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Part of The Desert Quest series. 

Prologue

"I'm sorry Pearlstar," meowed Sugarfoot. "There's just no hope."

The silver-white she-cat sighed as she looked at the hungry faces around her. "I think you're right. I'm sorry. You've all worked so hard, and it breaks my heart to do this. SandClan is gone. You have no obligation to stay."

Tail drooping, the defeated leader crawled into a makeshift bed in the sand and gave way to the sickness, letting go of her last life.


Sandpaw and Dustpaw sat alone in the midst of what was once a Clan. Sandpaw's whiskers dripped with tears. Her brother remained stiff, fearing if he looked at her he would dissolve into emotion as well.

"What will we do now?" Sandpaw asked. Her normally fiery green eyes looked helpless.

"We can't do much but try to survive," Dustpaw meowed. "We can't become kittypets. And we have no Clan. All we have is each other."

With that, the two apprentices headed off, unsure of anything, deep into the blowing sand.


Chapter One

I didn't know the desert was so big.

Sandpaw gazed out at the shifting sand, stretching out in every direction as far as she could see. Her heart ached with a loneliness that wasn't filled by her brother, sitting next to her. It wasn't because of the vastness either. It was the feeling of helplessness. She had never realized how much safety and power there was in numbers till that right had been robbed of her.

"Come on," she said briskly to her brother. Moping wouldn't get them anywhere. "We'd better see if we can hunt and find a place to drink."

Dustpaw nodded, licking his lips. "I'm so thirsty. It feels like someone's filled my mouth with dry sand."

They headed out over the ever-changing dunes, the hot wind blowing stinging grains of sand into their eyes. "A sandstorm's coming up," reported Sandpaw.

Dustpaw nodded miserably. "We need to find some decent shelter."

Finally, Sandpaw's scent glands picked up a trace of water. "Follow me," she said, ducking her head against the strengthening wind.

Finally, they spotted a peak of stone jutting out from the sand. Sandpaw knew that there would be shelter behind it, and maybe even water.

Sure enough, they found a large puddle, a few desperate clumps of sagebrush growing around it. Both cats began to drink eagerly. The water was slightly gritty, but it was cool, and Sandpaw thought she had never drunk anything finer.

"Might as well drink as much as we can," meowed Dustpaw. "Once the storm hits, it'll just be a big mud-puddle."

Sandpaw nodded, and they drank a bit more. Then it was time to prepare for the storm. They bit off branches from the sagebrush, and covered themselves with them, huddling against the protective shield the back of the rock offered. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

Sandpaw could tell when the storm hit. Dust was everywhere, choking her nostrils, stinging her closed eyelids. She pulled her scanty sagebrush covering closer, and huddled in the hollow she'd made in the sand. The hot wind scoured through any exposed part of her fur, stinging like fire.

Finally, everything was quiet. Sandpaw got up and layers of sand fell off her pelt. She shook herself, and Dustpaw did the same. "Wow," he said, gesturing with his tail. Where the puddle had been only moments before was now only a few wet streaks in the sand. Most of the sagebrush had been uprooted, and the whole landscape had changed.

Sandpaw gave a little sigh. This was the way of the desert. She and Dustpaw were no more than wanderers, struggling to survive. And chances were they wouldn't, unless they found something to eat, quickly. In the three days they'd been on their own, all they'd had to eat was a small lizard split between themselves. She was no longer sure if she even had a stomach; she felt that empty inside.

Dustpaw must've been thinking along similar lines, for he said, "We'd better start hunting."

Sandpaw nodded. They never split up while hunting. It made it much harder, but it was better than losing each other in the merciless sand.

She raised her head, and to her surprise an inkling of prey-scent came to her nostrils. It was hare. She licked her lips. Hares were skinny and hard to catch, but big enough to feed two apprentices. A second later Dustpaw smelled it too. "Come on," he whispered.

They began following the winding trail. It was hard; the scent was blown across the sand, but Sandpaw was determined that they get a kill. She and Dustpaw zig-zagged every time they lost it, till finally the scent grew hot, and she spotted it nibbling on some greenery near a rocky outcrop.

