spot Brambleshade had vanished. “We never will be.”

Chapter 1 (October 3rd, 12: 30 AM-9:30 AM, 2021)

Rain drummed on the roof of the den, but the reeds refused to leak or break, and Fernkit was safe and warm. The storm was just a song, gently lulling them to sleep…

When Fernkit awoke, the rain and wind had stopped, leaving only eerie silence. Their eyes blinked open. The nursery was empty and cold and they were alone.

They warily crept to their paws and padded outside the den. The camp was empty except for one cat sitting in the center of it with their back to them, gazing up at the stars. The stranger seemed to be made of shadow, and scarlet pooled around their paws.

Drip. Drip.

Something wet smacked the earth, but it wasn’t water. It left ruddy stains on the grass and stuck to Fernkit’s fur. They stood transfixed, as, ever so slowly, the shadowy figure shifted to face them. Yellow eyes glinted, and the stranger smiled.

“Don’t worry. They deserved it.”

Fernpaw jolted awake.

Drip. Drip.

The den was leaking again, but they didn’t care. The liquid dripping through the ceiling was clear, cold water. The rain pattered quietly on the roof and the ground, urging them to return to sleep. But their heart was pounding too fast and they were too afraid they would just relive the nightmare again.

They slipped quietly out of their nest and out into the night. A pleasant drizzle splattered on the ground, clinging coolly to their pelt.

“Good morning, Fernpaw.”

They frowned.

“Morning?”

“It’s past moonhigh,” Bleakstem explained, sitting soundlessly on the ground beside them. “It’s technically morning. Though that doesn’t mean anyone should be awake yet.”

“You’re awake,” Fernpaw pointed out.

Bleakstem twitched an ear.

“I’m an adult,” She said. “I can go to sleep whenever I want and wake up whenever I want. Plus, trying to get a good night’s sleep in the Dark Forest? Virtually impossible.”

The two sat in silence for a little while. The drizzle eased and the moon poked out from behind the clouds, an orb of silver hanging in the night.  

“You should go back to sleep,” Bleakstem said. “You’re going to want your energy tomorrow.”

“Is something happening tomorrow?” Fernpaw asked with a yawn.

Bleakstem shrugged.

“Something might happen tomorrow. You never know when something exciting will spring itself on you.”

“Alright,” Fernpaw agreed. “Thanks, Bleakstem.”

“Anytime,” The gray she-cat replied, fading into the shadows.

***

A beam of light streamed through the leak in the den, ordering Fernpaw to wake up, but they were only half awake and wanted to stay that way. They didn’t really have a choice in the matter though.

“Fernpaw, wake up.”

“Hrmph.”

“Become upright.”

“Hrrrrmph.”

“Verticalify yourself.” Fernpaw felt a small poke in the ribs.

“Fine, fine,” They muttered, flopping out of their nest and rising sluggishly to their paws. Stickflight was pacing the length of the medicine den.

“We need to go herb hunting,” He said. “We’re out of-,”

“Horsetail and Marigold,” Fernpaw interjected.

Stickflight frowned.

“... Horsetail and Marigold,” He confirmed. “Sometimes I really feel like I should notice these things first.”

“You should.”

Stickflight sighed.

“Why must you always make sure I never forget that? Let’s go.”

The two walked out of camp and into the forest. Raindrops glistened on the leaves and mud squelched under their paws. When they reached the river, it was engorged and flowing swiftly from the night’s rain.

“A lot of the herbs here will have been washed away, but I bet we can still find some,” Stickflight decided. “You look that way.” He gestured downstream with his tail and set off in the other direction. Fernpaw headed downstream and sniffed the air. The waterlogged forest didn’t yield much scent, but they thought they could smell a small clump of horsetail just a little ways down the bank. They had just spotted the herb they were looking for when a crashing in the undergrowth in the forest caught their attention. They tensed. Was it a fox? Or a badger? A dark gray tabby exploded out of a bush and skidded to a halt several tail lengths from them. His fur was on end and his eyes were panicked.

“Tansyteeth?” Fernpaw asked. “What’s wrong?”

“We need you and Stickflight back in camp- quickly. Something is wrong with Hopthorn.”


Chapter 2 (October 3rd, 12:30 AM-7:30 AM, 2021)

The night was cold, the stars glittering icily down at Blacksky. They were beautiful, yet far away and uncaring. And yes, they were. The theory that every star was a dead cat was simply not plausible seeing as how the sky covered the entire world, and there simply weren’t enough dead cats for that, seeing as how the world was far larger than anyone realized.

Stop. Wake up.

Blood pooled around Blacksky’s paws, and it was not his. It didn’t belong to anyone anymore, just a bunch of blood.

Drip.

Angry clouds were gathering in the sky, but they weren’t gray.

Drip. Drop.

Wake up now, before it happens.

Blacksky felt a presence behind him and slowly turned to face them. It was a tiny, light brown tabby kit. But Blacksky couldn’t make himself feel any remorse, because they had des-

NO. WAKE UP NOW.

Blacksky smiled, red drops falling all around him.  

“Don’t worry…,”

No. Stop.

“They deserved it.”

Aaaaaand now I can wake up, Blacksky thought gloomily. Why do I always have to have the whole dream before I can wake up?  The dream was an unwelcome reminder of a period of his life he would rather be done with and pretend it had never happened. A factually inaccurate unwelcome reminder. Sometimes he would only have it once a moon, and sometimes it would plague him for several nights in a row, but one way or another it ever entirely left him alone, like some cruel joke. He’d obtained his vengeance, but the dream wouldn’t let him move on, it had to keep reminding him that Brambleshade had a kit.

Who was now, of course, an orphan since their mother had died of greencough.

Blacksky sat awake for a little while before drifting into a troubled sleep.

***

“Wake up, sleepyhead. Stormstar wants you on dawn patrol.”

“Who’s leading it?” Blacksky asked without opening his eyes.

“Me.”

Blacksky groaned.

“Do I have to?”

“You sound like an apprentice, Blacksky.”

Someone sharply prodded his shoulder.

“Fine, fine,” He grumbled, sliding out of his nest with an undignified flop. “Morning to you too, Mistswoop.”

She grinned.

“What would you do without me to get you out of bed in the morning?”

“I would sleep,” He grumbled, flicking her playfully with his tail.

“Waste of time,” Mistswoop said dismissively. “Let’s get going.”

She padded out of the den with Blacksky on her heels. He nodded in greeting to Hickorywind and Beaverpaw and the patrol headed out of camp.

The forest was still damp from the night’s rain, and dew glittered on leaves and ferns. The ground was annoyingly damp underpaw.

The patrol headed for the Skyclan border, and the trees thinned before giving away entirely to the old, unused Thunderpath. Hickorywind frowned.

“I smell Skyclan. On this side of the border.”

Blacksky sniffed the air. She was right, there was indeed Skyclan scent on their side of the border.

“If we can still smell it, whoever this is must have come by after the rain stopped,” Blacksky pointed out. “Does anyone know when that was?”

“Very early this morning,” Mistswoop answered.

“Do you sleep?” Blacksky wondered.

“Like I said, waste of time. Anyways, this is very fresh. Whoever left it could still be on our territory.”

The patrol set off at a brisk trot, following the scent trail. Blacksky frowned. Something seemed off. The trail meandered back and forth across the thunderpath, back into the forest, around in a circle, back across the thunderpath and into Skyclan territory again.

“Welp,” Mistswoop muttered with a scowl. “Next time this happens, we’ll have to make sure these mousebrains pay for it.”

Beaverpaw suddenly scampered ahead several foxlengths down the thunderpath.

“It picks up again over here,” He announced. “Back on our side of the border.”

Blacksky shook his head.

“This doesn’t make any sense. This cat seems to be going nowhere in particular, and cats don’t just trespass for no reason. As far as we can tell, they’ve made no move to disguise their scent. Something is off about this.”

“Nothing we can do but follow it, I guess,” Hickorywind pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess…,” Blacksky agreed, shooting an uneasy glance behind them. Could this scent trail be some sort of trap? He couldn’t think why Skyclan would want to attack them, but he also couldn’t think why they would be so blatantly trespassing.

“I’ll take up the rear and watch for ambushes,” He volunteered.

“Don’t be so paranoid, little brother,” Mistswoop told him teasingly. “They wouldn’t dare ambush us on our own territory.” She shot the shadows at the edge of the forest on Skyclan’s side of the thunderpath an untrusting glance. “...Probably.”

“I don’t think you should get to call me ‘little brother’ when you’re about thirty seconds older than me,” He grumbled, filing in behind Beaverpaw at the back of the patrol. He thought he caught a glimmer of amusement in Hickorywind’s eyes, and he scowled irritably.

The scent trail led towards the abandoned twoleg nest where Limeshade grew his herbs. Blacksky’s mind raced. Was Skyclan here to destroy their medicine supply?

Mistswoop’s eyes suddenly widened.

“What’s wrong?” He asked her.

“Emberpaw is collecting herbs at the abandoned twoleg den- right now.” She broke into a run just as a panicked yowl met Blacksky’s ears, accompanied by a caterwauling so viscous and alien that it truly scared him.


Chapter 3 (October 3rd, 7:00 AM-7:15 AM, 2021

Hawkflight opened his eyes and padded out of the nursery. He glanced around the camp, taking in the details carefully. He spotted nothing important, or so he pretended. A fuzzy ear poked up above a tree root at the edge of the clearing, but he pretended not to notice. He walked over to the medicine den and poked his head inside.

“Any intruders in here?” He asked.

“Of course not!” Yarrowbite exclaimed in mock offense. “They could never sneak in on my watch.”

Hawkflight nodded, but he thought he heard a squeaky giggle coming from behind one of the nests reserved for sick or injured cats. He turned to exit the den anyways, and nearly crashed into a small, fuzzy bundle of fur.

“Hi,” Starlingkit squeaked.

“Have you been following me this whole time?” Hawkflight wondered.

“Uuuuuuum, yeah?” They said.

Hawkflight suppressed a shiver and couldn’t help feeling he ought to have noticed that.

“We’ll have to keep an eye on you!” He told Starlingkit playfully, ruffling the fluff on his kit’s head. “That was really sneaky! Come help me find your siblings now.”

The two walked back out into the clearing, and Starlingkit immediately noticed one of xyr littermates’ ear poking above the tree root at the edge of the clearing.

“Shh,” They told Hawkflight quietly, sinking into a hunting crouch. Xyr form was extremely good considering they weren’t even an apprentice yet. Xe crouched back, then took a leap over the tree root.

“Eeeek!” Robinkit squealed.

“Found you!” Starlingkit announced cheerfully.  

The two kits clambered back over the tree root.

“I think Sparrowkit is hiding in the medicine den,” said Robinkit, and the kits bounded over to the entrance, Hawkflight close behind.

“You sure there’s no intruders in here?” Hawkflight asked Yarrowbite.

The medicine glanced up from where he was sorting herbs.

“Hawkflight, this really isn’t a good time,” He said.

Hawkflight frowned.

“Well, if Sparrowkit is hiding in here I still need to find him. If he’s here, I can tell him to come out.”

Yarrowbite shook his head.

“No, you don’t understand, I-I… just get out.”

Hawkflight took a step back.

“Starlingkit, Robinkit, go play something else for a little bit,” He told his kits, an edge of worry creeping into his voice. After they were gone he took a cautious step back into the den.

“Yarrowbite,” He said. “Is something wrong?”

“OF COURSE SOMETHING IS WRONG, NOW GET OUT!” Yarrowbite yowled at him, the ferocity in his words making Hawkflight flinch.

Yarrowbite shook his head as if trying to clear it, his tail lashing angrily back and forth. Hawkflight took a step back.

“Are you okay?”

Yarrowbite looked him in the eyes for the first time in the conversation. To Hawkflight’s confusion and terror, they were filled with fear.

“No.” He suddenly rushed at Hawkflight, shoving him roughly out of the way and sprinting out of the den.

Hawkflight poked his head out of the den to see Yarrowbite running out of camp. He shivered. Something was very wrong with that cat.

“Sparrowkit,” He called softly. “You can come out now. Yarrowbite is gone.”

Sparrowkit emerged shakily from behind a nest, rushing over and burying his face in Hawkflight’s fur.

“He was scary, dad. One minute he was acting normal and the next, he-he…,”

“I know,” Hawkflight agreed. “You’re very brave.”

The two walked out of the medicine den. The hunting patrol was coming back, with Eaglestorm in front. She walked over to Hawkflight and the two touched noses. She glanced at Sparrowkit’s shivering form and opened her mouth to say something.

And then she collapsed.

Chapter 4 (October 3rd, 11:30 PM-7:00 AM, 2021)

Willow awoke in darkness, except for a sliver of moonlight shining through the roof of the basement. The cracked stone floor was damp beneath her, and she realized it was wet with her own blood. She needed to get up, move, do something. She didn’t want to die in this cold, dark place. She didn’t want to die after the winds had already ceased, after the thunder had quieted. It was almost… lame.

But mostly she just didn’t want to die in general.

But she couldn’t stand. If she could, she could just walk up the stairs, and exit through the hole in the roof. She wouldn’t even have to find her way out of the twoleg nest, because that wasn’t there anymore.

Buuuuut, she couldn’t stand. She was going to die. And then there would be three corpses where the twoleg den used to stand.

***

“Hello, Willowpaw.”

Willowpaw’s eyes shot open and she scrambled to her paws. She could tell she was still dreaming, but she felt awake. She was standing in a dark forest of leafless trees and dark shadows, which was most certainly not what her den looked like. Even if it was a tad shadowy, it had a roof and it most definitely did not have trees.

A dark gray she-cat stepped out of the shadows.

“My apologies for that… unpleasant dream. I thought you might need to remember what you’ve lost to clearly see what you have to gain.”

“I don’t really think I have anything to gain from having really strange dreams,” Willowpaw muttered.

“This is more than just a strange dream,” The stranger told her. “Poke the ground.”

Willowpaw poked the ground. It felt like very normal ground.

“Dirt,” She said. “So what?”

“That there is real dirt that looks like dirt, feels like dirt, smells like dirt, and probably tastes like dirt,” The gray she-cat stated. “You can’t tell me this is a normal dream if you can feel things.”

“Soooo, you’re telling me you’re one of those magic cats in the sky?”

The stranger folded herself into a neat loaf on the ground.  

“Magic is only science we don’t understand yet.”

“Alright,” Willowpaw relented. “But this doesn’t exactly look like what I’ve been told about Starclan.”

“Because it isn’t,” The gray she-cat admitted. “This is the Dark Forest, and I’m Bleakstem.”

Willowpaw stared for a moment.

“Sooooo….”

“You think I’m not trustworthy.”

“Uuuuuuuum, yeah?” Admitted Willowpaw. “I mean, you kinda had an illegal mate and then killed your leader, soooo….”  

“I guess I did,” Bleakstem said evenly.

“Sooooo, I’m still talking to you why?”

“If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.”

“SO comforting,” Willowpaw meowed sarcastically.

“Look,” Said Bleakstem. “I have no interest in killing you, and I have no interest in killing anyone else. No one has to get hurt. But very soon, things are going to change, whether anyone wants them to or not. A new dawn is coming, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“...Why?” wondered Willowpaw.

“Very good question. You’re a necromancer.”

“A what-a-what-er?”

“Right. You don’t know what that is.”

“Not a clue.”

“Allow me to explain. Us dead folks are still around because the living still remember us. Our power comes from being remembered, and if no one remembers us, well… we kinda stop existing. In this world anyways. The universe is like a layered cake-,”

“A layered what?” Willowpaw asked.

“Mousedung,” Bleakstem muttered. “You don’t know what that is either. A cake is a thing that twolegs eat. A layered cake is a cake with lots of layers stacked on top of each other. If you eat one layer, the other layers still exist. The universe is like that. It is comprised of infinite dimensions stacked on top of each other, and when you die you just traverse into the next. The catch is that each is a little bit less real than the one before it. Hence Starclan and Dark Forest being, y’know… Starclan and Dark Forest.”

“Sounds very intriguing and complicated, and not like something I at all care about.”

“I haven’t finished yet. I’m assuming you’ve heard of the great battle, where Starclan and Dark Forest both came down to your world and the clans valiantly defeated us malevolent scoundrels, bla bla bla… So we all came down  and took a physical form for a short time. That all happened because of a necromancer in the living world.”

“Why is that cat not famous?” Willowpaw wondered. “Also, this is still not sounding like something I care about. Just history.”

“History repeats itself. And that cat is famous. He just didn’t know he was a necromancer.”

“And who’s this?”

“Jayfeather. Anyways, necromancers can bring cats from the next layer of the universe into theirs for a short period of time.”

“So now you explain why I care.”

“You care,” Bleakstem said. “Because you understand what having nothing feels like. You understand enough of this to realize the clans will be better off if you help me.”

Willowpaw glared at Bleakstem.

“Sounds like a load of mousedung.”

Bleakstem sighed.

“I know you, Willowpaw. Some would say I know you better than yourself.”

“Sounds really creepy and makes me not want to talk to you.”

“It is a little bit,” Bleakstem agreed. “But I’ve been watching you because I made you a necromancer. And I need to know these things to make you agree to help me.”

“You need to know these things so you can manipulate me into doing something stupid,” Willowpaw retorted.

“So that’s what you think this is. At least let me finish in case you change your mind. I’m trying to make the world a better place. But Starclan won’t be too terribly happy about my ideas. So I need an army. An army of the faded. And they will surrender, because you will get me an army big enough to take them on. And we do this all while the clans are away, because trust me when I say they’ll be moving soon. After Starclan has no more power, we can take their fondness of prophecies and use it to guide the clans on the correct paths, and they’ll never know the difference. So many tragedies could be prevented. Just think about it, ok?”

“Yeah, I’m actually feeling a whole lot like I’m just going to tell everyone about this….”

“You do, do you?”

“Uuuum, yeah?”

“Good luck,” Bleakstem snorted. “Come back when you change your mind.”

“What do you-,” Willowpaw started to say.

Willowpaw’s eyes blinked open and she yawned. Sunlight was streaming through the roof of the den. She felt like something important was going on and sat bolt upright. My assessment! Mousedung, I overslept! As she ran out of the apprentices den, she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something else important, but she pushed the thought away. She’d had a good night of dreamless sleep, and she was ready to be a warrior.

Chapter 5 (October 3rd, 9:00 AM-10:30 AM,2021)

"Clan meeting!” Laurelstar’s voice rang out across the clearing, loud and clear.

Shrikekit quickly finished gulping down his mouse and leaped to answer the summons, quivering with excitement. Gingerherb padded up beside him as cats filled into the center of the clearing.

“Ready to be an apprentice?” he asked.

