Warriors Fanfiction
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Warriors Fanfiction
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This page contains a fan fiction written by Silvershade54.
This page contains the opinions of the original author(s), and is not patrolled for factual accuracy.
Remember that this story is non-canon. It may contain false characters, plots, or locations.
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Path of Shadows.jpg

Note: Read River of Ice first! Path of Shadows is the sequel!

Book Two of The Moon Echo Trilogy
Preceded by:

River of Ice

Path of Shadows Succeeded by:

Rising Moon

Petalpaw and her friends have embarked on the perilous journey to find MoonClan and bring them home. Along the way, they meet new cats, both friendly and unfriendly. And although most danger comes from outside the group, there is trouble brewing within the four cats that may prove to be deadlier than anything they've ever faced before. Trust is their guiding light on a path of shadows, but if that is lost, how can MoonClan possibly return safely to their home?

ALLEGIANCES

MoonClan

Leader: Ravenstar - short-haired black tom with a silver tail-tip; amber eyes

Deputy: Nightfern - black tom with a white splash on chest; green eyes

Apprentice, Blizzardpaw

Medicine cat: Roseheart - tortoiseshell she-cat with amber eyes

Apprentice, Ashpaw

Warriors:

Silvershade - silver tabby she-cat with green eyes

Stonegaze - dark gray tom with blue eyes

Antpelt - black tom with amber eyes

Robinbreeze - brown she-cat with amber eyes

Cinderfall - speckled gray she-cat with green eyes

Mistpool - pale gray she-cat with blue eyes

Pinefur - reddish-brown tom with green eyes

Apprentice, Darkpaw

Needlewhisker - black tom with unusually long whiskers; green eyes

Apprentice, Icepaw

Palecloud - white she-cat with blue eyes

Lightheart - pale yellow she-cat with amber eyes

Apprentice, Sagepaw

Marshleaf - diluted tortoiseshell she-cat with yellow eyes

Mudleg - pale ginger tom with darker paws

Apprentice, Crowpaw

Badgerscar - heavily scarred black-and-white tom with green eyes

Smokesight - dark gray she-cat with blue eyes

Apprentice, Lakepaw

Pebblerain - spotted silver tabby tom with blue eyes

Quailsong - gray tabby tom with blue eyes

Owlgaze - golden tabby she-cat with amber eyes

Apprentices:

Blizzardpaw - white she-cat with yellow eyes

Ashpaw - gray tabby tom with blue eyes

Sagepaw - light brown tabby tom with amber eyes

Lakepaw - black she-cat with two white paws and blue eyes

Darkpaw - black she-cat with green eyes

Icepaw - silver tabby tom with green eyes

Queens:

Shadowleaf - black tabby she-cat with green eyes

Frostflower - white she-cat with blue eyes (mother to Jaykit, a gray tom-kit; and Snowkit, a white tom-kit with black ears

Elders:

Streamsong - dark brown tabby she-cat with blue eyes

Silentrunner - black tom with green eyes

Dawnheart - orange tabby she-cat with amber eyes

SunClan

Leader: Amberstar - dark ginger tom with amber eyes

Apprentice, Flamepaw

Deputy: Lionstrike - golden she-cat with green eyes

Medicine cat: Berryleaf - mottled brown tom with blue eyes

Apprentice, Brightpaw

Warriors:

Sparkheart - pale ginger she-cat with green eyes

Leopardspots - spotted golden she-cat with amber eyes

Appleshine - russet she-cat with green eyes

Apprentice, Firepaw

Foxfang - red tom with amber eyes

Yellowfur - yellow tom with green eyes

Fogheart - gray tom with blue eyes

Apprentice, Scorchpaw

Skyleap - white she-cat with blue eyes

Myrtlenose - tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes

Sagebreeze - gray she-cat with green eyes

Adderstrike - dappled golden tom with amber eyes

Spottedpelt - spotted gray tom with sky-blue eyes

Shimmerfall - silver she-cat with blue eyes

Apprentice, Littlepaw

Gingerbreeze - orange tabby tom with green eyes

Apprentice, Blackpaw

Flowerblaze - gray-and-white she-cat with amber eyes

Sandfall - very pale ginger tabby she-cat with green eyes

Sootcloud - gray tom with blue eyes

Orangedawn - calico she-cat with green eyes

Apprentices:

Flamepaw - orange tabby tom with green eyes

Brightpaw - calico she-cat with blue eyes

Firepaw - russet tom with amber eyes

Scorchpaw - brown tabby tom with amber eyes

Blackpaw - gray she-cat with black paws, ears, and tail-tip; green eyes

Queens:

Dapplewing - tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes (mother to Mousekit, a brown tom-kit; Emberkit, a pale ginger tom-kit; Grasskit, a light brown she-kit; and Shrewkit, a dark brown she-kit)

Nettlefang - gray tabby she-cat with amber eyes

Elders:

Goldengaze - yellow tabby tom with amber eyes

LeafClan

Leader: Briarstar - tortoiseshell she-cat with amber eyes

Deputy: Mapleblaze - pale brown she-cat with yellow eyes

Apprentice, Blossompaw

Medicine cat: Thornstrike - brown tabby she-cat with green eyes

Warriors:

Thistleheart - golden she-cat with green eyes

Oakfall - reddish-brown tom with green eyes

Aspenleaf - ginger-and-white she-cat with amber eyes

Mossfur - black she-cat with one white paw and gray eyes

Fernpool - speckled gray she-cat with green eyes

Brackentail - brown tabby tom with blue eyes

Graytail - gray tabby tom with sky-blue eyes

Apprentice, Smallpaw

Daisynose - white she-cat with yellow eyes

Apprentice, Tansypaw

Elmwhisper - tall, light brown tabby tom with amber eyes

Cricketleap - gray-brown tabby she-cat with yellow eyes

Cedarheart - tawny she-cat with amber eyes

Acornwhisker - light brown tom with amber eyes

Cherryfur - reddish tortoiseshell she-cat with green eyes

Juniperleaf - black tom with green eyes

Birchdapple - silver tabby tom with white paws and tail-tip; green eyes

Ivyshade - dappled gray she-cat with blue eyes

Poppyspring - tortoiseshell she-cat with hazel eyes

Thrushfeather - pale ginger tom with green eyes

Apprentices:

Blossompaw - dappled gray she-cat with white chest and paws; green eyes

Smallpaw - small black tom with blue eyes

Tansypaw - light gray she-cat with green eyes

Queens:

Laurelheart - golden tabby she-cat with green eyes (mother to Beechkit, a light brown tom-kit; Rootkit, a dark brown tom-kit; Adderkit, a golden she-kit; Hollykit, a black she-kit; and Lilykit, a pale gray she-kit)

Elders:

Browndapple - mottled brown she-cat with a graying muzzle and milky amber eyes

Mothfur - very pale dusty ginger she-cat with a white tail-tip and green eyes

Sapstream - yellow tom with amber eyes

CloudClan

Leader: Rainstar - gray tabby she-cat with blue eyes

Deputy: Batwing - dark brown she-cat with amber eyes

Apprentice, Eaglepaw

Medicine cats:

Stormwatcher - gray tabby tom with blue eyes

Hawktail - mottled brown she-cat with a russet tail and green eyes

Warriors:

Hailshadow - silver tabby tom with blue eyes

Apprentice, Heatherpaw

Wrenflight - light brown tabby she-cat with a white chest; amber eyes

Gorsewind - gray tom with amber eyes

Hareleap - brown tom with green eyes

Apprentice, Breezepaw

Flickerwing - dark calico she-cat with amber eyes

Doveheart - pale gray she-cat with blue eyes

Falconclaw - dark gray tabby tom with yellow eyes

Quietbreeze - black she-cat with green eyes

Apprentice, Ryepaw

Sparrowleap - brown tabby tom with amber eyes

Apprentice, Starlingpaw

Haytail - yellow she-cat with green eyes

Curlear - gray tom with blue eyes and unusually curled eartips

Beecloud - pale ginger she-cat with very dark ginger stripes and paws; amber eyes

Apprentice, Lizardpaw

Rabbitstep - gray-brown tabby tom with green eyes

Apprentice, Flintpaw

Tanglespirit - long-haired pale brown tabby she-cat with white paws and matted fur; amber eyes

Wolfblaze - gray she-cat with blue eyes

Duckwing - yellow tom with a darker muzzle, ears, paws, and blue eyes

Apprentices:

Eaglepaw - ginger-and-white tom with yellow eyes

Heatherpaw - pale gray she-cat with green eyes

Breezepaw - dark brown she-cat with blue eyes

Ryepaw - brown tabby tom with yellow eyes

Starlingpaw - black tom with green eyes

Lizardpaw - very pale brown tabby she-cat with a short, thin tail and amber eyes

Flintpaw - dark gray tabby tom with blue eyes

Wildpaw - black tabby tom with blue eyes

Queens:

Honeypool - dappled tortoiseshell she-cat with a golden tail-tip and amber eyes (mother to Birdkit, a brown she-kit; Weaselkit, a spotted gray tabby tom-kit; and Waspkit, a black tom-kit with two white paws)

Sheepfur - white she-cat with yellow eyes

Elders: none

PROLOGUE

Dark silhouettes skulked around the starlit clearing, circling a still black pool. Chunks of wood bobbed in the water, and one of the cats hissed disapprovingly as they nudged one aside.

“What happened?” a shrill female voice demanded.

The tom who’d been examining the shards of bark looked up to find a skinny she-cat towering above him, her eyes glinting and fur bristling like brambles. He edged backward, trying to put space between himself and the angry cat. “I -- I don’t know, Lionstrike,” he stammered, cowering at her paws. “I -- I -- ”

The she-cat, Lionstrike, snorted and whipped around, slashing her tail across the tom’s face as she did so. He gave a muffled whimper, but she didn’t seem to hear. “Amberstar!” Lionstrike barked, striding up to a large, unmoving figure sitting at the edge of the black lake. “None of these mouse-brains can figure out what happened!”

The massive cat still didn’t move a muscle. His glittering amber eyes stared into the fathomless depths of the black pool. “What can you infer from this scene?” he asked quietly. Tension shivered in the air, as though one false move would provoke the great tom.

Lionstrike seemed to sense it, for her next words were cautious and appeared to be chosen very deliberately. “Well… I believe that a log was carried downstream,” she began. “It slid off the edge and was wedged between the rocks, cutting through the waterfall and scattering wood everywhere.”

Amberstar’s voice held a shard of annoyance now. “I didn’t ask you what you saw,” he meowed in a soft, yet deadly voice. “I asked you what caused it.”

From the small tom’s view of the scene, he could see Lionstrike’s fur rising uncomfortably as she ducked her head. “That I can’t be sure of,” she mumbled. “Perhaps the recent rains dislodged it -- ”

“Enough,” Amberstar said coldly, slowly turning his broad head to face Lionstrike. The small tom felt fear shrill through every hair on his pelt as his leader’s menacing amber eyes flashed through the shadows. “Get Fogheart, now.”

“Yes, Amberstar,” Lionstrike murmured. Obediently, the thin she-cat crossed the pebbly beach to meet another cat. She flicked her tail once, and the cat followed, his pawsteps wavering a little, as she led him back to Amberstar.

“Ah, Fogheart,” Amberstar growled, casually unsheathing his claws so that they gleamed cruelly in the moonlight. “Perhaps you will succeed where Lionstrike failed.”

Lionstrike bowed her head in shame at his words. “I am gravely sorry for disappointing my leader,” she whispered solemnly.

Fogheart swallowed. “What would you like me to do?”

Amberstar’s eyes narrowed as he regarded the nervous tom. “Tell me, did you notice anything… odd about what happened to the Starlake?”

Fogheart hesitated. “I did scent something…” he admitted, shifting his paws. “It was difficult to detect, as the water had nearly washed it away, but it was there all the same. LeafClan scent, and… MoonClan.”

“That’s impossible!” Lionstrike blurted. “Every MoonClan cat was chased out!”

Amberstar alone looked calm. “Not every cat,” he murmured. “One was left behind.” He lifted his chin and gazed at the stars, but there was a noticeable lack of wonder in his eyes; instead, the small tom could see only disdain in their amber depths. “Petalkit of MoonClan -- now Petalpaw -- was left for dead.”

Lionstrike and Fogheart both shifted, clearly uneasy.

“But she lived,” Amberstar continued, and although his voice was quiet, it rang through the silent forest like a command. “And LeafClan is sheltering her, as we saw at the Gathering. And we know that LeafClan wants MoonClan to return…” Amberstar’s expression hardened. “They are going to find MoonClan.”

“No!” Lionstrike gasped.

“Yes,” Amberstar replied, and Lionstrike fell silent. His amber eyes blazed like fire, and the emotion within them scared the small tom more than the leader’s rage: it was triumph. “But MoonClan will never come home. It is our land now.”

“How can you be sure?” Fogheart asked in a small voice. The tom was surprised that Fogheart had dared to question their leader; no cat defied Amberstar.

But instead of slashing the gray tom’s throat, Amberstar merely purred. It was a sinister noise that made the fur on the small tom’s neck stand up. “Don’t worry,” Amberstar meowed. “The plan is in place. No MoonClan cat will ever come back here, and if they do, they will not survive.”

“But can you be sure that the -- the plan will succeed?” Fogheart asked.

A snakelike smile unfurled on Amberstar’s face, and the small tom shivered as the leader’s sharp teeth glistened in the moonlight. “We have nothing to fear,” he purred, lifting his cold amber gaze to the stars that he no longer cared for. “The cat I have chosen will be a very valuable pawn.”

CHAPTER ONE

Graytail’s eyes narrowed. “Petalpaw, I thought you were going to collect more traveling herbs.” It was not a question.

Petalpaw glanced nervously at the brown tabby tom beside her. His amber eyes were unreadable, and the mouse in his jaws prevented him from speaking. Petalpaw gave an annoyed twitch of her ears; she was hoping she wouldn’t have to respond, that some cat would stand up for her!

Graytail was still waiting for an answer, his blue eyes rather stormy.

Petalpaw sighed. “I’m sorry, Graytail,” she muttered. “I was just hunting…”

Graytail snorted. “Yes, when I had directly told you not to hunt, and to focus on gathering traveling herbs! They’ll help us more than a mouse.”

Petalpaw tried not to look at the mouse in Scorchpaw’s jaws. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, this time more forcefully. “I don’t know about herbs. Windpaw does, why don’t you send him?”

“Hey, don’t drag me into another one of your stupid arguments!” Windpaw whined from his comfortable position in a patch of shade below a gorse bush.

Petalpaw glared at him, but she had to agree that he was right. The patrol had been arguing ever since they started moving again, and it was exhausting to deal with. Things escalated so quickly that it was difficult to find and correct one’s mistake before every other cat got angry. Each quarrel was followed by an uneasy truce, where the group padded along in a tense silence, waiting for the insults to fly again.

She hated to admit it, but she herself was often the source.

And poor Windpaw always got caught in the crossfire.

That’s not true! she fumed silently. Graytail is the source, he always argues with everything I do…

It was true, the normally easy-going LeafClan tom had seemed unpredictable lately, and whenever Petalpaw put so much as a whisker out of line he’d fly into a rage. But Petalpaw couldn’t help it! Her quiet dislike of following another cat on her mission had grown into a seething anger bubbling right below the surface, flaring up and sparking quarrels. Okay, she had undermined his leadership from time to time. Yes, she had sometimes resisted his orders.

But MoonClan is my Clan, and I deserve to lead the patrol.

“Petalpaw, I want you to go and gather the traveling herbs like I asked,” Graytail ordered with an irritable flick of his tail. “Scorchpaw, you stay here and clean out the bedding.”

Scorchpaw dropped his mouse with a small thud. “But we’re leaving tomorrow, I don’t see the point of -- ” he started to protest, but Graytail silenced him with a hard look.

“Just clean the bedding,” the gray warrior growled, whipping around and stalking back to Windpaw. “Windpaw, you can go with Petalpaw.”

Windpaw stared in dismay at Graytail. “But I -- ”

“Like Petalpaw says, you know the herbs better than any cat,” Graytail meowed sharply. “She may need help. Go.”

Petalpaw’s ears flattened. “I don’t need help picking a pawful of leaves,” she snarled.

Graytail turned to face her, his blue eyes wide in mock-surprise. “Oh, really?” he asked in a falsely cheery voice. “I thought you said you didn’t know about herbs?”

Petalpaw closed her eyes briefly, trying to refrain from leaping at Graytail and scratching him across the muzzle. Frustration seethed under her pelt when she realized that she had no defense. She lashed her tail once and hissed, “Come on, Windpaw. Let’s go pick some leaves.” She brushed past Scorchpaw, the only cat who still seemed happy to have her around. “I’ll come hunting with you later.”

Graytail’s eyes were furious blue slivers as he watched Windpaw and Petalpaw stalk out of the makeshift camp.

*        *        *        *        *

“So,” Windpaw meowed, breaking the awkward silence, “you and Graytail… arguing again, eh?”

Petalpaw’s fur rose as she was reminded of the gray tabby LeafClan tom. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay then,” Windpaw mumbled, bending over to tear a few leafy stalks from the ground with his teeth.

Petalpaw huffed. “It’s just that… I’m the MoonClan cat here, you know? So it should be me leading the way. Who cares if I’m just an apprentice? I deserve to bring the patrol to my kin myself. I can’t be spotted trailing in the back like a kit when we finally get back to MoonClan!”

“You really care a lot about what they think, don’t you?” Windpaw commented, nibbling through another plant stem.

Petalpaw lashed her tail, scattering the traveling herbs everywhere. “First impressions are everything.”

“It’s not a first impression,” Windpaw pointed out. “This is your family.”

Petalpaw sighed. “You’re right.” The words felt odd on her tongue; it had been a long time since she’d said them aloud to any cat. “But I just… I want… no, it’s stupid.”

Windpaw lifted his head and stared evenly into her eyes, his blue eyes calm. “Not everything you think is mouse-brained. Try me.”

Petalpaw glanced away, feeling hot under her pelt at his watchful gaze. “I just… I want to be seen by my Clan… as brave. Like I was fine on my own, and I’ve returned to… to save them all.” She refused to meet Windpaw’s eyes, speaking instead to his paws. “I know, it’s stupid -- ”

“It’s not stupid,” Windpaw interrupted her. Startled, Petalpaw looked up at him. A small smile crossed his face. “We all like to be seen as a hero, at least once in our lives.”

“Yeah,” Petalpaw agreed, feeling encouraged by his assurance.

He sighed. “I’d like to be seen like that someday.”

There was an uncomfortable heartbeat of silence.

“If you don’t know, that’s the part where you say, You’re a hero to me, Windpaw!” Windpaw explained, putting on a terrible impression of her voice.

Petalpaw gave a mrrow of amusement. “All right, all right,” she groaned dramatically, “I guess you win. You’re a hero, Windpaw.” Heat crept into her cheeks as the words rolled off her tongue, and she wished she could suck them back in. “Oh, StarClan, I sounded like such a mouse-brain.” Mortified but giggling, she buried her face in her forepaws.

“I was just joking!” Windpaw exclaimed. “You didn’t have to say that!” He shot her a sideways glance full of mischief. “Unless you actually meant it…”

“No, no!” Petalpaw meowed hastily, and Windpaw laughed.

“It’s good to have a friend like you,” Windpaw sighed, picking up the traveling herbs.

Petalpaw glanced at him. “Yeah… it really is.”

*        *        *        *        *

“Good, you got the herbs,” Graytail snapped, rushing up to them and taking the bundle of leaves from Windpaw’s jaws. “This should take the edge off our hunger for a while.” He set the herbs down and began feverishly separating them into even piles. “Scorchpaw!” he barked, and Scorchpaw gave a little jump.

“Y-yes?” he stammered, sounding uncharacteristically nervous.

“Come help me sort these herbs, will you?”

A look of dismay flashed across Scorchpaw’s face, and the brown tabby protested, “But -- but I’m going hunting with Petalpaw!”

Graytail shot Petalpaw a sharp look full of annoyance that she didn’t understand. “Not anymore, you’re not.”

Scorchpaw opened his jaws to argue, then realized what a lost cause it was and clamped them shut again. With an apologetic glance at Petalpaw, he trudged over to Graytail, sat down beside the LeafClan cat, and started dividing up the herbs.

Petalpaw narrowed her eyes at Graytail. Where had all his respect for Scorchpaw gone? After the battle with SunClan, every cat had seemed to trust the tabby apprentice. But now, for some reason, all of that was irrelevant.

Why?

She shot a questioning look at Windpaw, who shrugged and rolled his eyes. Petalpaw growled softly. Not helpful! Annoyed with the whole situation, Petalpaw stalked into the forest, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going to hunt. I’ll be back before nightfall.”

*        *        *        *        *

“Ready to begin the journey?” Windpaw asked, bouncing from paw to paw in excitement.

“Sure,” Petalpaw meowed flatly. She glared at Graytail, savagely wishing that he could see the anger seething in her eyes. The gray tabby tom lifted his muzzle and pointedly looked away, ignoring her.

“Who made dirt in your fresh-kill?” Windpaw demanded, the enthusiasm on his face vanishing as his energy level screeched to a stop. “We’re on our way to find MoonClan, you should be dancing around and yowling to the treetops!”

Petalpaw exhaled harshly through her nose, struggling to tamp down her rising frustration. “Sorry,” she forced out. “I just -- Graytail.”

Windpaw rolled his eyes. “You can’t blame him for every problem you have.”

“But he is the problem!” Petalpaw hissed, glancing furtively at the LeafClan cat to make sure he wasn’t listening. His blue eyes were locked on Scorchpaw -- she was safe for now. “He’s being so weird, not like himself… what do you think caused it?” A hint of unease crept into her voice at those words. “Whenever he’s around Scorchpaw, he gets all bossy…”

Windpaw looked away uncomfortably. She could see a glint of unwilling knowledge in his eyes, and immediately confronted him. “You know something!” she exclaimed. “You know what happened! Tell me!” She was hungry for a reason to explain Graytail’s behavior.

He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he meowed evasively, his voice taking on a dull tone.

Petalpaw wasn’t fooled. It was impossible to imagine a stupid Windpaw… unless Aspenpaw was present. But she wasn’t here, and Petalpaw knew that Windpaw was hiding something. “Come on, tell me!” she wheedled. “Please?” She widened her eyes, trying to portray kitlike innocence.

Windpaw snorted. “No. I seriously don’t know, okay?”

“Liar!” Petalpaw growled. “Does it have anything to do with Scorchpaw?”

“Nyuh.”

“What does that mean?” Petalpaw demanded. “Nyuh? That’s not even a word! Give me an answer!” She was a whisker away from leaping at Windpaw and shaking his shoulders until the words fell out of his mouth.

Windpaw shrugged. “Let’s just get going. We have a lot of ground to cover.” He padded ahead to join Graytail at the front of the patrol, leaving Petalpaw, alone and fuming, at the back.

Fine, she thought annoyedly. I’ll just figure it out myself.

“Hey,” a voice mewed. Petalpaw jerked her head up to see Scorchpaw trotting over to her, his sleek brown coat gleaming in the sunlight. “I finally got away from Graydirt over there… he’s been having me do errands all morning.”

Petalpaw sighed. “Graytail has been acting strange recently, it’s not your fault.” Is it?

“Petalpaw, you know that’s not true,” Scorchpaw muttered. “Graytail doesn’t trust me. He doesn’t like having me here.”

“Yeah…” But Petalpaw felt like there was something more to the equation. Another reason, something so crucial that it completely changed the LeafClan warrior’s behavior toward Scorchpaw. “Did you… do anything?”

“No,” Scorchpaw replied. “I just… existed. He hates my guts.” He looked forlornly at the ground. “It doesn’t matter, I’m used to it.”

Petalpaw felt a pang of pity for the lonely SunClan tom, and she rested her tail on his shoulders. “You don’t deserve it. Graytail should trust you… he’s just a mouse-brain.”

Scorchpaw purred with amusement. “Truer words were never spoken.”

Just then, Graytail’s ears pricked, and he whipped around to face the chatting pair. Anger flared on his face and he yowled, “Scorchpaw, what are you doing, talking your head off with Petalpaw? I told you to come to the front and help track MoonClan!”

Scorchpaw frowned. “I don’t think you told me that…” he began, but Graytail cut him off.

“Now!”

“But,” Petalpaw intervened, “why can’t I help track MoonClan? I know the scent well; they’re my kin, after all.”

Scorchpaw brightened. “Yeah! Petalpaw and I can both help!”

Petalpaw’s heart rose. Surely Graytail could see the logic in that? Plus, she’d get to talk to Scorchpaw, who she’d hardly had a chance to speak with after the SunClan battle.

“No,” Graytail decided, and Petalpaw’s hope deflated.

“No?” she echoed. “Why not?”

“Because… because we need Scorchpaw to bring up the rear!” Graytail declared with a swish of his striped tail. “A strong fighter should guard us from behind, and since Petalpaw can recognize MoonClan better than any of us, she’ll go in front.”

“Are you saying that I’m not a strong fighter?” Petalpaw demanded.

“No, no,” Graytail amended hurriedly. “I’m just…” He huffed out a heavy breath. “Anyway, let’s go!” He whirled around and started marching forward rapidly, so that Petalpaw and Scorchpaw had to scurry to catch up.

“What in StarClan?” Scorchpaw muttered.

“I know,” Petalpaw panted. “He’s so -- weird -- today -- ”

“Petalpaw, come up front! You’re scenting, remember?” Graytail called.

“Coming!” Petalpaw called back hastily, shooting Scorchpaw an apologetic glance. “We can talk once we rest for the night,” she murmured to the SunClan tom. He dipped his head in acknowledgement as she ran on ahead to join Graytail.

She quickly fell into step beside the LeafClan tom, whose strides were swift and almost violent, his paws digging deep grooves into the moorland soil. “Good, you’re here,” Graytail meowed. “Just let me know if the direction of the scent trail starts to change.”

Petalpaw nodded mutely and opened her jaws to scent the air. The faint smell of MoonClan touched the back of her throat, sending warmth radiating through her body. The scent was proof that MoonClan had been here, that her father’s pads had touched the same ground as hers, that they were alive and breathing, that there was hope.

They continued to follow the scent trail, which led in a straight, unwavering line toward the horizon. Petalpaw squinted; ahead, in the grassy hills, there was a shimmering strip of blackness. She blinked, and when she opened her eyes, it was still there.

“Graytail?” she asked. “What is that?”

The gray tom narrowed his eyes against the sunlight and followed her gaze. “I think that’s a Thunderpath,” he murmured. “I’ve never been this far beyond the territories before, let alone LeafClan land.”

Petalpaw shivered at the mention of a Thunderpath. Dread began to pool in her belly like cold, heavy saltwater. The last time she’d been near a Thunderpath -- the only time -- she’d barely avoided getting crushed by a monster. How could she be sure that this time wouldn’t be the same? Or worse?

“It’s a big one,” Graytail remarked in a low voice. “I’d say at least four stripes, if not more.”

Petalpaw glared at him. You’re not helping my nerves! “What’s a stripe?” she asked instead, trying valiantly to keep her voice steady.

“Most Thunderpaths are separated by white stripes, sometimes yellow,” Graytail explained matter-of-factly. “The monsters run in their own sections, divided by the stripes.”

Petalpaw tilted her head. “Weird. Windpaw would love that.” The gray tom always seemed fascinated by odd Twoleg contraptions.

“He would,” Graytail agreed. “When we cross, we must make sure to take it one stripe at a time. The monsters hardly ever cross the boundaries.”

Hardly ever?” Petalpaw repeated. That’s not the same as “no.”

“Yes, hardly ever,” Graytail confirmed with a nod. “But they never leave the Thunderpath. We’ll just need to be careful.”

The group padded on in an uneasy silence. Every few steps, Petalpaw prayed fervently that MoonClan’s scent trail would veer away from the Thunderpath. Unfortunately, it stayed true to its course and headed straight for the path of blackstone. Petalpaw’s fur prickled and her anxiety grew as they approached the Thunderpath, and she glanced back at Scorchpaw and Windpaw. The two toms were padding next to each other, staring straight ahead with no emotion in their amber and blue eyes.

A roaring sound was swelling in Petalpaw’s ears, unnervingly similar to the sound of the waterfall that plunged into the Starlake. She shuddered, briefly recalling the cold claws of water gripping her, then shook off the memory. But the view ahead didn’t help; the Thunderpath looked like a black stone river, with monsters rushing past left and right. An unpleasant warm wind carried a foul stench to her nose, and she choked.

“Yech!” Scorchpaw exclaimed. “What is that?”

Petalpaw turned to look at him in surprise. “You don’t have a Thunderpath on SunClan territory?”

“No!” Scorchpaw responded, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Thank StarClan! If this is what they smell like, I’m glad we don’t have one.”

Windpaw was gazing at the Thunderpath with undisguised astonishment. “Look at the stripes!” he mewed excitedly. “The monsters never touch them! They stay inside the lines! And look; did you see the boundary in the middle? It’s made of stone! The monsters on our side are going right, and the monsters on the other are going left! Isn’t that weird? Are the Twolegs in their bellies right now?”

Graytail scrutinized the stone boundary slicing through the center of the Thunderpath, a thoughtful look in his eyes. “That could be our safe place to rest,” he murmured. “We get there, pause to catch our breath, and run across the other side. Well spotted, Windpaw.”

Windpaw positively glowed with pride. “And you know what else I noticed?” he asked enthusiastically. “The monsters -- ”

“Enough, enough,” Graytail shushed him. Windpaw fell silent, looking slightly crestfallen. Graytail didn’t seem to notice, as he was still examining the Thunderpath. “We’ll go once we can’t hear any monsters,” he decided. “Scorchpaw, you’ll go first. Then Windpaw, Petalpaw, and myself.”

Petalpaw glanced at Scorchpaw. Why was he picked to go first? she wondered darkly. Is Graytail… hoping he’ll get hit by a monster?

“Maybe I should go first,” Petalpaw suggested.

Graytail rounded on her. “No, you won’t! We need you alive and safe; best to let the more experienced cats go first.”

“Which is why you’ll be going last,” Petalpaw spat, stung.

“Guys, come on -- ” Windpaw began.

“Shut up!” Petalpaw and Graytail ordered at the same time.

Windpaw rolled his eyes and backed up a few paces. “Okay, then.”

“We shouldn’t be fighting before crossing a Thunderpath,” Scorchpaw pointed out. “It will mess with our judgement, and we’ll be reckless.”

“Wh-what -- I was going to say that!” Windpaw spluttered.

“Well, you didn’t,” Scorchpaw meowed calmly, but there was an edge to his voice.

“Don’t be a flea-brain, we all know who’s the smart one around here -- ”

“Not you, that’s for sure -- ”

As Windpaw and Scorchpaw faced off, Petalpaw stalked up to Graytail, her tail lashing. Annoyance surged through her veins, overpowering all common sense. “What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. “Why are you acting so weird?”

“Because a certain cat I know is undermining my leadership!” Graytail snarled. “I’m the leader of the patrol here, and we’re going to cross this Thunderpath with no arguments!”

“Too late,” Windpaw grumbled.

Graytail’s fur bristled so that the gray tabby looked twice his size. A little intimidated, Petalpaw stepped back as he yowled, “We’re crossing that forsaken Thunderpath right now, or so help me StarClan I’ll rip your pelts off and line my nest with them!”

Frightened into obedience, Petalpaw, Windpaw, and Scorchpaw stood together, eyes wide, nodding vigorously. Fear trickled through Petalpaw’s veins like cold water. Were they going to have to fight Graytail?

Graytail’s shoulders slumped as he let out a sigh. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, bowing his head. “I just… I hate this constant bickering. Let’s get this crossing over with.” He met Scorchpaw’s amber gaze. “Scorchpaw, you first.”

Scorchpaw gave an almost imperceptible nod, then turned to face the raging Thunderpath. His muscles tensed under his sleek brown pelt -- Petalpaw wondered for a heartbeat if she should’ve said goodbye -- and then he streaked forward, ears flat and tail low, across the Thunderpath. Petalpaw couldn’t tear her eyes away from the dark tabby shape as Scorchpaw swerved through the river of monsters. At last, he reached the stone boundary, and sat atop it, his fur buffeted by the wind.

Petalpaw released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. Scorchpaw was safe. Now it was Windpaw’s turn.

“Don’t die,” she ordered him.

Windpaw gave her a crooked grin. “I’ll try not to,” he promised. His muzzle moved forward a fraction toward Petalpaw’s, but he jerked away at the last second and crouched beside the Thunderpath. With a hiss he was sprinting, dodging monsters as they stormed past. Petalpaw watched his progress with bated breath. Luckily, Windpaw made it safely to the halfway point, sitting on the boundary a tail-length away from Scorchpaw.

The relief that pounded through Petalpaw’s veins was quickly extinguished by the sudden realization that she was next.

“Your turn.” Graytail’s voice sounded like an echo from far, far away.

Petalpaw felt herself nodding. “I know.” The blood roared in her ears as she stumbled to the edge of the Thunderpath, paws suddenly shaking as she faced the relentless tide of monsters. Their unnatural pelts glittered menacingly, and their huge black paws promised death.

MoonClan is on the other side, she told herself, just like she’d thought at the river. She lowered herself into an attack crouch, ready to run for her life. She glanced back and forth; there were no monsters in sight.

Now or never, Petalpaw thought. With a screech of terror, she hurled herself at the Thunderpath, running blindly across the pitch-black surface. The ground quaked below her, and the roar of an approaching monster was filling her ears. A burst of adrenaline lent her the speed she needed; she leaped at the boundary, Windpaw helping her up. Soon, she was standing, trembling, beside the two toms.

“Thank StarClan,” Petalpaw sighed, sitting down and sinking her claws into the stone to stop her legs from shaking. “I thought that was the end.”

Scorchpaw gave her a lick on the cheek. “Well, it wasn’t.”

Petalpaw’s face burned and she looked down at her paws, determined not to face him. “G-good.” Her heart was thundering louder than the monsters around them.

Suddenly, Graytail hauled himself up the stone wall, fur spiked up along his spine. The LeafClan tom was panting. “I hate Thunderpaths!” he spat, and the patrol laughed. Their anxiety was painfully obvious as they made jokes with shaking voices and tried to convince themselves that it wasn’t so bad.

“Now for the second half,” Windpaw announced, turning around to confront the other half of the Thunderpath.

Petalpaw shivered with dread. “Fox dung, I thought it was over.”

Scorchpaw purred nervously. “Me too.”

Graytail looked pointedly at the brown tabby tom. “Are you going to go yet, or…?”

Scorchpaw sighed as he stared at the deadly Thunderpath. “I’ll try not to get killed,” he mumbled, glancing at Petalpaw.

