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Book One of Hosted. Enjoy!~ :)

Allegiances

ThunderClan

Leader: Whitestar                                                                                                                                             Deputy: Moonflower                                                                                                                                         

Medicine Cat(s): Dawnfur, apprentice Hornpaw                                                                                                                          

Warriors:                                                                                                                                                         

Creekheart |  Redtail                                                                                                                                    

Hawkthorn  |    Leafbreeze                                                                                                                          

Duskwater  |    Thornpelt                                                                                                                               Hollowbreeze  Softfur                                                                                                                                        

Minttail  |  Mousepelt                                    

Rosefur      |  Rowantail                                                                                                                                

Dappletail   |  Featherheart            

Queens:                                                                                                                                                         Fallownose (kits: Treekit, Mintkit, and Fernkit)

Elders:       

Purdy                                                                                                                                                                

Sandstorm

♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    

"How many more moons did Dawnfur say till your kitting?" Reedfur asked gently.

"About one," Fernpelt replied easily. "Don't look so concerned—I'm not that scared!" She sighed. "We'll just have to think logically on what this means for us. It's is written in the stars, I shall always be weakened after Crookedstar's captivation, and I may not survive this kitting. And my leg makes it even worse."

"Mmm," Reedfur replied. He shifted his hind legs to get comfortable on the rocky ground overlooking the lake. "Look, Fernpelt, I know this will be hard for you and me together, but we can do it. I have no doubt on that."

Fernpelt gazed at the horizon, the setting sun casting blood-red colors on the lake. "Let's hope so. If only I were a kit again, whole and healthy..."


Chapter One

Fernkit gazed out over the camp. The ThunderClan hollow was bright with sunshine filtering in, and cats were hustling about on their daily activities.

"Fernkit, Mintkit, Treekit!" her mother called from the nursery. "Return here this instant! The clearing is no place for little kits like yourselves."

Mintkit rolled her eyes. "Come on, Fernkit, Treekit, let's go!" She sped off and skidded to a halt in the middle of the ThunderClan clearing.

Fernkit heard her mother give an exasperated sigh, then followed Mintkit into the large, dirt-packed space. She almost crashed into Creekheart, who muttered, "Kits, always getting into older cats' paws."

The sound of "older cats" sparked Fernkit's attention. There were no apprentices yet—her mother, Fallownose, and her father, Featherheart, were gifted with the first kits in a long time—Treekit, Mintkit, and herself.

"Hey, Fernkit!" Mintkit shouted into her ear. "Wake up, will you? We're going to visit the elders. Coming?"

"Yeah," Fernkit replied. She followed Mintkit and Treekit as they led the way to the elders' den.

"Purdy! Sandstorm!" Treekit called. "Are you in there?"

Sandstorm crept out of the den first. Most of her fur was gray, with patches of light brown to reveal the younger cat she used to be. Once graceful, her old bones creaked as she came toward them.

"Tell us about the old cats!" Fernkit exclaimed. "About Firestar, and Jayfeather, and Leafpool..."

"Ah," Sandstorm murmured. "Firestar was one of the greatest cats of the forest." Her eyes shone as she spoke of her mate and her former leader. "Firestar was a bright, burning flame wherever he went. Once he arrived somewhere he would always make things better." She leaned in, a mischievious glint in her eyes. "And, he showed somewhat more tolerance for troublesome kits like yourselves!"

"What happened to them?" Treekit asked.

"A great flood shook the hollow," Sandstorm's voice trembled. "But ThunderClan overcame it. Just as it went down and they thought they were safe, another flood came. And that was enough for us to lose our ground. Still, this was many seasons ago, and our survivors managed to return here to rebuild our reputation of the once strong and proud ThunderClan." Though her voice came strong, her eyes were giant pools of sadness. She had seen so much, and had lived from before the Great Journey all the kits had heard much about, but still all her loved ones had disappeared, and no one she was close to still lived.

"That's sad!" Mintkit declared loudly. "If I were there, I would have saved every single cat and came back to the hollow and lived!"

"Do you not think we tried, little one?" Sandstorm murmured with a half smile. "In the end, once you survive many hardships, darkness will prevail. You, too, my kits, will one day come upon this as well. If you do not understand now, I only hope you will in the future." She rolled onto her back. "Scurry on now, little ones, there's much to do for the warriors and I'm sure your mother would love to have you back."

"Thanks, Sandstorm!" Fernkit called over her shoulder as her siblings ran across the camp to the nursery. Fallownose stood outside the entrance, clucking her tongue in disapproval. "How many times have I told you? You kits should listen to your mother for once!" She licked Fernkit's ears lovingly and led them inside.

As Fallownose tidied up their nest for a nap, Fernkit asked, "Fallownose, did you know any of the cats from before the flood?"

Fallownose looked stricken. "Did Sandstorm tell you this?" She sighed. "Yes. In fact, my parents were from before the flood."

"Who?" Mintkit queried excitedly.

"Squirrelflight and Bramblestar," Fallownose murmured. Her eyes welled up, though she tried to hide it from the kits. "They were just expecting kits as the rainy seasons began. When Squirrelflight gave birth, we had to relocate from the hollow because of the flooding once more. A few moons later, nearly time for my apprentice ceremony, the floods hit and this time all of ThunderClan was wiped out. Sandstorm and Jayfeather, I remember, carried me into safety. All the suvivors took my siblings. In due course, though, they died from greencough or illness and Sandstorm, Purdy, and I were the only survivors." She shook her head. "I've told you this before, kits, why must you keep hearing it?"

"You never told us your parents' names, though," Fernkit replied, intrigued.

"Yes, but what difference does it make?" Fallownose sobbed miserably. "Everything I knew in those few moons are gone. Only you three and Featherheart ever give me joy from the pain." She lay down on the springy moss, and launched silence in the nursery, as she was buried in her thoughts.

"Fallownose," Mintkit whispered, for once not boisterous and loud. All three of them huddled up to her and soon fell asleep.


Chapter Two

They slept until sunrise the next morning. When Fernkit awoke, Fallownose had gone. She wondered where she was. Was Fallownose upset at her? What had she done?

Since Treekit and Mintkit were still yet to wake, Fernkit decided to wander around the sleeping Clan. Today must be a late day. I wonder why everyone's so sleepy...?

Fernkit padded to the camp entrance, where Creekheart and Redtail were on guard duty.

"Hold it, where do you think you're going?" Creekheart mewed, halting her. Fernkit gazed up at her. She was beautiful, with a blue-gray pelt littered with white patches and eyes to match, clear and as blue as the lake.

"I guess...to find Fallownose."

"She's just gone with Featherheart to have some time with him," Redtail replied kindly. "It's okay, you can stay here and I'll alert them that you needed them."

"Okay," she meowed. But her head was already trying to search for ways to get out of camp. Even if she didn't find her parents, she would need to have a way to get out eventually. A kit couldn't leave camp, ever, but Fernkit was going to do it anyways. Her restless, adventurous spirit never ceased. And if she did, she would bring Treekit and Mintkit along next time as well.

"What are you looking for?" a soft voice mewed from behind. Fernkit whirled around. She spotted Sandstorm there, and sighed with relief.

"Oh, um...just looking around the camp," Fernkit spluttered. "You know, the view of the camp at sunhigh is really....nice."

"You know, you can tell me the truth," Sandstorm purred, her whiskers twitching in amusement. "You were looking for a way out, weren't you? I was once a kit, too, you know."

Fernkit nodded.

"I know a way. Follow me." Sandstorm led Fernkit to the rocky sides of the camp, where no one could see them. After rummaging through the thick debris littered at the base, she found one section and dug until Fernkit could make out a steep slope leading from out of the hollow.

"Wow!" she breathed. "How did you know about this?" 

"Actually, it wasn't me. Leafpool, I think you've heard of her—my daughter and our old medicine cat— found it and used it to get out of the hollow."

"Why did she need it? Medicine cats aren't questioned when they leave the hollow, right?"

Sandstorm sighed. "No. She used it for...special reasons. She got into much trouble for that special reason." Sandstorm leveled her eyes to Fernkit's. "Which is why sneaking out of camp is never a good thing for young cats like yourself."

"But...Sandstorm, I thought you were showing me so you could help me get out!"

Sandstorm snorted. "And hedgehogs can fly. No, I won't let a kit go out alone into the forest, and I never will!" She nosed Fernkit's shoulder affectionately. "I shouldn't have told you, I was delved so deeply in memories, I guess it spilled out. But now you'll want to get out, right?" She let out a mrrow of amusement. "Well, don't, or Whitestar will have it with you. Off you go!"