“Course I am!” Shrikekit squeaked. “I’ve been ready for about six moons.”

“You sure?” Gingerherb wondered mischievously. “I hear they have to do lots of chores!”

Chores?!” Shrikekit squealed in mock horror as Laurelstar started speaking again.

“Pricklekit, come forward.”

Shrikekit’s friend walked coolly and confidently to the base of the highrock. He wondered how she could contain herself so well as Laurelstar leaped down and touched noses with her.

“From this day forward, until you receive your full medicine cat name, you will be known as Pricklepaw. Your mentor will be Starlingpad.”

Shrikekit blinked in surprise. She hadn’t told him she wanted to be a medicine cat! He almost chuckled as he realized Windclan now had two medicine cats and two medicine cat apprentices. No one would ever get sick again!

“Waspkit, come forward.”

Why do I have to go laaast? Shrikekit internally groaned as Waspkit hesitantly walked to the base of the highrock. They seemed smaller than Pricklekit had, despite actually being slightly larger in reality.

Laurelstar touched noses with Waspkit.

“From this day forward, until you receive your warrior name, you will be known as Wasppaw. Your mentor will be Moonthicket.”

Shrikekit could hardly keep from bouncing up and down.

It’s my turn now!

“Shrikekit, come forward.”

He practically sprinted towards Laurelstar, stumbling and almost falling on his face. He skidded to a stop in front of his leader, who’s whiskers twitched in amusement. His face burned thinking how silly he must have looked, but he shook the feeling off as he touched noses with Laurelstar.

I am silly and always have been, and everyone knows that so it doesn’t matter.

“From this day forward, until you receive your warrior name, you will be known as Shrikepaw. Your mentor will be Ashenberry.”

Shrikepaw raced to greet his mentor. For a second he thought he saw a flash of panic in his eyes that said ‘Why did I have to get this one?’ But it was gone just as fast as it had appeared.

“Are we going to practice hunting? Or fighting?” He asked eagerly, bouncing around Ashenberry’s paws.

The panic was back again, and Shrikepaw couldn’t help but feel exasperated. He wasn’t scary!  

Gingerherb seemed to materialize out of nowhere, shooting Ashenberry a glance that said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this.’ and Ashenberry nodded in relief. Shrikekit caught onto a lot more than grownups thought he did.

“Slow down a little, Shrikepaw,” They said. “I think to start you’ll just be going on a tour of the territory.

Ashenberry cleared his throat, trying to assume some semblance of authority.

“Er, yes. Territory tour.”

“Can I talk to him for a second?” Gingerherb asked.

“Yes, of course,” Ashenberry agreed quickly, stepping aside slightly.

Gingerherb ruffled the fur on Shrikepaw’s head.  

“I know you’re excited,” He whispered. “But try and make it a little easier on Ashenberry, okay? You’re his first apprentice, you know.”

“Fiiiiine,” Shrikepaw agreed reluctantly.

“Now, don’t get eaten by badgers!” Gingerherb said teasingly.

“I won’t! See you later dad!” Shrikepaw squeaked excitedly, hurrying back over to Ashenberry.

“Let’s gooo!” He exclaimed.

“Alright, alright,” Ashenberry meowed, glancing up at the sky. Shrikepaw could have sworn he saw him mouth a quick prayer to Starclan before he said, “Let’s go.”

***

“And this… is the horseplace,” Ashenberry panted, dragging himself up along Shrikepaw. “Now can we… stop for a moment? You have definitely proven… that you are a true Windclan cat.”

It was true. Shrikepaw loved the moor and the wide open sky beyond the camp and how you could run forever without stopping, and most certainly did not want to stop. But he supposed he had to, since he didn’t know the way back to camp and Ashenberry clearly couldn’t keep up any longer.

“Is that a horse?!” He squeaked as an enormous brown mass of a creature stepped out of the enormous barn into an enormous pasture surrounded by an enormous fence. “It’s so big!”

“Yes… that’s a horse.”

“It’s huge!”

“I… noticed”

Shrikepaw suddenly grew nervous.

“Are they carnivorous?”

“I don’t… think so?” Ashenberry answered uncertainly. “Can’t get over… the fence anyway.”

“Can I see the rest of the territory now?”

His mentor shook his head empathetically and flopped onto the long moor grass.

“Just gimme… a second.”

Shrikepaw sighed, getting a good look at the horseplace. There were several pens with horses in them, as well as a barn and a twoleg den and a large field filled with orderly rows of strange trees with almost cylindrical yellow flowers and thin stems. Suddenly some of the stems quivered and a pair of glowing amber eyes appeared in the shadows at their bases.

Shrikepaw let out a yelp as the mysterious cat looked him straight in the eyes, gave him a small nod, and promptly disappeared back into the forest of strange green stalks.

Chapter 6 (October 3rd, 9:30 AM-9:45 AM, 2021)

Fernpaw raced through the undergrowth, wet ferns slapping their pelt as they sprinted back towards camp, trying not to drop their herbs.

“Sho,” Stickflight panted around his mouthful. “By ‘shomethinksh wrong wish Hopshthornsh’, yoush means whatsh exshactly?”

Tansyteeth shuddered as he ran.

“I don’t know. He started acting… strange. Muttering gibberish, trying to claw anyone who came close to him. Hollowslide force-fed them some poppy seeds.”  

Sounds an awful lot like insanity, Fernpaw thought with a shiver. But that doesn’t make any sense- Nothing’s happened recently that could have caused this, and they weren’t even an elder!

“How manysh?” Stickflight mumbled.

“Uhhhh,” Said Tansyteeth. “I dunno. A lot?”

The three burst back into camp. The tension and confusion in the air felt tangible, making Fernpaw’s fur prickle like they were walking through nettles with every step. Hollowslide padded up to them.

“I put them in the medicine den,” The deputy told them. Stickflight nodded and he walked into the medicine den with Fernpaw, and they set their herbs on the ground.

Hopthorn was sleeping in one of the spare nests, twitching agitatedly as if his rest was troubled. A small growl slipped past their lips.

Stickflight stared, frozen in silence as if he didn’t comprehend what he was seeing. Fernpaw walked up and gently placed their paw to Hopthorn’s forehead, and they snarled in their sleep.

Fernpaw jerked back.

“They have a fever,” They told Stickflight.

He didn’t seem to hear them.

“Stickflight?”

Their mentor shook his head as if to clear it.

“They were my mentor,” He said quietly. “Before I decided to be a medicine cat.”

***

“Good, but lower your tail so that it’s straight out behind you.”

Stickpaw modified his hunting crouch as Hopthorn had instructed, taking a few stealthy steps forward, ferns tickling his ears as he stalked towards the mouse foraging at the base of a tree a few tail lengths away.

Crunch.

The mouse scampered into a small hollow in the tree as a twig snapped under Stickpaw’s paw. His whiskers drooped as he realized the mouse was too deep in the hollow to reach with his paws.

“It’s okay,” Hopthorn assured him, resting the tip of their tail on Stickpaw’s shoulder. “It’s greenleaf and there are plenty more mice to be caught.”

***

Stickpaw pelted through the undergrowth, eyes trained on the fluffy white tail bobbing just foxlengths from his nose. The rabbit was faster, but Stickpaw knew he was going to catch it this time. It was running straight towards the river, and it (Probably?) couldn’t swim. When it reached the river, it would try to turn, and then Stickpaw would pounce on it and kill it. He could see the look on Hopthorn’s face already, after he’d caught a rabbit all by himself…

He could catch this rabbit.

He was going to catch this rabbit.

But suddenly, the rabbit wasn’t there anymore. Stickpaw’s paw caught in the very hole it has vanished down and he crashed forwards, banging his nose on the ground. It was squishy and yielding here, mere foxlengths from the river, but what hurt more was knowing he’d failed. Again. And he’d been so close.

He lay there for a few more moments before rising to his feet. He let out a hiss of pain as his weight settled on his injured paw and limped back in the direction he’d come from.

The bushes rustled and Hopthorn emerged in front of Stickpaw.

“Did you catch…?” They trailed off at the sight of Stickpaw’s sprained paw and drooping whiskers. They knew the answer. “Let’s go back to camp and have Cloudfire take a look at that.”

“I’m sorry,” Stickpaw blurted as the two padded back to camp.

“For what?” Hopthorn asked, a puzzled expression spreading over their face.

“That I can’t catch anything.”

Hopthorn shook their head.

“Rabbits are hard to catch, and you would have had it if that hole hadn’t been there. It could have happened to anybody.”

But the hole was there, Stickpaw thought.

“But what if I’m not good enough?” He wondered.

Hopthorn rested the tip of his tail on Stickpaw’s shoulder.

“You are good enough,” They assured him. “You’ll catch something tomorrow. I’m sure of it.”

“You’re sure?” Stickpaw asked.

"I’m sure,” Hopthorn confirmed, and for a moment Stickpaw believed them.

***

Stickpaw hung on the fringes of the battle, unsure of what to do. He wished he could just go home, but that wasn’t an option. This conflict was lasting until it had either been won or lost, and until then he was stuck there.

Suddenly a heavy paw slammed down on Stickpaw’s back pinning him to the ground. He whimpered in fear as he realized a Shadowclan warrior had snuck up behind him.

“Either fight or go home, apprentice.” The voice was not as hostile as he’d feared, but still more than he would like. “Before I have to make you.”

I can’t go home. I haven’t even done anything, Stickpaw thought, eyes screwed shut against the dirt in his face.

“Well, kid?” The Shadowclan warrior asked again.

“No,” Stickpaw growled, though even he could hear the quaver in his voice.

His assailant sighed, and Stickflight blinked in surprise as the paw vanished from his back.

“Thank y-,” He said, beginning to rise to his feet. Before he finished speaking, a blur of white swung above his face, cuffing him hard around the ears. Blood dripped into his field of view. He was bleeding.

He swung a feeble swipe of his own at his attacker’s black and white face, but the warrior sidestepped neatly and rammed him in the side, sending him tumbling to the ground again.

"Go home,” His attacker growled one more time before bounding back into the center of the battle. Stickpaw lay on the ground a few moments longer, trembling with terror. Then, pelt burning with shame, he dashed back into the trees towards his camp.

***

“Try the move again,” Hopthorn suggested. “Just a little faster, you can do it.”

Tansypaw shot Stickpaw a knowing sneer as he rose to his feet again. Their mentor, Sleekleaf, either didn’t notice or pretended not to.

Stickpaw shot forward again, trying to try, remembering Hopthorn’s advice.

“To succeed at something, you have to try. And to truly try, you have to believe you can.”

Stickpaw found that he did not believe as Tansypaw neatly hooked his paws out from underneath him, sending him crashing to the ground again.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Sleekleaf decided. “You did well, Tansypaw.”

Tansypaw discreetly kicked a small amount of dirt on Stickpaw as he turned to follow his mentor.

Hopthorn padded over to Stickpaw’s side as he stood up.

“Try practicing the move on me,” They suggested.

“What’s the point?” Stickpaw sulked.

Hopthorn sighed.

“To get better at it, of course. Stickpaw, if you ever want to beat Tansypaw, you have to believe you can. You need to change your attitude.”

Stickpaw shook his head.

“Tansypaw will always be better than me, and I’ll always be behind the other apprentices no matter how much I practice or how hard I try. I’m just… not good enough.”

“You are good enough,” Hopthorn insisted. “You just have to believe you are.”

“No,” Stickpaw mewed, and the flood gates opened. “I’m not good enough and I never will be and every night I dream about the next battle and every time in the end, I-I…,” Stickpaw trailed off. “Am I a coward if I’m afraid to fight? If sometimes I don’t know if I’m willing to lay down my life for my clan?”  

Hopthorn thought for a moment. They tilted their head at an angle.

“Stickpaw, do you really want to be a warrior?”

Stickpaw’s eyes widened.

“Of course I do!”

“Are you sure?” Hopthorn asked, and Stickpaw could tell they knew he was lying.

“No.”

“And you’re afraid that if you don’t follow this path because you’re afraid, it makes you a coward?”

“Yes,” Stickpaw admitted miserably.

“Stickpaw,” Hopthorn said. “There are other ways to serve your clan besides fighting that are just as important. If you want to be a medicine cat…,”


***

“Be a medicine cat,” Stickflight finished. “That’s what they told me.”

Fernpaw was silent for a moment.

Stickflight frowned.

“I think I just broke mentor protocol again. Mentors shouldn’t tell these things to their apprentices.”

“It’s fine,” Fernpaw mewed, and they knew what they needed to say. “You’re a great mentor, Stickflight.”

He brightened slightly.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“I hate to kill the mood,” Fernpaw said after a little. “But what are we going to do about Hopthorn?”


Chapter 7 (October 3rd, 7:30 AM-7:45 AM, 2021) Content Warning: Contains Suicide

When the patrol arrived at the abandoned twoleg nest, the yowling had stopped. The only sound was the breeze in the trees and the creaking of the peeling, rotten wooden walls. A gray haze was beginning to cover the sky and it seemed like it might rain again soon. Shadows gaped at Blacksky through square shaped holes in the side of the den, jagged clear stone clinging to their edges.

“Well,” Mistswoop said with forced cheerfulness. “This is kinda creepy.”

“You can say that again,” Hickorywind agreed, and Beaverpaw shivered.

Blacksky only nodded in agreement, failing to find the scene at all scary after frequently reliving that fateful night when he had-

We’re getting a little off topic here, He decided, refocusing his attention on the problem at hand.

“The herbs are destroyed,” Beaverpaw noted irritably. Blacksky glanced at the herb garden. It was devastated, scraps of uprooted herbs littering the ground half covered by mud.

“Someone ran through that…,” Blacksky said.

“... So whoever did that smells like herbs now…” Mistswoop added.

“Meaning we can follow the scent of the herbs to find whoever did this,” Hickorywind finished.

“Mousedung,” Beaverpaw muttered. “I wanted to contribute to the collective sentence.”

No one laughed.

The patrol searched around the edges of the ‘garden’, and sure enough there was a clear smell of herbs leading away from it, the sharp, tangy scent heading towards the twoleg den.

The wind picked up, blowing a fragment of some sort of herb underneath Blacksky’s nose as the patrol padded warily towards the nest. There was a speck of red on it.

The herb scent led to a wooden protrusion jutting off the front of the den with an overhang above it, and some twoleg objects that looked like they might have once been comfortable to sit on. A trail of muddy footprints revealed themselves where the trail met the wood, and a few drops of dried blood stained the boards. Blacksky sniffed at it. It hadn’t been there very long yet.

Mistswoop pointed with her tail towards one of the openings in the twoleg nest. The tips of some of the jagged pieces of clear stone around its edges were stained scarlet.

“Quiet,” Mistswoop whispered. “We don’t know if this is a friend or foe.” She deftly leaped onto one of the twoleg objects, and then through the hole in the wall. Hickorywind followed, and then Beaverpaw. Blacksky leaped through last after one last untrusting glance behind him.

It was dark in the twoleg den. There were plenty of holes in the roof, but none of them filtered all the way down to the bottom floor. The only light came in eerie, dull slants from the holes in the wall, dust motes swirling in the sunlight. Every step, however soft, sent up a thick, gray, plume of dust. Blacksky had heard that once, a very long time ago, the abandoned twoleg nest had been used as a shelter and quarantine for sick cats. He found it hard to imagine now.

“Over here,” Mistswoop whispered. A trail of pawprints in the dust led away from where she was standing. The patrol followed them across a fraying twoleg pelt on the floor to a door. It was slightly ajar. Mistswoop slipped through the opening, followed by the rest of the patrol. Damp, dusty wooden steps led down into even blacker shadows than the ones they were leaving, and Blacksky had to admit even he found it creepy this time.

Creeeeak.

“Mousedung,” Mistswoop hissed quietly. “The bottom step creaks.”

The rest of the patrol skipped the last step, landing soundlessly on the cold, stony floor. The shadows were so thick it was no longer possible to discern the footprints in the dust, and cobwebs clustered in every corner.

“You shouldn’t have come.”

Every cat on the patrol jumped as two glowing slits appeared in the darkness at the end of the room. Mistswoop flicked her tail and they formatted themselves to block any form of escape. The cat in the shadows looked away.

“I came here to hide. Leave me alone.”

“We are here,” Mistswoop growled. “Because you’re trespassing, and we heard you attacking one of our medicine cats.”

“I didn’t mean to,” The cat answered, voice breaking. “Please, just leave me alone.”

“How exactly do you go about attacking someone by accident?” Mistswoop hissed.

“You don’t understand, do you?” Said the trespasser, taking a step forward, out of the shadows.

“Yarrowbite?!” Blacksky exclaimed. Skyclan’s medicine cat looked at him blankly.

“Yes. I think so.”

Blacksy and Mistswoop shared a glance.

“So… Yarrowbite,” Blacksky said carefully. “How about you come with us, and we can take you back to your own territory and get this whole mess sorted out, deal?”

Yarrowbite shook his head, pain glistening in his eyes.

“You don’t understand. I could have hurt him… I could have hurt Sparrowkit. There’s only one way to get this ‘sorted out’.” He raised a shaky claw to his own throat and closed his eyes.

“Yarrowbite, stop,” Hickorywind demanded.

He shook his head again.

“Tell Hawkflight and Eaglestorm I’m sorry.”

Blacksky surged forwards and leaped on Yarrowbite, but he was already falling. He hit the floor with a dull thud, Blacksky landing on top of him. Blood was pouring out of his throat, staining Blacksky’s paws.

“Tell them… I’m sorry,” Yarrowbite requested again. His breath caught in his chest, and he coughed up a little bit of blood. Then he fell still.

Everything was silent for a moment.

Creeeak.

Blacksky froze.

He’d just heard that noise.

When Mistswoop had stepped on the last step.

The creaky one.

Chapter 8 (October 3rd, 7:15 AM-7:45 AM, 2021)

“What’s wro-,” Eaglestorm started to ask, and broke up. Hawkflight, her kits, and the camp had disappeared. Instead she was talking to a very elegant spruce tree, roots sprawling out like spiderwebs and with leaves like emeralds.

Leaves like emeralds?

It was leaf fall.

Eaglestorm glanced around in confusion. She was sitting in the middle of a lush, green, greenleaf forest. Stars twinkled in the sky.

It’s only a little past sunhigh though.

The only reasonable explanation she could think of was that she was in Starclan’s hunting grounds, though she couldn’t think why she might be randomly pulled up to Starclan in the middle of her day.

“I don’t have time for this,” She growled to no one in particular. “If you have something to tell me, get to it.” For Starclan’s sake, I’m the deputy of Skyclan! I have important things to do.

The bushes rustled and a starry ginger and white she-cat with green eyes stepped out.