She touched her nose to his ear. “I’m sure you won’t,” she murmured consolingly.

Windpaw shouldered Scorchpaw aside. “And what about me?” he inquired, putting on a charming grin.

Petalpaw gave a mrrow of amusement. “You’re crowfood,” she told him.

He growled good-naturedly and briefly touched his nose to hers. “I’ll prove you wrong!”

“Enough, enough,” Graytail silenced him, although the LeafClan tom was smiling. “Scorchpaw, are you -- ”

“I’m ready,” Scorchpaw responded instantly. The brown tabby apprentice hesitated for a heartbeat, then leaped from the stone wall and hared across the Thunderpath. He disappeared behind a roaring black monster, but reappeared on the other side, safe and unscathed. Petalpaw sighed in relief.

“Now for me!” Windpaw meowed. With one last glance at Petalpaw, he jumped down from the boundary and raced across the Thunderpath. The gray tabby was lucky; the blackstone path was empty of monsters for his crossing, and he made it safely to the other side.

“My turn,” Petalpaw muttered, feeling a sick, swooping sensation in her belly. She swallowed hard and teetered at the edge of the boundary for a heartbeat, searching madly for some solace in the two pairs of eyes, amber and blue, across the Thunderpath. Scorchpaw’s eyes were captivating. She focused on them for a moment, then leaped off the boundary.

But just as she landed, she felt her paw twist below her. With a cry of shock and pain, she crumpled to the ground, feeling the hot, grainy blackstone scrape against her chest.

“Petalpaw!” Scorchpaw and Windpaw screamed.

A muffled roar was rising in her ears. Monster! she thought, feeling a bolt of terror. She struggled to her paws and saw a vast, glinting shape, a monster the color of spilled blood, bearing down on her. Its silver eyes gleamed harshly, hungrily, freezing her in place. Behind its transparent black patches, Petalpaw could see a Twoleg, its jaws open wide in a silent screech. Petalpaw slammed her eyes shut and dug her claws into the blackstone.

Oh, StarClan, does it have to end like this? she wondered. It’s almost… pathetic. After everything I’ve survived, I get flattened by a monster. And it’s my own stupid fault.

This time, unlike her fall from the waterfall, she didn’t want to watch the coming monster. Shame twinged within her at her cowardice, but she just couldn’t bear to gaze directly into the monster’s merciless eyes as its paws pounded her to dust. She pressed her belly close to the blackstone and waited for the agony she was sure was coming.

But it never came.

Instead, there was an unearthly screech as the monster veered away from Petalpaw, missing her by mouse-lengths. She opened her eyes and watched, stunned, as it hurtled blindly for the edge of the Thunderpath. It swerved ungracefully, its weight concentrated on its right paws. The momentum lifted the monster off its left paws, which remained spinning in the air, and it careened into the brambles at the side of the Thunderpath, where it stopped moving with an enormous crash.

Petalpaw blinked in astonishment. The Thunderpath was clear after the monster’s downfall. Was that their leader? Petalpaw wondered. She shrugged. It didn’t matter; now she was free to get across. She hobbled quickly over the last two stripes until she felt tough sprigs of grass under her paws. With a tremendous sigh of relief, she collapsed on the ground, all the adrenaline draining out of her.

“Petalpaw!” Windpaw exclaimed, running over. He covered her head with furious licks, and Petalpaw could hear his heart thundering through his flank. “Whatever happened to not dying?”

“I’m not very good at it,” Petalpaw purred, reaching out to touch his paw. It was trembling.

“Thank StarClan you’re alive,” sighed Scorchpaw, sitting down next to her. His voice sounded steadier than Windpaw’s, but Petalpaw could smell the fear-scent rolling off his pelt in waves.

Pawsteps sounded to Petalpaw’s right; Graytail made it safely across. “Why do you always almost die, no matter what we’re doing?” the LeafClan tom demanded.

Petalpaw shrugged. “I don’t know. I try not to.”

Windpaw purred with amusement. “Try harder, then.”

“I will,” Petalpaw promised.

Windpaw nodded in mock-seriousness just as Scorchpaw dipped his head grimly. “Good,” both toms meowed.

Petalpaw stifled a shaky laugh. “Come on,” she mewed. “We should get going.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to rest?” Graytail fretted. “You should be gentle on that paw -- ”

Petalpaw flicked her tail. “I’m fine,” she responded. “We can rest tonight. But I don’t want to hold us up any longer. Our mission is to find MoonClan, and we should do that.”

“Whatever you say, O Great Leader,” Windpaw teased, his blue eyes sparkling.

Petalpaw snorted. “Glad you know your place.”

“I know my place,” Scorchpaw muttered. Graytail shot him an annoyed glance, and the brown tabby tom looked at his paws.

What was that all about?

Petalpaw shook off the thought. I survived the Thunderpath -- just barely -- and it’s time to get going.

“Let’s go,” she meowed, staggering to her paws. She padded forward, away from the Thunderpath, without looking back at the deadly river of blackstone. I never want to see a Thunderpath ever again.

CHAPTER TWO

Scorchpaw was waiting in a moonlit clearing, silver starlight dappling his coat. His amber eyes brightened when he saw Petalpaw approaching, and he raised his tail in greeting.

“Ready for some night hunting?” he asked.

“Y-yeah,” Petalpaw stammered, feeling suddenly nervous. “Where should we go?”

Scorchpaw’s striped face was a mere shadow in the night, but she could see the glint of teeth as he spoke, and the mesmerizing glow of amber eyes against dark fur. “I was thinking… maybe by the stream we found?” he suggested. “There could be water voles hiding there.”

Petalpaw nodded in a dazed sort of agreement. “Sure.”

Scorchpaw lowered his head to stare into her eyes. “Are you okay?”

Her heart fluttered madly like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. “Yeah,” she replied, avoiding his gaze. “Let’s go.” She started padding into the forest.

“Uh, Petalpaw?” Scorchpaw mewed. “You’re going the wrong way.”

“Am I?” Petalpaw shook out her pelt and turned around. “Sorry.”

Great StarClan, I’m turning into one of those she-cats! Snap out of it!

Scorchpaw had already disappeared into the undergrowth, heading for the stream. Petalpaw bounded after him. The night air was cool and promised rain, and it felt pleasant against her cheek as it ruffled her fur. Here she could just be with Scorchpaw, enjoying his company, beyond the boundaries of the Clans. And now that he feels no loyalty to SunClan, I can be his friend!

Petalpaw shoved her way through a prickly bush and emerged in a small glade of moonlit grass, divided by a silver stream. She gaped in astonishment as she padded through the grass, droplets of dew shimmering like stars around her paws. It looked like a scene from StarClan’s hunting grounds.

Scorchpaw was a dark silhouette by the stream, perched on a rock cutting through the shining water. His amber eyes shimmered as his head turned toward her. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah,” Petalpaw agreed quietly, padding over and sitting down on a boulder beside him, careful not to sit too close.

They rested in silence for a moment, Petalpaw trying vainly not to stare at the brown tabby tom.

Suddenly, Scorchpaw’s paw flashed out, plunging into the water. Startled, Petalpaw leaped back as cold droplets spun everywhere, speckling her pale fur. She watched, surprised, as a flapping silver fish landed with a wet slap at her paws. Scorchpaw killed it with a swift bite to the neck, then nudged it toward her. “Here,” he meowed, a little shyly. “Brightpaw taught me how to fish. She’s way better than me, though.”

“She?” Petalpaw asked without thinking. Her fur prickled uncomfortably, though she didn’t know why.

Scorchpaw nodded. “She’s my sister.”

“Oh,” Petalpaw mewed softly. Good.

Great StarClan, what is my problem?

“Do you want to try?” Scorchpaw offered. “It’s not that hard, but the water’s cold!” He held up a damp forepaw.

Petalpaw purred in amusement. “I’ll try.” She shuffled to the water’s edge and lifted her right forepaw into the air so that it was hovering over the surface of the stream. In the shallows she could see the silver glint of scales as the fish slid smoothly by. One of them, a small minnow, had separated from the rest of the school. It darted over the pebbles with miniscule flicks of its tail, and when it got close enough to touch, Petalpaw lunged. Her forepaws crashed into the water as she threw her weight forward; she felt the fish writhing between her claws, but it managed to slip away and vanish into the stream’s depths.

Petalpaw gave a frustrated growl and glared into the shimmering water. Her own annoyed face scowled back at her. Hunting on land is much easier than this!

As she was staring at her reflection, there was movement in the ripples beside it; a brown-striped face with luminous amber eyes had appeared, shivering slightly on the moving water. Petalpaw gave a startled jolt and lost her balance, falling headfirst into the freezing stream.

Not again! she thought frantically, her heart thundering and thoughts whirling as water surrounded her on all sides. She kicked out furiously with her hind legs, surprised to find her paws on smooth river rocks. Shakily, Petalpaw stood up, and found that she was standing in the middle of the stream, and that the water barely reached her belly fur.

Feeling hot embarrassment scorch her ears, Petalpaw slowly and reluctantly turned to face Scorchpaw, who looked like he was trying to stifle a laugh. Her cheeks blazed as she stumbled out of the stream and onto the bank, feeling utterly humiliated.

“Great catch,” Scorchpaw snickered, his eyes glinting mischievously. “Maybe you should try that again.”

Petalpaw slapped him with her tail. “Never!”

“Or maybe I could push you in,” Scorchpaw suggested, taking a few steps closer with a wicked grin on his face.

Petalpaw laughed and shoved him away. “You fox-heart!”

Scorchpaw didn’t reply.

Concerned, Petalpaw hurried to his side and sniffed along his spine. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t hurt you -- ”

“You murdered me,” Scorchpaw croaked, rolling onto his back and striking a dramatic death pose. “StarClan, here I come…”

Petalpaw wrinkled her nose. “StarClan? I thought for sure it’d be the Dark Forest, with your fishing lessons.”

Scorchpaw gave a gasp of mock-offense. “How dare you! You shall join me in the Place of No Stars!” With a pretend growl, he grabbed her shoulders and flung her to the ground, where she lay laughing in a patch of moss.

“Okay, okay!” Petalpaw relented, once her last giggles had subsided. “I surrender!”

“Good,” Scorchpaw meowed smugly, his face a mouse-length from hers. “I reign supreme, as always.”

Petalpaw purred. Her heart was pounding. “Not always.”

“Oh, really?” Scorchpaw asked, widening his eyes. Up close, Petalpaw realized that they were more golden than orange, like dappled amber moons, like disks of liquid sunset.

“Yeah,” Petalpaw mumbled listlessly; she had lost track of the conversation. There was that paler splash of fur on his cheek again, where the hairs were sparser. Now that she was only a few whiskers away from Scorchpaw, she could see jagged white lines on the skin. Claw marks. They were scars.

Where did he get those?

“Petalpaw?” Scorchpaw interrupted her silent musing. “Did I snap your mind?”

Petalpaw blinked and scooted away from the tabby apprentice. “N-no, I’m good,” she stammered. “Just…” She stared wordlessly at his face.

He reached up to touch his cheek self-consciously. “The scratches?”

Petalpaw hesitated, then nodded.

Scorchpaw sighed. “I don’t like to talk about them…”

“Sorry,” Petalpaw meowed hurriedly. “You don’t have to -- ”

“You didn’t let me finish.” Scorchpaw’s amber eyes blazed. “I’ll tell you.”

Not even daring to breathe, Petalpaw nodded.

“I was just a kit,” Scorchpaw began, “when I got the scars. I… spoke out against my leader, just a day before my apprentice ceremony. Amberstar was talking about raiding MoonClan, and I overheard. I guess you could say I was a little shocked when I found out what he was planning.” His words were bitter. “I told Brightpaw -- Brightkit then -- what Amberstar had said, and she said she thought it was a good idea. I argued, rather loudly, that it was a horrible thing to do.” He hesitated. “The whole Clan heard, Amberstar, too. He used me as an example -- ” Scorchpaw cleared his throat as his voice started to tremble, then continued. “He said, ‘This is what happens to those who defy their leader,’ and slashed me across the face.”

Petalpaw stared at the apprentice in horror. “Just because -- ”

“ -- I had a different opinion,” Scorchpaw finished, flattening his ears as a haunted look filled his eyes. “My mother was too scared to stand up for me. My own mother.”

Petalpaw couldn’t comprehend the idea. She hadn’t thought once about how Scorchpaw fared in SunClan, not even bothered to ask, always assumed that SunClan was a united group -- evil, yes, but still united. But now she knew that the pain they inflicted on the other cats of the forest ran deep within their veins, and no cat said a word when claws slashed and dripped with blood from their own kin.

She couldn’t fathom the agony of feeling unsafe within your own Clan, of expecting an attack to come from the cats closest to you, of not having anyone to confide in. Despite the fact that MoonClan had been driven out and forced away from the territories, Petalpaw realized that she was lucky to be one of them. Her father was a noble leader, and she trusted him with her life. Her siblings never hurt her, and Shadowleaf always stood up for her. But Scorchpaw had to walk his path alone.

“I’m sorry,” Petalpaw whispered, although she knew the words did nothing to ease Scorchpaw’s pain. She couldn’t reverse the past, and a simple apology just couldn’t encompass the enormous burden on Scorchpaw’s shoulders.

He nodded anyway. “Thanks. I’m all right now, though.”

He’s lying. It still hurts, even now.

But Petalpaw dipped her head. “Thanks for the fishing lesson,” she mewed in a small voice.

Scorchpaw offered her a tiny smile. “You’re welcome. Make sure your shadow doesn’t fall on the water next time.”

“I will,” Petalpaw promised, and she crouched beside Scorchpaw again, ready to catch a fish.

*        *        *        *        *

Petalpaw dropped her prey with a splat at Graytail’s paws. The LeafClan tom stared down at the silver scales of the fish, glinting like stars against the leaf-mold. Then, he lifted his gaze to meet hers, and she stared back evenly, taking comfort in Scorchpaw’s sturdy presence at her shoulder.

“It’s one of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen,” Scorchpaw commented when Graytail said nothing.

Petalpaw nodded firmly and stood closer to Scorchpaw so that their flanks were brushing. “It’s my first fish,” she declared. So you can either be a grumpy badger or just eat it, flea-pelt.

Graytail’s sky-blue eyes were heavy with clouds of disappointment. Petalpaw frowned. What’s his problem? “Is there something wrong?” she asked defensively.

Graytail looked at Scorchpaw, a jumbled mix of emotions in his eyes. Petalpaw couldn’t tell what they were, they were so tangled up. “Petalpaw,” Graytail meowed, and his voice sounded ominous, “I think you and I need to have a talk.”

What?” Petalpaw demanded. “What did I do? What did he do?” She jerked her head at Scorchpaw, who was blinking at Graytail in obvious confusion.

Graytail’s eyes hardened. “We need to have a talk,” he repeated.

Petalpaw recoiled, thoroughly unsettled by his tone of voice. “Look,” she began hotly, “whatever you have to say, you can say in front of Scorchpaw.” She unsheathed her claws and felt them prick the ground. “He’s a good cat, you should know that by now.”

“I know that,” Graytail murmured.

“Well, you don’t act like it!” Petalpaw snapped. She turned to Scorchpaw. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to talk with Graytail privately.”

“Sure,” Scorchpaw mumbled. “I’ll just be… over here…” He pivoted slowly on the spot and trudged across the temporary camp, tail dragging dejectedly through the damp leaf-mold. Petalpaw felt a pang of guilt as she watched the SunClan tom flop onto his side under a patch of dew-laden ferns, alone in the shadows.

Why can’t Graytail just trust him?

Petalpaw whipped back toward Graytail, a jibe on the tip of her tongue, ready to fight on Scorchpaw’s behalf. She dug her unsheathed claws into the spongy forest floor, relishing the feeling of an impending argument. Graytail, however, looked anything but energized. Instead, the gray LeafClan tabby had deep shadows under his blue eyes, which were looking more sunken than Petalpaw had realized. He looked… sad.

“Come on,” he murmured, flicking his tail in a gesture for her to follow him. “Let’s get out of earshot.”

Petalpaw began to feel a creeping sense of curiosity, and she complied without a word. Questions were whirling around in her head as she padded after Graytail until they were well away from the makeshift camp. What is he going to say? Why is he so sad-looking? Did I do something wrong and I didn’t even know it? Is this about Scorchpaw?

Graytail began the conversation with a long, drawn-out sigh. Petalpaw’s ears pricked at the sound; surely it would lead to something interesting, if it was worth sighing about?

“You’re probably wondering what I’m going to say.” Graytail paused heavily.

Get on with it! Petalpaw thought impatiently, flexing her claws in the grass. But she remained silent, sitting on her tail to stop it from lashing.

“I’ve noticed you’ve been hanging around Scorchpaw,” Graytail remarked. The tom’s voice was weighted with reluctance and regret, as though he didn’t want to say the words he was about to. But he forged on anyway. “You seem to be good… friends.”

Uh oh, Petalpaw thought. She didn’t like where this was going.

“I just…” Graytail huffed out a breath in frustration. “You have to abide by the warrior code, remember? He’s SunClan, you’re MoonClan… it just doesn’t work.”

“What are you saying?” Petalpaw mewed, feeling a mounting sense of dread.

“I’m saying that you and Scorchpaw can’t be together,” Graytail meowed bluntly, staring directly into her eyes.

Petalpaw stumbled backward. “B-be together? That’s ridiculous, we’re not even together!” she babbled. “You can’t -- that’s not -- we -- ”

Graytail snorted. “Oh, please. I see the way you stare at him, like a starving kit looking at a fat rabbit. And he’s padding after you, too.”

Petalpaw blinked dumbly. Her ears were full of a ringing sound, echoing around inside of her head. Is that what it is? she thought. Is that -- I like Scorchpaw? And he likes me? Her heart sped up as an image of the lonely amber-eyed tom filled her mind. Her paws tingled. That’s… no. That’s so stupid, Petalpaw! You can’t like him! You barely know him!

But that wasn’t completely true… Petalpaw knew Scorchpaw better now, she knew of the scars etched into his flesh and his heart alike, knew his scent and heard his laugh and felt the touch of his fur…

Petalpaw buried her head in her forepaws, utterly humiliated. She had never thought of herself as shallow before; she’d always looked down on the she-cats who gossiped about the most handsome toms and chose the best-looking one in the group, even if he had a rock for a brain.

But here she was, crushing on a cat from another Clan who actually liked her back. Hundreds of swooning she-cats would kill to be in her place.

But this… was different. Somehow, Petalpaw knew that it wasn’t harmless. And she knew that it was because Scorchpaw was SunClan.

SunClan, the Clan of her enemies.

The Clan that drove out MoonClan.

The Clan that stole her life.

Scorchpaw’s Clan.

Graytail sighed. “Believe me, I know that relationships outside of your own Clan are bad. They never end well.”

Petalpaw stared at him in surprise. “What, were you in one?”

Graytail sniffed haughtily. “I’ll have you know that I do get a lot of she-cats’ attention.”

“What, with your long, inspiring lectures?” Petalpaw muttered under her breath.

Graytail didn’t seem to hear. “I had a mate outside the Clan,” he admitted. “She died, though.” He gave himself a brisk shake, then continued in a more brusque voice. “The important thing is, stay away from Scorchpaw. It’s for your own good.”

Petalpaw stared at Graytail in dismay. “You can’t tell me what to do!” she protested. “You can’t tell me who I can and can’t be friends with!”

Friends?” Graytail asked, raising an eyebrow.

Petalpaw hissed in frustration. “Who cares? I am my own cat, and you don’t make decisions for me! What does it matter if I like being around Scorchpaw? It doesn’t concern you!”

“I’m only trying to keep you safe,” Graytail argued. “I just -- I have a hard time trusting Scorchpaw, even after the battle! It goes against all my instincts to travel with a SunClan cat, let alone trust one!”

“We’ve been over this,” Petalpaw growled. “I trust him, and you will learn to do so, too. Did you know that he was permanently scarred by Amberstar as a kit? While his parents sat and watched?” Petalpaw felt a stab of guilt at betraying Scorchpaw’s secret, but it was the only card she had left to play.

And it worked.

Graytail’s eyes widened, shocked orbs of cobalt catching the predawn light. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Then he cleared his throat and rasped, “That’s -- oh, StarClan -- that’s horrible.”

“See?” Petalpaw challenged him. “You can’t judge a cat by the Clan they belong to. Scorchpaw isn’t happy in SunClan; do you really think he’s on their side?”

Graytail bowed his head. “I find that difficult to believe, now,” he acknowledged.

Petalpaw gave a satisfied nod. “Now can I go back?” she asked dryly. “Or do you have another piece of wisdom to share with me?”

Graytail didn’t look up. “You may go.”

Unnerved by the depressed slope of his shoulders, Petalpaw backed up a few paces, then turned and fled, heading back to the camp. She only glanced back once to see Graytail lift his head to the fading stars. She saw his mouth move, and heard his faint voice on the breeze.

“Oh, StarClan, I tried… That poor kit…”

Petalpaw’s heart froze and she skidded to a halt. The first icy tendrils of fear were beginning to curl in her chest. Graytail’s voice was heavy with sorrow and regret, as though the conversation with Petalpaw was more meaningful than she’d realized before. He really did want to warn me, Petalpaw thought with a small shiver. Should I listen to him?

“Hey, Petalpaw!” a familiar voice greeted her. Petalpaw gave a startled yelp as a brown tabby tom bounded up to her. “How was your talk with Graytail?” Scorchpaw asked.

“Good,” Petalpaw lied with a forced smile. It became more real as Scorchpaw grinned back, which made his amber eyes warmer and brighter. “I’m going to get a bit of rest before dawn,” she meowed, averting her gaze as she felt heat rise in her cheeks. “Graytail’s lectures are painful.”

Scorchpaw purred in amusement and nudged her shoulder, unbalancing her. “Sweet dreams,” he called after Petalpaw as she padded slowly back to the makeshift camp.

“Thanks,” Petalpaw mumbled uncomfortably. Her heart did flutter a little in spite of her best efforts to control it. Frustration prickled through every hair on her pelt as she bid Scorchpaw a short farewell and trudged back to the temporary camp. Petalpaw didn’t glance back once, but she could feel Scorchpaw’s piercing amber eyes on her as she was swallowed by shadows, and felt the echo of his gaze lingering with her even once she was alone.

CHAPTER THREE

“Look!” Windpaw exclaimed. “What is that?”

Petalpaw glanced up from her paws at his words. The group was up and traveling again, with Petalpaw trailing at the back, refusing to let any cat near her. She didn’t want to talk to Graytail, nor interact with Scorchpaw in his presence, and Windpaw… being around Windpaw felt odd. Whenever Petalpaw engaged in any conversation with him, it would feel tense, like a storm was about to break.

Great StarClan, how much longer do I have to travel with them?

“I think it’s a Twoleg barn,” came Graytail’s voice from up ahead. Petalpaw looked up and followed the tilt of his head; nestled in a nearby valley was a large, blockish shape. A strange sound echoed over the plains; a long, deep moaning sound, almost crooning, and it seemed to come from what Graytail called a Twoleg barn.

Petalpaw’s ears pricked in alarm as the sound rang in her ears again. “What is that sound?” she demanded, imagining some sort of giant, talking monster with a shudder.

“Cows,” Graytail replied. Petalpaw glared at him, not missing the amusement in his voice. “They’re big, hoofed creatures with black-and-white pelts.”

“Like giant deer?” Scorchpaw questioned.

Graytail nodded. “Sort of. You’ll see once we get to the barn.”

As the unfamiliar words flew around Petalpaw’s head, she flattened her ears, feeling stupid. Embarrassment burned her cheeks when she realized that she knew virtually nothing about the world except the cats in her own Clan. Even Windpaw was nodding along like it all made sense. I haven’t ever heard of a cow or a deer or a -- what did he call it? A barn…?

Sighing quietly, she trudged after the others. Her wariness grew with each pawstep that took her closer to the barn, and the low, ominous calls of the cows sounded like thunder in her ears.

Soon they were close enough to see the cows. Petalpaw gave a shriek of surprise as the huge creatures stomped slowly by, their heavy hooves pounding the earth. They were massive, with rough black-and-white pelts just as Graytail had promised. Petalpaw stared, frightened but curious, into the rolling brown eyes and broad faces. With a bolt of terror she saw one of them open its mouth, revealing large, yellow teeth; but to her relief, the teeth were blunt, and the cow bent its head to start chewing on a tussock of grass instead of the passing cats. Thank StarClan! If they ate meat, we’d all be crowfood.

“My mother told me about cows,” Windpaw meowed suddenly. He glanced at his paws. “She said that they ate grass and hay, and slept in barns at night.”

Petalpaw felt a pang of sadness and pity for the young tom. Whenever he spoke of Belladonna she was instantly a kit again, watching the beautiful she-cat bleed in front of her as the last breath left her body. No matter how hard Petalpaw tried to forget it, the memory stayed with her, and it haunted Windpaw as well.

“What’s hay?” Scorchpaw mewed, breaking the awkward silence.

Windpaw didn’t look at him. “It’s basically dried grass,” he responded shortly. “A lot of barn animals eat it.”

“You mean there are more?” Petalpaw asked.

Windpaw gave a short, humorless laugh. “Yes, there are more than just cows. Sheep -- they look like clouds with legs. Goats are the same, just not as fluffy. And chickens…” A dreamy expression crossed his face, banishing the coldness from earlier. “They’re the most massive birds, and the Twolegs feed them seeds so they grow nice and fat. What I wouldn’t give to catch one… It’d feed half the Clan…”

Uneasily, Petalpaw wondered if he meant LeafClan or MoonClan. But she said nothing as they kept walking, Windpaw retelling the stories of barn animals that his mother had told him.

Finally, they reached the barn. Petalpaw’s nose wrinkled as a musty scent filled her nostrils, of old wood and dusty hay and what she assumed was cow dirt.

“Wait, do you smell that?” Scorchpaw meowed suddenly.

“What, the stench of the cows’ dirtplace?” Petalpaw asked dryly, rolling her eyes.

“No,” Scorchpaw murmured. His ears pricked as he sniffed the air. “There’s cat scent here.”

Frowning, Petalpaw lifted her nose to the breeze and inhaled deeply. Past the overwhelming scents of the cows, Petalpaw detected cat scent, just as Scorchpaw had. “I smell it, too,” she told him.

Scorchpaw’s hackles rose. “We should get out of here. Rogues bring trouble.”

Windpaw flinched. Petalpaw’s brow furrowed, and she bit her lip, unsure if she should speak up in his defense. That would mean offending Scorchpaw, and that could tear their group apart even further.

She stayed silent, despite the guilt churning in her belly. She tried to ignore Windpaw’s incredulous stare, his blue eyes full of betrayal.

“Too late,” Graytail murmured, and the cat scent was suddenly much stronger now, all around the patrol, as cats slunk out of the barn and surrounded them. Heart pounding, Petalpaw stumbled backward and pressed against Graytail, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw, forming a defensive circle.

“We come in peace!” Graytail called, sheathing his claws and raising his tail in greeting.

Petalpaw narrowed her eyes at the cats. She was facing a pale ginger she-cat who didn’t look like she accepted their offer of peace. The rogue’s green eyes were slits of open mistrust, and her tail was bristling. But under the thick fur, Petalpaw could see faint tremors running through the she-cat’s body; she was shivering.

She’s scared of us!

Petalpaw turned her head slowly to study the other two cats. One was a plump brown she-cat who didn’t look hungry for a fight, but there was a forced expression of ferocity on her face. Her blue eyes were exhausted, but they still sparked with a faint challenge. The tom next to her was black as night, with fiery yellow eyes. His fur was bristling and his lips were drawn back in a snarl; he certainly looked ready to start clawing their pelts off.

But in every cat was a tremble of fear.

They’re scared of us… all of them…

Petalpaw blinked, stunned and a little honored. She never thought of herself as scary before, but to these rogues, who looked as though they’d never missed a meal, she was.

There was a sharp hiss from Windpaw in her ear. “There are kits here!”

Petalpaw smelled the kit-scent at the same time. A milky aroma clung to the brown she-cat’s fur. She must be the mother.

These cats are just trying to protect their kits!

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Petalpaw told them, her fur flattening and her claws retracting. “We’re just passing through.”

“Not even Scorchpaw here would hurt a kit,” Windpaw promised, his whiskers twitching. Scorchpaw scowled at him, which made Windpaw smirk.

The brown she-cat’s fur flattened, and her claws sheathed as she rose out of her attack crouch. “Sorry,” she mewed, sounding genuinely apologetic. “It’s just a mother’s instinct to fight on behalf of her kits.”

The ginger she-cat snorted. “Don’t be so quick to let your guard down, Apple,” she meowed scornfully. “These cats could beat you in a fight any day.” She eyed Scorchpaw’s extended claws suspiciously.

Petalpaw nudged the brown tabby tom. He gave a startled little jerk and whispered, “What?” She gestured to his unsheathed claws. With a mumbled apology, Scorchpaw sheathed them and did his best to look non- threatening.

The ginger she-cat still didn’t relax. Her gaze was darting all over the Clan cats, sizing them up and scanning for weaknesses. On Petalpaw’s right side, Windpaw was doing the same to the rogues. His eyes shone with blue fire as he examined them, determination in every tensed muscle under his pelt.

Petalpaw flicked him gently with her tail, and he shot about five tail-lengths into the air. “What in the w -- StarClan was that?” he demanded.

“Just… we’re not looking for a fight,” she murmured. “Do your best to look non-threatening.” She just barely refrained from adding, like Scorchpaw’s doing. Comparing Windpaw to Scorchpaw never resulted in anything good. Either way, there would be one tom angry with her.

The black rogue tom thrust his muzzle aggressively into Graytail’s face. “Who are you and what do you want?”

Stallion,” hissed Apple in a warning tone of voice. The black tom didn’t seem to hear; he was still waiting expectantly for Graytail’s response.

“We’re searching for a large group of cats,” the LeafClan cat answered. “They call themselves MoonClan. We were following their trail and came upon your barn. Have you seen them?”

Apple shivered. “No, but we heard them. They sounded awfully tired and hungry; if only they’d stayed with us! There are many mice in the barn.”

The ginger she-cat wrinkled her nose. “I’m glad they didn’t come. This barn is crowded enough as it is, with the kits here.”

“Don’t be so cranky, Hay!” Apple chided the she-cat. Petalpaw was puzzled for a moment, then realized that the cat’s name was Hay. That must get confusing, she thought with a wry twitch of her whiskers.

The black tom, Stallion, slowly lowered himself back onto his haunches. “Will you be staying long?” he growled.

Graytail shook his head. “No. Just for the night, if that’s okay with you?”

Stallion huffed. “Fine. But lay one claw on my kits and you’ll wish you were never born.”

“And I’ll flay you alive,” Hay added, lashing her tail. With one last glare at Scorchpaw, she marched over to stand beside Stallion.

Apple blinked warmly at the Clan cats. “I’m sorry for my sister’s rudeness,” she apologized quietly, so Hay couldn’t hear. “She doesn’t like strangers. And Stallion is just protective of our kits, that’s all.”

Petalpaw nodded in understanding and saw that Graytail and Windpaw were, too. The only cat who remained unmoving was Scorchpaw. Sadness clouded his amber eyes, and Petalpaw knew he was thinking of his own mother, who had stood by and let him face Amberstar’s wrath alone.

“Would you like me to show you around?” Apple asked earnestly.

“Yes,” Graytail replied. “Thank you.”

Apple dipped her head amiably. “My pleasure.” With a flick of her tail, the rogue queen padded into the barn. Graytail shrugged and trotted after her. Petalpaw and Scorchpaw exchanged a glance, then followed, Windpaw only a few paces behind them.

The inside of the barn was dry and warm as a kit’s bedding. Dust motes floated lazily in the narrow shafts of sunlight streaming through the gaps in the wooden walls. Petalpaw felt parched earth and prickly stalks of hay underpaw as she padded cautiously around, inspecting every nook and cranny.

Great mounds of hay were tucked up against the far left corner, under some sort of elevated wooden structure that spanned half of the barn. Petalpaw approached it warily. The flat slab of wood above was connected to the ground by some sort of… tree-thing. The tree’s branches were perfectly straight and horizontal, clasped between two skinny trunks that were exactly vertical. Petalpaw sniffed it, puzzled. It smelled of the rogue cats, scents upon scents built up for many seasons. They must have climbed this tree-thing many times, Petalpaw thought.

“Hey, I know what that is!” Windpaw chirped. The mottled gray tom bounced over to the tree-thing, blatantly ignoring Petalpaw. He tested a paw on one of the horizontal branches and beamed. “It’s a ladder! I heard about them in the Twoleg stories that Mother -- ” He stopped abruptly. With a pang of pity, Petalpaw saw his shoulders slump. Pain gnawed at her insides when the lonely tom didn’t turn to her for support like he used to.

“Very good, sweetheart,” Apple praised him. “The ladder leads to the loft, where we sleep with the kits in the hay.”

Ladder? Loft? Petalpaw blinked, thoroughly confused by all the unfamiliar words.

“Can I meet them?” Windpaw asked, a little shyly.

Apple purred. “Of course! Let me show you how to climb up.” The plump brown she-cat hurried up to the ladder and placed her forepaws on the second branch. Then, her hind legs came off the ground and attached to the first branch. Up she went, placing her forepaws and then her hind paws, until she heaved herself over the top and turned around. Her round face radiated happiness. “Come on, it’s not hard,” she urged Windpaw.

The gray tom grinned. He proceeded to climb the ladder just as expertly as Apple, as though he’d been doing it his whole life. The thought made a dark, gloomy weight settle down on Petalpaw, pressing her against the ground. She was being crushed under the mass of her guilt and sorrow.

I should have defended him. Why didn’t I defend him?

I’m such a flea-brain.

“Are you going to meet the kits, too?” a voice suddenly asked her.

Petalpaw leaped into the air, startled. Fur bristling, she rounded on the cat talking to her, but it was only Scorchpaw, his amber eyes mildly surprised at her explosion of shock. Feeling hot under her pelt, Petalpaw muttered, “I don’t know… I guess.” Talking about kits felt… weird. Especially with Scorchpaw.

StarClan help me, Petalpaw thought with a heavy sigh.

“Don’t you like kits?” Scorchpaw inquired, cocking his head.

Every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt spiked up at his words. “Heh -- no -- I mean, I like them, they’re cute -- but -- I don’t know if I’d -- uh -- ” She glanced around wildly, desperately, searching for some sort of distraction. “Well, l-let’s go m-meet the kits! That -- that sounded… wrong…” With a slightly insane laugh, Petalpaw charged up the ladder, tripping over the last branch and landing clumsily on the floor of the loft.