Fernkit sighed dejectedly. Great StarClan, why won't anyone let me out? Is it some kind of crime? Well, I guess it would be...but even Sandstorm would not!

"Cheer up," Sandstorm meowed. "I'll you and your littermates a good story tonight."

"Really? Wow!" Fernkit exclaimed.

"Now, run along, and don't daydream about silly things like this again," Sandstorm mewed. "You know, there was once a RiverClan leader, and in many ways he was like you, always daydreaming about getting out of camp. He regretted it later."

"What happened?" Fernkit asked, mystified. How could a Clan leader be anything like scrawny little Fernkit?

Sandstorm yawned. "Give me a break, will you?" she purred, her ears flicking with humor. "I've to take my afternoon nap with Purdy. Stay out of trouble!"

Sandstorm returned to the elders' den, and Fernkit padded to the center of the clearing. Now what to do? She returned to the nursery and slipped inside. Treekit and Mintkit were still asleep. Fernkit couldn't take it—she prodded them until they awoke.

"F-Fernkit?" Mintkit drawled sleepily. "What do you want?"

"Wake up, will you? The whole Clan is going to be awake soon."

"Great StarClan, shut up," Treekit grumbled, "I'm trying to sleep. I'd give anything to have you gone."

"Fernkit," Mintkit mewed. Fernkit joined her at the entrance. "Let's go visit the elders! They might have a story for us."

"Nah, Sandstorm said she wanted some sleep," Fernkit declined. "I was thinking more of...getting out of camp?"

Mintkit's eyes widened. "We'll be caught! And anyways, there's no opening on any side of this hollow."

"Sandstorm showed me this gap," Fernkit whispered. "Follow me." She bounded over to the secret place and pawed aside the foliage.

"Wow!" Mintkit meowed, her voice thick with wonder. "But I think we're going to get caught. What happens if Fallownose or Featherheart come back?"

"What happens, happens," Fernkit meowed. "I'm going out to see the world. I'm tired of living in this bleak place. And there's a whole half moon until our apprentice ceremony!"

"Suit yourself." Mintkit turned, and added over her back, "I'm not taking chances of getting into serious trouble. If you want to do it, go ahead." She took a few paw steps forward, and then looked back, as if she expected Fernkit to opt out. When she saw she didn't, she shrugged and continued.

"'I'm not taking chances of getting into serious trouble,'" Fernkit snorted. "What a kit." She struggled to get a paw hold, but managed to hoist herself up onto one stone that stuck out of the steep slope. Gradually, she worked her way up, her muscles screeching with fatigue. Is this a good idea after all? She shook her thoughts aside. I've come this far—no point in going back.

In what seemed like moons, Fernkit finally reached the top. She collapsed and rested for a bit, and gazed around, surprised. The forest went on forever! Wherever she gazed, a thick line of bushes or tall-standing trees blocked her vision beyond.

Soon she decided to stop daydreaming and explore. Her paw steps were muffled by the dense layer of leaves underpaw, so Fernkit thought no cat could hear her.

She continued along the path, mesmerized by the shattered pieces of sky above her head. A mouse scuttled along the roots of a beech tree—Fernkit waggled her haunches and leapt, but the creature was long gone.

A foul smell arose in the air. Probably crow-food, Fernkit thought. Though she knew she should stay away, Fernkit wandered closer. Huh, nothing here.

A low, gutteral sound came from behind, though Fernkit was too bothered by the mystery of the crow-food to notice. Then it broke to an all-out snarling, and Fernkit froze. "Do not turn around, Fernkit, don't!" she whispered to herself.

She turned.

A humongous creature was facing here, five times bigger with gaping jaws and beady eyes glittering with malice. Fernkit let out a squeal of terror and backed away into a tree. Cornered, she gazed up at the large black animal, a white stripe running from its ears to its large tail. Great StarClan...! Is this what the elders call a "badger"?

With a single swipe, the badger knocked her off balance. Fernkit feebly tried to fight back, pawing at the badger's belly. But the thick fur blocked her blows, and the badger took advantage. Its hooked claws ripped through her fur and well into flesh. A hot pain shot up her leg, and Fernkit cried out in agony. Her head filled with millions of echoes, a turmoil of confusion, and her vision went dark. She crumpled to the ground and took more blows from the badger, the pain so severe her body started numbing. Blood trickled into her eyes, and she blinked to rid of it.

"Fernkit!" A high-pitched wail escaped the mouth of a she-cat. Using all of the strength she had left, Fernkit turned her head and gazed at her.

It was her mother.

Fallownose screeched and landed above the badger's ears. She clawed at its eyes, and flipped over and raked her claws along its belly. The badger roared in rage and used both paws to crush Fallownose's body. It struck her legs instead, leaving a deep and horrible wound.

There was Fallownose's body, broken and ugly.

"Fallownose!" Fernkit wailed. Ignoring her screaming muscles, she dragged herself until she reached her mother's side. Her mother's eyes gazed back, glazed in pain.

A loud scuffling sound announced the arrival of a third cat. Fernkit was too weak to look up.

"Fernkit! Fallownose!" her father shouted. "What happened?" His voice choked.

"B-badger....came...." Each word was a struggle.

"Fallownose?" He nosed her mother. "Fallownose!" He gazed back at Fernkit. "You need Dawnfur immediately. Stay here!"

Soon Dawnfur arrived with her father and apprentice, Hornpaw, along with Leafbreeze, Duskwater, and Whitestar himself. Dawnfur collapsed next to Fernkit.

"Hornpaw, use cobwebs to stop Fallownose's bleeding," Dawnfur meowed calmly. "Use a poultice of tansy and maybe give her a juniper berry—it looks as if her breath is hard going."

Hornpaw nodded frantically, the hurried off. Dawnfur herself secured cobwebs on Fernkit's flank. Then she massed some on her legs, but Fernkit could feel the blood soaking through. As she added more cobweb, her wound shrieked and Fernkit along with it.

"Help! Get more cobweb," Dawnfur hissed, more hurriedly now. "The blood is soaking through everything!"

"Duskwater, search that way. Leafbreeze, come with me!" Featherheart hissed directions. Everyone assembled to their rightful group and left to search for cobwebs.

Fernkit was acutely aware and embarrassed when Whitestar leaned in close to her. "How are they doing?" he meowed, just as Hornpaw returned and started chewing up a poultice to press to Fallownose's fur.

"I don't know about either of them," Dawnfur muttered between a bundle of herbs worriedly, while still working her paws efficiently. "Fallownose might make it, but Fernkit's leg was damaged and she could easily die because of her youth.

"Fernkit, this might hurt," she continued, showing her a poultice of herbs. "For your leg wound we need to press in good, or it might fall off."

She wasn't prepared for the pressing that followed into her own wound.

Fernkit blacked out.

Chapter Three

The sky was a deep midnight when Fernkit awoke. She sat up stiffly, then wondered why there were so many noises of activity outside. Shouldn't every cat be sleeping?

Then her blurry vision cleared and she was gazing at a rocky ceiling. Suddenly the sharp scent of herbs hit her nose. She was in the medicine den.

Fernkit stretched her neck taller and gazed around. Not a cat stirred. She attempted to get up on her paws, but instantly regretted it; her leg throbbed with the frequency of an owl's deep warble.

"Fernkit, you might not want to do that." Out of a crack in the rock, where the tangy scents came from, Hornpaw slid out. "You're in a serious condition, and you'll wriggle the poultice off."

"What poultice?" Fernkit mewed. She strained her neck to look at her hind leg, but collapsed in exhaustion before setting her eyes on it.

"I told you not to move!" Hornpaw hissed. He hurried over to Fernkit and placed his front paws on her back, massaging it rhythmically. Fernkit relaxed gratefully and sank into sleep.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

"Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here beneath the Highledge for a Clan meeting!" Whitestar's deep voice echoed across the camp.

Fernkit jolted awake. As her eyes adjusted to the murky gloom of the medicine cat's den, she realized Hornpaw wasn't there anymore. She crawled out of her nest, and tried her best not the notice the intense flare of pain on her hind leg.

Fernkit was surprised to see Dawnfur pad into the den. "Do you want to see the apprentice ceremony?" she whispered in a low voice.

"The apprentice ceremony?" Fernkit queried. "But there are no cats old enough to become apprentices!"

