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THIS FANFIC IS TOTALLY FICTIONAL! IT IS WRITTEN BY DREAMINGWOLF1... NO TOUCH!

Enjoy!

Chapter One: Ashpaw

The sun burned the ground through the leafy trees above, scattering shards of sunlight all around. Ashpaw

Ashblaze

bounced eagerly around his mentor, his ashy fur bushed. "Can we see ALL of WolfClan territory today, Gleamwhisker?" he mewed, skirting around a rock. The pine needles provided a soft padding for his paws, and he bounced around, rolling in them. Gleamwhisker hissed. "Not if you keep acting like that, idiot!"

Ashpaw rolled back to his paws. "Sorry," he muttered. "But being an apprentice is just so EXCITING! Were you this excited when you became an apprentice, Gleamwhisker?"

"No," Gleamwhisker said dryly, with an annoyed glance at her apprentice. "I doubt that anyone, not even a kit, could be as boisterous as you."

Ashpaw blinked. "I'm six moons old," he announced proudly.

Gleamwhisker walked past him stiffly. "I know."

"I'm ready to FIGHT intruders!" he screeched, sliding through the pine needles and showering his mentor in a brown wave. Gleamwhisker flicked an annoyed ear. "You may think you're ready," she mewed, "but you're not. You're still just a kit."

"Yes, but I'm closer to being a warrior than Lizardkit and Tinykit," Ashpaw said. Gleamwhisker blinked. "Maybe so, but that doesn't mean..."

"WOAH!" Ashpaw suddenly shrieked, bounding past Gleamwhisker. "Did you SEE THAT? I think it was a MOUSE!" His paws itched as he dove into the undergrowth after the rodent. He was going to make his first kill and impress Gleamwhisker! He wasn't some stupid little kit. Not anymore; he was going to be a warrior!"

"Ashpaw!" Gleamwhisker hissed angrily from outside the thick tangle of undergrowth. "Hold on!" Ashpaw squeaked, peering around for the mouse. He had lost it.

"Idiot!" Gleamwhisker snarled at him as he blundered out of the bushes. "You need to be discreet if you want to catch a mouse! You probably scared off all the prey in the forest with that racket!"

"Sorry," Ashpaw muttered, his skin growing hot under his fur. One day I'll catch a mouse, though, and show Gleamwhisker what a great hunter I am!

Chapter Two: Fernpaw

Fernpaw huddled in the dense leaves by her camp, making hardly a sound as the cats in the clearing walked

ShadeClan Fernfrost

past her. She saw the queens and their kits, she saw the leader, Voidstar, and she even saw her mentor, Hareclaw, in the middle of it all. She wiggled her tail in excitement. No one knows that I'm up here... this has to be the best hiding spot in all of RippleClan territory!

Voidstar was on the meeting rock in the clearing. Fernpaw saw his mouth moving, but she was too far away to hear what he was saying. The great tan tabby's muscles rippled under his sleek fur, and his hard eyes roved across the clearing as he spoke. All of a sudden, the cats in the clearing let out loud caterwauls... some of excitement, some of anger. Fernpaw shivered. What is going on? What is Voidstar saying?

She slipped out quietly from her hiding spot and leaped down into the clearing, over the small stream that trickled through it. She padded delicately over by her mother, Swiftriver, who was settled down by the elders. Her face was hard with anger.

"Mom, what is happening?" Fernpaw whispered. Swiftriver gritted her fangs. "Just listen."

Voidstar opened his jaws and spoke again. "Injured and elderly cats are a bother," he hissed. "Why should we care for wounds and illness if we will just die one day?"

"You're nothing like Singestar!" shrieked a cat in the clearing. "You're a heartless worm!"

Fernpaw's heartbeat sped up. What's going on?

Voidstar curled his lip. "Singestar was old. It was time that a new leader took him over. His death last night was not shocking to me at all."

Beside Fernpaw, Swiftriver stiffened, her muscles growing hard with anger. "So you're going to throw sick and injured cats out of the Clan? Why?" she yowled. "Soon we will have no cats left!"

Yowls of agreement greeted her words. Shardwing, the deputy, gazed at Voidstar in shock. "Voidstar... no! We can't do this!"

"I can!" hissed Voidstar. "The word of the Clan leader is law, remember?"

"You hypocrite," Swiftriver snarled at him. "I clearly remember you challenging Singstar's word many times!"

"I may also throw rebellious cats out of the Clan," Voidstar meowed angrily, gazing at each one of his claws idly. Sandflash rose to his paws indignantly. "Then you'll have to throw us all out, you sneak!"

Voidstar glared at the sandy-colored tom. "Then you will be disobeying the warrior code," he hissed. "As another law, we will have no Medicine Cat. He will serve as a warrior."

From by the Medicine Cat den, Herbsong gaped at Voidstar. "No!" he coughed. "I- Voidstar, I communicate with StarClan! This is an outrage!"

Voidstar laughed a rasping meow. "You fools. RippleClan will be strong. Medicine Cats are an annoyance. I don't care about any messages from StarClan."

Gasps rose from the cats, and yowls of anger swirled through the clearing. Swiftriver yowled and rose up beside Fernpaw. "You IMBECILE!" she screeched. Fear pumped through Fernpaw's blood. What was happening to her Clan?

Chapter Three: Brooks

Brooks yawned and stretched. Being outside was the best thing that had ever happened to him. No walls, no

Brooks Again

ceilings, and the SMELL!

Brooks rolled around in the grass, stretching happily. Life was good...

"What are you doing outside?" a quiet voice meowed. Brooks jumped up, startled, as a small black and white kitten came trotting into the yard. The collar around his neck jingled. Brooks glared at him. "What do you mean?"

The black and white kitten sat down by the tree. "You're never outside. I see you in the window, but never in the yard."

Brooks shrugged. "Meh, I escaped." he continued to bite at the grass.

The black and white kitten looked shocked. "Escaped?" he coughed. "Boy, your housefolk will be really mad. I'm Ezra, by the way."

Brooks didn't stop biting at the grass. "Huh," he said flatly.

Ezra cocked his head. "So... what's your name?"

"Brooks. Why should it matter to you?"

Ezra let out a mrrow! of amusement. "Heck, I dunno, maybe so I don't have to call you 'cat' all the time.'

Brooks sighed and continued to roll in the grass. Ezra shuffled his paws. "So, have you ever heard of the wild cats that live in the forest?"

"No," Brooks growled. Ezra's green eyes were bright with excitement. He lowered his voice. "I heard they eat us house cats and line our nests with our fur and bones!"

Brooks licked a paw nonchalantly, trying to hide his shock. "Really?"

"Yeah!" Ezra meowed. "At least that's what Garff said. But you never can trust that old furball!"

Brook's fur pricked. Cannibal cats?

"Have there ever been any around here?" Brooks asked. Ezra nodded. "Oh yeah! I hear them howling at night, those savages. Their voices are full of blood and murder! I smell their scent in the mornings when I come outside."

Brooks blinked. "Uh... I should probably get back inside. My housefolk will be missing me."

Ezra plopped down in the grass. "All right, bye Brooks! See ya around... oh wait, never mind, you don't come outside."

Brooks stood up and hurried over to the door, pawing at it and meowing loudly. A moment passed, and then the door opened and Brooks raced inside where his housefolk stroked and petted him.

Chapter Four: Ezra

Ezra strolled away from Brook's yard, his tail high in the air. His bell collar jingled as he made his way back to

Ezra

his housefolk's den. I sure did scare that cat off. As soon as I mention the wildcats he ran off like a fox was after him!

As Ezra padded up to his housefolk's den, a mew sounded behind him. "What are you doing here?”

Ezra turned around as a pretty tabby she-cat came trotting across the road. She had light gray fur with dark gray stripes. Her blue eyes were wide and inquisitive as she came over by him. She looked like a kitten as well, but she was much older than Ezra.

“What do you mean?” Ezra mewed. “I live here?”

“You live here,” the she-cat said flatly. “In the street?”

“Well, not in the street,” Ezra said quickly. “Just in the neighborhood.”

The she-cat cocked her head at him. “I’ve seen you around, by that den with the red flowers. Who are you?”

“I’m Ezra,” Ezra said. “What about you?”

The tabby cat sat down by the edge of the road and started to groom her fur. “I’m June. I live in that den, over there.” She flicked her head towards a large den with a red Twoleg monster. “I come outside often.”

“I do,” Ezra mewed. “But I mostly stay in my yard.” He flicked his mottled black-and-white tail. “My housefolk don’t usually let me stray far. Probably because they think I’m too little.”

“Oh,” June said, blinking at him. “How old are you, anyways?”

“Three months,” Ezra said proudly. “My housefolk just got me this nice collar.” He glanced down at his neck, where a blue collar sat. A golden bell dangled from it.

June snorted. “Do you know why you have that bell?” she meowed.

Ezra cocked his head. “Why?”

June licked a paw. “If you start to try and hunt a bird or a mouse, it’ll jingle and your prey’ll run off. I pulled mine off once I figured out they tricked me.” She tossed her head proudly.

“Well, I won’t try to hunt,” Ezra said solemnly. “I like the food they give me.”

June blinked and let out a mrrow! Of amusement. “Really?” she said with a chuckle. “Have you ever had a fresh mouse?”

Ezra wrinkled his nose. “No,” he said. “Why would I want to eat a mouse?”

“Because you’re a cat!” June cried. “Fresh mouse is good.” “Ech!” Ezra cried. “It sounds vile.”

June purred in amusement. “You say that now,” she said.

The gray pavement beneath Ezra’s paws suddenly started to rumble. His eyes widened as a car came rumbling down the road. June’s fur bushed out, and they bolted for the strip of grass along the side of the road. The car’s green hide flashed in the sunlight as it rounded a bend and disappeared. Although it had vanished from sight, the car’s deep growls still tickled Ezra’s ear-fur.

June panted. “That was a close one,” she purred breathlessly. Ezra nodded, his fur still pricking. “Yeah.” He pricked his ears. “Do you know Garff?”

June purred. “That fat old tabby? Yeah.”

“He came by my den today and said that he had gone into the forest!” Ezra said, his green eyes wide.

“The forest!” June exclaimed. “Did the wildcats get him?” her gray tail was bushed out.

Ezra shook his head. “No, he got back all right. He must not have seen any wildcats!” “Or maybe his noisy galumphing and pounding scared them all away,” June snickered, a mischievous glint in her ice-blue eyes.

“Or he fought them off,” Ezra mewed. It made him laugh to think about the declawed, fat old tabby fighting off an army of big, mean wildcats.

June purred loudly. “That must have been soooooooo majestic,” she said.

“Oh yeah, it was probably one heck of a fight,” Ezra said solemnly. He glanced at June and then he burst into purrs. He liked this cat. She was nice.

The high-pitched call of a housefolk echoed across the air. June’s ears lifted, and her pupils shrank to slits. “Coming!” she yowled across the street. She turned to Ezra and gave him a playful nudge. “Well, see you around kid,” she said to him.

Ezra blinked back at her. “Yeah, see you around,” he purred. He then watched as the older kitten whipped around and raced across the street towards the den with the red car.

I better get home too, Ezra thought, and he turned and trotted back in the direction of his home. Thoughts of wildcats and the forest were spinning around in his head, like a hive of bees were swarming in his brain. I’m glad I don’t live in the forest. I like it here, where there are nice cats, like June and Brooks and Garff.

Chapter Five: Ashpaw

Two moons later…

Ashpaw was curled up tight in his nest, his fur bushed out against the fierce gale of wind that was ripping through the camp. The wind wasn’t cold, though… rather it was annoying and loud and angry. It tore at Ashpaw’s fur, shaking the walls of the apprentice’s den. The pine tree’s needles clattered ominously above him. He knew that soon a storm would be upon them, and that meant wet.

Ashpaw hated getting wet.

The moon was masked by massive gray clouds, so the camp was dark and eerie.

“Ashpaw?” hissed a quiet voice beside him. Ashpaw’s ears pricked as Sunpaw’s form moved towards him. The older apprentice’s eyes gleamed in the dark. “Are you awake?”

“Yes,” Ashpaw growled. “How could I be asleep with all the ruckus outside?”

“Same here,” Sunpaw mewed quietly. “I don’t like the wind. It gives me the creeps.” She shuddered. “I remember, when I was just a kit, I would curl up with my mom when there were fierce storms like this.”

Ashpaw nodded. “Yeah, me too.” He missed the comfort of his mother, Snowwing. Her gentle voice always soothed him when he was scared. He blinked at the older she-cat. “You can sleep by me, if you like.”

Sunpaw’s ears lifted. “Really?” “Sure!” Ashpaw purred. “You might be extra protection against the wind.” Sunpaw let out a soft mrrow! Of amusement. “Maybe.” She shifted her body until she was curled up right by Ashpaw. Her warm body definitely was a protection against the wind.

Ashpaw’s sister, Larkpaw, grunted as Sunpaw shifted her position. “No, please, I don’t want to eat hedgehogs…” she muttered. Ashpaw stifled a laugh at Larkpaw’s sleeptalking. His other siblings, Sparrowpaw and Birdpaw, were silent in the far corner of the apprentices’ den. Sunpaw’s siblings, Cinderpaw, Sorrelpaw and Brackenpaw were snoring softly on Ashpaw’s other side. It was very cramped in the apprentices’ den, but at least it was warm. Ashpaw fell asleep quickly. Suddenly the sound of the roaring wind was soothing…

“Get out! Get out!” a loud hiss made Ashpaw bolt out of sleep. The fur on the right side of his face was smushed against his cheek from sleeping on it.

Rayblossom’s light tabby fur was bushed out. “All of you get out! The tree is coming down!”

Cinderpaw and Sorrelpaw shot to their feet. “The tree is coming down?” “Yes!” Rayblossom’s screech ripped through the air. “Get out!”

The two she-cats shot out of the den. Ashpaw shook sleep away and stumbled blearily out of the den. Sunpaw and Sparrowpaw stormed after him.

The camp was a mess of pine needles and fallen tree-limbs. The sky was dark, and the wind was roaring like a caged lion. A caged angry lion.

“Larkpaw, Birdpaw, come on!” Ashpaw called to his sisters, panic flooding through his body. The tree above the apprentices’ den

Birdpaw’s small frame leaped out of the den after Ashpaw. “What’s going on?” she squeaked. “Is the tree coming down?”

“Yes!” Rayblossom cried. “Get out now! Larkpaw, come on!” the she-cat’s blue gaze flitted to the tree above the den. It was slowly sliding down the rock wall. Its thick trunk was splintering.

Gleamwhisker, Adderstrike and Jaysparrow leaped forward to help Rayblossom.

“Get these apprentices out of the camp,” Rayblossom said. “I’m going to get Larkpaw.” She glanced towards the deaf she-cat, who was still sleeping soundly in the den.

“Come on, Ashpaw,” Gleamwhisker nosed her apprentice towards the camp exit. “Birdpaw, come on! Pick up the pace!” The cats all rushed towards the camp exit.

“But what about Rayblossom and Larkpaw?” Sunpaw squeaked, with a hurried glance back at her mentor.

“They’ll be all right,” Adderstrike said. The young warrior tom gently nudged Sunpaw towards the camp exit.

“But that’s my mentor!” Sunpaw cried. “I don’t want her to get crushed!”

Adderstrike opened his mouth to reply, when suddenly the tree gave a loud, earsplitting crack!

“Larkpaw!” Ashpaw wailed.

“Ashpaw, go!” Gleamwhisker meowed, giving her apprentice a fierce shove.

The tree started to fall.

Rayblossom and Larkpaw came dashing out of the den, a moment too soon.

It all happened in slow motion.

The tree toppled to the ground with a loud groan. Dust and pine needles flew as it crashed into the apprentices’ den. A loud cracking sound echoed through the camp.

Ashpaw felt himself screaming, but heard no sound except his own heartbeat thudding in his ears.

The impact of the tree hitting the ground knocked him backwards. He gasped as he slammed into his mentor. His paws flailed as he tried to find his footing again. Eyes wide, mouth gaping, he scanned the debris. Every nerve in his body was thrumming with panic.

“Larkpaw!”

Chapter Six: Fernpaw

The wind almost knocked Fernpaw off her paws as she raced after her mentor through the forest.

“Are you all right?” Hareclaw hurried back to help steady her. “Do you want to stop?”

Fernpaw shook her head. “No,” she mewed. “I’ll be fine.” She glanced up at the rain-laden clouds with a shudder. Fernpaw liked to swim, and she didn’t mind the feeling of water in her fur, but rain was a totally different story. It was annoying and it got in her eyes.

This was the second border patrol she had gone on today. Voidstar had demanded nonstop patrols all day long. Fernpaw’s legs were aching, but she pressed on. I don’t want to be a wimp in front of my mentor! With a sigh she gazed at Hareclaw. “Hopefully this is the last patrol I have to do today,” she said.

Hareclaw’s whiskers twitched. “Why, are you getting tired?”

Yes. “Not really,” she lied. “But I want to do other stuff than walk around all day. Like battle training!” her tail whisked. She was getting fed up with the new leader. All she ever heard was ‘Patrol the borders! Work on battle training! Reinforce the camp! Traitors will be killed!’ She liked Singestar much better. He had been a good, noble leader.

There was no way Fernpaw would share her doubts with her mentor. What if he liked Voidstar’s way of ruling the Clan? What if Hareclaw reported her for being disloyal?

Emberwater and Finsplash paused up ahead. “Are you two coming?” Emberwater’s annoyed mew rang through the air above the wind. “We don’t have all day.”

“Sorry!” Hareclaw mewed. He caught Fernpaw’s gaze and rolled his eyes. Fernpaw stifled a laugh. Hareclaw was a good, just cat… surely he thought the same as Fernpaw about Voidstar’s rule! Fernpaw took a deep breath. She had to be cautious. “So… what do you think about Voidstar?” she asked. The question seemed to catch Hareclaw off guard. “Well,” he started slowly. “Don’t tell anyone I said this.” Fernpaw blinked up at him. “I won’t,” she promised. “I swear by StarClan.”

Hareclaw took a deep breath. “I don’t like how he’s pushing cats around,” he growled. “He’s downright rejected StarClan, refused to have Herbsong continue his Medicine Cat duties, and said that he would finish off any severely injured cats.” He shook his head. “I don’t like him, honestly. He’s a danger to the Clan.”

“But then why would Singestar have chosen him as deputy?” Fernpaw mewed. Hareclaw sighed and swerved around a large boulder. “I think that maybe Singestar didn’t know what truly was lurking in Voidstar’s heart,” he murmured. “Singestar saw a young, ambitious, strong cat, eager to lead and protect the Clan. After all, I certainly never saw any darkness in Voidstar, when he was still deputy. Ambition, yes, but never brutality.”

“I wish he wasn’t leader,” snarled Fernpaw. “I hate him. Why did StarClan choose him to be leader?”

Hareclaw suddenly halted and stood directly in front of Fernpaw, his gaze dark. “These are dangerous questions,” he growled. “Its best that we don’t talk about it. If anyone and I mean anyone hears this, it could be dangerous for me.” He paused. “For you.” His gaze met hers, and something odd flickered in his eyes. “I would never be able to live with myself if something happened to you,” he said, his voice husky.