“What do you mean, you don’t have-,” She paused, looking Eaglestorm up and down. “You’re alive,” She said, sounding mildly surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

The ghost thought for a moment.

“I haven’t the faintest clue. You’re the deputy of Skyclan, right?”

Eaglestorm nodded.

The ghost frowned.

“Well then. Sorry for the inconvenience. I guess just follow me and we can send you back home? I’m Maplewind, by the way.”

She was murdered by Brambleshade a few seasons ago, Eaglestorm realized with a jolt. Or, might have been murdered by Brambleshade anyways. Shadowclan had accused him but Riverclan had denied everything, and Oakstar hadn’t been willing to wage war in case xe was wrong.

They were dead now.

Maplewind shot her a glance as if reading her thoughts. Eaglestorm almost asked her if she knew why she had been murdered, but kept her mouth shut.

It’s none of my business, really. It’s not as if we could catch him now anyways.  

“And here we are,” Maplewind announced. They had arrived at a clearing with a clear pool of pristine water in the middle of it. A fluffy, dark brown cat sat at its edge, staring intently into the depths. Eaglestorm recognized them as the late Shadowclan leader, Oakstar.

“What are you doing here?” They asked with a frown when xe saw her.

“Beats me,” Eaglestorm said. “Does anyone here know what I’m doing here?”

“Maybe?” Oakstar wondered. “If anyone would know, it would be Yellowfang or Firestar or one of those really old people. They don’t tell us much sometimes.”

Maplewind snorted.

Sometimes?”

“Most of the time,” Oakstar amended with a sheepish look around xem. “They’re better versed in our more mystical properties.”

“That’s just a nice way of saying they think we’re mousebrains who don’t understand their very wise and mysterious reasons for never telling anyone anything useful.” Maplewind retorted.

Oakstar jumped.

“Don’t say that! Yellowfang would freak if she heard.”

“All Yellowfang can do to me is try to lecture my ears off and watch helplessly as I tune her out.” Said Maplewind. “It’s not as if she’s listening anyways. She obviously has more important things to do.”

Oakstar sighed.

“It’s very difficult to believe I was your leader once.”

“It is,” Maplewind agreed. She turned to Eaglestorm. “Now, before we go on for another hour or so about this-,”

“Not that long,” Oakstar protested. Maplewind ignored xem.

“Want to go home?” Maplewind finished.

“Yes, thank you,” Eaglestorm said.

“Alright,” Said Oakstar. “Just jump- MAPLEWIND!”

Eaglestorm stumbled into the pool, sinking like a stone.

“Wasn’t that more fun than just telling her?” Was the last thing she heard before her eyes snapped open.

***

Hawkflight noticed when the patrol passed over the border. They all did. It wasn’t just the scent, it was a shift in the air.

It felt like Thunderclan could see them every step they took.

“Oh no,” Dustdust murmured suddenly, fur spiking.

“What’s wrong?” Wrenwillow wondered.

“A Thunderclan patrol passed by here recently,” Dustdust explained, giving the black stone of the old thunderpath a thorough sniff to be sure. “They’re following Yarrowbite too. And they’re ahead of us.”

Hawkflight shuddered. Yarrowbite wasn’t thinking clearly. Starclan knew what he’d do if Thunderclan found him- and what Thunderclan would do in defense.

I really don’t want to be here, He thought again. He would much rather be back at camp. He would really like to know how Sparrowkit was holding up, and whether Eaglestorm was ok or not. But Flaxstar had made him go on this patrol because he was the only warrior who’d seen how Yarrowbite was acting. Don’t think about it. He decided. Don’t think about it until you get back and someone can run up to you and tell you that Eaglestorm is fine.

Suddenly a panicked wail reached them on the breeze.

“Mousedung!” Everyone on the patrol exclaimed simultaneously, breaking into a sprint. Maybe we can catch up to them, Hawkflight reasoned. Running on the thunderpath must hurt their paws more than ours.

But the Thunderclan patrol had too much of a head start. By the time they reached the abandoned twoleg nest, there was already fresh Thunderclan scent around it.

The patrol followed it to a hole in the wall edged by broken bits of clear stone that the Thunderclan had presumably gone through.

“Alright, folks,” Dustdust whispered. “If Thunderclan is still in there, if at all possible just get Yarrowbite and get out without actually having to fight them.”

Hawkflight nodded as she leapt through the opening, followed by the rest of the patrol. He hesitantly entered last.

It was dark in the twoleg den. The only light came in eerie slants through the holes behind them. A few drops of rain drummed on the roof as it began to drizzle again.

The patrol followed Yarrowbite’s scent across a fraying twoleg pelt to a door in the wall slightly ajar. The pathway beyond descended into darkness. Yarrowbite’s and Thunderclan’s scent was all over it.

Of course it goes down there. Hawkflight thought miserably as Dustdust led the way down the stairs. Halfway down, she pricked her ears.

“Yarrowbite, stop.”

Dustdust practically sprinted the rest of the way down the stairs, the rest of the patrol following her lead as Yarrowbite replied. Hawkflight didn’t catch what he said, it was too quiet. Creeeak. Dustdust froze as the last step groaned under her weight. After a few moments, she stepped into the gloomy room at the bottom of the staircase and turned a corner.  The patrol uttered a collective gasp as their visions adjusted to the darkness. A Thunderclan patrol stared guiltily back at them, stood frozen in their previous position, a formation to block escape. Except for one. He looked like he was trying to think of something to say, some way to prove this wasn’t what it looked like.

He looked like he wished he could hide the blood dripping from his paws.

Chapter 9 (October 3rd, 8:00 AM-10:00 PM, 2021)

Hawthorndusk raced across the thunderpath, the hard, black, stone stinging her paws. There were no monsters right now, there were too many trees in the road. Long, black, snakes littered the ground and broken shards of clear stone just asked to be stepped on. The twolegplace was unrecognizable. Some dens were untouched, some had pieces missing, and some of them-

Some of them were just gone.

Hawthorndusk had never been this deep in the twolegplace before, let alone in this state, but she felt like she’d walked the path a thousand times. She knew what she was looking for, and she was going to find it.

She had to.

Hawthorndusk came upon a twoleg object in the road. It looked like a stick with unnaturally rounded edges made of some semi transparent twoleg material. A string hung off the end of the stick, tantalizing brown and black feathers dangling at its end.

The way it lay there on the ground, it pointed straight at a twoleg den across the Thunderpath.

It wasn’t hard to get inside, half the walls were gone. Debris and chunks of twoleg objects were scattered on the floor, and parts of the roof had collapsed into the den.

One of the chunks of roof on the ground had a hole in it. It was the one Hawthorndusk was looking for. The chasm led down into a dark, shadowy slope.

Hawthorndusk squeezed through the opening and onto the stairs.

***

Willowpaw angrily stabbed another brown and black feather into the soft moss of the nest. The nest did not wail or whimper or fall over and bleed or just plain die and she found this reaction unsatisfactory.

A twig crunched as Rainfoot appeared out of the bushes behind her.

Willowpaw sighed. She had gone out in the forest so she could stab feathers into nests by herself.

“What are you doing?” Rainfoot asked, sitting down beside Willowpaw.

“I’m putting feathers in the elders’ nests,” She answered grumpily.

Rainfoot just stared at Willowpaw piercingly, and she could tell they had most likely pieced together every bit of the situation and what she was feeling at the moment.

Sometimes Willowpaw hated that about her parents.

Rainfoot didn’t say anything, just looked at Willowpaw to convey the question.

“The elders need them more than I do,” Willowpaw growled.

Rainfoot nodded sadly.

“You’re growing up too fast.”

Willowpaw rolled her eyes and stabbed the nest again.

“Don’t be in such a hurry,” Rainfoot warned. “Being a warrior comes with a lot of responsibilities, and you still have twelve moons to be an apprentice. Enjoy them.”

“I will,” Willowpaw promised reluctantly.

“There’s my girl. I guess I’ll leave you to your nest stabbing now,” Rainfoot purred.

Enjoy being an apprentice, Willowpaw mentally scoffed as they walked back towards camp. I don’t have time for that. I’m going to train and train hard. And when I’m a warrior, I’ll make them see they were wrong to doubt me.

They’ll see.

When I can outfight or outhunt them any day.

When I’m better than them.

***

Willowpaw snapped the mouse’s neck with a clean, satisfying chop to the throat. This brought her prey count up to five.

She only needed to catch three pieces of prey. She could head back to camp now and be a warrior.

But being ‘a warrior’ wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted every cat in the forest to know her name. She wanted to be the kind of warrior that enemies ran from at first sight, the kind of warrior that killed foxes and badgers like they were mice.

She wanted to be the kind of warrior that was respected by her clan and feared by everyone else. The kind of warrior that didn’t stay a warrior for long.

The kind of warrior that would be leader some day. 

***

“Willowpaw, do you promise to defend Shadowclan and uphold the warrior code, even at the cost of your life?”

“I do,” Willowpaw vowed. I hope my warrior name is something fierce. Something people tremble when they hear.

“Then from this day forward, you will be known as Willowwilt. Starclan honors your determination and loyalty.” Kestrelstar leapt down from the highrock and rested his muzzle on Willowwilt’s head, and she licked his shoulder.

And then she was a warrior.

“Willowwilt! Willowwilt! Willowwilt!” The clan chanted, and a smile stole across Willowwilt’s expression. Some of them still doubted her, she knew. But they were wrong, and they would realize it someday soon.

After all, look where Firestar came from.

Willowwilt probably wasn’t destined to save the clans, but Starclan had told Hawthorndusk to find her for some reason.

So if Firestar could show his clanmates he wasn’t anything less than them because of his roots, so could she.  

***

The night was crisp and cold, the stars glimmering coolly down at Willowwilt. She was very glad it had stopped raining, since that would absolutely suck to sit vigil in. The leaf-fall breeze brought scents and noises of closeby plants and animals, relishing their hours of peace when the rulers of the forest were asleep.

The forest at night was so alive. It was a different sort of alive-ness than the usual hustle and bustle of clan life, secretive and watchful, always moving.

Tentative, almost.

Willowwilt liked it, felt connected to it, maybe closer than she had ever felt to clan life during the daytime. She absentmindedly batted at a firefly floating past her nose, and it flickered like a forgotten dream.

Willowwilt’s thoughts froze. The firefly almost seemed to be trying to tell her something in its peculiar flashing manner. The surreal feeling of connection she’d had with the world outside the camp vanished.

She was forgetting something, something important.

She remembered a dark gray she-cat, and she almost thought she heard her laughing.

Willowwilt wanted to claw this cat’s face off.

Somewhere in the night, and otherworldly scream shook her from her thoughts. The sounds and smells of the forest rushed back at her, and she forgot what she had been trying to remember.

Foxes, She told herself, shivering. They scream at night sometimes.

Willowwilt no longer felt connected to the animals in the bushes, the creaking of the trees in the wind. She realized that she really had no idea what was out there, and had no desire to find out.

The camp was an island in an ocean of shadow, and the cats in it were stranded. Alone.

The firefly fluttered to a tree at the edge of camp, its glow announcing its location every few seconds. Suddenly, the light stopped moving. The moon came out from behind a cloud, glimmering on the sticky strands holding the firefly in place, and the spider creeping towards its dinner.    


Chapter 10 (October 3rd, 10:30 AM-10:45 AM, 2021)  

Gingeherb squeezed under the fence, paws squishing in the stinky, mud like substance on the ground that was, unfortunately, probably not mud.

He eyed the horses warily, but they seemed more scared of him than he was of them, whenever he went near one it let out a nervous whinny and trotted a short distance away.

He walked under another fence, breathing out a sigh of relief as he left the horses behind him. Shrikekit had told him they weren’t dangerous, but Shrikekit had also told him that the dog only wanted to play with him.

Gingerherb squeezed through the hole in the barn, splintery wood and peeling paint catching in their fur. He was immediately hit by a small, fuzzy bundle of kit fluff  rocketing towards him at a tremendous velocity Gingerherb didn’t know could be mustered by such small legs.

“Hi Gingerherb!” Shrikekit squeaked.

Gingerherb opened his mouth to greet the kit, but was abruptly cut off.

“Why can’t you take me to the clans?”

GIngerherb flinched as if they had been struck. Shrikekit was obviously determined to obtain this information, but he didn’t know if he could phrase it in words he would understand.

He didn’t know if he could phrase it in a way that didn’t make him sound like a coward.

Shrikekit stared at him expectantly.

“Well,” Gingerherb began. “Do you remember what my job is?”

“You do very important magic herby things,” Shrikekit answered quickly.

“Exactly,” Gingerherb continued. “And because of my job, I’m not allowed to-,” His words caught in his throat. “Not allowed to…,”

“Not allowed to what?” Shrikekit pressed.

“I’m not allowed to have kits,” Gingerherb finished. “I might have to stop seeing you.”

Shrikekit frowned.

“Why?”

“Because,” Gingerherb said. “I have to support all of my clanmates equally, so I’m not allowed to have a mate or kits.”

“But I’m not your kit,” Shrikekit mewed, sounding confused.

Gingerherb swayed on his feet. The kit didn’t understand what he was saying, but the words still hurt. His twole- Housefolk, he reminded himself, had been in his life for longer and it was only natural that he gravitated towards them as parental figures.

But what was Gingerherb to him then?  

Just a friend?

The thought was accompanied by a sharp pain that might have been regret or guilt or a combination of the two.

This should feel like enough, Gingerherb told himself. I’m not this kit’s father, no matter how much I’d like to be.

Shrikekit stared at them intently, and Gingerherb felt like he’d read his mind.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Gingerherb suggested. “Want to play hide and seek?”  

***

“... And they looked right at me and nodded like they knew me or something!” Shrikepaw finished excitedly.

“Sounds very strange,” Pricklepaw mewed dismissively, nonchalantly grooming a paw.

Shrikepaw rolled his eyes. He could tell she didn’t believe him, and she really didn’t have to do that. Her pelt was sleek and perfectly groomed as always. He also knew she thought he was a ridiculous idiot, and he was torn between admiring her for being his friend anyways and being annoyed with her for thinking that.

“So why’d you become a medicine cat?” He asked, deciding to change the subject.

Wasppaw’s attention shifted back to their sister.

“Yeah, why?”

“Why not?” Pricklepaw wondered loftily.

Shrikepaw and Wasppaw shared a glance. Pricklepaw had a grand and glorious reason for everything she did, and he suspected she’d had her whole life mapped out by the time she was a moon old. There had to be some reason for her to suddenly change her mind about being a warrior.

“Soooo, no specific reason?” Wasppaw pressed. “Just seemed cool?”

“Obviously,” Pricklepaw answered smoothly. Shrikekpaw thought the words were flowing almost too well, but that was just how Pricklepaw talked sometimes. There was just something kind of sleek and glossy about her that made her seem like she was wearing a mask all the time.

Wasppaw narrowed their eyes, but didn’t question her further.  

Gingerherb suddenly came skidding down the slope around the camp, stumbling to a halt at the bottom. A bundle of herbs was in his mouth, which he set on the ground.

“Laurelstar!” He called. “There’s a couple of rogues coming towards the camp. They don’t seem dangerous, but- mousedung.” He glared at his lame hind leg as two unfamiliar cats walked into camp, a fluffy golden tabby she-cat and a lithe brown tom.  For some reason, both their eyes landed on Shrikepaw and he twitched nervously under their gazes. Their expressions were nearly identical, and they held a pain that he didn’t want to look at. It was a grief, a longing that somehow seemed to be directed at him and he didn’t like it. He looked away.

“Hello,” Laurelstar greeted the strangers evenly, padding across the clearing to stand in front of them. “What are you doing here?”

The brown tom shifted uncomfortably at the edge of hostility in Laurelstar’s voice and he stared at his paws, but the golden she-cat’s amber eyes bored straight into Windclan’s leader’s.

“I’m Lion, and this is my mate, Stoat.”

The names rang some sort of bell in Shrikepaw’s mind, though he was certain he hadn’t heard them before. Had he?

“We’ve come from a very long way away,” Lion continued. “Six moons ago, our housefolk moved from the horseplace to the city, a long ways north. We had adopted a kit that they didn’t know about.”

By now Shrikepaw was beginning to have a very strange feeling. Half remembered voices and thoughts popped into his mind, flickering like a loose lightbulb.

A lightbulb. What in Starclan’s name is a lightbulb?

“We came back to get him,” Stoat spoke up. His gaze turned back to Shrikepaw, and he didn’t look away this time. Something about his face was familiar.

No way, Shrikepaw thought. Nonononononononono…

“He’s living here, with your group. His name is Shrike. We’d like to take him back to the city with us.”

Laurelstar blinked in surprise. Gingerherb’s expression became stony, almost openly hostile. He looked scary, and it was the first time Shrikepaw recalled seeing him that way.

By now everyone had guessed who stoat was talking about, and Shrikepaw couldn’t take the curious gazes. He wanted to be normal, and he wanted this whole mess to go away and he wanted this to all be a bad dream he could wake up from.

Shirkepaw blinked a few times, opened his mouth to say something, and closed it. He shook his head to clear it.

Then he wrenched his gaze away from Stoat’s, and turned and ran out of camp.


Chapter 11 (October 3rd, 9:00 PM-9:15 PM, 2021)

Fernpaw’s paws slipped easily into the pawprints of the cats that walked the path before them, the light rain misting their pelt to their sides. They didn’t mind the rain, but after a while it just got kind of old and they wished the weather would show a little more variety.

Fernpaw and Stickflight paused in front of the moonpool. It possessed none of its usual starry beauty, the sky being covered by the clouds. It just looked like an ordinary pool of water, an ordinary pool of water that held no answers for them.

“You don’t have to do this,” Fernpaw said softly. “I can go for you.”

Stickflight shook his head.

“I can’t let my apprentice do something I won’t do myself.” He shot Fernpaw a tired smile and settled himself on the edge of the moonpool. Fernpaw did the same, the raindrops distorting their reflection into a million swirling pieces.

Something might happen tomorrow. You never know when something exciting will spring itself on you. Bleakstem’s advice was usually useful, if not always quite how she intended.

“Good luck, Stickflight,” Said Fernpaw.

“Good luck,” Stickflight replied. He closed his eyes and touched his nose to the surface of the moonpool.

Fernpaw closed their eyes and touched their nose to the rain tossed surface of the water. A shocking, icy chill surged through them.

***

“You don’t have an appointment.”

Fernpaw was standing on the border of Starclan’s hunting grounds, seemingly suspended over an endless expanse of nothing on one side, the forest of Starclan shimmering on the other.

“Excuse me?” Fernpaw asked in bewilderment.

The gray, smush-faced she-cat who had spoken scowled at them.