"Just watch," Dawnfur mewed. "You'll need to see this, however disappointed you may be."

Fernkit dragged herself forward a bit more so she had a view out of the den at the ceremony. Momentarily she was able to ignore the hurtful sensation in her leg as she got excited for her first time at a Clan ceremony.

Then the shock came. Fernkit gazed at the two cats at the front of camp, under the shadow of the Highledge. Their fur was groomed so neatly, shining and glossy, and their chests seemed to burst with pride. Fernkit couldn't recognize them.

But the she did. Mintkit! Treekit! What are they doing there? Are they becoming...apprentices?

"Great StarClan!" she whispered. "How long have I been in here?"

"Long enough to equal a half moon," Dawnfur murmured from behind her. "Your littermates are becoming apprentices."

"What about me?" Fernkit yowled. "I've got to get down there. I'm late!"

Dawnfur held out a paw to stop her. "No," she meowed. "You're going to be held back another moon to oversee the progress of your leg." She looked away. "If it doesn't reconcile, I'm afraid you'll never become an apprentice."

First Hornpaw, now Dawnfur too, Fernkit thought. "Dawnfur, what exactly has happened to my leg?"

Dawnfur dodged the question. "I'll get you a half poppy seed to send you to sleep. It should be enough for your size."

"Dawnfur!" Fernkit shrieked, growing more frightened by every heartbeat. "What's happened to my leg?"

Dawnfur sighed, looking downcast. "I suppose I must tell you, however old you are. It's your leg, after all." She came closer and braced her paws along Fernkit's shoulder and neck, which blocked out some of the pain.

"The badger has clawed your leg to tatters," she mewed calmly but carefully. She twisted Fernkit's head to the direction of her leg, and this time it didn't pain as much because of Dawnfur's bracing.

Fernkit gazed at her leg. But it wasn't a leg anymore. It was a horrible sight. Most of her leg was cleaner, but still patches of fur had dried blood on it, which showed that Hornpaw and Dawnfur had tried to clean up most of it.

Her leg was literally divided into two parts, with angry red flesh exposed to the air. It was a large weeping sore, and pus oozed on the edges of it. Fernkit squealed in utter horror as she set her eyes upon the gruesome sights. My leg! How will I ever become an apprentice now?

"It's okay," Dawnfur meowed. "With the right care, I'm positive you'll be better in no time. Now, sleep well and I'll make sure you don't receive any disturbances." For all her words, Dawnfur's voice quivered. Not without stumbling some, Dawnfur gave Fernkit a relaxing lick to the head and padded out of the den.

What am I going to do? The shock of it all crashed over Fernkit like a black wave. Can I ever be an apprentice? Will Mintkit and Treekit become warriors when I'm still a kit? Despair battled in her heart, and she closed her eyes once again to welcome the pull of sleep.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Next morning, Fernkit felt paws scrambling over her pelt. She jolted awake to find herself nose-to-nose with Hornpaw.

"Hornpaw!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm only fixing your poultice," Hornpaw explained. "It was practically falling off."

"Where's Dawnfur?" Fernkit wondered. "Shouldn't she be doing this right now?"

"I'm a medicine cat too!" he protested, his eyes sparkling with annoyance. "Besides, I'll become a full medicine cat next moon. Dawnfur promised me."

"Really? Wow!" Fernkit replied. "I thought you were older than that, though. Shouldn't you have been made a full medicine cat a long time ago?"

"Times are harsh," Hornpaw replied, his voice going to a low tonality. "The other Clans have stopped coming to Moonpool meetings long ago. Dawnfur and I used to return there now and then to pay our respects to StarClan, but after a while we stopped that too. So we've found it hard to travel there to perform the ceremony."

"Really..." Fernkit murmured, pondering the statement. Is that why StarClan allowed this to happen to Fallownose and I? A crash of nausea hit her as she thought about her injury. And Fallownose! How is she? I must see her!

"I have to see Fallownose," Fernkit mewed abruptly.

Hornpaw's gaze clouded. "You can't, little one," he murmured.

"Why not?" Fernkit demanded.

"Well...follow me, I'll show you," Hornpaw decided. "Just don't say I didn't warn you if the answer you get is the worst. Scoot up," he added a moment later, after realizing his mistake. "If you climb onto my back I can brace you and I'll get you over to the warriors' den."

"Why is she in the warriors' den?" Fernkit wondered.

"Do you really think Fallownose could get any rest watching her kit at this state?" Hornpaw replied gruffly. "And she would always be worrying about you. For her benefit, we need her separated from her kits."

Fernkit dug her claws into Hornpaw's scruff and hoisted herself up. Though Hornpaw staggered some under the added weight, he persevered and Fernkit held on.

The first sunlight she had seen in days blinded her. She blinked a few times to let her eyes adjust to the light, and then she saw the real seriousness of the situation.

Everywhere she looked, at least one cat stood staring at her with a mixture of horror and pity in their eyes. Not a cat was moving, and every gaze was locked onto her hindquarters. Fernkit resisted the urge to glance back at what they were looking at, because she knew very well what resided back there. All it would cause her was more pain and doubt, and possibly make her lose consciousness.

Finally Hornpaw reached the warriors' den. It was empty, except for Fallownose and a cat hunched over her immobile body, only the faint rising of her flanks any indication that she was still alive. On closer inspection Fernkit realized that cat was Dawnfur.

"How is she?" Fernkit meowed.

"Growing worse," Dawnfur murmured. "She wouldn't even eat! It makes it impossible for her to produce milk. I've started the kits on their prey diet now, and I've given her borage leaves to make her body function better without the need to produce milk."

Fernkit flinched, realizing that Dawnfur was giving her this much information because she thought she was talking to Hornpaw. Fernkit slid off Hornpaw's back and landed with a soft thump on a nest.

Dawnfur seemed to realize it too. Turning around, she spotted Fernkit. "Oh! Fernkit, I didn't mean it, I..."

"Tell me the truth." Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "Fallownose isn't going to make it, is she?"

Dawnfur closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Relaxing, she turned back to Fernkit. "Fernkit, I'll tell you the answer now," she murmured. "I very highly doubt Fallownose will live to see another sunrise. I believe she may already be on her way to StarClan this very moment."

Before Fernkit could reply, Fallownose opened her eyes. They were red and glazed over in pain, and her mouth was poised open wide in a plea for desperate help. A thin wail came out instead, and all of her body contorted in agony. "It hurts! Help!" she screeched, her legs convulsing.

Hornpaw seemed on the verge of panic, but Dawnfur remained fairly calm. "There's nothing we can do," she murmured gently. "I feared this would happen. The badger's dirty claws caused heavy infection to her wounds, and it spread to her blood long ago. It was only a matter of time before it reached her heart."

"Fallownose!" Fernkit gasped. Her fear and anger blotted out the pain of her leg altogether, and she drew herself over to her mother's body and collapsed across it. She buried her nose into Fallownose's flank, and cried, "Don't leave me."

She could feel the seizure rippling beneath Fallownose's pelt. "Tell...tell the kits and Featherheart I...I love them," she gasped. "I love you all so much—"

With a last shuddering moan, Fallownose went still.

"Fallownose!" Fernkit's eyes teared up and she sobbed into her mother's fur. Gently Dawnfur caressed her head, and Fernkit fell into a deep, mourning sleep.

Fernkit woke, eyes bleary with sleep.

She blinked a couple times, to adjust to the gloomy den light.

Fernkit miserably sat up. She couldn't even look down, for the fear that she would gaze into her mother's eyes. The eyes that wouldn't open ever again.

For the past days in the medicine den, ever cat had been ignoring her. As Fernkit tried to make idle talk to every visitor, they nodded uncomfortably and inched away. Even Dawnfur and Hornpaw refused to reveal anything about the happenings in camp. I wonder why, she thought.

"Well, Fernkit, let's look at that leg," Dawnfur mewed, trying to stuff her herbs into the crack in the rock. She padded over, but blocked it, so Fernkit couldn't see. As if Fernkit hadn't stared at it for days on end when she was alone!

She could feel Dawnfur peel back the poultice to inspect the wound. "The infection's definitely out of your system," she announced. Looking at Fernkit's disappointed face, she added, "Don't worry, Fernkit. You'll get better in no time."

"Okay," she mewed. Then she rolled over and tried to get comfortable in the moss. She was so restless to get out of the den, and she hadn't seen her brother, sister, or father since Fallownose had died.

