Prologue

The rain poured down eagerly, drenching the silver furred tom sitting in the center of the clearing. The rain didn't seem to bother him; his piercing, yellow eyes remained fixated on a point in the distance and he murmured to himself, clearly lost. Thunder boomed overheard, signaling the soon to arrive lightning, and the tom's eyes flickered from the point he had been contemplating for so long, instead moving to the heavy clouds.

A mottled she-cat slipped out of one of the numerous dens circling the center the silver tom sat in. Although she moved with silent steps, the young tom in the center seemed to notice her arrival; something that clearly surprised her, since the rain would of dampened her scent.

"It doesn't make any sense," the silver tom muttered, still staring at the clouds. He then glanced at the mottled she-cat, his confusion evident. "Is StarClan always this vague?" When she didn't answer, he flicked his tail impatiently, staring into her eyes in a somehow frantic manner. "Look, Addereye, this is driving me mad. I need to know what this means - assuming it means anything at all."

Addereye surveyed him a moment longer before turning away, raising her head to the sky. "You're not going mad," she said after a short while. Her voice was quite raspy and soft, yet there was still strength to it, something that made it plain she was the younger tom's superior. "It's strange: many claim to be on the path to madness, yet few of those number actually are. It's those who believe they are completely sane that are the mad ones, Rainpaw."

Rainpaw's only answer was an exasperated sigh, which Addereye took as permission to continue. Not that she needed his permission to do so - she was, after all his mentor - but she liked to give her apprentice a chance to feel like she valued his opinion. "Although," she mused, "I suppose we are all mad, in some way. Some of us less so then others..." Her voice trailed away.

This time, Rainpaw did answer her. "Does it truly matter how sane one is? Truly? Do you wish to talk philosophy on this night?" There was barely disguised frustration in his mew, and his fierce yellow eyes were narrowed to slights. "You are wise, Addereye. You seem to know the answer to anything, be it the best herb to treat bee stings or the morality of ones actions. You have taught me much, although all of it is useless. Useless." He was practically spitting the words at her now, but Addereye remained calm and detached. "This is far more important then remedies and medicines. This is the future of all the clans - StarClan told me as much! Yet you refuse to help me decipher it, choose to sit there debating whether one is mad or not!"

Addereye seemed surprised by his accusations, but didn't speak, didn't defend herself. This only seemed to infuriate Rainpaw further; the tom leapt to his paws, tail swishing angrily. "I chose to become a medicine cat, Addereye! I watched you spend your time limping around, the creaking of your bones audible, while warriors contributed to the clan, providing fresh-kill and defending our borders. I spent six moons hearing my denmates fantasize over becoming warriors, hearing them call you names behind your back, spent six moons telling myself becoming a medicine cat would be the best way to help my clan. My claws were sharp, my reflexes good, but I chose to become your apprentice. And why did I do that? Why did I give up what I wanted more then anything else?"

He paused there, panting angrily, clearly waiting for Addereye to answer him. There was a short pause before Addereye gave a little jump, eyes wide. "Oh, that wasn't rhetorical? I was under the impression you wanted to continue ranting angrily."

"It wasn't rhetorical," Rainpaw muttered darkly, before adopting to an angry voice that didn't suit him. "Just answer me!"

Addereye gave him a disapproving look; she disliked it when he let his temper get away with him. His anger was a primal force; she feared that he might one day cause someone harm because of it. Despite Rainpaw's claim that he wished to help his clan, she felt that his bitter demeanour and fierce rage, as well as resolutely pessimistic view on life, hurt more then he healed.

As she had heard this particular rant before, she knew the answer. He'd joined, as he'd snarled so many times, that he'd become her apprentice to help his clan in the best way he could. However, she was well and truly sick of his arrogance, and continued to stare at him, a fierce glint in her eye that informed her apprentice that she wasn't going to back down.

"Stop this, Rainpaw," she murmured eventually, keeping her eyes fixated on the silver tom. "You claim to be a martyr - oh, the poor Rainpaw, forced to become a medicine cat. What a tragedy; I'm sure the elders will tell stories of your sacrifices to kits in moons to come."

Rainpaw flinched slightly, her scornful words seeming to cut him.

"You're a small cat attempting to bully your clanmates into believing you're something special. But you're not, not like what you're saying. What's special about you is how much you want everyone to like you, how desperate you are for attention." There was a certain amount of disgust in her mew, disgust that was painfully plainly genuine.

Her apprentice flinched away; it hurt to hear his mentor lash out at him. "I just need to know what the prophecy means," he muttered, trying not to let Addereye's scathing words affect him.

Addereye's eyes softened, although there was still a stiffness to her posture that made it plain that she was not pleased with Rainpaw. "StarClan is always confusing with their prophecies; it's best not to dwell on their meanings. They come true eventually, but not in the ways you think. All deciphering them does is cause you pain."

Rainpaw shook his head earnestly. "No! I can't ignore it. You didn't hear it - Foxtoe told me I was the only cat to receive the message. That I was the only one who could do anything to stop it. And that the cat it concerns was born tonight."

Addereye's softening features hardened instantly, her grief clear in every line in her body. "Anything Foxtoe has to say should be ignored. Whatever he told you- no, I won't start... look- just don't trust him. Don't listen to whatever he said - it's probably best if you do whatever he told you not to do, or the opposite of whatever he made you swear to do."