Dropping into a crouch, she stalked forward. Dustpaw slunk around; his brown tabby coat didn't blend in as well as Sandpaw's pale tan one. Tightening her muscles, Sandpaw crept forward, each paw noiseless, leaving no trace on the ground.

The hare nibbled furiously on the scant vegetation. There was no wind; it couldn't scent them. Finally, Sandpaw was close enough to chase it. She pounced forward. The hare was off in a flash of brown, its long legs throwing up sand.

Sandpaw pounded at it's heels and managed to nip it, but then her aching lungs and legs slowed her down. She was breathing hard, but just then a light brown tabby shape reared out of the sand and caught the hare by it's throat.

Sandpaw could've jumped and yowled with glee, so she did. A huge smile on her face, she joined her brother beside the fresh-kill. Dustpaw laid it down, licking a droplet of blood from his mouth. The two apprentices' eyes met for a second, then they both began to eat like there was no tomorrow.


A gentle evening breeze blew through Sandpaw's light tan fur, soothing the heat and itchiness caused by the sand. Dustpaw was sprawled out beside her, relaxed and drowsy. Twitching her tail, she speculated on how nice it was to finally have a full belly.

Dustpaw yawned. "Good job today Sandpaw."

"You too," she meowed. Before the clan had broken up, she and Dustpaw had been as close as you could expect of brother and sister: they shared a piece of fresh-kill occasionally, but led their own lives. And yet, when the clan broke it's bonds and deserted one another, their bonds had become much closer as they struggled to survive. And it had only been a couple of days.

Sandpaw raised her eyes to the dark sky. The stars of Silverpelt seemed cold and distance, more like mocking eyes then warm points of light.

Is StarClan even watching over us anymore?


Chapter Two

Dustpaw yawned loudly and stretched his stiff muscles. Standing up, he saw that Sandpaw's hollow was empty. That's Sandpaw. Always up at the crack of dawn.

Padding a few pawsteps out into the already scorching desert sunlight, he scented the air. It was dry and stale, bringing no trace of water. They would have to locate a puddle fast, or dehydrate in the afternoon sun.

"Dustpaw!" He turned to see his sister loping towards him, her green eyes glowing happily. "I found us a nice spring to drink from. An actual spring. With a continual supply of water. Well, at least it's more then what we've seen so far. And there's a few fish in it too. Come on!"

Hope springing in his heart, Dustpaw ran after her. If they found a constant source of water, maybe they could find a permanent home too. It was a step in the right direction, anyway.

Soon he saw it. The water wasn't perfect, but it was the clearest he had seen in all of the desert. Bending his head, he took a few sips and gave a comforable sigh, letting the sweet liquid slip down his throat. "Good work Sandpaw."

Sandpaw beamed. "I think StarClan lead me to it," she said softly. Her eyes met his. "Like they wanted us to find this place."

Dustpaw looked around. Behind the stream, there was a large heap of rocks. Squinting, he made out several caves hidden among them. I could call this place home.

Hearing his sister give a small whimper, he turned towards her and was shocked to find her eyes brimming with tears. "What's wrong?" he asked hastily. "Aren't you happy?"

"Of course," she said earnestly. "But... Oh Dustpaw, I miss our Clan so much." He stiffened, then padded up to her and swept his tail along her flank.

"I know. But we have to be strong and brave. It's what our parents would have wanted." She turned away for a few seconds, and when she turned back there was a look of determination on her face.

"Okay. Sorry about that."

"No problem," he said gently. "Let's check out those caves now. We might be able to fill them with some old sagebrush and tumbleweeds. That would be cozy, wouldn't it?"

She nodded, and he was rewarded with her old peppy smile. "Yeah. Come on, let's go!" She led the way towards the rock-pile, and he followed, caught up in her enthusiasm. Maybe StarClan does have a plan for us to have happy lives after all.