"I'll go check on Creekheart," Dawnfur meowed, directing her conversation at Hornpaw. "Did you know she's expecting Hollowbreeze's litter?"

"I never even suspected those two...!" Hornpaw exclaimed. "How much time, about?"

"Maybe two moons, if that. She's pretty close."

"Kits will do good for the Clan," Fernkit interrupted meaningfully, trying to get the medicine cats to notice her.

"Oh...yes, they will," Dawnfur agreed hastily. "I'd better go deal with Creekheart."

"And I'll...collect some tansy by the stream, we're running low." Dawnfur and Hornpaw, through some kind of nonverbal agreement, were already on their way before Fernkit realized she was being snubbed.

Why won't anyone talk about anything in the camp? Fernkit thought, annoyed. I need to know things too!

Then, without a second thought, Fernkit knew what she would do. She'd had enough of this, and now she would get to know what the happenings were outside of the medicine den.

Fernkit was going to sneak out.

The moment she dragged herself out of her nest, she knew is was a bad idea. Fernkit's hind leg throbbed like all of the StarClan warriors in the night sky. As soon as she hoisted herself up, the pain nearly knocked her unconscious.

StarClan help me! She collapsed in a heap in the ground. How can I go about doing this in secrecy when I can barely move a paw?

Fernkit got up again, this time holding her leg in place and trying her hardest not to move it. It worked; though to the lowest degree.

Fernkit tried her mightiest to climb out of the den. Today was a silent day. Usually the peace was corrupted by the noise of daily life in the Clan, but today most warriors were out on border patrols or hunting. And my littermates are training, she thought ruefully.

She was plainly visible in the flat, dusty clearing in the center of the stone hollow. Realizing this, Fernkit scrambled into the nearest shelter, a clump of bracken spilling lazily onto the pebbles.

Where would the Clan's latest gossip be? Where could she hope to find the most information in one place? It was common knowledge for all kits—the elder's den.

She scrambled up and made a wide circle around the camp, trying not the drag her wounded leg much and was hidden by the deep foliage and her small size.

Oh no! I don't know where the elders' den is! Fernkit tried to peek over the tall stems of grass, but it was too tall, and when it rustled loudly she flinched back. Oh well, I'll have to hope for the best.

The heartbeats slipped by. Fernkit emerged where she thought the den would be.

Great scuffling sounds broke in front of her.

Where am I? This did not sound like the camp at all. The undergrowth was sparser here, and she glanced between stalks of grass. That's Treekit...and Leafbreeze! But why are they fighting each other?

A noise broke out behind her and the grasses parted. A cat climbed into her space.

"Fernkit?" Mintpaw hissed in disbelief. "I though I smelled a cat here! What are you doing here?"

"I was trying to find the elders' den," Fernkit whispered hastily. "I guess I got lost."

"But you need rest! And healing!"

"Everyone says that! I've got all the rest I need, and no cat can rush my leg to heal."

Mintpaw looked uncomfortable. "Okay," was all that she replied.

How could her own sister do this to her?

"You always were pretty adventurous," Mintpaw added with a purr. "Remember when you put nettles in the nest when Treekit was sleeping?"

Fernkit snorted. "Me? You should look at yourself! Don't tell me you've already forgotten about secretly eating that crowfood!"

Mintpaw smirked. "No one will ever know." Then she looked downcast. "How are you feeling?"

"Feeling?"

"About Fallownose?"

"Pretty bad," Fernkit admitted. "I can't help feeling it was all my fault. The badger wouldn't have gotten to her if I hadn't sneaked out."

"I told you not to go, Fernkit," Mintpaw whispered sadly.

Sudden rage spilled into her. Why was every cat treating her differently? Normally Mintpaw wouldn't have said that. She would have joked until Fernkit actually felt better. "Well, I suppose you didn't try hard enough. because I went anyways, didn't I?" she snapped. "Forget it. Go back to your apprentice training while I go back to my prison."

"The elders den is to the right," she called.

"No thanks!" Fernkit replied over her shoulder.

She took a right anyways, and hid under the ferns. Sure enough, the voices of Sandstorm and Purdy spilled through, and she glimpsed of them as she peered into the entrance.

Sandstorm was shivering. "I told you, I told you, Purdy! That young cat is tainted. She doesn't deserve it!"

"Now, now, Sandstorm," Purdy consoled. "I don't think this Crookedwhatsit has any influence on a young kitten yet out of the nest. He's dead, sure as sure."

"But remember how Cinderheart had the spirit of Cinderpelt, the old ThunderClan medicine cat? Cinderpelt lived a disappointing life, filled with possibilities she never quite grasped. Crookedstar lived the same...and his spirit is showing itself in Fernkit!"

"That's not real," declared Purdy gruffly.

"It's quite as real as the whiskers on your face," Sandstorm retorted. "First Fernkit's a bit too adventurous, then she get's crippled like Crookedstar's jaws!"

"I don't believe it," Purdy meowed, but he looked slightly worried.

"Let's just hope you're right," Sandstorm murmured.

Chapter Four

"And now, by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior names. Treepaw, you will now be known as Treeclaw, and Mintpaw, you will be known as Mintnose, as your father requested on behalf of the brave warrior and mother, Fallownose. May StarClan light your path, always." Whitestar's face looked slightly grave when he yowled the last words into the disappearing day.

"Treeclaw, Mintnose, Treeclaw, Mintnose!"

Leafbreeze and Softfur, the mentors, looked on proudly. Softfur padded up to them and added, "Remember, you two will be keeping guard tonight."

Treeclaw and Mintnose nodded, their eyes shining with excitement. Mintnose let out a leap of joy and raced to the camp entrance, Treeclaw following her.

Watching, Fernkit let out a small sigh of downcast. Her littermates were so far ahead of her. Would she ever do anything? It seemed unlikely she'd ever become a warrior.

"Fernkit," a cat meowed next to her.

Fernkit jumped and turned around. It was her father, looking somberly down at her. His face looked intensely depressed, as if his heart had broken into two.

"Hi, Featherheart," she mewed.

"I'm sorry I couldn't visit you earlier. Duties have been keeping me out of camp. I believe Whitestar is doing this on purpose so I can take my mind off of you and Fallownose."

"It's okay," Fernkit replied, feeling even worse. The day she'd gone out of camp had ruined everyone she loved. She'd killed Fallownose, ripped apart Featherheart's heart, and injected misery into her littermates' life. All for her "sense of adventure".

"I've requested Whitestar to make you apprentice by a quarter moon, if your leg permits. He said he couldn't allow me to mentor you, but he could ask a cat very gentle and outgoing."

Fernkit bit back a sharp retort. She'd been softly treated all this time, and now she was going to be softly mentored as well.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The days went by, and her condition improved. Dawnfur was impressed, and soon her leg was healed, though it still ached permanently and Fernkit couldn't put any weight. Scars crisscrossed over her skin, where fur did not grow. But it looked otherworldly compared to a few moons ago.

"Your leg is ready," Dawnfur meowed. "I'd have hoped for the disease to go through your leg, as now it would just be an extra weight to carry around, but we honestly can't ask for more. Whitestar is holding your ceremony after evening patrols today."

If her leg hadn't been injured, Fernkit wouldn't jumped into the air in her joy. "Thank you, Dawnfur!"

"Oh, don't thank me," she mewed, although looking rather pleased.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

"Fernkit, step forward."

Fernkit jumped a step, her eyes gleaming. One look to her right, and she saw Featherheart, ready to burst with pride, and her littermates look protective, at the same time joyful.

"Your injuries, which occurred while being brutally attacked by a badger, have stopped you from your full potential," Whitestar began,"which could have began long ago if you had become an apprentice. But StarClan honors your bravery and commitment in healing until your leg was fixed, and we welcome you as an apprentice in your turn to ThunderClan.

"Fernpaw! Fernpaw!"

Fernkit felt like sinking to the ground. Every cat in the Clan only loudly murmured her name, and gave her otherworldly looks, as if she were alien to them. Only her father, Treeclaw and Mintnose, and her mentor, Rowantail, cheered gaily for her.

Whitestar look less than pleased, and disappointed in the Clan, but decided not to further press it. "Rowantail, you can show Fernpaw here ThunderClan territory."

"Make sure you don't stray too close to the ShadowClan boundary," Moonflower added. The ThunderClan cats dismissed, leaving only Rowantail and herself in the middle of the sandy hollow.