Fernpaw nodded, her fur rippling along her spine. “All right, Hareclaw,” she said, her voice low and serious. “I won’t talk about Voidstar anymore.”

Hareclaw relaxed. “All right,” he said softly, touching his nose to her ear. “Thank you.” He then shook out his fur and the look faded from his eyes. “Come on, we had better catch up with Emberwater and Finsplash before they yell at us again.”

Fernpaw nodded and picked up the pace, racing towards the two warriors up ahead. Hareclaw raced after her, and Fernpaw ran faster.

Emberwater and Finsplash wheeled around as Fernpaw came crashing up behind them. She yelped and slid on the wet leaves right through the two warriors, skidding to a halt in a large bare strip of ground. She panted as Hareclaw raced up to meet her, his fur bushing. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Fernpaw purred and shook her fur out. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Her heart was still hammering in her ears from the run. She lifted her paws and shook the wet soil from in between her toes.

“Can we go on a patrol without acting like a bunch of annoying kits?” Emberwater hissed, flashing a glare at Hareclaw. “What are you teaching this apprentice?”

“How to have fun and be lighthearted, unlike you guys,” Hareclaw retorted. Finsplash flicked an ear in obvious amusement, but Emberwater scowled at them. “There’s no room to have ‘fun’ in RippleClan,” she spat. “Act your age.”

Hareclaw narrowed his eyes to slits, and Fernpaw took a deep breath. Was Hareclaw going to fly at Emberwater with his claws unsheathed? Hareclaw, however, managed to keep his fur smooth. He glanced at Fernpaw and flicked his muzzle. “Come on, Fernpaw, let’s start heading back to camp.”

“All right,” Fernpaw said hurriedly with a flick of her long, white tail. “That sounds good.” She glanced into her mentor’s emerald-green eyes, and she remembered the look that had come into them when they were talking about her safety.

That look in his eyes… what was it? I’ve never seen that before in him…

She pushed the thoughts away and followed her mentor as he turned and started back through the forest, towards the camp. The wind rose in a deafening crescendo around her, lifting her fur all along her pelt. She pushed against the wind and trotted after her mentor, Finsplash and Emberwater close behind her.

“That’s my prey!” The screech made Fernpaw’s head shoot up. Her mouth still full of fish she turned her head towards the angry screech, alarm prickling through her pelt.

Fernpaw’s mother, Swiftriver, was hunched over a squirrel, a snarl etched into her muzzle. Greensky was facing her off, hissing in defiance.

“That’s my squirrel that I caught,” Greensky hissed, advancing towards Swiftriver. “That makes it mine.”

“Elder warriors always choose before the younger ones,” Swiftriver spat back. “I had my paws on this squirrel first.”

“I had my paws on that squirrel when I killed it!” the younger warrior glared with loathsome anger at Swiftriver. “Give it to me!”

Fernpaw rose to her paws in alarm. Some of the other cats in the clearing were staring as well, their eyes wide.

Sandflash gazed helplessly at Voidstar, who was eating on the Highbranch. The leader seemed unaware that there was a squabble going on in the camp. Several other cats glanced at Voidstar expectantly, but the great tabby didn’t avert his eyes from his prey.

Swiftriver and Greensky were still squabbling. “Hand it over NOW!” Greensky screeched.

“No.” Swiftriver’s gaze was icy.

With a shriek of fury, Greensky lashed out for Swiftriver’s eye. Fernpaw’s mother ducked so Greensky caught her cheek instead, but blood still spurted from the new wound. Greensky leaped for Swiftriver, the younger warrior’s paws leaping for Swiftriver’s throat. Swiftriver hissed as Greensky leaped for her, rolling out of the way and catching Greensky with a paw. Her eyes bright with defiance, Greensky attacked Swiftriver again.

Fernpaw’s nerves were thrumming with alarm. StarClan, no! Greensky’s going to kill her!

“That’s enough!” Shardwing’s loud caterwaul rang through the clearing. Relief boiled in Fernpaw as the RippleClan deputy bowled Greensky over, pinning her down. “Stand down,” Shardwing hissed. The rage died from Greensky’s eyes, and she rolled away from Shardwing. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I don’t know what came over me.” Voidstar was watching now, his blue eyes narrowed with malevolent interest, but he still didn’t speak. This was the third fight since Voidstar had taken over the leadership, and it was the third time Voidstar had done nothing to settle it.

Darkpebble, Fernpaw’s father, was running across the clearing towards his mate. “Swiftriver!” he cried. “Swiftriver, are you all right?” he nosed his mate to her paws, concern shining in his amber eyes. As Swiftriver nodded, Darkpebble’s gaze went to Voidstar. His eyes were dark with anger. “You did nothing to stop it,” he hissed. “She could have been killed!”

Voidstar gazed calmly at Darkpebble. "So?" he growled.

"Excuse me?" Darkbebble coughed.

“I said, ‘so’?” Voidstar repeated.  “If some cat dies, so what? Some cat will have more kits in a moon.  If one cat dies, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Anger and fear flooded Fernpaw.  Voidstar really doesn’t care about anybody but himself.

Her gaze flitted across the clearing.  She caught Hareclaw’s gaze.  Her mentor looked scared and angry, just like Fernpaw.

Darkpebble was trembling with anger.  His claws slid in and out, and his eyes were sparking with quiet fury.  Fernpaw could tell that her father was doing all he could to keep himself from flying at Voidstar.  When Darkpebble spoke, his voice was calm and quiet, yet it was dripping with anger.

“Then you’re a coward.”

Voidstar’s blue eyes narrowed, and he rose to his paws.  His gaze was burning with anger, and his lips curled back into a snarl.  “Call me a coward one more time,” he hissed. “And I’ll rip out your throat.”

Fernpaw was sure she couldn’t have been more scared, even if a wolf had just come into the clearing.  Voidstar’s threat made Darkpebble back away, lowering his gaze.  “Yes, Voidstar,” he muttered.

The great tabby chuckled and curled his tail around his paws.  “That’s what I like to hear,” he hissed.  “’Yes, Voidstar.’ Ah, its music to my ears.”

Sandflash, Shardwing and Finsplash were all gaping in shock at their leader.  Voidstar’s followers, Pinestream, Duskbranch and Emberwater all raised their heads, glaring at the cats in the clearing.  Fernpaw could feel the tension rising like a storm cloud.

I have to get out of here.

Trembling, she backed away while no one was watching and slunk for the camp exit.  Once she reached it she squeezed through the hanging lichen and burst into the forest, panting.  The wind panted with her, gasping and moaning as though mocking her.

Fernpaw whipped around and ran.  She didn’t know where she was running to.  She was just running. She had to get away from that foul, vile-hearted Voidstar.  Fernpaw would never bow to him.  He was a coward and a menace.

It was just like Hareclaw had said.

He’s a danger to the Clan.

What was happening to RippleClan?

Chapter Seven: Ashpaw

The wind howled on, but the clouds still hadn’t let up the rain yet.

Ashpaw sat in the wrecked WolfClan camp, his gray fur bushed out against the wind.  The cats in the clearing were silent as they sat around the fallen bodies of their Clanmates.

Ashpaw leaned against his mother, Snowwing, whose head was bowed in grief.  Sparrowpaw and Birdpaw crowded around him, their eyes dull with sadness.

Larkpaw looked so peaceful in death.  Her gray-and-brown fur was ruffled by the wind.  Cloudstem and Stingriver had placed her in a position so she looked like she was asleep.

Beside Larkpaw, Rayblossom also laid, her eyes shut in death.  Her sister, Darkflower, was crouched close to her body, making low crooning noises in her throat.

Silence hung in the clearing like a misty veil falling over the cats.  A feeling of gloom was in the air.

The sun was setting, turning the dark clouds yellow and pink.  Night was building, just like the sadness in Ashpaw’s heart.

Rainstar stepped forward, his light gray fur ruffled by the wind.  “Rayblossom and Larkpaw were both very noble cats,” he murmured.  “They now sit in StarClan, watching over us.”

Murmurs of agreement filled the clearing.  Ashpaw shut his eyes.  Larkpaw, are you watching us? Can you hear me?  He hoped that Larkpaw would have hearing in StarClan.  She had been deaf since she was born, and Ashpaw hoped that she would finally be able to hear.

Ashpaw barely listened as Rainstar continued to speak.  His mind was clouded with grief. 

As all the cats walked up to say their good-byes to Larkpaw and Rayblossom, a voice rang across the clearing.  “Rainstar, I have a request.”

It was Brightstorm, Larkpaw’s mentor.  The she-cat’s voice was husky with grief.  As the WolfClan leader dipped his head to her, Brightstorm spoke.  “Larkpaw had a brave heart,” she said quietly.  “She had the heart of a warrior.” She flicked her tail.  “That was all she wanted… to receive her warrior name.  Rainstar, can we send her to StarClan with her warrior name?”

Rainstar lifted his head and blinked at Brightstorm.  “I think that that is a good idea,” he said softly.  Raising his head he turned to Larkpaw’s still body.  “I, Rainstar, give this apprentice her warrior name.  She had the heart of a warrior and the soul of a wolf.  I want her to go to StarClan with her warrior name.”

It wasn’t the formal words of the ceremony, but Ashpaw sat up.

What will he call her?
Larkwing? Larktalon?

“From this moment on, this apprentice will be known as Larkwhisker.  She died serving her Clan.  May StarClan bless her and accept this new name.”  He then bent down and licked the still head of Ashpaw’s sister.

Snowwing was the first to cry out.  “Larkwhisker!” she cried.  Ashpaw stood up.  “Larkwhisker!” he cried out as loud as he could.

“Larkwhisker!” “Larkwhisker!” the chorus of voices rose into the air until it rose into one great voice.  Ashpaw meowed as loud as he could, hoping that Larkwhisker could hear him from his place in StarClan.

The vigil lasted until dawn.  When the first streaks of pink and orange were painted across the sky, Rainstar announced the vigil over.  The elders, Russetsky, Fernpelt and Aspenheart carried the bodies out of the camp to bury them.  Ashpaw quietly slipped away and slunk towards the camp exit.  Maybe he would be able to sneak out before Gleamwhisker called him off to do battle training.  He just wanted to be alone.

The clouds were slowly leaving, but darker ones were building farther away on the horizon.  Ashpaw bounded out of camp, plunging through the thick ferns and bounding across the thickly-padded earth.  As he raced across the ground, an odd scent made him halt midstride and wrinkle his nose.  It was an odd, fishy sort of smell.  He blinked, glancing around and expecting an army of fish to come parading out of the bushes.

He knew that smell.  He had smelled in many times when he was on border patrol with Gleamwhisker.

His fur spiked in alarm.  RippleClan! It’s an invasion!

But when he smelled deeper, the strong smell only bore the scent of one cat.  A young female, it smelled like.  Ashpaw flattened his ears and turned. The smell was close.

Well, if it’s only one cat I can try and spy on it! It might be kind of fun.

Ashpaw slunk towards the smell, his mouth parted to let the scents of the forest flood in.  He swallowed hard and slid into a low-hanging bush.  Glancing around, he saw nothing, but the smell didn’t leave.  He was getting closer to the RippleClan border, but he was sure that the smell was in WolfClan territory.  He slid out of the bush, quietly.

The crackle of branches made him whirl, his pelt bushing.  A white shape raced from the bushes and blundered into him, knocking him over. A squeal of alarm came from the figure on top of Ashpaw.  The fishy smell was overwhelming him.  He choked and heaved up with his hind paws, hurling the other cat off.  Before the cat could attack him again, he whipped around to face it.

A small, lanky she-cat stood there.  Her fur was starkingly white, and her eyes were a stunning, crystal blue.  Her eyes were wide, and her fur stood on end.  She looked like an apprentice, maybe a bit younger than Ashpaw.  “Invader!” she squeaked.  “You’re in RippleClan territory!” she glared at Ashpaw.

Ashpaw’s mouth went dry.  “RippleClan?” he growled.  “This is WolfClan territory, stupid! You’re the one who’s invading!”

The she-cat was defiant.  “I am not!” she hissed.  “This…” she trailed off, and her eyes suddenly got very wide.  She glanced around, looking in alarm at the trees, and then the earth.

“Oh,” she whispered, embarrassment sparking in her eyes.  “I didn’t realize I had crossed the border…” she glanced at Ashpaw apologetically.  “I’m sorry.”

Ashpaw tensed, still bristling.  This had to be a trick.  RippleClan cats didn’t apologize! She just wanted him to soften so she could attack.

“Where’s the rest of your patrol?” Ashpaw hissed.  “You’re invading!”

“I… I’m by myself,” the little white cat mewed softly.  “I didn’t realize I had crossed the border.” Her tail flicked back and forth, and the fur along her spine was rippling.  Ashpaw cocked his head.  This cat was agitated… why?  Was she telling the truth? She seemed to be sincere.

“Well, I guess I can escort you back to the border,” he grunted, relaxing a bit.  “But if you cross the border again, I’ll rip you open.”

The white cat narrowed her blue eyes.  “Where’s the rest of your patrol?” she mewed nervously.

Ashpaw grunted.  “I’m by myself.”

“Why?” the RippleClan cat flicked an ear curiously.

Ashpaw curled his lip.  “None of your business, RippleClan scum!”

The she-cat flinched.  “Sorry,” she stammered.  “I’m sorry.”

Ashpaw sighed.  “Come on, let’s go.”

She raised a chin.  “I can go by myself.”

Ashpaw growled at her.  “So you can steal our prey? I don’t think so! I’m going with you.”

The she-cat growled.  “Fine,” she hissed, flattening her ears.  She turned and pranced back towards the border, her tail high.  Ashpaw rolled his eyes and trotted after her.  This proud she-cat was so full of herself, but Ashpaw couldn’t help but admire her bravery.  He picked up speed so he was trotting next to her.  “Um, so how did you cross the border by accident?”

The she-cat hissed.  “None of your business, WolfClan fish-head!” she snapped.  Ashpaw’s eyes widened in surprise, but then he saw that the she-cat’s eyes were sparking in amusement.  Ashpaw rolled his eyes.

“I was running away,” the she-cat said abruptly.  Ashpaw swiveled an ear in surprise.  “Running away?” he inquired.

“Yeah,” she muttered.  “It’s kind of personal, though.  I guess I was just so upset I didn’t notice I had crossed the border.” She sighed.  “I really am sorry.”

Ashpaw grunted.  “I’ll let it slide for now, but don’t do it again.”

The she-cat met his gaze.  “I won’t,” she said sincerely.  “I promise.”

Despite her friendly voice, Ashpaw still didn’t relax.  He walked in silence beside her, glancing firmly ahead.

“What’s your name?” the she-cat asked.  “I’m Fernpaw.”

“Huh,” Ashpaw grunted, refusing to talk anymore.  He wanted to talk, but RippleClan was his enemy.  There was no way he was going to form a ‘friendship’ with this arrogant fuzz-head.

Fernpaw trotted beside him, scuffling up leaves with her paws.  Her whiskers twitched, almost like she wanted to say something but decided against it.  Finally she raised her head and blurted “so what’s it like, living in WolfClan? Is your leader nice?”

Ashpaw hissed and wheeled around to face her.  “Why are you so inquisitive?” he snapped.  “Why should you care what we do in my Clan?  Is it so you can go back and tell your leader all our secrets?”

“I would never tell Voidstar ANYTHING!” Fernpaw blurted, anger making her voice rise.  Ashpaw’s eyes widened in surprise, and he gazed at her in shock.  Fernpaw’s voice quieted.  “Sorry,” she muttered.  “It’s just that in our Clan, we don’t have a very fair leader.”

Ashpaw’s eyes narrowed.  Why was this she-cat so willing to share stuff with him?  He shook his head. It didn’t matter.  Soon she would be gone and he would forget about her.

They walked in silence for a minute, but then she spoke again, making Ashpaw sigh in annoyance.  “You seem sad,” Fernpaw said softly.  “Did something happen? Did I make you upset?” “No, it’s not you,” Ashpaw growled.  “I don’t want to talk about it.” “I won’t tell anyone.” Fernpaw’s blue eyes were bright.  “I like secrets.”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” Ashpaw snapped.  “For StarClan’s sake, leave me alone!”

“Okay,” Fernpaw muttered.  “I’m sorry.”

They were coming up to the RippleClan border.  Ashpaw halted and glanced at her.  “Well, here we are,” he growled.  “Go on back to your camp.  And like I said, don’t cross the border again.” He glared at her.

“I won’t,” Fernpaw said.  Then she blinked at him.  “I don’t think that you’re as grumpy as you are making yourself out to be,” she meowed.  “I think that you’re a really nice cat.”

Her comment took Ashpaw by surprise.  He shook himself.  “Yeah, well I’m not nice to stupid, ditzy RippleClan apprentices that wander over into my territory and pester me with questions!”  Guilt filled him as Fernpaw’s eyes glinted with hurt.  He sighed.  “Sorry,” he muttered.  “Today’s not a good day for me.”

“I’m sorry,” Fernpaw mewed.  “I hope that you get better… and maybe we’ll see each other again someday!”

Oh StarClan no, Ashpaw thought, but he flicked an ear.  “Yeah, maybe,” he growled.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” Fernpaw said.  She smiled at him.  Then she turned and trotted over the border.  Before she could disappear into the ferns he opened his mouth.  “Ashpaw,” he said.  “My name is Ashpaw.”

Chapter Eight: Fernpaw

Ashpaw.

The name echoed in Fernpaw’s head as she raced across RippleClan territory. She still couldn’t believe that he had given her his name.  I wonder if he even likes me.  He probably thinks I’m some sort of weird moron, crossing the border like that.  She didn’t know why, but she wanted to see him again. She flicked her tail. That was crazy talk! She would be disobeying Clan orders!

But Voidstar has broken almost every rule possible! Surely it wouldn’t make any difference if I went and saw him again.

She crossed the stream with ease, wading through it.  She emerged, glistening and dripping wet.  Shaking water from her white pelt she dashed forward towards the RippleClan camp.  The stream flowing through the forest protected the RippleClan camp.  WolfClan cats hated getting wet.  If they invaded, they would have to be brave enough the cross the stream.

I wonder if Ashpaw is afraid of water.

She purred.  He probably is.  She tried to imagine Ashpaw swimming and started to laugh. 

She took a deep breath if she neared the camp exit.  What would Hareclaw and Swiftriver say? Her heart thrummed.

What would Voidstar say?

Her heart in her throat, Fernpaw padded into the camp, her head low.

It seemed as though every cat in the clearing paused what they were doing to stare at her.  Even Icystream’s kits stopped romping around to gaze at her with their wide, inquisitive eyes.  She lowered her head, embarrassment flooding through her.   Voidstar’s amber gaze lifted from his paws to look at her.  Fernpaw swallowed, waiting for him to speak, but he never did.  He just glared.

As Fernpaw turned towards the apprentice’s den, a whirl of brown-and-gray fur shot in front of her.  “Not so fast,” a voice growled.  Fernpaw stiffened and looked up into the green eyes of Hareclaw.