“Great StarClan!” Scorchpaw exclaimed. “You’re so jumpy today! Is everything all right?” His anxious face hovered over hers.

Gah! Petalpaw scooted away from him, ignoring the splinters that tore at her fur. “Everything’s fine,” she meowed quickly. “Let’s go meet some k -- ”

Petalpaw hadn’t even finished the sentence when three balls of fluff shot out from a mountain of hay, shrieking a high-pitched battle cry. Her eyes widened as the three kits flew into her, latching onto her soft gray-and-white fur. The sudden deluge of flapping paws and whipping tails unbalanced Petalpaw and sent her sprawling to the ground again.

“Death to the intruders!” squeaked the kit perched on Petalpaw’s chest, a black tabby tom.

“Flint, you rabbit-brain!” a pale brown she-kit scolded him. “Can’t you see that they’re comin’ in peace?”

“If you’re so sure they’re peaceful, why are your claws at her throat?” muttered the third one, a dusty gray she-kit.

The pale brown she-kit glared at the gray one. “Jus’ a precaution, April,” she meowed, blue eyes narrowed suspiciously as they returned to Petalpaw. “You can never be too careful.”

The gray she-kit, April, rolled her eyes dramatically. “You’re all idiots,” she grumbled, relinquishing her hold on Petalpaw’s tail. She stepped back and stared disapprovingly at her attacking littermates.

Flint’s head popped up from where he was trying to nip Petalpaw’s neck. His short white teeth barely made it through her fur, and the tiny tom spat out several white hairs before exclaiming, “She’s indestructable!”

“Idiots,” April repeated, turning away from her brother as though she couldn’t bear to look at him.

“Oh, Flint, Hazel, get off!” Apple chided, running up to her kits. Flint, upon seeing his mother’s flustered approach, promptly turned and ran, diving into the mountain of hay. Hazel remained where she was; the small brown she-kit’s claws didn’t retract in the slightest as she stared defiantly at her mother.

“I’m so sorry about that,” Apple apologized to Petalpaw as the harried-looking she-cat grabbed Hazel by the scruff.

Kicking and flailing, Hazel wailed, “Mother! I was jus’ tryin’ to protect you from the intruders!”

“Not very well,” April noted.

“Shut up!” Hazel snapped at her sister.

April smirked. “I was just noticing -- ”

“April, stop your cheeky little remarks!” Apple ordered, exasperation in her voice. “Hazel, don’t use such rude words. And Flint -- ” The brown she-cat’s green eyes roved the loft, finally spotting her son’s black-tipped ears poking out of a clump of hay. “Flint, stop hiding from me! You should have known better not to attack, all of you!”

“But we did a good job, didn’t we?” Hazel asked challengingly.

Apple’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t test my patience, little bug,” she warned her daughter. “It’s stretched to the limit already with your roughhousing.”

“You okay?” Scorchpaw murmured, his breath ruffling her ear fur.

Petalpaw’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she responded, standing up and shaking out her pelt, a little violently. “A few kits could never take me.”

“Are you sure?” Scorchpaw asked, amusement glittering in his amber eyes. “You looked pretty defeated -- hey!” he yelped, as Petalpaw aimed a blow at his ear. “Okay, okay, you win!”

“Of course,” Petalpaw replied, extending her neck so that her muzzle was a mouse-length from his. She smirked. “After all, you don’t always rule.”

They fell silent, both cats remembering their midnight hunt together.

“Am I interrupting something?” a new voice snapped.

Petalpaw froze, then pulled back from Scorchpaw to face the mottled gray tom in front of her. Windpaw’s hackles were rising, his tail bristling. His blue eyes were cold and unfriendly, an unnerving expression on his usually welcoming face. Unease flitted briefly through Petalpaw, making her belly churn. Windpaw looked… frightening. A shiver ran through the length of her body. With his intelligence and cunning, Windpaw would make a formidable opponent. And with the right motivation, couldn’t any cat turn on her?

Not Windpaw, she thought, trying to dismiss the terrifying idea. Being paranoid won’t help anything. He’s my friend.

“Sorry,” Petalpaw mumbled. “Just… an inside joke.”

Windpaw stared at her a moment before replying, “Cool.” Then he turned away, back to Apple and the kits. “Hey, kits, let’s have a contest! The cat who can hold onto my tail the longest without falling off is the winner…”

Petalpaw watched him play with the kits, feeling as though a raincloud hung above her head, casting a circle of shadow upon her. Sadness opened up a gaping maw in her heart as she watched the squealing kits pounce on Windpaw’s tail. The gray tom didn’t even seem to care that his tail-tip was being shredded by their thorn-sharp claws. He just smiled and laughed with the kits, purring when Hazel grabbed his tail, helping Flint when the black tabby tripped and got a splinter in his paw, nodding along with April’s complaints about her moronic siblings.

The happy image of fun somehow felt sad, at least to Petalpaw. A lump formed in her throat. Windpaw was once an innocent kit like them, with a head full of ideas and a heart full of dreams…

Why did StarClan take that away from him?

“What do you think of the barn?” Apple asked, breaking Petalpaw out of her stupor.

Petalpaw thought about it for a moment. “It’s nice,” she responded vaguely.

Apple smiled at her. “My sister Hay prefers the open moorland, but this is the best place to raise our kits. There are mice in every season, and the hay bales make great places for dens.” The brown she-cat paused to watch Windpaw play with the kits. Flint clung to his shoulders and Hazel’s claws were still embedded in his tail, while April reluctantly joined in with the fun. “He’s very good with kits,” Apple commented. “He’ll make a great father one day.”

Petalpaw shifted uncomfortably, trying her best to ignore Scorchpaw’s blazing stare burning into her flank. “Yeah, I guess…” she mumbled self-consciously. Scorchpaw’s left ear twitched, but the brown tabby tom said nothing.

“How about you?” Apple asked Scorchpaw kindly. “Do you like kits?”

Petalpaw saw Scorchpaw’s muscles tense under his pelt. His shoulders hunched and his fur prickled defensively. “Uh, sure,” he muttered. “I don’t know…”

Apple turned to Petalpaw. “How about you, dear?”

Petalpaw shrank back a few steps. Despite the warm glimmer in Apple’s green eyes, it still felt like an interrogation. What is it with her and kits?

“Uh… kits are… they’re cute, I guess…” Petalpaw mewed, staring at her paws.

Apple crinkled her nose with an expression that read, Young cats… they’re so adorable. “All right, I’ll stop questioning your opinions on kits.” She gazed at her own litter, green eyes tender. “They’re worth every second of pain.” Then, the plump she-cat turned back to Petalpaw and Scorchpaw. “I know you’re passing through, looking for some sort of… Clan… but could you tell us your story? New cats are so intriguing, and we never get any visitors.”

“I wanna hear a story!” Flint piped up.

April shot her brother a withering stare. “I have a story for you. It’s called, One Pretty She-cat and her Annoying Littermates.”

Flint perked up immediately. “That sounds coo -- ” the black tabby started, then stopped. A look of realization swept over his small face as he seemed to understand his sister’s jibe. He huffed. “You’re such a fox-heart!”

April purred with amusement. “Took you long enough,” she snickered.

“April, stop teasing your brother!” Apple ordered the dusty gray she-cat. April rolled her eyes but obediently clamped her jaws shut.

“Mouse-brain,” she hissed at Flint through her clenched teeth.

I want to hear the actual story,” Hazel interjected, stomping up to her mother. She turned huge, pleading blue eyes on Petalpaw. “Can you tell it? Please?”

“Maybe once everyone’s around,” Scorchpaw suggested, nudging Petalpaw. “I don’t think Petalpaw here would like repeating it over and over.”

“Petalpaw?” Apple meowed. “That’s a pretty name. Oh, that reminds me, we should all introduce ourselves! I’m so sorry, I completely forgot… my name is Apple, and Stallion is my mate. These are our kits: Flint, Hazel, and April. My sister Hay lives with us.” Apple tipped her head to one side. “What are your names?”

“I’m Petalpaw,” Petalpaw introduced herself, “and this is Scorchpaw. I’m from MoonClan, and he’s from SunClan.” She tried to keep her voice even when the name of her enemy Clan rolled off her tongue. It was difficult, after all they’d done, but not impossible. Scorchpaw shot her a grateful look.

“And I’m Windpaw,” Windpaw interrupted, padding up to join them. The mottled gray tom sat down several tail-lengths away, keeping his tail wrapped tightly around his paws. “I was a rogue before I joined LeafClan.”

Petalpaw winced. The gray tom was making it sound like he was a permanent part of LeafClan, again.

Maybe he really does feel that way, Petalpaw thought sadly. Hopelessness tugged at her fur like the river dragging her into its depths. This will be our last journey together, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

With a deep, shuddering sigh, Petalpaw bowed her head and acknowledged the cold, hard truth.

Windpaw isn’t going to join MoonClan.

“Are you all right, darling?” Apple asked, sounding concerned.

Petalpaw blinked to clear her heavy thoughts. “Yeah, I’m fine.” The lie slid easily off her tongue. She’d been repeating the same story her whole life.

I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m good.

Lie after lie after lie.

“Should we meet up with the others?” Windpaw suggested, filling the uneasy pocket of silence. “I think Hay, Stallion, and Graytail are below the loft.”

“Yes, of course,” Apple murmured, dipping her head. She turned to her kits. “Stay right here,” she meowed sternly. “We’re going downstairs to speak with the new cats.”

“Of course, Mother,” Hazel purred unconvincingly.

“We won’t move a mouse-length,” Flint promised.

“I won’t let these rabbit-brains out of my sight,” April vowed.

Apple sighed. “Good. We’ll be back soon.” With those words, the plump brown she-cat started climbing down the ladder. Windpaw followed, then Petalpaw, with Scorchpaw at the rear.

“I won’t let you fall,” Scorchpaw murmured.

Petalpaw nearly lost her balance at his words. “Mouse-brain, don’t scare me! You almost made me break my neck!” She paused, then whispered, “But… thanks.”

Windpaw gave a loud sneeze in front of her, which sounded suspiciously like, “Fox dung!”

Petalpaw rolled her eyes and leaped to the ground behind the gray tom. Scorchpaw followed, falling into step beside her as the little group padded toward Graytail, Hay, and Stallion. The three cats glanced up when they saw Apple, Petalpaw, Windpaw, and Scorchpaw approaching.

Graytail raised his tail in greeting. “Stallion and Hay were just showing me around,” he explained. “Did you meet the kits?”

“Yes,” Windpaw responded quickly, before Petalpaw or Scorchpaw could get a word in edgewise. “April is hilarious.”

Stallion snorted. “That’s one way to describe her.” But his eyes were warm with affection for his troublemaking daughter.

“Stallion, these cats have offered to share their story with us,” Apple mewed to her mate.

Stallion’s eyes gleamed. “Finally, something exciting is happening around here! Go ahead, come sit down.” He led the Clan cats to a pile of hay, where several hastily-made nests lay. Petalpaw and Scorchpaw exchanged a glance, then selected their own nests. Windpaw sat away from them, closer to Graytail.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Petalpaw hesitated, glancing uncertainly at Graytail. Surely, as the leader of the patrol, he should be the one to speak?

But Graytail nodded at her in a gesture for her to begin the story. Surprised, Petalpaw mouthed, Me?

Graytail smiled and nodded again. Encouraged, Petalpaw cleared her throat, then started to tell her story.

She told them about SunClan’s attack on MoonClan, how the snarls echoed through the pine forest and how Shadowleaf had said that Ravenstar was too busy to play. She mentioned every vivid detail in describing her fall into the ice-cold river, and how she crawled out into SunClan territory, and how Belladonna and Windpaw had saved her from the SunClan patrol. She forced herself to recall the fox attack, and saw Belladonna bleeding on the ground once more. Then she spoke of the LeafClan cats that carried her home, and how she and Windpaw became apprentices. Petalpaw recounted her experience touring the territory, destroying the Mossrock, and how she raced into the forest. She told them of her meeting with Scorchpaw, how he refused to kill her, trying to conjure up every miniscule detail in order to make them understand exactly what happened. About halfway through her tale Petalpaw realized that she wasn’t just informing the barn cats of her travels anymore; she was telling Windpaw, she was telling Scorchpaw, she was compelling them to understand, to realize that MoonClan was worth all of this, that Scorchpaw could be trusted, that she loved them all and would miss them when they had all gone back to their own Clans.

Windpaw was staring at her, his mouth hanging open, blue eyes astonished and riveted to her face, almost pleading, full of regret and sadness and amazement…

Scorchpaw was gazing at her, too, the protective shell around his mysterious amber eyes crumbling as emotions started to seep through.

It was working, Petalpaw could be friends with both of them, she just had to make them see that…

Suddenly, Petalpaw stiffened. The words died in her throat, and the captivated faces of the barn cats became confused.

“Is something -- ” Apple started to ask, but Petalpaw wasn’t listening. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she sniffed the air.

A powerful scent, hauntingly familiar, was trickling in through the open doors of the barn. Every hair on her pelt stood on end as a wave of painful memories rushed back to Petalpaw with the strengthening scent.

Snapping teeth, wicked claws.

Russet fur.

And tortoiseshell.

Death. So much death.

“Get everyone in the loft, now,” Petalpaw commanded, her voice shaking.

Graytail looked concerned. “Petalpaw, are you alright?”

Petalpaw rounded on the gray tabby tom, tail lashing. “Climb the ladder, now!” she screeched.

“Petalpaw, tell us what’s going on!” Scorchpaw shouted.

Petalpaw glanced wildly at the open barn doors. “You have to get up!” she urged the brown tabby tom. “I can explain, but first you have to get to safety!”

“From what?!” Scorchpaw demanded.

“Oh, StarClan,” Windpaw whispered.

Petalpaw jerked her head around to look at the mottled gray tom. His jaw was slack as horror clouded his blue eyes. He, too, was staring at the entrance to the barn, realizing what lay beyond, what was about to charge in…

Suddenly, a powerful wave of scent washed over the frightened cats. Everyone knew now, everyone knew what it was.

A snarling, russet shape appeared in the entrance to the barn. Slavering jaws and furious eyes, paws as dark as shadow, claws that ripped and tore…

“Foxes!” Petalpaw screamed.

CHAPTER FOUR

Nobody moved, nobody breathed; fear-scent was thick and heavy in the air as everyone stared at the fox. Petalpaw was frozen in horror, heart racing. If we stay very still… and very quiet… it might just leave…

Then there was a shrill squeal from behind Petalpaw; she whipped her head around to locate the source and saw Flint sprawled on the ground, his tail waving wildly as the black tabby tom tried to right himself. Petalpaw’s breath caught in her throat. If the tiny kit couldn’t get away from the fox…

He’s crowfood.

“What in the name of StarClan are you doing down here?” Petalpaw hissed. Ice trickled down her spine as the fox slowly swiveled its narrow head in her direction. Its eyes, endless pits of darkness, fastened onto hers, swallowing her whole.

It knew. It knew that there were cats here.

“Flint, you’re so clumsy!” squeaked Hazel. The pale brown she-kit was halfway down the ladder. “I told you not to -- ” Then she stopped. Her huge blue eyes took in the spiky-furred silhouette of the fox, outlined against the sunset. Lit by the last rays of the dying sun, the hairs on the fox’s pelt looked as though they’d been dipped in blood. In a wavering voice, Hazel mewed, “M-Mommy? What’s that…?”

The fox’s head snapped up. Terror shrilled through every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt as the beast’s fathomless eyes locked on the tiny brown she-kit. A line of saliva trickled down the fox’s teeth and landed on the floor with a quiet splash.

Not Hazel. Not Hazel.

Then the fox charged.

A scream exploded out of Petalpaw’s throat as the russet blur raced at Hazel. The kit’s thin, terrified wail pierced Petalpaw’s heart, and she leaped to her paws, lunging at the fox. Claws extended, Petalpaw slashed at the creature’s flank, feeling blood speckle her paws. “Get away from her!” Petalpaw shrieked.

The fox snarled and stalked closer, pressing Petalpaw against the ladder. Her back scraped the horizontal branches and splinters stabbed at her pelt. Freezing, heart-stopping fear was coursing through her veins. She was drowning… again

Petalpaw struck the fox’s muzzle as it tried to bite at her throat. Her heart thundered as she felt the yellow fangs tear through her fur, barely missing the skin. Luck wouldn’t keep her alive for long in a battle like this.

“Help!” she cried, clawing vainly at the fox’s face. Its dark eyes penetrated hers, cold and unfeeling, merciless and relentless.

Was this what Belladonna saw before she died?

Suddenly, a brown tabby blur cannoned into the fox’s flank. Scorchpaw hissed furiously and battered the russet creature with deadly hind paws. Gasping for breath, Petalpaw scrambled away, looking around frantically for Hazel. The light brown she-kit was clinging to the base of the ladder, staring at the fox with disbelieving eyes. Petalpaw darted forward and seized the little kit by the scruff. Ignoring Hazel’s terrified mewls, Petalpaw lurched up the ladder. Hazel’s dangling legs bumped against the rough wood, and once Petalpaw almost dropped her, but they made it safely to the loft.

“Stay there!” Petalpaw ordered a shaking, cowering Hazel. Hazel nodded vigorously, ears flat against her head, and pressed herself against the back wall of the loft.

Petalpaw then turned back toward the ladder. Scorchpaw was swiping bravely at the fox, but his attacks were growing weaker, and the brown tom stumbled backward as the fox dealt a hefty blow to his shoulder. Belly lurching, Petalpaw saw blood flow from the deep wound, trickling down Scorchpaw’s foreleg. Panic gripped her. Where are Graytail and Windpaw? Why aren’t they helping?

A sudden gray blur dashing across the battlefield answered her question. Graytail sprinted around the fox, swerving behind it to pick up some sort of bundle.

He’s not helping Scorchpaw? Petalpaw’s blood ran cold. Is Graytail using this as an opportunity to let him die?

Petalpaw’s incredulity gave way to a rush of understanding as the gray tom whirled around, a black tabby shape hanging from his jaws. He was carrying Flint.

“Up here!” Petalpaw yowled.

Graytail looked up at her shout. His eyes narrowed with determination, the LeafClan tom ran full tilt toward the ladder, clawing his way up the branches with astonishing speed. Flint tumbled from his jaws in a shivering heap of striped black fur. “Get with your littermates!” Graytail spat, fur bristling. “Stay out of the fight!”

“B-but April!” wailed Hazel. “Sh-she’s gone!”

Petalpaw inhaled sharply as another bolt of panic blasted through her. She stared wildly at Graytail. “Did you see her?” she demanded.

Eyes wide, Graytail shook his head.

Growling, Petalpaw padded to the edge of the loft, her claws sunk deep into the weathered wood. She tensed her muscles with a quick prayer to StarClan, then sprang from the ladder and into the fight. She heard a thump behind her as paws hit the ground and knew Graytail had followed. Up close, the fox was massive, a ferocious vixen. Her lips were drawn back in a snarl as she advanced on Scorchpaw, who was reluctantly giving ground. The brown tom looked exhausted; a wave of darkness swept over his amber eyes, dimming their normally glistening light.

“Help him!” Petalpaw shouted at Graytail. “I’ll look for April!” Without waiting for a response, Petalpaw darted away from the fox and slipped underneath the loft. The three barn cats were huddled in a clump of shivering fur, fear-scent emanating from their pelts. Apple’s face was buried in Stallion’s shoulder as terrified sobs wracked her body. Hay was pressed against the back wall, her claws unsheathed and gripping the ground, fur puffed out so she looked twice her size. But fear glittered in her eyes, and she was clearly afraid to charge into battle.

Despite the dangerous situation, Petalpaw managed to feel a twinge of annoyance at the cowering barn cats. “Get it together!” she snapped, skidding to a halt in front of them. “April is nowhere to be found, and you’re all hiding like a bunch of baby rabbits!”

“April’s gone?” Apple gasped, ignoring the insult as she lifted her head from Stallion’s shoulder fur. Her green eyes shimmered with tears. “We have to find her!”

“That’s what I’m saying!” Petalpaw growled impatiently. “Stick to the sidelines, out of the battle, and find that kit!”

Apple swallowed and glanced at her mate. “Stallion, I -- ”

“Do it,” the black tom meowed gruffly. “We have to find April.”

Apple gave a jerky nod and tottered shakily away, probing the stacks of hay for her daughter. Stallion did the same, heading in another direction. Hay glowered at Petalpaw, then slunk off to join her sister.

Petalpaw gave a weak, shuddering sigh. She was about to continue her part of the search when a sickening crack caused her head to snap up. Blood roaring in her ears, wondering frantically what she might find, Petalpaw whirled around to face the battlefield. The dusty barn floor was now dappled with red, and an iron tang stung Petalpaw’s nose, making her belly churn. The mixed scent of blood and fox was something she’d hoped fervently to never encounter again.

But here she was.

And once again, Petalpaw was staring at a bundle of brown fur, lying limp on the bloodstained ground. Her stomach heaved. Bile rose in her throat as she recognized the injured cat.

Scorchpaw.

A large, russet shape was crouched over his body, back arched and fur spiked in a terrifying, demonic way. The fox swiped its tongue around its jaws, and Petalpaw could detect the pleasure in its deliberate movements.

StarClan, no… Please don’t… please don’t let him be dead…

“Hey!” Petalpaw screeched, not quite sure what she was doing, or planning on doing. She staggered forward in an awkward, rolling gait as wood splinters stabbed at her pads.  The edges of her vision were fuzzy, a blurry red color just like the blood on the fox’s muzzle. Only the vixen remained in focus.

“Get away from him!” Petalpaw yowled, unsheathing her claws. She knew that the fox couldn’t understand. Although it was incapable of comprehending her words, the fox seemed to get the gist of it. The vixen gave a threatening growl and flattened her ears.

The look in the vixen’s eyes was a sick sort of triumph. With an almost mocking bark, she turned back to Scorchpaw’s lifeless body and bent her neck. With a thrill of terror, Petalpaw saw long, yellow fangs protrude from the fox’s mouth and plunge toward Scorchpaw’s throat.

“No!” she shrieked, lunging forward, but there was no way she would get there in time.

The world seemed to stop, but Petalpaw’s heart kept beating, the emotions kept raging inside of her. Fury and fear and regret and grief blazed like fire in her paws as she was rooted to the spot, staring at Scorchpaw, unable to look away as the SunClan tom met his demise.

StarClan, help, she begged her warrior ancestors. Please, StarClan…

Petalpaw wasn’t sure why, but she cared for this cat, the brown tabby tom of her enemy Clan who lay bleeding out in front of her, just like Belladonna. She knew his laugh and felt the rhythm of his breath and did not want to stand helplessly by as it grew shallower and shallower…

Suddenly the world sped up again; a battle cry exploded in Petalpaw’s ears and she watched in shock as a gray tabby tom with LeafClan scent on his pelt hurled himself at the fox.

Graytail barreled into the vixen’s flank, driving the breath from her lungs with an audible whooshing sound. While she was winded, Graytail gingerly lifted Scorchpaw by the scruff and dragged the SunClan apprentice toward the shelter of the loft. The brown tabby tom stirred feebly, and Graytail murmured something to him that Petalpaw couldn’t hear. Then, once Scorchpaw was safely behind the ladder, Graytail turned to face the fox.

The LeafClan’s blue eyes were full of flames. “I hate foxes,” he muttered through gritted teeth, with so much conviction that Petalpaw was taken aback. “Scavenging, cat-killing, bloody-furred menaces, that’s all they are.”

The intensity in Graytail’s voice was a little alarming, but it caused hope to flicker to life inside Petalpaw. With all of his rage, he’ll surely have the adrenaline needed for the battle.

The vixen and the tomcat regarded each other for a moment, mutual hatred burning in their eyes. Then, the vixen’s head turned a fraction of a mouse-length toward the other side of the barn. Petalpaw followed the fox’s hungry black gaze and saw Windpaw creeping along the edge of the wall, a tiny gray she-kit sheltering under his legs. April.

The fox’s eyes glinted with malicious excitement. It turned away from Graytail, and Petalpaw, feeling sick, knew exactly what it was thinking. Why go after a loud, snarling piece of prey that fought back fiercely when you could snag two smaller ones that couldn’t defend themselves as well?

“Windpaw, run!” Petalpaw cried. “I’ll distract it, you can get up the ladder!” There was a slightly hysterical note in her voice as it cracked. “Windpaw, what are you doing?”

The mottled gray tom was frozen, staring open-mouthed at the approaching fox. His blue eyes didn’t blink, they just looked straight ahead, straight into the endless black gaze of the fox, where the shadows knew nothing of mercy. His ragged breathing was the only sound that broke the stillness of the barn.

Petalpaw was cold. So cold, the kind of cold that seeped into a cat’s veins and purred silkily into their ear, Just give up. You’re giving up, you’re drowning, you can’t do anything…

She knew that Windpaw wouldn’t be able to move. She had known that the second the fox had shown up.

A stricken look clouded Windpaw’s brilliant blue eyes. Silhouettes seemed to dance in his irises, pictures and flashes of memories, recollections of poorly bandaged wounds still festering beneath the surface.

The blind love of a kit for his mother.

The blind trust that she could handle anything.

The realization that she couldn’t.

The moment when he realized that she would never take another breath.

Petalpaw could see it, all of it, in Windpaw’s eyes.

Is that what I looked like when I was drowning? Petalpaw wondered.

“Windpaw, you have to move,” she urged him again. “I know it’s hard, but you have to move.”

April whimpered and pressed against the wall, hiding in Windpaw’s mottled gray fur. The tom still didn’t move. The horror still didn’t leave his eyes.

The fox was closing in.

“Windpaw, you have to listen to me,” Petalpaw whispered. “Please.” She gazed at him imploringly. “I know it feels like you can’t, but you have to run. April’s life is at stake, and your own.”

Windpaw’s eyes glistened as tears pooled in them. “I can’t.” His voice sounded like a kit’s, frightened and vulnerable. “I can’t move, Petalpaw. I t-tried and I… I c-can’t… I keep s-seeing her…”

“You’re stronger than this,” Petalpaw rasped, although it felt like her heart was breaking. “I know you are.” It was all she had to offer. She threw herself at the mercy of StarClan, held up her words in trembling paws and prayed that Windpaw would listen.

The mottled gray tom closed his eyes and shielded April with his body. “I’m sorry it had to end this way,” he mewed quietly.

“Windpaw!” Petalpaw screamed, disbelief and shock boiling up inside her. “You can’t -- you have so much -- ”

She started to run, sprinting toward the fox, but she was too late. The russet demon was already airborne. The deadly whirlwind of snapping teeth and claws and bloodstained fur was going to devour Windpaw, just as it had taken his mother.

There was a piercing screech and a deafening caterwaul at the same time. The scent of blood washed over Petalpaw. Woozy, she crumpled to the ground, feeling tears roll down her cheeks.

“Windpaw,” she sobbed. “Windpaw.”

“Graytail,” whispered a hoarse voice, a familiar voice.

Petalpaw’s head snapped up. Ignoring her dizziness, she staggered over to the place Windpaw had been. Was that his voice? Oh, StarClan, please tell me I’m not imagining it…

Petalpaw blinked back tears and waited for her world to come into focus. Eventually, it did, and she was kneeling before a bundle of gray fur. Her breath caught in her throat and she started to choke. Windpaw?

But then there was warmth at her shoulder, and another pelt against hers, one she had found on the day she climbed out of the river.

“Windpaw?” she mewed.

He gave a crackly purr. “That’s me.”

Petalpaw was unprepared for the deluge of relief that gushed through her; it was a warm flood of contentment that coaxed heat back into her cold, fearful heart and sent sunshine bursting through her paws. She breathed in his scent; not quite rogue, nor LeafClan or MoonClan… it was a mix of all three. And it was one Petalpaw never wanted to forget.

But as the moment of fierce joy subsided, unease began to prickle at Petalpaw’s pads. Dread weighed her down like a rock in her belly. Wait… if Windpaw is right here, then who’s…

“No,” she whispered, the realization hitting her like a death blow. Horror surged through Petalpaw as she scrambled forward, ignoring the blood that pooled around her paws. She approached the unmoving lump of gray tabby fur, her throat closing up. Beneath the scents of blood and fox, she detected the smell of LeafClan.

“Graytail,” she mewled, prodding his flank gently. “Graytail!” she repeated, this time a little louder.

The gray tom stirred feebly and opened his sky-blue eyes to look at her. His face split into a painful smile. “Petalpaw,” he rasped.

“What in the name of StarClan were you thinking?” Petalpaw demanded. She had to speak harshly to hold back the tears that were welling up in her eyes again.

Graytail blinked. “Saving three innocent cats,” he answered in a voice barely above a whisper.

“We can get goldenrod,” Windpaw meowed suddenly, determination in every word. “Don’t be a self-sacrificing mouse-brain. We can get herbs this time.” His eyes started to cloud with sorrow, but the gray tom made a visible effort to push it away. He stood and stared down at Graytail. “I’ll be right back. I promise.” With those last words, Windpaw charged out of the barn, running faster than any cat Petalpaw had ever seen.

Petalpaw’s gaze returned to Graytail. Sweet, compassionate, fatherly Graytail, leading the patrol only because he wanted to help. He was the first LeafClan cat that she had ever spoken to, the one she planned to hide behind when Briarstar’s temper exploded. So earnest in his willingness to help… and soon it would all be gone…

A gentle touch on her paw startled Petalpaw. She glanced down and saw Graytail’s dark paw resting on top of hers. She could just barely detect a faint pulse coming through his pads, and felt a small stab of panic. Windpaw won’t be back in time.

With a huge effort, Graytail turned his head toward Petalpaw. “Petalpaw.” His voice was barely more than a breath.

“Save your strength,” Petalpaw pleaded, but she knew he would disregard the warning.

As she had predicted, Graytail shook his head firmly. Pain tore at her heart with serrated claws as the bleeding tom continued. “You… you can choose your own path. I trust Scorchpaw, and I trust you. But I need to ask one thing of you; please take care of Windpaw.” Graytail’s eyelids started to slide shut. “Please,” the tom begged her. “Don’t forget about him.”

Petalpaw stared in horror as the LeafClan cat slowly slumped to the ground. “Graytail!” she meowed, panic spiking in every hair on her pelt. “I’m not losing another cat to StarClan-cursed foxes!”

Graytail’s eyes were completely shut now, his brow furrowed as he fought for breath while his life slowly ebbed, draining from his wounds. “Bella,” he choked, and with a final clench of his paw around hers, the LeafClan tom was gone.

CHAPTER FIVE

There was not a glimmer of starlight, not a single silver wisp of something supernatural that might indicate Graytail’s spirit had passed on to StarClan. The LeafClan tom’s body was eerily still, blood oozing sluggishly from the wounds marking his pelt. Petalpaw tried to feel some satisfaction that the tom had not died in vain; the vixen lay beside him in death, each having killed the other. But she couldn’t summon any feeling of victory, only sorrow. And guilt.

I should have been there. I should have gotten there faster.

There was a quiet rustling thump. Petalpaw looked up, not even caring if she was met with a snarling badger or another fox. She was stuck in a trance of numb disbelief. Her mind simply refused to compute what had just happened, even though her eyes could see Graytail’s unmoving body and all the blood…

But it wasn’t a badger, or a fox, or an unfriendly rogue. It was Windpaw, standing alone at the entrance to the barn. His slim frame was outlined sharply against the sunset sky, which was no longer a pleasant gold. Now, all Petalpaw saw were clouds on fire, and blood spattering the heavens.

Windpaw stood rigid with shock, his blue eyes stretched as wide as they would go, staring at the crumpled gray form before him. His bundle of goldenrod was scattered all over the ground, abandoned.

Windpaw gave a tiny shake of his head, mouth open. Petalpaw could see tears beginning to glisten in his eyes, mimicking the starlight she’d been so sure would radiate from Graytail’s body. Windpaw’s mouth started to form a word, but no sound came out. The gray tom, chest heaving, hurried over to Graytail’s side. He pressed his ear against the LeafClan cat’s chest. Petalpaw could see his paws trembling.

Windpaw pulled back from the lifeless body and stared disbelievingly at Petalpaw. She glanced down at her paws, feeling hot tears swell in her eyes, then looked up to meet his painful gaze. She felt herself nod in response to his silent question, and she felt her heart crack open as Windpaw crumpled to the ground beside Graytail, burying his head in the gray tom’s fur.

There was betrayal in Windpaw’s every shudder, agony in every shake of his shoulders, fury and grief in every silvery teardrop that splashed onto Graytail’s cooling fur. Petalpaw crouched low to the ground as the wave of sadness swept over her, too.

Graytail’s death felt… wrong. Like he had been taken before he was ready, like some invisible claw had lifted him by the scruff of the neck, kidnapping him from his own life. It was so… Petalpaw searched desperately for the right word.

Sudden. It was sudden. Graytail had been torn from the world of the living too soon, too fast, too harshly.

“Mommy?” whispered a voice. Cold horror trickled down Petalpaw’s spine as her ears pricked at the sound. Hazel was sidling over to Graytail’s body, her pawsteps wavering. “Mommy, is Graytail okay?”

Apple inhaled sharply and streaked over to her daughter’s side. Gently, she dragged the pale brown she-kit away by the scruff. “He’s just sleepy, after all that fighting,” Apple murmured. The lie send shivers through Petalpaw’s whole body. He’s just sleepy…

“Look, he killed the fox!” Flint crowed, pattering forward excitedly. “Look at it!”

“Flint, stay back,” Apple snapped at her son, grabbing him by the scruff and sheltering him under her belly.

Flint stared up at his mother in confusion. “Why?”

“We need to let Graytail rest,” Apple explained quietly. “Come on, to the loft.” The brown she-cat shepherded her kits up the ladder, evading the questions they bombarded her with. That left April, sitting alone at Graytail’s head.

“April, you heard your mother,” Petalpaw whispered, taking a half-hearted step toward the quivering gray she-kit. “To the loft.”

April rounded on her, a blaze of fury in her eyes. Startled, Petalpaw took a step back. She’d never seen such emotion in a kit’s eyes before. “I’m not stupid,” April snarled. “I know Graytail isn’t sleeping, he’s dead! And it’s because of me!” Her last words ended in a shriek as she collapsed to the ground in a tantrum of self-loathing.

“Stop!” Petalpaw roared, her claws unsheathing. Blinded by her tears, she accidentally nicked the small kit’s ear. “Stop screaming!” Her words were mangled in a sob.

April stared up at her, eyes huge in terror. A small trickle of blood ran down her ear from where Petalpaw had accidentally scratched her. Guilt flooded Petalpaw, joining the deluge of anger and grief and regret that rushed through her veins in a burning tide of fire. It was too much… It was all too much.