"We'll have a short tour of the territory," Rowantail meowed briskly. "With me as your mentor, I'll not make any excuses for you. We'll start slow, but with proper training I expect you to work hard and become just as fast, just as strong and brave. Your leg won't stop you from anything a warrior will experience."

"Yes, Rowantail," Fernpaw agreed. However excited she tried to feel, becoming an apprentice was not the best event in her life.

They trekked through the territory. On a detour, Rowantail brought her to a giant oak stuck between trees in a dusty hollow.

Rowantail gazed up, her eyes filled with pride and sorrow. After a few moments, she explained to Fernpaw, "This is the tree on which the leaders sit.. Before the Gatherings stopped, which I assume you know about—" Fernpaw nodded— "the leaders stood upon it and addressed all the Clans of the events of the past moon."

Fernpaw looked at it in awe, wondering what it might have felt like to be a leader in all her glory, proudly gazing down upon a strong Clan.

"Can I climb it?" Fernpaw asked, intrigued.

Rowantail laughed. "In my day, when Gatherings existed, you would be punished severely if you did that." When she saw Fernpaw looked frightened, she added, "Don't worry, Fernpaw, every apprentice asks that. In fact, back when Mousepelt was mentoring me, she actually let me!" She sighed. "Oh, go on. No cat uses it any more, you won't do any harm.

Fernpaw let out a squeal of joy, and launched herself at the trunk. With a shudder, her leg gave in and she collapsed on the ground, her eyes wide. "Mouse dung," she whispered under her breath. If Rowantail came up, she would have to go straight back to camp.

"Okay, Fernpaw?" Rowantail called.

"I'm fine!" Fernpaw dragged herself up and stuck herself onto the side of the trunk, her belly pressing on it. With her claws outstretched, she clawed at it.

After climbing a few tail-lengths, she slid back on the ground.

"Look for the footholds on the tree," Rowantail instructed. "Look closely. See the little grooves? Stick your paws in those."

Fernpaw painfully dragged herself up and lay panting at the top. But she didn't lie still for long.

"The view is amazing from here!" she exclaimed.

Rowantail purred enthusiastically. "I know!" she agreed. "I felt the same the first time."

Fernpaw started feeling a certain sensation in her heart. One was her heart, beating fast with excitement.

But the other...

Suddenly Fernpaw started feeling self-conscious. She felt something dragging at her, tugging in her chest, trying to get out. What is it? Fernpaw wondered, more out of curiosity than fear.

The sensation gave a quick, violent pull, and Fernpaw stumbled with it. She teetered on the edge of the branch precariously...

Then her paw slipped. She plummeted toward the thick forest floor.

Chapter Five

"Rowantail! Help!" Fernpaw shrieked. She felt the wind whipping at her whiskers. Three fox lengths, two... The thought of getting dashed at the foot of the trunk made Fernpaw feel nauseous.

Her fall was broken with something soft. She looked beneath her and saw red fur, then cringed and leapt up. "Rowantail! I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"

She didn't move. Then, with a twitch, Rowantail groaned and dragged herself up, giving a few licks on her chest.

"And you, little one, will never be allowed onto that tree ever again!" Rowantail hissed, more out of concern than anger.

"Sorry." Better not tell her about the strange sensation I felt. It would only make her think I'm weird.

"Come on, that's enough for today," Rowantail meowed stiffly. "Hunting practice tomorrow, I'll give you a bit more sleep than usual because of your...ordeal today." She led Fernpaw away from the StarClan-cursed tree. Soon, Fernpaw recognized the path near the camp, and bounded faster. The quicker to my nest, the quicker this day is over.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

It felt as if she'd gotten no sleep at all.

"Fernpaw, wake up! I told you yesterday, hunting!"

I thought you'd given me extra time to sleep! she thought groggily. As she sat up, she looked around. The apprentices' den was empty, of course. Creekheart had kitted recently, two toms and a she-kit. She'd named them Reedkit, Ashkit, and Petalkit. She only wished they were older so they could apprentices with her.

Soon she was out of camp and in the training hollow.

"Before anything, an apprentice must know how to do the hunting crouch," Rowantail began. "Without, it is virtually impossible to catch any prey."

Fernpaw's mind drifted. She thought about the tugging sensation yesterday, and what it could have meant.

"Fernpaw!" Rowantail snapped. "Get on with it!"

"Sorry, what?" Fernpaw asked, flustered.

Rowantail sighed. "Hunting crouch. Lay low, with your paws tucked and your tail high, so it doesn't brush foliage and make noise," she instructed.

Fernpaw crouched, holding her paws way out and her tail nearly flat on the ground.

"Did you hear what I said?" Rowantail meowed. Clearly she was highly disappointed, but she didn't let it get in the way of Fernpaw's success.

"Stay still, and I'll fix it," Rowantail mewed. She came over and adjusted Fernpaw's paws so they were tucked so tightly that she wobbled. Her hind leg did no good for her balance. Her tail naturally held straight so she wouldn't topple, but Rowantail pushed it high. Fernpaw almost stumbled, but she held her position precariously.

"You need much, much practice. Remember to do so on your own," Rowantail mewed, seeming unsatisfied. "But you're excused for today."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Fernpaw walked back to camp, exhausted. She'd intended to ask Mintnose how she'd done on her first day of learning the hunting crouch, but was intercepted by Whitestar.

"How's everything going?" he asked. "Training okay? Is Rowantail being gentle enough?"

There was the word gentle again. It was like a rule; here comes Fernpaw, so be gentle, everybody! She hated it.

"Yeah, yes," she mewed, and quickly excused herself to retire.

At least in a few more moons the kits will become apprentices, Fernpaw thought drowsily while looking around at the empty end. Then she fell into a deep sleep, more content than she'd been in moons.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The days dragged on. She awoke, did some battle training or hunting practice, came back for a meal, and continued. Each day, she felt even sorrier for herself. She felt sorry for herself, her leg, her mother, and the mouse she was chewing now. She stayed at the same skill—possibly worse—each practice, and never practiced on her own, distracted by the gruesome sight of her leg. And so, it went by in a blur—until the next moon.

"All cats able to catch their own prey, join here beneath the Highledge for a Clan meeting," Whitestar announced.

Fernkit looked up from her tense conversation with Treeclaw, the first in weeks. They'd been silently chewing on their prey, talking here and their idly about things—things that littermates would never talk about. Things littermates would not care about. True littermates would share every detail of their day, from sibling to sibling. With a heavy heart, Fernkit knew she had to admit that she had no right to call Mintnose and Treeclaw her littermates anymore.

"Myself and Moonflower have gone from Clan to Clan, asking the same question we all wish to know. Are we going to the Gathering tonight?" Whitestar began. "Yes. We will go, although ShadowClan was quite disagreeable."

Cheers erupted from the Clan, glad to finally meet with the other Clans and their old friends. Fernkit sighed. It wasn't like she was going to attend it.

"Come on, Fernpaw," Rowantail mewed briskly after the gathering had disassembled. "We've some work to do."

"Aren't you going to the Gathering."

"I've decided to stay here to give you extra training. You're obviously to busy moping around feeling sorry for yourself to work harder."

"Hey!" Fernpaw protested. "That's not fair." But she knew Rowantail was trying to get her worked up on purpose for her training, and besides, it was true. She just hadn't realized her mentor had noticed.

"Can we go climb the tree again?" Fernpaw asked playfully, nudging her mentor. She'd expected Rowantail to look, pretending to be annoyed, down at her and say no. But she got the entire opposite.

Her face was grim.

"Absolutely. That's where we're going now."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

They reached the tree in silence. "Climb it," she ordered quietly.

Fernpaw gulped. "Okay." She bunched her muscles and leapt, barely passing a quarter of the trunk. Then she slid down and slumped onto the ground.

"No!" Rowantail hissed. "Haven't you noticed the paw holds by now? Put your claws into the paw holds!"

Fernpaw, taken aback by Rowantail's ferocity, tried again. This time she got almost to the top, and when she found herself slipping she ungracefully scrambled the last tail-length.

"I assume you've been practicing," Rowantail mewed sarcastically. Fernpaw flinched.

Then something stirred in her chest. She gasped, and fought to stay still. She couldn't let this happen again—not in front of Rowantail now!

The thing violently knocked about her, trying to get out. She swayed on her paws, desperately trying to keep her balance. But that was final—her claws lost their grip and she fell over. This time without Rowantail's back.

She thumped hard on the ground, feeling dazed. A sharp pain shot up her leg.