“Hareclaw…” she started, but he broke her off.  “I was worried sick about you!” he hissed.  “What in the name of StarClan were you thinking, running off like that? Where were you?” before Fernpaw could answer, Hareclaw’s nose crinkled and he flattened his ears.  “And what is that smell? Is that…” he paused.  “WolfClan?” his mew was dripping with disgust.  “Why do you smell like WolfClan?”

“I was by the border,” Fernpaw mewed quietly.  There was no way she was going to tell him about how she had wandered into WolfClan territory, or met Ashpaw.  “I just wanted to go for a walk… to get a break.”

“You were gone all night,” Hareclaw hissed.  “I thought that a fox had gotten you! Or a wolf!” worry was crinkling in his green gaze. 

Fernpaw ducked her head.  “I’m sorry,” she muttered.  “I really am.”

Hareclaw sighed, relaxing a bit.  “Well, you’re safe now, and that’s all that matters.”  He bent down and touched his nose to her ear.  “I was so worried about you… all of us.”

“Voidstar too?” Fernpaw whispered.

Hareclaw shook his head.  “No, not Voidstar, or Duskbranch or…” “Fernpaw!” the loud yowl broke Hareclaw off.  Swiftriver’s gray fur flashed at the corner of Fernpaw’s eyes.  “Fernpaw you’re back!” she mewed.  “Are you hurt? Oh, I was so worried!”

“I’m fine, mom.” Fernpaw pulled away from her mother.

“Where were you?” now that Swiftriver knew she was all right, a sharp edge had entered her voice.  “Why were you gone so long? I was afraid that something had gotten you!”

Fernpaw sighed inwardly.  Sometimes her mother worried too much.  “I’m fine, mom,” she said quickly.  “You don’t need to worry.”

Swiftriver purred and nuzzled Fernpaw’s ear.  “But I do worry.  You are my daughter, after all.”

“Bring the apprentice here.” Voidstar’s calm, ominous voice rippled through the air.  It was icy and tinged with a hint of anger.

Hareclaw slowly nudged Fernpaw forward with a quick glance at Voidstar. Hareclaw’s fur brushed against hers as she padded forward, her legs trembling.  What would Voidstar do? Would he think she had been disloyal?

Trembling like a leaf in a fierce gale of wind she stood beneath the shadow of the Highbranch.  Voidstar’s cold amber eyes glared down at her.  “Why did you leave?”

“I’m sorry Voidstar.” Fernpaw dipped her head and avoided his eyes.

“Look me in the face, apprentice.” Voidstar hissed.  Fernpaw lifted her eyes and met his gaze.  “Now,” Voidstar hissed.  “Answer my question.  Why did you leave?”

“I… I…” Fernpaw stammered, trying to find words.

“Stop that inconsistent mumbling!” Voidstar roared.  “Can you not speak? Answer my question!”

“I just went out to see if I could hunt on my own! To bring back prey for the Clan!” the lie burned at the back of her throat, making her fur prick, but she was never going to tell Voidstar the truth.  Never.

Voidstar narrowed his eyes.  “And you were not being disloyal?” he growled.

“No, absolutely not Voidstar,” Fernpaw mewed, trying to keep her voice steady.  “I would never be disloyal.  My loyalty is to RippleClan.”

Is it really, though? My loyalty is to Hareclaw and my parents, not Voidstar. So would that be disloyal?

She blinked at Voidstar.  “I swear by StarClan.”

“I don’t care about StarClan,” Voidstar snarled.  He glowered at her.  “Now get out of my sight, apprentice.” Fernpaw meekly dipped her head and scuttled off.  Voidstar’s low growl rang after her.  “And don’t leave like that again, or else my trust in you may start to waver.  And we don’t want a disloyal cat, now do we?”

Chapter Nine: Ezra

“No! No, no, no.  Absolutely not.” Ezra turned his head away in defiance and flicked his tail.  He would never go into the forest.”

“Come on,” Dinah purred.  “It should be fun!” “I don’t think that getting eaten by wildcats is fun,” Ezra shot back.  “I’m not going into the forest.” “He’s scared,” sneered Jigsaw, his brown eyes rippling with amusement. “Yeah, and you should be too.” Ezra growled.  “I’m done with this.  Get out of my fur, will ya?”

As Ezra turned and trotted off, Dinah and Jigsaw padded after him.  Ezra walked faster, the fur at the nape of his neck pricking.  For the past week, Jigsaw and Dinah hadn’t left him alone.  They had been crawling all in his fur for too long.  It was getting on Ezra’s nerves.  He wished that June were here.  She could tell the two bullies off.

Dinah and Jigsaw were about June’s age, nine months.  They were starting to look like full-grown cats.  As for Ezra, he was just starting to lose his kitten fuzz and get lankier and leaner.  June called it his ‘teen months’ but Ezra had no idea what she meant.  He didn’t even know what a teen was.

“Come on, kid!” Jigsaw whined.  “Do it for us! We’re your buds!”

Ezra whipped around, his intense green eyes boring into them.  The two older cats stopped.  “First of all, I’m not your bud,” Ezra hissed.  “Secondly, stop calling me kid.”

Dinah snickered.  “All right kid.”

Ezra’s fur fluffed up in anger and disbelief.  He struggled to find words to spit at them, but nothing came to his mind.  It was fine when June called him kid.  June was his friend.  But he hated it when these two bullies called him it.  It made him want to attack them.  He would probably be able to take on Dinah; she was his size, but Jigsaw was big and muscular.  He could rip Ezra open easily.  Besides, Ezra didn’t even know how to fight.

Jigsaw snickered at Ezra’s enraged look.  “Aw, did we make you mad?”

“Yes.” Ezra said, snarling at them.

Jigsaw laughed.  “Look, Dinah, the poor wittle kitty is mad.  Ooh, look out Dinah, he may attack you with his bold words!” Ezra tensed.  “What the heck is wrong with you?” he growled.

“Nothing,” Dinah purred, her voice smooth. 

Ezra growled.  “I think there is.” He glared at her.  “You’re a bunch of fat, egg-brained dumb-dumbs.”

Jigsaw’s claws slid out, glinting menacingly in the sunlight.  “You take that back.”

“No.” Ezra tried to keep his body from trembling and puffed out his chest.

“Fine.” Jigsaw lifted his chin.  “Then if we’re dummies, you’re a stupid, moronic idiot that doesn’t know his manners.”

Ezra took in a deep breath, trying to keep his rage from flying.  Stay calm.  Don’t say anything. He felt words bubbling in his throat that he dared not say.  “I…” he gasped.  “You…” the word flew out before he could stop himself.  “You pieces of mouse dung!”  There.  He had said it.  The worst word he could possibly think of.

Dinah gaped at him, her whiskers twitching and her amber eyes glinting with surprise.  Jigsaw was snarling at him.  Ezra backed away.  He should probably run… but where?  They would just chase him and catch him!

Panic flaring in his chest, Ezra started to back away.  Jigsaw advanced on him.  “I’m going to rip you open,” the red-and-brown tom hissed. 

His instincts yowled at him.  Run! Get out of here!

Following his instincts, Ezra whipped around and bolted.  He heard Jigsaw’s enraged yowl split the air behind him.  The thudding of paws echoed through the earth.  Jigsaw was pursuing.  Ezra whipped around and sprinted across the concrete, cutting through the front lawn of a housefolk den.  He shot a panicked glance behind him.  Jigsaw was still pursuing.  Thinking fast, Ezra shot across the grass towards the fence that cut through the yard.  There was a small hole just big enough for him to slip through, but too small for a fat cat like Jigsaw.  He dove beneath the fence.  For a moment the loose shards of the wood got caught against his fur.  Panicking, Ezra wiggled his body, trying to free himself from the wood.  Jigsaw was catching up!  With one last desperate tug, Ezra tumbled from the grip of the wood.  He was free!

A heartbeat later, Jigsaw’s paw whipped through the hole.  His unsheathed claws slashed for Ezra.  Ezra backed away, panting hard.  He had outsmarted his opponent… for now.

Jigsaw growled, and the paw retreated.  For a heartbeat, hope filled Ezra.  Had his opponent given up? Suddenly a loud thud echoed through the wood, making the fenceline shudder.   Ezra backed away, his fur bushing.  What was Jigsaw doing?  A red-and-brown, snarling face poked over the top of the fence.  Jigsaw had climbed the wood!  The angry tom balanced precariously on the top of the fence, hissing at Ezra.  “You’re going to pay, fuzzball!”

“Not a chance!” Ezra shot back, but his muscles were trembling.  He whipped around and dashed for the hole at the bottom of the fence again.  If he could make it through…

Too late, Jigsaw saw what he intended to do.  Ezra shot through the hole with ease.  Jigsaw’s angry yowl ripped through the air, and there was a thud as he landed on the ground behind Ezra.  Ezra bolted, energy fizzing through every strand of hair on his pelt.  His paws felt as light as air as he shot across the ground.  If he could make it to his house, he would be safe.  He could see his house ahead, just across the street.  He was going to make it!  As he leaped for the hard, gray concrete, a rumbling noise echoed through the ground.  Ezra halted, his fur bushing.  A car shot down the pavement, its thick, black paws skimming the ground.  Ezra froze, fear binding his muscles together.  Run, run! His mind screamed, but he was frozen by fear.  A blaring howl tore from the car as it rumbled towards Ezra.  He shut his eyes, waiting for impact…

The car rolled over him.  A stinking wave of hot air blasted into Ezra’s fur, making his eyes sting.  He dug his claws into the pavement, his eyes wide with terror.  The car passed over him, roaring on down the street.  It had missed him, barely! 

Ezra stood there, panting, every strand of fur on end.  He swallowed, his throat dry and parched.  But he wasn’t safe yet.  Jigsaw’s growl of fury sounded from across the street.  His brown eyes were crinkling with rage as he glared at Ezra.  “You’re done, squirt,” he hissed.

Too late, Ezra tried to run.

With one leap, Jigsaw cleared the pavement.  He slammed into Ezra, knocking him down.  Ezra’s head crashed into the hard pavement.  For a moment, pain sparked in his brain, and then his world went dark.

Chapter Ten: Ashpaw

“No, Ashpaw, you’re not doing it right!” Gleamwhisker hissed.  “Don’t ever turn your back on your enemy!”

“Sorry!” Ashpaw shot back.  “I’m trying my best!” Unlike Sorrelpaw’s mentor, who was encouraging her apprentice on, Gleamwhisker was only discouraging him.  He ducked, rolled under Sorrelpaw’s belly and kicked up, throwing her off.  However Sorrelpaw landed on her paws, whirled, and rained a batter of paws on Ashpaw’s head.  Ashpaw grunted, flattening his ears and shying away.  Gleamwhisker’s sigh echoed through the clearing.  “No, no, that’s not going to work!”

Ashpaw swiped for Sorrelpaw.  “Working so far!”

Brambleheart purred at Gleamwhisker.  “Honestly, Gleamwhisker, be more positive! He’s not doing terrible.” “But he’s doing bad,” Gleamwhisker shot back.  “Don’t tell me how to mentor my apprentice, Brambleheart.”

The tabby tom shrugged.  “I’m just giving suggestions,” he mewed innocently.

“Well stop,” Gleamwhisker snapped.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

Ashpaw leaped for Sorrelpaw, tackling her to the ground.  As he planted his paws on her chest, she rolled over violently, flipping him over and tackling him.  In an instant, her paw was on his throat.  “I win!” she cried.

Gleamwhisker growled.  “That’s enough battle training for you, Ashpaw.  Come on, let’s go hunt.”

“We’ll come with you,” Brambleheart meowed.  “Sorrelpaw could work on her hunting skills.”

Ashpaw rose as Sorrelpaw clambered off of him and shook herself.  Her tortoiseshell fur was bushed out, and it was covered in dust.  “Wow!” she cried.  “That was amazing!”

“For you, maybe,” Ashpaw growled.

“For both of us!” Sorrelpaw said, as Gleamwhisker and Brambleheart trotted ahead.  “You did amazing!”

“Gleamwhisker doesn’t think so,” Ashpaw muttered.  “She never thinks so.”

“But Gleamwhisker’s a grump,” Sorrelpaw purred, leaping through the bushes after the two warriors.  “I’m not! And I fought you! You did really well!”

Ashpaw blushed under his fur.  “Thanks,” he muttered. The two apprentices walked in silence, staring ahead at Gleamwhisker and Brambleheart.  Suddenly Sorrelpaw burst into purrs.  Ashpaw glanced at her.  “What?” he inquired.

“Them,” Sorrelpaw snickered quietly.  “They would be such a cute couple.”

Ashpaw nearly choked.  “Couple?” he coughed.  “No way! They can’t stop bickering!” “Exactly!” Sorrelpaw swatted him.  “You hare-brain!”

“Oh,” Ashpaw said, feeling like a dummy.  Sorrelpaw purred in amusement.  Suddenly her green eyes sparked with amusement.  “Who would be a good match for me?” she asked.

Ashpaw’s pelt grew hot.  “Uuuuhh…” he stammered.  “Um, I have no idea.  What kind of question is that, for StarClan’s sake?”

“How about Sparrowpaw?” Sorrelpaw’s eyes were far away.

“No way,” Ashpaw said.  He imagined his poor, shy brother having to deal with the fiery Sorrelpaw nonstop.

Sorrelpaw purred.  “What about a warrior? Like Adderfang?” she nudged Ashpaw.  “I think that he’s really handsome.  I also think that Sunpaw likes him.” She squashed a snort of amusement.

Ashpaw’s pelt pricked.  “Why are you asking me? This seems like it would be more of a she-cat conversation, not a tom conversation.”

“A tomversation.” Sorrelpaw said with a snort.  Ashpaw rolled his eyes and started to walk faster.  Stars, he would rather put up with Fernpaw than this…

Eck, stop! Why do I keep thinking about her? I hate RippleClan! I hate her!

He caught himself, realizing that he didn’t hate her.  She had been really nice.

“I think…” Sorrelpaw started, but Gleamwhisker’s hiss sounded through the air.  “Hey, quiet you two! You’re going to scare off all the prey in the forest with that racket!”

“Sorry,” Sorrelpaw squeaked.  She glanced at Ashpaw, shrugged, and then bounded up ahead to join her mentor.  Ashpaw lagged behind, his paws dragging through the pine needles.   Suddenly, there was a rustle of undergrowth to his left.  Ashpaw’s head snapped around, his ear rotating.  He tensed as a squirrel came bustling from the bushes, its long, fluffy tail twitching.  Ashpaw froze, his breathing stilling to match the wind.  He swallowed silently, his pupils shrinking to mere slits.  The squirrel’s nose twitched as it bounded across the forest floor, pausing every few feet to check its surroundings.  Its ears trembled, and its eyes sparkled.

Ashpaw froze, his heart hammering against his chest.  He had to get the squirrel, and impress Gleamwhisker…

The squirrel’s eyes roved over the clearing, analyzing it.

Then its beady gaze snapped onto Ashpaw.

It froze, its tail twitching.

For a moment, both Ashpaw and the squirrel stared at each other in silence.  Neither one moved.

Then the squirrel bolted.

Ashpaw dove after it, his paws skidding on the leaves and his claws dug into the earth, propelling himself forward.  His tail streamed out behind him like a gray flag, and his eyes were narrowed against the wind that slammed into his face.  The squirrel darted through the woods, its tail bushed out in panic.  For a while the chase was on the ground, but then the squirrel took a sharp left and leaped for

the trunk of a pine tree.  Ashpaw skidded to a halt, leaves and dirt spraying everywhere, but he quickly regained balance and stood there, every hair on his pelt fizzing with energy.  The squirrel was perched on one of the lower branches, chittering angrily at Ashpaw.  Was that triumph in his eyes? Ashpaw’s amber eyes narrowed.  “It’s not over, you little fuzzball,” he growled.

But I’ve never actually climbed a tree before.

I’m a cat! I can do it!
Shaking his head to clear it, Ashpaw’s tufty ears twitched and he smirked at the squirrel.  Then he hurled himself at the trunk of the pine tree.  Its splintery bark tore under his claws, and Ashpaw’s heart palpitated wildly in his chest.  “Don’t panic,” he breathed.  He dug his claws in, piercing the very heart of the trunk and digging his claws in.  He launched up the bark, his eyes narrowed in determination.  Seeing what he had intended to do, the squirrel had retreated into the higher branches of the tree.  Trusting his instincts, Ashpaw continued up the trunk, breathing hard.  I will catch this squirrel.

Then Gleamwhisker will be proud.

Allowing these triumphant thoughts to urge him on, Ashpaw continued up the trunk.  The prickly pine needles clawed at his pelt, but Ashpaw ignored them.  He glanced down, and fear rocketed through him.

Great StarClan I’ve really climbed up a long ways, he thought.  He swallowed.  His throat was dry, and his tongue clung to the roof of his mouth.  He was panicking.  Was the bark splintering under his paws?  Maybe I should climb down.

But I’ve come up so far!

Taking in a deep lungful of fresh, piney air, he continued upwards.  The trunk was growing thinner.  Where was that squirrel…?

A flash of red fur shot over his head.  The rodent had shot over its head! It was perched on a branch just above Ashpaw, its eyes gleaming and its red fur curling in the wind. 

This was a game to the little rodent, Ashpaw knew.  It was goading him on.

Ashpaw’s head rang, echoing his heartbeat.  His muscles bunched.  He was going to jump.

He sprang from the trunk with his back legs.  Bark showered everywhere, and then Ashpaw was soaring through the air.  The branch was just ahead of him.

Looking down, the ground yawned below him.

Panic thrummed through Ashpaw’s nerves.  What am I doing?

He crashed through a sea of pine needles.  His head hit against something solid, and a cracking sound echoed through the air.

He hit the branch hard.  His claws unsheathed, gripping the limb.  His back paws were dangling in midair.  Dread soared in Ashpaw.  He dug his claws in so hard his paws hurt.  The squirrel was gone.

Ashpaw dragged himself onto the branch, gasping, his lungs heaving madly.  That was stupid of me, he thought.  He clung to the branch tightly, pain sparking through his head.  He felt dizzy…

The squirrel had leaped elegantly to another tree, its bushy tail wagging.  It was mocking him again.

Standing up on wobbly legs, Ashpaw gripped the branch.  A fierce gust of wind made his fur rise along his pelt.  The branch below him creaked wildly. 

Taking a deep breath to soothe his fractured nerves he inched forward along the branch. Pine needles clung to his fur, but he didn’t dare shake them off.  Breathing hard, he crept closer.  The other tree was only a small jump away.  If he could make it onto the branch…

The squirrel had lost interest in looking at him.  It was gazing up at the cloudy blue sky.  The warm air tugged at Ashpaw’s fur.  His heart pounded.  If he could make the leap…

Bunching his muscles, he sprang.

His claws snagged the branch, slamming down on the squirrel’s tail.  A startled squeal erupted from the creature.  Ashpaw’s claws dug into the branch and the squirrel’s tail.  He dragged himself up onto the branch, but his back paw was slipping.  Panic shot through him.  He tried to hold on, but it was too late.

The branch slid downwards under his weight. 