Dustpaw scampered up the rocks, wincing as his pads touched the hot surface. But it was all worthwhile as they peered into the several, well-ventilated dens. They weren't huge, but they were roomy enough for two apprentice-sized cats(Dustpaw had to remind himself that without a Clan, they were no longer apprentices), and looked cozy enough, with smooth, cream-and-sand colored walls and floors covered with a thin layer of sand.

"This is really nice," Sandpaw commented, scraping a bit of dried weed out of one of the dens. Her green eyes were shining. "I think we could live here."

"I think we could too," he replied honestly. "We just need to make it feel like home."

"Okay," she said, her tone becoming decisive, the way it always did when she was about to be bossy. For once, he didn't mind. He needed someone else to take charge right now. "I'll hunt, and you gather as much bedding as you can for our nests. We'll need to store extra; we have plenty of space, so we might as well make use of it. Tomorrow, we can find an extra source of water."

"Why?" Dustpaw couldn't help inquiring.

She rolled her eyes, as if to say, Toms. "Because, we might need more if that spring ever dries up. And besides, it's good to be on the safe side." He could tell that wasn't all to it, but she said no more, only asked, "Any questions?"

"No, mentor," he smirked. 

Sandpaw ignored the jab. "Good. Let's get to it." 

"Right," he sighed. "Meet you back here in the evening." Giving each other nods, they split up, going in different directions. Dustpaw was careful to scuff up as much sand as possible, and mark cacti and brush to leave himself a good trail. Though after he had gone several lengths he could still see the pinnacle of rock, he figured it was better to be safe then sorry.

Finding a thick outcrop of grass, he began to rip up as much as he could carry, then scented the air. With grass this thick, surely there was water somewhere. Sure enough, a closer scan of the surrounding area revealed a pool of grayish-brown water that had blended in with the rock it lay in before. Relieved, he thought, Maybe this will make Sandpaw shut her over-worrying trap. But he had to admit to himself that having another water source did make him a little less anxious too.

Oddly enough, it didn't take Dustpaw as long as he had expected to gather all the bedding he could hold. This place certainly was richer in resources than the other desert-land they had explored; he even managed to catch a small mouse-like creature on the way back. Slowly, his doubts about actually living here began to fade away. That is, until he reached the rock-pile again.

Three cats stood with their backs to him, hackles raised and growls rumbling deep in their throat. Pinned against the wall, her eyes stretched wide with fear and a small pile of prey at her feet, was Sandpaw. Dustpaw felt his heart start hammering in his chest. They were no match for the three cats, two full-grown and one about their age. But he had to try something. His sister was cornered. It was up to him. 


Chapter Three

Sandpaw's throat felt dry with fear as she faced down the three cats. Behind them, she spotted Dustpaw, his golden eyes gleaming with fury. Instantly, she knew he was going to do something stupid. Don't- she started to mouth. Too late.

"Hey! What do you three think you're doing to my sister?" he yelled loudly, a huge stack of grass tumbling to the ground beside him. Despite the dire situation, Sandpaw was temporarily distracted by how much soft-looking material he had brought, when she had just been expecting a few brittle pieces of dry sagebrush. She stiffened her back. This was a great place to live, and no pack of bullies was going to drive them out of it.

The biggest tom, a pale gray tabby with a scar across one eye, turned and smirked at Dustpaw. "I don't know. Why don't you come over here, grab a piece of it, and find out?"

"Yeah," snorted the other one, also turning to face the tom. Only the youngest tom remained silent, his eyes still focused on her. They were a blazing electric blue that made her pelt prickle. Shaking her head, she narrowed her gaze and peeled her lips back in a snarl. This was no time for daydreaming over toms. Even if they were super-cute, with strong shoulders, rippling muscles, smooth, red-brown tabby coats... Snap out of it!

Sandpaw was jolted back to the current predicament by her brother's voice. "I don't think so. Look," he added in a more even tone. "We don't want trouble, okay? Just leave us alone, and we'll do the same."

"I don't think so," sneered the gray tom. "You see, this is our place, and you're tresspassing."