“I said, you don’t have an appointment.”

“Do I need one?”  

The Starclan warrior only snorted.

“What do you need?”

“One of our warriors has developed a mysterious illness. They’re acting-,”

“Oh, that,” The gray she-cat meowed. “You came all the way here for that? I was just thinking of a prophecy to send you anyways…,”

“O-kay?” Fernpaw mewed.

“Alright, alright. Lemme think for a moment.” The gray she-cat scrunched up her face even more, closed her eyes, and cleared her throat.

“The madness is coming. It will consume you, devour you, envelop you, take you, er, eat you, uuuh… consume you…,”

“You already said that,” Fernpaw interjected dryly. “Are you just making this up on the spot?”

“That’s a rather rude way of putting it,” The gray she-cat snapped. “Our prophecies have to be thought out and worded very carefully so that-,”

“Can’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“Nope. Now stop interrupting me or I won’t tell you anything.” The gray she-cat cleared her throat again.

“The only way to stop it is to end it before it starts. Uproot it from the source, and, uhhh… It won’t consume you, devour you, envelop you, take you, er… envelop you…,”

Great Starclan she’s useless, Fernpaw  thought.  

“I think I get the picture,” They muttered. “Or as much of it as I’m going to get, talking to you.”

“Don’t talk to your elders that way,” The ghost hissed. “Young cats always think they know better, but us old folks are the ones who really understand the world.”

“Or,” Fernpaw retorted. “Maybe your opinions are so outdated that by now we do know better.”

The starry warrior’s mouth opened and closed a few times, fury flashing in her eyes. Then she dissipated in a cloud of starry dust.

And Fernpaw fell, blank, white void eclipsing everything in their field of view. They plummeted for what might have been a second or a few minutes or a day or a moon or an eternity or several eternities or no time at all before they suddenly slammed into cold, damp, muddy ground. Spindly, dead trees twisted in creaking agony all around them. The leafless branches cast odd, crisscrossed shadows and highlighted the sky, if the dark, empty space above their highest branches could be considered a sky at all. The sparkling hunting grounds Fernpaw had fallen from were nowhere in sight.

“You’re early,” Bleakstem commented, seeming to materialize out of nowhere. “I hope you had an appointment if you tried to talk to Starclan.”

“I didn’t know I needed an appointment,” Fernpaw muttered.

Bleakstem nodded knowingly.

“They’re awfully picky about that nowadays. Now that the clans aren’t in danger of going extinct every five seconds now, they really hate being bothered. The only problem is, being Starclan, they didn’t actually tell anyone we needed an appointment to visit them on any other day besides the half-moon. So why’d you come anyways?”

“Hopthorn is sick,” Fernpaw explained. “We’ve never seen anything like it. They had to be force fed poppy seeds to stop them from trying to murder anyone in sight, and they have a fever.”

Bleakstem frowned.

“I’ve never seen this disease either. Did Starclan have anything to say about this?”

Fernpaw relayed the prophecy the Starclan warrior had given them.

Bleakstem’s frown deepened, and she shifted her paws.

“Well,” She said after a while. “That sucks.”

“What do you mean?” Fernpaw asked warily.

“Well,” Bleakstem continued. “I’m not completely sure about this, but it seems an awful lot like maybe…,” Bleakstem trailed off, and Fernpaw thought she looked torn between not wanting to tell Fernpaw and her inability to tell anyone else.

“What?” Fernpaw asked, dread creeping in their stomach.

“Remember, I’m not completely sure, given that this is a prophecy and all… but it seems an awful lot like you have to kill Hopthorn.”  

Fernpaw froze for a moment, mouth hanging open in shock. They began to tremble.

“Great Starclan, there has to be another way,” They breathed. “I can’t kill someone.”

Bleakstem wrapped her tail around them and rested her muzzle on their head.

“I don’t know Fernpaw. Maybe there is another way. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you can wait and see what happens. But if you do have to kill them, just use a deathberry or two. It will be nearly painless, they’ll be dead in less than a minute.”

“So comforting,” Fernpaw muttered, the sarcasm in their voice dampened by the tremor creeping into it.

Bleakstem sighed.

“It’s almost dawn. You should be heading back.

“Alright,” Fernpaw mewed, beginning to regain a little control over their voice. “Bye, Bleakstem.”

Then they faded back into the waking world. And after they had gone, another cat stepped from the shadows. Bleakstem tensed. The shadows pooled around the cat, molding perfectly onto her tortoiseshell and white form. Bleakstem always thought the stories fell utterly short describing this particular warrior of the Dark Forest. She was fairly certain the stories that would eventually be told about her would never be half as scary.

“You’re a brilliant actor,” The shadowy warrior commented, voice smooth and dark as the starless sky above them. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re really acting at all.”

Bleakstem was fairly certain that this was ‘I can tell you care about this cat and if that gets in the way I’ll kill them.’ in murderer language.

“It won’t be a problem,” She growled. “When the time comes, they’ll either be on our side or know nothing at all.”

“Oh, I hope so,” Purred the shadowy form. “I can’t have you getting distracted, not when we’re so close.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Bleakstem said icily.

“So you wouldn’t mind if I killed them?” The dark warrior gave an eerie, tinkling laugh and then vanished.

Bleakstem glared at the spot she had been standing.

“That doesn’t magically sound funny if you just say it enough times, Mapleshade.”


Chapter 12 (October 3rd, 7:45 AM-8:00 AM, 2021)

Mistkit stared at the star, shining a single beam of light through the dark fabric of the nursery.

She knew she should be sleeping, but she couldn’t.

She knew that if she couldn’t sleep, she should ask someone to tell her a story or count mice or something like that.

But she didn’t know if this new place was safe, and she knew there were things out there in the night that were dangerous and hungry.

And someone had to make sure nothing bad happened, and Blackkit certainly wasn’t. She didn’t know how he could sleep so easily and fit in so well, like he’d been born here.

Maybe they were meant for this life, but until she was sure she would keep an eye out.

One of them had to.  

***

“I didn’t do this,” Blacksky said, not too quickly, but not slow enough that it would seem like he was formulating a lie to tell. “He killed himself. I tried to stop him, but I was too slow.”

“Oh, you were, were you?” The warrior at the head of the patrol hissed. “How convenient.” Blacksky recognized her as Dustdust from gatherings, mostly from hearing her make prickly, sarcastic comments about whatever happened to be going on.

“I’m telling the truth,” Blacksky insisted. “We were doing the dawn patrol when we smelled Skyclan scent on our side of the border. We heard strange yowling from, well, here, where our medicine cat apprentice was gathering herbs and we went to investigate. We found Yarrowbite down here. He wasn’t thinking straight, going on about almost hurting Sparrowkit.” Blacksky shot a pointed gaze at the gray tabby he recognized as Hawkflight, the kit in question’s father. At gatherings he’d always seemed like an open, friendly cat and if anyone on the Skyclan patrol thought he didn’t do it, it would be him.

Hawkflight’s expression was unreadable. Not because it was guarded, but because he was staring at his paws.

Say something useful, please, Blacksky mentally urged him.

“Did anyone hear Yarrowbite say anything like that?” Dustdust asked.

“No,” A black tom with amber eyes answered.

Hawkflight shuffled his paws.

“No,” He admitted. “But I think he’s telling the truth. I was playing hide and seek with my kits and Sparrowkit was hiding in Yarrowbite’s den. He might have hurt him if we didn’t find him sooner.”

Dustdust gave Blacksky a scrutinizing stare. He met her gaze, knowing looking away would make him seem guilty. He could tell from the look in her eyes that this wasn’t over quite yet.

“Alright. We’ll take this information back to Hawthornstar and see what they think.” A collective breath echoed in the dark stony space that none of them had been aware they had been holding.

“But,” Dustdust added sharply, flicking her tail at Blacksky. “We’re taking him with us.”

Mistswoop shook her head in disbelief.

“No. How can you guarantee his safety in a camp full of cats who think he killed your medicine cat?”

“You’re not taking him,” Hickorywind agreed.

Blacksky didn’t say anything. Opposing this idea too strongly might make him seem guilty. Accepting it, on the other paw, would go a long way proving him innocent. However, that would mean being a hostage.

Hawkflight shuffled his paws.

“I don’t know about this,” He said. “I think we should work something else out with Stormstar, some sort of compromise.”

Dustdust’s eyes narrowed to slits.

“This is a compromise.”

“Plus,” The black tom contributed. “If he killed Yarrowbite, it’s possible Stormstar is in on it. Better not to take our chances.”

Hawkflight won’t do anything, Blacksky decided. He’s outvoted, and he’s too passive to argue this further. Though, his mate is the deputy of Skyclan. If he doesn’t think I did it, it definitely counts for something.

“Fine,” Blacksky consented. “I’ll go.”

“Wait,” Mistswoop argued. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” She turned to Dustdust. “What will you do if you decide he’s guilty?”

“Tell you what,” Dustdust suggested. “After you find your medicine cat, you can head back to Stormstar and tell her to bring a small group of warriors to our camp, and we can finish this discussion there.”

“Fine,” Mistswoop hissed. “If you hurt him, we’ll shred you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dustdust replied sarcastically. “Hawkflight, help me carry the body. Wrenwillow, you can guard the hostage.”

“See you later, I guess,” Blacksky said with forced cheerfulness, following Dustdust and Hawkflight up the stairs. Wrenwillow walked beside him, unblinking amber gaze never leaving his shadowy pelt.

So this is happening, I guess, He thought. I’m being put on trial for a murder I didn’t commit…

Isn’t that ironic?

Because he hadn’t done it.

Not this time.

Chapter 13 (October 3rd, 7:45 AM-8:15 AM, 2021)

It was still raining, Hawkflight noted as the patrol stepped out into the seemingly endless drizzle. Yarowbite’s corpse hung heavy on his shoulders, still sticky and red and dripping.

The rain washed away the blood before it had a chance to dry, and for once Hawkflight was glad for it.

He wondered vaguely what would happen now that Skyclan had no medicine cat. Yarrowbite hadn’t trained an apprentice. He was still young and hadn’t been planning on dying anytime soon.

He certainly hadn’t been planning on killing himself. For a moment, Hawkflight remembered his constant sarcastic but cheery energy but found the thought too painful to settle on for long.

No, Yarrowbite would never have killed himself unless something was very wrong. Hawkflight almost wanted to believe he had been murdered so he could claw something, punish someone. There had to be someone who could pay for this, some way for justice to be distributed.

But justice was fair, and the world wasn’t. It was the twisted, awful reality that the clans lived in.

Kind of like having a murder trial for a suicide, Hawkflight reflected grimly.  He took a moment to ponder the sheer ridiculousness of his day so far, and it gave him a headache.

He came to the conclusion that he was not having a good day so far.

He hoped Eaglestorm was okay. He hoped his kits were coping alright, and that Blacksky wouldn’t have to be exiled for murder, or worse.

When his kits had woken him up at some Starclan forsaken hour of the morning, his expectation for the day had been nothing beyond the usual, another exhausting but incredibly rewarding day of being a father.

How wrong he’d been.

***

By the time the patrol got back to camp, Hawkflight’s shoulders were sore from the weight of the corpse draped across them. Cats crowded around the patrol, all asking frantic questions and letting out gasps of shock. It faded into a senseless blur, an incessant buzzing in his ears.

I don’t want to talk to them, Hawkflight thought. Not right now.

“Back off, everyone,” A clear, commanding voice cut through the din. “Give them some space, all of your questions will be answered later.”

Hawkflight breathed a sigh of relief as the crowd took a few steps back and Eaglestorm cut through to the center. Yarrowbite’s body felt a little lighter on his shoulders and the world rearranged itself into something that made a little more sense.

“What’s going on?” She asked, glancing back and forth between Blacksky’s persistently obnoxious smile and Yarrowbite’s corpse like they were objects from another universe. She looked as if she had connected the dots but simply didn’t want to have connected the dots.

“Yarrowbite started acting strangely and ran out of camp,” Dustdust reported. “We followed the scent trail and found him,” She jerked her tail to indicate Blacksky. “Standing over his dead body with his patrol. Stormstar’s coming to help us determine whether or not this is a murder or if his claims that Yarrowbite killed himself are true.”

Eagleflight closed her eyes for a moment and murmured something unintelligible. Opening them, she said,

“Now is really not a good time.” She angled her ears at Blacksky. “Let’s put him in the elder’s den for now, since it's empty. Wrenwillow, could you guard him?”

“Right,” Wrenwillow agreed, shepherding Blacksky over to the elder’s den and taking watch outside.

“Alright,” Eaglestorm continued. “Let’s put Yarrowbite in the medicine den until we get a chance to bury him. Stormstar will probably be here soon. We can just put him in his nest.”

It felt almost like cheating, Hawkflight noted as he and Dustdust gently rolled Yarrowbite off their shoulders and into his nest. Like pretending he was just asleep.

“Okay,” Eaglestorm sighed. “I guess all we can do now is hope for the best. Speaking of which, what is that anyways? What are your bearings on this… this incident. You two and Wrenwillow are going to need to do most of the reasoning since you were there. As you can imagine, I really don’t know what to think at the moment.”

“I think Blacksky’s innocent,” Hawkflight said at the same time that Dustdust said,

“I think Blacksky killed him.”

Eaglestorm sighed.

“I see,” She said. “I’m going to have to take you two to talk to Flaxstar and come to some sort of goal for this negotiation. Skyclan needs to present a united front or else we’ll never get anything done. Though, make sure you go one at a time. Flaxstar’s been feeling a little ill recently, and I don’t want you to tire them out. They need to seem normal at the negotiation.”

Of course they are, Hawkflight internally groaned.  

“Do they need to be there?” He asked.

Eaglestorm frowned.

“Unless we want Thunderclan to know that our leader is sick when we might be on the verge of war, yes.”

“Right,” Hawkflight sighed. “Stupid question.”

What he really wanted to ask her was Are you okay?, or Are the kits okay?, but there wasn’t time at the moment.

He followed her to Flastar’s den. Flaxstar was sitting in their nest, looking more upset about needing to rest than actually being sick. Their eyes were a little clouded and their whiskers didn’t have their usual bounce, but other than that they seemed fine.  They stumbled to their paws.

“Eaglestorm. What’s happened?”

“The patrol you sent out followed Yarrowbite’s scent trail,” Eaglestorm explained. “He’s dead. Blacksky was standing over his dead body with his patrol and we’re not sure if he killed him.”

Dusdsust gave a snort and Eaglestorm shot her a sharp glance.

“Stormstar is coming to negotiate, and before she arrives we need to know what we think about this.”

Flaxstar sighed, then nodded, hiding their shock under a mask of cool authority.  

“Alright then. Dustdust, tell me your recollection of events.”

“We followed the scent trail to the abandoned twoleg den,” Dusdust began. “We also heard some yowling when before we arrived. When we got there, a Thunderclan patrol had Yarrowbite cornered in the basement. By the time we got down the stairs, he was dead and Blacksky was standing over his body. They claimed they were looking for their medicine cat apprentice.” Dustdust’s eyes narrowed. “There was blood on his paws.”

Flaxstar nodded and turned to Hawkflight.

“And what do you recall happening?”

Hawkflight shuffled his paws nervously.

“Basically the same as what she said,” He admitted. “But Blacksky mentioned Yarrowbite saying something about almost hurting Sparrowkit, which was true. And then he volunteered to come with us, even though the rest of his patrol didn’t want him to. I don’t think he did it. He claims Yarrowbite killed himself and that he tried to stop him.”

“Your points sound valid,” Flaxstar acknowledged. “But he knows about Sparrowkit of course, since he’s Eaglestorm’s kit. He could have made that up. Tell me, were you or your kits awake first today?”

“The kits,” Eaglestorm and Hawkflight answered simultaneously.

“And Yarrowbite was most likely up before that, which Blacksky could probably have predicted. So if he were lying, there would still be no sure way to disprove that. And volunteering to come with you could have been a clever act.” Flaxstar paused, thinking. “I think,” They said slowly. “That I have to agree with Dustdust. Facts don’t lie, and all reasoning that suggests Blacksky is innocent is based off of a combination of things Blacksky said and speculation. We need to demand some sort of punishment for his actions.”    

Suddenly, Woolthroat’s head poked in through the entrance of the den, eyes nervous and frantic.

“We’re out of time,” They said. “Stormstar’s here.”

Chapter 14 (October 4th, 5:00 AM-5:15 AM, 2021)

Nightcough looked Willowpaw up and down appraisingly. She thought it was kind of creepy, but she stared right back at her, the faintest hint of a glare in her gaze. There was something about Nightcough that she found instinctively annoying and she got the distinct impression Nightcough was unimpressed, had never been impressed by anything in her life, and never would be impressed by anything.

Nightcough suddenly let out a soft chuckle.

“You remind me of myself when I was young,” She said. “You’re going to do whatever it takes to prove them wrong.”

Willowpaw nodded.

Nightcough paused.

“Do you want to be the best warrior in the clan when you grow up?”

“Obviously,” Willowpaw scoffed.

Nightcough smiled. Willowpaw thought it was a very creepy smile, but it was the sort of creepy she liked.

“Do you want to be leader someday?”

“Of course.”

“Do you want to get there fast?”

“As fast as I can.”

“Well,” Nightcough purred. “I’m going to tell you that you can get there very fast…,” She paused. “Very fast. But you’re going to have to listen to me. Do what I tell you, do it with enthusiasm, and do it well, and you’ll be there before you know it. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Then take those feathers out of your nest and give them to the elders.”

“What?”

“What do you need them for? You’re not a kittypet anymore. You. Don’t. Need. Them. You don’t need to be hanging onto the very part of your life you’re trying to make everyone realize is over.”

“Fine,” Willowpaw said. “I’ll do it.”

Nightcough smiled again, and this time WIllowpaw simultaneously relished and loathed the slight creepiness of it.

“I think we’re going to get along very well,” She said.

***

The feathers had been a part of her favorite toy. A kit’s plaything. Hawthorndusk had helped her pluck them all out and take them back to the clans with her. Willowwilt vaguely wondered where they were now, dumped into the woods after some long ago bedding exchange.

She found that she didn’t care, and she was proud of that.

“Good morning, Willowwilt.” Nightcough seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

“Morning,” Willowwilt replied.

“You’ve come a long way since you were apprenticed,” Nightcough told her. “And you’re going to go farther. Tell me, do you still want to be leader?”

“That is quite possibly the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.”

Nightcough’s whiskers twitched.

“I might not be your mentor anymore, but I’m still a senior warrior. Watch your tone.”

Willowwilt scowled.

“Sorry. And yes, I would still like to be leader.”

“Then I have one more thing to teach you.”

Willowwilt scowled more intensely.