"What is wrong with you, Fernpaw?" Rowantail hissed. "How could you just fall off?" Then she looked around. "The Clans will be arriving shortly. Get up!"

Painfully, she dragged herself up, leaning on her, and walked back to the camp. The moment they arrived she slid into her nest and let Dawnfur help with poultices.

Chapter Six

"What is wrong with you?"

"How could you just fall off?"

Fernpaw awoke violently, breathing hard.

How could she have fallen off?

Then Fernkit remembered the tugging sensation in her, and, as if on cue it squirmed within her.

It was as if something were trying to get out.

Or someone were trying to get out.

And suddenly, Fernpaw knew who to consult.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

"Sandstorm!" Fernpaw hissed through the woven walls of the elders' den.

No answer.

"Sandstorm, are you there?" Fernpaw hissed more fiercely. No one could see her go in this early in the morning. She wanted no one but Sandstorm and Purdy to hear.

"Yes...?" croaked a voice. There was a rustling sound—then she saw Sandstorm's ginger tabby head poke out.

Fernpaw stepped inside and sat down.

And she spilled out everthing that happened since she'd began training.

Sandstorm's eyes were wide and frightful. She glanced at Purdy; he looked just as astonished. "Well, there's only one way we can find out. Follow me, Fernpaw."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sandstorm led Fernpaw to the river. She'd never been to this part of the territory before. That is—Rowantail had never shown her. She'd only shown Fernpaw the place it was mandatory to see.

Fernpaw's chest jerked up randomly. Then it fell.

Something, as if it were holding her by her scruff, pulled her towards the river. She traveled in constant little pulls, slowly but surely.

"Help!" Fernpaw squeaked.

"Fight it!" Sandstorm hissed.

With all her might, Fernpaw dug her heels into the mushy earth. Please, please, please!

She stopped.

"Well done," she purred. Purdy just looked on, a sheen of disbelief on his eyes. "Now get into the water."

"What? I'll drown!"

"No, you won't," Sandstorm mewed briskly. "Get into the water."

"No!" Fernpaw protested, stepping away from the water. In that split second, she lost her anchor. The sensation dragged her into the water, and she sunk down like a dead weight, the sky turning into a large blurry blue thing. The water dragged her under, under...she could just give up and die...

Suddenly she felt herself lifting up. Acutely, she way aware of her paws churning, in sync with the current, keeping her head high above the water. She was swimming!

"I'm swimming!" she called to Sandstorm and Purdy, though she didn't dare move her head toward them.

"Fight it once more!" Sandstorm's voice came. "Come back to shore! You're not accustomed to him yet—your energy will run out soon."

With all the energy she could muster, Fernpaw strongly kicked her paws sideways to the shore. After a long while's worth of fighting with the sensation, she dragged herself up onto the the sandy shore and lay gasping.

"That was...weird..." Fernpaw admitted. "This sensation..."

"You can't call it a sensation anymore," Sandstorm interrupted. "Don't you realize?"

"What?"

"That was no sensation, Fernpaw. When you were upon the tree on which the leaders stood, he struggled to get out. When you neared the water, he got excited and pulled towards it—you with him. And when you were drowing, his survival instinicts kicked in." Sandstorm gazed her into the eyes. "You are hosting no other than the spirit of Crookedstar himself. You are captivating him, Fernpaw."

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  

"Rise and shine, Fernpaw!"

"Uhg..."

"I said wake up!" 

That awoke Fernpaw. As soon as she sat up, memories of the past days were crowded her mind.

She was the host of Crookedstar.

The famous RiverClan leader.

What would Rowantail think if she knew? She seemed intent on teaching Fernpaw how to climb the tree. But Fernpaw knew she could never go up there, for the fear that she would only fail her mentor over and over by falling off.

"Fernpaw, what are you doing? Come out at once! The dawn patrol has left ages ago."

"Coming!" Fernpaw shouted. She gave a quick lick to her chest and drew her paw over her head, then raced out.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  

"So where are we going?" Fernpaw queried.

"You know it," Rowantail replied. "The moment you actually get up without falling, we'll see about moving on.


Fernpaw trudged back to camp and Rowantail's side, but she could feel her body rigid. She'd failed once more.

Not a surprise.

Rowantail had acted even harsher on her, and kept reminding her to practice on her own. But Fernpaw never did. How could she, anyways, after her wound and the spirit she possessed?

"Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here beneath the Highledge for a Clan meeting!" came Whitestar's low voice from the Highledge.

Every cat joined below, and Fernpaw did, too, noticing that her littermates kept away from her on purpose. In fact, ever cat around her did, except for her father and Rowantail, who sat by her side.

Fernpaw looked at the base of the Highledge and noticed Reedkit, Ashkit, and Petalkit, who looked ready to burst with pride, their fur groomed and shining.

"Reedkit, you have reached six moons, which means it is time for you to be apprenticed. From this day on, until you recieve your warrior name, you will be known as Reedpaw. Your mentor will be Featherheart. I hope that he will pass down all his skills to you, as well as his bravery and perserverance." The same was named for Ashpaw, who had gotten Thornpelt, and Petalpaw, whose mentor was Leafbreeze. Their mother and father, Creekheart and Hollowbreeze, looked on in pride.

Yes! I'll finally have cats to share my apprenticeship with!

The three mentors led the apprentices toward the camp entrance to tour the territory. Fernpaw looked on in envy. Rowantail has never done that for me!

As if on cue, Rowantail tapped her shoulder with her tail. Fernpaw turned, and she beckoned toward the entrance as well. For a moment, Fernpaw thought she was going to show her the territory, and she beamed, but Rowantail cut her off. "Climbing practice."

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  

Moonflower gave out patrol duties in monotone, boring Fernpaw to the core. After hunting and battle practice, she would go to climb the Gathering tree anyways. Life was all the same for her.

"You may go hunting for now," Rowantail excused her. "I must talk to Whitestar for now. But be back before sunhigh for battle practice."

Fernpaw padded out of the entrance to the camp, surrounded by trees. The sunlight glimmered around her, catching the sunlight and putting on display little dust mites filtering through the air. The trees blocked out most of the sun and heat, and when she gazed upwards it looked like a sky shattered by pieces of of the trees.

A mouse scuttled by in front of her. Instinctively she swiped out her paw and caught it by the neck, killing it with another swift blow. Life is so good and beautiful here. I would never want to live any place else. Crookedstar gave a violent twist of disapproval and she flinched in pain. "All right, all right, Crookedstar, I take that back."

She ventured around the trees, carrying the mouse and forgetting about hunting. She was too drawn into the territory to notice or remember anything else.

Suddenly the air smelled strange. She glanced around, seeing nothing. The scent was wafting fron behind of clumb of ferns.

She crouched low and peeked through them. Beyond was a clearing, in which three cats were positioned, with a heap of prey in their jaws. She instinctively knew from the boundary scent—ShadowClan. And they were clearly on ThunderClan land.

What should I do? Confronting them with no backup and a crippled leg didn't sound very reasonable. She backed away slowly, slowly...and as soon as she was away from earshot raced towards the camp.

"There are ShadowClan warriors! ShadowClan warriors!" she gasped as soon as she broke through the thorn barrier. Off-duty cats crept out from their dens and from their resting places, eyes curious.

Rowantail and Whitestar ducked out of his den, their expressions alarmed. Rowantail raced down. "Calm down!" she soothed. "Calm down. What exactly did you see."

"ShadowClan warriors! In the clearing. They had prey..."

Rowantail glanced at Whitestar, who nodded. "Mintail, Mousepelt, come with me and Rowantail and Fernpaw. We'll teach these ShadowClan invaders a lesson."

Rowantail glanced down at Fernpaw, and then at her leg. "Ready for your first battle?"

Fernpaw nodded, anticipation in her eyes.

"Lead us there."


They arrived quietly, crouching, in what seemed less than a few heartbeats. The invaders were gone.

"We were too late," Rowantail mewed softly.

But Whitestar didn't give up hope. "Minttail, you are one of our best trackers. See if you can find the scent trail. The rest of you do the same."

Fernpaw desperately scrabbled at the ground. She drew her nose in all of the space, and then picked up a faint reek. "I-I think I found it!"

Rowantail checked to make sure. Then she nodded and padded quickly in that direction. The othe cats followed.

They crouched behind the undergrowth and watched as three ShadowClan warriors bounded along the border. A small stream trickled by slowly. In fact, everything seemed slow. Fernpaw found herself holding her breath.