"He told me the clans were going to fall..." whispered Rainpaw, seemingly in a trance. "He told me it would end in fire, all of it. And that the cause of it was coming tonight. That the destroyer would be born on this night, of ThunderClan blood."

The older medicine cat narrowed her eyes. "Did Foxtoe actually say any of this?"

"Well, no," the apprentice admitted begrudgingly. "But that's what I think he meant. And you know Finchnose went through kitting earlier. Foxtoe must of been referring to Birchkit - I could save ThunderClan, Addereye!"

"Don't you dare even suggest that, Rainpaw," growled Addereye. "You want to kill a kit, simply because a traitor to ThunderClan implied that doing so would save the clans? How dare you."

Clearly not eager to go through another one of Addereye's fierce insultings, Rainpaw shook his head quickly. "No! I'm not a murderer, Addereye." His whiskers twitched briefly in amusement. "I'm not that much of a martyr yet, I'm afraid. However... perhaps it would be best to keep an eye on him. To restrict him. To make sure he doesn't kill a mouse without us knowing. And perhaps... he'll stray into the path of a monster one day."

"I can't believe you," Addereye snarled. "No-one is going to lay a claw on that kit, whether you like it or not. I'm going to be extremely tolerant of you today. I'm going to go back to the den, go to sleep, and when I wake up, I'll pretend this never happened. I'll give you the chance to forget as well - or, of course, I could tell Stormstar you're planning on arranging a kit's murder. It's your choice."

Rainpaw blinked, then stared at his paws. "Fine," he growled eventually. "We'll do it your way. But when that little foxheart grows up, when he destroys the Clans - you'll see. You'll see I was right. And you'll know it was all your fault."

With that, the silver tom strode out of the rain and back into the medicine cat den, closely followed by his mentor.

One

"I can't believe I accepted you as my apprentice," Rainfoot muttered, studying the disheveled collection of herbs Birchpaw had spent his day gathering. "Don't you understand the concept of gathering fresh supplies? These are more wilted then what I have in my stores." With a snort of contempt, the long-furred tom took a swipe at the herbs, sending them flying in different directions.

Birchpaw leaped to his paw at once, watching in horror as his days work went flying away on the bitterly cold wind. "Did you have to do that?" he protested, attempting to bat the blackberry leaves out of the air. "I worked hard doing this!"

The surprisingly young medicine cat snorted, rolling his amber eyes. "Take it as a lesson: either put the effort into collecting useable herbs, or watch your meagre attempts fly away on the wind."

Birchpaw stopped his feeble effort at recovering the blackberry leaves, instead giving Rainfoot a bitter look. Why did the tom insist on making his life as the ThunderClan medicine cat apprentice so bloody difficult? ? It seemed he'd hated Birchpaw since the moment Birchpaw had been capable of understanding hate.

"Fine," the apprentice eventually muttered. "Am I finished for the day?"

The silver tom flicked his tail dismissively. "Another pitiful attempt at herb gathering like that again and you'll be finished for more then just the day. But yes, you may go."

Birchpaw shot one last scathing look at his mentor, then attempted to dip his head respectfully and scampered off eagerly, glad to get away from Rainfoot. The silver tom often forced him to work on memorizing herbs until the sun went down, by which time Birchpaw was too tired to spend any time whatsoever with his friends.

A sudden delighted cry jolted Birchpaw from his thoughts. "Birchpaw! So the old fleabag decided to give you some time off?" Hearing this, Birchpaw could not help but purr slightly; Rainfoot was just across the clearing, lying in the medicine cat den, and would of heard the cat's not-so-positive description of him. Perhaps it was unfair - Rainfoot had only been an apprentice when Birchpaw had been born and therefore hardly qualified as old, and the silver tabby tom spent a large portion of his time grooming himself, which meant it was unlikely any fleas resided on him. However, the name was amusing.

The speaker was, of course, Birchpaw's friend from kithood: Thrushpaw. The energetic sandy tabby was quite skilled at cheering him up, and it was with contentment that the medicine cat apprentice flopped onto the ground beside him.

The sandy tabby ran his eyes over Birchpaw, his tail flicking in a slightly annoyed way. "You know you're supposed to say something in return, right?" Birchpaw's friend eventually said, flicking Birchpaw with his tail as he did so. "You could of just said 'hey Thrushpaw'. That was all I needed. Just two words."

Birchpaw rolled his eyes, stretching out and allowing the weak sunlight remaining to warm his stomach.

His friend batted him on the flank playfully. "What am I going to do with you? Even now you ignore me. It hurts, Birchpaw, it really does. We're supposed to be friends. Why are you ignoring me?" Thrushpaw blinked in a falsely wounded way, clearly attempting to prey on Birchpaw's sympathetic nature. It didn't work.

"Oh, you wound me," Thrushpaw wailed dramatically. "Why do you shut me out like this?"

A sudden shadow loomed over Birchpaw, breaking the connection him and the sun had previously managed to established and leaving his stomach feeling rather cold. "Perhaps because your meaningless chatter can become ever so slightly annoying," the owner of the shadow said.

Thrushpaw scrambled to his paws at once, dipping his head to the speaker. It was his mentor, Deertooth, after all. The dark furred tabby purred slightly, brushing her tail along Thrushpaw's flank.

"I'm sorry," mumbled Thrushpaw, staring at the ground. "Did I disturb you?"

Deertooth surveyed him, then gently said, "Well... you were a little loud. Try to keep it down slightly next time, okay?"