“I’m not your apprentice anymore.”

“You think you’ve learned everything, then? Just listen to me for a few moments.”

“Fine.”

“That tone again. If you want to be made deputy, you’re going to have to be a little nicer to people.”

“I’m not an apprentice anymore. You do not get to lecture me about my tone. Just get to the point or go back to sleep, please.”

“Try it without the ‘please’,” Nightcough instructed.

“What?”

“Say it again. But don’t say please when you don’t mean it. Either you’re asking, or you’re not. Pick one.”

“Get to the point or go back to sleep,” Willowwilt growled.

Nightcough smiled her creepy smile again.

“Well?”

“That was what I wanted to teach you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wanted to teach you how to give an order and mean it. Make me proud someday.”

And with that, Nightcough walked back to her nest, her black pelt vanishing into the long dawn shadows.


Chapter 15 (October 3rd, 10:45-11:15 AM, 2021)

Shrikepaw could hardly remember the day Gingerherb had finally taken him to the clans. There had been a fox on Thunderclan territory, he’d been told. Thunderclan had chased it onto the moor and decided it was Windclan’s problem. The fox, he’d been told, had smelled chickens, and, being a fox, decided it wanted to eat them.

The fox had gone to the horseplace.

Gingerherb had been afraid for him.

He’d told the clan about him and convinced Laurelstar to send a patrol to take him to the clans, at least until the fox was gone. It would have been against the warrior code, after all, to leave him there.

The patrol had come.

So had the fox.

The fox had found him before the patrol did, he remembered.

***

The fox stared at Shrikekit curiously, head cocked to the side, russet jaws stained a deeper shade of red.

Feathers clung to its nose.

Shrikekit was slumped at its feet, panting for breath. He’d run and he’d run until he couldn’t anymore and the fox had caught up, only slightly hindered by what sparse obstacles Shrikekit could find that he could fit through or go around that the fox couldn’t.

Now they were in the cornfield. Shrikekit had tried to lose the fox and instead lost anyone who could possibly help him.

The fox snapped its jaws a mouselength from Shrikekit’s face, letting out a yip of cruel laughter when he flinched back.

Then there was a bark.

It was a ferocious bark, followed by many others more ferocious still.

The cornstalks thrashed.

A dog appeared.

***

Shrikepaw remembered that dog. She had been a huge, fluffy mutt, a mix of countless breeds and bloodlines.

She had gently played with him, always careful never to hurt him with her mammoth paws or her strong jaws.

She had kept him company when the housefolk were out, always keeping him out of trouble.

She had been old that day. Twice the size of the fox but infinitely less fierce and half as agile.

She had barked at the fox. The fox had barked back. It would have run, but it could tell she was old, and it wanted to kill Shrikekit and eat more chickens.

The two had fought.

Shrikekit had run. The patrol had found him. They took him to Windclan.

He hadn’t wanted to leave.

He never saw that dog again, and he had never gone back to check on her.

He had been afraid.

He was still afraid.

So he ran. He had always been running.

It started to rain. Still he ran.

The grass was soft against his paws, and the air was fresh and cool.

He could run forever if he wanted to.

He figured out where his paws were taking him. He didn’t stop them.

Under the fence. The horses paid him no heed.

Into the barn. The rain drummed on the roof.

It hadn’t changed.

“Are you there?” Shrikepaw called softly.

There was no response.

Something had changed.

He stepped back out into the rain, and trotted swiftly through the horse enclosure, taking a shortcut to the little twoleg den nestled among the farm buildings. Small, old, and rickety, seeing it again came the disconcerting feeling of being home yet not being home. Forgotten memories flickered through his brain like half remembered dreams.

There, in the window.

Shrikepaw jumped up on the cracked stone ledge. There, sitting just on the other side of the pane of glass, was the dog. She looked older than that day in the cornfield, so much older.

Shrikepaw looked into her eyes, pressing a paw up against the glass.

The dog looked back for a moment.

Shrikepaw held his breath.

There was a spark of recognition, and he let out a relieved sigh. The dog let out a joyful bark and pressed herself up against the glass. Shrikepaw noticed a long scar snaking across her face that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen her. Her eyes were clouded, and her breath was quick and shallow.

“I wanted to thank you,” He said. “For everything. All of it. I should have come back sooner.”

They weren’t speaking the same language, but he liked to think she understood.

Paws scrabbled clumsily on the windowsill next to him.

“I guess you were right about the dog,” Gingerherb said, hauling himself up onto the ledge. “She remembers you.”

“Dogs don’t forget their family no matter what species they’re from,” Shrikepaw told him quietly.

Gingerherb tilted his head at Shrikepaw.

“The dog,” He said. “Is a lot older than you. It’s not your fault.”

Shrikepaw sighed and leaned against Gingerherb.

“What happens now?”

“I wish I could tell you,” Gingerherb admitted. “But there are a few things that I know for certain: I have not changed. We have not changed. And no one is going to make you do anything you don’t want to do. We’re all here to help you figure this out.”

Shrikepaw let out a shuddering breath.  

“Are Lion and Stoat staying?”

“They’d like to,” Gingerherb replied. “They want to stay for a while and at least try and see if this could work out.”

This. Gingerherb said it like it was such a simple thing. They said it like it could be easy.

But maybe Shrikepaw was overthinking this.

He didn’t remember Lion or Stoat, but he could build new memories.

Maybe they would never be his parents, but they could be something.

“Are you ready to go back?” Gingerherb asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Shrikepaw decided.

The two leapt down from the window and walked back across the farm.

It was time to stop running.

Chapter 16 (October 3rd, 9:30 PM-10:00 PM, 2021)

When Fernpaw awoke, Hopthorn was staring at them. They jerked back and nearly toppled into the moonpool. They didn’t look insane or murdery, but they knew that he certainly had.

Maybe he’s cured? Fernpaw thought hopefully, though they knew it was unlikely. Bleakstem was rarely wrong and knew how to interpret a prophecy, having been Shadowclan’s medicine cat for quite some time before she died.

“Ello,” Hopthorn greeted them. They didn’t sound particularly insane or murdery.

“Um,” Fernpaw said uncertainly. “Hi?”

The two regarded each other silently for e moment.

“How long have you been here?” Fernpaw asked.

“Oh, not too long,” Hopthorn answered vaguely. “Will Stickflight be waking up soon? I’d like to say goodbye before I leave.”

Fernpaw’s stomach dropped. Nononono…

“Oh no… You’re not, you can’t be…?”

They waited for Hopthorn to start laughing at them and explain the mission they were going on, but they didn’t.

“Yeah, I am,” Hopthorn said with a sigh. They sounded like they’d missed a mouse or tripped over a tree root and sprained their paw. “Eh, I was about to retire anyway. Hollowslide saved me some boredom.”

Fernpaw’s ears flattened.

“Hollowslide killed you?”

“I attacked first,” Hopthorn explained. “I wasn’t thinking straight. Tansyteeth had fallen asleep guarding me when the poppy seeds wore off. I’d have slit his throat if Hollowslide hadn’t intervened.”

“That’s… that’s terrible,” Fernpaw breathed.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Hopthorn told them. “What’s done is done. I was getting old anyways, and you have enough on your plate.”

Fernpaw frowned.

“I don’t think I have anything out of the ordinary on my plate right now… Unless this disease is going to be an ongoing thing.”

The implications of that hung in the air between them. Hopthorn shuffled their paws.

“What?”

“Nothing,” They said quickly.

“Liar,” Fernpaw accused.

Hopthorn sighed.

“It’s just… I remember you, before… you know. You were such a carefree kit, always finding some way to get into trouble.” They looked away. “What I’m saying is, you’ve been forced to grow up too fast, I guess. I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Fernpaw stiffened.

“You have to be Hopthorn. You’re dead. It’s not that simple, I have to grieve for you.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hopthorn sighed.

“I’m not the one you should be worrying about anyways. Think of Stickflight… this is going to hurt him.”

“Hrmph.” Stickflight rolled over, one eye slowly opening. “Someone say my name?”

He spotted Hopthorn and scrambled to his feet, so quickly that one of his hind paws slipped and splashed in the moonpool.

“Hopthorn, you’re- you’re…,” Stickflight trailed off. Fernpaw couldn’t tell if he had been going to say ‘alive’ or ‘dead’.

Hopthorn just looked at him.

“...Dead,”  Stickflight finished. His face went blank.

“Yup,” Hopthorn confirmed. He didn’t tell Stickflight any garbage about being about to retire. Stickflight would be able to see through it just as easily as Fernpaw, but it would upset him twice as much.

“Foxdung,” Stickflight growled at no one in particular, scraping his claws angrily on the rock beneath him.

“There was nothing you could do,” Hopthorn told him. “You’ve never seen this disease before and you did everything you could given the circumstances.”

“You don’t know that,” Stickflight said. “When things get tough, medicine cats are supposed to innovate and find new solutions. It’s why medicine cats exist in the first place. What good is being a medicine cat if everyone is always telling you ‘there’s nothing you could do.’ What can we do?!

“Uuuum,” Hopthorn said. They thought for a moment.

“We can talk to Starclan,” Fernpaw said. “We can cure greencough. We can put a cat to sleep with a couple of seeds. We can fight infections. We can heal wounds. We can save lives. We can work miracles, Stickflight.”

“Yeah, that stuff,” Hopthorn agreed.

“Some miracle this is,” Stickflight muttered. “What good is talking to Starclan if they kick us out because we don’t have an appointment? There’s still so much we can’t do. We don’t save the lives, it’s the plants. We rely on a bunch of plants to do their magic for us. We’re at the mercy of the forest’s herb supply, the severity of the wound, we’re powerless. I’m powerless.”

“Plants don’t move on their own,” Fernpaw retorted. “The plants don’t know how to save a life.”

“Anyone willing to learn can figure out how to use a plant, it’s just a bunch of memorizing,” Stickflight muttered.

“I think you know it’s more than that,” Fernpaw answered sharply. “You know better.”

Hopthorn looked at them pointedly. Fernpaw was fairly certain they were one a very fine line between being sympathetic and being angry. They were fed up with acting like the mentor all the time.

Stickflight let out a bitter laugh.

“I know better, do I? I’m supposed to know better because I’m the mentor. I’m supposed to be the one with the answers, because I’m the mentor. Well, guess what. I DO NOT HAVE ONE STARCLAN FORSAKEN ANSWER RIGHT NOW.”

Stickflight looked more shocked about his words than anyone else in the conversation.

“Nonooooo,” He moaned, burying his face in his paws. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, I… aaaargh….”

I should probably feel sorry right now, Fernpaw acknowledged. They thought for a moment. Nah.

“No, you meant it,” Fernpaw hissed icily. “You don’t have any answers. That’s my job, for some reason. Well, I’m done playing the mentor. I’m going home.”

Hopthorn opened their mouth and closed it again. Then they vaporized into a fine mist and slowly faded into the stars. Stickflight didn’t move.

Fernpaw didn’t stop walking.

He’ll be along, They thought angrily. Or he can sit here all night, what do I care?

They walked out of the hollow and into the woods. They began to rethink their actions a little. Not because they were sorry, but because it was dark and they weren’t sure if walking back by themselves was entirely safe.

“Mousedung,” They hissed irritably as they tripped over a bramble. Also because they’d become aware of a presence next to them that was probably not happy with them.

“Fernpaw,” Bleakstem mewed sternly. “Are you going to go back and apologize or do you want me to lecture you all the way back to camp?”

“You want me to apologize for being right?” Fernpaw said. “He all but admitted he’s a spineless cat who isn’t cut out to be a mentor.”

“I don’t care if he’s spineless and not cut out to be a mentor,” Bleakstem growled. “You are an apprentice and you will respect your elders. Stickflight might let you forget that, but I won’t.”

“That’s exactly the point,” Fernpaw groaned. “He doesn’t act like he’s older than me, and right now I wish he would.”

“Soooo,” Bleakstem said. “Now that it suits you, you want him to act older than you.”

Fernpaw scowled.

“What?”

“Tell me Fernpaw, are you telling me you don’t like your current dynamic? Are you telling me you don’t want the freedom other apprentices envy?”

“This isn’t like I’m just trying to get my way or anything,” Fernpaw said. “Maybe this is a little hypocritical, but Hopthorn’s dead. Why should I have to be the strong one here?”

“You shouldn’t,” Bleakstem said bluntly. “But Stickflight played that role last time. It’s your turn now.”

Fernpaw said nothing, just kept walking.

“Look,” Bleakstem said. “I can’t make you do anything. But you need to be responsible. Clean up your own messes. You and Stickflight can’t go on like this. You don’t know the half of what it would do to him right now.”

And then she was gone, and Fernpaw was alone in the dark.

Somewhere, an owl hooted.

Fernpaw turned around.

Chapter 17 (October 3rd, 8:10 AM- 8:15 AM)

The empty elder’s den was thick with shadow, dust and cobwebs choking the inside of the fallen tree from many moons of being unused. The edges of Wrenwillow’s black pelt blurred fuzzily in the dim light and Blacksky guessed he appeared about the same.

“Shouldn’t someone be interviewing you?” Blacksky wondered. “You were there.”

“Eh,” Wrenwillow said dismissively.

“Eh?” Blacksky said exasperatedly.

Wrenwillow shrugged.

“Everyone always assumes I have a neutral standpoint on everything.” He didn’t say it like he was angry, just factual.

Blacksky blinked.

“Doesn’t that bother you?” He ventured.

Wrenwillow shrugged again.

“Not really.” He didn’t elaborate.

“Why not?” Blacksky asked.

Wrenwillow looked at Blacksky as if he found the question confusing.

“Because I always have a neutral standpoint on everything, and they know that if I ever don’t, I’ll tell them. Apparently such a thing would be a cause for celebration and everyone would dance around and chant my name.” Wrenwillow sighed. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

“Don’t you have opinions?” Blacksky pressed.

“Eh,” Wrenwillow said, sounding as if he didn’t believe such a thing was important.

“You must have some opinions,” Blacksky said. “What’s your favorite kind of prey?”

“I dunno.”

Blacksky shook his head.

“Great Starclan, you need help.”

Wrenwillow looked at him blankly.  

“I do?”

“YES,” Blacksky said.

“I don’t really think so,” Wrenwillow said. “I think I’m fine this way.”

“HA!” Blacksky exclaimed. “That’s an opinion!”

“It is?” Wrenwillow looked confused. “I thought it was a fact.”

“Trust me, it’s an opinion,” Blacksky insisted.

“Oh,” Wrenwillow realized. He paused. “It’s… kind of underwhelming. I don’t really feel different in any way.”

“Just work on it,” Blacksky told him. “You’ll notice a difference. Could you try and start by developing a positive opinion on me? My innocence in this matter in particular.”

“Oh,” Wrenwillow said, frowning. “That’s hard.”

“I believe in you,” Blacksky lied.

Suddenly, Blacksky’s ears rang with quiet. The faint murmurings outside the den had fallen silent. It sounded like the entire camp was holding its breath.

Wrenwillow poked his head outside.

“Your leader is here,” He told Blacksky.

And so Blacksky marched proudly out of the elder’s den, head held high, to his trial. He didn’t deliberately look at anyone, but any stares he received he boldly returned. He was not afraid, and he wanted everyone there to know it.

Maybe he deserved this whole mess anyways, in a way.

Maybe he’d had it coming for a long time now.

***

Blacksky walked into the Riverclan camp like he owned it. There was very little need for stealth, really. The guard was asleep.

It was nothing clever on Blacksky’s part, really. It was just that Tansyteeth was always asleep. Between gathering gossip and watching, Blacksky was sure he’d never seen Tansyteeth not yawning or heard a story in which he wasn’t snoring.

Blacksky really wasn’t sure why Riverclan trusted him to guard their camp.

Not that he was complaining.

He padded silently around the edge of the clearing, careful not to let even a sliver of weak moonlight touch his pelt. In all likeliness, everything would go smoothly. But he couldn’t take even the slightest risk. If he was caught, he would lose everything; his clan, his friends, Mistswoop…

His revenge.

Blacksky stopped outside the warriors den. He didn’t dare to put more than his head inside until he was sure the cat he was looking for was inside. His eyes adjusted to the darkness.

He wasn’t.

Blacksky checked the dirtplace tunnel. He wasn’t there either.

Well, this is just great, Blacksky thought. Tansyteeth is finally the one on guard and Brambleshade has gone out for a midnight stroll.

Blacksky was hit by a sudden wave of inspiration.

He checked the nursery.

Aha.

Inside the nursery was one large nest.

It was large because there were three cats in it. Two parents and a kit nestled between them, all sleeping soundly. Content. Safe.

They struck Blacksky as an idyllic, happy family.

It looked perfect.

Too perfect.

A jealous growl rose in Blacksky’s throat.

I should have had this, but you took it from me. And you still have it. All of it. You don’t deserve this. You shouldn’t be able to have this.

Blacksky stepped inside the nursery, claws sliding out. Suddenly, the kit let out a little squeak in their sleep. Brambleshade’s tail curled around them, pulling them closer to him. The kit burrowed into his fur and commenced sleeping soundly.

All of it had happened while Brambleshade was asleep, or mostly asleep anyways.

Cats did not act in their sleep.

Blacksky felt sick. He couldn’t do this. Not yet. He needed to think.

Brambleshade would live, at least for now.

Blacksky turned to leave.

One of Brambleshade’s eyes opened.

Blacksky ran. His black pelt blended well into shadows, and Brambleshade hadn’t gotten a good look at him. If he got away without being spotted again, Brambleshade might not be able to identify him.

“INTRUDER!” Brambleshade shouted behind him. “TANSYTEETH, YOU USELESS LUMP, WAKE UP!”

Tansyteeth kept sleeping, which Blacksky was very grateful for.

And then he made his mistake.

In his haste to escape, he had forgotten to keep to the shadows at the edge of the camp. He ran out across the clearing.

Into the moonlight.

The faint light cast Blacksky’s shadowy pelt and slim form into fuzzy relief, and he was almost certain that Brambleshade recognized him now. If he ran now, even if he escaped, he was still caught.

This had to end.

Now.

Blacksky thundered out of camp as fast as his legs would carry him; the rest of Riverclan hadn’t woken fast enough to spot him and he wanted to keep it that way.

He scampered onto the stepping stones, the waves of the swollen new-leaf river washing across his paws. It was slippery, but he couldn’t let Brambleshade catch him in the river.

Blacksky’s paws touched the last stepping stone, water splashing up into his face. He was about to leap to shore when a dark, cylindrical object slammed into his side and pushed him into the river. He lashed out and snagged the log with his claws, going into a sickening barrel roll. He went under. He came up. He hardly had time to draw a breath before the log slammed him under the waves again. He went under. He came up. For a few excruciating minutes, the river tossed him about and he was at its mercy.