As the squirrel struggled wildly to get free of Ashpaw, he sliced his claws quickly across the rodent’s throat.  Just as it died, Ashpaw fell, clutching the dead rodent to himself.  Branches snapped in his face.  He slammed into a lower branch.  For a moment the ground was the sky and the sky was the earth, and then he fell into a dense clump of bracken.  The brittle branches cracked around him as he started to fall.  There was a dip in the ground…

Ashpaw went rolling down into the ditch.  For a moment he saw the cloudy sky and showering earth, and then he blacked out.

Chapter Eleven: Fernpaw

Fernpaw heard the crashing bracken long before she saw what had happened.  Pausing in her tracks, one white ear swiveled.  The hunting patrol kept moving.

“Keep up!” snapped Duskbranch.  The foul-tempered tom glared at her with his sparking amber eyes.

“Sorry, sorry,” Fernpaw said quickly.  “I just…”

What was that in the bushes? Prey? A falling branch? She met Duskbranch’s gaze.  “I have to make dirt,” she lied.  “I’ll catch up.”

“Make it quick,” Duskbranch grumbled.  He flicked his tail violently and then trotted on to join Pinestream and Shardwing.  Fernpaw waited for them to go out of sight beyond a thick grove of bushes, and then she whirled and raced towards the noise.

Slow down, you’ll scare off whatever it is!

Decelerating down to a crouch, she snuck forward quietly, her white fur pressed smoothly to her sides.  Making sure she didn’t trod on a leaf or a dead twig, she slid through the row of bushes.

A steep ditch yawned below her.  Her blue eyes widened.  In a pile of bracken and leaves, a small gray cat lay sprawled out with a dead squirrel on his chest.

Her heartbeat gave a violent systole as she took in the sight.  She recognized the cat.  “Ashpaw!” she hissed.  Sliding down into the ditch, she gave him a fierce nudge.  Panic bubbled in her chest.  “Ashpaw!” she squeaked, nudging him harder.  He was breathing.  He was going to be all right.  He must just be unconscious.

Shaking her head, Fernpaw bent down and gave his ear a gentle nip. In an instant, Ashpaw rose up out of the ground in a great clatter of bracken and leaves and pine needles.  Gasping, he glanced around wildly.  “Who’s there?” he yelped.  His amber eyes were sparking with disoriented panic.  “What…”

His gaze focused on her, and his mouth slowly opened in a gape.  “You?” he gasped.  “Fernpaw? What? Why…?” “You’re in my territory now, you idiot,” Fernpaw purred.  Her white tail was high, and her blue eyes fizzed with amusement.  Ashpaw sighed.  “I must’ve rolled across the border…” he winced, turning around to nibble at a thorn wedged in his thick gray fur.

“What even happened?” Fernpaw said, giving her tail an amused but befuddled twitch.  Ashpaw was still nibbling at that thorn…

“Here, let me help.” Fernpaw stepped delicately forward and pulled the burr out of his pelt with one claw. 

“Thanks,” Ashpaw grunted in a slightly surly tone.  He met Fernpaw’s gaze and managed a small smile.  Fernpaw smiled back.

“I um…” Ashpaw gave an embarrassed flick of his ears.  “I might’ve been hunting a squirrel in the tree and I kind of… maybe kind of fell…” he winced, twisting around to gaze at his bedraggled gray fur.  He narrowed his eyes and then gave himself a violent shake.  Pine needles flew from his fur.  Fernpaw laughed. “Are you all right?”

“Fine just slightly… achy…” Ashpaw was fidgeting with his paw.  There was a large clump of dirt wedged in between his toes. All the fur along his right side was smushed flat, but on the left it stood straight up.  Fernpaw swallowed down an laugh, but it was too late.  A purr tore from her throat before she could stop it, and she bent over as laughter made her sides tremble.

“Am I really that funny?” snapped Ashpaw, but Fernpaw could tell he was trying to hold back a laugh. “At least the squirrel’s all right,” Fernpaw gasped.  “It landed on all that fuzz!” she nodded at his poofy gray fur, and Ashpaw chuckled.

Fernpaw smiled and shook her fur out as the last giggles died in her stomach.  She glanced at the squirrel.  “Wait… you caught that in a tree?”

“Yup,” Ashpaw said, puffing out his chest proudly.  “I did.”

“Wow.” Fernpaw’s eyes sparkled.  “That’s… really cool!”

“Thanks,” said Ashpaw.  His amber eyes glinted.  “I am most of the time.” “You are what?” “Cool.”

Fernpaw started laughing again at Ashpaw’s quips.  She shook her head and shuffled her paws.  “So… how’s life?” she asked.  Then she caught herself.  “I mean, sorry. I’m too nosy, I forgot.” “Well, it is rather pink,” Ashpaw noted, staring at her face.

“What is?” Fernpaw’s pelt bushed.

“Your nose.”

Fernpaw stared at him for a long moment.  “Don’t make me laugh again,” she purred.  “I think my ribs are broken…”

“Naw,” Ashpaw said.  “They’re not broken.  Maybe rattled a bit, but surely not broken.”  Then he bent over and nibbled at a claw.  “How’s life? Normal.  Boring.” He glanced at the sky.  “Windy. Need I go on?”

Fernpaw flicked an ear.  “No, I think I got the picture.”  Why is he being so friendly? Should I be cautious?
“How about you?” Ashpaw’s voice broke her out of her thoughts.  “How’s life for you?”

Fernpaw swallowed.  “Horrible.” Her blue eyes clouded as she thought of Voidstar and his rule.  Just last night he had threatened to strangle Icystream’s kits if they didn’t shut up.  When Icystream had challenged him, Voidstar had lashed out for her eye.  He had missed and caught her nose, but it had been a warning.  And a bad one.  They had no Medicine Cat to care for Icystream’s injury, or Swiftriver’s.  Fernpaw swallowed hard.

“Why is it terrible?” Ashpaw asked.  “Is everything all right?”

Is he concerned? Why?

“It’s not all right,” Fernpaw muttered, curling her tail around herself tightly.  The wind suddenly seemed cold and unforgiving, not warm and inviting. 

Ashpaw came closer and looked at her.  “Did… did you lose someone? Because if you did, I know how that is.”

Fernpaw glanced at him, her eyes misty.  “No,” she choked out.  “But I could.  Voidstar’s evil.  He threatens to kill cats that don’t obey him.”

Ashpaw’s eyes widened.  “Whoa,” he said.  “I mean, I had heard Rainstar talk about how he hasn’t been coming to the Gatherings every half moon, but I didn’t know why.” “He thinks other Clans are a bother,” Fernpaw muttered.  “And other cats.”

Ashpaw reached out with his tail and rested it gently on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry,” he murmured.  “Really, I am.”

Fernpaw swallowed hard.  She was only able to manage a nod.  “Thanks,” she muttered.

Suddenly a stern, angry meow rang through the trees.  “Fernpaw!” it was Duskbranch.  Fernpaw tensed.  She leaped to her paws.  “You had better go,” she hissed.  “That’s Duskbranch, and he’s not exactly the most pleasant cat around.”

“All right.” Ashpaw rose to his paws.  Just before Fernpaw turned, he glanced at her.  “Moonhigh tonight,” he said. “What?” Fernpaw’s ears pricked.

“Meet me here at moonhigh tonight,” he said, snatching up the squirrel.  “We can talk more.”

“I… I’ll try.” Her heartbeat thudded.  Ashpaw wants to see me? He really wants to see me?  She smiled.  “I will.”  As the sound of pawsteps thudded closer, she tensed and said “Duskbranch will wonder why I was gone so long,” she hissed.

Ashpaw glanced down at the squirrel, but then he trotted forward and dropped it at her feet.  “Keep it,” he said with a grunt.

“Ashpaw… what? But…”

“Just keep it!” Ashpaw hissed.  He smiled in a cocky way.  “Tell Duskbranch you caught it.  That’ll wipe the angry look off of his face.”

Fernpaw smiled at him.  “Thank you,” she whispered, brushing her nose against his cheek.  Ashpaw purred.  Then he whipped around and raced out of the ditch, scrambling up the side and into WolfClan territory.  Fernpaw stared after him for a moment longer, but then she snatched up the squirrel.  With her blue eyes glimmering, she burst through the bushes.  She couldn’t wait to see Duskbranch’s smug, stupid face when he saw the squirrel.

And I can’t wait to see Ashpaw tonight.

Chapter Twelve: Ezra

Ezra’s green eyes shot open.  Pain burned through every muscle in his body.  The area around him was blurred.  What had happened? Where was he?

He struggled to remember through a haze of pain and confusion.  But then he did.  Jigsaw! The chase!

He struggled to his paws, biting back a pained mew as he rose.  Then his line of vision focused, and he froze.  Panic shot through every strand of hair on his pelt, making them stand on end.

He wasn’t in his neighborhood anymore.

Towering trees sang in the wind above his head.  Dirt sang with life beneath his paws.

Panic sang with fear in Ezra’s chest.

I’m in the forest!

Ezra backed away.  He had never been so terrified in his life.  Every tree looked the same, every path looked identical.  The forest stretched on forever.  There were so many weird smells and noises and movements.  A tiny whimper bubbled in his throat. 

I’m dead, I’m so dead.  The wildcats are going to find me.  They’re going to eat me…

Breathing hard, Ezra shut his eyes.  Maybe he would open them and this nightmare would be over…

His eyes popped open.  No, this nightmare was real.  As real as the whiskers on his cheeks.  A yowl bubbled in his throat.

No, no! Don’t make a sound, they’ll hear you!

A bush to his left crackled.  Ezra froze, a hiss on his lips.  What was that? A wildcat?

It’s just the wind, you doofus.  Don’t freak out…

But he was freaking out.  He was more freaked out then he had ever been in his entire life.  He had to be more freaked out then anything ever…

A tree somewhere in the forest groaned.  Ezra shot forward, instinct making his pelt fizz and his muscles leap into action.  He dove for a small, droopy bush and crouched there in its branches, panting, breathing hard.  He was trembling violently from fear.  He had to get home, he had to…

 Maybe I can find my way back.  Then Jigsaw will pay.  So will Dinah.

His throat closed up.  But what if I never see my housefolk again? Or June? Or anybody?

No.  I will find my way back.  I’ll just be careful.

He slid out from underneath the bush, the branches making his pelt slick to his sides.  Glancing around with wide eyes, he slowly, cautiously stepped out. 

But what if I run into a wildcat? Or a fox? Or a wolf? He shuddered.  “Stop being such a scaredy-cat,” he hissed out loud.  “I’m fine, and I’m going to be fine.”

But he didn’t know that.

Ezra walked for what seemed like hours.  The shadows lengthened, and the sun rose higher and higher in the sky.  He swallowed hard and kept walking.  His legs were still trembling.

What if I’m just going in circles? What if…

A strange scent washed over Ezra’s nose.  He froze, his fur standing on end.  It smelled like… fish?

A heartbeat later, four sleek shapes flooded from the bushes and into the clearing.  Ezra yelped and backed away.  The creature in the lead stopped in his tracks and stared at him, his amber eyes widening. 

Ezra panted.  Wildcats! No, no no I’m dead…

“Well, well, well,” the lead cat snarled.  Muscles rippled under his sleek brown pelt.  “What do we have here?” “It’s a kit!” the second cat hissed.  It was a female with reddish-brown fur.  She chuckled and bent over to look at Ezra.  “Aw, are you lost?”

“You’re smart, figure it out!” Ezra snapped without thinking.  Then he flattened his ears as the female curled her lip.  Uh-oh.

“Feisty one, are we?” she hissed.  “What should be do with it, Duskbranch?” Duskbranch? Despite his fear, Ezra couldn’t help but notice what a weird name that was. 

“We should kill it and move on,” Duskbranch said gruffly.

“No!” yelped a voice.  A small white cat that looked a bit older than Ezra shoved her way forward and glared at Duskbranch.  “We can’t! He’s just a kit!”

“Stand down apprentice,” hissed the rusty-colored female.

“No,” Fernpaw snarled, her gaze defiant.

“Excuse me?” Ezra saw the she-cat’s claws slide out.  She looked about ready to fly at the young white cat.

 Ezra swallowed.  Maybe he could back away while they weren’t looking…

But then Duskbranch shoved his way between the two.  “Enough!” he snapped at them.  “We won’t kill it; we’ll just take it back to Voidstar.”

A shiver tracked down Ezra’s spine.  Voidstar? Who is that?

“Fernpaw is right,” said a lanky male with a glance at the white cat.  “Let’s leave it alone.”

“No, we’ll take it to Voidstar,” hissed Duskbranch.  “Right, Pinestream?” he nudged the russet she-cat.  Pinestream’s eyes narrowed.  “Oh yes,” she growled softly, digging her claws into the wet earth.

“But you know that Voidstar will just kill him,” the lanky male growled.  “Besides, I’m the deputy of this Clan.  We are not taking it to Voidstar.”

“But who did Voidstar say was in charge of this patrol?” Duskbranch hissed.  He got up in the lanky tom’s face.  “Me! And I’m saying that we take it back to camp.”

The lanky tom flattened his ears.  For a second he hesitated, but then he sighed.  “Fine,” he muttered.

“What?” the little white cat spluttered.

No! Wailed Ezra’s mind.  Hissing defiantly, he backed away.  “Get away,” he snarled.  “You can’t touch me! Do you know who I am?” “I think that you’re our prisoner,” Duskbranch chuckled, giving Ezra a hard shove. Ezra tumbled forward.  Lying on his stomach, he glanced fearfully up into the tom’s sparkling amber eyes.  “Please don’t eat me,” he pleaded.

“We might, if you don’t shut up,” Duskbranch hissed.  “Now get to your paws and start moving.”

Ezra’s claws came out.  Should he fight? Should he run? Stars, these cats were worse than Jigsaw and Dinah!  He scrambled to his paws and glanced at the cats.  He met the white she-cat’s blue eyes.  She seemed friendly enough.  “I just want to go back home,” whimpered Ezra.  “I didn’t know that I was on your land.”

Duskbranch snarled.  “I said shut up!” he hissed. 

The white she-cat glanced at Duskbranch.  “Be nice,” she growled.

Duskbranch tossed his head.  “I don’t take advice from puny apprentices like you,” he spat. 

The white she-cat tossed her head.  “Did you forget that this ‘puny apprentice’ was the one who caught the biggest piece of prey?” she snipped at him.

Duskbranch’s ears flattened.  “I’ve caught squirrels bigger than yours,” he hissed.  “In a tree.”

“I doubt that,” the white cat growled back, her blue eyes narrowed.

Pinestream shoved her way between them.  “Listen, this argument is very cute and touching, but we need to get moving,” she snapped.  “Now let’s go.”

Ezra found himself being shuffled in line behind Duskbranch and in front of Pinestream.  He glanced around for an escape.  There was none.  Ezra was trapped by the wildcats that had haunted his dreams for many moons, and now his future looked hopelessly dark.

****

After stopping to pick up a pile of dead animals (the wildcats called it their ‘prey,’) they changed course and started moving east.  The little white she-cat carried a squirrel in her mouth, (which had obviously been the catch she was bragging about) and Ezra couldn’t help but notice the sour, jealous looks that Duskbranch was giving the large hunk of prey.  Ezra’s fear climaxed farther the more they walked.  Where were they taking him? Was he going to die?

They came to a large stream that rushed through the woods.  Ezra halted, his fur bushing as Duskbranch waded into the water.  Did he have to cross? “Move it, fuzzball,” hissed Pinestream in his ear.  She gave him an aggressive shove, and before Ezra could stop himself he blundered into the water.  Ezra gasped as the cold, wet substance leaked through his fur.  He tried to find his footing, but it was carrying him away.  Where was the surface? Was it up or down? Was the stream carrying him away? He was going to drown!

His panic subsided, though, as a muzzle nosed him gently to the surface.  Ezra took in great gulps of air as it flooded into his mouth.  The white she-cat stood there, keeping him above water.  “It’s all right,” she soothed.  “Relax.” “I hate water!” Ezra spluttered indignantly. The she-cat purred.  “Most cats do,” she murmured.  “Just move your legs as though you were walking, and I’ll help you to the shore.”

As the white cat nosed him to the pebbly bank, Ezra flattened his ears.  Great.  Now he was captured, scared and wet.  His paws brushed against the shore, and he crawled out, water streaming off of his soaked black and white pelt.  He shook out his fur impatiently, showering glistening droplets everywhere.  The white cat emerged after him, giving him a tiny smile.  “There!” she said.

The three cats that had walked with them were already moving on ahead and towards a small grove of bushes.  Ezra paused and glared at the white she-cat.  “Listen, I don’t know who you think you are, but please let me go!” his green eyes were wide and fearful. 

The she-cat gazed at him.  “I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I would get in trouble if I helped you escape.”

Dread coursed through Ezra.  “I…” he swallowed and blinked, flicking one ear.  “Are you going to eat me?”

“Eat you?” she yelped.  “StarClan no! Why would be want to eat you?”

“There were rumors,” Ezra muttered.  “That the wildcats ate trespassers.”

“That’s just dumb,” snapped the white cat.  “And unhonorable,” she added with a flick of her tail.

“That’s good,” Ezra breathed.  “I’m glad to hear that.” Some of the fear left him at her words.

The she-cat glanced ahead.  “We need to get up to camp,” she said suddenly.  “I’m Fernpaw, by the way… who are you?” “Ezra,” he muttered.  Then, with a flick of his tail he gave her a glare.  “But why does it matter to you? You’re all savages.” He lowered his gaze so he wouldn’t see Fernpaw’s hurt look.  “Well, maybe you aren’t,” he muttered.  “But the others are.”

Fernpaw was silent.  She nudged him gently.  “Come on,” she muttered.  “Let’s go see what Voidstar has to say.  I’ll do my best to make sure you’re safe, though.”

Ezra’s eyes widened as he padded into the camp.  There were so many strange cats and strange smells.  Dens were carved into the stone and woven by reeds and stalks of cattails.  A large, fallen tree was draped across the camp.  As Ezra and Fernpaw entered, most of the cats paused what they were doing to stare.  Ezra pressed himself closer to Fernpaw, and she put a tail protectively on his shoulder.

“Ah, so here is the prisoner!” A large tabby with amber eyes emerged from a den way up in one of the stone cliffs and trotted across the trunk.  He stopped, his long, twitching tail draped over the edge of the fallen tree and his gleaming eyes staring right at Ezra. A smirk was etched into his face.

“Yes, Voidstar,” Duskbranch growled.  “He was found while we were on hunting patrol.”

“He’s just a kit!” cried a tom with tan fur and black spots.  He came forward to sniff Ezra, but he shrank back with a shudder.

“Bring him up here!” The massive cat, Voidstar called.  Ezra gulped nervously as Fernpaw nudged him gently forward.  The sun cast a large, black shadow from the fallen tree to the ground.  Ezra crouched beneath Voidstar’s malevolent amber gaze with a shudder.

“Young kit, do you know what happens when you enter RippleClan territory?” Spat Voidstar.  Ezra opened his mouth.  “Um… something bad I’m guessing,” he said boldly.