Thrushpaw nodded at once. "Yes Deertooth."

Birchpaw watched him curiously; the relationship the two shared always puzzled him. They seemed closer then the normal apprentice and mentor - it sometimes seemed to Birchpaw that Deertooth had become a kind of adopted mother to Thrushpaw, who had been lacking a mother figure since his biological one had taken a liking to SkyClan's leader and joined her new mate's clan. And there wasn't any problem with Deerfoot having a motherly relationship with Thrushpaw, but... it puzzled Birchpaw none-the-same.

Deerfoot nodded to Thrushpaw, then headed back towards the warriors den, where she had previously been snoozing.

The moment the warrior had left, Thrushpaw turned towards Birchpaw, an accusatory gleam in his amber eyes. "If you hadn't ignored me, I wouldn't of had to endure a telling off from Deertooth!" It was clear that the sandy tom wasn't angry; however, the indignation he seemed to feel was somehow worse.

"That wasn't too bad though," Birchpaw pointed out, a small amount of guilt in the pit of his stomach. "As far as telling offs go, that was actually pretty good. You should see how angry Rainfoot gets."

Thrushpaw narrowed his eyes. "Oh, you think that was the real thing? She was just polite because you're here. Believe me, she'll kill me tomorrow." Giving Birchpaw a dark look, the sandy tabby stalked off, tail waving rather angrily in the air.

Birchpaw was left staring after his friend, a mix of disbelief and annoyance running through him. "Well," he muttered darkly, turning towards the fresh-kill pile in the hopes that something delicious enough to make up for Rainfoot and Thrushpaw's behaviour, "wasn't this a fun day."

Two

Much to Birchpaw's relief, Thrushpaw's anger with him seemed to abate over the night. Seeing this, Birchpaw's own frustration and anger at his friend lessened considerably. Naturally, once the two had reconciled, each insisted that they'd only forgiven the other since they'd seen in the other's eyes that they were forgiven, that they hadn't made the first move. However, Birchpaw was almost certain that they'd both forgiven each other before they'd realized the other had done the same.

"You know, sometimes I feel like you're my only friend," Thrushpaw commented between a mouthful of mouse. "No-one apart from you seems to actually like me." His tone was conversational, but Birchpaw could hear the hurt in his words.

Birchpaw paused, not wanting to take any bite of mouse before he'd said something comforting, but not quite sure what fell under 'comforting'. Eventually, he decided it would be best to try and give Thrushpaw some advice. To say something truthful and constructive. "Well," he began awkwardly, "do you think there's a reason for that?"

Thrushpaw seemed surprised by this question, and took another bite before nodding. "Yes, I do. I've been told I'm blunt, sarcastic and abrasive, as well as painfully unfunny. Apparently I'm a show-off and a know-it-all. ThunderClan thinks very highly of me, don't you think?" He let out a bitter sound and stared at his paws, eyes narrowed to slits.

Birchpaw blinked, not quite sure not to do with that. "Well..." he began, a slight frown on his face. "Who actually says that? Probably only Thornpaw, right? You know he gets jealous; don't take him seriously."

"It wasn't only Thornpaw," Thrushpaw answered casually, "although he is one of my strongest dislikers. Alderpaw is also fond of calling me names. Deertooth calls me blunt reasonably often. I was called abrasive at a gathering by a SkyClan apprentice, and, I mean, we all know I'm sarcastic. But I should stop throwing a pity party."

With that, Thrushpaw got to his paws and headed towards his mentor, leaving Birchpaw to finish the mouse the two had shared. Birchpaw watched him leave, more then a little confused and annoyed. His friend was a confusing cat, to say the least, but why he'd thought to leave Birchpaw half a mouse, Birchpaw wasn't sure. He'd eaten most of the meat it lacked; did Thrushpaw really think he could finish it off?

"You don't look like you want to finish that," Rainfoot said, slinking out from the medicine cat den and sauntering towards Birchpaw. "I'll take it."

The silver tom swiped the half-eaten mouse from between Birchpaw's paws and flopped onto the ground next to him. Birchpaw attempted to edge away from his mentor in a manner that would leave the tom unaware that he didn't wish to sit with the medicine cat.

Birchpaw eyed his mentor as the silver tom tucked into the mouse. The cat was, he realized, quite scrawny, his eyes dull and his fur patchy. He looked, in Birchpaw's opinion, like a cat on his last legs - which confused him. What had made the young medicine cat look so haggard and tired?

"Um," he began awkwardly, "are you alright, Rainfoot?"

Rainfoot looked up from the mouse, looking rather startled to have been asked this. "I haven't been 'alright' for moons," she said eventually, as haughty and wooden as always." With that, she turned back to her mouse, stripping the meat off it eagerly.

"Why though?" Birchpaw asked the she-cat. "Why do you look so tired?"

She gave him an annoyed look, one that told him her patience was running out. "I've dreamed the same thing every night since last leafbare. It gets tiring, as you would imagine."

Birchpaw blinked, startled. "But... it's leafbare now. You've been dreaming this dream for that long?"

"Yes," came the curt answer. "Although it hardly counts as a dream. It's a vision. A message." She let out a bitter noise of false amusement. "I wouldn't expect you to understand. StarClan hasn't shared anything with you yet, has it?"

"Well, no," admitted Birchpaw, "but I haven't been a medicine cat apprentice for that long. Don't they usually only give messages to full medicine cats?"