"You know what the punishment is for tresspassing?" demanded the other one, who was a light gold in color, with white-tipped ears.

"No," Sandpaw butted in insolently. She wasn't about to let Dustpaw take this one on his own.

"Well," snarled the youngest tom, finally speaking up. "You're about to find out."

She squared her jaw. "I don't think so."

"We don't need to fight," he replied, looking a bit taken aback. "We outnumber you, and I'll bet we're stronger then you. Just go, and we won't bother you."

Suddenly, moving like a streak of lightning, Dustpaw shot between the toms to stand at Sandpaw's side. With her brother next to her, she felt much more emboldened, and they faced down the three intruders side by side. The pale gold tom said, "Should we risk it, Stone?"

"Risk what?" the gray tom replied scornfully. "They're just a couple of kits."

"Kits? We're apprentices, for your information," Dustpaw said hotly. Stone raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, so you're from that bee-brained Clan that tried to start here? What was it, SandClan?" He gave them a gloating look. "I knew they wouldn't make it."

"That's it!" yowled Sandpaw, launching herself at him. He was much larger then her, but she had the advantage of surprise, and managed to pummel him several times before he regained control of the fight. Beside her, Dustpaw went down in a flurry of claws as the other two cats pounced on him. As the rush of anger-fueled adrenaline faded, Sandpaw realized they couldn't win this fight. "Get out of here Dustpaw! Run for it!"

"Not without you!" he called, hooking his claws into her pelt and dragging her from Stone's grasp. They hurtled forward together; Sandpaw had to remember that he couldn't run as fast as her, and shorten her strides. Still, the two of them made good time, loping across the endless sand, and soon the rocky spire was just a claw-prick in the distance. Panting, she skidded to a stop, and they faced each other.

"At least we got away," Dustpaw said. She stared at her paws.

"And now we're thirsty, stranded, and homeless," she said, glaring up at the sky, as if StarClan could have stopped it. As if they could ever do anything. They were on their own. "I guess we'd better find some more water, and hunt," she continued, bristling as she thought of the prey they'd had to leave behind. Why hadn't she had enough sense to take some with her? Those three pigs were probably gorging themselves on it right now. "Then we can... Dustpaw? Are you listening?"

Her brother pointed wordlessly behind her, and she turned, expecting to see a giant lizard, or a whirling sand-storm. She did see a cloud of sand rising up, but instead of being tumultous and looming, it was lighter and prettier, with grains swirling together to form a pattern. As they watched, the sand quieted, and left in its place was a cat. Sandpaw's jaw dropped. It could only be one thing: a StarClan cat.

"Are you-" Her voice came out hoarse and croaky, like an ungreased piece of metal, or dry wood. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Are you from StarClan?" Dustpaw's eyes widened; he clearly hadn't come to that conclusion yet.

"Yes," the cat purred, obviously relieved at being recognized. She took a step forward. As she got a closer look, Sandpaw thought the cat appeared vaguely familiar; there was something about the way her gray-tipped ears were shaped, and the kindness glowing out of her amber eyes. "Do you remember me, little ones? You were only kits when I lost my last life; I don't blame you if you don't."

Understanding flooded Dustpaw's face. "Mothstar."

She dipped her head. "Yes. I was leader when Pearlstar, back then Pearlfur, was deputy. You two were kits when I died." Her eyes darkened. "Those were hard times for SandClan."

"They only got worse," Sandpaw murmured, fighting the urge to cry into the she-cat's shoulder; she was reminded so much of her own mother, and all she had lost. "And now there is no SandClan."

Mothstar's head shot up. "That's why I'm here. To give you an important message: You need to start SandClan up again."

"What?" screeched Sandpaw in disbelief. "Us? We're just apprentices!"

"Apprentices. And yet you are the only ones who remained pure to the warrior code after the split," she mewed sadly.

Dustpaw's eyes widened. "That can't be true. What about Pearlstar? Sugarfoot? Tangleheart? They wouldn't all forsake SandClan."