“We kill you!” Voidstar shrieked, his eyes foaming with anger.  He leaped elegantly off of the trunk and encircled Ezra, his lips drawing up over his fangs and his claws ticking against the earth.  Ezra scrambled backwards, but bumped into Fernpaw.  His fur bushing along his spine he crouched close to the earth, panting. Panic bubbled in him.  This is it, this is it!

Voidstar stopped pacing around Ezra and flicked his gaze to Pinestream and Duskbranch.  “Put this pathetic child in a den and have him starve to death,” he snarled.  “But first, give him a beating he won’t forget.”

Ezra squealed and dove under Fernpaw’s belly as Voidstar snatched him up by his spine and tossed him aggressively to the ground.  Ezra hit it hard, dust coating his black and white fur.  He struggled to rise, but Pinestream shot forward and slammed a paw into his head.  “No!” Fernpaw wailed.  “Leave him alone!”

Pain fizzed through Ezra’s head.  Twisting away from Pinestream’s claws, he leaped to his feet, claws flashing and started to pelt away.  His tail bushing violently, Ezra tried to make a run for it…

He slammed into musky brown fur.  Duskbranch’s snarling face glared down at him.  Claws flashed in the corner of his eye.  Ezra dove under Duskbranch’s belly, narrowly avoiding his claws. 

Something slammed hard into his side.  Pinestream’s russet fur made him choke.  Searing, excruciating pain ripped through his leg.  Ezra wailed and curled in a tight ball.  The smell of blood was in the air.

Then Pinestream rose off of him, licking the blood off of her claws.  Ezra rose to his feet, coughing violently.  His vison was blurred with pain.  Red blood clotted the fur on his side.  He was bleeding.

Exhausted pain wavered in the back of his mind.  The evil chuckles of Duskbranch and Pinestream echoed faintly in his ears.  He whimpered and crouched on the ground, shivering, his tail clamped tightly between his legs like a dog.  Pain throbbed in his side.

Voidstar’s amber eyes gleamed.  “This is what happens when you trespass,” he hissed.  Ezra met Voidstar’s gaze defiantly.  “Well, I’ll know for next time,” he muttered weakly.

“Oh, I don’t think there’ll be a next time,” Voidstar smirked.  “Take him away and put him in a den.”

Ezra’s vision blurred.  He started to collapse.  White fur flashed in his peripheral vision.  “I’ve got you,” Fernpaw’s quiet voice murmured in his ear.  Ezra’s vison wavered once, then twice, faded to gray and then dimmed to black.


Chapter Thirteen: Fernpaw

“Please don’t hurt him!” Wailed Fernpaw as Pinestream snatched Ezra aggressively by his scruff and dragged him unceremoniously across the clearing towards the old Medicine Cat den.  Duskbranch smirked at Fernpaw as he stalked past. “Oh, don’t worry, we will,” he hissed.

Cold fear and anger flooded through Fernpaw’s body.  These cats are evil!

Turning around, she spotted Hareclaw.  Her mentor stood there, his green gaze full of shocked anger.  Fernpaw swallowed hard and raced to her mentor.  Burying her head in his brown-gray fur, she whispered “Hareclaw, you can’t let them hurt him!”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Hareclaw murmured back sadly.  “I’m sorry Fernpaw.”

Fernpaw shut her eyes and let out a plaintive mew of grief, kneading her paws against the hard earth.  Over to the side, Sandflash, Herbsong and Finsplash all had the same look in their eyes as Hareclaw.

Voidstar’s cruel chuckle rang across the clearing.  “Throw him in the den and let him starve to death,” the leader hissed.  Ezra’s unconscious body flopped motionlessly in Pinestream’s jaws.  Fernpaw’s blue eyes narrowed.  “I told Ezra that I wouldn’t let them hurt him,” she whispered.  “He didn’t deserve this.”

Hareclaw sighed, and the tiny movement made Fernpaw’s ears twitch.  “I’m so sorry, Fernpaw.  There’s nothing we can do.”

Fernpaw raised her blue gaze to Hareclaw’s face.  “Could… could you talk to Shardwing?” she asked hopefully.  Maybe the deputy could convince Voidstar to let Ezra go free…

But Hareclaw was shaking his head.  “Voidstar wouldn’t listen to Shardwing, you know that.”

“Yeah,” Fernpaw mewed grudgingly.  Giving her tail a furious twitch she leaned into her mentor’s side and shut her eyes in helpless anger.  Poor Ezra…

The day wore on.  Pinestream and Emberwater were guarding Ezra’s den, their faces stony.  Fernpaw glanced down at the half-eaten squirrel under her paws.  She couldn’t eat… not after what happened with Ezra.  That wasn’t a punishment; that was pure brutality.

She glanced towards Ezra’s den.  The little black and white cat had woken up, but he had barely moved.  It was clear that his injured side was bothering him.  Fernpaw sighed down at the squirrel.  Maybe she could bring it to Ezra…

Scooping it up in her jaws, she tentatively dragged it over to the den.  She gulped as she gazed up into Pinestream’s cold eyes.  “What is this?” the russet warrior growled.

Fernpaw dropped the squirrel.  “Um… it’s food for the prisoner.”

Emberwater raised a quizzical eye-muscle, and Pinestream snarled.  “Voidstar wants the prisoner to starve,” she hissed.  “You will not be giving it the squirrel.”

His name is Ezra,” Fernpaw growled, her fur starting to prick. 

“I don’t care what its name is,” Pinestream shot back.  “Now get moving.” “It’s unhonorable,” Fernpaw hissed through gritted fangs.

“What was that?” Pinestream’s piercing eyes glowered on Fernpaw.

“Nothing,” Fernpaw growled, trying to keep herself under control.  She couldn’t get angry…

Snatching the squirrel up and throwing the two warriors a cold look, she trotted back across the camp.  Being the only apprentice was so boring.  She wished that she had a brother or a sister to hang out with.

Thankfully she was going to see Ashpaw tonight.  Fernpaw brightened a bit.  As she laid down in the waning sunlight she glanced back towards Ezra’s den.  Then her eyes glimmered.  A slow smile pricked at the corners of her mouth.  She had a plan…

“This is too far, Voidstar,” came a hiss from across the camp.  Fernpaw rotated her head slightly.  Shardwing and Voidstar were in the corner of the camp talking in low, angry tones.  Voidstar’s eyes were glinting with malevolent anger, and Shardwing’s fur was all fluffed up in agitation.  “He’s just a kit.  I won’t stand for…” “I am your leader, Shardwing,” Voidstar snarled, his voice starting to rise.  “And what I say goes.  And I SAY that the kit DIES.”

Fernpaw felt a shudder slither down her spine.  She didn’t think she had ever heard her leader sound so angry.

“No,” Shardwing snarled, rising to his paws.  “I won’t stand for this.  You are an evil, unhonorable cat.  I’m tired of you disrespecting the warrior code and StarClan.  You are not fit to be our leader.”

Voidstar’s eyes were cold.  “Then you are not fit to be deputy.”

Fernpaw’s heart gave a threatening pulse.

Every nerve in her body gave a violent fizz as Voidstar lunged for Shardwing’s throat.  Yowls filled the clearing, and Shardwing’s shocked, pained shriek ripped through the air.  Blood spurted from Shardwing’s neck as Voidstar sank his claws in deep, ripping across the tabby tom’s throat.  Fernpaw backed away, her pelt bushing in wild fear as Voidstar threw Shardwing to the side.  The deputy staggered, blood pouring from his throat and foaming in his mouth.  His golden eyes were glazed with fear and pain.  Voidstar took a step forward, blood glistening on his claws.  “Here’s my law,” he spat.  “StarClan does not exist.  The ‘warrior code’ does not exist.  I am leader of this Clan, Shardwing.” He raised his voice to a yowl.  “Let this be a warning to all cats! Any cat who threatens me dies, just like this fool.”

Shardwing staggered, his eyes glaring with anger and pain.  Then he gave one last weak step forward and tumbled onto his blood-soaked side.  A red wave crashed up where the deputy landed.

Fernpaw gaped in shock.  Shardwing was dead.

Voidstar stepped over, calmly kicked Shardwing’s body aside and said unceremoniously “Duskbranch is the new deputy.”

Fernpaw gaped at Shardwing’s dead body, and felt a low moan rising in her throat.  Fear gaped inside of her like a hole.  She had never seen a dead cat before.  She had never wanted to see a dead cat.  Now she was seeing one and it was Shardwing.  Shardwing!

“Voidstar!” Pinestream’s choked cry rang through the clearing.  “What have you done?”

Voidstar smirked.  “I have done what is right!” he cried with a malignant smirk.  “Or what is wrong, depending on your point of view.” He licked his paw calmly, as though nothing had happened.

Sandflash’s enraged yowl split the air.  “That was my brother!” he roared, eyes blazing.  “You killed him!”

“I did,” Voidstar said calmly.

Fernpaw mewled helplessly and buried her head in her paws.  She didn’t want to look at Shardwing’s broken, bloody body any longer.

There was a whirlwind of pale fur, and Sandflash was crouched beside his dead brother, his eyes shut it grief and his body shaking.  He raised his eyes to look at Voidstar.  “What have you done,” he gasped.

“I already told you what I did,” snapped Voidstar.  “Shardwing was a traitor.”

Icystream was ushering her kits into the nursery, her eyes wide.  Otterkit’s inquisitive mew rang through the clearing.  “Mommy, what happened to uncle Shardwing? Why is he all red?”

“Why is he lying down?” squeaked Billowkit. 

Icystream didn’t answer.  She just kept bundling her kits into the den, her ears pressed firmly back against her skull.

Fernpaw backed away and bumped into Swiftriver.  Her mother’s gaze was icy with fear and anger.  “Mom,” Fernpaw choked out, burying her head in her mother’s silver-white fur.  Darkpebble came up beside him, his expression unreadable.

Across the camp, Herbsong, Greensky and Finsplash were all gaping.  Hareclaw’s fur was bushed out.  Rowanrain and Dropfall were both huddled together against the wall, their eyes wide.

Swiftriver’s voice came quietly to Fernpaw’s ears.  “Come on; let’s go to your den.”

Fernpaw nodded, her brain muggy and clouded.  Hareclaw and Darkpebble followed behind Fernpaw and her mother as they entered the apprentice’s den.

Once they were safely inside, Fernpaw let out a tiny wail.  “Why?” she gasped.  “Why would he do that?”

“Shhh,” Darkpebble hissed.  “You need to be calm, Fernpaw.” “Calm?” Fernpaw spat at her father.  “How can I be calm? Shardwing is dead, Ezra is trapped and injured in the Medicine Cat den, and you’re telling me to be calm!?” her blue gaze was sparking.

“Yes,” Darkpebble said.  “For your safety.”

“Safety?” Fernpaw backed away.  “Now you’re telling me that I’m not even safe in my own Clan?” her heartbeat hammered loudly in her ears.  “Shardwing is dead, and you’re acting like it’s no big deal!”

“Fernpaw,” Swiftriver said softly, her eyes sad.

Hareclaw’s fur brushed against Fernpaw’s pelt.  She looked up into his green eyes.  “Hey,” he said softly.  “We are very, very upset about what happened.  That’s why we need you to be safe.”

“Should we run away?” Fernpaw whispered.  “We could take Ezra with us and go!”

But then what about Ashpaw?

Darkpebble and Swiftriver exchanged a glance.  “Fernpaw, we can’t run away.  Our loyalty is to RippleClan.” “But look at what RippleClan has become,” Fernpaw hissed.  “It’s not a safe place anymore.  I’m scared.” Her throat tightened, and Hareclaw licked her head gently.  “We all are,” he said gently.  “But admitting it like you did means you’re braver than most.”

Fernpaw leaned into Hareclaw’s side, shutting her eyes.  She couldn’t wait until tonight when she would meet Ashpaw.

And take Ezra with her.

****

The moon rose in the sky like a great bowl of milk.  It beamed down on RippleClan’s camp, rippling across the dark water of the stream.

The cats in the camp were asleep.  Voidstar was in his den, Icystream and her kits were all bundled up in the nursery, and the warriors were all crowded in the warrior’s den. 

There was just one problem… Duskbranch.  RippleClan’s new deputy was guarding the camp exit.  It would be really hard to sneak out; thankfully she had a way.

Fernpaw swallowed, glancing towards the Medicine Cat den.  Ezra was still in there, tied up against the wall with vines.  There was a thick wall of thorns covering the entrance so Ezra wouldn’t escape.  Fernpaw snuck around the back wall behind the thick line of bushes and shrubbery.  She tread lightly on her paws, making sure that she didn’t step on any twigs or leaves.  She glanced at the back wall of the Medicine Cat’s den, which was woven tightly with brambles and vines.  Fernpaw, keeping low to the ground, came up upon the wall.  Unsheathing her claws, she glanced all up and down the wall, checking for weak points in the thickly woven undergrowth.

There. Barely visible in the dark night was a tiny hole in the den wall.  Working with feverish haste, Fernpaw reached up with her claws and gently tore at the thick wall.  The stick that didn’t quite weave in right came loose with ease.  With a crack it came tumbling free, and Fernpaw winced at the loud sound that rang through the clearing.  She froze, all her fur bushing.  Maybe Duskbranch wouldn’t have heard it…

After a few heartbeats, she relaxed.  No one had come around to see what had made the noise.  Fernpaw continued to tear at the wall.  Panic rose inside of her as the moments drew on.  What if someone found her? What would she say? Would she be killed?  She started to work faster, and blood dripped down her paws where the thick brambles had cut her pads.  She ignored the stinging pain and continued to claw at the wall.

Finally there was a hole big enough for her to crawl through. Fernpaw silently stepped through the gaping hole in the den wall.  The smell of old, stale herbs washed up her nose.  The Medicine Cat den still smelled like a Medicine Cat den, even if it was abandoned.  She tumbled through the hole and onto the hard dirt floor, leaving the den walls trembling precariously.

Ezra’s emerald-green eyes were wide as he stared at her, and filled with hope.  Fernpaw rushed over to Ezra and examined the vines that were wound tightly around the black and white kittypet.  “Hold on,” she hissed in the damp gloom. 

Ezra’s eyes sparked.  “Is this a rescue?” he asked hopefully.

Fernpaw managed a grin.  “You bet.”

Now Ezra’s eyes were full of excitement.  Fernpaw studied the vines.  They were thick, and would be hard to get off, but Fernpaw knew she could do it.  She lifted one bleeding paw and tugged at a thick vine wrapped around his waist and woven into the wall.  It wouldn’t budge.  She bent over and bit at it, but it only made her teeth ache.  Shaking her head, Fernpaw narrowed her eyes.  In the dark she could see that the vines were woven into the wall.  Maybe she could tear at the wall instead…

With a sigh, she reluctantly started to pull at the brambles.  Her paws sang with pain, and red droplets of blood splattered against her white fur.  One especially thick thorn stabbed into her paw.  Blood gushed from it, but Fernpaw gritted her teeth together and kept tearing.  Finally it came free, and Fernpaw flew backwards, slamming against the wall.  She clutched her injured, bleeding paw to her chest and turned to Ezra, who was shaking the vines free.  “Come on, let’s get you out of here,” she hissed.

Ezra’s gaze sparked.  “Do you know the way to my neighborhood?” he asked hopefully.  Fernpaw knew he meant the Twolegplace.  She blinked.  “I should,” she hissed.  “But if I don’t, maybe someone else will.” “Someone else?” Ezra echoed in the dark.

“I’ll explain on the way.  For now we need to move.”  Fernpaw gave a hurried glance towards the hole she had made.  “Follow me,” she hissed.  Ezra nodded, but then he stopped.  “Wait,” he muttered, glancing back at his side.  It was crusted with dried blood.  “I don’t know if I can walk.”

Fernpaw sighed.  “Right,” she muttered under her breath.  She hadn’t thought of that.  Then she narrowed her eyes.  “Ezra, do you want to get out of here?”

“Yes!” he squeaked quietly.  “More than anything!”

“Then you’re going to have to be brave,” Fernpaw hissed.  “Do you understand? You’ll have to live through the pain, but I know you can do it… because you’re strong.”

Ezra’s green eyes glowed in the gloomy den.  “All- all right,” he said hesitantly.  “I think I can.”

“Are you sure?” Fernpaw gazed into his face.  Blue eyes met green. 

Ezra nodded.  “Positive.”

Fernpaw smiled.  “Then come on.” She turned and leaped through the hole and into the cover of the bushes.  She glanced back.  Ezra was limping forward, grimacing with every step he took.  Then he bunched his muscles and leaped through the hole.  He tumbled into the bushes with a deafening crack!

“What was that?” barked Duskbranch’s voice.  “Who’s there?”

“We have to move,” Fernpaw hissed, giving Ezra a hard shove.  “Go, go! If he sees us, we’re dead.”

Ezra’s fur bushed in panic, and he shot forward after Fernpaw through the bushes.  Fernpaw’s gaze was blurred with feverish terror.  She could hear Duskbranch coming…

Fernpaw suddenly halted, and Ezra slammed into her.  “Why did we stop?” cried Ezra.

Fernpaw turned and looked at him.  “Listen closely,” she hissed.  “Duskbranch is coming this way, and he’s leaving the camp exit unguarded.  While he’s coming this way, we’ll slip out.  Do you understand? But we need to be quiet.”

Ezra nodded, the white fur on his face glowing in the moonlight. “I understand.” His voice wavered a bit.

Fernpaw smiled briefly.  “Good,” she said.  “We’ll sneak around through the bushes.” Duskbranch was glancing around now- Fernpaw could see his brown pelt through the bushes.  She shot forward through the bushes with Ezra on her tail.  Waiting until Fernpaw was glancing the other way she raced as fast as she could out of the bushes, around the Medicine Cat den and towards the exit.  Hope soared in her.  We’re going to make it!
Fernpaw shot through the hanging lichen that was growing there, Ezra right behind her.

“We did it!” Ezra cried, his tail high.

“It’s not over yet,” Fernpaw said stiffly, gazing ahead towards the stream.  “We still have to cross.” “Oh,” Ezra said, halting on the pebbly bank, his fur bushing.  The black water glowed silver in the moonlight.  Fernpaw heard Ezra gulp.  “We have to cross?” he whispered in a trembling voice.  “In the dark?”

“Yes,” Fernpaw said firmly.  “It’s the only way out.”

Ezra was trembling as he gazed into the water.

“It’s all right,” Fernpaw said quietly.  “I’ve got you.”

Taking a deep breath, Ezra slid into the water.  Fernpaw heard him let out a tiny mew of fear as the water brushed against his pelt.  Fernpaw skimmed into the water after him, nosing him along with her muzzle against his side.  “Just keep going,” Fernpaw said.  “You’re doing great!” They finally reached the other side.  Ezra leaped out, shaking his fur out violently.  Fernpaw laughed.  “We did it!” she cried.  “We escaped!”

Ezra laughed. “Heck yeah we did!” he cried.

Fernpaw purred.  “Let’s go!” she said.

“Wait,” Ezra said.  “Who is this ‘other cat’ that you said could help us?”

“He’s my friend,” Fernpaw said.  “His name is Ashpaw.  He’s WolfClan.”

“WolfClan?” Ezra squeaked.  “There are more Clans?” he paused.  “Is he nice?” “Very,” Fernpaw said.  Then she gave him a nudge.  “Now come on! Let’s get out of here.” She put on a burst of speed, Ezra limping after her, then both cats disappeared into the moonlit forest.