Rainfoot surveyed him for a heartbeat before shrugging her broad shoulders. "Usually. But I received my fist - and only - message when I was known as Rainpaw. I was your age then. Just a few moons off receiving the name Rainfoot."

"Why would StarClan give you that message for so long?" Birchpaw asked, heading back to the original questions he'd had. "Didn't you get it the first time? What was the message?"

Rainfoot narrowed her eyes. "Foxtoe has continued to give it because I haven't done as he instructed."

"Why not?" Birchpaw asked at once. "Shouldn't you listen to StarClan? Don't they know best?"

Rainfoot gave him a dark look, one that spoke of extreme irritation. "I've tried, believe me. But it was my mentor's dying wish that I disobeyed Foxtoe. And so I have. Now, go clean out our herb stores and leave me to this mouse. I tire of your questions."

Frowning to himself, Birchpaw scuttled off to do as the she-cat had asked.

Three

The silver shaded cat kept his head low, padding slowly. He couldn't muster the energy to raise his head, but he didn't need to; he knew where he was going. The scents on the wind were easy to read; it was like the ghost of his deceased father had planted a path for him to follow. After wandering so long, after feeling lost for so many moons, the ease that this phase in the mission he'd pieced together required was a breath of fresh air.

His biological father was dead, had been since before he was born. His mother had died during her kitting. His claws still seemed to drip with the blood of the kind toms who had raised him and his littermates after they'd been left orphans. He'd had to kill them, but their deaths still caused him pain whenever he thought of them. He'd practically killed his littermates as well; by leaving Heliax and Auri in the twolegplace, he'd placed a death sentence on their heads. They wouldn't of lasted more then a moon.

Oh, the silver shaded cat had done far more damage to his own little part of the world then he cared to admit. For despite having rather dark intentions, guilt was the cat's constant companion, often causing him far more pain and damage then he caused his victims. Although this guilt never prevented him from doing as he pleased. From killing as he pleased.

"I wish Bronte could see me now," the cat hissed under his breath, stopping and flexing his claws. The mere thought of Bronte, one of the adopted father duo that had raised him, was enough to anger him. Which he used often. The tom had been so pure, so kind. Even after watching the silver shaded cat murder his mate, Elxa, Bronte had remained certain that the silver shaded cat was good. It was infuriating. And left him feeling so guilty. The only way to handle it was to transform the staggering guilt to anger. This method worked surprisingly well.

Shaking his head slightly, the silver shaded cat started to walk once more. He was closer now; he could smell urine and the musky scent of the forests the cats inside hoped to protect. What was the point of their scent markers? They wouldn't prevent him from entering. In fact, all they did was confirm the location of the forest cats he had been tracking for the past three moons.

And then, he was there. The forest stood tall before him, the melodic sound of birdsong drifting from out of its welcoming mass. The silver shaded cat stopped once more, drinking in the sight, then broke in a run, stopping only once he reached the scent markers the forest cats had set up around the forest. Were they really arrogant enough to think that a few sharp scents would scare off other cats?

However, he knew better to pass over the boundary; it would make a bad first impression if they caught him barging into their territory without their invitation. His father, who visited his dreams nightly, had informed him that the forest cats patrolled their boundaries often. As his father had been one of said forest cats, the silver shaded cat took his information seriously, and therefore positioned himself a few tail lengths from the border, tail curled around his paws. He was prepared to wait.

His wait was interrupted surprisingly quickly; the silver shaded cat had been prepared to sit stiffly by the border for far longer. However, through the overpowering stench of the edge of the forest cat's territory, he glimpsed the scent of a cat travelling alone. A young tom, if his nose didn't mislead him. Sure enough, a few heartbeats later, a predominantly black tom came into the view.

The silver shaded cat surveyed the tom unblinkingly, slight surprise visible in his eyes. The tom had a silvery-white tail, his muzzle and ears the same strange shade of silver, and his paws the same. Everything apart from his extremities was black. It had been a long time since the silver shaded cat had seen a cat with that particular coat.

The strange coloured tom was carrying what seemed to be a bundle of herbs. The silver shaded cat could smell their sharp, bitter scent. Why hadn't the strange tom noticed he was there? And what was he doing patrolling the border alone? Didn't he realize dangerous cats were around? Surely he was too young to be out by himself. It was then that he realized with a start that he was likely the same age as the strange tom. Did he look just as young as the herb laden tom a few fox lengths away?

With a start, the strange furred tom seemed to notice the silver shaded cat was there. Frantically, the young cat dropped the herbs he'd been carrying and unsheathed his claws, dipping into a defensive position. "Who are you? What do you want?" the tom called out to the silver shaded cat.

The silver shaded cat surveyed him slightly, whiskers twitching slightly in amusement. "Someone's a little jumpy, aren't they? I mean you no harm." Aiming for a submissive nod, he dipped his head towards the strange coloured cat. "And as you will be aware, I haven't crossed over your border. I'm on my side of it."

"You haven't answered my questions," the tom said testily, his eyes darting towards the border and the silver shaded cat as if to make sure what the silver shaded cat had said was true. Despite his suspicious words, the tom's fur lay back slightly. It seemed he had been under the impression that the silver shaded cat had been sitting in his territory.

"True," said the silver shaded cat, "but before I do so - as I will, I assure you - I wish to ask you a question of my own. Is this ThunderClan?" The word sounded strange and foreign on his tongue - what kind of name was 'ThunderClan'? It was practically begging to be mocked, but the silver shaded cat assumed that doing so wouldn't make him any friends.