"Halt!" Rowantail sprang out of the foliage, and Fernpaw thought she saw a glimmer of guilt in their eyes. She smirked with satisfaction. "Get out of our land."

The ShadowClan cats looked at their paws. They were in fact on their side of their territory.

"We did no such thing," one cat snarled.

"Looks like ThunderClan is just a bunch of liers, Rockheart," another black tom hissed.

Whitestar slid out, accompanied by Mousepelt and Minttail. Fernpaw hastily scrambled out as well. "Let's settle that," he growled, sliding out his claws. And, before she knew what was happening—

—he leaped onto Rockheart's back, his claws digging in. The tom hissed in pain.

The ThunderClan cats hesitated no longer, following their leader's example. Fernpaw landed a blow on a smaller-looking tom, her leg dragging her down. The tom obviously recognized the weakness—he leaped behind her and landed blows on her back.

The two battling cats had dragged farther away from the main fight. Fernpaw couldn't expect any help from the other cats. But she was forced to take the blows, as each time she tried to turn she was immensely slowed down by her leg.

And then the tingling sensation awoke in her chest. Go away, Crookedstar'! she thought frantically. This is no time for your RiverClan antics!

The sensation pushed in her chest, dragging her across the ground.  The tom drew back in surprise as she moved faster than any living cat with the force of the spirit. Then he snarled and ran, trying to overtake her.

But it was too late. Fernpaw plunged into the river, her vision becoming blurry and her fur clogged with water. She couldn't help but doubting if Crookedstar's instincts would help her now.

They didn't. She sank to the pebbly ground, her lungs gasping for breath, her limbs to weary to move. She could barely see the dark outline of the tom above the water.

Then, with a sudden forceful burst of energy, her hindlegs kicked up, and she rocketed through the water skywards. The gasped as her fur touched the open air in an arc, and then she fell groundward—right onto the back of a tom.

Thanks, Crookedstar. She swiped the tom, scratching him in his softest parts, and bit down hard on his paw, until he yowled. The tom broke free and made a desperate flee.

The other ThunderClan warriors were enjoying a victory as well—Rowantail had the second tom pinned underneath her, while Crookedstar had shredded Stoneheart. Minttail and Mousepelt looked just as victorious. But right then, all Fernpaw wanted was to go back to camp, tell Sandstorm what had happened and fall into a deep, deep sleep.


Chapter Seven

Fernpaw awoke drowsily. Reedpaw was bouncing about, waiting for his littermates to wake up as well.

"Reedpaw, stop it," Fernpaw hissed crossly. "I need to catch up on sleep here."

Reedpaw stopped and gazed at her. "C'mon, Fernpaw, you're an apprentice too!" he whined. "Can't you play with me?"

"Only way too many moons older, I should have been a warrior by now," Fernpaw muttered. "Fine. Let's take a walk about the territory. I think I'm trusted enough to go out with you."

"Yes!" Reedpaw exclaimed, and followed Fernpaw out of the den.

Rowantail and Softfur were on guard duty. "Why are you two here?" Rowantail asked crossly. "The dawn patrol hasn't even awoken yet."

"He woke me up," Fernpaw explained. "We couldn't sleep, so we decided to take a walk together."

Fernpaw saw something shine in Rowantail's eyes, and her mouth upturned in the slightest hint of a smile. "All right," she said. "But just to the lake and back, mind you."

Fernpaw strolled down the hill overlooking the lake with Reedpaw at her side. "Wow! The lake looks amazing!" Reedpaw exclaimed. "Especially when the moon hasn't set."

"Yeah," Fernpaw agreed. She sat down and Reedpaw settled next to her.

"So how is training?" Fernpaw queried. She was dying to know what training was like for a normal apprentice, since Treeclaw and Mintnose wouldn't share.

"Amazing!" Reedpaw mewed jubilantly. "I love it. We climbed trees all day yesterday. It was fun. In the end Featherheart let me jump down!"

Fernpaw smiled at the thought of her father. Yes, Featherheart would let apprentices do things like that.

They chatted on and on about the past training, the excitements and disbelief, and Fernpaw had to detail especially on the battle with the ShadowClan cats.

"How did you defeat the tom?" Reedpaw was gasping.

"I plunged into the water and then a camp back out and snuck behind him when he was still looking for my body in the stream," Fernpaw answered, of course leaving out the part about Crookedstar's spirit. She knew for sure she was captivating him. What he had done the day before was so powerful, and if she let down her guard at all he would unleash his full power.

The sun was coming up; the dawn patrol stopped by them before going back. "You'd better get back to camp," Mousepelt told her, regarding her somewhat warily.

The two went back, trekking with somewhat difficulty to their tired limbs up the hill and into the camp, where Moonflower was organizing patrols. The hunting patrols and single border patrol headed out.

"...and Fernpaw, you will join your mentor in the hunting patrol near the training clearing."

"Ooh, ooh, let me join them!" Reedpaw begged, jumping up and down.

Moonflower looked at him strangely. "Please, can I be with Fernpaw?" Reedpaw asked again, a little more civilly.

The deputy looked down at him, then sighed. "Fine," she murmured. "Featherheart, please join their hunting patrol." Featherheart nodded in agreement, though he cast an annoyed glance at his apprentice.

Fernpaw ducked her head in embarrassment. Apparently, the walk had made Reedpaw her best friend!

The group set out to hunt, Redtail taking the lead. They reached the training clearing.

"All right, apprentices, don't go too far," Rowantail announced. "We can all hunt separately. Let's meet back here at sunhigh."

The instant the warriors left their own ways, Reedpaw bounded over to Fernpaw. "Want to go hunting with me?" he asked. "We can catch a lot of things because we make a good team."

"Sure," Fernpaw agreed, happy to have someone to hunt with after all the days of hunting and apprenticing alone.

The two cats lay low, waiting to scent something. "Over here!" Reedpaw hissed. He pointed with his tail a mouse nibbling at some seeds below a bush.

The two cast a look of shared knowledge, and Reedpaw crept up on the opposite side. Then he burst up and gave chase. The mouse, with an alarmed squeak, traveled back, straight into Fernpaw's paws. "Well done!" beamed Reedpaw.

"It was you who chased it right into my claws!" Fernpaw protested.

"Whatever. We make a great team." Reedpaw nuzzled Fernpaw. Her heart gave a happy little jump.

The apprentices caught a starling and another mouse by sunhigh, and returned back to the training clearing.

"Hmm, very good hunting today," Featherheart praised, giving a warm look from her to Reedpaw. She caught the same type of look from Rowantail.

Whatever. Fernpaw was just happy to have a friend. She had left all of her days of being utterly alone behind. Reedpaw was her friend now. "Can me and Reedpaw go hunting a little longer?" she asked.

Featherheart started to protest, but Rowantail cut in, giving her that same half-smirk. "Sure, you two just go on ahead."

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  

The days swam by, Fernpaw living life to the fullest—or, at least to the fullest potential she could live with her spoiled leg. Reedpaw and her were the best of friends, always hunting together and play-fighting outside the apprentices' den. Life is good.

Fernpaw was out on patrol with Rowantail, Softfur and Creekheart, when she smelled a tang in the air. Something like fish, only stronger.

"I smell something," Fernpaw hissed at her warrior accompaniment. Rowantail and Softfur joined them, Creekheart taking up the rear. "RiverClan," Softfur hissed softly.

The group advanced slowly, taking in the fresh scent. RiverClan could be anywhere, Fernpaw thought.

Suddenly, a weight knocked her to the ground. Her vision darkened. Claws ripped through her pelt, and she found herself shrieking. When she heard yowls from the others, she knew they had all been ambushed. Filthy fish-eaters!

She quickly recovered, though it was slow going. She turned to see a gray tabby she-cat with a menacing glare.

Fernpaw swiped a blow. It failed miserably. She tried again, and this time she knew undoubtedly that it would miss. She struggled each time, the RiverClan she-cat just ducking easily to avoid it.

What's happening?

"Is that the best you can do?" the she-cat snarled. She swiped back, this time landing the blow hard.  Fernpaw flinched.

"ThunderClan scum." She scored her claws across Fernpaw's face. She yowled. The RiverClan cat quickly overtook her on the ground, and before Fernpaw could roll off of her back she dragged her claws mercilessly across her belly. 