Chapter Fourteen: Ashpaw

Ashpaw leaped through the pine forest towards the RippleClan border.  Getting out of camp for him had been easy; he just hoped it had been the same for Fernpaw.

What if she decides not to meet me? Was that stupid of me to ask her? What if she was caught? His heart hammered violently in his chest.  He still couldn’t believe that he had made friends with that RippleClan cat.  RippleClan was his enemy!

“But she’s different,” he told himself aloud.  “She’s a good cat.”  He shook his head and pelted faster.  What if she was already at the border? What if she missed him? I need to stop worrying, he thought.  The hoot of an owl made his fur prick.  What if an owl caught him? Or he ran into some other ferocious cat-eating beast? Like a wolf?

As though to echo his thoughts, the distant, melancholy howl of a wolf rang through the pine trees, making Ashpaw shiver.  He put on a burst of speed.  He had to get to the border…

He had WolfClan territory memorized by now.  He knew a lot of the trees by heart, and he had even named some of them.   RippleClan border is just past Burnt Pine, he thought.  And I should remember the tree that I climbed…

The fishy smell of RippleClan invaded his nose.  He blinked water from his eyes.  Yeah, the RippleClan border was definitely close!

He skidded to a halt.  A wave of brown pine needles showered up over his head.  He glanced down into the yawning ditch.  He was one hundred percent not going to fall in again.

“Ashpaw!” came a cry.  “Over here!” On the other side of the border stood Fernpaw, and next to her sat a small, skinny black-and-white kit.

Who is that? Ashpaw thought, narrowing his eyes.  Then, shaking his head he slid slowly into the ditch, and then scrambled out with his claws and hauled himself up by Fernpaw and the black-and-white kit.  He couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t smell like RippleClan…

“Fernpaw,” he growled brusquely.  “Who’s this? I thought you were coming alone!”

“That was the plan,” said Fernpaw with a glance at the kit.  “But then things got complicated.  Ashpaw, this is Ezra.  Ezra, this is Ashpaw.”

“Hi,” the little cat squeaked.

Ashpaw narrowed his eyes.  “’Ezra?’” he said scornfully.  “That’s not a RippleClan name.  Or at least, I don’t think it is.” 

“He’s not RippleClan,” Fernpaw said quickly.  “He’s a kittypet.” “Kittypet?” coughed Ashpaw.  “Fernpaw, what are you doing with a kittypet?

“Keep your fur on, let me explain,” Fernpaw snapped.  “Just after I finished talking to you and rejoined my patrol, we ran into this guy.  He was knocked out by some bully and left in the forest to die.” She flicked an ear.  “We found him.  Duskbranch, the mean one, wanted to kill him, but we decided to take him back to camp. Voidstar had him beaten and thrown in a den to starve.  I didn’t stand for it, so I broke him out and brought him here.”  She nudged Ezra.  “Show Ashpaw your wound.” Ezra nodded, rose to his paws and turned his left side to Ashpaw.  Ashpaw’s eyes widened as he saw the deep, red gash that gaped in his side.  There was dried blood all over his fur.  “Whoa,” he breathed.  “That’s harsh.”

“Yeah,” Ezra said.  He had a cocky, bold voice. “They ripped me up pretty bad.” He met Ashpaw’s eyes.  “Fernpaw said that you could help us find my neighborhood.”

“Neighborhood?” Ashpaw shot a quizzical glance at Fernpaw.

“The Twolegplace,” Fernpaw said.  “He wants to go back to his Twolegs.”

“Oh,” Ashpaw said.  His eyes widened.  “Fernpaw, are you crazy? The Twolegplace is a good mile away! It’ll take at least a couple of hours to reach it on paw!”

“But Ezra needs our help,” Fernpaw said, her blue eyes firm.  “He’s a good cat, Ashpaw.”

Ashpaw took a deep breath.  No, no, no… his mind was moaning.  But then Ashpaw glanced into Ezra’s brilliant green, hopeful eyes and sighed.  “Fine,” he muttered.  “But I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this.”

“So you know where it is?” Ezra squeaked, his tail lifting.

“Obviously,” Ashpaw growled.  He shook his fur out.  “Come on, we had better get moving.”

Fernpaw, Ezra and Ashpaw slid into the ditch.  Ashpaw leaped out gracefully, and Fernpaw scrambled out behind him, but Ezra scrabbled desperately at the side.  “Help,” he croaked.  Ashpaw sighed.

“I got you,” Fernpaw said, leaning over and grabbing him by the scruff.  Ashpaw saw her muscles tense and her blue eyes widen with shock as she hauled Ezra over the edge.  “Wow,” she gasped.  “You are really heavy.  What do you eat?”

“Purina One,” Ezra said.

“What?” Ashpaw and Fernpaw said simultaneously.

“My cat kibble,” Ezra said with a purr.  “But you wouldn’t know that.  You eat mice.”

“Eck,” Ashpaw moaned, curling his lip in disgust.  “Cat kibble? It looks like rabbit droppings.”

“Maybe, but it tastes like heaven,” Ezra said solemnly.  “Now are we going or not?”

“Regretfully we’re going,” Ashpaw muttered.  Fernpaw gave him a friendly nudge.  “Cheer up, you bonehead!”

“I’ll try, but I can’t make any promises,” Ashpaw said with a roll of his eyes.  He leaped forward, his feathery tail waving like a gray flag in the air. “Follow me!”

Fernpaw and Ezra bounded after him.  Fernpaw glanced at Ashpaw, her blue eyes bright in the moonlight.  “How do you not get lost in here?” she panted.  “There are so many trees!”

Ashpaw purred.  “If you live here, you start to memorize every tree.” “Really?” Fernpaw’s eyes widened.

“Yeah,” Ashpaw said.  Then he turned back to Ezra.  “You doing all right?” the black and white kit was falling behind.

“Yeah,” Ezra puffed.  “Somewhat.”

Fernpaw fell back to trot alongside him.  “Ashpaw, maybe we should slow down.  Ezra can’t go very fast with his injury.” Ashpaw sighed and slowed to a trot, lessening his pace to walk with Fernpaw and Ezra.  “Make that a day to get there,” he muttered under his breath.

“What?” Fernpaw said.

“Nothing!” Ashpaw said quickly.  “Just musing.”

Fernpaw shrugged, a careless movement of her shoulders.  “All right.”

They walked in silence for a bit.  Well, silent if you exclude Ezra’s constant chattering.  “Whoa, that shadow looks like a cat!” or “whoa, that shadow looks like me!” and then there was Ashpaw “that is your shadow, fuzz-brain!”

Fernpaw barely spoke.  She just glanced at her paws.  When Ashpaw glanced over at her, he couldn’t help but notice that her blue eyes were sad.

“What’s wrong?” Ashpaw whispered, one tufty ear twitching in concern.  Fernpaw sighed.  “Just- something that happened today.”

“Was it bad?” Ashpaw asked.

“Terrible.” Ashpaw saw Fernpaw shudder. 

“What happened?” Ashpaw’s amber eyes were curious and concerned at the same time.

“I… it’s hard to talk about.” Fernpaw looked away. “I understand.” Ashpaw said.  “Like that one day, when I first met you, I didn’t want to tell you why I was so upset.”

Fernpaw glanced at him.  “Why were you upset?” she mewed.

Ashpaw swallowed.  “A tree fell in our camp.  It killed Rayblossom and my sister, Larkwhisker.”

“Oh no,” Fernpaw’s eyes widened.  “I had no idea.” She rested her tail on his shoulder.   “I’m so sorry.”

Ashpaw shrugged her off.  “Meh, it’s fine.  It’s in the past.” Greif clouded his mind.

He heard Fernpaw take in a deep breath.  “Voidstar and our deputy, Shardwing were arguing about what would happen with Ezra,” Fernpaw murmured.  “Shardwing said that Voidstar’s treatment was unfair.  He called Voidstar a coward and a traitor.” She paused and drew in a trembling breath.  “Voidstar leaped for Shardwing and ripped open his throat. There was blood everywhere.  Shardwing died.” She shuddered visibly.  “It was horrible.” “Wow,” Ashpaw breathed.  “Voidstar killed his deputy? That’s… that’s terrible.”  That’s really terrible.  I don’t know what I’d do if Rainstar suddenly murdered Fireblade!

Fernpaw nodded, her eyes clouded with grief.

“Why doesn’t your Clan fight Voidstar?” Ashpaw inquired, flicking his tail. 

Fernpaw quietly shook her head.  “That would never work.  Voidstar has many enemies, but he also has lots of followers.  Too many followers.  If we turned against him, they would kill us.” She shuddered.

Ashpaw was silent for a moment, reminiscing on this thought for a heartbeat, but then he turned to Ezra.  “Did you see it?” he growled.

“No, but I’d believe it,” he said.  “They were savages!”

Fernpaw winced visibly, and Ashpaw twitched an ear. Ezra obviously didn’t notice- he just kept talking.  “Some of them were savages,” he corrected himself.  “I’ll just be happy to get back home.” He shook out his unkempt black-and-white pelt.  Ashpaw rolled his eyes.  “Then we better pick up the pace,” he snapped.  “Let’s go.”

“I’ll try,” Ezra said with a wince, limping forward hurriedly.  He toppled over a large clump of sticks, and fell on his face.  Ashpaw groaned.  Fernpaw fell back to help Ezra right himself, but the black and white kit shrugged her off.  “I’m fine,” he said quickly, flicking one ear.  Ashpaw gritted his fangs.  This is not what I had in mind tonight, he thought grudgingly. 

The moon rose, and so did Ashpaw’s irritation.  It seemed like the more they walked the slower they went.  Ashpaw shot a worried glance at the sky.  They had to reach the Twolegplace within the hour or else he wouldn’t be able to make it back in time.  His ears pricked.  He remembered a shortcut that Gleamwhisker had shown him to get to Pine Rock quicker.  The Twolegplace wasn’t far from that.  Turning around Ashpaw grinned at his companions, making his whiskers stretch and tickle his cheeks.  “Come on, I’ve got a shortcut,” he mewed.  He turned sharply, scattering moonlit pine needles across the ground and leaped across the ground into the dense area of pine trees.  So far they had been following a path, but now the threesome was traveling into the unmapped, wild forest.  Ashpaw swallowed.  He hoped he remembered the way…

They walked for a little while in silence.  Ashpaw hissed as a sharp bramble snagged his pelt.  He shook it off and kept walking, the fur along his spine lifting silently.

“Ashpaw, are you sure you know the way?” Fernpaw growled, her ears lying flat against her skull.

“Yes,” said Ashpaw.  No, his mind muttered at the same time.  He paused and glanced around, his heart hammering against his ribs.  “Uh, I just need to look for a second.” “Are we lost?” Ezra squeaked. 

“No!” Ashpaw snapped.  “We’re just…” Fernpaw groaned.  “Ashpaw, if I don’t make it back in time…” her eyes widened. 

Ashpaw felt fear tickle the fur on his spine.  Would Voidstar rip her open, like he had done to Shardwing?  He couldn’t let that happen.

“Follow me,” Ashpaw said.  “I…” he broke off as a sudden ethereal noise flooded over the trees. It was the eerie, starlit howl of a wolf.  And it was close.

“Run.” Ashpaw growled.

“What is it?” Fernpaw’s blue eyes stretched wide.

“It’s a wolf! Run!” Ashpaw shot forward across the leaves.  He looked back and saw Fernpaw and Ezra skittering after him.  “My leg!” wailed Ezra.  “It hurts!”

Ashpaw halted, turned around and scooped up Ezra by the scruff.  The kitten was heavy.  I can’t believe I’m risking my pelt for a RippleClan apprentice and a kittypet.  He tripped over Ezra’s mottled tail and went sprawling across the ground.

Another howl shook the trees, louder than the first.

“What’s a wolf?” Ezra whimpered, shivering.

“It’s a giant, ferocious dog with lots of teeth and a big appetite!” Ashpaw yelped, quoting the words of one of his elders.  “Can you climb a tree?”

“No,” said Fernpaw and Ezra simultaneously. 

Ashpaw groaned and glanced up at one of the towering pines.  “That’s the only way we’re going to escape the wolf,” he growled.  “If it finds us on the ground, we’re dead.” Ezra whimpered, and Fernpaw slapped a tail over his mouth.  “Shhh!” she warned, her eyes wide.

Fear skittered inside of Ashpaw like a panicked squirrel.  This was so stupid of me.  Why did I come this way? Now we’re lost and about to be eaten by a wolf.

He heard Fernpaw gasp as the earth beneath their paws shuddered.  The thump of pawsteps on earth made the ground quake.  It must be a giant wolf.

“Quick, hide in the bushes!” yelped Ashpaw, turning and delving for a low-hanging bush with whispering leaves.  He crouched beneath the branches, panting with fear and fatigue.  Fernpaw and Ezra emerged after him, pressing themselves close to his pelt.  “Just stay quiet,” Ashpaw hissed.  “Maybe the wolf won’t find us.” They waited for a long moment.  The earth shuddered again beneath their paws, sending vibrations to Ashpaw’s skull.  He tensed, waiting.

The pawsteps were now so close it could be considered an earthquake.  Ashpaw heard the panting breath of the beast somewhere close by.  He shut his eyes, waiting for the end to come.  Maybe this is all just a dream.  StarClan please make it a dream.  Please, please, please…

Suddenly a gust of hot wind ruffled the fur on Ashpaw’s back.  The branches around them shuddered wildly, and Ashpaw watched, transfixed, as the leaves on the branches shriveled and turned to ash.  He felt hot air slam into his back, and Ashpaw turned.

A screech of surprise tore from his throat.  Before them towered the most massive animal Ashpaw had ever seen.  Its muzzle was parted in a snarl, and its yellow eyes blazed like twin suns.  Its ears stood erect on its shimmering head, and it blinked down at the trio.

It’s a wolf, Ashpaw’s mind whimpered.  We’re done.  We’re dead.

Fernpaw and Ezra rushed behind Ashpaw, shivering.  Ashpaw stared up into the wolf’s eyes, and he couldn’t help but notice that the wolf looked odd.  He was a lot bigger than the wolves from the elders’ stories.  His fur rippled, but there was no wind, and he was almost translucent.  Panting, the wolf stepped forward, but he left no print in the dusty earth.

“Who are you?” Ashpaw breathed.

“I am Wolf,” the beast growled.  “I am day.  I am night.”

Ashpaw shuddered as the wolf’s rumbling voice shook his ribcage.  “What do you want?” he managed to squeak.

“Lost.” The wolf growled.  “You are lost.”

“Yes,” Ashpaw blurted.  “We need to find the Twolegplace.  Can you help us?” “Ashpaw, what are you doing?” Fernpaw hissed.  “You can’t ask that thing for help.”

“Help, yes.” The wolf nodded, dipping his starlit head towards Ashpaw.  “Follow me.” Wolf turned and bounded forward across the earth.  His pawsteps looked as light as feathers.  Ashpaw turned back to Fernpaw. “He’s going to show us the way,” he said.

“You can’t trust it.” Fernpaw hissed.  “What if it’s a trap?” The wolf turned around and paused to see if they were coming.  His perky ears flopped, and he cocked his shimmering head.

“We’re out of options,” Ashpaw said.  “Besides, it’s not hurting us.”

“I say we follow it!” Ezra squeaked.  “That’ll be fun.”

“Fine,” Fernpaw growled.  “But I still don’t like this.”

Ashpaw turned and bounded after the wolf, his ears raised.  His heart thumped violently from fear and excitement.  Here we go.

They followed the wolf for a while.  It marveled Ashpaw how the beast never seemed to touch the ground.  He looked like a spirit.  Ashpaw tumbled over a rotting log, but quickly found his paws and jumped back up again.  He glanced back to see if Fernpaw and Ezra were keeping up.  They were. 

They broke out of the denser part of the forest and into a dusty clearing.  Beyond the trees, Ashpaw could see the unnatural glow of the Twolegplace.  The wolf paused and lowered himself onto his haunches, blinking at Ashpaw. 

“Thank you!” breathed Ashpaw, stepping forward.  “Why did you help us? Are you from StarClan?”

Suddenly the wolf’s eyes narrowed. “Beware the abyss of the wilting flower,” he hissed.  “Only the shimmer of light can expel the darkness.”  Then, without another word, the wolf vanished.

Ashpaw stared at the spot where the wolf had been, panting.  The wolf’s words rang eerily like a bell in his mind.

“What the heck?” Ezra yelped.  “Where did he go? What did that mean? That was creepy.  Hey, I think I see my home!”

Fernpaw and Ashpaw exchanged a befuddled glance before starting after Ezra.  “What was that?” Fernpaw breathed.  “Was that a Prophecy? Why would he give it to us?”

“I don’t know,” Ashpaw growled.  “But whatever it was, it can’t be good.”

They broke out of the trees and stared at the Twolegplace.  A small thunderpath snaked through the numerus stone dens. 

“Thank you so much!” Ezra squealed.  “I’m home! We’re back!” He spun around and flung himself at Ashpaw, burying his head in Ashpaw’s soot-gray fur.  “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Er, you’re welcome,” Ashpaw said awkwardly.  A smile slowly pulled at the corners of his mouth, and he couldn’t resist a purr of amusement.

Then Ezra turned to Fernpaw.  The black and white kit nuzzled Fernpaw’s cheek, purring violently.  “Thank you, Fernpaw,” he whispered.  “You saved me!”

Fernpaw’s blue eyes gleamed with happiness.  “Of course,” she whispered.  “I’m going to miss you.” “Yeah, me too, for the most part.” Said Ezra.  “I’ll miss you guys, but not the Clan part.  That part sucked.” He wrinkled his muzzle, and Fernpaw laughed.

“You could always come live with me here,” Ezra offered, glancing into Fernpaw’s eyes.  His vibrant green gaze was gleaming with moonlight.

“That’s very sweet of you,” Fernpaw purred. “But I have family and friends back in my Clan.  I can’t leave them.” Pain filled her eyes, and Ashpaw stepped closer to her.  “See ya around, squirt,” Ashpaw said, giving Ezra a friendly nudge.  “Take care of yourself.”

“I will!” Ezra cried.  Then he turned and bounded across the thunderpath, disappearing behind a Twoleg den.  Fernpaw’s eyes gleamed as she stared after him.  “That felt good,” she said.  “He’s a good cat.”

“So are you.” Ashpaw muttered, and his pelt flamed as Fernpaw turned to look at him.  “You’re so sweet,” Fernpaw purred, flicking his ear with her tail.  “Now let’s hurry and get back home before they realize we’re gone.”

****

Ashpaw paused at the RippleClan border, glancing at Fernpaw. “You better hurry back to your Clan,” Ashpaw said.  “I’d hate for something to happen to you.”

Fernpaw smiled at him.  “Tomorrow at moonhigh,” she purred.  “At the ditch.”

“Again?” Ashpaw’s pelt rose.

“Yeah,” Fernpaw said, her eyes gleaming.  “You’re fun to talk to.” “Fine, as long as you don’t bring more kittypets,” Ashpaw teased, nudging her.