The strange cat narrowed his eyes, then nodded, sitting down. "This is ThunderClan," he admitted, "now, answer my questions or I'll... I'll hurt you." For a cat threatening to claw him, the strange cat didn't seem particularly convinced of his abilities. He was, the silver shaded cat realized as he looked the cat up and down, not particularly muscular or lithe. There were smears of green on his silvery-white muzzle from the herbs he'd so recently discarded.

"You're... ThunderClan's version of a healer, aren't you?" the silver shaded cat asked. "I didn't realize ThunderClan trained their healers to hurt - in fact, I was under the impression you're supposed to help cats, not threaten to claw them?"

The tom licked his chest fur, and the silver shaded cat felt a tinge of satisfaction run through him. The strange tom was embarrassed. He liked making others feel that way; it was nice to see others just as uncomfortable as he did, even if their embarrassment always faded quickly. Sure enough, the tom then stared the silver shaded cat right in the eye and repeated his questions. "Who are you and what do you want?"

"My name is Eolian," the silver shaded cat began. "Kit of Auri and Foxtoe, raised by Elxa and Bronte, littermate to Auri ad Heliax. I am of both clan and loner blood, and I come to ask the leader of your clan this: may I walk the same paths my father once trod, may I see the same stars in the skies as my ancestors have, may I take my place beside my blood relatives and become part of something larger."

The strange coloured cat blinked. "Your mother is your littermate?" he asked, his complete and utter confusion evident. Eolian surveyed him for a moment, searching him for sarcasm, but found only genuine bewilderment. "Of course not," he answered once he'd made certain that the strange coloured cat wasn't mocking him. "My sister was named after our mother. It was her dying wish, actually."

Eolian's companion nodded slowly. "Alright... so you want to join ThunderClan? I'm not sure we're accepting newcomers?"

"How about you escort me through your territory?" Eolian suggested. When the strange coloured tom stiffened, he added sarcastically, "if I do try to attack you, I'm sure your big bad clan claws will shred me to pieces. I am, after all, only a meek, softbellied loner."

The tom's muzzle twitched slightly; Eolian had clearly managed to amuse him. "I guess you're right," he said, "although I wouldn't use the word 'meek' to describe you. I'll take you to Stormstar."

Eolian got to his paws, dipping his head so low that it brushed the ground. "Thank you, oh highly esteemed and gracious host." Getting back to his paws, he leapt over the border, noting that the tom winced as he did so. "Now, may I know the name of my guide?"

"I'm more like a guard," the tom muttered, picking up the herbs he'd discarded before.

Eolian's whiskers twitched slightly as he answered, "Not with those herbs you're not. Come now, what should I call you?"

"Highly esteemed and gracious host could work," the tom answered him through a mouthful of herbs, his own whiskers twitching. "But my name is Birchpaw."

Four

Birchpaw eyed the cat curiously as he began to head back to ThunderClan's camp. He wasn't completely sure he was allowed to bring strange cats back to camp, but something about Eolian intrigued him, and he wanted to get to know the cat better. Hopefully Stormstar would accept Eolian as part of ThunderClan. Hopefully. Maybe.

"I have a question," Eolian announced suddenly, his tail twitching as he moved. Why Birchpaw was noticing this, he wasn't sure, and he quickly averted his gaze, instead focusing on a point in the distance.

"Many do," he answered the silver shaded cat after a few heartbeats. "In fact, I have one myself. But that doesn't mean it'll be answered. Actually, when you think about it, questions aren't there to be answered. They're there to... motivate you to find out the answer. Simply answering them diminishes the quest. It robs the question of the joy. I'm assuming you want me to answer one you have, but if I did so, I would be robbing you. I'm no thief."

Eolian glanced towards Birchpaw, surprise in his eyes. "I didn't realize healers were so philosophical. But if I may beg your indulgence, for I am, of course, good at begging- what is ThunderClan like?"

"If you weren't aware of what it's like, why do you seek to join it?" Birchpaw asked, a slight frown on his face.

Eolian glanced at him. "I'd thought I'd made that plain; my father comes from here. Or did." There was a sudden stiffness to his features, a new ice in his eyes. It seemed he disliked talking about his father. Who had he said he was the kit of? Hadn't it been Foxtoe? A memory flitted through Birchpaw's head; Rainfoot telling him that he was visited by Foxtoe every night.

The rest of the journey was spent in an icy silence that Birchpaw was too afraid to break. They were, it felt, on thin ice, and one word might send them spiraling into the cold, dark water that lay below. Birchpaw didn't like swimming. Especially not in cold dark water.

"Birchpaw!" Thrushpaw said eagerly, bounding out of the shadows, a bright expression on his face. It faltered once he spotted Eolian. "Uh, Birchpaw, why do you have a rouge trailing around behind you like a sort of... pet?"

Before Birchpaw had a chance to answer, Eolian stepped in front of him. "There," he told Thrushpaw, an easy purr rumbling at the back of his throat. "Now Birchpaw is the sort of pet. Does this lessen your alarm?"

"Not really," Thrushpaw said, using the same easy, conversational tone Eolian had used with him. He glanced at Birchpaw, unsheathing and sheathing his claws repeatedly. "Birchpaw, what's he doing here?" There was fear in Thrushpaw's voice, fear that Birchpaw found all too easy to hear. Judging from the smug expression on Eolian's face, he could hear it too.