"Pearlstar is dead. Sugarfoot was captured by Twolegs. Tangleheart has become a rogue; she cares no more for our way of life, nor being a deputy. All the senior warriors, and the rest of the Clan, have suffered similar fates. You're all that's truly left."

"Pearlstar is- dead?" The world swayed beneath Sandpaw's feet. "That was her last life?"

"I'm afraid so," Mothstar said. "The sickness has battered your former clanmates down so much that they can hardly survive, much less think about rejoining a Clan. You two are the only ones who haven't been crushed yet. Your spirits burn brighter for all your hardship. StarClan does not wish to heap such a burden on such young cats. Yet, we are left with no other choice. SandClan must rise again."


Chapter Four

"What? How? With who?" Dustpaw yelled, but Mothstar was gone, leaving only a few frosty pawprints on the ground to show she'd ever been there.

Sandpaw groaned. "As if we didn't have enough to worry about already."

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "You know what we could do? We could go back to those cats-"

"No!" Her eyes flamed up like bits of green fire. "We don't need those jerks. Besides, they drove us out. There's no way cats like that would be interested in joining a Clan."

"Yeah," he said wearily, curling up on the ground beside her. Water and food could wait till later. Right now, he was too exhausted to do anything but sleep and block out all his problems. 


"Dustpaw. Dustpaw!" 

The urgency in Sandpaw's voice awoke him from a deep sleep.

"Don't move," his sister said, her eyes like orbs with fear.

When he saw the reason for this, he had to bite his tongue so hard that blood came out to keep from screaming. A coppery-scaled snake was rearing its ugly head just a tail away from his face, its hood undulating and flapping in the night breeze. He recognized the foul scent of poison dripping from its fangs, and gulped hard. I'm going to die now.

Sandpaw tried to get to her feet and sneak around the snake, but it whipped its head around and hissed loudly at her. She froze, a single tear coursing down her cheek. "Dustpaw..."

"Sandpaw..."

There was so much he wanted to tell her, but most of all that he was sorry, so sorry, that he was leaving her alone, to fend for herself in the vast desert. That they would never again-

Suddenly, the snake let out a strangled hiss as a blur shot past, tackling it into the sand. When the dust cleared, and Dustpaw had stopped coughing, he made out, through watering eyes, the shape of a young cat. Looking closer, he saw that the cat was familiar looking. It was one of the toms they had fought with before, the one with blue eyes. Sandpaw had stopped crying and was staring at him in shock. 

The tom raised his head after prodding the snake's limp body one more time to make sure it was dead. He gave a crooked grin. "Gotta be quick to kill one of those."

"Thanks," Dustpaw managed.

"No problem. I don't think I got to introduce myself back there, where we first met."

"Yeah, you guys were a little busy trying to get rid of us," Sandpaw said coldly. 

He shrugged unashamedly, though a twinkle entered his eyes. "Sorry about that. I'm Ryder. You guys are?"

"I'm Dustpaw, and she's my sister Sandpaw," he said boldly, taking a step in front of her. Sandpaw rolled her eyes and elbowed him out of the way, never one to stand back from a fight.

To his surprise, something akin to relief showed in Ryder's eyes. "Sister? So you guys are siblings?"

"Can't you see the family resemblance?" Dustpaw remarked dryly.

Sandpaw giggled, rubbing her paler pelt against his brown tabby one. "I'm the pretty one. He's... Well, he's Dustpaw. Why are you here, Ryder? I thought you guys wanted us out."

"Yeah, well..." Suddenly the tom looked incredibly embarrassed, shuffling his paws and not meeting their eyes. Dustpaw raised his eyebrows expectantly. "I don't know. I guess I just had this instinct that you needed my help. Plus, I thought the others were pretty rough, kicking you guys out back there. It's not like we need all that space. There's enough to go around."

Dustpaw arched his eyebrows. "Great to hear you feel that way, but how does that help us? We're still stranded out here with no resources."

Ryder frowned. "I could try to pull some strings. Come on."

