Strongpaw tensed his muscles, leaning his shoulder slightly against the boulder he was in charge of. There was no room for mistakes now.
With a mighty grunt, he lunged forward. Pain lanced through his shoulder and chest at the effort, but he accomplished his goal. His boulder crashed down the slope, crushing an advancing GreenClan warrior.
Next to him, Waterstreak and Seedtail had also shoved their boulders down the slope. Hazelpaw was struggling with hers desperately, her thin legs churning up dirt. Without thinking, he moved to help her, and together they sent the large rock crashing into the closest enemy warrior. As the GreenClan tom's scream echoed through the woods, Hazelpaw faced him, panting and grateful. "Thanks."
"No problem." He gave her a quick lick on the forehead and turned away.
Seedtail was scrambling backwards. "The boulders won't hold them off forever! Come on, back to the main patrol!"
The four cats turned and began to run. Strongpaw heard the GreenClan cats' heavy breathing and snapping jaws as they gave chase. Fear made him run even harder; he dived over the log they were using as a "fort" and crouched down among his Clanmates.
"Hollowpool, Rosebud, Sweetberry, it's your turn to fight. Go, go, go!" Seedtail ordered.
The three cats he had listed sprang up over the log and ran out to meet the advancing GreenClan patrol, slashing and ripping with all their might. Peering over the top of the log, Strongpaw watched with a sickening feeling as his mentor, Sweetberry, was knocked to the ground. The GreenClan cat she was fighting ripped open a gash along her stomach.
"Permission to substitute?" he asked desperately.
Seedtail's eyes were wide with horror. "Permission granted. Hazelpaw, get Sweetberry out of there."
As Hazelpaw dived for the fallen she-cat, Strongpaw raced into the midst of the battle. He had grown so used to the mind-numbing routine of fighting that he hardly felt the tear of his own skin and flesh as cruel claws inflicted wounds on him. Instead, he blocked out everything, all the screams, all the pain, all the life ebbing away under his paws. It was easier to fight when you didn't let yourself give way to emotion. That way, you didn't realize the horrors of what you were truly doing to living, breathing cats. Or at least, cats that used to live and breathe.
"Strongpaw! We're retreating!" yelled Hazelpaw. He felt her tug on his fur. "Come on!" she shrieked. "We've got to get out of here!"
Nodding dazedly, he staggered after her. His paw came down on something wet and soft. Dread choked him. A body. He'd stepped on a body. Not stopping to see if it was GreenClan or SunClan, he broke into a blind run. He half-leaped, half-stumbled over the log and kept running, heading back to camp, away from the horror and sadness and misery of it all.
But no matter how much he ran, he couldn't escape it. Couldn't escape what had happened. What he'd done.
Strongpaw lay in front of the apprentices' den with his head on his paws. All around him, his Clan showed evidence of the destruction GreenClan had caused them. Hollowbelly tended to countless battle wounds, stretching his meager supply of herbs as far as it would go. Brookpaw helped him as she was unable to participate in battles yet - Slasher had broken her leg a while ago, and it still wasn't completely healed.
Most prominent to Strongpaw's gaze was the empty nest behind him. The nest that had once belonged to Frostpaw.
Tears of sorrow and exhaustion gathered at the corners of his eyes, and he had to blink them away. The last thing SunClan needed were weak, blubbering cats. Every able-bodied cat was recruited for the war effort instantly. Even the queens hunted for the Clan, leaving their kits completely alone sometimes. The kits themselves knew a few battle moves - though everyone knew it wouldn't do much good - that they were taught when someone had the time.
Honeystar padded past Strongpaw. He was shocked to see how much the new leader seemed to have aged in the short time she had received her name and lives. Already, she had lost two lives from especially fierce battles with SunClan; Seedtail and some of the other warriors had insisted she stay out of most of the fighting, as SunClan couldn't afford to lose another leader. That would most definitely crush them.
"Strongpaw!" It was Hazelpaw, walking towards him. Her gray pelt was covered with bandages and poultices. "Are you okay?"
Grimacing, he made room for her to sit beside him. "Yeah. Right as rain."
"I know how you feel," she sighed. "This is terrible. How much longer do you think we can keep this up?"
He raised his chin. "We have the warrior code. We'll stand strong."
Hazelpaw was quiet for a second. Then, without looking up from her paws, she said, "The warrior code didn't stop IceClan from falling to GreenClan."
A cold fist closed around Strongpaw's heart. He closed his eyes, praying that he'd heard her wrong. "IceClan... fell to GreenClan?"