“I can’t handle it!” Petalpaw screeched, dropping into a crouch and holding her head in her paws. Her claws extended and pricked at her cheeks, drawing small beads of blood. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. She wanted to run, but she was stuck. She wanted to flee her responsibilities but was bound to them permanently.

April backed away slowly, staring at Petalpaw with fear in her eyes, as though Petalpaw was just another fox. “Mommy?” she mewed, her voice quivering as she stumbled backward. At her daughter’s call, Apple descended from the ladder and hurried over to the dusty gray she-kit. With a glare at Petalpaw, the rogue mother picked April up by the scruff and carried her swiftly up the ladder, taking care to keep the kit facing away from Graytail’s body.

“Whoa, she slashed your ear right open!” Hazel gasped, examining her sister in shock. The little brown she-kit stared at Petalpaw with unconcealed terror. Guilt flooded Petalpaw as she turned away. She could still feel the kits’ incredulous gazes burning into her back as she sank to the ground.

The earth beneath her paws was warm and wet. Blood. Graytail’s blood. Petalpaw squeezed her eyes shut, feeling an exhausting wave of grief sweep over her, dragging her into darkness. She couldn’t move. The same thought kept repeating, over and over, in her otherwise empty head.

Graytail’s dead. Graytail’s dead. Graytail’s dead.

A hoarse whisper escaped her parted, bloodstained lips. “It’s my fault.” The numb disbelief that had gripped her was being overcome by guilt; guilt for lashing out at April, for wounding a kit, for being too slow and too stupid to help Graytail fight the fox.

I’m such a fool. Such a selfish, mouse-brained fool.

“Hey,” a gentle voice murmured in her ear. Warm fur brushed against hers. She inhaled shakily, taking in a familiar scent. Without opening her eyes, she knew that the tom’s pelt was a mottled gray color, that his eyes were as blue as the sky, and that his name was Windpaw. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the tom continued quietly, his voice becoming bitter. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”

Petalpaw cracked her eyes open a slit and looked at him blearily. His pelt was a gray smudge in her tears. “Windpaw, don’t,” she begged him. Don’t blame yourself. Please.

You can blame me, but please, please don’t blame yourself.

“StarClan c-cursed f-foxes,” Petalpaw sobbed, a vicious edge entering her voice. Fury pounded through her veins, crashing through her belly in a flood of red flames. It buried her guilt and shame and swamped her. It rose up inside, it was an internal fire, uncontrollable and indomitable. Her claws slid out with a quiet, ominous hiss. I’m going to kill every fox I see, she vowed silently. They will meet death shrieking for mercy, and Graytail and Belladonna will be avenged.

“Petalpaw!” Windpaw’s cry was a distant echo. “Petalpaw!”

Her eyes snapped fully open and she rose from the ground in one fluid motion, feeling rage course through her veins and into her unsheathed claws. Petalpaw stared down at their glittering points curiously; it was the first time she had felt… formidable. Dangerous. Deadly.

“Petalpaw, control yourself,” Windpaw growled, stalking up to her until they were nose-to-nose. Green eyes glared into blue. But slowly, slowly, the cerulean waves washed over Petalpaw, lapping softly at her face, quenching the burning sensation in her paws. She sighed shakily, not daring to look away from Windpaw’s calming eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and the anger drained from her body. Her graceful pose crumbled as she sat down heavily, retracting her claws. Petalpaw shook her head faintly and stared at her paws. “I’m sorry, I’m just…” Her voice trailed off as she shrugged hopelessly. But the casual gesture didn’t disguise the tremors running through her body. Fear scent rolled off her pelt in waves.

Petalpaw was afraid of herself.

What in StarClan did I become? she wondered uneasily, looking down at her sheathed claws with wariness. I was so, so angry… She recalled her unworthy thoughts and promises of revenge with a shudder. I was like Amberstar, she realized. I was walking the path between light and dark. It was a treacherous journey, she knew that, and many cats like Amberstar were foolish enough to choose the darkness.

I am no such fool, Petalpaw thought sharply. I will never walk a path of shadows like him.

But still, traces of the anger remained, lingering inside of her and casting a blood-red shadow over her heart.

“You can go wake Scorchpaw,” Windpaw meowed quietly. “I’m going to sit beside Graytail for a little while.”

Petalpaw dipped her head, feeling a fresh wave of sorrow. It pierced her pelt like icy water, but she managed to croak, “We should give him… a vigil. A warrior’s vigil, under the stars.” Her heart shattered into even smaller pieces as she imagined bidding Graytail a final farewell under the cold, dark night sky.

Windpaw nodded in solemn agreement and turned to face the dead warrior. His shoulders slumped under a burden of grief too heavy for any young cat to bear alone. With a shuddering sigh, Petalpaw turned away, unable to watch his silent pain. She scanned the barn for Scorchpaw. The brown tabby tom was right where he’d been left, in a disheveled pile of bloodstained fur. The sight of Scorchpaw’s limp body shot a surge of adrenaline through her veins, and she felt a little guilty at the newfound energy inside her. Graytail is dead, and all I can think about is Scorchpaw!

But Graytail gave his life to save Scorchpaw, Petalpaw reasoned, shoving back a pang of loss. It can’t have been for nothing! I have to make sure Scorchpaw made it!

She hurried over to her unmoving friend, panic mounting in her chest. Her stomach was a cloud of butterflies: wings frantically flapping, swerving and diving, spiraling toward the ground. Please let him be alive, please StarClan…

“Please,” Petalpaw mewed aloud as she crouched over Scorchpaw. The butterflies in her stomach whirled around in circles as she slowly pressed her ear to his chest. The deafening pounding of her own heart drowned out any sign that Scorchpaw’s was still beating. With trembling paws she nudged his uninjured shoulder. He didn’t stir. A wail building in her throat, she nudged him again, this time more forcefully.

His body jerked, paws churning feebly. Petalpaw’s breath caught in her throat as the brown tabby tom’s eyes fluttered open, glinting amber moons that fastened onto hers. “Am I… am I in StarClan?” he rasped.

Petalpaw shook her head. “No, you’re alive.”

Scorchpaw relaxed at her words. “Thank StarClan,” he breathed, wincing as he tried to move his injured shoulder. He drew in a hissing breath. “What happened with the fox?”

Petalpaw’s belly churned as she glanced at the blood glistening on his wounded shoulder. She swallowed the bile in her throat and croaked, “It’s… dead.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the rest: that Graytail was dead, too.

“What about Graytail?” Scorchpaw asked.

Petalpaw clamped her jaws shut and studied her paws, unsure how to respond. Was now the best time to tell Scorchpaw, when he was bleeding and vulnerable? What if he started to blame himself, just as Windpaw and Petalpaw were doing? And what if he felt so guilty that he lost the will to recover?

The anxious thoughts swirling around in Petalpaw’s head were brought to a screeching halt as Scorchpaw spoke again.

“He’s dead, isn’t he.”

Petalpaw froze. She avoided Scorchpaw’s burning amber gaze and frantically tried to put together a comforting speech, to feed the injured tom words of encouragement and tell of Graytail’s honorable last stand, but she came up empty. All she could do was shrug.

“Petalpaw, tell me the truth,” Scorchpaw pleaded.

Petalpaw reluctantly met his gaze. His amber eyes stared at her imploringly, and she whispered, “He’s dead.”

Scorchpaw bowed his head. Petalpaw hated seeing the apprentice look so lonely and despondent, with the scent of death and blood and fear choking the air around him.

“But he died like a true warrior!” Petalpaw added hastily, hurriedly, as though with extra words she could mend the damage caused by Graytail’s departure. If she spoke of his courage and nobility, surely that would lessen the blow?

It didn’t seem to work, not for her. It only made the pain worse. A good cat, a noble cat, had died, and there was nothing she could do to fix it.

Scorchpaw looked up at her, eyes full of unbridled emotion that she couldn’t quite name. It was anguish and pain and guilt, all blended together. Was it remorse?

“A true warrior,” the brown tabby echoed. He closed his eyes. “I’ll never be a true warrior.”

“Scorchpaw, that’s not true,” Petalpaw argued.

He opened his eyes and stared at her. Flames burned in their amber depths. “It is. I am a SunClan cat, a traitor to the warrior code. I can’t escape my Clan.”

“Stop,” Petalpaw ordered fiercely, forcing down the lump in her throat. “Your Clan doesn’t decide who you are. You do, and you’re no fox-heart.”

Scorchpaw gazed at her sadly. “Really?”

Petalpaw’s heart, broken as it was, gave a small flutter. “Really,” she promised. Trembling, she touched her nose to his cheek. Her muzzle came away stained red, but she didn’t care. “You’re alive, and that’s what counts. Now, let’s get your wounds treated. At moonhigh, we’ll hold Graytail’s vigil.” Her voice cracked on the last word. She cleared her throat. “Can you walk?”

“Y-yeah,” Scorchpaw stammered, slowly rising to his paws. He tottered forward for a few uncertain steps, then stumbled as he put weight on his wounded shoulder.

Petalpaw lunged forward to catch him. “Don’t be a proud mouse-brain,” she mewed. “You can lean on me, rest your shoulder.”

Scorchpaw glanced at her nervously. “Really?”

Petalpaw blinked at him. “Really.”

With a small, grateful smile, Scorchpaw leaned heavily on Petalpaw’s shoulder. She staggered under his weight, then righted herself. Slowly and unsteadily, the two apprentices shuffled back to Windpaw, who was still crouched beside Graytail’s body.

Who knew that one fox could cause so much destruction? Petalpaw thought sadly, gently helping Scorchpaw lower himself to the ground. She curled up next to him, swamped by a wave of exhaustion.

Quiet pawsteps sounded nearby, and a soft female voice spoke. “I can show you where to get herbs.”

“Thank you, Apple,” came Windpaw’s reply.

“Of course,” Apple murmured. There was a pause. “I’m sorry for your loss. I didn’t know him, but he seemed like a good cat. Was he your father?”

“No,” Windpaw answered. “But he felt like one.”

There was a brief moment of silence. Petalpaw assumed that Apple was nodding in acknowledgement. “You and your friends will need marigold or goldenrod.”

“I have the goldenrod,” Windpaw responded; there was a rustling sound as the gray tom prodded the leaves. “But we need cobwebs to stop the bleeding.”

Petalpaw’s awareness gradually faded as she slipped into shadows, the smell of goldenrod in her nose. The last thing she felt before sleep claimed her was Scorchpaw’s fur against hers.

*        *        *        *        *

Petalpaw gazed up at the sky. The cold night wind stung her face as she lifted her head to the stars. They glittered coldly, distant pinpricks of ice shedding silver light onto the somber group of cats below. Petalpaw felt a small stab of annoyance. Her ancestors felt so far away. Couldn’t they come down and give Petalpaw some closure? Couldn’t Graytail have a happy reunion as a glimmering spirit, his health and happiness restored?

That only happens in stories, Petalpaw thought irritably, twitching her ears. He will stand among StarClan; I just won’t see him ascend into the stars.

Loneliness engulfed her at the thought, and she turned to face her companions, seeking reassurance. Windpaw was crouched on the ground, a silent lump of gray fur radiating sorrow. He seemed to be taking it harder than she was, Petalpaw realized with a pang of guilt. Scorchpaw stood slightly apart from the group, his amber eyes unreadable. But the miserable slope of his shoulders indicated hidden grief.

Blurry silhouettes rested in a hesitant cluster outside of the three apprentices; that was Apple, Stallion, and Hay. The barn cats were clearly uncomfortable being so close to such a sad, sacred Clan ritual, so they kept their distance. Hay was scowling at Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw, Apple was watching anxiously, and Stallion stood protectively in front of his mate, a stoic expression on his face.

“It’s moonhigh,” Windpaw whispered. “It’s time.”

Petalpaw nodded in acknowledgement and padded forward. Her pawsteps were heavy, and it felt as though she was slogging through cold, thick mud. But eventually, she reached Graytail’s body.

The gray tabby LeafClan tom lay still in the cow pasture, his fur sleek and groomed, glimmering under the stars. It was difficult to find the blemishes on his pelt, but if one looked close enough, they’d see the deep throat wounds that had taken his life. The cool night breeze ruffled Graytail’s fur, and as it rippled, it looked as though he was breathing.

Petalpaw took a deep breath, relishing the feeling of the frigid air inside her lungs. She stared up at the stars, drawing strength from their light, and began to speak.

“Graytail was the first LeafClan cat I spoke to.” Her voice was small, echoing eerily around the empty pastures. “He was the one who comforted me and Windpaw when Belladonna died, and the one I trusted to protect me from Briarstar’s temper. He was a kindhearted cat, and I didn’t know him as well as I should have.” A note of deathberry bitterness entered her voice and she tried to push it away. “I was upset when he was chosen to lead the patrol, and we butted heads all throughout our trip. But every action that I thought was just another annoyance, he did for my safety and well-being.” She paused to swallow the lump in her throat, then continued. “He died a noble death, protecting the innocent.”

Scorchpaw bowed his head in acknowledgement. Petalpaw took a step back to allow Windpaw to come forward. The gray tom blinked at her gratefully and started talking.

“Graytail grieved with me during Belladonna’s death,” Windpaw meowed clearly. “He always offered a shoulder to lean on, even to his last breath. He died to let us live, and I will be forever thankful.” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “I hope he finds good hunting in -- in StarClan.” He retreated to the shadows with a nod to Scorchpaw.

The brown tabby tom glanced nervously at Windpaw before padding forward and sitting down. He regarded Graytail’s limp body with sadness in his eyes. “I didn’t know Graytail well,” the SunClan apprentice admitted. “But he decided to accept me, and fought to the death to protect me. The bravery it takes to do that astounds me, especially since he chose to defend a SunClan cat when it is well-known that my Clan is untrustworthy.” He sighed. “I wish I could have known him better.”

The same wish echoed in Petalpaw’s head. She nodded at Scorchpaw’s words and stepped forward again, into a shaft of moonlight. “Graytail, we wish you well on your journey to StarClan,” she meowed softly. “May you have good hunting, swift running, and shelter when you sleep.” A single tear rolled down her cheek as she recited the words of the ancient ritual. Then, she pressed her nose into Graytail’s fur. The eerie stillness of his body and the lack of heat was unnerving, but she was determined to remain by his side until the sun rose again. After everything Graytail had done for them, the noble tom deserved it.

Though her eyes were closed, Petalpaw was aware of Windpaw settling down on Graytail’s other side. The hesitant pawsteps of Scorchpaw sounded in her ears, and the brown tabby tom eventually lay down beside her, his warm pelt in stark contrast to Graytail’s cold one. Petalpaw found herself leaning into his flank as her consciousness started to slip away.

Graytail. The thought was a mere breath. Graytail, if you can hear me, I hope you’ve found StarClan. I hope you are surrounded by the ones you love, just as I hope to be.

CHAPTER SIX

“No.” Petalpaw pushed the mouse away and rested her chin on her paws.

“Petalpaw, you have to eat,” Scorchpaw argued, shoving the mouse back at her.

She blinked at him dully. “Why? So I can trudge along for another moon? So I can risk more lives?” Her voice was as rough as rock.

“Stop it,” Scorchpaw growled, slamming his paw down beside the mouse. Its small, warm body jiggled enticingly on the quivering ground, but Petalpaw ignored the pangs of hunger and turned her head away.

“Graytail is dead, and I was too stupid to save him,” she mumbled, closing her eyes. Hopelessness tugged at her bones as the memory replayed itself in her mind. Scorchpaw, unconscious. Windpaw, wounded. April, trapped. Graytail…

Dead, dead, dead.

“Petalpaw, we’re leaving tomorrow, and you have to keep your strength up!” Scorchpaw pointed out, nudging the mouse closer to her muzzle. “You’re our leader, now that Graytail’s gone. You have to be ready to lead.”

His words caused a heavy, unwieldy burden to materialize out of thin air and settle onto Petalpaw’s shoulders. It felt like she was trying to balance a log on her back; the branches dug into her spine and her shoulders burned from the strain. She squeezed her eyes shut harder, unwilling to face her new responsibilities.

“Petalpaw, come on,” Scorchpaw pleaded, a desperate note entering his voice. “Please, you’re scaring me.”

A pang of guilt echoed around Petalpaw’s shadowy heart like a droplet of water splashing into a silent pool. She pictured Scorchpaw’s earnest, worried face, those amber eyes full of concern and warmth and encouragement…

“I’m sorry,” she mewed, opening her eyes. She blinked forlornly at Scorchpaw. “I just… it’s hard to lose Graytail. He was… he… he always seemed to know what he was doing, and everything he did was for our safety. How can I live up to that? How can I lead our patrol without falling short of Graytail’s standards?” She shook her head miserably. “I don’t know… I feel so lost.” She glanced at Scorchpaw uncertainly, feeling as vulnerable as a newborn kit separated from its mother. What was he going to say? She’d never confided in him so deeply before; what if she’d said something wrong?

Scorchpaw sighed and sat down next to her. “It’s hard to meet other cats’ expectations when they set them so high,” he murmured quietly. “But Graytail will be proud of you no matter what.” A note of bitterness entered his words, but the brown tabby tom made a visible effort to force it away. “You will be just as good a leader as he was. And I’ll support you if you need it.”

When I need it,” Petalpaw corrected him. “I’m going to screw up sometime, I just know it.” The thought sent a wave of panic through her veins. One mistake could have terrible consequences; one false move could result in death. And now that she had two other cats’ lives in her paws, the stakes were even higher, and the risks were terrifying.

“Calm down,” Scorchpaw soothed her, resting his tail on her trembling shoulders. “You haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t even left the barn! Focus on getting your strength up.” Once more he offered her the mouse, staring at her pleadingly. “Eat.”

Petalpaw gazed at him anxiously. “But what if I -- ”

“Just eat. Here, we can share.” Scorchpaw bent his neck to tear a small strip of meat from the mouse, then nudged the rest toward her. Reluctantly, she lowered her head and took a bite. A comforting warmth rippled through her. The succulent prey brought back a flood of memories, pleasant ones, that she’d nearly forgotten. Watching Icekit attempt his flea-brained plan to leap into the fresh-kill pile, laughing with Darkkit as they shared a mouse between them, listening to the elders’ stories as the old cats divided up a blackbird.

All of it is MoonClan…

Slowly, steadily, determination began to trickle back into her heart, forming rivulets of courage that gradually gathered in strength until her soul roared with anticipation. Petalpaw sprang to her paws, wincing at the stiffness in her unused muscles. She took in a deep breath, finally daring to immerse herself in the real world again. It was painful -- death, wounds, illness -- but the agony strengthened her resolve. The way forward was crystal-clear: tomorrow they would leave the barn and continue their journey.

“Petalpaw?”

She blinked and looked up at Scorchpaw. “Yes?”

The SunClan apprentice shuffled his dark brown paws, nervousness evident in every prickling hair on his pelt. “Do you… do you want to come hunting with me?”

Petalpaw raised her eyebrows. “We already have prey,” she meowed coolly, although inside, she was shrieking incoherently and running in circles. Graytail’s warning flashed through her head, the words rushing past her ear, but she banished it with one flick of her tail. Just let yourself be happy, she told herself firmly. What’s the harm in that?

But Graytail is dead and he told me not to --

Graytail would want me to be happy.

But I’m betraying his trust --

He’s dead!

That makes it worse!

“Um, I just thought it would be fun… sorry, never mind…” Scorchpaw mumbled, looking mortified.

Petalpaw muttered a curse under her breath. “I didn’t mean I didn’t want to!” she told him hastily. “Yes, I want to come hunting!” Her heart pounded. Am I going against Graytail’s wishes? He did die to save Scorchpaw, so doesn’t that mean Graytail accepted him? Does that mean it’s okay for me to --

Great StarClan, Petalpaw, it’s only hunting!

Scorchpaw offered her a rare smile. The sight warmed her heart. The poor tom was always lonely, out of place because of his SunClan roots. Maybe she could change that.

“There are mice in the hay bales,” she suggested, breaking the ensuing silence in a slightly awkward voice.

Scorchpaw hesitated, glancing at his paws. His gaze kept darting to her face, as though he couldn’t tear his eyes away. “Uh, actually, I was thinking… we could… go outside? To hunt?”

Petalpaw’s heartbeat quickened. “Er… yeah, that’s fine,” she replied quickly. “Y-you can lead the way!”

Scorchpaw’s eyes glinted. “Don’t worry, no mange-pelted foxes will get past me!” The tom whirled around and bounded out of the barn.

Petalpaw gave a shaky laugh. Truthfully, it wasn’t the foxes that made her nervous…

She paused to give her chest fur a few brisk licks, smoothing down the straying hairs. Soon her pelt was sleek and shining, almost abnormally so. Embarrassment sent heat flooding into her ears. I’m such a moony-eyed mouse-brain! she thought. Now I look too well-groomed, and he’ll know that I did it to look nice on our hunt, how shallow is that? She was ashamed of her own vanity. How can I fix it…? Oh, I’ll just mess it up a little! Surprised by her brilliant stroke of genius, Petalpaw ruffled the fur on her chest so that it was more natural-looking.

Ugh, I look like a bird preening its feathers! She shook her head at her own foolishness with a sigh.

“Petalpaw, you coming?” came Scorchpaw’s voice.

“Yeah!” she called back, her voice higher than normal. She cleared her throat. “Er… yeah.” With one last shake of her pelt, she trotted out of the barn, into the cool twilight air.

Scorchpaw was a black silhouette against the fading lilac-gray sky. A pawful of stars twinkled above his head in a perfect arc. Petalpaw inhaled sharply. Is that a sign? It’s a sign, it has to be one!

But… of what?

“Are you ready to hunt?” Petalpaw asked instead, her breath billowing in white clouds against the darkening sky.

Scorchpaw nodded with an odd air of absentmindedness.

“Do you have any particular place in mind?” Petalpaw prompted him.

Scorchpaw nodded distractedly. With a flick of his tail, the brown tabby tom started padding away through the starlit pastures. His pelt quickly melted into the shadows and Petalpaw hastened to catch up.

“Where are we going?” she pressed. His silent air of mystery was intriguing, but also slightly annoying. Come on, Scorchpaw, tell me something! she thought frustratedly.

Scorchpaw’s eyes glowed through the gathering darkness as he glanced briefly back at Petalpaw. He tipped his head to the side, and Petalpaw realized that he was pointing to a hill. In the glimmering, silver starlight, the hill looked like the crest of a giant wave, tipped with frosty grass.

“You want to hunt up there?” Petalpaw asked incredulously. “I don’t know if there will be much prey…”

“I want to show you something,” Scorchpaw meowed quietly.

“S-so we’re not hunting?” Petalpaw squeaked, cursing her voice for cracking. Her pulse quickened; she could feel it fluttering rapidly in her paws. “Wh-what -- ”

“Come on,” Scorchpaw mewed, jerking his head at the hill again. “It’s the tallest one around, it’s perfect.”

Petalpaw watched him nervously as he started to climb the slope. Would Graytail support this? she wondered anxiously. Grief washed over her in an overwhelming wave as the dead tom’s name appeared in her thoughts. He isn’t here to tell me what to do… what choices are good… which ones are bad…

She looked up at the twilight sky and sought out the few stars that glittered between the approaching clouds. Is that you, Graytail? she asked silently. There was no response, but she continued anyway. If you’re there, if you’re listening… Am I doing the right thing? Am I free to trust Scorchpaw, and am I free to lo --

She cut off her thoughts right then and there. You’re being a presumptuous flea-brain! she scolded herself sternly. You don’t “love” Scorchpaw, and he certainly doesn’t “love” you!

Somehow, the thought made her sad. Her whiskers drooped in disappointment, as though Scorchpaw had rejected her himself.

You just have a shallow crush on him, Petalpaw told herself harshly. On a SunClan cat! You’re a disgrace to MoonClan! What would Ravenstar think? Why are you going around throwing yourself at every tom that comes by? Why do you think about stupid Scorchpaw all the time?

Each word was another thorn impaled in her heart. She hung her head miserably, just wanting to curl up and disappear, to hide from her problems… and from Scorchpaw. Lonely, handsome, mysterious Scorchpaw, who was waiting for her to join him on a starlit walk across the rolling hills…

Shut up! the rational part of Petalpaw’s mind screamed. You can’t trust a SunClan cat! Briarstar’s, Thistleheart’s, Graytail’s, and Windpaw’s faces appeared in her thoughts, their mouths opening to form the words.

You can’t trust a SunClan cat. Can’t trust him, can’t trust…

“Enough,” Petalpaw hissed aloud, cold venom in her voice. The thoughts seemed to scowl at her mutinously, then stomped over to the sidelines of her mind. She lifted her chin to gaze at Scorchpaw. The night wind, bringing the scent of leaf-bare, ripped at her soft pelt, but with one deep breath, she started up the hill.

Every pawstep brought her closer to the sky. The heavens were darkening, but the accumulating stars balanced out the shadows with their light. Somehow, they didn’t seem so cold and far away anymore, like they had on the night of Graytail’s vigil. Despite the frigid breeze, Petalpaw was warm, as she had a flame of hope flickering to life in her heart.

StarClan is out there. StarClan is really out there.

They’re so close…

Petalpaw stopped at the crest of the hill and gazed up in wonder at the stars. Tentatively, she reached out a shaking paw toward them.

… Close enough to touch…

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Scorchpaw murmured.

Petalpaw stifled a startled yelp as the brown tabby tom settled down beside her. His muzzle was pointed upward at the brilliant display of galaxies above them, the swirling indigo tendrils and purple splashes, shimmering in the blackness.

“It really is,” she whispered, heart fluttering as she took in the sight. Nothing could quite compete with a sky full of stars. The vastness of its unbridled beauty made it indomitable.

The cold wind rushed pleasantly against her cheeks, and she closed her eyes, feeling like a bird gliding on an updraft.

“Amberstar turned his back on the stars,” Scorchpaw breathed. “How could he do such a thing? What kind of cat could turn their back on this?”

Petalpaw opened her eyes and looked at him. The brown tabby tom’s usually lonely face was full of hope and wonder as his fur shone silver in the starlight. His amber eyes gazed up at the endless expanse of sky, not noticing her staring at him.

“I don’t know,” she replied, still looking at him. “I’m glad you haven’t.”

Scorchpaw turned to face her and seemed startled to see that she was staring directly into his eyes. He opened his mouth, as though about to say something, then closed it. Amber eyes darted over a pale gray face, and green eyes studied brown tabby. Two hearts skipped the very same beat at the very same time. Neither cat had any words to offer, no witty remarks to break the silence.

They were just two cats breathing, two hearts beating, two minds racing under a sky full of stars.

Should I say something? Petalpaw thought nervously. Should I wait for him to initiate a conversation? Should I say something deep?

She couldn’t come up with anything deep or inspiring at the moment. Petalpaw cursed silently at her own awkwardness.

Scorchpaw spoke first, thank StarClan. If she’d had any longer to deliberate whether or not to make a comment, she’d probably start babbling nonsense. But Scorchpaw’s words made her freeze.

“I like being with you.”

Petalpaw blinked, not quite sure she’d heard right. What in StarClan -- did he just say that?

“Here, under the stars,” Scorchpaw continued, “I feel like I can just forget everything else. I am not SunClan, and Amberstar isn’t my leader. I don’t feel the scars on my face or the weight on my shoulders. I’m just… Scorchpaw.” His claws traced circles absentmindedly through the tufts of grass. “I like being that way.”

Petalpaw struggled to keep her breathing even as she frantically tried to scavenge a response from the disorganized tendrils of her mind. But the pounding of her heartbeat and the roaring of the blood in her ears made it impossible to concentrate.

He likes being with me. Me, Petalpaw. Me. Me. Me.

She couldn't quite believe it. It was too good to be true.

I always thought nobody would ever look at me. Not beside my siblings, thoughtful Darkkit and Icekit with his hilarious shenanigans. Not beside Windpaw, with his astounding intelligence. Not beside Aspenpaw, with her effortless beauty and charm. And certainly not in a crowd at the Gathering, with so many other cats to choose from.

But you’re looking at me.

Why? In the name of StarClan, why?

Why me?

That was what she wanted to say. She wanted it desperately. But the words wouldn’t come. They just cycled around in her head, over and over. She kept reciting them, but never said a word.

I can jump into a freezing river and plunge off the edge of a waterfall, but I can’t say something meaningful to Scorchpaw. Oh, StarClan, have mercy.

“Sorry,” Scorchpaw meowed quickly. The brown tabby tom stood up abruptly. “I should’ve realized that you felt differently -- I -- I’ll just leave -- ”

“No!” Petalpaw blurted, springing to her paws and blocking his path with her tail. “No,” she repeated, more quietly this time. “I’m sorry, I just… I’m not… I can’t say things like that. I don’t… I’m just not brave enough. I’ll die for my Clan in a heartbeat, but having deep conversations with my friends? Not my skill set.”

“So we’re friends?” Scorchpaw asked softly. Starlight glimmered faintly in his amber eyes.

Petalpaw couldn’t look away. She couldn’t move. “If you want to be,” she whispered.

Scorchpaw hesitated, then nodded. “I’d like that.”

“Good,” Petalpaw responded.

“Or…” Scorchpaw’s voice trailed off and he stared at the ground.

“Or what?” Petalpaw asked, heart thundering. Thoughts whirled around in her head as she searched his amber gaze for answers. I’m so shallow -- what’s he going to say -- I know what he’s going to say -- don’t be such a flirtatious mouse-brain -- I can like who I want -- not a SunClan cat -- what’s he going to say?

Scorchpaw sighed. “I don’t know.”

Petalpaw stifled a sigh of her own and replied, “Should we… get on with the hunting, then?”

“Oh,” Scorchpaw mewed. “Well… I actually… wasn’t planning on going hunting in the first place.” He glanced at her nervously. “I just wanted to talk to you up here.”

I’m so shallow…

Petalpaw took a shaky step in his direction.

What am I thinking?

Another step.

Scorchpaw’s from SunClan.

She could see the scars on the tom’s face again.

I’m such a moony-eyed featherbrain…

She was a whisker away from his muzzle.

Oh, StarClan…

A flash of light in her peripheral vision stopped Petalpaw from making any risky decisions. She jerked her head away from Scorchpaw’s, glad to have an excuse to retreat. Her eyes found a streak of brightness in the night sky. For a fleeting moment it was there, sparkling against the black backdrop of the clouds, and then it was gone. A falling star.

Petalpaw watched in wonder as more followed the first, until it seemed as though the sky was raining silver flowers. All around them the stars plummeted, bathing them briefly in white light.

“Is StarClan falling?” Scorchpaw asked breathlessly, standing up taller to confront the phenomenon.

For the first time since Graytail’s death, Petalpaw felt her lips curve into a smile. Her jaw ached from the strain; she’d gotten out of practice in the wake of the LeafClan tom’s demise. “No,” she told Scorchpaw. The falling stars were reflected magnificently in his amber eyes. “They are watching over us.”

Scorchpaw gazed up at the constellations adorning Silverpelt. “I hope they’re proud of me.” Grief was raw in his voice.

“Of course they are,” Petalpaw assured him. “Why in StarClan wouldn’t they be?”

Scorchpaw offered her a sad smile. “Thanks, Petalpaw. I’m glad… I’m glad you ran blindly through the forest and crossed the SunClan border.”

Petalpaw wrinkled her nose, recalling the memory. She’d been filled with so much indignation and fear that it had blinded her as she stumbled through LeafClan territory, accidentally trespassing on SunClan land. “You nearly ripped me to shreds,” she teased.

Scorchpaw had the decency to look ashamed. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “It was instinct.”

Petalpaw gave a mrrow of amusement. “Instinct to tear my pelt off?”

Scorchpaw purred. “Only half of it; I wouldn’t want to subtract too much from your good looks.”

Petalpaw laughed. Inside, her brain was spinning in circles.

He just called me pretty.

“Should we get back to the barn?” Scorchpaw suggested, when she didn’t say anything.

Petalpaw blinked. “Y-yeah,” she meowed dazedly.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Scorchpaw reminded her as they slowly got to their paws and began padding down the hill to the barn. “Are you excited?”

“Excited isn’t the right word for it,” Petalpaw answered honestly. “I’m feeling hopeful, but I don’t have much energy…”

“You’ll regain it in no time,” Scorchpaw reassured her, nudging her shoulder in a friendly way. Her fur sparked and tingled where his pelt had made contact with hers.

“Thanks,” Petalpaw murmured, not sure what else to say.

“I’m glad that I met you, Petalpaw,” Scorchpaw told her as they stood together one last time outside the barn before heading their separate ways. “And I’m glad that you’re my friend.”

“Me too,” Petalpaw responded quietly.

Scorchpaw smiled at her. “Good night, Petalpaw.” Hearing her name on his tongue sent out small bursts of fire in a chain reaction under her pelt.

“Good night, Scorchpaw,” Petalpaw replied.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“You’re leaving?” Apple asked.

Petalpaw dipped her head in affirmation. “Yes.”

Apple’s round, usually cheerful face fell at Petalpaw’s response. “Oh,” she murmured. “I’d gotten used to having you Clan cats around here. The barn will feel so quiet without you!”

“I’m sure the kits will make extra noise to make up for it,” Windpaw assured her, his whiskers twitching with amusement.

“The kits!” Apple exclaimed, her tail flicking nervously. “How am I going to break the news to them? They love your games, Windpaw.”

“Break what to us?” a small, high-pitched voice demanded. Hazel scrambled out from behind a hay bale. A pair of black-tipped ears emerged from the golden stalks, and Flint leaped out after his sister.

“Kits,” Apple meowed slowly, “there’s no easy way to say this, but…”

“The Clan cats are leaving,” came April’s voice from above. Petalpaw, startled at the kit’s sudden interjection, glanced up; the dusty gray she-kit was perched on the highest branch of the ladder, her tail twitching.

“Wh-what?” Flint blubbered, just as Hazel wailed, “No, Windpaw promised us badger rides!”

Apple shot her gray-furred daughter a disapproving glare. “April, I was trying to salvage their feelings! What did I say about being blunt?”

“That it can cause as much damage as a claw,” April recited in a bored voice.

“Exactly. And what did I say about interrupting?”

“Not to do it.”

“Good,” Apple huffed, turning to Hazel and Flint. “Now apologize to your littermates. Now.”

Sullenly, April slouched down the ladder and stalked over to her upset littermates. “I’m sorry for telling the truth,” she muttered, then sat down with an air of authoritative finality.

“April, a real apology,” Apple growled in a warning tone of voice.

April scowled at her mother before meowing mechanically, “I’m sorry for interrupting and being blunt. I can see that it has had a drastic effect on you, and I won’t do it again.”

“Wh-what does d-drastic mean?” Flint stammered.