Blacksky peeled open his eyes to find that the log had wedged against a rock and that the shore was only a foxlength away. He shakily got to his feet and prepared to jump.

Thunk.

A large tree branch careened into the side of the log and it dislodged from the rock. Blacksky lost his footing and fell into the waves. His breath left him in a gasp and water surged in to fill its place. It surged over his head, rolling and tumbling him this way and that. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t tell which way was up.

Suddenly, something snagged his scruff. He felt himself being dragged through the current, to the shore.

He was dumped unceremoniously on the ground, and someone pounded his chest. He coughed up what he thought must have been half the river, and then looked up to meet his savior.

“You’re welcome,” Brambleshade told him irritably. “What in Starclan’s name were you doing in our camp?”

Blacksky felt sick again, and not entirely from being tossed around in the river.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” He gasped.

“You should be,” Brambleshade growled crossly. “Let’s get you back to your camp.”

Brambleshade had misinterpreted Blacksky’s apology.

Blacksky stood up, shook out his fur, and opened his mouth like he was going to thank Brambleshade.

Then he slit his throat.

He put the body in the river.

Then he put his lunch in the river.

Chapter 18 (8:15-8:30 AM, October 3rd, 2021)

When Hawkflight exited the den, Stormstar was entering the camp, flanked by the warriors from the patrol and a few others, including Thunderclan’s medicine cats, Limeshade and Emberpaw. The Skyclan cats parted to let them pass, pelts bristling and hackles raised. Wrenwillow exited the elder’s den with Wrenwillow and Eaglestorm and Flaxtsar padded the center of the clearing to meet Stormstar and her deputy, Featherwhisper. The bystanders formed a circle around them, and Hawkflight found that as a witness he did not count as a bystander and ended up in the center of it with the negotiators.

Some of the Thunderclan warriors glanced around nervously. The cats surrounding them were Hawkflight’s clanmates, but he could only guess how intimidating the effect would be on them, to be surrounded by hostile faces who knew little to nothing of the full story.

“Flaxstar,” Stormstar greeted Skyclan’s leader politely.

“Stormstar,” Flaxtstar said, dipping their head in acknowledgment.

“I hear you think Blacksky murdered Yarrowbite,” Stormstar said. “I’m here to demand his release.”

“You’re not here to demand anything,” Flaxstar retorted. “You are here to negotiate, and between us we will decide his fate.”

Stormstar’s whiskers twitched as if she found this amusing.

“Very well. Let’s negotiate, then. What evidence do you have that suggests that Blacksky is responsible for Yarrowbite’s death?”

Flaxstar nodded at Dustdust.

“Early this morning, Yarrowbite suddenly ran out of camp. I led a patrol to find him. The scent trail led to the abandoned twolegplace, into the basement. Inside we found Blacksky standing over the body with blood all over his paws. The rest of the patrol had the corpse surrounded. There would have been no escape. Seems a lot like murder to me.”

“Your evidence is certainly compelling,” Stormstar acknowledged. “But may I add that at the time of his death, Yarrowbite was trespassing on our territory, attacking our medicine cat?”

“What?!” Flaxstar exclaimed. “That’s ridiculous. Why in Starclan would he do that?”

“No idea,” Stormstar admitted. “But it happened. Emberpaw?”

The medicine cat apprentice timidly stepped forward, trembling under the hostile gazes of the cats around her.

This isn’t right, Hawkflight thought angrily. The poor kid is terrified. He silently willed the expressions of his clanmates to loosen up a little, but they were too angry, too confused.

“I was gathering herbs at the twoleg nest this morning,” Emberpaw began. Her voice sounded tiny in front of the two leaders next to her. “And Yarrowbite ran out of the woods and ran right at me, yowling gibberish. He tried to kill me, but he tripped over a bramble and couldn’t keep up.”

“We heard them yowling and went to investigate,” Mistswoop added. “Yarrowbite was in the basement when we got there, and he killed himself almost as soon as we walked in. Blacksky tried to stop him.”

Flaxtsar’s eyes narrowed.

“Can anyone verify Emberpaw’s presence at the twoleg nest?”

“I can!” Mistswoop continued. “I was up early and I saw her go out.”

“Of course you can,” Flaxstar hissed. “Dustdust?”

“We did hear yowling,” Dustdust confirmed. “But it was unintelligible. I couldn’t tell if it was Yarrowbite or not, and  I didn’t see Emberpaw.”

“I hid in a tree,” Emberpaw said, voice small.

“So there is no conclusive proof that this is true,” Flaxstar decided.

“Why would Emberpaw lie about this?” Stormstar growled. “This is ridiculous. Release Blacksky, now.”

“If you told her to,” Flaxstar said icily.

Stormstar’s eyes narrowed.

“That’s a very serious accusation,” She meowed, voice dangerously smooth. “And you have no way of proving it. Release Blacksky.”

“No,” Flaxstar said. “According to Emberpaw’s story, she was able to escape him. Along with the events that happened afterwards and he evidence provided, the facts stand that although Yarrowbite was not himself, this is still murder.”

Hawkflight opened his mouth to protest, but Eaglestorm pressed herself against his side.  

“Don’t,” She whispered.

Stormstar’s gaze turned to Hawkflight, eyes searching.

“Speak,” She told him.

Hawkflight glanced around uncertainly, shuffling his paws. Blacksky looked across the crowd at him, his gaze imploring.

“Blacksky said that before Yarrowbite died, he said something about nearly hurting Sparrowkit,” Hawkflight contributed. “I was playing hide and seek with him earlier and he hid in the medicine den while Yarrowbite was in there, so it could be true.”

Blacksky blinked at him gratefully.

“See?” Stormstar said. “This adds up. Blacksky tried to stop Yarrowbite from killing himself. So, release him.”

Flaxstar thought for a moment.

“No,” They decided. “Blacksky could still be lying about that. Hawkflight’s kits were up before him this morning, so even if he hadn’t seen that he would still have no way to disprove that.”

“Oh, and you think I knew that,” Blacksky snorted. “Because I can be in two places at once, of course.”

“No,” Flaxstar hissed. “But I think lying cats are desperate and will say anything to get out of trouble.” They turned back to Stormstar. “I demand that Blacksky be exiled for his actions.”

Stormstar sighed.

“I really hoped it wouldn’t come to this, Flaxstar,” She said. The shadows beyond the camp melted and revealed themselves to be cats, pouring into the clearing. Hawkflight tensed.

“You release Blacksky. Now.”

Chapter 19 (October 4th, 5:30 AM-5:50 AM)

Willow was being chased by a monster.

Not the huge, shiny monstrosities that ran along the thunderpath, she knew how to avoid them. They could not leave the path without hurting themselves.

This monster was a different sort of creature altogether, and it followed no rules. Instead, it bent others to its own. It was born of swirling winds and angry clouds, a featureless, swirling monstrosity of gray. It spun so fast that it sucked everything in its path into its gaping maw only to make itself nauseous and spit it out. It hunted no prey in particular.


No, it hunted the world. The world the twolegs owned.

Willow had started running when the wailing began. It came from nowhere and everywhere, echoing eerily through the twolegplace. When the wailing started, the world shut down. Birch and Pine had always made sure that she knew the wailing meant the monster was coming.

Now, some odd quirk of fate had set her right in its path.

Really, it was all very circumstantial.

She had gone out to play. Pine had told her to stay on the block and be back by dinner. Willow had been going to stay on the block and be back by dinner.

But she hadn’t known that the neighbor's dog had escaped.

It was a slow, stupid animal, hardly any smarter than the monsters that ran along the thunderpath. She had evaded it easily, but it had chased her farther away from the twoleg den than she’d ever been without Pine or Birch, and she had gotten lost.

She wasn’t lost anymore though, she knew exactly which way to run: Away from the monster.

Or perpendicular to it, anyways. From what she’d heard she knew she had no hope of outrunning it but that if she could get out of its way it might not attack. Right now it seemed content to swallow up twoleg dens far away fro-m her, but that could change at any moment, and the monster could close the distance between them in the blink of an eye.

“Willow!” Pine was calling her name from across the street, tabby fur thick with dust and dirt, amber eyes shining with relief.

Willow glanced both ways before crossing the road, an unnecessary instinct. There were no monsters on the road right now. Even they were afraid of the twisting beast in the sky. She dashed across the street and pressed herself against Pine’s pelt. It was wet, with something other than rain.

“You’re bleeding!” Willow exclaimed, eyes rounding with worry.

Pine shrugged it off.

“I’m fine,” She assured her. “A hail shard shattered a window. It’s just glass, nothing to worry about. Come on, we need to get back to the house.” Pine grabbed Willow by the scruff and started running. The wind tugging at her fur grew more insistent and the occasional hail shard shattered on the ground, the pieces swirling in the wind like shimmering, icy birds.

“Why are we going towards it?” Willow asked.

“The house is that way,” Pine mumbled around her fur. “If we can get inside, we’ll be safe.”

That was the first time she lied to me.


***

Willowwilt awoke with a start, a growl rumbling in her throat. She wasn’t in her den. Dead scraggly trees tried to claw the black sky, their gnarly roots choking the earth.

She was in the place of no stars.

Again.

“Congratulations,” Bleakstem told her, seeming to materialize from the shadows before Willowwilt’s eyes.

Willowwilt hissed and began pacing back and forth.

“Again? Seriously?”

Bleakstem’s whiskers twitched.

“Like I said last time, I thought you might need to remem-”

“Great Starclan, shut up,” Willowwilt growled. “I don’t need the whole mysterious dead person trying to take over the world spheal again. I’m not going to help you and as soon as I wake up I’m going to-,” She paused. “Wait, why haven’t I-”

“Oh, you forgot, did you?” Bleakstem said, studying a clod of mud stuck between her claws with all the innocence of a fox snarling before it struck. She flicked it off irritably. “I’m sure you’ll remember this time and then you’ll stop me for good and live happily ever after.”

“You made me forget,” Willowwilt accused menacingly.

“Oh, you’re a smart one aren’t you,” Bleakstem meowed sarcastically. “How’d you guess?”

“So what’s the point?!” Willowwilt growled. “Are you going to annoy me into helping you or something?”

“Someday soon you’re going to help me willingly,” Bleakstem said.

“I find that unlikely.”

“You’ll see,” Bleakstem told her. “When your clanmates are turning mad around you and you have to slit their throats yourself and all Starclan could bring themselves to do was think of some lousy, cryptic prophecy, you’ll understand why they need to be overthrown.”

Willowwilt didn’t bat a whisker.

“The stories utterly fail to describe your gift for theatrics.”

“They do, don’t they?” Bleakstem agreed. “I’ve always been rather disappointed with the way the elders portray me.”

“Well,” Willowwilt said dryly. “That will happen when you murder someone.”

“It’s not that black and white,” Bleakstem argued. “But we’re not here to talk about me.”

“Too right,” Willowwilt consented. “We are here for no reason whatsoever.”

“We are here so that I can explain your gift to you,” Bleakstem retorted.

“I don’t feel like listening to you talk about my gift. I’ve earned every bit of what I have. I don’t have gifts.”

Bleakstem sighed.

“Do you remember last time when I told you that the universe is like a layered-,”

“LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA,” Willowwilt meowed loudly.  

“WILLOWWILT,” Bleakstem shouted over her. “YOU ARE ALIVE BECAUSE OF A PROPHECY I GAVE HAWTHORNDUSK. I GAVE YOU THIS LIFE. WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT, MOST OF YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN A GIFT.”

“That’s a lie,” Willowwilt hissed. “The prophecy was from Starclan, and they sent her to find me because-,”

Bleakstem laughed.

“Starclan, huh? I can tell you right now that Starclan doesn’t give a couple of mousetails whether you had lived or died in that storm.  I am the one who cared enough to help you, and I can prove it.”

“Sure you can,” Willowwilt growled.

Bleakstem cleared her throat.

“When the sky falls to earth and hunts the twolegs, you will find who you’ve been looking for. Follow the feathers of the flightless bird beneath the ground, and you will find who you’ve been looking for.”

Willowwilt stared for a moment, dumbfounded.

“But thats-,”

“The exact words of the prophecy given to Hawthorndusk?” Bleakstem wondered, nonchalantly grooming a paw. “I was under the impression only you, your parents, and the cat who gave the prophecy knew them. Starclan didn’t give her the prophecy just because she and Rainfoot were looking to adopt and there was conveniently a kit in danger in the twolegplace. Starclan doesn’t do that. They don’t care about cats outside the clans. Whether you like it or not, you owe your life to a Dark Forest cat. Get over it.”

Willowwilt’s lip curled.

“It’s not like you cared about me either. You just wanted me to help you.”

“Is it really like that though?” Bleakstem wondered. “I would save all the kits in danger if I could. That’s what makes me different from Starclan. I don’t beleive that everyone has a path layed out for them in the stars. We should have a chance to make our own destiny, and no one should die before they get a chance to build one.”

“Your speeches are boring me to sleep,” Willowwilt groaned.

“Nah,” Bleakstem retorted. “You’re not bored. You’re angry.”

“Nice observation,” Willowwilt drawled.

“You’re waiting for the right opportunity to kill me. You’re trying very desperately to think of a way to prove me wrong. You don’t want to owe your life to a dark forest cat. You want to wake up and forget about me forever so you can continue believing your little fantasy that you’re just an ordinary hard working young warrior who’s going to be leader someday.”

“I’d hardly call that ordinary,” Willowwilt retorted.

“I would,” Bleakstem said bluntly. “Thousands of cats have been leaders. Firestar. Leopardstar. Blackstar. Tallstar. Leafstar. Do you really think that if you limit yourself to this path that you will ever be greater than any of them? Do you really think you can dwarf their names in the endless expanse of history?”

“Again,” Willowwilt meowed. “These speeches. They bore me. Cut it with the theatrics and explain to me why in Starclan helping you would be a good idea.”

“Ah, because you want it to be a good idea.”

Willowwilt frowned.

“Come again?”

“I’m offering you a path to greatness that leads beyond any other opportunity you’ll ever have. You want to leave your mark on this world, and so you want this to be a good idea.”

“These speeches,” Willowwilt repeated. “Your gift for theatrics is incredibile, but please go use it on a bunch of attentive kits who will hang on your every word, not me.”

“This is the Dark Forest. Do you see any kits anywhere?” Bleakstem asked. “Seriously. No one here appreciates my talents.”

“You do have a gift for saying simple things in as many words as possible,” Willowwilt acknowledged. “Can I leave yet?”

“Oh, fine,” Bleakstem sighed. “Just remember: You can’t escape your darkness, Willowwilt. Don’t be afraid to own it.”

Chapter 20 (October 3rd, 11:20 AM-11:40 AM, 2021)

Gingerherb lay in the shadows, hardly daring to breathe. Shrikekit had finally fallen asleep, and he was trying to do the same while he had the chance. But his mind was too busy processing the day’s events and too jumbled with mixed emotions.

A dark gray head poked into the nursery entrance. Piercing blue eyes  bored into Gingerherb’s soul while sharply pointed ears angled outside.

Gingerherb scowled, gesturing with his at the softly snoring lump of black and white fuzz curled up at their side.

Stormswallow shook their head irritably, teeth bared in the beginnings of an annoyed snarl. Gingerherb let out a sigh, carefully rising to his feet. Shrikekit let out a little murmur in his sleep but thankfully didn’t wake up.

“We need to talk,” Stormswallow meowed once Gingerherb was outside. They stiffened.

“About what?” He asked carefully.

Stormswallow’s ears pivoted to point at the nursery.

“Your kit,” She growled.

Gingerherb flinched.

“He’s not my kit,” He protested, pretending to be oblivious to what Stormswallow was getting at. Stormswallow shook her head.

“You always were a terrible liar. He does not need to share your blood to be your kit.”

Gingerherb was silent. He did not have a good response to this.

Stormswallow let out a regretful sigh, staring at the ground.

“You have been a gifted pupil,” She said. “But your heart is being tugged in two directions.”

Gingerherb’s ears flattened to his skull.

“No it’s not. I am a medicine cat, through and through.”

“Well,” Stormswallow said nonchalantly. “Then this choice should be easy.”

A growl rose in Gingerherb’s throat.

“I don’t have to choose anything. Nothing is in my way.”

Stormswallow shook her head.

“You have more in your way than you realize. You are at a turning point, Gingerherb. You have a lot to gain and a lot to lose.”

Gingerherb stared at the ground.

“There has to be a third option,” They muttered absentmindedly.

Stormswallow’s ear twitched.

“You are looking for a way out where there isn’t one,” She admonished. “You have to choose. Sooner or later, life will make you. It is written in the stars. Good night Gingerherb. I hope you are happy with the choice you have made.”

Gingerherb blinked in confusion.

“I haven’t made any choice yet.”

“I think you have,” Stormswallow meowed with a glance at the nursery. “I think you made your choice a long time ago.” Stormswallow turned and padded off to the medicine den. Gingerherb watched her go for a moment, wishing he could go after them. Instead, they turned back to the nursery.

Stormswallow was right,  He realized. I made up my mind a long time ago.

***

The deluge slowed to a stop as Shrikepaw and Gingerherb padded across the moor, the sun darting nimbly through gaps in the blanket of clouds. Shrikepaw’s paws prickled with apprehension at the thought of the stares that would greet him upon his return to camp, with the inevitable awkwardness of talking to Lion and Stoat. He wished he hadn’t run out of camp, although it had been good to organize his thoughts.

Really, he wished he could have organized his thoughts without needing to run out of camp.

“...Dad?” He asked hesitantly. “What do I say to them when we get back?”

Gingerherb only shook their head.

“I wish I could tell you. In truth, there’s probably going to be a lot of awkward silence and forced small talk.”

Shrikepaw let out a groan.

“Just remember, though,” Gingerherb continued. “If there is awkward silence, it means no one can think of anything to say. It’s completely mutual, so don’t worry about it.” He cracked a small smile. “I also have an arsenal of completely random and pointless questions to deal with that. Anyway, just be natural. Act like yourself and annoy everyone half to death and terrify Ashenberry.”

Shrikekpaw rolled his eyes.

“Ashenberry is just a wimp. Why would anyone be scared of me?”

Gingerherb chuckled.

“You’re scarier than you think. And whatever you might think of Ashenberry, he is still your mentor and you need to respect him.”

“Okay,” Shrikepaw consented reluctantly.

Suddenly, a ferocious growling erupted from a clump of heather a few foxlengths away. Shrikepaw gave a little jump of surprise, and Gingerherb stiffened, staring into the bush. Emerging from it was a tiny creature, long and sinuous with a twitching black tail tip. It’s tiny fangs were beared in a menacing snarl.