Misery shone in Hazelpaw's green eyes as she nodded. "Yes. I recognized an IceClan cat from Gatherings at the battle. I asked them what they thought they were doing, fighting with GreenClan, and they told me that IceClan had been taken into GreenClan." Her shoulders slumped. "I know IceClan were our rivals, but this, this is just wrong."
Strongpaw knew how she felt. "And BreezeClan? Have they fallen too?"
She shrugged. "I'm not sure. If they have, they haven't had time to join GreenClan ranks yet. My guess is that they're still fighting back. BreezeClan might seem like idiots, but they do have some spunk."
"Do you think..." Strongpaw thought back to the wild look in Frostpaw's eyes as he spoke of Carrotpaw. The memory caused him pain, but it also strengthened him to envision his brother, and to know that Frostpaw would approve. "Do you think if we worked together with BreezeClan, we could take on GreenClan?"
"Worked together with BreezeClan?" she repeated, sounding surprised. He guessed she hadn't even thought of it as an option, which was how he had reacted when Frostpaw had suggested it. "Work together with BreezeClan... That might work. But IceClan's territory was in between ours and their's; it's probably overrun with GreenClan forces right now."
Giving a rueful sigh, he realized she was right. "If only we'd have thought of it sooner..."
Frostpaw did. But I wouldn't listen.
"Strongpaw! Strongpaw, wake up!"
The fear in Hazelpaw's voice shook Strongpaw out of his sleep, which had been punctuated by nightmares filled with hideous creatures anyway. He opened his eyes and stood up, looking around wildly.
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
The camp was in chaos. Screeches and screams rent the air, and the familiar smell of SunClan was tainted by the reek of blood. Hazelpaw confirmed what he had already realized: "We're under attack."
Instantly, he sprang out of the apprentices' den; Hazelpaw was at his side as they surveyed the battle in dismay. Honeystar was fighting fiercely outside her den, surrounded by three or four GreenClan warriors, two of whom Strongpaw recognized as former IceClan cats. Sweetberry and Seedtail fought back-to-back in front of the warriors' den, their pelts streaked with blood. Hollowpool was rolling around in a deadlock with another enemy cat.
Through an unspoken decision, Hazelpaw and Strongpaw both raced into the battle. Hazelpaw tackled a GreenClan cat that was attacking Brookpaw and Hollowbelly; meanwhile, Strongpaw made a beeline for Honeystar.
Though the leader was fighting hard, the sitution looked really bad. Honeystar's eyes were starting to glaze over, and her movements were dull and slow. The GreenClan creatures - Strongpaw refused to call them warriors, and now he was wondering if they were even normal, sane cats - continued to rip at her pale ginger coat, which was now so dark with blood that you could hardly see its marigold color.
Fighting back bile, the apprentice launched himself at one of Honeystar's attackers. Pure rage fueled him as he shredded and ripped with his claws, his vision going slightly red around the edges.
"Strongpaw!" Honeystar croaked. "You need to get out of here!"
"No! I can't leave SunClan!"
Blood bubbled out of her mouth. The light was leaving her eyes - somehow he knew it was for good. "You must... SunClan is gone. I am gone. I tried, Hollystar, I really did." For an instant, a mad look came onto her face. "Run Strongpaw! Run and never look back!"
And then she was gone.
For a second, Strongpaw could only stare in shock. Honeystar was gone. The brave cat who had invigorated SunClan and strengthened them after Hollystar's surrender was gone.
Then her words clicked in his mind.
At first, he planned to disagree. Surely there was always hope? But one glance around told him a horrific story.
Blood. The blood of his Clanmates, everywhere.
Death. The death of a thousand hopes and dreams. The death of his old life.
Spotting Hazelpaw in the middle of the clearing, he raced towards her. "We have to run."
She gave him a rueful smile. "I don't think-"
Without stopping to hear what she had to say, he wrapped his tail around her and began running. Please StarClan, don't let the GreenClan warriors notice us.
He raced out of the SunClan camp with Hazelpaw in tow. The gray she-cat stumbled on rocks and bushes, but he didn't let go of her. They had to make it out of this alive. Together. He couldn't lose everything. He just couldn't.
Only when they reached the edge of SunClan territory - the edge that bordered No-Clan land - did he slow down, and finally stop. "We made it," he said in relief. "We can start anew- Hazelpaw!"
The she-cat collapsed against him, as if her legs couldn't hold her own body weight up anymore. "Hazelpaw?" Strongpaw repeated in disbelief. She was bleeding from several scratches, but none seemed fatal. He lowered her slowly to the ground and crouched over her body. "What's wrong? Oh!" The last word was an exclamation of pure terror.
A long cut was slashed down Hazelpaw's belly. Strongpaw couldn't even fathom how a cat had done such a thing, it was so horrible. With a sickening certainty, he realized no cat could survive such a thing.