“And you don’t start following giant wolves,” Fernpaw quipped back, purring. 

“It’s a deal,” Ashpaw laughed, his whiskers trembling.  He watched as Fernpaw turned and bounded across her border.  He waited for a moment until she had vanished into the dense trees, and then he turned and plodded back to his camp.

The abyss of the wilted flower.  The wolf’s words rang in his head once more.

What does that mean?

 Chapter Fifteen: Fernpaw

Fernpaw hid in the bushes just outside of the camp entrance.  The hanging lichen quivered faintly in the morning wind.  Anxiety tickled her paws, and she shifted her weight onto her left side.  She couldn’t see through the lichen, so she couldn’t tell if Duskbranch was there or not.

I’ll just go through.  If he asks where I’ve been, I’ll just say I was making dirt.

Fernpaw slowly entered through the waving lichen.  There was no one there.  Blinking in confusion, Fernpaw raced as quickly and quietly as she could towards the apprentices’ den.  She curled up in her nest and sighed as her racing heart slowly calmed down.  She closed her eyes.  Maybe I can catch a bit of sleep.

She hadn’t had her eyes shut for five minutes when a firm muzzle poked her in the side.  “What is it?” she growled, blinking her eyes open.  Hareclaw was hovering over her.  “Ready for training?” he purred, his eyes glinting.

“Sure,” Fernpaw said.  She dragged herself unwillingly out of her nest and wandered out into the misty morning.  She was exhausted.  Shaking the weariness from her paws, she dragged herself after Hareclaw.  When she glanced towards the camp exit, Duskbranch was sitting there.  He spotted them coming his way and rose to his paws, flicking his ears.  “Where are you going?” he growled as Hareclaw approached the exit.  “State your business!”

“I’m just taking my apprentice out to train,” Hareclaw responded, sounding a little confused.

“Did you have confirmation from Voidstar?” Duskbranch asked gruffly, his tail curling around his paws as he sat back down.

“I don’t need ‘confirmation,’ she’s my apprentice!” Hareclaw snapped, his fur bushing.  He looked annoyed, Fernpaw noted.

“New rule passed by Voidstar,” Duskbranch puffed out his chest.  “You have to have our leader’s confirmation before leaving the camp.”

“Since when?” huffed Hareclaw.

“Since now.” Duskbranch smirked at them, and Fernpaw felt anger rise inside of her.  “Shall I go get him?”

Hareclaw growled.  “Yes.  I want to speak with him about this.”

Duskbranch nodded and started off towards Voidstar’s den.

“Hareclaw, don’t make him mad,” Fernpaw pleaded.

“I won’t, love,” whispered Hareclaw.  “Don’t worry.”

Fernpaw stiffened.  She must be really tired.  Had Hareclaw just called her love? “What did you say?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“Er… I meant uh… Fernpaw uh…” Hareclaw blinked.  “Heh, I don’t know why I said that, I’m really tired.”

“All right,” Fernpaw said, but she couldn’t help but notice that something was amiss.

A moment later, Duskbranch returned.  Voidstar was following behind him, his head carried high.  “What do you want?” Voidstar yawned as he reached Hareclaw and Fernpaw.

“I’m requesting permission to take my apprentice out for training like I do every morning,” snarled Hareclaw.  His green gaze was sparking.  “Since when was this a rule?”

“Since now,” Voidstar spat.  “Are you getting a tone with me, master Hareclaw? Let’s not forget that warriors are underneath Clan leaders.” There was a hint of a snarl in his voice, and Fernpaw’s heart beat wildly.  She glanced up at her mentor.  He looked like he wanted to rip Voidstar’s face off.

“So can we leave?” Fernpaw squeaked, her voice rising.  She was trying to keep this argument from going haywire.

“Yes,” Voidstar spat.  “If you don’t return in one hour I will come looking for you.  If you have run off, I will kill your mother.” He looked into Fernpaw’s eyes, and she gasped.

“You can’t do that!” Hareclaw yelped.

“I can.  I’m Clan leader.” Voidstar calmly licked a paw.  “Now go.”

Hareclaw threw Voidstar one last glare before ushering Fernpaw out of the camp.  Fernpaw glanced back at Voidstar and Duskbranch, who were smirking after them.

“He can’t really mean that,” breathed Fernpaw.  “That’s horrible.  Why would he kill my mom?”

“Because he’s evil, Fernpaw,” Hareclaw spat, his voice bitter.  “He’s twisted and horrible.”

“But why?” Fernpaw asked.  “No cat can really be that evil.”

Hareclaw shook his head.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Let’s hurry and get our training over with so we can get back to camp.”

They trained for a while, but Fernpaw couldn’t focus.  She was thinking about Voidstar, and Ashpaw, and the mysterious words of the spirit wolf.  She longed to tell Hareclaw about Ashpaw, but he would surely forbid her from meeting him.  He wants to keep me safe.

“Fernpaw, I can tell you’re not focused,” Hareclaw sighed.  “Do you want to stop?” “Yes,” Fernpaw mewed, her legs trembling.  “Has it been an hour yet?”

“I don’t think so,” Hareclaw said, glancing up at the sky.  The mist had cleared, and the sun was just above the horizon.  “But maybe we should go ahead and head back, just in case.”

Fernpaw nodded and started forward, when suddenly Hareclaw called her back.  “Fernpaw… wait.”

Fernpaw halted and glanced back at her mentor, her paws tingling.  “What is it?”

Hareclaw walked up to her.  There was an emotion in his eyes that Fernpaw had never seen before.  “Fernpaw, I need to tell you something important.”

“Yeah, what is it?” Fernpaw glanced up at Hareclaw, her fur pricking.

“I love you,” Hareclaw whispered, his eyes simmering.

“What?” Fernpaw blanched, not sure she had heard right.  “You love me?”  Her heart palpitated violently, and her head swam. “Yes, Fernpaw,” Hareclaw murmured.  “Whenever I look at you, my heart aches, and I want to be with you.  I want to keep you safe from Voidstar forever and ever.  I love you more than anything, Fernpaw.”

Fernpaw didn’t know what to say.  Her eyes were wide.  “Hareclaw I…” Do I feel that way back? Do I love him?

“Fernpaw, when you become a warrior…” Hareclaw swallowed.  “I want you to stand beside me, as my mate.”

Fernpaw looked up into Hareclaw’s sincere green eyes, flooded with emotion.  She suddenly realized how handsome he was.  He was a strong, good cat.  He could protect her.

“Yes,” she said.  “I would love that, Hareclaw.  I want to be with you.  Forever.”  I love him.  I love someone.

Hareclaw purred and pressed his muzzle against her head.  “Thank you, Fernpaw,” he whispered, his voice choked with emotion.  “Thank you.”

Fernpaw shut her eyes, breathing in his warm scent for a moment, and then she pulled away.  “Let’s go back to camp,” Hareclaw said, suddenly sounding like himself again.  “Before Voidstar decides to do something bad.”

“Yeah,” Fernpaw agreed, still in a daze from what Hareclaw had told her. 

Hareclaw glanced down at her, and his gaze sparked mischievously.  “I’ll race you.”

Fernpaw brightened and shot forward, Hareclaw at her side.  She struggled against the wind, her eyes squinted against the pull of it.  Hareclaw streaked ahead of her, his thick, brown and black fur slicked against his sides.  Fernpaw struggled ahead.  She had to beat him…

Putting on a burst of sudden speed, Fernpaw took the lead.  Her whiskers flattened against her cheeks, and happiness bubbled inside of her.

Suddenly a gasp rose from behind her.  “Fernpaw! Look out!”

“What?” Fernpaw blinked in confusion.  In an instant Hareclaw leaped and slammed into her, knocking her into a nearby bush.  As Fernpaw struggled among the brambles, she heard a loud snap and a shriek of pain from Hareclaw.

“Hareclaw!” Fernpaw mewed, surging to her paws.  What had happened? Was he all right? Hareclaw lay on the ground, his leg caught firmly in a metal case. 

A fox trap! Fernpaw’s eyes widened.  She had seen these before, scattered around her territory.

Hareclaw is stuck in a fox trap.

The metal jaws of the trap had clenched firmly around Hareclaw’s leg.  Blood was welling around the metal fangs, pooling out over his leg.  “No!” Fernpaw yowled, crouching beside Hareclaw’s face.  “Hareclaw! Can you hear me?” “Yeah,” Hareclaw groaned.  “Ow.  My leg…” he trailed off, his claws scraping the ground in agitation and pain.  His green eyes were glazed over, and his mouth was open. 

“Hold on, I’ll get you out,” gasped Fernpaw.  She shot to her paws and examined the metal trap.  Maybe she could find something to pry it open with…

Gasping in pain, Hareclaw gazed at Fernpaw.  “A stick,” he hissed.  “Fernpaw, find a stick.”

Nodding in a daze, Fernpaw scanned the clearing.  She found a sturdy stick lying in a pile of leaves.  She snatched it up in her jaws and rushed back over to Hareclaw.  She scanned the trap, panic boiling inside of her.  I need to be quick. I need to hurry.

There was a small gap in the trap right next to where Hareclaw’s leg was.  Being careful not to jolt Hareclaw’s injured leg, Fernpaw shoved the stick into the hole and pried with all her might. 

There was a metallic groan as the trap slowly started to come free.  Fernpaw pushed harder, her muscles straining and burning.  “Pull free!” she yelped around the stick.

With a yowl of pain, Hareclaw pulled his leg free just as the stick Fernpaw was holding snapped.  The fox trap slammed shut again, but Hareclaw was free. 

Fernpaw glanced down at her mentor’s leg.  Blood was spurting from it in a high arc, unfurling like a rose on the ground.  Grimacing, Hareclaw hauled himself to his paws, panting. 

“Are you all right?” Fernpaw mewed.

“I’ll be fine,” Hareclaw said, but there was fear in his gaze.

“We don’t have a Medicine Cat,” Fernpaw whimpered.  “What are we going to do?” panic bubbled in her, making her eyes burn.  “Maybe we can convince Voidstar to let Herbsong heal you. He has to!”  Fernpaw grabbed a pawful of leaves and moss and pressed them firmly against Hareclaw’s bleeding leg.  The blood pooled out through the leaves, and Fernpaw whimpered.

“Shhh,” Hareclaw pleaded.  “It’s all right.  We’ll figure it out.”

Fernpaw allowed Hareclaw to lean against her.  Staggering across the damp forest floor, she led him back to the camp.  She could smell blood in the air, and it made her fur prick with fear.  StarClan, please let Hareclaw be all right.  Please.

Hareclaw started to slump even more against her.  There was pain in his eyes, and Fernpaw can feel him trembling.  “You’re going to be all right, Hareclaw, the camp isn’t far,” Fernpaw squeaked, agitation boiling in her like steaming water.

The stream running in front of the camp entrance came up before them.  Wheezing with pain, Hareclaw collapsed.  “Fernpaw I can’t walk… I’m so dizzy…” He’s lost too much blood, Fernpaw thought, panicked.  “Come on, Hareclaw, please!” she cried.  “Do it for me.” At those words, strength seemed to pool into Hareclaw’s forest green eyes.  He nodded grimly, gritting his fangs.  Gasping, he hauled himself to his three good paws.  Fernpaw glanced back at his leg.  Dark red blood was clotting his leg, pooling all over the ground and all over Fernpaw’s stark-white fur.  Her ears flattened as she helped him over to the stream.  “I’ve got you,” she said.  “Just cross.”

Hareclaw staggered forward into the water, gasping as the gritty waves licked at his wounded leg.  As the water washed the blood away, Fernpaw gasped.  She could see the pale flash of white bone on his leg.

The fox trap cut him all the way to the bone.  Please, StarClan, let him be all right.

Just as they reached the camp entrance, Hareclaw collapsed. His eyes rolled in their sockets, and he gasped for air.  “Fernpaw… blood; I’ve lost too much of it.”

Fernpaw’s fur rose madly all along her spine.  “Hold on, Hareclaw, I’ll get help.”  She rushed into the camp, her blue eyes wide.  “Help!” she shrieked.  “Please help! Hareclaw is hurt!”

Cats milled from the dens, their eyes as wide as Fernpaw’s.  Voidstar climbed down from the den, his eyes calm.  “Who is hurt?”

“Hareclaw,” gasped Fernpaw, shaking uncontrollably.  “Please, Voidstar, you have to help him! You have to let Herbsong heal him!”

Several cats had already left the camp and were hauling Hareclaw in.  Fernpaw smelled the sweet scent of her mother.  Swiftriver pressed her muzzle to Fernpaw’s fur, draping her tail over her shoulders.  Fernpaw whimpered and glanced up at Voidstar, waiting for an answer.

“I don’t have to do anything,” Voidstar said calmly.  “I don’t take orders from little apprentices.”    

Fernpaw’s blood ran cold.  StarClan, no!
“You have to help him!” she shrieked.  “He’s going to die! Herbsong can heal him!” “Herbsong is no longer a Medicine Cat, remember?” Voidstar snarled.  “When I took over this Clan, I made a rule; injured cats are a weakness and a nuisance.  They must be killed.” “NO!” Fernpaw shrieked, her fur bushing.  “You can’t kill him! Hareclaw is a good, loyal cat! Please, Voidstar, please!” she crouched before him.  “I’ll do anything!”

“You’ll keep your muzzle shut!” Voidstar yowled.  “Duskbranch! Come here!”

The brown deputy leaped across the dusty clearing and blinked at his leader.  “Yes, Voidstar?”

“Bring the injured cat to me,” Voidstar hissed.  “I want Fernpaw to see what happens to disloyal, injured cats.”

“Hareclaw is loyal,” Fernpaw choked out, a sob rising in her throat.  “Please, you can’t kill him.”

“Silence,” Voidstar snarled, flicking his tail.  “Duskbranch, bring him to me.  Now.”

Fernpaw watched in shock and horror as Duskbranch walked over to the limp Hareclaw and brusquely dragged him over to Voidstar.  Hareclaw cried out in pain, and Fernpaw froze.  “No,” she whispered.  “You can’t!”

“I can do whatever I like,” Voidstar spat.  “He would have died anyways.  I’m putting him out of his misery.” He raised a paw, his eyes glittering with menace.

Fernpaw reacted.

With a shriek of anger and fear, she hurled herself at Voidstar, knocking him back against the camp wall.  “Fernpaw!” yowled Swiftriver.

Fernpaw dug her claws into Voidstar’s neck, ripping at his face.  Blinded with fury she slashed at Voidstar’s eyes, driving him back away from Hareclaw.

Voidstar lashed out and threw Fernpaw off.  She skidded, rolling through the dust.  She gasped and lifted her head, meeting Hareclaw’s terrified eyes.  I’m going to save you, Hareclaw, she thought, staggering to her paws.

Brown fur flashed at the edge of her vision, and Duskbranch slammed her to the ground.  A cloud of dust billowed up around Fernpaw as Duskbranch smashed her muzzle into the earth.  Coughing, Fernpaw lashed out violently, trying to free herself.

“Stop!” yelled Swiftriver.  Fernpaw saw her mother rush forward, only to be intercepted by Voidstar.  Dust stung Fernpaw’s eyes as she twisted away from Duskbranch’s claws.

Whump.

A sharp blow landed on Fernpaw’s side.  She skidded across the earth, blood welling around her shoulder. His claws glistening with newly shed blood, Duskbranch stalked forward, his head low.  “Traitor,” he snarled, flexing his claws.  Fernpaw gasped and spread her legs apart, ready to fight.  She saw Voidstar holding Swiftriver back out of the corner of her eye.  Pinestream rushed from the crowd of cats and pinned Fernpaw down, avoiding her lashing claws.

“That is enough!” yowled Voidstar.  “I am going to kill Hareclaw and the apprentice’s mother,” he spat.  “NO!” Fernpaw yowled, fear and anger bunching inside of her.  She thrashed, but Pinestream’s claws dug into her throat. 

Voidstar met Fernpaw’s eyes, calm but seething with rage.  “But first,” he growled.  “Take this disloyal apprentice to the border and give her the beating she deserves.  Then leave her to die.” “No,” whispered Swiftriver, her eyes wild.  “You can’t do this…” Voidstar broke her off, slamming her to the ground.  “Traitors die,” he spat.  “And that is exactly what you are.”

Fernpaw lashed and yowled, trying to free herself, trying to reach Hareclaw and Swiftriver.  She had to save them…

She met Hareclaw’s eyes, and a whimper bubbled in her throat.  “I’m sorry,” she saw Hareclaw mouth.  His eyes were glazed with love and pain and grief.  Fernpaw scrabbled frantically at the ground.  “YOU CAN’T DO THIS!” She screeched as Duskbranch and Pinestream dragged her out of the camp.  “You can’t take me!  HELP!”

As they dragged her out of the camp, Duskbranch halted.  “Beat her,” he spat.  Fernpaw, her eyes glazed with fear, glanced up and saw Pinestream raise one auburn paw.  She shut her eyes, waiting for the end to come.  The last thing she heard was a pained shriek from Hareclaw before the blow landed and Fernpaw’s world grew dark.

Chapter Sixteen: Ashpaw

Ashpaw peered through the wavering fronds of his nest.  The humid night wind outside seeped through the walls of the den, brushing against his fur.  He twitched an ear, waiting for the apprentices in the den to fall asleep.  He couldn’t wait until he could go out and meet Fernpaw again.  He glanced out at the rising moon and sighed. 

Sorrelpaw stirred in her nest beside him.  “Ashpaw, are you awake?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Ashpaw muttered.  “Why?”

“I can’t fall asleep,” Sorrelpaw sighed, rolling over and batting at the air with her white paws.  “I’m not tired.”

Ashpaw sighed.  “Well, the more you talk, the more wide awake you’ll be.”

“I want to stay up,” Sorrelpaw insisted, sitting up and glancing at Ashpaw with her forest-green eyes.  “All night.”

Ashpaw groaned inwardly.  Oh StarClan no…  “You probably should go to sleep,” Ashpaw insisted.  “Your mentor won’t appreciate it if you’re tired and lethargic tomorrow.”

“You’re probably right,” Sorrelpaw sighed.  “Good night.”  It wasn’t long before she was snoring.  Ashpaw rolled his eyes.

Ashpaw waited until every apprentice had been snoring for at least thirty minutes, just to be safe.  Then he slowly rose and slipped out of the den.  The camp was silent.  He slid down the narrow rocky ledge into the ditch that ran all the way around the camp.  Slinking through it, he found the back way out and slipped quietly into the cover of the forest.

Using the moonlight as a guide, Ashpaw bounded across the silver ground and skidded to a halt at the border of RippleClan, where he and Fernpaw had decided to meet.  “Fernpaw?” he hissed urgently, his fur pricking.  There was no one there.

“Fernpaw, are you here?” Ashpaw tried louder.  There was still no response.  Worry prickled at his pelt.  “Maybe she’s just late,” he told himself, and settled down to wait. 

The moon rose higher, but Fernpaw still did not come.

Maybe she had trouble getting out of camp.  I bet that’s what happened.

Ashpaw froze as the howl of a wolf skirted through the forest.  It sounded like the wolf he had met last night.  He rose to his paws.  “Hello?” he called into the forest. “Is anyone there?”