“What is that?” Shrikepaw asked curiously. “It’s kinda… cute.”

“Back away slowly,” Gingerherb ordered. “Give it some space and maybe it’ll leave us alone.”

Shrikepaw’s eyes narrowed in confusion.

“But it’s so tiny! How can it hurt us?”

“It’s a stoat, Gingerherb explained, slowly backing away. Shrikepaw reluctantly followed suit. “They’re nimble and their teeth are incredibly sharp.”

“But it’s… small,” Shrikepaw meowed.

The stoat let out an enraged hiss, and suddenly two more stoats appeared from a hole in the base of the bush, and then another. Gingerherb’s eyes widened as the four snarling animals advanced.

“They’re going to surround us! Run!” They yowled. Shrikepaw turned and dashed away as the stoats darted forward, but Gingerherb was too slow. Three of the stoats circled around him, taking playful snaps at his paws. The fourth stoat was slowly slinking towards shrikepaw, malice glinting in its eyes. He glanced frantically between Gingerherb and the stoat, letting out a growl that he hoped sounded threatening.

The stoat didn’t think so. It snarled right back at him, setting his fur on end.  

“Help!” Shrikepaw wailed.

Suddenly the hole the stoats had come out of widened, seeming to cave in on itself. A lithe brown shape exploded out of it, poucing onto the stoat that had been creeping towards Shrikepaw.

“My parents were mousebrains,” Stoat growled. “Who would name a kit after these vermin?”

The stoat let out a furious snarl, wriggling free of Stoat’s grip. He just barely avoided a viscous bite to his muzzle, a tuft of tabby fur floating to the ground. Shrikepaw lashed out and ripped the stoat’s shoulder. It let out a hiss of pain and retreated underground. Or tried to. Lion immediately exited the hole, the creature dangling from her jaws. She gaveit a vigorous shake and tossed it under the bush.

“We are never going down there again,” She growled fervently as she began to grapple with one of the stoats circling Gingerherb. Stoat rushed over and began fighting another one, while Gingerherb struck out clumsily at the third. It danced around his blows easily, crouching to spring on Gingerherb’s back. Shrikepaw sprinted forward and planted a paw on its tail, causing it to land clumsily on its face. Gingerherb reached out and slit its throat, hissing in disgust as blood spilled out of the messy, jagged wound. The two remaining stoats let out terrified chitters and scampered out acros the moor.

“Is anyone hurt?” Gingerherb asked.

“Says you,” Lion scoffed. “Your paws are a mess.”

Gingerherb glanced down, as if noticing for the first time the bloody bite marks on all of his paws.

“Oh,” He mewed faintly. “So they are.”

Shrikepaw stared in horror as Gingerherb staggered a few clumsy steps before promptly falling over, blood spilling rapidly onto the grass.

“Um,” Stoat meowed. “What do we do?”

“Find some cobweb,” Gingerherb murmured. “That’ll stop the bleeding. After we’ve done that, go find some marigold for a poultice… That’ll stop infection but first I really think we need to get the bleeding stopped.”

“I don’t know what marigold looks like,” Stoat said frantically.

“Stop the bleeding first…,” Gingerherb reminded him. “And marigold… is yellow. The flower, that is. The stem is green. Green flower. Yellow stem. Wait. Green stem. Yellow flower. …Can I have a poppy seed?”

“Cobweb, cobweb, cobweb,” Shrikepaw muttered frantically, scrambling around in panicked circles. “Where can we find cobweb?” He shoved his head in a heather bush, locating a few of the silvery strands. He tore them free, clumsily applying them to Gingerherb’s paws. The blood rushed straight past them, staining Shrikepaw’s paws.

“Need… more,” Gingerherb told him.

“We need to go back in the tunnels,” Lion decided. “There are loads in there.”

“NO NEED!” A fluffy white tom, pelt filthy with dirt and cobweb exploded out of the tunnel opening.

Shrikepaw, Lion, and Stoat stared dumbfounded as he rolled in the grass to dislodge the massive amount of cobwebs in his pelt and wrapped them around Gingerherb’s paws until it appeared as if they were mummified. The blood flow eased to a slow trickle.

“Thank you… whoever you are,” Gingerherb murmured.

“No problem,” The stranger meowed. “Here, have a poppy seed.” He turned to Shrikepaw, Stoat, and Lion. “Are you all okay?”

“Nothing that won’t wait,” Lion said.

“Nothing too nasty,” Stoat assured him.

Shrikepaw just nodded blankly, staring at Gingerherb.

“I hope I don’t need to tell you not to go back that way,” The stranger said. “Lots of stoats. Infected stoats. You have a real stoat problem, did you know? An outright infestation down there. You were lucky to get out without being bitten.” He shuttered.

“He’ll be okay, won’t he?” Shrikepaw asked, voice small.

“Of course,” Stoat and Lion answered simultaneously.

“We-,” The stranger began, breaking off as Stoat and Lion glared at him. “What? I’m conducting a medical- Oh. Of course. Yes. He’ll be fine. Just fine. We need to carry him back to your camp.”

Lion gently grabbed Gingerherb’s scruff and hoisted him onto her and Stoat’s shoulders. Shrikepaw followed numbly, eyes fixed on Gingerherb’s sleeping face.

“So… who exactly are you?” Stoat asked.

“Name’s Ravenflight,” The stranger answered. “And before you ask me, no, I’m not a medicine cat, no, I’m not from the clans, and no, crocodiles cannot stick their tongues out… And who is Shrikepaw’s legal guardian?”

Shrikepaw snapped out of his trance, staring at Ravenflight.

“...How do you know my name?”

Chapter 21: October 3rd, 8:30 AM-9:15 AM, 2021

“Wait, wait, wait!” Blacksky hollered over the rising clamor in Skyclan camp. “I would like to point out that, as I have no clear motive for killing Yarrowbite, that the most likely scenario- assuming I did kill him, which I didn’t- Is that Yarrowbite attacked me and I overreacted and killed him when I could have outfought him instead. Is this correct?”

Stormstar flicked her tail to signal the Thunderclan warriors surrounding the camp to hold back.

Flaxstar hesitated for a moment.

“Yes, I suppose,” They agreed. “But that’s still unwarranted killing. Yarrowbite was a medicine cat; you wouldn’t have had to kill him to defend yourself. There still needs to be some kind of punishment.”

“I wholeheartedly agree!” Blacksky chirped. “That is, if I did kill him. Which-,”

“You didn’t. I’ve heard,” Flaxstar growled. “It doesn’t become true by saying it enough times.”

One could argue that the same is true of the opposite, Blacksky thought irritably.

“Anyway,” He continued. “I say we make a compromise, because what we have settled on for the alleged crime that I have supposedly admitted is not quite as bad as outright murder. Agreed?”

“What do you suggest?” Flaxstar asked coolly, their tail flicking slowly back and forth.

“You exile me, but for a limited time. May I suggest ten moons?”

“Blacksky, you furball,” Mistswoop put in. “You don’t have to-,”

“Kindly shut up, thank you very much,” Blacksky interrupted pleasantly as Flaxstar thought for a moment.

“Twenty,” They growled at last.

“How about fifteen?” Blacksky asked airily, as if they were arguing about what fresh-kill tasted the best or whether a cloud was shaped like a rabbit or a mouse.

“You’re in no position to negotiate,” Flaxstar hissed. “Twenty.”

Blacksky blinked, faltering a little.

“...Seventeen?”

“Twenty,” Flaxstar insisted.

“Eighteen and you’ve got a deal.”

“Great Starclan, you are obnoxious,” Flaxstar spat. “Nineteen.”

“Why don’t we make it eighteen and a half?” Blacksky suggested.

“Twenty-five!” Dusdust yowled.

“You just went backwards,” Blacksky meowed. “That’s not how this works. Do you know nothing about bartering?”

“ZERO!” Mistswoop shouted.

Blacksky frowned.

“Sis, do you not know anything about bartering either?” Blacksky chastised her. “I thought you were smarter than that.”

“ZERO! ZERO! ZERO!” A chant rose up among the Thunderclan warriors.

“Oh no,” Blacksky muttered under his breath.

“TWENTY! TWENTY! TWENTY!” Skyclan started calling. Blacksky let out a string of curses.

“TEN! TEN! TEN!” He started shouting, surprised when one other voice joined him. He glanced over to see that Wrenwillow had taken up the chant, shouting it without any vigor or fervency, but shouting it all the less. But they were two voices in a croud of many, and their voices drowned in the chaos.

***

Hawkflight shared a glance at Eaglestorm. Although she held a more neutral standpoint, he could tell she was about as pleased about this as he was, which was to say not very.

“This could get messy!” She told him, yowling to be heard above the chanting. “Go keep an eye on the kits while I try to rein in this mess!”

Hawkflight nodded, slipping through the crowd and into the nursery where Sparrowkit, Robinkit, and Starling kit were huddled together in their nest.

“Dad, why’s everyone shouting?” Robinkit asked, sounding frightened.

“And why are there Thunderclan cats in the camp?” Starlingkit added.

Hawkflight wrapped his tail around his kits, drawing them close to him.

“It’s nothing serious,” He lied, putting on a cheerful mask. “It’s just a little disagreement, that’s all. Thunderclan will be leaving soon.”

He neglected to mention that outside of the nursery, sheltered and enclosed by brambles, a Thunderclan patrol was surrounding the camp and might attack at any minute.

“Dad, is Yarrowbite dead?” Sparrowkit asked glumly.

Hawkflight stiffened as the three of them looked up at him expectantly. He let out a sigh, realizing that he couldn’t lie to them. They would notice sooner or later.

“Yes,” He mewed sadly. “Yarrowbite is no longer with us.”

The kits were silent for a moment. Then Starlingkit’s ears flattened in dismay.

“Thunderclan did it, didn’t they?” Xe growled squeakily. “And now they’re attacking the camp!”

“What?!” Hawkflight exclaimed. “No, of course Thunderclan didn’t do it. And they’re not attacking the camp.” Not yet, anyway.

***

“ALL OF YOU HAVE THE MATURITY OF MOON-OLD KITTYPETS!” Blacksky screamed, having given up on his other chant. “IF I COMBINED ALL OF YOUR BRAIN CELLS THE RESULTING INTELLIGENCE WOULD BE THAT OF AN INSANE SQUIRREL!”

Blacksky glanced to his side, realizing that Wrenwillow was slipping away from him, heading towards Flaxstar. He frowned.

He was supposed to be guarding me, He thought. But he’s left his post- for some reason. Which means I can do the courageous thing and stall this entire process!

Blacksky turned and bolted out of camp. And waited. He realized with an annoyed snort that no one was chasing him. They hadn’t even noticed.

Suddenly, the chanting ceased, replaced by a single clear, commanding voice.

“GET OUT OF SKYCLAN’S CAMP!” Flaxstar yowled. “SKYCLAN, ATTACK!”

The shouts of pain and fury that generally accompanied fighting drifted to Blacksky on the wind. Ears flattening, he dashed back into camp.

“WHY ARE YOU ALL FIGHTING?!” He shouted, although he doubted anyone could hear him. “WHAT HAPPENED TO COMPROMISE?! MOUSEBRAINS!”

Suddenly a heavy weight slammed into Blacksky’s side, pinning him to the ground. He rolled, throwing off his attacker and staggering to his feet.

“Wrenwillow?!” He gasped. “What are you doing?!”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Wrenwillow snapped, darting forwards and raking his claws over Blacksky’s ears. Blacksky met his assault with a flurry of viscious swipes. Wrenwillow merely lowered his head to protect his face and neatly whipped Blacksky’s legs out from under him. He was on his feet in an instant, but a jet black paw was already speeding towards his face. Blacksky staggered to the side as claws raked his cheek.

“I’ve always heard you were a talented fighter,” Wrenwillow sneered. “I have to say, I’m rather disappointed.”

“Have you been possessed or something?” Blacksky wondered, dodging a swipe aimed at his flank. He swatted at Wrenwillow’s forlegs, but the black tom jumped nimbly back, looking almost bored. Blacksky turned, scrambling clumsily up the trunk of the nearest tree.

“What are you doing, mousebrain?” Wrenwillow asked. “I’m a Skyclan cat.” He swarmed up the trunk behind Blacksky, digging his claws into his hindlegs. Blacksky’s grip slipped and he was only hanging on by his forepaws.

“I know,” Blacksky growled. And then he let go. Surprised by the unexpected weight, Wrenwillow plummeted to the base of the tree with Blacksky on top of him. Blacksky heard an ominous crunching sound, and Wrenwillow let out a gasp of pain. He left Wrenwillow sprawled on the ground, turning to help his clanmates. But strong claws gripped his hind legs and he found himself on the ground beside his opponent. Wrenwillow dragged himself on top of Blacksky, pinning him down with surprising strength.

“You’re too smart for your own good, Blacksky,” Wrenwillow hissed into his ear. “Which is why I have to kill you.”

“Which is why you have to what?” Blacksky squawked. “What in Starclan’s name are you meowing about?”

Wrenwillow merely rolled his eyes, raising a paw over Blacksky’s throat. But before he could strike, a gray blur slammed into him and tumbled him off Blacksky. The black tom rolled over a few times before resting on his side, letting out a moan of pain.

“Great Starclan, what did you do to him?” Mistswoop asked as Blacksky got to his paws.

“Knocked him out of a tree,” Blacksky answered. Mistswoop shook her head.

“Well, if that isn’t the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard. Come on, we’re retreating. We can’t fight them in their own camp.”

“Wait just a second,” Blacksky mewed, glancing back toward the camp. “There’s someone I need to talk to.”

Mistswoop gawked at him.

“You want to talk to a Skyclan cat? Are you sure now is really the best time for that?”

“...Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to,” Blacksky retorted after a moment of consideration.

***

“You said they wouldn’t attack!” Robinkit wailed, trembling against Hawkflight’s flank.

They didn’t. We did, Hawkfligjht thought, feeling a troubled churning in his stomach.

“They won’t come in here, you’re safe,” He assured his kits. “We may have a disagreement with Thunderclan, but they still follow the warrior code. They won’t attack kits.”

“Thunderclan, retreat!” Stormstar yowled in the clearing. Hawkflight breathed a sigh of relief as the sounds of the battle faded, Thunderclan warriors streaming out of the camp.

Hawkflight suddenly jumped as a tail-tip tapped him on the shoulder, Thunderclan scent flooding his nose. He leapt up and turned to face his ambusher, the beginnings of a growl rising in his throat. His kits cowered behind him.

“Blacksky?!” He yelped, glancing frantically around. “What are you doing here? You need to leave!”

Blacksky cocked his head to one side, drops of blood falling to the ground. Hawkflight couldn’t tell how much of it was his and how much of it wasn’t.

“You didn’t think I would leave without saying goodbye, did you?”

Hawkflight glared, unimpressed. Blacksky chuckled.

“In all seriousness, I need to talk to you about Wrenwillow. I think he might have convinced Flaxstar to attack.”

Hawkflight gasped.

“Wrenwillow? You must be mistaken. He could never.”

Blacksky glanced around.

“I think Wrenwillow is better at having opinions than any of us thought. But one thing’s for sure: He left his post guarding me to talk to Flaxstar. He wanted this battle to happen. Just be careful of him. Trust me.”

Hawkflight shook his head wearily.

“How can I? There’s a difference between not wanting to convict you of murder and believing your accusations against my clanmate. I think you ought to leave before you get caught.”

Suddenly, the branches at the entrance of the nursery quivered as Eaglestorm pushed her way in. There was a row of claw marks along her flank and she was bleeding from a nasty cut on her ear, but she appeared relatively unharmed. Her eyes widened as she saw Blacksky.

“Hi,” The Thunderclan warrior mewed meekly.  

“Don’t,” Hawkflight protested as Eaglestorm opened her mouth to sound the alarm. “He didn’t do it. You have to trust me.”

Eaglestorm hesitated, glancing back and forth between Blacksky and Hawkflight.

“I do trust you,” She mewed. “But I have to put Skyclan first. What if you’re wrong and he did kill Yarrowbite? I’d be a traitor.”

Blacksky rolled his eyes.

“But what if I didn’t do it and the reason I’m here is actually beneficial to Skyclan and I won’t tell you anything if you take me hostage?”

“You already told me,” Hawkflight pointed out.

Blacksky glanced at him with an annoyed expression.

“Well, you’re not going to tell her if she takes me hostage.”

Hawkflight gawked at him.

“What kind of cat do you think I am? I’m not going to help you blackmail my mate, mousebrain.”

Blacksky scowled.

“This is the problem with cats like you. You’re too nice.”

“The game’s up, Blacksky,” Eaglestorm growled. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

“Wait,” Blacksky meowed. “If you let me go, I’ll tell you Yarrowbite’s last words. In fact, I’ll tell you them before you let me go if you agree to this because you seem trustworthy.”

“And because you have no other choice?” Eaglestorm added dryly.

Blacksky shrugged.

“Depends how you look at it.”

“No,” Eaglestorm decided. “You could just lie.”

Blacksky smiled.

“What if someone there- someone who has not avidly defended me in this debate, mind you- could verify them? And if I truly did kill Yarrowbite, then it would stand to reason that his last words would be something incriminating, wouldn’t it? And so you can know one way or another whether or not I’m guilty.” He shrugged. “It could also be that Yarrowbite’s last words were a certain message he wanted me to deliver to you. And I would love to fufill his last wishes, but alas, I seem to care more about saving my own skin than the wishes of dead cats.”

Hawkflight and Eaglestorm stared at him for a moment. Then Eaglestorm lashed out and smacked him in the face. He staggered and fell over before rolling to his paws.

“Ow,” Blacksky meowed evenly. “...Do we have a deal?”

“If you can somehow conjure up someone who was there,” Eaglestorm growled. “But don’t expect my help ever again.”

“Not unless I have something to blackmail you with,” Blacksky agreed. Eaglestorm hit him again.

“Ow,” Blacksky moaned. “And I think you’ll find I have a pretty good conjuring trick up my sleeve.”

Hickorywind appeared from under the nursery wall.

“Of course,” Hawkflight muttered. “Of course.”

“Spill,” Eaglestorm ordered.

Blacksky padded to the back of the den before turning back to them. His eyes were serious, his previous aura of bravado and superiority gone.

“He told me to tell you he’s sorry.”

Eaglestorm turned to Hickorywind.

“And these were his last words?”

“Yes,” Hickorywind verified.

A heavy silence fell in the medicine den.

It fits, Hawkflight thought mournfully, raising his gaze to meet Eaglestorm’s. He saw his pain reflected in her eyes and took a step closer so that their pelts brushed.