"Strongpaw..." Hazelpaw whispered. "I'll miss you. I want your name to be the last thing I... Strongpaw."
He watched in helpless anguish as she gave one last rasping breath, then was still. "No. Please no." He was begging and pleading with an invisible force - he didn't even know who - to keep her, but inside he knew she was already gone.
Suddenly, his heart ached like he never knew it could. Burying his face into Hazelpaw's still-warm fur, he sobbed quietly. It didn't matter if the GreenClan cats found him now. He had lost everything.
It was around midnight that he awoke. Cold had sunk into his bones and numbed him, but that was nothing compared to the raw numbness he felt inside. Getting up creakily, he gazed down at Hazelpaw's body for a long moment. "Good bye," he whispered.
Somehow, it didn't seem enough, but there was no time for a proper burial, as he had already wasted enough time staying here so long. The GreenClan warriors could find him any moment.
Still, he paused to cover Hazelpaw's lonely body with pine needles and branches. "I'm sorry. You deserved so much more. You were so beautiful... and I loved you."
Saying the words made him realize how true they were.
But it was no use now. She was gone, and he had never gotten to tell her. Never realized it till it was too late.
He froze, the hair on the back of his neck rising. A cold chill rippled through him as he turned around. A ghostly cat was seated in front of a nearby tree. His white pelt was glowing and nearly see-through, and his blue eyes seemed to sparkle with miniature stars.
"Who are you?" he breathed in awe.
"A StarClan cat; it matters not which. I have been sent to perform an important deed."
Tilting his head to the side with surprising calmness - he had been too shellshocked by the events of the past few hours to treat this with suitable excitement - Strongpaw said, "And that is?"
"To make you a warrior."
A sharp gasp. "What? I'm not ready! And this isn't normal!" Ordinarily, the prospect of being made a warrior would have delighted Strongpaw, but now...
"You are ready. You have a very special destiny ahead of you. To fulfill it, you must first become a warrior, so that you will never lose faith in the warrior code. StarClan is losing their connection to the Clans because of this new evil, but we place our hopes in you and three others."
"What?" he stammered. "Me?"
"Strongpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code despite what may come?"
Realizing there was nothing else to do, he said, "Yes. Yes I do."
"Then I name you Strongheart. Bear this name well; you will certainly need to represent what it stands for in order to fulfill your destiny." The StarClan warrior's image flickered. "I must go now. Remember this day, Strongheart. It is the beginning of the rest of your life."
Speechless, Strongheart watched as the tom disappaited into white stardust, which was whisked away by the wind. "Strongheart," he whispered softly. Then, "I've got to get out of here."
Casting one last glance over his shoulder at Hazelpaw, Strongheart broke into a run. His muscles screamed and his cuts burned, but he ignored the pain. Not only did he want to escape the GreenClan warriors, but he had to get away from the blood and gore and pain that had once been a proud Clan. His Clan.
I used to be an apprentice of SunClan. Now I'm a warrior. But of what?
Dawn had just touched the horizon when Strongheart knew he could go no further. With a groan, he sunk to the floor and let his eyelids slam shut. Oblivion. Nothingness. Peace. That was all he sought.
"What if he's dead?"
A gentle paw brushed Strongheart's forehead. "He's not dead, Silverbreeze. He still has a pulse. Not to mention he's snoring."
"Frostpaw?" Strongheart sat up. Though the voice was feminine and obviously a she-cat's, the words were totally something his brother would say.
With disappointment - and then bewilderment - Strongheart found himself looking at two she-cats. One was tall, slender, and quite gorgeous, with a pale silver coat and large blue eyes resembling pools of clear water. The other was shorter and more compact, with a smooth light brown coat and a sweet expression.
"Who are you guys?" he said in a voice made hoarse by journeying so long with nothing to eat or drink. Oddly, he felt no doubt that these cats were not GreenClan warriors.
The silver she-cat gestured with her tail. "I'm Silverbreeze, and this is Finchnose. Who are you?"
"My name's Strongheart." He gave them a tentative smile. "What are you two... wait. You have Clan names."
"As do you," Silverbreeze replied coolly.
He sat down, puzzled. "It's a long story..."
Finchnose laughed. "You wouldn't believe our story. Go ahead. We have time."
"You do? I mean, okay."
Without censoring or skipping over any bits, Strongheart began to tell his tale. Maybe, just maybe, I've found friends who will understand.
Above his head, the clouds cleared away, and the sun came out for a brief instant, reminding Strongheart once again of who he was. A SunClan cat destined to burn as bright as the sun itself. And he would live up to that destiny.
To be continued...