Just as Dustpaw was about to follow him, Sandpaw blocked her brother with her tail. "Not so fast. Why should be trust you?"

"What would I gain by misleading you?" he asked. "If I wanted you gone, I could've just left you here. Besides, I just saved your brother's life."

"He's got a point," Dustpaw admitted. Sandpaw scowled blackly.

"Fine. But if we get shredded, it's on your head."

Ryder met her gaze steadily. "That's a risk I'm willing to take for your sakes, but believe me, I'd die if it actually happened."

In the darkness, Dustpaw couldn't be sure, but he was pretty sure Sandpaw blushed as she nodded in a brisk manner. Someone's got a crush. He couldn't wait to tease her later.

As they began following Ryder back, Dustpaw dropped back to walk next to Sandpaw. "Okay. I know you're cautious about this, but just think about it. They're cats. We're trying to restart a Clan."

"They despise the Clans. They ridiculed us for being apprentices." She bristled. "Why would they join? Why would we want them to join?"

"Because," he said patiently, "We need members. Clans don't just get built."

She lashed her tail. "And they don't get led by apprentices either. Face it Dustpaw. It's hopeless!"

Before he could protest, she turned away. He sighed. I'll just have to convince her it's worth it. Somehow.


Chapter Five

Okay. Maybe Dustpaw has a point about us needing cats to start a Clan. But these cats? No way!

Out of the corner of her eye, Sandpaw studied Ryder suspiciously. He seeemed all right, but if he was friends with Stone and that other idiot, he couldn't be trusted. And yet, he had just saved Dustpaw's life. Not to mention he looked great while doing it- Stop it! 

As if feeling her gaze on him, Ryder turned and grinned at her. "I'm really sorry about Stone and Rico. Stone's pretty harsh, and Rico... well, he just goes along with it. Kinda like me." 

Guessing Rico was the smaller golden tom, Sandpaw frowned. "But you didn't go along with it tonight."

He blinked, as if the fact had never occurred to him. "No. No I didn't." A rueful grin pulled at the edges of his mouth. "And I'll be lucky if they don't kill me for it." 

"Excuse me," Dustpaw said loudly, making Sandpaw jump; she'd almost forgotten - okay she had completely forgotten - that he was there. "But we're almost here. Sorry to break up the lovefest; just thought I'd point it out."

Sandpaw opened her mouth to blast him away with a lecture, but Ryder beat her to it. "Lovefest? What on earth..." He turned away from them. "Okay. Ready guys? Stick together; we're a team now." He glared at Dustpaw, who had muttered something illegible. "We just have to keep our heads and Stone won't rip them right off. Cool?"

"It seems to me that if Stone won't rip our heads off, then we end up keeping them." Sandpaw raised her eyebrows. Ryder smiled, almost like he couldn't help it.

"Whatever. Now come on." 

The three young cats trotted towards the rock-pile. Bathed in moonlight, it looked less like a great place to camp out and more like an impenetrable mountain of stone, guarded by Rico and Stone. Sandpaw didn't like to think about her and Dustpaw's chance of making it out safely if this turned out to be a trap. She'd have to be on the alert all the time.

Figuring she might as well start with the interrogation, she mewed, "Why exactly are you bringing us back again?"

Ryder flicked his tail vaguely. "Well... I thought maybe we could give it another shot at convincing Stone and Rico to let you stay. Maybe if I pitch in, they'll listen."

Somehow, Sandpaw doubted it, but she kept her mouth shut. It was thanks to Ryder that Dustpaw was still alive, and that was a debt she could never repay. The least she could do was trust him on this one little thing; besides, he seemed like a good sort. He had probably just fallen into the wrong paws. Having experienced true loneliness herself, she understood why he would've taken whatever company he could; without Dustpaw, she would have gone insane during the time they had been without a Clan.

When they were standing directly in front of the rock-pile, Ryder stopped, motioning for them to get behind them. Sandpaw stood her ground; Dustpaw did the same, though he rolled his eyes and gave her an unamused glare. She stuck out her tongue, which was a rather childish gesture to do under the circumstances, but it was an instinct; she couldn't help it.