“It’s a type of stick, mouse-brain,” Hazel told him matter-of-factly. April’s shoulders were shaking as she tried and failed to suppress a laugh.

Flint turned to his mother, a pleading look on his small, striped face. “Mommy, Windpaw said that we’d get a badger ride before they left. Can we? Can we?”

“Of course,” Apple purred. “Don’t take long, though; the Clan cats have to leave very soon.”

Flint gave a shriek of delight and bounced over to Windpaw. “Badger ride!” the tom-kit squeaked excitedly. With a sigh, Windpaw lowered himself into a crouch and allowed the kit to scramble onto his back. Then the mottled gray tom straightened up, causing Flint to squeal.

“I’m a big badger!” Windpaw growled. “And I’ve come to eat you!”

“Can’t eat me!” Flint taunted him. “I’m up here, you can’t get me!”

“Are you sure?” Windpaw asked, a grin unfurling on his face. He lifted his right foreleg and stomped forcefully. Flint yowled in surprise and rocked from side to side, eventually steadying himself by latching onto great tufts of Windpaw’s fur.

Hazel seemed to realize that she was missing out on good fun. “Me too!” she ordered. “I wanna badger ride, too!”

Windpaw waited patiently as Hazel clambered onto his back. Then, the gray tom began stomping around the barn, his heavy pawsteps shaking the ground. Hazel and Flint yowled happily as they clung to his swaying pelt.

Apple watched them play, a sad expression on her face. “I hope you find your Clan on your travels,” she murmured. “The kits and I will miss you.”

“Thank you,” Petalpaw meowed. She took a moment to gaze at Windpaw and the kits, laughing together as he tried to shake them from his back. A pang of wistfulness seized her heart.

What I wouldn’t give to be that young again… to turn back time… and prevent all of this from happening…

She glanced at Scorchpaw out of the corner of her eye. He was looking away with an expression that read, I know you’re looking at me but I’m pretending I don’t see it. Petalpaw purred in amusement and returned to watching the kits frolic.

But if I altered my past, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Graytail wouldn’t be dead, Belladonna wouldn’t be dead, MoonClan would be safe, and I’d be with my kin, another part of her mind pointed out. I would never fall in the river, never risk drowning, never be hunted by a SunClan patrol. I wouldn’t have faced so much death and destruction.

But… I wouldn’t have met Windpaw. Or Graytail. Or Scorchpaw.

But there would be no pain. I would know no loss.

But I would know nothing of friendship.

I’d have my kin!

That’s different.

I’m glad that I fell into that river. I’m glad that I crawled out on SunClan land. I’m glad that I met that patrol.

StarClan gave me a painful path, but I walked it with courage. And now I’m here.

Surrounded by death?

No. Surrounded by friends.

Sorrow?

No. Hope.

“Windpaw,” Petalpaw mewed softly, “it’s time to go.”


*        *        *        *        *

Morale was high as Petalpaw led the way across the moor. Scorchpaw padded on her left side, Windpaw on her right. Although the wind was stiff and carried an ominous chill, Petalpaw took pleasure in the rays of watery sunshine that illuminated the path ahead of them. The shadow of Graytail’s death still lingered, but the weather was so perfect that it was difficult to be unhappy.

“Leaf-bare is approaching,” Windpaw murmured on Petalpaw’s right. The gray tom frowned at the horizon, his blue eyes dark. “We should find MoonClan before the first snow hits.”

Petalpaw stifled a groan. It seemed that the good weather wasn’t affecting Windpaw as it had affected her. “We have plenty of time before the first snowfall,” Petalpaw assured him impatiently. “And there’s no way it can be that bad.”

Windpaw shot her an annoyed look, which was a weird expression for the smart, funny tom. “We’ll lose the scent in the snow, and it will make traveling harder. Not to mention the lack of prey and herbs.”

Petalpaw rolled her eyes. “Just relax a little, okay? If we keep up the pace, we’ll find MoonClan in no time.”

Relax?” Windpaw asked incredulously. “We’re in unknown territory, all alone! Three apprentices! It’s a wonder we’re alive!”

“Don’t be such a scaredy-mouse,” Petalpaw snorted. “Just one paw in front of the other, that’s all you need to know.”

“What about unfriendly cats?” Windpaw demanded. “What about badgers? Have you forgotten foxes already?” Petalpaw flinched at his accusatory tone of voice, but the gray tom kept going. “And hunting? We’ve only had a moon of training! How are we supposed to feed ourselves through leaf-bare, especially when there’s less prey?”

“Please stop bickering,” Scorchpaw begged them. The brown tabby tom looked exhausted; dark circles rested under his dull amber eyes. “Please, it’s driving me crazy.”

“Sorry,” Petalpaw muttered. “Windpaw’s sorry, too.”

“Excuse me?” Windpaw meowed sharply. “I didn’t ask you to speak for me. I can do that myself, thanks.”

“Oh, I should have remembered,” Petalpaw grumbled under her breath, twitching her tail in irritation. He’s being so angsty lately, it’s getting on my nerves… I’ve refrained from biting his tail off for too long now…

“What’d you say?” Windpaw asked innocently, anger thinly concealed beneath his honeyed words.

“Nothing,” Petalpaw replied icily. She glared at the mottled gray tom, tail switching back and forth. Annoying furball!

Windpaw’s expression seemed to return the silent insult. He narrowed his sky-blue eyes at Scorchpaw, who took a half-hearted step in front of Petalpaw, then whirled around and stomped away. Petalpaw sighed heavily as she watched the gray tom storm in the opposite direction.

“Sorry,” she mumbled to Scorchpaw.

Scorchpaw nudged her shoulder. “He’s just jealous he didn’t get to hang out with the best she-cat in the world,” the brown tabby tom meowed in a teasing voice.

Petalpaw’s cheeks were on fire as she looked at the ground, determinedly avoiding Scorchpaw’s amber gaze. Despite his teasing tone, Petalpaw wondered if his words had an element of truth in them… that Windpaw was jealous…

Don’t be silly, she told herself. Windpaw’s your friend. And that’s all he’ll ever be. Plus, he has Aspenpaw to keep him company. Once he goes back to LeafClan, that is. Despite her newfound… friendship… with Scorchpaw, Windpaw’s decision to stay with LeafClan still hurt.

A twinge of uncertainty made the fur along her spine prickle. If Windpaw gets jealous enough, will he resort to drastic measures…?

An image of the mottled gray tom snarling as he lunged at Scorchpaw with unsheathed claws flashed through Petalpaw’s head. She shivered as the very un-Windpaw-like expression darkened her friend’s face, and felt a rush of relief when the brief thought vanished.

He’d never do that, Petalpaw consoled herself. He’s a good cat, loyal and true.

But the fear still stirred within her chest. Any cat, no matter how pure of heart, can become evil with the right motivation… Right?

“Hey!” Windpaw called, startling Petalpaw out of her brooding thoughts. “Look at that!”

Petalpaw exhaled quietly and followed the tom’s blue gaze. Before them lay a vast collection of square buildings; a massive patchwork of Twoleg dens with Thunderpaths as veins. Petalpaw stared at it, speechless.

“A Twolegplace!” Scorchpaw gasped.

Windpaw’s tail switched back and forth. “We know.”

Petalpaw, ignoring their bickering, finally found her voice again. “It’s… huge…” She shook her head, stunned by the enormity of the Twolegplace. “Twolegs… built all this…?”

“Using building-monsters,” Windpaw explained knowledgeably. “They have shiny yellow pelts and huge, sharp claws that can move mountains.”

Petalpaw shook her head again, unable to get over her shock. “Why?” she asked.

“I guess… it’s their way of building dens,” Windpaw mused. “Instead of brambles or gorse, they use stone… it must make them much sturdier…”

“Please tell me we’re going around it,” Scorchpaw begged. “Twolegplaces are hives of kittypets and strays… I’ve heard that each Twoleg den has a monster nest!”

Petalpaw shivered at the thought. She lifted her chin to sniff the air, pleading silently for the MoonClan scent to veer away from the Twolegplace, but…

“I don’t smell anything,” she mewed in a small voice. Panic began to stir inside of her chest, making her heart gallop.

Oh StarClan, please tell me we haven’t lost the trail! Not now!

“I don’t smell anything,” Petalpaw repeated, as though reciting the words would somehow jinx them, and that MoonClan scent would be carried to her nose on the breeze. But heavy disappointment settled down on her, swallowing her high spirits from earlier.

The MoonClan scent is gone.

As Petalpaw dropped into a crouch and buried her head in her paws, she heard Windpaw and Scorchpaw pacing around and sniffing the air like their lives depended on it. I don’t know why they bother, she thought glumly. We’ve lost it. For good this time.

There had been brief moments along the way when they’d lost the MoonClan scent, but the patrol always found it again within a few heartbeats. But now… it was as though MoonClan had been wiped from the face of the earth, leaving an abruptly-stopped scent trail and a miserable Petalpaw behind.

“Wait,” Windpaw meowed. Petalpaw pricked her ears as the gray tom continued. “The scent may not be gone… it may just be hidden under the Twolegplace scents.”

“Yeah!” Scorchpaw agreed hastily. “We have to keep going!”

Windpaw glowered at him. “We can’t afford to be too rash,” the gray tom cautioned.

You’re one to talk, Petalpaw thought spitefully, but said nothing except, “You can lead the way.”

Windpaw looked at her with a haughty tilt to his chin. The mottled gray tom spun around with a wave of his tail and started marching swiftly toward the tangle of Twoleg dens. Petalpaw felt a wave of relief as she stepped back, releasing the burden of leadership that Graytail had left her with. She sighed and got slowly to her paws, quickly refusing Scorchpaw’s offer to help.

It’s exhausting, leading a patrol of three cats, Petalpaw thought wearily as she and Scorchpaw padded after Windpaw. Great StarClan, I wouldn’t want to be the leader of an entire Clan!

She was content just to pad beside Scorchpaw, following another cat who knew what he was doing. At least, she assumed Windpaw knew what he was doing… her paws itched to take control again, just in case Windpaw started to mess up their mission… but the thought of striding at the head of the patrol again made Petalpaw want to curl up in a ball.

“We’ll find them,” Scorchpaw assured her.

Petalpaw smiled at him. His amber eyes glowed against his brown tabby fur like twin fireflies. “Thanks.”

Windpaw coughed, but it sounded suspiciously like, “Fox-heart!”

Petalpaw glared at him. “You can keep your stupid thoughts to yourself!” she snapped, feeling annoyance prickle under her pelt. Why did he have to ruin a perfectly nice moment?

“My thoughts aren’t the stupid ones,” Windpaw growled back, the fur on his shoulders beginning to bristle. “If stupid’s what you’re looking for, the perfect cat lies ahead in one of these Twoleg dens. Or,” he added, “if you’d like a more snake-hearted variety, you can go with the brown-furred companion beside you.”

Scorchpaw’s not a snake-heart! Petalpaw wanted to shout, but the words didn’t come. Heat flooded her cheeks as her ears grew hot with embarrassment. Windpaw’s being such a jealous furball! It had been flattering at first, but now… it was annoying. Petalpaw just wanted to keep trudging on without all the silent glares and little jibes.

“And if you really want to live on the edge, there are some rogues in the alleys -- ”

Petalpaw flattened her ears to Windpaw’s infuriating words. Where was her sweet, loyal friend, the tom with a million jokes stacked in piles in his head, the tom with a mind that ran like the wind, just as Briarstar had noted? Who was this arrogant creature that had come to reside in Windpaw’s body, that seemed to love and hate Petalpaw at the same time?

“Rogues in the alleys,” a new voice hissed. “My my, is that really what every cat thinks of us?”

Petalpaw’s blood ran cold. She slipped into a defensive crouch, feeling Scorchpaw do the same beside her. Twoleg dens loomed above them on all sides, trapping them in a maze of narrow pathways littered with rubbish. Petalpaw wrinkled her nose at the smell of sour puddles and moved a few mouse-lengths away from a jagged piece of clearstone.

“Hello?” Windpaw called. “Who’s there?”

“Just some rogues from an alley,” the voice replied, and a cat melted out of the shadows. The pale sunlight slid over a white face and pink nose, reflecting off two perfectly-centered blue eyes. Dainty paws with delicate pads gingerly stepped around the shards of green clearstone as the cat approached. There was a faint tinkling noise that rang through the alleys, and Petalpaw noticed the round bell on the cat’s collar.

It’s… a kittypet?

The white she-cat wrinkled her nose in amusement at their incredulous expressions. “Surprised, I take it?” she asked.

Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw shrugged simultaneously. Petalpaw glanced at Windpaw; the gray tom’s eyes darted all over the newcomer, as though sizing her up. Scorchpaw simply stood in silence, waiting for the stranger to make the first move.

“Why don’t I know you?” the white she-cat mused, padding forward. Her paws didn’t make a sound against the stone as she approached Scorchpaw. She stood with her muzzle a mouse-length from his, her clear blue eyes peering into amber. Petalpaw felt a twinge of something like annoyance in her belly as she watched the strange she-cat regard Scorchpaw with apparent interest. Petalpaw shifted her paws uncomfortably as she waited for Scorchpaw’s response.

“We come from far away,” Scorchpaw replied, taking a little step back. “We come from the Clans.”

“We’re only passing through,” Windpaw added. He gave the white she-cat his most winning smile, and she returned it.

“I’m Gwyneira,” the snowy-furred kittypet introduced herself. “Gwyn for short.” She gave a tinkling laugh not unlike the jingling of the bell on her collar.

“Gwyneira?” Windpaw echoed. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Oh, please, call me Gwyn!” Gwyneira purred, flicking Windpaw’s flank with her tail. “I’m just a little kittypet in a big Twolegplace, no need to be extravagant.” She laughed again. “What’s your name?”

“Windpaw,” Windpaw responded, beaming. Petalpaw glowered at him through slitted eyes, but that was nothing compared to the burning glare she kept fixed on Gwyn when the white she-cat turned to Scorchpaw.

“And you?” the kittypet asked, the bell on her collar jingling pleasantly. “What’s your name?”

“Scorchpaw,” Scorchpaw mumbled.

“What a fierce name!” Gwyn exclaimed, wrinkling her nose and giving Scorchpaw a playful shove. “You’d fit right in with the alley cats; and I mean that as a compliment!”

Petalpaw’s tail flicked slowly back and forth as irritation boiled beneath her pelt. Her claws sheathed and unsheathed. She wanted to fly at the soft-furred, round-eyed kittypet and fling her away from Scorchpaw.

Who’s jealous now? Petalpaw thought wryly.

She didn’t retract her claws.

“And you!” Gwyn meowed, rounding on Petalpaw. “What’s a lovely she-cat like you doing traveling with these ruffians?”

“They’re not ruffians,” Petalpaw grumbled. “At least, not most of the time.”

“Thanks a lot,” Windpaw mewed, rolling his eyes.

Gwyn smiled warmly. “What’s your name?”

“Petalpaw,” Petalpaw answered, almost defiantly. Her fur prickled uncomfortably, and she sidled closer to Scorchpaw. The brush of his fur lessened the irrational anxiety that was fluttering in her chest.

It might have been her imagination, but Petalpaw thought Gwyn’s smile became a little more forced, more like a grimace. The kittypet’s bared teeth were shiny and white, just like her pelt, but they looked surprisingly sharp.

“What a beautiful name,” Gwyn remarked, after a brief moment of hesitation. “Windpaw, Scorchpaw, and Petalpaw.” Her words were sweet as honey, gliding through the air like falling feathers, but they seemed to become sharper at Petalpaw’s name, as though the honey was poison and the feathers were serrated claws.

You’re just imagining it, Petalpaw told herself. You’re such a paranoid mouse-brain, get it together!

An unspoken tension vibrated in the air between the four cats for a moment. Then, Gwyn spoke, addressing Scorchpaw.

“Why have you Clan cats come?” she asked curiously. “Thinking about settling in as kittypets?” She winked at Scorchpaw, and a bolt of fury shot through Petalpaw’s veins. If she does that one more time, I swear to StarClan I’ll rip her ears off!

“No, we’re just passing through,” Scorchpaw responded, glancing at Petalpaw. “Petalpaw’s Clan was driven out, and we’re going to find them.”

“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry,” Gwyn crooned, shaking her head and blinking sorrowfully at Petalpaw. “I hope you succeed.”

Petalpaw shivered. Those were the words that Thistleheart had spoken to her when she was still a kit. She expected them to instill confidence in her heart, just as Thistleheart’s had, but they felt… wrong. Something was off, Petalpaw just couldn’t quite put her paw on it…

“You can stay at my Twoleg’s den to rest!” Gwyn offered sweetly, gazing at Scorchpaw with round, sparkling eyes. Petalpaw felt a tremor run through her body. The reflected sunlight in Gwyn’s radiant blue eyes felt sharp somehow, like the shards of clearstone speckling the alley around them.

Petalpaw stepped forward, paws trembling. “I don’t think we can rest right now, sorry,” she meowed firmly but politely. “It was nice meeting you!”

“But I’m hungry!” Windpaw complained, turning pleading blue eyes on Petalpaw. “And my paws are nearly dropping off! Can we just stay for a little bit? We’ll be back to traveling by sunset!”

“We can’t afford to leave the scent trail!” Petalpaw argued, tail lashing. Her temper was on the verge of exploding; she could feel it in every tense muscle. “And we’re warriors! We’re not going to eat kittypet food!”

“We’re apprentices,” Windpaw pointed out. “And you don’t have to eat any. I was just thinking it might be fun to try.”

Petalpaw exhaled through gritted teeth. “Is that all this is?” she demanded in a tight voice. “A fun adventure where you stop whenever you want to flirt with some pretty kittypets? Because my family’s lives are at stake. And all you want to do is go stuff yourself with rabbit pellets and slop instead of finding the scent trail and finishing what Graytail started.”

Silence greeted her words, broken only by the faraway growls of monsters on the Thunderpath.

Petalpaw was breathing heavily, feeling a cloud of rage surround her. Dark shadows hemmed in on her from all sides, sending spurts of panic and adrenaline through her veins.

Get away from me! Petalpaw thought desperately. I’m not a bad cat! I’m not! She tried to sheathe her claws, but part of her was holding onto her fury, washed in the consuming red flames. Windpaw was being a coward, and she didn’t like that… no, she didn’t like that at all… They’d come too far to just give up and crumble.

Gradually, the world returned. Petalpaw took in a deep, shuddering breath and exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. Now that her anger had subsided, guilt weighed down heavily on her chest. “I suppose we could rest at your Twoleg den until sunset, if Windpaw is so infatuated with the idea.”

Gwyn beamed. “Wonderful, darling!”

Petalpaw stared at the silky-furred kittypet through narrowed eyes. That doesn’t mean I like you, though. Not your honeyed words or soft, white pelt or “darlings.” Get away from my friends.

Gwyn smiled pleasantly. “Well, if you’re all ready, my Twoleg den awaits!”

They followed the white she-cat out of the alley.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Petalpaw’s anxiety grew with every pawstep. Every stride they took following Gwyn to her Twoleg den was another stride away from MoonClan, and it felt so agonizingly wrong to take a detour. Petalpaw itched to take control; she longed to steer the group around, to snap a goodbye at Gwyn and drag her friends back to the MoonClan scent.

If we’d kept searching, we would have found it. Her secret worry echoed in her head. Shame tugged at her paws. But I was such a pushover; Windpaw was tired and I gave in.

Irritation prickled in every hair on her pelt. Annoyance at Gwyn, for her dainty kittypet pace and flirtatious winks at Scorchpaw; annoyance at Windpaw, who pranced at Gwyn’s side as though he was a happy kittypet himself; and most of all, annoyance at herself, for following Gwyn and leaving the MoonClan scent behind.

Fury surged through her veins like fire as she recalled the lost trail of MoonClan scent. They’d just abandoned it, left it behind when a more appealing target approached -- Gwyn -- and Petalpaw complied. Like a total mouse-brained coward. Some leader I am.

“Are we there yet?” Petalpaw asked impatiently. She was sorely tempted to slip away while Gwyn was distracted by Scorchpaw and Windpaw… then shook her head as guilt settled down on her chest. How could I even think about leaving them? They’re my friends!

“Almost!” Gwyn called. “It’s not far now.”

Petalpaw curled her lip and trudged on.

*        *        *        *        *

The path to Gwyn’s Twoleg den led deeper into the tangle of Thunderpaths and alleys. A cloud of unease hung over Petalpaw as she reluctantly followed the snowy-white kittypet through the narrow rivers of blackstone. Petalpaw stiffened as a sharp squeaking sound pierced her ears, and she whipped her head toward a shadowy pile of Twoleg rubbish. Rats chittered angrily at the passing cats, gnashing yellow teeth and narrowing beady eyes. With a shiver, Petalpaw quickened her pace so that she was trotting beside Scorchpaw.

“I don’t like this,” she murmured to the brown tabby tom.

Scorchpaw’s ears twitched in acknowledgement. “Neither do I.”

“Oh, you can’t judge a book by its cover!” Gwyn meowed cheerfully, with a wave of her plumy white tail.

Petalpaw frowned, confused by the expression. “What in the name of StarClan is a book?”

“Some sort of Twoleg thing, I presume,” Scorchpaw muttered, pressing closer to her as a sleek brown rat darted around their paws. Petalpaw could feel his heart thundering through his flank, and she was oddly comforted by his panic. She was glad that she wasn’t the only one thoroughly unsettled by this place.

“How much farther do we have to go?” Windpaw asked, voicing the question with much less bitterness than Petalpaw had in her own mind.

“It’s just around the bend!” Gwyn promised brightly, making the turn as she spoke. Petalpaw watched apprehensively as the kittypet’s pure white pelt guided them across the dark, silent Thunderpath. She looked like a ghost in the night, and Petalpaw shivered, drawing closer to Scorchpaw.

An old, decrepit Twoleg den stood alone at the end of the blackstone path. Petalpaw’s fur prickled uneasily as they padded closer. The squares of clearstone embedded in the walls were decorated with hairline fissures, and some had shattered completely, speckling the ground with shards. Petalpaw frowned as she picked her way around them, careful not to slice open her pads.

“This is where you live?” Windpaw asked warily.

Gwyn nodded. “Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I know it looks like a pile of rubbish, but inside, it’s very charming.” A warm smile bloomed on her face as she beckoned for the Clan cats to follow. “Come in, you’ll see.” Her blue eyes glinted like the clearstone pieces beneath their paws, and Petalpaw felt a small tremble of fear. Was she imagining the malice in Gwyn’s wide, welcoming gaze? Was she imagining the sliver of hostility in Gwyn’s kind words?

Of course I’m imagining it. Great StarClan, Petalpaw, be more trusting! Scorchpaw has proven himself, and so will Gwyn.

But her pawsteps were slow and reluctant as she followed the white she-cat into the depths of the Twoleg den, and she kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure Scorchpaw was behind her. Once, Petalpaw thought she saw a shadow flit across a distant Thunderpath, but it was gone in the blink of an eye.

“Sister!” Gwyn called into the gloom, her voice echoing off the crumbling walls. “Sister, I’ve brought guests!”

A clicking sound broke the ensuing silence. It was the sound of unsheathed claws against stone. Each pawstep sent another burst of icy terror through Petalpaw’s veins, terror that she didn’t understand. If this cat is a kittypet’s sister, there shouldn’t be anything to be afraid of.

Right?

From the shadows of the abandoned Twoleg den, a slender figure emerged. Silky fur, black as a nightmare, was draped over a slight frame. Glinting green eyes pierced Petalpaw’s own as the cat’s gaze swept over the Clan cats. Her smooth, rippling fur was broken by a bright streak of red; for a moment, Petalpaw was startled, and her mind jumped to blood and fatal wounds. But a flash of gold from the red band, accompanied by a tinkling sound, made Petalpaw realize that the she-cat was wearing a collar just like Gwyn’s.

The quiet jingling of the black cat’s collar made every hair on Petalpaw’s pelt stand on end. It was a soft, almost pleasant sound, but oddly sinister, like a gentle voice speaking words of malice. Petalpaw took an instinctive step back as the kittypet padded silently forward.

After regarding the Clan cats for a moment, the black she-cat murmured, “Guests, eh?”

Gwyn beamed and strode forward to embrace her sister. The two littermates, one jet-black and one snow-white, touched noses. Gwyn’s sister withdrew swiftly, her cold green eyes scrutinizing Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw without emotion.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“I’m Windpaw,” Windpaw volunteered immediately, putting on his most charming grin. Gwyn’s sister studied his glittering teeth and sparkling eyes and gave an unimpressed huff.

“I’m Scorchpaw,” Scorchpaw added, sounding a little nervous.

Petalpaw lifted her chin, trying to convey a feeling of pride as she beat back her nerves. “And I’m Petalpaw,” she announced, the words coming out louder than she expected. They echoed sharply around the empty Twoleg den, bouncing off the cracked walls and shattered clearstone squares. Petalpaw flattened her ears as the black she-cat gazed at her with something like amusement in her green eyes.

“I’m Adrienne,” the black kittypet replied evenly. “Gwyn’s sister.”

“My opposite,” Gwyn joked, crinkling her nose with laughter. “Black pelt, white pelt. Brooding and creepy, happy-go-lucky.”

Adrienne smiled without humor. “We are more alike than you realize, Gwyneira.”

Petalpaw shifted her paws in the uncomfortable silence that followed Adrienne’s ominous words. She felt a sudden desire to turn tail and sprint back to the place they’d lost the MoonClan scent and resume their journey, to forget about these odd kittypets.

But she couldn’t leave. Not without Scorchpaw and Windpaw.

“Why have you come?” Adrienne asked suddenly, breaking the silence.

Petalpaw glanced uncertainly at Scorchpaw and Windpaw, unsure if they should contribute to the story. But both toms nodded to her, indicating that she should tell the tale herself.

“W-well,” Petalpaw began nervously, addressing Adrienne’s silky black paws instead of her face, “I was separated from m-my family. My Clan, MoonClan, got chased out of their camp and fled Clan territory. We tracked their scent all the way to this Twolegplace, then lost it.” She hesitated, wary of asking these unfamiliar kittypets for help. “Have you… have you scented them?” She gazed up into Adrienne’s cold, calculating green eyes.

Adrienne examined Petalpaw thoughtfully. “What scent do they carry?” the black she-cat asked.

“Pine forest,” Petalpaw responded, the smell filling her nose as she spoke of it. She could almost taste the sharp, bittersweet pinesap on the faint, stale breeze. Longing swamped Petalpaw’s heart, blanketing every other emotion.

Adrienne’s eyes widened with shock, the first true emotion Petalpaw had seen on her face so far. “Pine forest,” the black she-cat repeated.

Petalpaw nodded impatiently, her pelt prickling. “Yes, yes!”

Adrienne turned to face her sister in a whirl of swishing black fur. “Gwyneira! Didn’t Calypso scent something odd the other day? Something… she described it as sharp?”

“Like sap,” Gwyn agreed, nodding in understanding. “Should I go get her?”

Adrienne nodded. “She’s probably sitting by the colorglass again.”

Petalpaw watched silently as Gwyn dipped her head to Adrienne and padded into the depths of the Twoleg dwelling. A thousand questions rushed through her head at once, all of them unspoken. The way that Adrienne and Gwyn discussed this Calypso character sounded condescending, implying that Calypso was inferior… maybe even a prisoner…

No, Petalpaw told herself sternly. These are kittypets living in a rundown Twoleg den, and we outnumber them --

Wait.

If they live here, where are their Twolegs?

Petalpaw, frowning at her thought, opened her mouth to ask Adrienne, but the black she-cat’s piercing green stare and aloof stance vanquished all words on her tongue. Petalpaw clamped her jaws shut and glanced furtively at Scorchpaw. The brown tabby tom was eyeing Adrienne with an unreadable gaze, but Petalpaw had gotten progressively better at discerning the emotions in his amber eyes. And right now, there was a faint shadow of something like concern hanging over them.

He shares my worries, thank StarClan. I’m not completely paranoid.

Windpaw, on the other paw, looked calm, his muscles relaxed, his posture casual. His eyes rested lazily on Adrienne, and Petalpaw felt a twinge of annoyance toward the gray tom. Now that Gwyn’s gone, he’s replaced her with the next-prettiest she-cat in the vicinity.

Shallow furball.

The frosty silence that filled the air between the four cats was broken by the awkward sound of Scorchpaw coughing. Adrienne’s ears flicked up at the sound, and the she-cat dropped into a battle crouch, then shook out her pelt and returned to a standing position, still poised like a snake about to strike.

Petalpaw cringed as she waited impatiently for Gwyn to return. Once or twice Adrienne’s eyes swept over her face, but they seemed to linger on Scorchpaw, who was now staring at his paws with his eyes devoid of all emotion.

Petalpaw’s fur prickled. Why’s Adrienne taking an interest in him? Her eyes narrowed into a glare as she inspected the silky-furred kittypet. First Gwyn, now her… The SunClan apprentice was handsome, Petalpaw conceded, but the way Adrienne was gazing at him felt… different. Not romantically, almost… platonically. Like she was considering him to be friend material, or a potential ally.

But… for what?

Finally, the shuffling of paws broke the silence. Petalpaw stifled a sigh of relief as Gwyn came into view, shepherding a nervous-looking, gray-spotted she-cat forward. The she-cat’s speckled fur twitched uncomfortably along her spine, and her golden eyes darted from Adrienne to Scorchpaw to Windpaw to Petalpaw.

“Calypso,” Adrienne meowed, and the spotted gray she-cat gave a little jump. “Do you recall the scent that you detected yesterday morning? The one that smelled… sharp?”

Calypso stared at Adrienne, golden eyes huge and filled with anxiety. “Uh, I -- h-how do you mean? Um -- ”

Adrienne smiled mirthlessly. “Remember the scent?” she asked, although the words sounded like a command.

Calypso glanced at Gwyn, her eyes clouded with uncertainty. “Uh… yes? It smelled sharp, like… like…”

“Like pinesap?” Adrienne finished in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Y-yes,” Calypso stammered, briefly shaking out her pelt. The darker gray spots in her fur fluttered like ashes falling from the sky. “Like p-p-pinesap.” The little she-cat still looked terribly confused, and Petalpaw felt a pang of pity for her.

“Where did you scent the pinesap?” Adrienne inquired, her words light but her tone dark.

Calypso’s nervous golden gaze flicked to Gwyn again as she hesitated. “Um… the… the edge of the T-Twolegplace? Near the monster dens?”

Adrienne nodded to Calypso. “Thank you for your information,” she meowed curtly. The black she-cat turned to Petalpaw, who swallowed hard and took a halting step back. “Good news. Calypso has found the MoonClan scent trail.”

Calypso ducked her head, still trembling, as Adrienne acknowledged her.

Petalpaw blinked. Her mind was oddly blank. She didn’t think so much as feel a powerful rush of relief as she took in Adrienne’s words. The MoonClan scent trail was found. Now they could go back and keep searching, and stop taking detours.

“Could you lead us there?” Petalpaw asked hungrily.

Adrienne regarded her thoughtfully. Her eerie green gaze was unsettling, but Petalpaw no longer cared. She waited impatiently for a response, tail switching back and forth.

“Yes, we can,” Adrienne replied at last, her unreadable gaze flicking to Gwyn. “You may leave, Calypso.”

The spotted gray she-cat dipped her head nervously and scrambled away, disappearing into the depths of the abandoned Twoleg den.

Petalpaw frowned, still off-put by the way that Adrienne addressed the little gray she-cat. But she managed to dismiss the worries as hope swelled in her chest. These kittypets had found the MoonClan scent again, and soon Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Windpaw would be on their way, the Twolegplace far behind them and MoonClan ahead.

“So… are we going, then?” Petalpaw asked eagerly.

Adrienne, not breaking eye contact with Scorchpaw, replied, “Yes.”

“Wait!” Windpaw interrupted. “I thought we were going to try kittypet food?”

Adrienne’s ears twitched irritably, but the black she-cat didn’t speak. Instead, it was Gwyn who responded. “You and I can have some,” she told the mottled gray tom reassuringly, resting her feathery white tail on his shoulders. “Come on.” Together, Gwyn and Windpaw padded into the gloom, deeper into the Twoleg den.

That left Petalpaw, Scorchpaw, and Adrienne standing in an awkward circle, tension prickling in the air between them. Petalpaw snuck a glance at the black she-cat; Adrienne’s cold green eyes were locked on Scorchpaw, while Scorchpaw himself was staring down at his paws, avoiding her gaze.

At last, Adrienne spoke, addressing Petalpaw. “Mind if I borrow your friend for a moment?”

Petalpaw flinched, taken aback at the black she-cat’s direct request. She wants Scorchpaw? Why? Suspicion lurked like a stone in her belly as she glowered at Adrienne. I’m not just going to let him wander off with an unknown, possibly hostile she-cat, am I?

“It’s okay, Petalpaw,” Scorchpaw meowed. Petalpaw’s fur prickled as her name rolled off his tongue. She shivered slightly, honored to be mentioned. No way am I letting him go off with Adrienne!

“We’ll be right back,” Adrienne promised, her green eyes glittering.

Petalpaw scowled at the silky-furred she-cat, an argument ready on the tip of her tongue. But Scorchpaw interrupted before she could start to protest.

“I’ll be fine,” the brown tabby tom assured her. “If she makes one false move, I’ll introduce her to these little guys.” He unsheathed his claws and flexed them. “My SunClan training will help.”

Adrienne’s thin mouth quirked into a small, grudging smile. “Don’t worry,” she mewed. “I won’t murder this furball. In fact, I think we could be good friends.”

Petalpaw couldn’t hide the look of shock and disgust that flared across her face. Scorchpaw is nothing like you. He’s warm and friendly and loyal and you’re… Petalpaw shivered. I don’t really know you. But from what I’ve seen… you and Scorchpaw are nothing alike.

But all she said was, “Go. But make it quick; MoonClan isn’t getting any closer.” The words felt wrenched from her throat against her will, and Petalpaw snapped her jaws shut immediately, feeling shame wash over her. I just rolled over like a yellow-bellied mouse-heart. I shouldn’t have let them go so easily. I shouldn’t have given up like that.

I’m the leader of the patrol, for StarClan’s sake! Why can’t I lead?

Oh, how she wished Ravenstar was here to take power, to show Petalpaw the wisest decisions and help her identify what was right and what was wrong. Her father knew how to run a Clan, he’d be able to help.

But he’s far, far away.

And every second they wasted stuffing themselves full of kittypet food and fraternizing with sketchy, unfamiliar cats was another second for MoonClan to travel farther away. Petalpaw was done with all the hesitation; if she had been by herself, she’d have chosen to abandon the kittypets and go find MoonClan alone. But she hadn’t come by herself.