"He wants to join ThunderClan," Birchpaw answered his friend, a slight defensive note to his voice. He felt like Thrushpaw was questioning his intelligence, which he wasn't particularly fond of. At all.

Thrushpaw narrowed his eyes, clearly not impressed. "Really?" he turned to stare at Eolian, clearly taking in his appearance. It was plain that he wasn't impressed. "He's a soft kittypet, isn't he? Why are you even humouring him, Birchpaw? He won't last a minute."

With that, Eolian flashed forwards, little more then a blur. In mere heartbeats, he'd bowled Thrushpaw over, pinned the sandy tabby to the ground and breathed over him, teeth bared slightly. "Soft kittypet yourself," he murmured in Thrushpaw's ear before releasing him, allowing Thrushpaw to scramble to his paws and back away. This hadn't been the right thing to do; I knew Thrushpaw. All Eolian's demonstration would of done was infuriate Thrushpaw and give him a tremendous desire to beat Eolian. And I was sure he would manage eventually - Thrushpaw always did.

"That proves nothing," Thrushpaw hissed, pressing his body to the ground, the fur on his back spiking. "Just that you mean harm to ThunderClan. Leave our territory now or I'll be forced to make you."

Eolian snorted, stalking forwards, a mean glint in his eyes. "I'm don't mean any harm to your clan, kit," he spat, "just to you, and any other filthy foxhearts who think it's funny to insult those they call friends. You know, for such a mean cat, you're a little weaker then I thought. All words and no bite then? That'll just make it easier to humiliate you, don't you think, now that you've encountered someone better then you with words yet still ridiculously outmatches you in fighting."

"I'm not afraid of you," snarled Thrushpaw.

Eolian gave him a disgusted look. "No," he agreed, "you're not. Which only proves how stupid you are."

"Stop it!" Birchpaw shouted, leaping in front of Eolian and giving Thrushpaw a scathing look. "Stop fighting. Look, Thrushpaw, I'm taking Eolian to camp with me. Lionstar will either accept him or decline him. You two don't need to fight over it - especially since the outcome won't decide anything."

Thrushpaw glared at him, clearly rather hurt. "I'm taking Eolian to camp with me," he said, mimicking Birchpaw. "Sure, go to Stormstar. Leave the cat you've been friends with for almost your entire life, sure, and side with a stranger you just met. That sounds like a wonderful idea. I guess that takes my friend count down to zero." With that, he stormed away, leaving Eolian and Birchpaw quite alone.

"So he's a guilt-tripper too," Eolian commented, eyes narrowed. "What a pain. Do you have to live with him fulltime?"

Birchpaw gave Eolian an annoyed look; just because he'd sided with him didn't mean he was particularly happy with him. "Did you have to attack him like that? You don't know Thrushpaw; he's going to get you back for that. It might take a while, but one day he'll fight you and beat you. And we won't be very merciful with you when that day comes if you treat him like that."

"Someone had to to break it to him that he's a pain in the tail," the silver shaded cat told him, not in the least bit apologetic or regretful. "And that happy task fell to me, since he thought it'd be smart to try and have a go at me."

Birchpaw couldn't help but purr slightly at this; Eolian might be, in his opinion, wrong - Thrushpaw wasn't really a bad cat - but the silver shaded cat was quite amusing. Birchpaw found himself longing that Eolian had been born in ThunderClan, that he would of grown up at the loner's side. However, as Eolian hadn't, there was no point longing, and Birchpaw shoved the wish out of his head.

"On to Lionstar then?" Eolian prompted, and Birchpaw nodded. "Yeah - this way." Taking Eolian's place at the front of the two-cat party, Birchpaw lead Eolian through the last stretch of the forest and right into the middle of ThunderClan's camp.

Five

Thrushpaw slunk into camp only a few heartbeats after Birchpaw and his new friend did, and therefore didn't miss out on the utter silence that followed the stranger and his friend's entry. Naturally, this silence pleased Thrushpaw. He was still far too angry and hurt to feel for Birchpaw and to sympathize with him; yes, he knew how exactly how uncomfortable Birchpaw would be feeling, but instead of feeling bad for his 'friend', he delighted in it. Birchpaw deserved it.

Lionstar broke the silence first. "What is this, Birchpaw?" she asked, padding forwards, her eyes narrowed slightly. She surveyed the cat Birchpaw had called 'Eolian' with professional interest. Not waiting for Birchpaw to answer her question, she addressed Eolian. "Who are you?"

Before Eolian had the chance to answer, one of Rocknose's kits mewed, "he's a ShadowClan spy!"

Naturally, the kit's littermate immediately wheeled on them, his face the very picture of indignance. "Don't be stupid! I heard Thornpaw telling Alderpaw about the last gathering!" he puffed himself up importantly, giving his littermate a smug, self-satisfied look. "You know, because Thornpaw wasn't allowed to go. Thornpaw said that SkyClan threatened us!"

Since Lionstar had been listening to the kit's over-loud conversation, she cut in with a dry remark. "If you'd actually been there, you would of known that Specklestar actually only mentioned that a few foxes had been spotted in SkyClan near the ThunderClan border and that we should make sure to watch that part of the border. Not exactly a threat, Ivykit."

Despite the fact that the tom-kit was speaking to his leader, Ivykit persisted with his story. "It was a subtle threat!" he insisted. "They were telling us to watch our backs!"