"Stone? Rico? I have, uh, visitors," Ryder called, jolting her and Dustpaw out of their making-faces contest.

A dark shape emerged out of one of the caves. Seconds later, Rico's paler, smaller form appeared next to Stone's. Both toms blinked sleepily down at the visitors for a few seconds. Stone realized what was going on first. "Ryder? What in the world do you think you're doing?"

Now looking distinctly less courageous and confident, Ryder said, "Uh... Well... I thought maybe..."

Leaping down from the rock-pile, Stone landed directly in front of them. Sandpaw tried her best to look unafraid and bold as Rico joined him. Hopefully, no one could tell her legs were shaking.

"Ryder, you have two seconds to explain." Stone's tone left no room for argument.

"I brought them back," the young tom blurted. "I thought that maybe we could share our space with them." He nodded at Sandpaw and Dustpaw. "They're not so bad."

Gee thanks, Sandpaw thought to herself. That's a compliment any she-cat would die for.

However, seeing the half-murderous glint in Stone's eyes, she was suddenly extremely glad that Ryder was standing between her and the horrid tom. Immediately, she chided herself for the silly, girlish notion that she needed a tom to protect her. And yet, surely if any tom could protect her, Ryder could, with those rippling muscles and-

Luckily, Stone interrupted her thoughts before she could turn herself tomato-red with the stupidness of her own daydreams. "Not so bad?" he repeated scornfully. "They're moochers! Land-hogs!" His fangs flashed like ivory in the night. "This is a hard land to live in. There isn't enough space for us all. If we can't keep the competition, we'll have to kill them."

Involuntarily, Ryder flinched. Dustpaw moved closer to Sandpaw, and for once she didn't step away.

"It doesn't have to be like that," her brother proclaimed. "We can work together and share, in a Clan. It always works better that way."

"Pah! Such silliness!" A leering sneer came onto Stone's face. "Your Clan is dead, little one. And soon, you will join them."

That was the last straw for Sandpaw. Dustpaw may have had the gift of diplomacy; he could use tact and reasoning in the most aggravating circumstances, but her temper was more fiery, and she wouldn't take such language from the likes of this tom. "It is not silliness! What's silliness is to think that all there is to life is a place to stay, food to eat, and water to drink. Being a part of a Clan has so many benefits, it would take moons to list them all. We all need a safety net, a family to rely on and count on. You'd have to be out of your mind to even dream of surviving without one. I'm not saying that the only way to have a family is through a Clan, but-"

Here Sandpaw stopped short for two reasons. One, Stone cut her off, and two, she was halted by the queer look Ryder was giving her. His robin-egg's blue eyes were full of an emotion she couldn't identify; before she could try to puzzle it out, Stone's words jolted her temper again. 

"For the last time, get out. We won't share our territory with you moochers; don't think that I don't know the real reason for your 'heartfelt request'. You just want to take advantage of our living space, and you'll probably slit our throats while we sleep."

Indignant beyond her wildest dreams, Sandpaw cried, "That's not true!"

Stone glared back at her. "Then tell me what is true." 


Chapter Six

For once, Sandpaw was speechless- though not from lack of words. Her face was bright red, and she was so enraged she couldn't speak. Dustpaw quickly took this opportunity to link his tail with hers and start dragging her away. "Fine. We'll just be going then."

Suddenly, Rico stepped forward. "Wait!" 

All of them froze. Ryder looked just as surprised as Dustpaw was, and so did Stone; no one had expected Rico to speak up. 

"I- I think it's a good idea Stone. I know we've always made fun of the Clans, but... it seems like it would work. It'd be nice..." Rico trailed off when he saw the look Stone was giving him. The earnesty in his eyes was replaced by his usual slyness, but there was a hungry look behind it. Dustpaw realized something at that moment. Despite his cool facade - which was mostly to impress Stone anyway - Rico was a lonely cat, starving for companionship and true friendship. Now Dustpaw felt sorry for him.

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