No, the equation wasn’t complete without Scorchpaw and Windpaw. They hadn’t left her, so she wouldn’t leave them, no matter how much she longed to break free and sprint away.

It was a cumbersome burden to shoulder alone, leading the patrol. Even if it was just a trio of inexperienced apprentices. Petalpaw always had to keep every need of each cat in mind; their energy level, thirst, hunger, and level of skill when it came to hunting or fighting. It was exhausting.

I guess I’m not following in Ravenstar’s pawsteps, Petalpaw thought wryly, twitching her whiskers as she watched Adrienne and Scorchpaw pad out of the Twoleg den. She strained her ears, trying to eavesdrop on their conversation -- with a small twinge of guilt -- but the two cats were murmuring so quietly it was impossible to understand a word. Petalpaw gave a huff of frustration and sat down heavily. It was agony to sit and not move, to remain stationary when MoonClan was out there, so close but so far.

But Petalpaw was bound to Scorchpaw and Windpaw, just as they were to her.

It would be a shame once they all went their separate ways. The thought was frightening; Petalpaw hadn’t thought much about Scorchpaw returning to SunClan or Windpaw choosing to stay with LeafClan. The very notion of their three paths dividing was almost too painful to consider.

That’s why you don’t get attached to strangers, Petalpaw thought. I thought you learned your lesson, with Belladonna and Graytail.

But it was so hard to keep her distance, so hard to stay away from Scorchpaw and Windpaw! Petalpaw considered them her friends now. How could she bear to leave them for MoonClan and only speak to them for a heartbeat at Gatherings? How could she be content with sitting at the edge of the border, staring into enemy territory and hoping to see a familiar pelt color, brown or gray?

Petalpaw shook out her pelt, trying to rid herself of the sudden feeling of crushing loneliness. Great StarClan, it hasn’t even happened yet, Petalpaw thought with annoyance. You’ll face it when it comes.

Right now, you’re waiting for Scorchpaw and Windpaw to come back.

Once they’re back, we can resume the journey. Adrienne and Gwyn will lead us to the scent, and we’ll be on our way.

Then I can put all of this behind me.

How very, very wrong she was.

CHAPTER NINE

To Petalpaw’s surprise, it was Gwyn and Windpaw who came back first, laughing and nudging each other like old friends. Petalpaw wrinkled her nose at the scent of kittypet food that wafted toward her, and felt a twinge of annoyance. You’re a warrior apprentice, Windpaw! You can’t stuff yourself with slop and gossip with kittypets!

Windpaw blinked, seeming to notice that Adrienne and Scorchpaw were missing. “Uh… where did they go?” he asked Petalpaw.

Petalpaw snorted. “Take a wild guess.”

Windpaw’s eyes rounded and his eyebrows shot up. “Great StarClan!”

“Not like that!” Petalpaw snapped, thoroughly infuriated now. “They went outside to chat about StarClan knows what!”

Windpaw smirked. “Are you sure that’s all they’re -- ”

“Windpaw, you disgust me!” Petalpaw fumed, pointedly turning away with a lash of her tail. But a creeping sense of worry was mounting within her. What were Adrienne and Scorchpaw doing? What were they talking about that they couldn’t say in front of Petalpaw?

She didn’t know, but she didn’t like it one bit.

“Hello,” a voice interrupted her uneasy thoughts. Petalpaw gave a startled little jump as Adrienne came gliding back into the Twoleg den like a black phantom. Scorchpaw trailed behind her, his pawsteps uncertain, eyes drifting to his paws.

Petalpaw studied her friend with concern. What did Adrienne do to you? she wanted to ask, but it would be exceptionally rude with the she-cat herself present, and Petalpaw couldn’t risk terminating the kittypet’s offer of help. She hated to admit it, but they needed help finding that scent trail. And if these kittypets were their only hope… well, Petalpaw would have to tolerate them.

She didn’t want to, though.

“Shall we get going?” Adrienne asked, breaking the ensuing silence with a voice like cold honey.

“Yes,” Petalpaw replied, the words coming out a little sharper than she meant them to. We were waiting on you, mouse-brain!

With a brief dip of her head, Adrienne swept past Petalpaw, her golden bell jingling quietly to the beat of her swift and graceful pawsteps. Gwyn leaped to her paws and scampered after her sister, looking significantly less dignified with her slightly ruffled white pelt and obvious haste to catch up. With one last smirk at Petalpaw, Windpaw followed the two kittypets, leaving Petalpaw and Scorchpaw lingering back together.

The moment that Adrienne was out of earshot, Petalpaw rounded on the brown tabby tom and demanded, “What did you two talk about?”

Scorchpaw flinched backward, determinedly avoiding her gaze. “Nothing… she just wanted to know more about us, I guess…?”

“And what did you tell her?” Petalpaw snapped. “We can’t afford to give out too much information!”

Scorchpaw ducked his head, which cast a shadow over his amber eyes and made them unreadable. “I just told her about… SunClan and MoonClan… and how we got here… I had to make her trust us…”

Petalpaw nodded in understanding. “Let’s go, then,” she replied, not waiting for an answer.

But as Petalpaw followed Windpaw and the kittypets out of the Twoleg den, something about Scorchpaw’s words made a small tremor of unease run up her spine.

I had to make her trust us…

It sounded like he was explaining how he was manipulating Adrienne. And he was speaking about it in such a careless, unbothered way. Like he couldn’t see what was wrong.

But nothing’s wrong! Petalpaw thought annoyedly, then flattened her ears, afraid to jinx herself and jeopardize their mission. Superstitions won’t help us, she thought scornfully, scolding her own foolishness. What matters is keeping my head down and trudging on in MoonClan’s direction. We can sort out everything later, once the kittypets are gone.

Clouds blotted out the sun as Petalpaw, Windpaw, and Scorchpaw followed Adrienne and Gwyn through the Twolegplace. A chilly breeze penetrated Petalpaw’s soft pelt, and she shivered. Leaf-bare was closing in on them, and fast. And even though the cats were protected from the full force of the wind by the looming Twoleg dens, it was still alarming to feel cold air slithering down one’s spine. It almost felt… sinister.

“How much longer do we have to go?” Petalpaw asked, trying to dismiss the ominous thought.

Neither kittypet turned around. “Not much longer,” Adrienne promised.

Petalpaw narrowed her eyes at the black she-cat irritably. What does that mean? Give me a real answer!

But the dark-furred kittypet said nothing, just continued to pad at the head of the group. With each pawstep, Adrienne’s bell jingled, and the sound rang out around the narrow alley they were currently trekking through. The moment that the bell tinkled, Petalpaw heard a frantic scrabbling sound to her left. She pricked her ears, eyes widening, and saw a silhouette urgently clawing its way up a heap of Twoleg rubbish. A smaller figure scrambled up after it, and together, the two cats sprinted out of the alley as though their lives depended on it.

Petalpaw frowned and warily tasted the air. She detected no fox scent, nor badger or Twoleg. What had frightened the rogues?

“We’re nearly there,” Gwyn announced. “The monster dens aren’t far now.”

Slightly encouraged, Petalpaw picked up the pace so she was striding beside Windpaw. Her fur prickled uncomfortably to be in such close proximity to the gray tom -- she wasn’t quite ready to stop being mad at him yet -- but she couldn’t just withdraw without seeming rude. Her ears twitched with frustration at being trapped in such a situation.

After a heartbeat of silence, Windpaw meowed, “Hey, what do kittypets call monsters, anyway?”

Gwyn made a quick, convulsive movement; Petalpaw almost jumped in surprise as the kittypet’s white coat twitched. Petalpaw’s brow furrowed; she could’ve sworn she’d seen a claw nick Gwyn’s flank, as if to prompt her.

“Well, a monster is just a monster to any cat, isn’t it?” Gwyn responded, giving a little shrug.

Petalpaw frowned, unsure if she was imagining the tightness in the kittypet’s voice, as though the white she-cat was holding in a yowl. Or hiding an injury.

“Oh,” Windpaw mewed, sounding slightly crestfallen. “I thought kittypets had a cool name for monsters.”

Gwyn gave a hiccupy laugh that sounded slightly forced. “Well, we don’t.”

Petalpaw glanced at Scorchpaw. The movement was automatic now; the twist of her neck in the brown tom’s direction was her default reaction to something unsettling. The apprentice, although a member of SunClan, always offered Petalpaw some solace, some sanity, in the times on the journey when she needed it most.

But his expression now was guarded, just as unreadable as it had been on the day that she’d first met him. Petalpaw had thought she was beginning to see the hidden emotions behind his amber-eyed mask, but now she wasn’t so sure. The tom looked deep in thought, that was all she was certain of.

“We’re here!” Gwyn trilled, jerking Petalpaw from her thoughts.

Petalpaw’s head snapped up at the white she-cat’s words. The pale, rubbish-speckled stone under her paws had changed to a flat plane of smooth blackstone, broken by short white stripes similar to the ones on the Thunderpath she’d crossed with Graytail. Monsters with glittering pelts in all colors hulked silently between the stripes. Petalpaw couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive, and half-expected them to roar to life the second she took a step forward.

“This is it,” Adrienne declared, her eyes sweeping the Clan cats. “The monster den.”

Petalpaw curled her lip and fought the urge to retch at the stench of monsters. “You scented MoonClan here?” she asked Adrienne incredulously. She couldn’t believe that her father would ever take the Clan somewhere as foul and Twoleg-ridden as this.

“At the edge, near the Thunderpath,” Adrienne clarified, padding forward and nodding to a strip of narrow land beside the river of blackstone. “This is the end of our -- the Twolegplace.”

“Thank StarClan,” Petalpaw muttered. I can’t wait to be out of this horrid place!

Windpaw took a step forward and lifted his nose to the breeze. “I can’t smell anything,” he meowed.

Adrienne wrinkled her nose. “Of course you can’t. The monster den reeks of Twolegs! Come on, Calypso said she scented MoonClan by the Thunderpath.”

Windpaw nodded understandingly and followed as the black kittypet picked her way across the monster den, Gwyn at her side. The jingling of their golden bells sparked some sort of irrational fear within Petalpaw. Her fur prickled uncertainly, but being perceived as weak was not something she wanted, so she kept her chin up and padded after the kittypets.

After hurrying across the large expanse of blackstone and weaving between terrifying monsters, the cats had arrived at the Thunderpath’s edge. Petalpaw shrank back a few steps as a monster roared by, the wind from its pelt nearly bowling her over. It wafted a wave of disgusting Twoleg scents into Petalpaw’s nose, and she choked. “This still reeks of Twolegs!” she protested, rounding on Adrienne.

Adrienne’s expression was unreadable. “Wait for the Thunderpath to become quiet,” she murmured. “Then you can detect MoonClan.”

Petalpaw narrowed her eyes skeptically, feeling suddenly doubtful of Adrienne’s credibility. What if she’s wrong? What if it’s not there?

But, seeing as she had no other choice, Petalpaw waited for a lull in the traffic. As the roaring of a monster died away in the distance, she took a cautious step forward and parted her jaws to taste the air. Fighting back a surge of revulsion at the Twoleg stench, she sifted through the confusing updrafts, searching for something familiar. The scent of pine forest would surely get lost in such a concoction, but she had to try.

Nothing. There was nothing.

Petalpaw had thought the raging river was scary. She had been frightened by her first battle, and the SunClan ambush was terrifying. But perhaps the true killer was this: this silent, suffocating nothingness. That moment when you tasted the air and found nothing of value. That moment when you padded out of your den to greet someone and found an empty camp. That moment when you turned your head, expecting some cat to be at your side, but you were alone.

“There’s nothing,” Petalpaw meowed hoarsely. She turned to Windpaw and Scorchpaw, not even bothering to speak with the urgency she normally did in these kinds of situations. “You get anything?”

Windpaw shook his head ruefully. “I’m sorry, Petalpaw. It’s just… all swamped in Twoleg scent.”

Scorchpaw’s amber eyes blazed with fury, but he too shook his head. Neither tom had scented MoonClan.

Petalpaw sighed. Her paws felt as heavy as stone. “I guess we’re… going back.” A monster rushed past her, but she didn’t even flinch as the wind buffeted her fur. She had lost all interest in danger… in anything.

“Going back?” Adrienne asked, and this time Petalpaw gave a little twitch of surprise. The black she-cat was sitting closer to Petalpaw than she had been earlier, but that could have just been Petalpaw’s tired, hopeless eyes playing tricks on her.

“What do you mean, going back?” Adrienne asked again.

Petalpaw blinked slowly, her eyelids feeling as though they weighed as much as boulders. “Back to the entrance to the Twolegplace,” she meowed dully. “Back to square one.”

Adrienne gave a short little laugh. “You’re not going back there!” she chortled, standing up. The bell on her collar jingled in a sinister way, and the light bounced off the golden sphere like shards of clearstone. Petalpaw took a halting step back, careful not to tread on the Thunderpath. Windpaw and Scorchpaw copied her.

“Where are we going, then?” Windpaw asked quietly, his blue eyes darting wildly over Adrienne and Gwyn. Petalpaw knew him well enough to tell that he was preparing to run.

But… from what?

“Oh, somewhere simply lovely,” Gwyn gushed, but the words seemed to be edged with malice. “Somewhere far away from here.” She simpered at the gray tom, her eyes glinting. “I believe you Clan cats call it… StarClan?”

Petalpaw’s blood froze. She reached out feebly for Scorchpaw, but he was too far away, and staring fixedly at his paws.

They’re going to kill us.

“You see,” Adrienne purred, “we don’t like strangers. Especially strangers from the Clans.” She padded closer still, and now Petalpaw could see her unsheathed claws gleaming menacingly. “So you can take this knowledge with you to the stars: we were only defending our territory.”

Petalpaw’s eyes widened in shock as Adrienne lunged forward, cannoning into her flank and driving all the breath from her body. The momentum of the shove caused Petalpaw to topple backward onto the Thunderpath. With a burst of panic, she saw Gwyn push Windpaw onto the roaring black path as well, so only Scorchpaw remained facing the two sisters.

Petalpaw couldn’t move; she could only lay there on the hard, painful blackstone and try vainly to coax air back into her lungs. She watched helplessly as Scorchpaw stood alone against the two kittypet sisters.

Adrienne seemed unwilling to attack Scorchpaw; the black she-cat kept stalling. “You have a choice here,” she meowed quietly. “You can throw yourself after those fleabags or form an alliance with us. I believe you could be valuable to our cause.”

A roaring sound was swelling in Petalpaw’s ears. She twisted her head around to see a small, glittering shape rapidly approaching on the Thunderpath. A monster.

I’m crowfood.

“I’m not joining anything that you support,” Scorchpaw growled, whipping away from Adrienne and facing Petalpaw. “I follow her.”

Petalpaw was unable to stop the smile that unfurled on her face. If that is the last thing I hear, she thought, I think I’ll be satisfied.

Her green eyes connected with Scorchpaw’s amber ones, and the brown tabby tom hurled himself onto the Thunderpath.

As he ran, he fastened his teeth in Petalpaw’s scruff, half-carrying, half-dragging her across the Thunderpath. Her legs scraped painfully against the rough blackstone, but the agony was worth it; soon, she was safely to the other side. With unfocused eyes, Petalpaw watched Scorchpaw hesitate for a heartbeat, then charged back across the path to retrieve Windpaw. The two toms, gray and brown, struggled across the Thunderpath, desperately racing against the approaching monster. They rolled out of the way just as the beast’s huge black paws pounded past in a wave of hot wind, and lay gasping on the dirty grass beside the Thunderpath.

Relief flooded Petalpaw when she saw that her friends had survived. But Adrienne and Gwyn still prowled the other side of the Thunderpath, clearly waiting for an opening to run forward and launch a second attack. Petalpaw had to get up before they charged, she had to…

With a huge amount of effort, Petalpaw staggered to her paws, relishing the feeling of air circulating through her body again. “We have to go,” she rasped, still feeling weak at the knees but strong in her resolve. “Since the monsters didn’t kill us, Adrienne and Gwyn are going to finish us off!”

Scorchpaw struggled to his paws and tried to help Windpaw do the same, but the mottled gray tom rejected the other cat’s offer and stood on his own. “We have to run,” Scorchpaw growled, ears pinned back against his head as he glared at the kittypet sisters. “They’re murderers and liars. The MoonClan scent isn’t here.”

Petalpaw closed her eyes briefly. “Back to square one, then,” she murmured. She opened her eyes and stared at her friends with a heavy heart. “Ready?”

Both toms nodded, and the Clan cats started to run.

“That’s right, run, you cowards!” Adrienne’s harsh yowl rang out across the Thunderpath. “And stay out!”

“If you set one paw on our land, you’ll wish you’d never been kitted!” Gwyn added in a snarl.

Petalpaw flattened her ears against the jeers and jibes that floated after her on the chilly leaf-fall breeze. It was humiliating to run from danger, but she knew, deep down, that fighting those kittypets meant death, either at the claws of the sisters or the paws of a monster.

Fleeing, no matter how cowardly or embarrassing it felt, had saved all of their lives.

Now they just had to find the MoonClan scent again.

*        *        *        *        *

Petalpaw stood at the entrance to the Twolegplace, numb to the cold, biting wind that ripped at her fur. She blinked and inhaled, tasting the last traces of the MoonClan scent. This was where the trail had stopped, where they had lost the scent and trekked into the Twolegplace to find it again.

All of our progress has been erased.

The kittypets’ betrayal hadn’t just wasted their time and energy, though. It had damaged Petalpaw’s willingness to trust, and it had fractured the existing trust she had in Scorchpaw and Windpaw.

If I can’t trust my own friends, I’m not going anywhere.

“They couldn’t have just disappeared.” Windpaw’s voice startled Petalpaw from her dark thoughts. She eyed the gray tom suspiciously as he continued to speak, wariness evident in every tensed muscle in her body. “This scent trail has to lead somewhere.”

Scorchpaw frowned, and Petalpaw’s head snapped toward him. The brown tabby tom looked deep in thought, and she wondered uneasily what he was mulling over. “Is there some sort of rubbish pile nearby? That would hide their scent.”

Windpaw’s eyes lit up. “Maybe they wanted to hide their scent! LeafClan sometimes uses mud to disguise theirs when they attack; maybe MoonClan did the same to hide!” He clamped his jaws shut and glanced at Scorchpaw, looking mortified. Petalpaw knew what he was thinking; he’d just spilled a LeafClan secret to a SunClan cat. That was a potentially fatal mistake, for the SunClan cat would surely report this to their leader, and LeafClan’s battle tactics would be exposed.

Well, any other SunClan cat would. Scorchpaw just smiled.

“I’m not telling anyone,” he promised.

“Right.” Windpaw still sounded a little embarrassed, but he plowed on bravely. “Anyway, if there was some sort of mud, or body of water, that would hide MoonClan from any potential SunClan scouts! No offense, Scorchpaw,” Windpaw amended.

“None taken,” Scorchpaw mewed with a dip of his head. “I’m not really SunClan anymore.”

Then what is he? she wondered. Will he consider MoonClan? What will I do if he does?

“There!” Windpaw cried suddenly. Petalpaw jumped. “I see a big puddle next to that alley!”

Petalpaw perked up immediately. They had a chance. It wasn’t much, but it was a chance… and she had to see where it would take them… Petalpaw got to her paws and followed Windpaw toward the puddle. She could hear Scorchpaw’s quiet pawsteps echoing behind her as the brown tabby followed.

Once they had reached the puddle, Petalpaw gazed down into its murky waters. It was rather shallow, and an unappealing green algae fringed the edges. But there were faint speckles of water dappling the stone around it, as though multiple cats had rolled in the pool and shaken out their pelts, spraying drops across the alley. A small ray of hope illuminated Petalpaw’s heart. Was Windpaw right? Was this a sign that MoonClan had been here?

“I smell it!” Scorchpaw interjected suddenly, slapping a paw down on the wet stone. “I’ve got the MoonClan scent!”

Petalpaw’s jaw dropped. “Really?” she breathed, just as she scented it herself. It was the wind in the pine trees, the sap rolling from the trunks, the warm mice that scurried beneath the needles. It was her home, and her family.

And it was fresh.

“They were just here!” she blurted, leaping to her paws and shattering her reflection in the puddle. “Come on, let’s go!” Petalpaw couldn’t remember when she’d last been this excited. Her heart was so swollen with hope she feared it would burst through her chest, or that it would be punctured by the slightest flick of a claw. But MoonClan was so close. She hadn’t been this close to her kin in moons.

Petalpaw started to trot, gradually gaining speed until she was sprinting along the scent trail, which wound around the alley and out of the Twolegplace, heading northwest toward an overgrown Twoleg dump. The piles of rubbish were surrounded by vines of silverthorn, some kind of shiny, spiky tendril that Shadowleaf had taught her to avoid. Only Twolegs knew how to manipulate it to their liking, and it was a deadly trap if one became ensnared.

But the MoonClan scent led straight toward it.

So Petalpaw followed.

She cleared the silverthorn in a single bound, for once not stopping to think or plan or debate the pros and cons of the decision. The shiny spikes barely grazed her hind paws as she leaped over them, and she landed on some sort of Twoleg pelt. Her paws sank deep into the mountains of rubbish, but the MoonClan scent was stronger here, and it urged Petalpaw forward.

As Petalpaw picked her way through the sea of Twoleg objects, a voice rose in her ears. It was nearly inaudible at first, then became louder and clearer with each stumbling step she took. With every beat of her heart, disbelief warred with hope in her mind. The voice that was speaking… she hadn’t heard it in moons…

Petalpaw could understand the words now, she could hear what the cat was saying, and she knew exactly what was happening.

“... I commend them to you as a warrior in their turn…”

Petalpaw staggered to the top of a rubbish pile and there, there they were, all clustered together in a ragtag group below a scraggly shrub in which a black cat was perched. Two younger cats stood apart from the group, crouched before the black cat, the leader of MoonClan. One was as dark as night, one as silver as the moon.

Petalpaw couldn’t think. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t function. She just stood and stared, thunderstruck, down into the little hollow. Here, in a Twoleg dump, surrounded by heaps of rubbish, was MoonClan.

Ravenstar. She could see the silver tip of his tail flicking again, just like it did when she was a kit and he would stop by the nursery to bring her and her littermates a treat from the fresh-kill pile. He was so, so close now.

Darkkit. She was surely Darkpaw now, and in a few heartbeats she would become a fully-fledged warrior. Her black pelt was glossy and sleek, and well-defined muscles moved beneath it. She was so grown-up now! And she was right there, right in front of Petalpaw.

Icekit. On the brink of becoming a warrior, Petalpaw’s brother was fidgeting excitedly, expelling the same mischievous energy that he always did. He was a full-grown cat now, and he was only a few fox-lengths away.

Shadowleaf. The black-furred queen stood out in the crowd, her chest thrown out as she radiated the pride of a mother watching her kits’ warrior ceremony. Even though she wasn’t Petalpaw’s, Darkpaw’s, and Icepaw’s true mother, her eyes still shone with joy for the kits she had raised.

Every cat was so close. Close enough to touch, just like the stars Petalpaw had watched on the hill with Scorchpaw.

Gulping back a sob, Petalpaw half-ran, half-slid down the pile of Twioleg rubbish. Her paws flew over the ground as she charged toward her father, tripping and stumbling over her own toes in her haste to reach him. Ravenstar’s eyes widened and the crowd erupted in startled caterwauls as Petalpaw cannoned into his flank, burying her head in his jet-black fur.

“Ravenstar!” she cried. “It’s me!”

Her father stumbled back, blinking rapidly. His amber eyes were wide with confusion and disbelief. “P-Petalkit?”

Petalpaw laughed as a tear rolled down her cheek. “It’s me, Ravenstar, it’s me!”

“Petalkit!” Ravenstar exclaimed, his eyes shining with delighted disbelief. “It’s really you!” He rested his muzzle on Petalpaw’s back and she pushed her nose into his shoulder fur, breathing in the scent of MoonClan. His bones stuck out prominently beneath his pelt -- he was weak from hunger, like the rest of the Clan -- but a purr rattled his whole body. “You’re alive!” he cried. “You’re alive!”

Murmurs gusted through the crowd as the rest of the Clan jostled each other, trying to get closer. But three cats, two black and one silver, shoved their way forward first. Petalpaw lifted her head from Ravenstar’s shoulder to see Shadowleaf, Darkpaw, and Icepaw running over to her, their eyes huge with shock.

Icepaw was the first to speak. “Petalkit! We thought we’d never see you again!” Her brother licked the top of her head, purring.

“You’re taller than me now!” Petalpaw purred, her voice wavering as tears threatened to spill from her eyes.

Shadowleaf’s green eyes blazed with an inferno of unspoken emotions, but all the she-cat did was shake her head and embrace Petalpaw, tucking the apprentice against her chest just like she did when Petalpaw had a nightmare as a kit. Petalpaw felt exactly as she had then; secure and protected and most of all, loved, in the warmth of Shadowleaf’s fur.

Darkpaw joined her. Shock seemed to render speech useless, but her eyes glowed with joy as she nuzzled Petalpaw’s cheek with her own.

“I can’t believe it,” Ravenstar meowed hoarsely. “I just… I thought StarClan had taken you, too, just as they took your mother.”

“But they didn’t,” Petalpaw mewed. “I didn’t drown in the river.”

“That’s clear enough,” Icepaw remarked, and everyone laughed.

“I just…” Petalpaw bit her lip, trying to hold back a sob. “I never expected to make it back to you. I didn’t think I’d ever find MoonClan again.”

“Well, you’re here now,” Darkpaw said softly. “It’s a miracle. StarClan smiled down upon us.”

Icepaw grinned. “You also interrupted our warrior ceremony, so thanks a lot.”

“No problem,” Petalpaw replied. “It was easy.”

“Easy for you!” a new voice huffed, and Windpaw staggered up to them, wheezing. “You left us in the dust!”

“I didn’t know you could run so fast!” Scorchpaw added, panting as he joined the group.

Petalpaw interrupted, sensing her father’s rising hostility toward the two toms. “Ravenstar,” she meowed, “I didn’t make the journey alone. This is Windpaw, and this is Scorchpaw.” She paused, then added, “They saved my life.”

CHAPTER TEN

Ravenstar’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Petalpaw could see the doubt shadowing their amber depths. “Please explain how a SunClan cat saved your life,” he growled, the fur along his spine starting to bristle.

“Well…” Petalpaw hesitated, glancing at Scorchpaw. He gave her a nod of encouragement and she mewed, “I’ll have to start from the beginning.”

Ravenstar dipped his head, prompting her to begin.

Petalpaw avoided the probing stares of her Clanmates and focused on Ravenstar’s face. Her father’s eyes were sunken and ringed with shadows, but he still managed to maintain the authoritative air of a leader.

“Y-you all know the first part of this story,” Petalpaw began, her voice sounding small and unsteady as it broke the silence of the Twoleg dump. “SunClan attacked th-the camp and d-drove us out.” She grimaced and shot an apologetic look at Scorchpaw, but the tom was staring at his paws and didn’t see her gaze. “We went to the river to evacuate, and Icekit fell in. Darkkit j-jumped in after him, but I…” Petalpaw lowered her gaze, too ashamed to meet Ravenstar’s eyes. “I was too scared to follow.

“But the river made the decision for me. The ground collapsed beneath my paws and I fell into the water. I lost sight of Icekit and Darkkit and was swept downstream. I managed to crawl out of the river, but I was in SunClan territory and was nearly captured by a patrol.” The crowd gave a collective gasp and started mewing, but Petalpaw forged on. “I would’ve been crowfood if I hadn’t run into -- quite literally -- Belladonna and Windpaw.” Petalpaw tipped her head in Windpaw’s direction, and the mottled gray tom winked. “He and his mother saved me from SunClan, and Belladonna gave her life to help us escape a fox attack.”

The Clan gave a moan of sympathy as Windpaw bowed his head. Every cat could relate to his grief. After a brief moment of silence, Petalpaw continued.

“LeafClan found us and took us in,” she went on. “Briarstar made Windpaw and I apprentices. She mentored Windpaw herself.” There was no bitterness in her mew. Funny; after everything they’d faced on the journey, the feeling of jealousy she’d nursed before was insignificant. “But I accidentally took moss from the Mossrock during training, and ran into the forest for fear of what they would do to me when they found out. Only, I crossed the border and found myself in SunClan territory.” Petalpaw smiled at Scorchpaw, unable to help herself. “That’s where I met Scorchpaw.”

The brown tabby tom looked up at his name. His amber eyes finally met Petalpaw’s, and he flashed a rare smile. A kaleidoscope of butterflies exploded in Petalpaw’s belly, but she managed to keep speaking in an even tone. “He attacked me, and gave me some real wounds to think about! But just as he was about to deal the death blow, he stopped.”

The silence was deafening. The entire crowd was holding its breath, waiting for Petalpaw to continue.

“He stopped,” she repeated. “He refused to kill me.”

Scorchpaw’s eyes glistened with a tangle of indescribable emotions. He looked like a cat who’d been deprived of compliments his whole life, and had just been chosen as the deputy.

“I healed from the wounds and trained again. Soon Windpaw and I were chosen to attend the Gathering. But when we went, a fight broke out and I faced Scorchpaw in battle yet again. But he still wouldn’t attack me.” Petalpaw shook her head faintly as she said this, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “We returned to LeafClan after the Gathering, but while I was hunting, I came across Scorchpaw again.” She let out a huff of mock-exasperation. “That tom was everywhere I turned.”

Darkpaw raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Beside her, Icepaw was trying -- and failing -- to stifle a snicker.

Windpaw’s expression was unreadable.

“Once Graytail, Windpaw, and I left the Clans,” Petalpaw continued, “Scorchpaw approached us and joined the patrol. He helped fight off a patrol of SunClan cats that ambushed us, proving his loyalty and rejecting his Clan.” She nodded graciously to Scorchpaw, who offered a small, quick smile that died on his lips in a couple of heartbeats. His gaze drifted aimlessly, but it never once rested on Petalpaw. She frowned, but the Clan was waiting expectantly for more, so she resumed the story.

“We traveled for moons, crossing Thunderpaths and following the scent trail. One day, we came across a Twoleg barn full of cows. There, we met a little group of cats who were raising their kits in the barn. But foxes struck again, and Graytail died at their paws.” Petalpaw sighed. “We held a vigil for him, under the stars.” She could hear every bitter note in her own voice as she remembered the cold, unfeeling sky that the LeafClan tom had been buried under. “But we had to keep moving, so we left the barn and traveled to a Twolegplace.” Petalpaw looked up at Ravenstar. “This is the very one. We went into the Twolegplace and met two kittypets who claimed they’d scented you by the Thunderpath. But when we got there, they ambushed us and we fled back to where we’d come from. Luckily, Windpaw is a genius -- ” the gray tom beamed “ -- and we managed to find your scent trail again.” Petalpaw dipped her head. “So… Now we’re here.”

There was a heartbeat of silence. Ravenstar simply stared at her, faintly shaking his head. Then, the dark-furred leader spoke. “Thank StarClan,” he mewed, “that you all made it out alive. Except Graytail,” he added, bowing his head swiftly. “I’m sure he was a noble cat.”

“He was,” Windpaw murmured. Petalpaw nodded in agreement.

Ravenstar studied Windpaw and Scorchpaw for a moment. The layer of unfriendly ice from earlier had melted away, leaving his amber eyes clear and welcoming. “Once a rogue, now a LeafClan cat,” Petalpaw’s father meowed without preamble. “Windpaw, you have done MoonClan a great service. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for saving my daughter and bringing her home safely.”

Windpaw dipped his head graciously to the MoonClan leader. “Th-thank you,” he stammered, looking a little taken aback at the respect shining in Ravenstar’s eyes.

Ravenstar smiled, turning to Scorchpaw. The flinty quality of the leader’s eyes hardened and sharpened into a point as wicked as a claw when his gaze rested on the SunClan apprentice. Petalpaw waited with bated breath for her father’s verdict.

“Here, we have an interesting case,” Ravenstar remarked, his eyes still locked on Scorchpaw. “A SunClan cat, kin of the traitors to the warrior code who drove us out and caused MoonClan all this pain.”

Silence met his words. Scorchpaw stared down at his paws as the sharp words washed over him. Petalpaw felt a pang of sadness for the brown tabby tom, and hesitantly reached out with a paw to rest on top of his.

Ravenstar noticed immediately, and his gaze snapped to Petalpaw. She stared back defiantly, ready to defend herself and Scorchpaw, but Ravenstar nodded somewhat reluctantly and didn’t address the situation. Instead, he meowed, “But this SunClan cat is more than just his heritage. He has rejected his Clanmates to prove his loyalty to my daughter, and therefore to MoonClan. I deem him worthy of our trust.”

Scorchpaw pressed his eyes shut for a couple of heartbeats, then opened them again. “It -- it’s an honor, Ravenstar,” the brown tabby tom rasped. “Th-thank you.”

Ravenstar inclined his head to the SunClan apprentice. “No. Thank you, Scorchpaw. And you, Windpaw. Both of you have proven to be friends of MoonClan.” The leader paused. He appeared to be choosing his next words very carefully. “Which is why I have a proposition for you. I am not making this offer lightly, and you should not take it lightly, either. But… there are two empty holes in MoonClan’s ranks, and I am giving you the choice -- now, and only now -- to join us and fill them.” Ravenstar stared at Scorchpaw and Windpaw. “Will you two join MoonClan?”

Petalpaw’s jaw dropped. She’d been dreading the painful goodbyes that she’d have to exchange with Scorchpaw and Windpaw, but if both toms accepted Ravenstar’s offer, she wouldn’t have to.

They would be MoonClan cats… I wouldn’t have to sneak out to the border and meet them… I wouldn’t just catch stolen moments with them at Gatherings… I could patrol and hunt and fight alongside them!

I could love Scorchpaw without judgement.

The blatant exposure of Petalpaw’s deepest secret, even in her own thoughts, was a little startling. Luckily, she hadn’t spoken aloud, and waited tensely, anxiously, for the toms’ response.

Scorchpaw spoke first. “I feel no kinship nor loyalty to SunClan,” he announced. “P -- MoonClan is my world now. I would be honored to accept the offer and join your Clan.”

Explosions of joy rocked Petalpaw’s body. The butterflies in her belly had reawakened and were whirling around, beating their wings furiously and spiraling all over the place. A purr swelled in Petalpaw’s throat as her heart skipped several beats. She wondered if Scorchpaw could feel the change in her pulse through her paw pad, then decided that it didn’t matter.

He knows I’m happy. And he’s happy. That’s all that counts.