Lionstar's whiskers twitched slightly, but before she could answer the kit, Thrushpaw padded into the circle that had formed around Eolian and Birchpaw. "He's a loner," Thrushpaw told Lionstar, lashing his tail rather angrily, "a loner looking to join ThunderClan." He didn't mention that the silver shaded cat had attacked him with minimal provocation. He didn't mention that he thought the loner would be a threat to ThunderClan, or that he'd most likely be a useless hunter. He thought Birchpaw might never forgive him if he did so.

The black she-cat's eyes widened with surprise, and she turned to survey Eolian once again. "Is this true?" she asked the cat. "Do you wish to join our Clan?"

Eolian met her eye when he nodded. "I do."

She narrowed her eyes, staring at him intently. "And why is that? Why would a loner want to reject a life of freedom, one in which you are able to do whatever you're able? Why do you want to live your life constricted by the warrior code?"

Thrushpaw blinked, surprised to hear his leader talk of the warrior code in such a way. Did she really think of them as constricting? Sure, he often felt like the warrior code was a little strict, but Lionstar was the leader of ThunderClan. She was supposed to be the living embodiment of the code, so what was she doing telling a stranger that she thought the code was strict in front of almost the entire Clan?

"Living your life following a set of rules, or, as you put it, a 'code', can bring life purpose," Eolian answered easily. "Ultimate freedom isn't living by yourself, spending your entire life searching for enough food to scrape by. No. I want to join your Clan, Lionstar. Believe me when I tell you my wish to join ThunderClan is more then just a wild idea, more then just a spur of the moment. I am completely sincere in my wish to join you."

Lionstar surveyed him for a moment, her eye narrowing further before she eventually nodded. "I believe you. You may join ThunderClan - but promise me this: if you join us, you must take on one of our names. You must follow our code. You must do as we do."

Eolian nodded. "Naturally."

Thrushpaw felt anger build in the pit of his stomach; she was letting him in? He was a strange cat that had just shown up, and he was being permitted into the clan at once? He had struggled for moons to prove himself a worthy member of ThunderClan ever since his mother had run away with SkyClan's leader. And now this cat could just stroll in and somehow gain... what seemed to be Lionstar's respect?

"Well then," Lionstar began, drawing herself up to her full height, "the shade of your fur reminds me of smoke. From this moment on, until you have received your warrior name, you will be known as Smokepaw. Oakpelt will be your mentor."

Smokepaw wrinkled his nose slightly, clearly disapproving of the name, but nodded. "Thank you, Lionstar." Thrushpaw sent him a venomous glare; how dare he. How dare he. What particularly rankled with Thrushpaw was the fact that Lionstar had decided to give Smokepaw Oakpelt as a mentor; the tom was ThunderClan's deputy, as well as Thrushpaw's father.

Surprised murmurs rippled around the clan after Lionstar's official renaming of the silver shaded cat, murmurs that weren't entirely positive. Clearly sensing this, Lionstar leaped onto the Highledge and mewed loudly, "Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey gather here beneath the Highledge for a Clan meeting!"

Thrushpaw felt relief wash over him; she hadn't forgotten after all. Earlier that day, he'd carried out his warrior testing, administrated by Deertooth, and passed with flying colours. And Birchpaw hadn't even seemed to care when he'd try to tell him.

As most of the clan was already in the center of the camp, it didn't take long for the few lounging in dens to make their way out, much to Thrushpaw's delight. Eolian - or Smokepaw as he was called now - was technically the same rank as he was now, despite his seniority in the clan. However, once the coming ceremony was complete, Thrushpaw would be a warrior.

He practically skipped to the bottom of the Highledge, joined a moment after by his littermates, Alderpaw and Thornpaw. The three shared excited looks; even though Thornpaw was normally rather sullen and moody, he looked incredibly excited.

Lionstar began to speak. "I, Lionstar, leader of ThunderClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on these three apprentices. They have trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend them to you as warriors in their turn. Alderpaw, Thornpaw, Thrushpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and to protect and defend this Clan, even at the cost of your own life?"

"I do," came the trio's answer. Thrushpaw felt his excitement building in his chest, felt it spread through his body and run down his paws and along his tail.

"Then," said Lionstar, "by the powers of StarClan I give you your warrior names: Alderpaw, from this moment on, you will be known as Alderstripe. StarClan honors your speed and skill. Thrushpaw, from this moment on, you will be known as Thrushfang. StarClan honors your agility and strength. Thornpaw, from this moment on, you will be known as Thornheart. StarClan honors your honesty and determination."

Thrushfang sat up taller as the cries of his clanmates washed over him. "Alderstripe! Thrushfang! Thornheart!" He was a warrior, a warrior at last! Victory was his, finally. Nobody could claim he was like his mother anymore; he was a full-fledged warrior of ThunderClan and would protect his clan with his life.

His victorious thoughts were interrupted when his eyes fell on Birchpaw. His friend was... yowling his name energetically, despite the fact that Thrushfang had just spat in his face. Guilt rose in his stomach, hot, think guilt that made him feel like his insides were on fire. He didn't deserve to have a friend like Birchpaw.

He looked away quickly; this was his moment and he didn't want to spend it feeling guilty. He'd apologize to Birchpaw for his behaviour later. He always did. Thrushfang's eyes then landed on Smokepaw, who was staring straight at him, eyes hard and cold. Rather unnerved, Thrushfang looked away, but not before he saw Smokepaw mouth the words 'you're dead'.