Help...help! Someone, help me! Each time she tried to rebel the swing missed frightfully, and each time she leaned in to bite an unknown force slammed into her cheek, redirecting it.

Just as she was going to give up, something lifted the weight off of her. Fernpaw flopped free, and saw that Rowantail had held the cat by her scruff. "Go!" she hissed through clenched teeth. "Back to camp!"

Tell, me, Rowantail, why would I do that?

Fernpaw flung herself back into the fight, snapping at whichever body part of the she-cat's came within reach. She put all her willpower into ever blow, stronger and stronger, until she finally made the blow. The RiverClan cat shrieked and scrambled away.

Fernpaw was suddenly aware of wounds all over her body. She stumbled in the weight of the pain.

In the last few moments of consciousness, she recalled two cats pulling her by her scruff.

And then she let in to darkness.


Fernpaw blinked her eyes open. A cat stood no more than a whisker-length away from her.

"Augh!" she cried, scooting away. She instantly regretted it. Her wounds stung like fury.

"Don't move, Fernpaw!" It was Reedpaw. "You have many bruises."

"How long have I been unconscious?"

"Three days."

"Three days?" Fernpaw hissed in disbelief. Then she remembered what she needed to do.

"Sandstorm! I need Sandstorm!"

"Why?" Reedpaw asked, confused. "I'm right here if you need anything. And I can tell Dawnfur if you're feeling bad."

"Just get me Sandstorm! I need to speak to her privately." With a nod, he was off.

Sandstorm walked in, her frail body shaking. "Don't worry, young one," she murmured when she saw her condition. "You'll be all right, kitten."

"Sandstorm, it was the battle."

"What about?"

"When we were fighting the RiverClan cats; whenever I tried to take a blow, my paws redirected. I couldn't bit unless I put all my willpower into it. It was exhausting."

Sandstorm looked pained. "Well, that's obvious, young one," she murmured. "Crookedstar is the problem."

"Why?" Fernpaw asked, confused.

"Because of his roots, his origin. He was a RiverClan cat."

"Oh." It was all Fernpaw could say.

"But this is very, very serious," Sandstorm continued. "Whitestar and Cloudstar of RiverClan are in an enormous battle right now over the wounds of you and the she-cats accompanying you. In two days' time, we are planning to drop a night ambush on them. You will be healed by then, as your wounds are not that serious, but you will not be healed of Crookedstar."

Fernpaw shuddered. "B-but how can I fight?" she whispered.

"There is a way to lose the spirit," Sandstorm replied. "As you've heard, Cinderheart was relieved of Cinderpelt's spirit near the Great Battle."

"How?" Fernpaw asked in awe.

"The spirit you are holding must be fulfilled of life. He needs to be content before joining the ranks of StarClan once more." Sandstorm looked at Fernpaw in the eye. "You are much alike, but not very alike. Cinderheart was merely hosting Cinderpelt, as their temperament and personalities were almost identical. But you are captivating Crookedstar, because you are holding him back from his full potential. You must be warned, because of this you must release his spirit alone, before you fight in the battle. Truth be told, we are much stronger than RiverClan—we will win for sure once your are not captivating Crookedstar anymore." She turned to walk out of the den. Then she turned back. "Oh, and I wanted to share something else with you. You may die, Fernpaw. The power the leaders like Crookedstar will unleash is very dangerous, and you have a higher risk because of your age."


The next morning, Fernpaw was awake pondering. How will I do this? she asked herself. It feels near impossible.

By the evening she was feeling much better. Though her shallow wounds hurt the most, they were healing well, but it was the bruises that pained her. It would take a while for them to go away. But the wounds weren't as severe as the pain she was feeling about the situation. I wasted a whole day healing. Tomorrow is my last day, and I must prepare to let go of Crookedstar.

She awoke early. She knew the first thing she needed to do.

In case she died while releasing her spirit, she needed to say goodbye.

Fernpaw silently crept into the warriors den. She stopped by two nests, and embraced the sleeping figures of Treeclaw and Mintnose by licking their foreheads in turn. "I know we grew far apart in comparison to our kit years, but I will always love you, whatever may happen to me today." Then she slowly tiptoed and found her father. She didn't even say anything. What can I say? She loved Featherheart so much. She tried to keep her eyes from welling up.

She knew she should visit Reedpaw too, but she couldn't muster up the courage. He deserved so much more, he deserved to know what was going on in her life. But she didn't dare, for fear that he would wake up or evene be awake. She wouldn't put it past him. She looked back the way she came from, at the medicine den. And one thanks to Dawnfur and Hornpaw, Fernpaw thought. Without you and your hope I wouldn't have had a chance to live. Thank you.

And she was off.


Chapter Eight

Fernpaw crept to the center of the clearing. She needed to this or die doing this before the dawn patrol came, or she would be caught possibly in the middle of releasing. Or she wouldn't release it, and would die anyways in the battle, possibly taking Crookedstar, the great RiverClan leader's soul with her.

Please, please, please.

"Crookedstar," she began. "It is time for you to leave my body, and leave my soul."

The spirit stirred in her belly.

"It is time for you to understand the fact that you are dead, and you cannot relive your life."

A fierce pain broke in her chest, but she grit her teeth and moved on.

"You were a great leader, wise and noble, with your life well spent. You may have had your differences, but you kept perservering, as I have. You twisted your jaw painfully, as I have crippled my leg, but you moved on. You were made apprentice after your littermate, but you ignored the fact and kept working hard. Your own kit died, out of your abilities to save her. Despite all these things, you looked forward to a new light. You let her mate in to care for his kits. You accepted she was dead, and did what you could to make her kits' lives better without a mother." Fernpaw stopped for a breath. "Now you must accept the same yourself."

Her stomach heaved, and she felt her heart lurch. She gasped in the searing heat. It was breathtakingly painful; she closed her eyes and tried her mightiest to keep her ground. "Embrace your destiny among the stars!" she cried weakly, and then collapsed. She saw a large, powerful cat take form in front of her, his jaws crooked, his gaze on her.

He said something before she blacked out. She could not hear what he said, but it definitely sounded like, "Thank you."


Fernpaw opened her eyes. The skies were starry. Her back still ached, but all of her wounds and bruises were gone, replaced by a feeling of comfort. Her patchy fur was shining and cleaned, as if it were freshly groomed.

She stood up.

And gasped.

The ground was made of stars. Even the undergrowth, the foliage, and the trees glimmered. Warm breezes blew past her. A couple of cats bounded past her happily, laughing and talking.

"Where am I?" Fernpaw asked to herself.

"Welcome to StarClan." Fernpaw turned around and gazed at a beautiful white she-cat.

She stared blankly.

It wasn't possible.

"Fallownose!" Fernpaw gasped.

"It is me, my lovely," Fallownose murmured. She came close and gave a soothing lick between her ears.

"Am I in StarClan?"

"You are, dear. And you have done something very, very brave. I know not of a cat who would have done something like you."

And it all came rushing back. The releasing, her blackout, the silvery image of a cat before she lost consciousness.

"So...did I die?" The thought brought her frights—and she wished she had told Reedpaw where she had gone. She loved him like a brother—and maybe even a little more. He truly had deserved to know everything that had happened in her life.

"Yes."

Fernpaw nearly stumbled. The shock came to her, and with it everything she had left behind. "O-oh," was all that Fernpaw could stutter.

"But not for long." Fernpaw gazed up at her in question and surprise. "You have done a great deed," Fallownose continued, her eyes shining. "A very brave one. And you deserve not dying after the challenges you have faced.

"Go well." Fallownosed placed her paws atop Fernpaw's forehead. It grew comfortably warm around her fur, and she slid into darkness once more.

"...Fernpaw? Fernpaw!" Fernpaw jerked up. Reedpaw was over her, pleading with her. "Fernpaw!" He buried his nose in her fur. "Thank StarClan, thank StarClan you're alive!"

"I-I'm alive?" Fernpaw uttered as she gazed at herself.

Reedpaw laughed. "Yeah you are—it's a good thing you survived!"

And one of the final thoughts that she'd thought before Fernpaw had departed StarClan came back to her. "Reedpaw?"

"Yes?"

She came close to him. "I-I just wanted to say..."

"What?"

"I love you, Reedpaw."

Reedpaw looked at her in astonishment. Then it turned to joy. "I love you too, Fernpaw," he murmured. They sat next to each other, enjoying the warmth. Fernpaw glanced at the sky.

She could almost swear she saw another star in the morning sky, fading quick but burning bright.


THE END

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