Now every cat’s attention was on Windpaw. The mottled gray tom had yet to respond to Ravenstar’s offer, and he shifted his paws nervously before speaking. “I… I thought I’d stay as a rogue for life,” he mumbled. “Then I joined LeafClan. But now…” He glanced helplessly at Petalpaw, who nodded encouragingly. Then his gaze flicked to Scorchpaw, who stood looking at his paws, eyes devoid of emotion. Somehow, the image seemed to strengthen Windpaw’s resolve, and the tom continued, “Now I see, after this journey, that my loyalties lie with MoonClan, the Clan of my best friend.” He dipped his head to Petalpaw, the emotions in his sky-blue gaze so confusing that they were unreadable.

Ravenstar purred. “MoonClan, two new cats have joined our Clan today, and my daughter has returned.” He glanced at Petalpaw, eyes soft. “And as you know, this event has disrupted an important ceremony for Icepaw and Darkpaw, so I’d like to continue.” He cleared his throat. “Icepaw, Darkpaw, Petalpaw, Windpaw, and Scorchpaw, please step forward.”

Petalpaw’s eyes widened at the command. “Wait!” she blurted. “You’re making us warriors? B-but we haven’t been fully trained!”

Ravenstar blinked warmly at his daughter. “I believe that your journey has taught you much more than I could, and it makes you more than deserving of this ceremony right now.”

Petalpaw opened her mouth, ready to protest, but her father talked over her. “You do want your warrior name, correct?”

Petalpaw couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, Ravenstar.”

“Good,” the black tom replied. His eyes found Icepaw and Darkpaw in the crowd, and both littermates hastily smoothed down their chest fur before shuffling forward. “I, Ravenstar, leader of MoonClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on these two apprentices. They have trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend them to you as warriors in their turn. Icepaw, Darkpaw,” Ravenstar meowed, gazing at his kits, “do you promise to uphold the warrior code and to protect and defend your Clan, even at the cost of your lives?”

“I do,” Icepaw meowed boldly, without hesitation.

“I do,” Darkpaw answered more quietly, but with just as much conviction.

“Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior names. Icepaw, from this moment on you shall be known as Icefur. StarClan honors your quick wit and bravery, and we welcome you as a full warrior of MoonClan. Darkpaw,” Ravenstar continued, looking at his daughter, “from this moment on you shall be known as Darkrose. StarClan honors your courage and thoughtfulness, and we welcome you as a full warrior of MoonClan.” Icefur and Darkrose, eyes shining, padded up to Ravenstar and gave his shoulder a respectful lick as the leader rested his muzzle atop his kits’ heads. Then, the newly-made warriors stepped back and allowed the ceremony to continue.

Ravenstar gazed at Scorchpaw, Windpaw, and Petalpaw. “Windpaw and Scorchpaw, please step forward,” he commanded. The toms obeyed, glancing up nervously at the MoonClan leader. “Windpaw and Scorchpaw, you two were not born in this Clan, and we are not your kin, but you have chosen us, and for that we are thankful. Therefore, I, Ravenstar, leader of MoonClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on these two apprentices. Although they are not MoonClan by blood, they have trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend them to you as warriors in their turn. Windpaw, Scorchpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and protect and defend MoonClan, even at the cost of your lives?”

“I do,” Windpaw vowed, eyes shining.

“I do,” Scorchpaw whispered.

Ravenstar nodded in acceptance of their words. “Windpaw, from this moment on you shall be known as Windsight. StarClan honors your bravery and intelligence, and we welcome you as a full warrior of MoonClan.” The newly-named Windsight beamed and stepped forward to lick Ravenstar’s shoulder. The leader rested his muzzle on Windpaw’s head, murmuring words that Petalpaw couldn’t hear. But when Windsight broke away, he looked elated.

“Scorchpaw,” Ravenstar went on, “from this moment on you shall be known as Scorchflame. StarClan honors your resilience and loyalty, and we welcome you as a full warrior of MoonClan.” Scorchflame blinked rapidly as he tottered forward on unsteady legs. Petalpaw could see his paws shaking as the brown tabby tom leaned forward to lick Ravenstar’s shoulder. The leader gently rested his muzzle on Scorchflame’s head, mewing quietly to the new warrior.

When Scorchflame returned to Petalpaw, his eyes were bright. “Your turn,” he whispered to her, flicking her flank with his tail.

Petalpaw chuckled, but inside, her belly was twisting anxiously. What if she messed up somehow, and the Clan was disappointed in the cat they’d been mourning for moons? What if she let them all down somehow?

“Petalpaw.” Her name rolled off Ravenstar’s tongue in an almost disbelieving tone, as though the leader still couldn’t comprehend the fact that his daughter had returned alive. “You somehow survived the river and lived where others fell. It is a miracle from StarClan that you are alive and here with us today.” Amber eyes warm, Ravenstar declared, “I, Ravenstar, leader of MoonClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on this apprentice. She has overcome insurmountable odds to return to us and has trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend her to you as a warrior in her turn.”

Heart hammering, Petalpaw braced herself for the question she knew was coming next.

“Petalpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and protect and defend this Clan, even at the cost of your life?”

Memories flashed through Petalpaw’s head. Swirling black water she thought she’d drown in, but didn’t. Foxes she’d thought would rip the flesh from her bones, but they didn’t. Cats she’d thought she’d die if she lost, but she didn’t.

Death had tried to steal Petalpaw too many times. But somehow, it never succeeded. She’d lived, and she’d done it all for MoonClan.

“I do,” Petalpaw meowed, her voice so strong that it shook. Every beat of her heart echoed her promise. She’d never felt so sure of herself in her life.

“Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name. Petalpaw, from this moment on you shall be known as Petalstorm, for you triumphed over the storm that should have taken your life. StarClan honors your loyalty and determination, and we welcome you as a full warrior of MoonClan.”

Ravenstar’s face blurred in and out of focus through Petalstorm’s stinging eyes as she approached her father and licked his shoulder with all the respect of a warrior to a leader. But there was more than that in the gesture. As Ravenstar rested his warm muzzle on her head, she whispered, “I love you, father.”

“I love you too, Petalstorm,” he murmured, licking the top of her head before she stepped back.

“Icefur! Darkrose! Windsight! Scorchflame! Petalstorm!” the Clan chanted. Their cheers rang brightly around the overgrown Twoleg dump, and despite being surrounded by teetering piles of rubbish, Petalstorm had never felt more at home.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The full moon rose majestically over the Twolegplace, washing the overgrown dump in silver light. The air was freezing, and Petalstorm’s breath billowed from her muzzle in white clouds. Shivers wracked her body; she was unused to such cold temperatures, despite having been born in leaf-fall. It seemed that leaf-bare had the Clans in its icy clutches at last.

Petalstorm glanced over at the cat sitting closest to her, catching a glimpse of his brown stripes sliding in and out of the moonlight as he breathed. With a quick turn of his head, Scorchpaw’s -- no, Scorchflame’s -- eyes were upon her, amber disks reflecting the merged light of the stars and moon. Petalstorm’s breath caught in her throat, and she was grateful for the shadows that hid her face and the sacred silence that each new warrior had to maintain on their vigil.

Words probably wouldn’t have come to her, anyway.

On Petalstorm’s other side, a pelt the color of smoke rustled quietly in the chilly leaf-bare breeze, and sky-blue eyes were turned to the stars. Petalstorm could see every little pinprick of light within their blue depths, like a night sky reflected in a lake. Even in the sacred silence, Petalstorm could still see his thoughts tumbling around in his eyes, knowing that his brain was busy thinking, categorizing, planning. Windsight. Ravenstar had chosen his name well.

The gray tom seemed to notice Petalpaw looking at him, and tore his gaze away from the stars to face her. He broke into a smile, opening his mouth to speak, but stopped at a warning flick of Petalstorm’s tail. The new warrior exhaled and nodded ruefully. He looked like he was bursting to confide in her, or simply make a comment about the cold weather, but just like every other new warrior, Windsight was bound to the warrior code. And right now, the warrior code demanded silence.

Icefur’s grin flashed in the darkness, rivaling Windsight’s. They’ll be good friends, Petalstorm thought, glancing back and forth between the two toms. Same sense of humor, same noble nature. She turned to face the last silhouette, Darkrose. Her sister’s black pelt rippled in the wind, and her paws rested gently in the frost-tipped grass. Her head was tipped thoughtfully to one side as she regarded the vast expanse of sky above them. Darkrose’s name suited her; she stood gracefully with a dignified tilt to her chin, like a rose swaying alone in a field. She didn’t lock her legs firmly against the biting leaf-bare wind; instead, the black cat seemed to give into the breeze, leaning in whatever direction it pushed her.

Petalstorm lifted her gaze to the stars. They twinkled down on her brightly, and she couldn’t not associate them with the warm glow of amber eyes, on a hill, alone, at moonhigh.

A nighttime hunt. That’s all it was.

She tried to tell herself this, tried to feed herself the words gently and innocently, but it was hard to choke the lies down. It wasn’t a nighttime hunt, they hadn’t caught a single piece of prey to share between them. All they’d done was stargaze…

Just like she was doing now.

Mother, Petalstorm thought, her eyes seeking out the brightest star in the sky, if you’re out there, watching me… I hope you’re proud.

A memory of flames dancing in the depths of a silent black pool flashed through Petalstorm’s head, but she shoved it away. She hadn’t dared to contemplate the eerie warning Birchleaf had given her, the one of flames and ashes and shadows. And she still didn’t feel ready to face it yet.

But someday, Petalstorm thought, I will have to face it.

And that day would be soon. She could feel it in her bones.


*        *        *        *        *

The morning dawned clear and bright, but the night’s chill still lingered. Petalstorm shivered and lifted her paws from the grass-tufted stone. The surface was slick with frost, and she nearly slipped several times while stretching her cold, stiff legs. All around her, the new warriors were yawning and wincing as they extended their sore limbs. Windsight arched his back in a stretch and meowed, “Thank StarClan that’s over! It’s agonizing to be silent for so long!”

“Couldn’t stand not hearing your own voice?” Petalstorm teased.

“Nope,” Windsight replied.

Icefur chuckled. “My heart goes out to you, friend.” He turned his bright green gaze on Petalstorm. “How was your night, little sister?”

Petalstorm rolled her eyes, but secretly the annoying nickname felt more endearing now. The times her brother had last spoken those words were nearly lost in the foggy haze of memories that crowded her brain now. All she could recall was a vague feeling of warmth, the feeling of being cared for and loved.

She had to hold onto that, hold on as long as she could.

“Fine,” Petalstorm mewed in response to Icefur’s question. She glanced at Scorchflame, feeling a prickle of nervousness make her fur twitch. “How about yours, Scorchflame?”

The brown tabby tom blinked slowly, his amber eyes roaming her face. “Fine as well, thank you,” he murmured.

“Did anybody else feel small out there, under the cosmos?” Darkrose asked suddenly. “I felt insignificant beneath the sky; just a speck of dust floating on the surface of this world.”

Petalstorm shivered. Her sister’s mind, while capable of amazing things, could sometimes travel to shadowy places that no other cat would dream of. It was always unnerving when they were kits. Petalstorm and Icefur would be batting around a feather and Darkrose would approach, drop a single sentence relating the feather to their existence, and thus shatter their kithood innocence.

I don’t want to be insignificant, Petalstorm thought. I want to do something, be remembered for something!

She glanced at Scorchflame. The brown tabby tom was staring at his paws, eyes dark as he considered Darkrose’s ominous words. But he said nothing, just avoided every gaze coming his way, including Petalstorm’s.

Petalstorm frowned, then tried to unfurrow her brow and push away the troubled feeling lingering in her belly. “Well,” she mumbled, “we should probably go talk to Ravenstar about leaving.”

“Leaving?” Icefur echoed. “What do you mean, leaving?”

Petalstorm stared at her brother in dismay. “We -- we are going back to the Clans, right?”

Oh, StarClan no. She hadn’t thought this far ahead yet; she’d assumed that MoonClan would willingly accompany them back, because that’s what this was: a rescue mission. Leave Clans, get MoonClan, come back to Clans, restore MoonClan.

She hadn’t considered the fact that MoonClan might not want to go back.

“SunClan will just drive us out again!” Icefur meowed, lashing his tail. “We’re safer out here, away from Amberstar. We can never go back with them waiting for us.”

Petalstorm shifted her paws uncomfortably. She’d only been thinking of getting to MoonClan, not getting them back home. How could they return safely to their territory with SunClan there? A bedraggled bunch of hungry cats posed no threat to a well-fed, well-trained Clan led by a tyrant. SunClan had two Clans’ territories in their possession now. They’ll be impossible to conquer.

Windsight glanced at Petalstorm, looking uncharacteristically nervous. Then he set his jaw and turned back to Icefur. “Don’t worry,” he told the silver tom boldly. “We have a plan.”

Petalstorm widened her eyes at the gray tom. What in StarClan is he thinking? We don’t have a plan! That’s a flea-brained empty promise!

“A plan,” Icefur repeated. “And what might it be?”

Windsight paused briefly, rocking back and forth on his paws. Petalstorm clenched her teeth and pressed her eyes shut in agony. Windsight was giving every cat false hope. They had no way out of this one.

Windsight, you stupid, stupid flea-brain!

“That is a matter that we will discuss with Ravenstar,” Windsight meowed loftily, licking a paw and drawing it over his ear in a casual way. Only Petalstorm could see that his foreleg was trembling.

“Shouldn’t we know?” Darkrose interjected, drifting forward to regard Windsight with a shrewd green gaze. “We’re Ravenstar’s kin, after all.”

“Be that as it may, Ravenstar is still your leader,” Windsight countered, “and he should be the first to know and make a decision based on what’s best for the Clan.”

“He’s your leader, too,” Darkrose mewed quietly.

Confusion rippled across Windsight’s face. Then his eyes cleared. “Yes, he is,” the gray tom agreed, still sounding discombobulated. “Sorry, it’s still new for me.” He blinked several times, as though he’d woken up in a world completely different from the one he’d fallen asleep in. “Come on, let’s go talk to Ravenstar.” With a wave of his tail, Windsight began to pad toward the shrub in the middle of the dump, where Ravenstar sat surveying the Clan.

Petalstorm got to her paws. Scorchflame copied her, his fur occasionally brushing against her flank as he fell into step beside her. With a glance over her shoulder, Petalstorm could see Icefur beginning to follow, but she flicked her tail to dismiss him. “Sorry, brother,” she mumbled, embarrassed. “This is something we have to deal with.” Petalstorm’s ears burned with shame as Icefur recoiled, looking stung. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, then turned and trotted after Windsight.

I’ve already damaged my relationship with my brother on my first day back. Petalstorm let out a gusty sigh. How can this get any worse?

“Hey,” a voice murmured in her ear.

Her heart missed a beat when Scorchflame spoke, and she glared at him. “You startled me!”

“Sorry,” the brown tabby apologized. “I just wanted to say that… that was awkward. With Icefur, and Windsight, and everything…” He sighed. “Great StarClan, I hope he really does have a plan.”

“Me too,” Petalstorm agreed fervently, but her heart was full of doubt. There wasn’t a single optimistic voice in her head that could be heard over the clamoring pessimists there. Something told her that Windsight was just trying to comfort MoonClan, and that he had no idea what to do.

And neither did she.

But here they were, standing before Ravenstar, each cat waiting for the other to speak first. Petalstorm waiting for Windsight to have some kind of brilliant idea; Scorchflame no doubt praying for the same thing; and Windsight himself likely scavenging the dustiest corners of his mind for some sort of plan… but coming up empty.

“Good morning, Petalstorm,” Ravenstar greeted her with amber eyes full of warmth. “How was the vigil?”

Cold,” Windsight spoke for her. “Very cold. My paws nearly froze off!”

Ravenstar purred with amusement. “I’m glad that they remained intact, at least.”

Windsight chuckled and nodded, but his eyes were darting around frantically. Petalstorm knew that he was seizing every heartbeat of small talk for time to formulate a plan. If they stalled Ravenstar for long enough, maybe he could figure something out.

“It’s wonderful to have you back, Petalstorm,” Ravenstar meowed, breaking the ensuing silence. “For so long, we thought you were dead. We held a vigil for you.”

Petalstorm nodded, unable to speak around the lump growing in her throat as she pictured her Clan grieving for her.

“You all should visit Roseheart,” Ravenstar suggested, nodding toward a tree emerging from the sea of Twoleg rubbish. “She’s made a den in the roots of that oak. A quick checkup would be a good idea, considering how far you’ve come.”

Petalstorm opened her mouth to protest. Her father’s black pelt hung on his skinny frame like a withered leaf on a twig, and she could see his ribs moving clearly beneath the fur. He was the one who deserved a checkup, not her. Petalstorm and her friends had always eaten relatively well for constant travelers, and there had never been that hunted feeling hanging over them like it loomed over MoonClan.

But Ravenstar shook his head before she could say a word. “I insist,” he added, more forcefully than before. “You fought SunClan and foxes and monsters; you’re bound to be a little banged up. Roseheart will fix that.”

Petalstorm frowned. “All right…” she conceded, “but promise that you’ll get a checkup sometime, too.”

Ravenstar chuckled. “I have eight lives, Petalstorm. You needn’t worry about me.”

Petalstorm widened her eyes and bit back a hiss of astonishment. Why is he telling everyone how many lives he has left?

But then she remembered -- Scorchflame was MoonClan. Windsight was MoonClan. She was free to trust them with these things.

Still, the thought of her father only having eight lives left to spend sent nervous jitters through her body. Even though she herself had only one. Eventually, Ravenstar’s life count would tick down to zero, and his time would be up.

“After we do our checkup,” Windsight interjected, saving Petalstorm from her steadily darkening thoughts, “could we discuss something with you?”

Ravenstar looked mildly surprised, but he purred, “Yes, of course. Now go see Roseheart!”

Windsight, Petalstorm, and Scorchflame all nodded vigorously and began the short walk to Roseheart’s den. Hopefully the checkup will give us enough time to formulate some kind of plan to convince Ravenstar that going back is safe.

But going back wasn’t safe. She herself knew that, deep down. SunClan would be waiting.

Oh StarClan, please let Windsight have some kind of genius idea.

Roseheart was waiting a few tail-lengths away from the roots of the tree when the trio of new warriors crested the hill of rubbish. The medicine cat’s amber eyes glowed with welcome, and she mewed a greeting. “Good morning, warriors! How was the vigil?”

“Very cold,” Windsight replied. “And very silent. I missed hearing my own voice.”

Roseheart chuckled. “I’ve never experienced that, but it sounds rather boring.” She turned her warm gaze on Petalstorm. “It’s good to have you back. Camp wasn’t the same without you here.” Then the medicine cat peered over Petalstorm’s shoulder to greet Scorchflame. For a heartbeat she didn’t seem to know what to say to the former SunClan tom, but that was quickly remedied when a gray tabby blur darted to her side, blue eyes flashing. For a moment, Petalstorm’s breath caught in her throat. Graytail? But this tom was smaller, with paler fur, and the scent he carried was tinged with herbs.

“Ashpaw?” Petalstorm meowed wonderingly, tipping her head to one side and regarding the gray tabby tom.

“It’s Ashleaf now,” he responded with a smile. “I got my full medicine cat name a moon ago.”

“Wow,” was all Petalstorm could think to say. She remembered the fleeting days of uninterrupted kithood where she’d sneak glimpses of the handsome tom from behind the nursery wall, fantasizing about forbidden love stories while Darkrose would shoot down all her stupid ideas.

But I’m over him now, Petalstorm thought, eyes sliding furtively to Scorchflame.

“So,” Roseheart meowed, “shall we get on with the checkup?”

Petalstorm, Scorchflame, and Windsight all nodded.

“Good,” Roseheart mewed. “Ashleaf, you take Petalstorm, I’ll take Scorchflame and Windsight.”

Petalstorm’s heart dropped into her belly as Ashleaf beamed at her brightly. Eyes wide, she jerked her head in Scorchflame’s direction and shot him an urgent look, cutting her eyes between him and the medicine cat tom. Scorchflame returned her gaze and glared at Ashleaf. “Roseheart… You could take Petalstorm, and I could go with Ashleaf,” he suggested.

Roseheart looked at Petalstorm coolly. “And why is that?”

“Well…” Scorchflame spluttered, “you said… Ashleaf hasn’t been training for long, right? He might mess things up. I’d rather it be me than Petalstorm.”

Petalstorm stared down at her paws, embarrassment burning her cheeks. I should have sucked it up and gone through with the checkup, she thought with an inward groan.

Ashleaf shot Scorchflame an offended look. “I’ve been training for moons,” he spat. “I know more about herbs than you ever will.”

Scorchflame rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath that Petalstorm didn’t catch. But she was willing to bet a moon of dawn patrols that it wasn’t the kindest thing in the world.

Roseheart raised her eyebrows at Petalstorm and a tiny smirk unfurled on her muzzle. Petalstorm’s ears burned with embarrassment and she tried to look casual as she shrugged, but discomfort prickled in every hair on her pelt.

We’re warriors now. The thought made her uncomfortable. We’re not apprentices anymore. Everyone’s going to think…

No. Petalstorm shut down the train of thought before it could finish. She could not, would not mention the word mates in a sentence including herself and Scorchflame. I’m barely out of apprenticeship! What is my problem?

But…

NO. I will not think about that. I will not think… I will not think…

Of course, that was all she thought about during the checkup, shaking her head absentmindedly to Ashleaf’s questions, presenting a scraped pad for him to smear a poultice on, waiting for Windsight and Scorchflame to be finished. The thoughts chased each other round and round in circles like a kit chasing its tail. Various scenarios of Scorchflame asking to be her mate flew through her head, ranging from sickly sweet and impossibly perfect to completely disastrous.

So it came as a huge relief to Petalstorm when Roseheart announced, “You’re all good to go! No worrying injuries or illnesses as far as the eye can see.”

“Thank you,” Windsight meowed, dipping his head to the medicine cat. Petalstorm mumbled agreement and followed as the gray tom led the way back to Ravenstar.

“Come up with anything?” Scorchflame asked. The sound of his voice startled Petalstorm.

Windsight grimaced. “Nothing I’d bet a single mousetail on, that’s for sure. We may have to resort to… gasp… pure persuasion and morale-boosting.” He widened his eyes in mock horror. “Bad, I know. But my mother always said I could convince any cat a mouse was a badger, so hopefully that helps.”

Petalstorm twitched her ears in irritation. “So we just tell my father lies about going back?” The thought of giving Ravenstar false hope when he was this vulnerable made her belly squirm.

“If you believe in something enough, you’ll be able to achieve it,” Windsight proclaimed. “You know the saying.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Scorchflame muttered. “SunClan isn’t a very positive bunch.”

Windsight huffed. “Just don’t show this cantankerous side to Ravenstar when we’re trying to talk, all right? We don’t want to ruin our plan.”

“I thought we didn’t have a plan,” Petalstorm pointed out.

“We don’t!” Windsight meowed cheerfully. “We’re gonna wing it. Ad-lib. Think on our paws.”

“I hate that,” Scorchflame grumbled. Petalstorm had to stifle a giggle, despite the bleak situation. She agreed wholeheartedly with the brown tabby tom. Planning ahead always gave her a feeling of control, even if it was just an illusion. At least there was a safety net to catch her. Windsight’s approach was rather reminiscent of charging into battle alone against the entirety of SunClan.

“Just act persuasive,” Windsight told them, beginning to march in Ravenstar’s direction. “Say positive things! And contradict the negatives!”

“Fox dung,” Scorchflame hissed out of the corner of his mouth. Petalstorm nodded and rolled her eyes in agreement.

Here goes nothing.

Ravenstar’s amber eyes lit up when he saw Petalstorm, Windsight, and Scorchflame approaching. “Hello again!” he greeted them brightly. “How was the checkup?”

“Good!” Windsight replied enthusiastically. “Roseheart is so nice.”

“She is,” Ravenstar agreed. “Now… What was it that you wanted to discuss with me?”

Windsight hesitated and glanced questioningly at Petalstorm, who was taken aback and shook her head urgently. I don’t want to be the one to explain this!

Windsight rolled his blue eyes elaborately and returned his gaze to Ravenstar. “Well… We… We wanted to discuss the plan for going back to the territories with you.”

Ravenstar’s eyes widened. “Going back? Back to our old home? It’s not safe there! SunClan owns the pine forest now, I saw it with my very own eyes!”

“But we can still go back!” Windsight amended hurriedly. “We can stay in CloudClan’s territory until we regain strength. They’ll be our allies and help us take down SunClan!”

“I’m doubtful that Rainstar will accept us into her territory,” Ravenstar meowed, eyes narrowed dubiously. “She seemed to be teetering on the edge of joining forces with SunClan. If that happens… we’re all dead.”

A frown creased Windsight’s face. “She was very hostile toward Amberstar at the Gathering,” he informed MoonClan’s leader. “I think if she were to choose any side, it would be ours. But that’s useless if we remain here.”

Petalstorm nodded earnestly, feeling the need to jump in. “MoonClan doesn’t belong in a dump like a pawful of strays. How can we stay as a Clan? There are no Gatherings out here, no herbs, no Starlake.”

Ravenstar blinked at her slowly but refused to back down. “We will keep the old traditions alive,” he argued. “Roseheart can collect new herbs from the hills. And as for the Starlake… StarClan will give us a sign.”

“Is StarClan even out here?” Scorchflame asked. “The lights from the Twolegplace mask the glow of Silverpelt. How can we be connected to our ancestors?”

A brief flash of fear lit Ravenstar’s sunken eyes. “StarClan will be with us no matter where we walk,” he stated, but it sounded as though he was trying to convince himself.

“Plus, there’s the added threat of the Twolegplace,” Windsight added when no cat could come up with anything else to say. “We met vicious kittypets there -- pretty, mind you, but vicious murderers. Dogs and monsters are bound to be nearby, too. How long can a Clan thrive so close to Twolegs?” Ravenstar opened his mouth to respond, but Windsight forged on. “We have better chances of survival if we go back to the territories and ally ourselves with CloudClan and LeafClan. Three Clans can easily decimate one opposing group.”

Petalstorm frowned, moving closer to Scorchflame. The brown tabby tom looked slightly sick at the word “decimate.” “We’re not going to wipe out SunClan,” Petalstorm reminded Windsight sharply. “Amberstar is the enemy. We go for him.”

Scorchflame’s fur was warm against her flank as the brown tom murmured, “Thanks. I know I can’t be loyal to SunClan anymore -- and I’m not -- but… Some of them were good cats. Just… led astray. I wouldn’t want any cat who deserves a second chance to be killed in cold blood.”

Petalstorm nodded. “I understand,” she whispered. You are the cat who made me stop to consider the good hiding in the bad, and to have mercy on them. But that was tremendously sappy, and there was no way in StarClan she’d say that aloud in front of anyone else besides Scorchflame.

Ravenstar’s brow was still furrowed. The black tom was deep in thought, his amber eyes unreadable. A flame of stubbornness still kindled in their orange depths though, and Petalstorm’s heart sank with dread. Her father’s will was unshakable once determined, and it would take a very silver-tongued cat to sway him to their side.

“But we’ll have to make the journey all the way back,” Ravenstar meowed at last, shaking his head. “That would weaken us even more. I don’t think the elders can travel that far again, not to mention the kits.”

Petalstorm glanced helplessly at Windsight and Scorchflame for guidance. Ravenstar made a good point. How could the weak, hungry MoonClan survive the trip back home, knowing that the battle ahead was even more grim?

“We’ll just have to push on,” Petalstorm said flatly, unable to come up with anything else. “I wish I had a grand plan and an endless amount of encouragement to give, but MoonClan is just going to have to march back. StarClan is on our side. They will lend us strength.”

“We can stay with CloudClan,” Windsight offered. “I’d bet a moon of dawn patrols that Rainstar will take our side. And a lifetime of dawn patrols that Briarstar will, too.”

“But what if LeafClan or CloudClan is attacked before we get back?” Ravenstar fretted. “Who will shelter us then?”

“We’ll cross that river when we come to it,” Petalstorm mewed. At least he’s considering the possibility now.

Ravenstar nodded, although he looked frustrated with the answer. Petalstorm would’ve been, too, if the roles were reversed, but this decision was for the good of MoonClan. It would ensure their survival.

“We’ll do a vote,” Ravenstar announced at last.

Petalstorm recoiled, confused. “What do you mean?”

“The Clan will decide,” Ravenstar explained. “Come.” Her father rose to his paws unsteadily and strode over to the shrub where he’d made Petalstorm and the others warriors the night before. Then, he tipped his head back and released an impressive caterwaul for the frail state of his body. “All of MoonClan, gather here beneath the High -- ” Ravenstar stopped, eyes clouding, and corrected himself. “Beneath the shrub. An important decision must be made!”

Slowly, the entire Clan trickled out from dens in the Twoleg dump, eyes dull, ribs moving clearly beneath their tangled pelts. Shame twinged in Petalstorm’s heart. Is this what we’ve been reduced to?

Ravenstar took a deep breath, surveying his Clan with a mixture of dread and defensiveness in his eyes. “MoonClan,” he declared, “we have gathered here to vote. Every cat’s opinion counts. Petalstorm, Windsight, and Scorchflame approached me earlier with a plan to return and reclaim our old territory from SunClan.”

Plan is a generous term, Petalstorm thought, flattening her ears as several of her Clanmates curled their lips.

“It’s not safe!” cried Frostflower, a snowy white queen. Her blue eyes were filled with anxiety as she tucked her two kits closer to her belly. “Jaykit and Snowkit won’t be able to walk that far!”

“And how will we be able to fight SunClan?” demanded a young white she-cat with yellow eyes. The cat bore a striking resemblance to Blizzardpaw, one of the apprentices Petalstorm had watched as a kit, and she guessed that the apprentice was a full-fledged warrior now, just like her. “If we couldn’t defeat SunClan at our full strength, how are we supposed to beat them when we’re reduced to this?”

Yowls of agreement rang through the Clan. Petalstorm cringed; most cats seemed to be against her idea and supportive of Blizzardpaw -- or whatever her name was now.

Windsight stood up to confront the she-cat. “We can shelter with CloudClan or LeafClan! They are against Amberstar. They will help us.”

Blizzardpaw rose to her paws, tail switching back and forth. “And who’s to say they haven’t been attacked, as well?” she challenged him.

“Then at least we’ll have strength in numbers,” Windsight meowed. “And all wounds eventually heal.”

Scowls creased the faces of many MoonClan cats as the young tom made his statement. Petalstorm clenched her teeth. Windsight had struck a nerve. MoonClan was too damaged by SunClan to ever forgive them; that was a wound that would fester for seasons before every cat had passed on.

Petalstorm hurried to jump in, trying to salvage the good pieces of Windsight’s argument. “We shouldn’t just scrape by out here! Are we even a Clan in this Twoleg dump, where the Twoleg lights blot out the stars?” She winked at Scorchflame as she used his point. “We made it here; we can make it back.”

A burly dark gray warrior -- Stonegaze -- snorted incredulously. “You mean we made it back,” he growled. “MoonClan did.”

Petalstorm jerked backward. “You’re saying I’m not a part of MoonClan?” Anger and hurt blazed through her body and her claws slid out to prick the ground.

Stonegaze stared at her calmly. “I’m saying that you weren’t here with the whole Clan. You and your two young friends set off well-fed and purposeful, navigating obstacles with ease that would have stopped us. You traveled at twice our pace and didn’t even arrive out of breath. You don’t understand what it was like.”

Petalstorm’s claws sank deep into the earth, curling inward as flames of rage began to lap at her cheeks. “We didn’t start with three cats,” she snarled. “We started with four.” Her chest heaved as she fought to control her anger. “You didn’t lose anyone on the way over, yes?”

Petalstorm,” Ravenstar hissed, tail flicking warningly. Her head snapped up and she glanced at her father, eyes clouded with confusion and fury.

Stonegaze peeled his lips back in a snarl. “We lost two, you ungrateful fox-heart! Lakeflash and Dawnheart are dead!”

Petalstorm’s mouth fell open as disbelief coursed through her veins. Guilt surged after it. “I didn’t -- ” she stammered. “I didn’t -- I didn’t know -- ”

“Of course you didn’t,” Stonegaze snapped. “You were busy prancing around and stargazing with your airheaded friends.”

Petalstorm flinched at his sharp words. They pierced her skin like serrated claws. Instead of blood gushing from her wounds, however, remorse and anger spilled from her heart.

Two of my Clanmates died and I didn’t even know. I didn’t even notice.

“Petalstorm, it’s not your fault,” Scorchflame meowed, reaching out with a paw to rest on top of her trembling one. “You didn’t know.”

She rounded on the brown tabby tom, gratitude and fury battling inside her. “That’s the thing!” she snarled. “I didn’t know that my own Clanmates died! I should have been here for them!”

“But you couldn’t,” Scorchflame mewed. “It’s not your fault; blame it on the river.”

Petalstorm’s paws itched to run. Her claws wanted to slash something open. And her body wanted to collapse alone, to shudder with sobs and be wracked with screams and burn with anger.

I’m not going to run again, Petalstorm thought. Her inner voice was surprisingly calm, almost icily so. I ran from the LeafClan camp, I ran from Aspenpaw, I ran from Windsight and Graytail…

No more running.

With a massive effort to control herself, Petalstorm’s fur lay flat again, and she turned to Stonegaze, head bent low. “I’m sorry,” she forced out. “I didn’t know.” Although her mind screamed with rage and her claws wanted to rip something, she made herself submit to the senior warrior. I am a warrior myself now, she thought. I can’t just rage and fume and storm away from my problems. No matter how much I want to.

Stonegaze gave Petalstorm a small nod, a quiet respect now glimmering in his blue eyes. “It’s not your fault,” he rumbled. “You didn’t know.”

Petalstorm dipped her head gratefully to the tom. “I’m sorry about Lakeflash and Dawnheart,” she mewed, addressing the whole Clan. “I was just… I really believe that MoonClan has to go back. And I’m sorry if no cat agrees with me, but in the pine forest is the only place that the Clan can thrive. SunClan’s dirty paws do not belong on our land!”

There was a cheer of support from some of the older cats in the crowd, while Scorchflame looked uncomfortable. “Just selling it,” Petalstorm hissed out of the corner of her mouth, nudging his shoulder by way of comfort.

Ravenstar cleared his throat. “Which brings me to the vote. Every cat who thinks staying here permanently is what the Clan should do, step to the left of the shrub. Every cat who wishes to leave, step to the right.”

Confused murmurs rippled through the Clan. Finally, Blizzardpaw spoke up, looking puzzled. “You want us to choose? Clan leader’s word is law.”

“And this is my word,” Ravenstar meowed. “I want to see what you think before making a final decision.”

Blizzardpaw raised her eyebrows skeptically and mewed, “Okay then.” The white she-cat marched over to stand on the left side of the shrub.

Staying.