“Ew,” Blacksky meowed loudly. “I never want to have a mate.” With a shudder he turned and squeezed under the nursery wall with Hickorywind on his tail.

“Are they all gone now?” Sparrowkit asked.

“Yes dear,” Eaglestorm assured him. “They’re all gone now. I’ll be back soon. I need to talk to Flaxstar and asses our situation.” She turned and left the den.

Everything was silent for a moment, and then Hawkflight jumped as a faraway sounding voice echoed in his ear.

“Took him long enough.”

Chapter 22 (October 3rd, 11:40 AM-12:25 PM, 2021)

Ravenflight stared at Shrikepaw blankly for a moment.

“You don’t know,” He said at last.

“How you know my name? Nope,” Shrikepaw muttered.

Ravenflight blinked in confusion.

“You mean you don’t know anything?!”

“Anyone else confused?” Stoat asked. No one answered.

“Anything about what?” Shrikepaw asked, shooting Ravenflight an odd glance.

“You mean Starclan didn’t tell you anything?!” Ravenflight exclaimed.

“What do you know about Starclan? You just said you weren’t from the clans.”

“Long story,” Ravenflight meowed.

“It’s a long walk,” Lion grunted.

Ravenflight shot her a glance.

“I said it was a long story. I never said I wasn’t going to tell it.” He cleared his throat. “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was from the clans once. He had to leave though. His mentor was trying to take over the clans and was threatening his life, so his friends snuck him away to a barn where he met my other great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. And they adopted a kit who was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. You may have heard of him, in fact. His name was Ravenpaw. He’s a pretty cool guy.”

Shrikepaw’s eyes widened in excitement despite himself.

“The Ravenpaw? The really old guy who was friends with Firestar?!” Shrikepaw’s nose wrinkled. “Wait, did you just refer to him in present tense?”

“...Yeah?” Ravenflight mewed. “...Is there something not normal about that?”

“Isn’t he dead?” Lion, Stoat, and Shrikepaw asked simultaneously.

Ravenflight shot them a funny glance.

“Yes…,” He confirmed. “How could he still be alive?”

Lion and Stoat gawked at him.

“...You said you weren’t a medicine cat,” Shrikepaw reminded Ravenflight.

“So?” Ravenflight meowed, twitching his ear. “You don’t have to be a medicine cat to talk to dead cats. You just have to be a necromancer.”

“A what-a-what-er?” Shrikepaw asked.

“Nobody knows anything around here,” Ravenflight muttered. “I’m weird. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Weird how?” Shrikepaw pressed.

Ravenflight sighed.

“You want me to infodump on you, kid? Okay, you asked for it. I am a cat with the ability to speak to Starclan as well as dead cats who have not yet found their way yet who has been assigned by Starclan to be your bodyguard because you’re basically a magic walkie-talkie and they don’t want you to die because pretty soon some bad stuff is gonna happen and the clans are going to have to move for a brief period of time and I’m asking who your legal guardian is because I would prefer to have their permission to take you away from the clans for a brief period of time to ensure your safety because doing it without their permission would really suck and quite frankly be very rude which is something I try to avoid and lightning is ten times hotter than the surface of the sun.”

“Well,” Lion growled. “You’re out of luck. Shrikepaw’s legal guardian is currently asleep on my back and he’d be a mousebrain to agree to whatever it is you’ve proposed.”

“I just told you what I proposed,” Ravenflight sounded annoyed.

“Well, it didn’t make two mousetails worth of sense,” Stoat told him. “Talking to dead cats? This ‘Starclan’ thing you keep mentioning?” He shot Ravenflight a wary glance. “It’s all ridiculous. A convoluted heap of nonsense.”

Lion nodded in agreement. Shrikepaw flattened his ears and blocked out the conversation, resuming watching the soft rise and fall of Gingerherb’s chest as he breathed.

I wish you were awake, He thought. You could understand this.

Ravenflight blinked.

“I was asked to explain. I explained. If you’re too closed minded to believe me, that’s your problem.”

“So it is,” Lion agreed.

“Most certainly,” Ravenflight added.

“You’re just trying to get the last word in,” Lion accused.

“Correct.”

“You have the maturity of a kit.”

“Very correct. Did you know lightning is ten times hotter than the sun?”

“I did not.”

“A stoat can do a dance to hypnotize a rabbit into forgetting to run away.”

Stoat rolled his eyes, sharing a glance with Shrikepaw.

“You’re probably the most mature cat here,” He muttered.

Shrikepaw flinched. Although the words hadn’t had any malicious intent, they still stung. Because there was no way he was the most mature cat there.

How can this work? Shrikepaw wondered. My parents are strangers to me. He wished he could look at it the way Gingerherb could. He had a way of making everything simple. It was easy to be an optomist when he was talking to Gingerherb.

“A peregrine falcon can dive at speeds of two hundred and forty miles per hour,” Ravenflight continued.

“Fascinating,” Lion muttered. Shikepaw thought she looked like she was beginning to regret starting the conversation.

“You can’t win, you know,” Ravenflight meowed cheerfully. “I have too many fun facts. I can talk your paws off until you fall asleep.”

The white tom’s enthusiastic mews blended together into an incessant cadence of random facts. Shrikepaw flattened his ears against the sound. Too much was happening at once. It shouldn’t have been allowed for Stoat and Lion to show up on the same day that they got attacked by actual stoats and got saved by a strange cat who claimed to be his bodyguard and knew a thoroughly ridiculous amount of fun facts. It was just too much.

“Can you two shut up?” Shrikepaw blurted. He immediately felt his pelt grow hot as Lion and Ravenflight stared at him.

Lion gave her chest fur a few self concious licks.

“Right,” She mewed. “Sorry.”

“My apologies, kiddo,” Ravenflight said. “I think maybe I’ll buzz off. Do you still need me here? Would you like me to buzz off?”

Shrikepaw, Lion, and Stoat just stared at him. He sighed.

“Right,” He said. “You want me to buzz of.”

***

Shrikepaw sat in the corner of the camp with Lion and Stoat, wishing that it had a tree to cover them in shadows. He could feel the empty time between them like a physical wall, and the fact that everyone was doing a very bad job of hiding the fact that they were staring at them wasn’t helping. Again, Shrikepaw wished Gingerherb was there with his arsenal of completely pointless questions.

“...So,” Lion prompted. “Tell us about the clans. We don’t really know much about your customs.”

“Yes,” Stoat agreed, shuffling his paws awkwardly. “Er, tell us about the clans.”

“Well,” Shrikepaw began, relieved to have a starting point. “There are five clans: Windclan, Riverclan, Skyclan, Shadowclan, and Thunderclan. We all follow the warrior code, which is made up of sixteen different rules that dictate our way of life.”

“Seems like a lot of rules,” Stoat murmured. “What’s in it?”

“Well,” Shrikepaw began. “I…,” He realized that having only been an apprentice for one day he didn’t actually have all of the rules memorized. He was about to admit defeat when Pricklepaw seemed to materialize out of nowhere with a bundle of green herby smelling plants.

“Defend all of the clans with your life. Your first loyalty is to your own clan, but all cats who follow the warrior code are your allies. No clan should allow another clan to fall, but each clan must be allowed to remain proud and independent from the others. An honorable warrior may not kill other cats to win their battles, unless they are outside the warrior code or if it is necessary for self defense. Elders, queens, kits, and sick or inured cats must be fed before warriors and apprentices. Warrior apprentices may not eat until they have contributed to the fresh kill pile unless they have their mentor’s permission. Every full moon, a gathering of all the clans is held on the island. Fighting amongst one another is forbidden for the night. No warrior can neglect a kit in danger, even if the kit is from another clan. Can I treat that scratch for you? Thanks, it’ll only take a minute. Kits must be at least six moons old to become apprentices. The deputy will become leader when the leaders dies, retires, or is exiled. The new leader must choose a deputy before moonhigh. That bite looks nasty. Could you let me put a poultice on it? If a clan member believes the leader no longer has the clan’s best interests at heart, they can challenge them. If three quarters of the clan along with the clan’s medicine cats agree, the objection will be presented to the other clans. If all the other leaders agree, the leader’s nine lives can be taken away and the deputy will become leader. The process cannot be started by the deputy. A cat may switch their alliegances from one clan to another, but to do so they must complete a task of the other clan’s choosing. Prey is killed only to be eaten and thanks must be given to Starclan for its life. Newly appointed warriors will sit a vigil the night after their ceremony. A cat cannot be deputy until they havmentored at least one apprentice. A warrior rejects the soft life of a kittypet.” At this rule, Lion and Stoat shared an annoyed glance and Pricklepaw gave them an appraising stare. “And boundaries must be checked and marked daily. All trespassers should be challenged.”

Shrikepaw stared at Pricklepaw for a moment. At first he thought she was just being obnoxious, which wouldn’t be terribly out of character, but then he realized she’d actually saved him by interrupting and reciting the code for him.

I don’t think I’ll be likely to forget that again!

Pricklepaw gave Shrikepaw a teasing nudge on her way back to the medicine den.

“You’re welcome,” She whispered.

Stoat and Lion stared after her.

“...You know her?” Stoat asked at last.

Shrikepaw shuffled his paws, knowing the kind of impression Pricklepaw could leave on cats.

“Um, yeah. That’s Pricklepaw. She’s a medicine cat apprentice.”

Stoat and Lion stared at him blankly.

“What is that?” Lion wondered.

“Medicine cats are in charge of healing sick or hurt cats and communing with Starclan,” Shrikepaw explained.

Lion and Stoat shared a skeptical glance.

“...Starclan?” Stoat asked.

“Our ancestors,” Shrikepaw explained. “They’re always watching over us and they occasionally send us prophecies.”

“...I see,” Lion murmured.

“You don’t think they’re real,” Shrikepaw guessed.

Stoat shrugged helplessly.

“Dead cats in the sky? Necromancy? Some weird guy with an absurd amount of fun facts? It’s just a lot to take in. How about we put this talk to rest for now. Let’s chat about something else.”

“Sure,” Shrikepaw agreed. And the silence stretched on. And on.

“It’s been a long time,” Lion sighed finally.

Shrikepaw shifted his paws uncomfortably.

“Yes.” Acknowledging the time seemed to make it more real, moons and seasons stretching out in between them until bridging the gap felt hopeless.

“I-I need to make dirt,” Shrikepaw stammered, getting to his paws and heading out of camp, feeling Stoat and Lion’s gaze on his back. Coward! A voice inside him jeered. He flinched, walking aimlessly onto the moor. He had hardly walked a few foxlengths when a small, splotchy form hared after him, nearly careening into his side.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Wasppaw demanded.

Shrikepaw’s ears flattened.

“For a walk.”

Wasppaw shook their head.

“And that is how I know something is wrong. You don’t go on walks. You always run everywhere. Go back.”  

Shrikepaw shook his head.

“I can’t. Maybe when Gingerherb is a little better and they can help. But right now I just can’t. It’s too awkward and it’s been too long.”

Wasppaw took a deep breath.

“I can’t pretend to understand how you’re feeling right now, but I do know that you’re braver than you think you are. You can do this.” A wry smile stole over their expression. “I also know that you can jabber away about the most ridiculous things for-ever whether the poor cat you’re pestering is actually interested or not.”

Shrikepaw bristled.

“The things I ‘jabber’ about, as you like to put it are very fascinating! You just don’t understand them!”

Wasppaw nodded towards the clearing.

“Maybe Stoat and Lion do. Go jabber excitedly about some random topic.”

Shrikepaw half turned back to the clearing before pausing, a concerned expression creeping over his face.

“...Are you sure? Are the things I ‘jabber’ about actually ridiculous and not fascinating?”

Wasppaw rolled their eyes.

“Great Starclan, yes. But Stoat and Lion were supposedly your parents once, and they would like to be something like that again. Or at least be something to you again. They want to love you, not who you want them to think you are.”

Shrikepaw blinked in surprise.

“Wasppaw, that was really… deep.”

Wasppaw shuddered.

“Was it? Don’t tell Pricklepaw.”

“I won’t,” Shrikepaw mewed cheerfully, turning to run back to the clearing.

“Shrikepaw?” Wasppaw called.

“Yeah?”

“Good luck. And seriously, don’t tell Pricklepaw.”

Chapter 23 (October 3rd, 10:10 PM-10:30 PM, 2021)

When Fernpaw stepped onto the spiral path leading down to the moonpool, Stickflight was right where they’d left him. A light drizzle had begun and his pelt was matted with it, although he scarcely seemed to notice. He glanced up as Fernpaw settled themself beside him.

“You came back.”

“Of course I did,” Fernpaw grunted. “I’d always come back for you.”

Stickflight looked at his paws.

“I’m sorry Fernpaw. The things I said back there were immature and uncalled for, but they were true. I don’t have any answers. I’m more lost than you, my own apprentice. I’m a lousy excuse for a fa- mentor.”

Fernpaw was silent for a moment.

“You’re not a lousy excuse,” They decided. “You’re not an excuse at all. You are a real mentor and a real- a real…,” They broke off, pain glistening in their eyes. “What were you going to say?” They asked, although they already knew the answer. Say it, They pleaded silently. Say that’s what you’ve been.  

Stickflight breathed a long, gusty sigh.

“The night Brambleshade died,” He began. “He appeared to me in my dreams. He asked me to look out for you. And I panicked. I asked him why he picked me, when I clearly couldn’t do it. There was no way I could fill his paws. And he said that the reason I couldn’t do it was because I didn’t think I could. He said… He said parenting was supposed to be scary. But he was wrong. I couldn’t do it. I’ve failed, every day.”

Fernpaw thought about all the times Stickflight had stumbled, broken, frozen. They thought about all the times they’d picked him back up, fixed him, and revitalized him. Then they remembered his endless patience and the joy he took in the natural world and the sparkle in his eyes as he’d taught them. Taught them almost everything they knew, herbs or otherwise.

“What makes you think you’ve failed?” They asked softly.

He blinked in confusion.

“After everything, here I am, with you acting like the mentor, like you have the seasons I ought to. How have I not failed?”

“The only true failure is to give up,” Fernpaw retorted. “Are you going to give up?”

Stickflight stared into the moonpool for a moment. When he looked back, his expression had hardened with resolve.

“No,” He mewed, getting to his paws. “Never.”

“I didn’t think so,” Fernpaw said. “Let’s go home.”

The two padded up the spiral path, away from the moonpool. The drizzle lifted, shafts of moonlight showering the earth.

“WAIT!” Someone shouted. “WE FINISHED THE FINAL DRAFT OF THE PROPHECY!”

Fernpaw and Stickflight whipped around with twin mews of exasperation.

“Yarrowbite?!” Stickflight exclaimed.

The cream tabby pushed himself hastily up the path to meet them, huffing with the effort.

“Ello,” He greeted them.

Fernpaw’s jaw dropped.

“What? No. No. Not you too.”

Stickflight said nothing, eyes fixed on Yarrowbite’s starry pelt.

“Eeerm, sorry?” Yarrowbite apologized. “I couldn’t help it.”

“...How did you die?” Stickflight asked quietly.

Yarrowbite glanced at Fernpaw.

“Maybe I’ll tell you later. Right now I have a prophecy to give.” He cleared his throat. “When the moon is full twice more, the clans will have to make a choice. When the river freezes, time has run out. Remember that hope hides in unlikely places. Accept it when it comes to you, no matter who presents it.”

“What does that even meen?” Fernpaw asked irritably. “Accept it when it comes to you, no matter who presents it?”

Yarrowbite barked out a bitter laugh.

“Foxdung if I know!” He exclaimed. Then he vanished into a cloud of starry vapor.

Epilogue (Spoiler Warning: Contains vague hints pertaining to events that happen during AVoS & TBC)

Bleakstem shifted uncomfortably, feeling the gazes of the assembled cats burning into her pelt. She knew they were wondering: Why her? After all the time they had waited, why did she, the newcomer, earn the favor of Mapleshade?

Well, you’re about to find out, Bleakstem thought, eyeing the group of scruffy, dark warriors contemptuously. It’s quite frankly because I’m smarter and more motivated than you.

“Cats of the Dark Forest!” Mapleshade’s voice rang out from her perch on the slimy, rotting log that served as a sorry excuse for a highrock. Bleakstem sat at the base. “Today we welcome back the spirit of an old friend. Juniperclaw?”

The small gathering of cats parted and a black tom padded forward. Disconcertingly his eyes were amber this time, but other than that, he bore a striking resemblance to his former self.

Mapleshade leapt down from the log, standing nearly nose to nose with the Dark Forest warrior.

“Welcome back,” She meowed. “How do you feel?”

Juniperclaw glanced around, surveying the expressions of his companions.

“Angry,” He decided. “At Starclan.”

Mapleshade nodded, seemingly satisfied with his answer.

“They have shown what happens to any cat who betrays us. After your betrayal so many moons ago, you should have been rewarded- you should have been let into Starclan, safe on the other side of the border for us to curse your name for all eternity- but were you?”

“No,” Juniperclaw growled, pain glistening in his eyes.

“That’s right,” Mapleshade purred. “They let you sit at the border, between worlds, for countless more seasons. And now that you have the choice, who are you loyal to, Juniperclaw? Or should I call you…?”

Juniperclaw looked her in the eye, a malicious snarl on his face.

“I am loyal to you, Mapleshade, and the Dark Forest. No one else. I could never serve Starclan or Skyclan.”

Mapleshade leaned closer, so close that their noses were almost touching.

“And what about Shadowclan?” She mewed.

Juniperclaw hesitated, longing darkening his gaze.

“This will be for the good of all of the clans, Shadowclan included,” He decided. “I will serve the place of no stars.”

“Then you are forgiven,” Mapleshade announced. Her voice rose, reaching all the assembled cats. “And the Dark Forest will rise again!”

“Juniperclaw! Juniperclaw! Juniperclaw!” The chant rose among the Dark Forest warriors, echoing through the black marshland that was their prison- for now.

Mapleshade turned to look at Bleakstem, and she felt a shiver run up her spine as Mapleshade’s gaze locked with hers. In the low light, she looked dark and beautiful and dangerous, like a force of nature.

“It’s starting, Bleakstem,” Mapleshade mewed silkily, her voice darker than the empty sky above them. “Pick up the pace.”

Author's Note

If you have read this story in its entirety and posted feedback either in the comments or on Blogclan, I would like you to know that your words have meant a lot to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my work, disorganized and hard to follow as it may be. I hope you will continue with me and my POV characters on this journey to Spreading Frost. Some things to look forward too!

  • More focus on Willowwilt and her character arc!
  • The chapters being closer(?) to being in chronological order!
  • Main character interactions!
  • Action! Action! Action!
  • Totally not advertising, nooo not me never!
  • Hope you enjoy!
Advertisement