Six

Despite still being rather annoyed at Thrushpaw - no, Thrushfang, Birchpaw was genuinely happy for his friend, and could understand why he seemed to dislike Smokepaw so much. Birchpaw had always been good at seeing things from others' perspectives, and it was easy for him to see the circumstances from Thrushfang's point of view. Birchpaw had been friends with Thrushfang for moons, yet had sided with a cat he'd just met and defended him, as well as ignored everything Thrushfang had said and done exactly what Smokepaw had wanted. So he found Thrushfang's hurt quite understandable.

"Like that cat has strength or agility," Smokepaw muttered to Birchpaw.

Birchpaw blinked, surprised to have been spoken to, then nodded hastily. "Uh, yeah! Right." His eyes went back to Thrushfang, who was talking to his father, Oakpelt, along with Alderstripe and Thornheart. The apprentice was glad to see his friend seemed reasonably happy, and lay staring at him for a while, wishing he knew of a way he could make it up to him, to prove he thought Thrushfang meant more to him then Smokepaw did.

"Did you even hear what I said?" Smokepaw demanded, a clear note of annoyance in his voice. It seemed Smokepaw was just as needy as Thrushfang - which was lucky for the silver shaded cat, since Birchpaw had grown to understand his friend's need for companionship and pay attention to him. He turned back towards Smokepaw, turning his back on Thrushfang.

"Honestly? No. I was... distracted," Birchpaw answered the silver shaded cat. "What did you say?" Although being honest in situation like those generally lead to Birchpaw being glared at, the apprentice found that lying tended to backfire spectacularly. Therefore, he endured the look Smokepaw gave him with good grace, managing to look suitable chastened.

Smokepaw licked one paw before answering. "How does Lionstar choose the second part of the name? You know, how she makes each 'warrior' name different?" he asked. Birchpaw was pretty sure that hadn't been what Smokepaw had originally said, but he let it go.

"Uh," Birchpaw began, paying attention properly and thinking hard.

The silver shaded apprentice's whiskers twitched. "Always a good start. In my opinion, all things should start with 'uh', just so the cat you're speaking to knows you're putting some thought into your answer. Don't you think?"

Birchpaw ignored him.

"Well," the apprentice began again, "she thinks about what you look like, what you act like, what your skills are... I think that's about it. So... if you're a good fighter, you might get the warrior name 'claw', or 'fang'? If that makes sense?" It seemed a lame answer, but it was the best he could give.

Smokepaw frowned. "I suppose that makes sense. However, she doesn't seem very good at it, if you ask me." He said this quite calmly, like he hadn't just insulted the Clan leader. Which he had.

Seeing Birchpaw's expression, Smokepaw hastened to make amends. "I mean no disrespect to her, of course," he mewed quickly. "I just wonder why she thought 'Thrushfang' was a good name for your friend. If, as you said, Lionstar gives the warrior name thing 'fang' to someone who is skilled at fighting, how did you pal Thrushfang get it?"

This statement angered Birchpaw more then he cared to admit. "Look, can you stop with your anti-Thrushfang talk? I'm sick of it. Really, really sick of it. I get that you don't like him, but can't you just think those thoughts instead of sharing them? I think we're friends, Smokepaw, but I've known Thrushfang for moons. He's my friend.

Before Smokepaw could answer, their argument was interrupted by Thrushfang's arrival. The newly appointed warrior glared at Smokepaw before addressing Birchpaw. "I just wanted to apologize for snapping at you. It wasn't fair to you; I know you're just trying to help ThunderClan in any way you can. I'm sorry."

This eased Birchpaw's annoyance at the sandy tabby considerably. "Thrushfang - it's fine. Seriously. I'm at fault too."

Something lit up in Thrushfang's amber eyes; it seemed he had been afraid that Birchpaw wouldn't forgive him. This caused Birchpaw a considerable amount of guilt. "No," Thrushfang insisted after a moment, "no, don't. It was me. All me. We're supposed to be friends but I've been treating you like dirt."

"Some friend you are," Stormpaw commented, his sarcastic tone making Birchpaw wince. What was the silver shaded cat playing at.

Instead of snapping at him, Thrushfang met his gaze steadily. "I know. I've been friends with Birchpaw for moons, I shouldn't of - oh, wait, sorry, I forgot you were a rouge. I doubt you know what a moon is, do you, little apprentice? Let me explain it to you-"

"Yes, yes. You can stop with the mockery now." Although his voice had been heavy with sarcasm just heartbeats earlier, Smokepaw was now calm and collected, completely unbothered by Thrushfang's insult. It had been rather feeble, after all. "Surely a warrior of such highest esteem won't spend his time shooting petty insults at mere apprentices."

Thrushfang licked his chest fur, clearly rather embarrassed. "Well," he said, stalling for time, "this particular highly esteemed warrior would rather shoot petty insults at mere apprentices then... not. Especially if the particular mere apprentice is a piece of mouse-hearted fox-dung."

"There are worth things to be," Smokepaw said easily, something cruel glinting in his eyes. "At least I'm not stupid enough to think Lionstar was being sincere when she said you had 'agility and strength'. You know she just says the first things that come to the top of her head, don't you?"

"And what do you know about Clan matters?" Thrushfang spat - this particular insult had clearly hit harder then his own.

Smokepaw titled his head slightly, the cruel gleam still glistening in his eyes. "More then you think," he answered silkily. "And you'll regret underestimating me later."

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