“Every vote counts!” Ravenstar called, as the Clan began to converse and separate into groups. A gaggle of chattering young warriors padded to the right of the shrub, while elders Silentrunner and Streamsong shuffled to the left.

Going back. Staying.

Petalstorm scanned the crowd for her littermates, wondering with bated breath what they would choose to do. She caught a glimpse of a silver tabby pelt sliding next to a black one and trotted over to meet her siblings, who were -- thank StarClan -- standing to the right.

“We trust you, Petalstorm,” Icefur meowed before she could say anything. “We’ll follow you home.”

Darkrose said nothing, just examined Petalstorm carefully. Her sharp green eyes drifted to Scorchflame, who stood at Petalstorm’s shoulder, and the black-furred she-cat gave a tiny nod of affirmation.

“Where’s Shadowleaf?” Petalstorm asked after a brief moment of silence.

Icefur angled his ears back. “Behind us. We’re all going to follow you back, Petalstorm. I know you won’t let us down.”

Petalstorm shifted uncomfortably. Her brother’s words, although encouraging and supportive, piled mountains of pressure on her shoulders like snow weighing heavily on tree branches. Sooner or later, the branch would crack, and the snow would fall.

My kin is depending on me, but I don’t want to lead.

Soon, the entirety of MoonClan had cleaved in two. One group, mostly made up of older, more tired-looking cats, was clustered at the left side of the shrub. Blizzardpaw seemed to be their figurehead, standing at the front of the pack with her yellow eyes blazing. On the right side of the shrub were the younger, more hopeful-looking cats, murmuring and chattering with each other and casting annoyed glances at Blizzardpaw. Shadowleaf, Icefur, and Darkrose were positioned in an intimidating triangle with Shadowleaf at the head, green eyes burning.

It’s a tie. Petalstorm was stunned. We need one vote to break the tie.

Ravenstar still remained in the shrub, gazing down in dismay at MoonClan. He was the tiebreaker. Her father. It all came down to her father’s choice, after all.

The black tom hesitated, the spindly branches of the shrub dipping below his quivering paws. But the leader held his head high, chin tipped to welcome the watery leaf-bare sunlight with dignity. Then, without a sound, Ravenstar leaped down from the shrub and landed lightly on the ground. Only Petalstorm was close enough to see his shaky paws slipping on the frost, and she felt a pang of pity for her father. He must’ve been letting every other cat in the Clan eat before he himself did.

And yet… and yet…

With a slow and purposeful walk, not hindered at all by his unsteady paws, Ravenstar approached the right side of the shrub and sat down beside his daughter.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Half a moon, Petalstorm reminded herself for the fiftieth time that day. Several days had passed since the votes were cast, and Ravenstar had announced that MoonClan would depart for the old territories in half a moon in order to allow the Clan to regain strength for the journey.

The days were flying past like feathers in the wind, tumbling and spinning into a whirlwind of stolen moments before the hard trek ahead. She mostly spent them with Scorchflame, and it gave her a slight twinge of guilt to think that she was spending more time with a former SunClan cat than her own family who she’d missed for so long. But Petalstorm had found that she felt empty hunting alone, small out there under the cosmos, as Darkrose had described it. But with Scorchflame, somehow… he made her feel a little bit taller out there, when the alleys hemmed in on her flanks and the snarls of dogs drifted into the dump on the breeze.

It was almost embarrassing to admit it, but… no. She wouldn’t admit it, that was how humiliating it really was…

Petalstorm had come to value and take pride in her independence during her travels, and that feeling had been heightened with becoming a warrior. She didn’t want to be the she-cat who tripped over her own fluffy paws and swooned in her heroic mate’s embrace. But a tiny piece of Petalstorm, the small, hungry, aching bit of her heart, had come to depend on Scorchflame. She’d gotten so used to having him at her side that it was alarming when he wasn’t there.

But she’d never admit that aloud, of course. That would be absurd.

“Are you okay?” Scorchflame’s voice broke into her thoughts. His brow was creased and a look of concern shadowed his amber eyes. “You’re staring at me weird.”

Petalstorm realized that she was scowling rather forcefully at the brown tabby tom and lifted her eyebrows. “Sorry,” she mewed. “Just thinking.”

“About what?” he asked, tracing a paw listlessly through the dew-laden grass.

Petalstorm shrugged. “Nothing,” she meowed evasively. “Let’s get back to hunting.”

Scorchflame studied her closely for a couple of heartbeats, then replied, “Sure. Hills or alleys?”

Petalstorm hesitated. Snarls and hisses echoed from the narrow alleys of Twolegplace, rivaling the monotonous mooing of cows from the hills. The hoofed creatures’ stomping would scatter all nearby prey, but the alleys, while teeming with rats, presented the risk of an attack by rogues.

Petalstorm stifled a sigh and hung her head in shame. “Alleys,” she muttered.

But Scorchflame didn’t judge her for it. Rats were a good source of food for MoonClan -- pretty much their only source of food, Petalstorm recalled with an inward groan -- and she could shelve her pride for once to feed her kin.

“Let’s hope we don’t run into Adrienne or Gwyneira again,” Scorchflame meowed as they began to pad into the tangled alleys of Twolegplace.

Petalstorm’s gaze flicked toward Scorchflame quickly; she still held one suspicion about the tom deep inside her, and that was his little talk with Adrienne, the one neither cat had wanted anyone else to overhear. Why?

Scorchflame caught her staring at him and stopped walking to meet her eyes. “Worried?”

Petalstorm narrowed her eyes and gave a tiny shake of her head. “Let’s get on with hunting, then,” she meowed curtly, stalking past Scorchflame and deeper into the alley. For all her lies and forced bravery, every tiny noise of rats scuttling in Twoleg rubbish sounded like the jingling of a bell, and every shard of clearstone on the ground looked like menacing green eyes.


*        *        *        *        *

The day had arrived at last, dawning cool and damp with a gentle breeze that bit through Petalstorm’s soft fur. She shivered slightly and glanced out of the den at the sky. The storm clouds above were tinged with yellow. For some reason, the sight made her nervous, inexplicably nervous. She turned her head, eyes sliding to Scorchflame. The brown tabby tom was curled tightly in his nest, fur twitching and legs jerking as he dreamed. After a few heartbeats, he gave a scared little mew, and Petalstorm felt a pang of pity for him. His brave exterior had fallen to nightmares, and he wasn’t so bold when the shadows of sleep stalked around him. He looked very small, very defenseless, lying there.

I wonder what he’s dreaming about. Petalstorm hesitated, considering that, then rested her tail briefly on his flank, stood up, and quietly slunk outside.

Petalstorm felt exposed beneath the strange yellow clouds, her fur prickling like a warning. The breeze seemed to be whispering to her, telling her of what was to come, but she couldn’t understand. What do the clouds mean? she wondered darkly. Is it an omen?

Her eyes scanned the dump warily; they kept flicking to the sky, to the yellow clouds that made her uneasy. But in her peripheral vision, a black figure stood out against the blanket of clouds, and Petalstorm recognized the cat’s graceful, considerate posture to be her sister’s. Feeling relieved that another cat was out here with her, Petalstorm padded over to Darkrose’s side.

“Hello,” Darkrose murmured before Petalstorm even had a chance to announce her arrival. “I knew it was you. I could tell by your pawsteps. Rather light, but forcibly so, as though you are walking with the weight of the world on your shoulders but you can’t afford to show it.”

Petalstorm blinked, unsure of what she could say to that. No reply she could ever come up with would come close to rivaling Darkrose’s wisdom.

Luckily, her sister spoke again, saving Petalstorm from having to think of a response. “Your friend is approaching now,” she meowed, a gentle teasing edge to her voice at the word friend. “His pawsteps are more uncertain than normal, he must be nervous.” Darkrose crinkled her nose and shot a sideways glance at Petalstorm. “I wonder why.”

Petalstorm gave an awkward purr, staring down at her paws to avoid her sister’s prying gaze. Sure enough, Scorchflame’s voice sounded in her ears a few heartbeats later. “Hey, Petalstorm…?” His voice lilted a little at the end, turning the greeting into a nervous-sounding question.

She deliberately turned her head away from Darkrose’s wide green eyes to face the brown tabby tom. “Hey,” she mewed, trying to sound casual. “What’s up?”

Scorchflame’s amber eyes were filled with conflicting emotions, but Petalstorm couldn’t quite tell what they were. “Could I… Could I speak with you… just for a second?” His gaze slid warily to Darkrose, then back to Petalstorm. “In private?”

Petalstorm’s heart missed a beat, and in that beat, she forgot how to breathe, speak, and function like a normal cat. “Uh… s-sure!” she stammered, feeling her ears blaze with heat. A cloud of butterflies whirled in her stomach as she mumbled, “Where sh-should we go?”

“Just… out of c-camp.” Scorchflame flicked his tail in a gesture for her to follow him. “Please.”

Petalstorm glanced at her sister pleadingly. Darkrose closed her eyes and nodded to Petalstorm’s silent question, a small smile on her face. “Go,” the black she-cat meowed. “I’ll be fine here.” She shifted her paws, lifting her chin to the coming breeze. The same gust ruffled Petalstorm’s fur as she turned to Scorchflame and began to follow him out of camp.

“Going hunting?” Silvershade, one of the guards on the dawn shift, asked. Her green eyes glinted mischievously, and Pinefur, the other guard, snickered.

Petalstorm narrowed her eyes at the silver tabby she-cat, trying vainly to push down the blush creeping into her cheeks. “Yes,” she responded primly. “Hunting.”

Silvershade raised her eyebrows dubiously, but meowed, “Have fun, you two. Catch some good prey.” She aimed a heavy wink at Petalstorm and swished her striped tail.

Irritated, Petalstorm gave a small huff and stormed past the two guards. Any other day, Silvershade’s humor would have been welcome. But not now, not when Scorchflame had her on edge with the mysterious conversation that he was planning to have with her.

I have a guess… but I’ll sound so mouse-brained if I’m wrong…

“Here is fine,” Scorchflame mumbled, stopping at the crest of a dew-laden hill. Here, nothing stood between the two cats and the expanse of ominous yellow clouds, save for a lone buzzard circling in the sky. As Scorchflame stared at his paws, apparently trying to figure out the best way to start the conversation, Petalstorm stood nervously, knees locked to keep her legs from trembling. Quickly she licked a paw and drew it over her ears, cleaning her face of moss scraps she hadn’t had a chance to remove yet. She hadn’t even washed yet, for StarClan’s sake! She looked like a complete disaster.

Scorchflame finally lifted his amber gaze from his paws and stared at Petalstorm. He had a haunted look in his eyes, the look of a prisoner of war who’d been liberated but still had the memories of torture seared into his eyelids. That’s what Scorchflame looked like today: tortured. Tortured by so many things all at once, things Petalstorm couldn’t even begin to understand.

This is more than his nightmare, she thought. This is something… deeper. He’s always had this… whatever it is. SunClan gave this to him.

She wanted to take it away. She wanted to lift all burdens from his shoulders and carry them herself, to make him smile even when she was in pain, to smooth all the scowl lines around his eyes and heal the scars on his face.

“What were you going to say?” Petalstorm asked quietly.

Scorchflame blinked, trying and failing to clear the battle of emotions in his eyes. “I… I don’t…” He sighed, shoulders slumping, and pressed his eyes shut. The frown lines deepened between them as he made a visible effort to stop whatever war was raging in his mind. Petalstorm felt a pang of pity for him, but kept quiet and waited for the tom to regain control.

Scorchflame spoke, still keeping his eyes squeezed shut tight. “I was raised for one thing: to slaughter SunClan’s enemies. And I failed, I failed at the one thing Amberstar ever wanted me to do.” He paused. “I don’t even know where I’m going with this, none of these words seem to be coming out right… I just…” Scorchflame opened his eyes and stared at Petalstorm. She held his gaze, breathing shallowly, waiting for more. “I care about you, Petalstorm, more than I ever thought that I would. You make me smile; I don’t smile. You make me laugh; I don’t laugh. I’ve never…” His voice trailed off, and he scuffed his paws in the dirt awkwardly. “I’ve never cared about anyone the way I care about you.”

It took Petalstorm a moment to remember to breathe. The full effect of Scorchflame’s words was starting to sink in, her mind was starting to comprehend the incomprehensible.

I’ve never cared about anyone the way I care about you.

She had nothing to say… Well, the reality was, she had everything to say, too many things to say, and not enough courage to say them. All Petalstorm could do was nod. And wait.

Scorchflame closed his eyes again, the furrow between his brows becoming deeper with each word pulled from his throat. His shoulders were hunched, as though cowering in the shadow of a blow that would never come down, that he expected to land on him every second. “So…” He sucked in a choking breath and mewed, “I wanted to ask you… Will you be my mate?”

What. What. What.

A faint ringing rose in Petalstorm’s ears, but she was numb to it. She blinked, stunned into silence.

I’ve never -- I wasn’t -- I can’t -- I’m --

“Yeah,” she whispered.

Scorchflame stared at her, shock evident in his wide amber eyes. “Yeah,” he echoed. “Yeah?”

Petalstorm tried to stifle a laugh. “Yeah,” she repeated, unable to hold back a giggle.

Scorchflame’s whiskers twitched as a smile unfurled across his face. “I didn’t expect you to… I didn’t…”

“It’s fine,” Petalstorm promised. She hesitated. “I… I love you, Scorchflame.” She pressed her eyes shut and grimaced, instantly regretting it. It was too soon, I shouldn’t have…

But Scorchflame’s next words caused her eyes to snap open again.

“I love you, Petalstorm.”

He loves me -- I want my independence -- I love him -- I’m such a fluff-brained idiot -- Scorchflame -- how did I manage to fall for this cat -- I hate it -- I love it -- I can’t -- I will anyway --

Her tangled train of thought crashed into a wall when Scorchflame pressed his muzzle against hers, and then all thoughts just kind of dissolved from there. Snow began to fall, each flake glittering as the branches of the crystal caught the light, but she didn’t feel the cold. It was Petalstorm’s first snowfall, and all she could feel was warmth.


*        *        *        *        *

Petalstorm stumbled back to camp in a daze, her mind still not quite able to fathom what had just happened. Snow was building up beneath her paws, soaking her belly fur with icy water, but she seemed to be immune to the cold. Scorchflame padded alongside her, his pawsteps lighter than they had ever been. Without even looking at him, Petalstorm could tell that the brown tabby tom was trying very hard not to smile, and the thought made her purr. He’s happy when he’s with me. I make him happy. It was hard to believe, but every time Petalstorm realized -- again -- that it wasn’t all a dream, she felt like she was floating, just like the snowflakes, except her paws never met the ground.

When she and Scorchflame arrived at the entrance to the Twoleg dump, Silvershade greeted them with a smile. Petalstorm stared blankly as the silver tabby she-cat opened her mouth and spoke, but none of the words reached her ears.

“What?” Petalstorm asked. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.” She hunched her shoulders sheepishly, trying to snap back into focus.

Silvershade snorted. “I said, no luck with prey? You haven’t caught anything.”

“Yeah, no luck,” Petalstorm replied hastily. “The snow must have scared it away.”

“Yes, it must have,” Silvershade meowed, shooting a smirk at Scorchflame. The brown tabby tom shrugged and smiled back, but didn’t say anything to contradict her.

Pinefur, however, didn’t seem to understand the hidden meaning, and frowned. “I knew Ravenstar made you warriors too young,” he grumbled, fluffing out his russet fur against the chilly wind. Frost was crusted onto his whiskers and the tips of his ears, but the cantankerous tom didn’t seem to notice or care. “Go run along now, see your father about leaving.”

“Oh… I could talk to Ravenstar, if you’d like?” Silvershade offered quickly, standing up. Petalstorm widened her eyes in surprise at the silver tabby she-cat. Silvershade was always a fun presence to have around, always cracking sarcastic jokes and willing to bend the rules slightly for troublemaking apprentices, but she was never exactly one to leap to her paws when a volunteer was needed. Maybe she’s changed?

Pinefur rolled his eyes. “Oh, you can stop sucking up to Ravenstar, Silvershade. Every cat in the Clan knows you’re padding after him.”

Silvershade barked a laugh. “Padding after him? Ravenstar? The Clan leader? Why in StarClan would you think that? That’s -- that’s absolutely absurd! Don’t listen to a word this dung-encrusted old badger has to say,” she ordered Petalstorm. “He’s insane. Lost his mind moons before you left.”

Petalstorm’s whiskers twitched. “It seems someone has a crush on my father,” she teased in a singsong voice.

Silvershade huffed. “StarClan’s kits, Pinefur, why are all these young mouse-brains suddenly taking your side? Have you been handing out fresh-kill when I’m not looking?”

Pinefur looked at his fellow guard through slitted eyes. “I’m just right,” he replied pompously. “And facts reign supreme over the silver-tongued dirt that you’re telling the whole Clan.”

“Nice pun,” Silvershade told him. “By the way, did anyone ever tell you that you smell like fox-dung?”

“Yes, you have,” Pinefur responded. “Several times, might I add.”

Petalstorm rolled her eyes. “We’ll just go talk to Ravenstar, then.”

“Wait!” Silvershade yelped. “I… uh… I’ll come! As… moral support! Yes. That.”

Petalstorm sighed. “Okay, sure. Moral support.” But her heart was so buoyant and floaty at the moment that Petalstorm doubted she’d ever need moral support again. It was impossible to feel lost with Scorchflame beside her. She and the brown tabby tom began to make their way toward Ravenstar, Silvershade hurrying along in their wake.

Will Ravenstar be able to tell? Petalstorm wondered. I’ll have to tell him about Scorchflame eventually… but will he notice anything? Are we being too obvious? Great StarClan, I must wipe this silly grin off my face this instant.

“Hello, father,” Petalstorm greeted the black-furred MoonClan leader.

Ravenstar, who was speaking to Nightfern, turned toward Petalstorm as she spoke. His green eyes lit up, and he mewed to the deputy, “Hold on just a second, brother, I must speak to my daughter.” Nightfern nodded respectfully and took a step back. Ravenstar blinked at Petalstorm. “What is it?”

“We were just wondering if there’s anything you’d like us to do to help with leaving,” Petalstorm meowed, dipping her head. Scorchflame, standing with his flank against hers, nodded as well.

“Yes, there is,” Ravenstar replied. “You two can help Windsight and Darkrose round up all the kits and elders for the journey. And tell Icefur that he’ll be helping Roseheart pack the most essential herbs. They’ll be cumbersome to bring along, but we can’t risk an outbreak of greencough on such a long trip, especially at our level of weakness in a snowy leaf-bare.”

Petalstorm nodded and started to pad away with Scorchflame, but Silvershade’s mew made her ears prick with interest. “I-is there anything I can do to help?”

“Silvershade… yes. You and I will do a sweep of the entire Clan, start assembling them. Elders, kits, and queens in the middle, strongest warriors on the outskirts.”

“Yes, Ravenstar,” Silvershade responded, and from her tight tone, it was clear that she was withholding a squeal of glee in order to seem professional. Petalstorm smiled, shaking her head, and twined her tail with Scorchflame’s. The tom gave a startled spasm and glanced at her, an apologetic look in his amber eyes.

“Sorry,” he mewed. “I’ve just… Nobody’s ever…”

“Yeah,” Petalstorm interrupted him. “Yeah, me too.”

Scorchflame stared down at his paws as they continued walking. When the tabby tom seemed to think Petalstorm wasn’t watching, he shook his head faintly and smiled down at the ground. And when Petalstorm thought Scorchflame wasn’t watching, she did the same thing, Scorchflame’s words echoing in her head as the snow fell around them.

I’ve never cared about anyone the way I care about you.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Petalstorm took a step back to admire the entirety of MoonClan assembled in an orderly group. She and Scorchflame had soldiered through an awkward time rounding up the kits with Windsight and Darkrose, but the tension was worth it -- the Clan, despite being weakened by hunger, gave the impression of unity. Frostflower had her kits bundled close to her belly in the middle of the crowd, flanked by the two elders Streamsong and Silentrunner, while the rest of the warriors and apprentices surrounded them in a protective shell. Ravenstar was positioned at the head of the pack, Nightfern on his right and Silvershade on his left.

MoonClan was ready at last.

Ravenstar’s voice pierced the pristine stillness of the snow. “MoonClan, I know that the leaf-bare weather is against us right now, but I believe that we possess the strength to make it home. We will defeat SunClan and reclaim what is rightfully ours!”

A half-hearted cheer rang out around the Clan, the loudest voices being Silvershade and Icefur. Petalstorm cringed as Ravenstar continued, sounding much less confident this time. “Well… let’s go. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.”

And with that, they were off, trudging at a painfully slow pace as every cat was forced to slog through the snowbanks. Frostflower’s kits nearly plunged beneath the snow, but the queen scooped them up by their scruffs and waded through the deepest drifts for them. Petalstorm shuffled behind her, Scorchflame padding at her side. Suddenly, she felt a tap on her shoulder, and glanced instinctively in its direction. A gray tom stood next to her, blue eyes bright as he beamed.

“Windsight!” Petalstorm greeted him, a subconscious guard going up around her. She could feel Scorchflame’s muscles tensing beside her.

Windsight’s smile faltered slightly. “Is -- is everything okay?” he asked warily.

Petalstorm glanced at Scorchflame uncomfortably. He’s going to find out eventually… but… Truthfully, the thought of Windsight realizing that she and Scorchflame were mates now was quite alarming. She had no idea how the mottled gray tom would react. Would he smile pleasantly and congratulate them, only to stew in quiet rage and plan revenge? Would he be downright hostile? Or would he even care?

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Petalstorm meowed, tearing her gaze away from Scorchflame’s nervous amber eyes. She looked at Windsight closely, wondering if he’d deduced anything yet. The tom’s expression hadn’t changed in the slightest.

“Great,” Windsight replied, so genuinely that Petalstorm winced. I don’t want to be the one to tell him what happened…

The gray tom hesitated, leaving all of them to suffer in the awkward silence that followed. All Petalstorm could hear was the sound of many paws crunching through snow, and many pelts rustling against each other in the cold air. What to say, what to say…

“Um…” Windsight hesitated. “What… what did you think of your first snowfall?”

Petalstorm cringed inwardly. He’s resorted to talking about the weather. But she had to reply, she had to seem normal. “It was amazing,” she responded, her thoughts leaping to other things aside from the snowflakes falling down. That first snowfall was when Scorchflame asked me to be his mate… and in a painfully cliche way, that was what made it special. Petalstorm cringed again, this time at her own thoughts. Thank StarClan I didn’t say something that lame out loud… I’d never hear the end of it.

Windsight nodded and looked at his paws. “Cool,” he meowed, tracing circles through the snow. “Cool, cool.”

Petalstorm gave him one more concerned glance before padding ahead after the rest of the Clan, Scorchflame at her side. The brown tabby tom lowered his head and murmured in her ear, “When do you think we should tell him…?”

Petalstorm’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of formally declaring her love for Scorchflame in front of the entire Clan. Never. “He’ll figure it out eventually,” Petalstorm mewed vaguely, shrugging. “I’m more worried about telling my father, to be honest.” Which was a complete lie. For some reason, telling Windsight made her want to shrivel up into a ball and hide under a rock for the rest of her life.

Maybe I’m flattering myself too much, Petalstorm thought wryly. Windsight’s just a friend.

But from the memories of the past few moons, Petalstorm was sure that she could piece together the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of jealousy from the mottled gray tom. The mutterings under his breath, the cold shoulder toward Scorchflame, the awkwardness around her…

He’ll forget me, Petalstorm thought. He’ll forget me eventually. He has Aspenpaw. She’s enough for him.

And then she remembered. Windsight was MoonClan.

Why did he join, then? What’s the point?

Confused and troubled, Petalstorm padded alongside Scorchflame in silence, the snow freezing cold against her paws.

*        *        *        *        *

“Guess what I see!” Windsight chirped, nudging Petalstorm’s flank.

She startled at his touch and sidled a few mouse-lengths away. “What?” she asked warily.

Windsight’s eyes clouded with hurt for a moment, but brightened again as he turned toward the horizon ahead. “I spy a little barn! Look familiar?”

Petalstorm frowned, not quite believing the gray tom. But sure enough, when she squinted, a square silhouette was visible on the horizon, the snow-covered hills and valleys before it bathed in streaks of orange light. Sunset had come, and the barn they’d stayed at before was in view.

“It’s the place Graytail died,” Scorchflame growled, his ears pinned back as he glowered at the innocent little building.

Windsight blinked at the brown tabby tom. “Uh… I was going to say, ‘where we met Apple and the kits,’ but… yeah. That too.” A note of sadness entered his voice despite the nonchalant tone he was clearly going for.

“It looks so different in the snow,” Petalstorm murmured, fur prickling with a mixture of emotions as she stared at the faraway barn. Privately she prayed that Ravenstar wouldn’t lead them there. She couldn’t have those walls around her again, or see the desperate claw marks now etched into the ladder from the battle. Maybe the cold, snowy wind had flushed out the scent of fox. Maybe she wouldn’t notice the furrows in the wood.

Petalstorm dismissed the optimistic thoughts, for she knew they weren’t going to be true. Graytail had died there, and she wasn’t ever going to forget about it.

“Should we tell Ravenstar about it?” Windsight inquired, swishing his tail through the now-trampled snow.

Scorchflame’s eyes narrowed as Windsight unknowingly flicked a cloud of snowflakes into his face. “If the barn cats didn’t help before, why would they help now?”

“Well, they wanted to help, remember?” Windsight reminded him. “But MoonClan didn’t stop by. Maybe we can visit this time.”

Petalstorm stopped Windsight with a freezing stare. “I don’t really want to,” she mewed, her voice somewhat meek compared to the very obvious conviction in her eyes. “It’s too soon after Graytail’s death.”

Windsight sighed. “I know, but it’ll be the only warm and dry place for a long time. Think of the Clan: what about the kits and elders, who aren’t as strong? Make the decision for their good.”

Annoyance wormed its way under Petalstorm’s pelt and her voice lost its meek quality. “Are you saying that I’m being selfish?” she demanded, feeling a small splash of anxiety as the words left her mouth. Maybe I am. He might be right…

No! the other half of her brain thought defensively. If I don’t want to, then we…

Petalstorm stifled a groan as the realization swept over her. I am being selfish. Windsight’s right. Oh, how she hated being wrong! And admitting it, too!

Petalstorm sighed. “Forget I said anything. I’ll go talk to Ravenstar about it… I’ll be back in a minute.” Hurriedly she touched her nose to Scorchflame’s cheek -- which immediately induced a whirlwind of, Should I have done that? I’ll only be gone for a couple heartbeats, I’m such an idiot -- and trotted to the front of the Clan, where Ravenstar was walking beside Silvershade.

“Father?” Petalstorm meowed as she approached him. He appeared to be deep in conversation with Silvershade, who glanced at Petalstorm and beamed, waving her tail in excitement.

“So… what’s your take on that?” Ravenstar finished, staring expectantly at Silvershade.

The silver tabby she-cat startled and blinked. Petalstorm could almost see the curses running through her head as Silvershade tried to scrounge up an answer. “Uh… meh meh, intelligent comment.” Silvershade grinned and tilted her head, then mouthed to Petalstorm, Was that good?

Petalstorm shook her head, suppressing a purr.

Dirt, Silvershade mouthed at her good-humoredly.

Ravenstar nodded in mock-seriousness at Silvershade. “That was very insightful, thank you,” the MoonClan leader replied, still not aware that his daughter was listening. “See, this is what MoonClan has been missing all along. Genius minds like yours.”

Silvershade laughed. “Thank you. It’s my best quality.”

A grin flashed across Ravenstar’s face. Petalstorm was filled with warmth. She hadn’t seen her father’s eyes light up like that before, except when she or her littermates padded by. Maybe Silvershade had a chance after all… The thought made Petalstorm hesitate, reluctant to interrupt when Ravenstar looked at ease for once, but forced out the words anyway. “Ravenstar?” she meowed.

He looked up, startled and slightly flustered. “Yes, Petalstorm? What do you need?”

She shifted her paws uncomfortably. “Just… Windsight spotted the place we rested before coming here. Apple, Stallion, and Hay’s barn.”

“And…?” Ravenstar prompted her.

Petalstorm blinked at him, trying not to let her level gaze waver. “And I was wondering if we’re going to rest there. Windsight thought it would be a good place for the kits and elders to stay. It’s the only dry and warm place for a long time.”

Ravenstar frowned. “Didn’t Graytail die there? I don’t want my Clan resting in an unsafe place.” Beside him, Silvershade nodded earnestly.

Petalstorm stifled a sigh, her frost-tipped whiskers shivering. “He killed the fox that killed him,” she replied, teeth beginning to chatter as a gust of cold wind swept more snowflakes into her eyes. “Besides, I think even a fox will think twice before attacking the entirety of MoonClan in leaf-bare.”

Ravenstar nodded slowly, his eyes thoughtful. “Then we’ll adjust our course,” he declared. “We will head for the barn.” He glanced at Petalstorm, the first hints of concern showing in his eyes. The vulnerability displayed here made Petalstorm unsettled. “Pray to StarClan that we get there before nightfall. In this storm, we won’t be able to see a thing.”

Thoroughly anxious now, Petalstorm dipped her head briefly to the MoonClan leader before hurrying back through the sea of shimmering white toward Scorchflame and Windsight. Snowflakes sprayed around her paws as her forelegs churned through the drifts. Petalstorm was soaked to the bone by the time she had trudged back to the two toms. Windsight flicked his tail in greeting, his teeth chattering too badly to talk. Scorchflame’s jaw was set, his eyes determined, as the wind tore at his fur. But when he saw Petalstorm, a little fragment of his gaze brightened, the burden dropping briefly from his shoulders.

“How did it go?” Scorchflame asked as she stumbled over to walk beside him.

“Fine,” Petalstorm muttered, hating the way the snow clung to her belly fur. “We’re heading toward the barn now, Ravenstar’s adjusting our course.”

“Th-thank g-goodness,” Windsight stammered. “My paws are freezing off!”

Petalstorm scoffed, unable to come up with anything worthwhile to say. Luckily, Scorchflame saved her.

“Do you think they’ll be happy to welcome MoonClan back?” he asked. Petalstorm knew that the “they” he was referring to meant the barn cats.

Windsight shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope the kits are excited, at least.”

Petalstorm stifled a sigh. The mindless chatter, the boring small talk, felt stifling, even in a blizzard. It was the same, step after step, pace after pace, trooping in the same direction through the same snow with the same cats. At the same slow speed.

She wanted to break into a run and sprint until her lungs burned and snowflakes sparkled in her gray pelt. She wanted to feel the wind tear through her fur and whistle in her ears. Impatience prickled at Petalstorm’s paws as she steeled herself and continued to pad obediently along behind the other MoonClan cats.

I’m not an apprentice anymore. I’m a warrior.

MoonClan trekked through the snow for a while longer until soon, the old wooden barn cast a shadow over them. Petalstorm struggled toward it, glad of the protection from the blizzard, and slumped against the back wall. The rest of MoonClan fanned out, murmuring and flattening their ears against the icy breeze.

“I haven’t felt a snow this cold since before Ravenstar was kitted,” rasped Silentrunner crossly, flicking his tail. “StarClan’s being a real piece of fox-dung today.”

Streamsong, the other elder, huffed. “Don’t speak that way about our ancestors. Mark my words, you’ll end up in the Dark Forest for that.”

Silentrunner snorted. “Those dead cats can’t do anything to me. Hey!” he snapped suddenly, and a kit scurried out from under his paws. “Would you like your tail crushed?”

“Yes he would,” another kit replied, tugging his brother away from the cantankerous old tom. “But not today.”

A beautiful white she-cat swept over, her smooth pelt almost indistinguishable from the blanket of snow on the ground. “Don’t be cheeky, Jaykit,” she scolded her son, gathering up both littermates in her jaws and carrying them away. Their protests weakened as a strong gust of wind rocked their bodies, and their mother turned to shield them with her flank.

A warm tail touched Petalstorm’s shoulders. Scorchflame was looking at her closely. “You’re shivering,” he told her.

Petalstorm blinked, her consciousness returning. She was indeed shivering. “I hadn’t noticed,” she admitted. She cleared her throat. “Should we go inside?”

“Yes,” Ravenstar interrupted, approaching them. His whiskers were crusted with frost, his shoulders blanketed in snow. “You, Scorchflame, and Windsight can lead the Clan in. The barn cats know you, after all.”

Petalstorm dipped her head, happy to stay beside Scorchflame and Windsight. Having the two toms nearby felt right. It felt right to be marching in the same trio they had on the journey. But each step toward the barn was more unsettling than the last, as memories of the fox attack started to cloud Petalstorm’s thoughts. She could almost smell the iron tang of blood again as they paused at the entrance to the barn.

“Ready?” she asked bravely, trying to hide her fear.

Windsight nodded determinedly, and Scorchflame copied him. Then, together, they padded into the barn.

“Apple?” Scorchflame called into the hay-packed crevices of the building. “Stallion? Hay?”

“April? Hazel? Flint?” Windsight added. “It’s Windpaw. And Petalpaw and Scorchpaw. We’re back with friends.”

There was a faint rustling noise in the depths of the barn. Petalstorm’s heart thundered as she waited nervously for some cat to emerge. Eventually, three small cats -- apprentice age, but with kit-fluff bordering their still-round faces -- scurried forward from the shadows.

A gray she-cat with shining eyes bounced on her paws and crowed victoriously, “I won the bet, you mouse-brains! Pay up, Flint!”

A black tabby tom stared disbelievingly at the crowd of MoonClan cats gathered before him. “Skies above,” he muttered. “How?”

“I told you they’d come back,” April meowed, waving her tail. “And they did.”

A pale brown she-cat, her sister Hazel, shook her head faintly. “I don’t -- I’ve never -- I didn’t know this many cats existed!”

April beamed brightly at MoonClan, eyes glittering with pride and intelligence. “Welcome to the barn. I will be sleeping in the best spot in the whole place now, thank you Flint.” Her eyes locked with Petalstorm’s, and Petalstorm found it harder than expected to maintain eye contact. April had quite an intimidating gaze for such a young cat. “You look like a warrior now.”

“I am,” Petalstorm replied. “I’m Petalstorm now.”

April nodded. “And I’m still April.” She paused. “Come in, all of you. It’s cold out there. But you know that.”

The gaunt, hollow faces of the MoonClan cats bobbed as they all nodded as one in understanding. They knew the cold, in all forms. The biting wind, the endless snow, the lonely hills and dangerous alleys. It was all too cold for the weak Clan to deal with right now.

So Petalstorm, at the head of MoonClan, stepped over the threshold and into the barn, gathering her wet, shivering Clanmates in the only safe haven for miles.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

WIP

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