The needles of the pine trees around him seemed to rattle, but there was no wind to shake them.  Ashpaw padded forward across the needled ground, his ears flicking.

His eyes widened as, out of nowhere, a silver glow appeared behind a dense grouping of pines.  The silver wolf padded out from behind the trees, his head lowered.

“It’s you!” Ashpaw cried.  “Do you know where Fernpaw is?”

The wolf stepped closer, his eyes narrowed.  “Danger,” he hissed.  “The abyss is opening.  Too much blood has fallen.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” pleaded Ashpaw.  “Where is Fernpaw? Is she in trouble?”

“Blood.” The wolf answered. “Too much blood.”

“Where is she?” Ashpaw yowled.  “Tell me!” around him, the wind rose like a tempest and the wolf’s eyes seemed to glow a blazing yellow.  The wolf padded forward, his head low, and a snarl forming at his lips.  Fear rose in Ashpaw.  “I need to find Fernpaw!” he yowled over the screeching wind.  “Please tell me where she is!”

With a deafening bark, the wolf lunged for Ashpaw.  Ashpaw screeched and ducked, feeling the rush of air pass over him, but nothing hit him.  He rose, shaking, his claws extended.  The wolf was vanishing into the forest behind him.  “Wait!” Ashpaw cried.  “Please wait!” He skittered after the wolf, sending up a spray of pine needles.  A low-hanging pine branch caught his face, and Ashpaw hissed as the needles sliced at his nose.  Shaking his head to clear it, Ashpaw continued after the wolf.  He could see the ominous glow ahead of him, an odious light in the dark forest.  Up above, the moon was being masked by a swathe of dark clouds.  Ashpaw shuddered.  What is happening?

He pressed on harder as the wind tore at his pelt like seething claws.  Narrowing his amber eyes, he slid into a shallow ditch and followed it through the forest after the wolf.  “Where are you taking me?” yelled Ashpaw.  He suddenly realized that they were following the RippleClan border.  Panting from fatigue, Ashpaw struggled on. 

Suddenly, the wolf turned.  His glowing yellow eyes met Ashpaw’s, and then the wolf vanished.

“Come on!” yelled Ashpaw, frustrated.  “I don’t have time for this!” He skidded to a halt and glanced around.  The forest was silent.  The wind was gone, and the sky above was clear.

A familiar scent tickled Ashpaw’s nostrils.  He turned around, his claws sheathing and unsheathing.  “Fernpaw?” he whispered.  He followed a path of moonlight to a shallow bush with only a few leaves clinging to its branches.  There, beneath the bush, was a pelt as white as snow, lying as still as a rock. 

A jolt ran through every nerve in Ashpaw’s body.  “Fernpaw!” he yowled.  Dashing forward, he glanced down at her with wide eyes.  Fernpaw was lying still underneath the bush, and Ashpaw felt sick as he saw the red gash slashed all the way down her neck to her flank.  It was slowly oozing blood, but Ashpaw could see the worst of the bleeding had gone.

“What have they done to you?” Ashpaw whimpered, pressing his muzzle to her side.  “Fernpaw, wake up!”

She was dead.

No, no, no, she can’t be dead, she can’t be!
“Too much blood has fallen,” the wolf’s voice whispered in his ears.  Grief-stricken, Ashpaw crouched down beside Fernpaw and felt a helpless sob rise in his throat.  He rested his head on her bloody side, his eyes stinging.  “Fernpaw,” he whispered.  “If only I could have been here.  I would have saved you.”  He shut his eyes and curled his body next to her, his ashen pelt glowing silver under the moon.

He looked out over her white pelt and felt the wind sting his eyes.  As he glanced down at Fernpaw’s still body again, she suddenly jerked and coughed wildly.  “Fernpaw!” yowled Ashpaw.  “Fernpaw! It’s Ashpaw!”

She didn’t stir again, and Ashpaw felt sick as he saw red blood foaming around her mouth.  Ashpaw leaped to his paws and scrambled to find leaves to stop the bleeding.  As he pressed them to her side, he glanced around.  What am I going to do with her? I can’t leave her here, but I can’t bring her to WolfClan…

He paused and his ears twitched.  “Or can I?” he whispered out loud.

Fernpaw’s raspy breath tickled his ear, and he could hear the breath rattling in her chest.  “Hold on, Fernpaw,” he whispered.  He rushed out into the woods.  “Help!” he cried.  “Help us! She’s hurt!”

The wind moaned in response, and Ashpaw waited.

No one came.

Despair crawled through him, and panic started to rise in his gut.  Fernpaw was dying.  He had to save her.  Rushing over to her, Ashpaw grasped her scruff in his jaws.  He hauled her across the clearing a few ways, but a mew of pain from her stopped him.  He dropped her gently and glanced around wildly.  “Please help!” he yowled.  “Fernpaw is hurt!”

His amber eyes widened as a deep voice rattled his chest.  “Blood has been spilled,” it snarled.  “The abyss is opening wide.  The flower is coming.  The flower of poison!”

“Please help!” Ashpaw’s voice came out as a sob.  “She’s dying, and I can’t carry her.”

He crouched there with his head in his paws for several minutes, but then he felt a gentle, hot breeze ruffle the fur in his ears.  “Rise.”

Ashpaw looked up, and he gasped as he saw the starry wolf bending over him.  “Please help!” he cried.  “You have to help me, Fernpaw is hurt.”

“Blood is feeding the flower,” snarled the wolf.

“Please help,” Ashpaw said, his voice a faint whimper.  “You have to help her she’s… she’s my friend.” A hole yawned inside of him, empty and dark.  “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

The wolf looked down at him, and his starry ears flipped back.  He growled, and then he stepped forward and seemed to pass through Ashpaw.  The wolf bent over Fernpaw’s bloodied body, his yellow eyes calm.  He looked over at Ashpaw, who was padding forward to him.  Bending over, the wolf opened his jaws and scooped up Fernpaw by her scruff.  The little white cat didn’t make a sound as the wolf lifted her, and Ashpaw blinked up at him.  “Take her to my camp,” he said.  The wolf gave a faint nod and then started off through the woods, his white pelt simmering under the moonlight.  Ashpaw followed, his paws crunching through the pine needles.

The wolf padded softly through the trees and Ashpaw followed, his mind swirling. He glanced at Fernpaw, who was dangling from the wolf’s jaws, and he felt his stomach churn.  “Please let her be all right,” he whispered softly to StarClan.

They reached the entrance to WolfClan’s camp, and the wolf gently lowered Fernpaw to the ground.  Ashpaw gazed up into the starry beast’s face.  “Thank you,” he breathed.  “Thank you for bringing her here.”

The wolf gazed at Ashpaw for a second without responding, but then he lowered his head and spoke in a voice like the deep rumble of distant thunder.  “Beware,” he snarled.  “The blood is rising.  The flower is coming.  The abyss is opening, do not fall in!” his yellow eyes were wild, and a snarl was on his lips.  Then the wolf slowly rose and backed away into the trees, disappearing in the lingering shadows.

Ashpaw felt an ethereal shudder ripple down his spine.  “What do you mean?” he called after the wolf, but there was no answer.  He waited for a moment, his pelt pricking, but then he turned back to Fernpaw.  “Now what am I going to do with you?” he muttered.  “I’m going to have to tell my Clan the truth.  They may punish me, but I’ll make sure they accept you.”  He took in a deep breath.  StarClan give me strength.  He scooped up Fernpaw’s scruff in his mouth.  He tasted blood on his tongue, and his eyes widened.   He had to get her to the Medicine Cat den.  Surely WolfClan wouldn’t turn away an injured cat.

Ashpaw flicked his ears and dragged Fernpaw through the tunneled entrance into the WolfClan camp.

“Who’s there?” the snarl rumbled in his ears.  Ashpaw’s eyes widened as a black pelt slammed into him, knocking him back.  “Adderstrike!” yelped Ashpaw.  “It’s just me!” he dropped Fernpaw and stared up into the warrior’s blazing eyes.  “Don’t kill me please.”

“Ashpaw?” Adderstrike cried incredulously.  He stepped off of Ashpaw, flexing his claws.  “What are you doing? And who is that?” he curled his muzzle at Fernpaw.

“Let me explain,” Ashpaw gasped, scrambling to his paws.  “This is Fernpaw.  She’s…”

“RippleClan!” Adderstrike’s eyes blazed, and he stalked towards Ashpaw.  “What the StarClan are you doing with a RippleClan cat? Answer me!”

“She’s my friend,” Ashpaw whimpered.  “Don’t hurt me.  Please.”

“Start talking, you worm,” Adderstrike hissed.  “And tell me why you brought a RippleClan cat into our camp.”

“She’s badly hurt,” Ashpaw said, his eyes wide.  “I’ve been sneaking out to meet her every night.  She’s a good cat, but her Clan betrayed her and left her for dead please believe me.”

“You’ve been sneaking out every night?” Adderstrike’s ears were flat against his skull.  “For how long?”

“Three nights,” Ashpaw said, swallowing. 

“You’re a traitor,” spat Adderstrike.

“No, I’m not!” Ashpaw cried.  “She needs medical attention.  We can talk about this later.”

“I’ll get Stingriver,” muttered Adderstrike.  “But I still don’t trust you.” The black warrior turned and loped towards the Medicine Cat den, his fur spiking.

“You’ll be all right,” Ashpaw murmured in Fernpaw’s ear, crouching down next to her.  “Don’t worry.”

It wasn’t long before a golden pelt bustled from the Medicine Cat den.  Stingriver limped forward, clenching a bundle of leaves in her mouth.  She dropped them beside Fernpaw, her eyes narrowed.  “She’s RippleClan,” muttered Stingriver.  “Why is she here?”

“She was betrayed by her Clan and left to die,” Ashpaw said.  “You have to help her.”

“Of course,” Stingriver said.  Cloudstem came hurrying out of the den a heartbeat later.  Her ears flattened when she saw Fernpaw.  “Who is that?” she mewed.

“She’s my friend.” Ashpaw’s fur puffed.

“She’s a disgusting, fish-smelling enemy,” Adderstrike retorted, bristling.

“She is not!” Ashpaw shot back, fuming like a volcano.

“Ooh, someone’s in love with a RippleClan cat,” Adderstrike snarled, his eyes sparking.

Ashblaze’s tail twitched, and he flexed his claws.  Hot anger steamed in him, but he didn’t fight back.  It’ll only make matters worse.

Stingriver and Cloudstem were putting pressure on Fernpaw’s wound by dressing it with cobwebs and leaves.  Fernpaw shifted slightly, and her mouth slowly opened. Ashpaw crept closer to her, his heart pounding. 

“Hare… claw…” Fernpaw whispered, and her face tensed.  Suddenly her body convulsed and she coughed violently.  Blood spewed from her mouth, and Ashpaw’s fur puffed.  “Is she all right? What is she doing?” Ashpaw cried.

Stingriver didn’t respond to Ashpaw.  “Cloudstem, go and get Rainstar.  Tell him what’s going on.  I’ll take her to the den.” The Medicine Cat nodded at Fernpaw.

“Her name is Fernpaw,” Ashpaw said.

Stingriver once more didn’t respond.  She scooped up Fernpaw by her scruff and gently eased her towards the Medicine Cat den, which was a dark cave near the back of the camp.  Ashpaw started to follow, but Stingriver shook her head.  “Stay here.  I’m sure that Rainstar will want to speak with you.”

Ashpaw sat down, swallowing back anxiety.  It wasn’t long before there was movement near the back of the camp.  Rainstar emerged from his den near the top of the camp wall.  He leaped gracefully down the rocky ledges, his fur chaffed by moonlight, and then he reached the bottom.  Ashpaw fidgeted as the small but muscular gray tom padded towards Ashpaw, his green eyes glinting. Cloudstem came up beside him and rushed past them to the Medicine Cat den.

“Ashpaw, what is happening?” the Rainstar meowed.  “Why is there in injured RippleClan cat in my camp?”

Ashpaw met Rainstar’s flashing gaze.  “I was going out to meet her for a few nights,” he mewed in a soft voice.  “I met her while I was hunting one day.  I accidentally strayed into her territory.” He swallowed.  “We’ve been meeting every night.”

“You know that you have broken the code, right?” Rainstar growled, his fur bushing.

Ashpaw ducked his head.  “I know, Rainstar, I’m sorry.  But her Clan betrayed her! Fernpaw said that Voidstar is so evil he killed their deputy and…” Rainstar broke him off with a flick of his tail.  “Killed the deputy? Voidstar murdered Shardwing?” “That’s what Fernpaw said,” Ashpaw meowed.

“You can’t trust her, Ashpaw, she’s the enemy!” Rainstar hissed.  “What if she’s here to get our secrets?”

“She’s not!” Ashpaw insisted, his fur pricking.  “You have to believe me! Please, Rainstar, can she stay?”

“We will cross that log when we get there,” growled Rainstar.  “If she lives, we will discuss what to do with her.  If she dies, there will be no discussing at all.” He placed his tail on Ashpaw’s shoulder.  “I understand that you made friends with her, but it is because you are young.  You made a mistake. Do you understand that?” “Yes, Rainstar,” Ashpaw swallowed.  Had it been a mistake, though? He didn’t feel like it had been a mistake.

“I will have to give you a consequence,” growled Rainstar.  “A hard one.  I will discuss this with your mentor tomorrow.”

Ashpaw nodded.  “Yes, Rainstar.  I’m really sorry.” His pelt burned with shame and embarrassment. 

“Are you?” Rainstar purred.  When Ashpaw looked up, there was a hint of amusement in the gray leader’s green eyes.  Ashpaw blinked, and then he sighed.  “I mean, I’m not sorry that I met her, but I’m sorry that I disappointed you.” Rainstar bent over and gently licked Ashpaw’s head.  “I know you are, young one.  You have a good heart.”

Ashpaw’s pelt flamed under his fur.  “Thank you, Rainstar,” he murmured.

Rainstar nodded and then stalked past Ashpaw.  Shivering, Ashpaw looked up at the moon.  It was slowly dipping down towards the horizon.  Dawn was coming.  Soon it would be time to send out the morning patrols.  Ashpaw’s gaze flicked towards the Warriors Den, where Gleamwhisker was sleeping.  My mentor is going to kill me when she finds out what I did, Ashpaw thought with a shudder.  I’m going to be in big trouble.

Chapter Seventeen: Ashpaw

All around the camp, cats were starting to stir.  A faint smudge of pink was scrawled across the sky.  A simmering glow appeared over the trees, tipping the needles of the pines in burnished gold.  Ashpaw paced around the Medicine Cat den, his fluffy tail twitching in agitation.  He hoped that Fernpaw would be all right.  Rainstar had gone back up to his den, but Ashpaw knew that he would be holding a Clan meeting about Fernpaw soon.

Fireblade, the deputy, had come out of her den.  Ashpaw watched her pad across the smooth, silver stone, her red fur blazing in the light of the climbing sun.  A humid, pine-scented breeze was washing over the camp.  Near the back of the camp wall, Wingwater’s two kits were starting to emerge from the den, blinking sleep from their bleary eyes.  Their father, Duskgrove, watched them play, his eyes twinkling.

Sorrelpaw, Sunpaw and Cinderpaw came bounding from the Apprentice’s Den.  Sorrelpaw spotted Ashpaw and rushed over, her tail lifted.  “Hey, Ashpaw!” she cried.  “You’re up early.  How long have you been awake?”

“A while,” Ashpaw said, his paws twitching.

“A while?” Cinderpaw’s green eyes narrowed.  “How long is a while? What are you hiding, Ashpaw? A secret?” Ashpaw froze, his pelt pricking.  “Uh I just…” “Ignore her; she’s giving you a hard time.” Sunpaw shoved her sister out of the way.  “Good morning, Ashpaw!”

“Good morning,” Ashpaw mumbled.  He felt exhaustion swamp him, and his mind swayed.

“Are you all right? You don’t look so good.” Sunpaw’s golden fur was puffed up along her spine. “Yeah, I’m just tired,” Ashpaw said.  “It’s been a long night.”

“I understand,” Sunpaw said, smiling.  She caught sight of Adderstrike stalking past them and started to purr.  “Hey, Adderstrike!”

“Hey, Sunpaw.” Adderstrike turned, and Ashpaw was surprised to see happiness glowing in the warrior’s golden eyes. “How are you?”

“Good,” Sunpaw said, her eyes glinting.  “When are we going training?”

“After Fireblade issues the patrols,” Adderstrike responded.  “It shouldn’t be long.”  Ashpaw remembered that Rainstar had given Sunpaw as an apprentice to Adderstrike, after Rayblossom had died.

Ashpaw’s gaze wandered back to the Medicine Cat den, where Stingriver and Cloudstem were still looking over Fernpaw.  His pelt tingled, and he longed to go in and see how she was doing.

Fireblade’s raspy voice caught Ashpaw off guard.  “All cats old enough to catch their prey, please gather beneath the silverledge.  It is time to issue the morning patrols.”

“I’ll lead a border patrol.” Appleblossom rose to her paws, her long tail flicking.

“All right,” Fireblade said.  “You can take Snakefang, Lightfeather and Larkspring.”

Ashpaw tuned out the rest of the noise and glanced back towards the Medicine Cat Den. He couldn't stop thinking about Fernpaw...

“What are you looking at?” Meowed Sorrelpaw, her tail flicking over her back.  She padded up to Ashpaw and peered into the Medicine Cat den.

“Nothing,” Ashpaw said quickly.  “I’m not looking at anything.” He lowered his gaze and blinked at the ground.  Sorrelpaw narrowed her eyes.  “All right,” she said.  “If you say so.”

Ashpaw’s fur pricked.  I don’t want her to know about Fernpaw yet.  What would she say? Would she think I’m a traitor too? He glanced into Sorrelpaw’s vibrant green eyes.  I don’t think so.  She’s too ditzy and airy and carefree.  She wouldn’t care a mite.

Cinderpaw growled.  “I think he’s hiding something.  Look at him.  He’s so tense.”

“You’re obsessed with him.” Sunpaw cuffed Cinderpaw over the ears.

“I’m not obsessed,” Cinderpaw corrected snootily.  “I’m observant, that’s all.  If you ask me, Sorrelpaw is the one that’s obsessed.”

“Hey!” Sorrelpaw yelped, her fur bushing.  “I am NOT!”

“She’s denying it,” sighed Cinderpaw.  “Definitely obsessed.”

“Oh yeah.” Sunpaw nodded.

As Sorrelpaw started to argue back, Ashpaw slowly crept away from the squabbling sisters.  Maybe he could sneak away while they weren’t looking… Turning around, he leaped across the ground and plunged into the Medicine Cat den.  The smell of herbs nearly choked him, and he blinked his watering eyes.  Sunlight was pouring from the back of the den, sprinkling the walls with golden shards.  He glanced at the rows of neatly lined herbs and padded forward.  Near the back of the den, Fernpaw was lying in a bed of moss.  Stingriver was bending over her, dressing Fernpaw’s wounds.

“How is she?” Ashpaw asked.

At the sound of his voice, Stingriver whipped around with a hiss, her claws unsheathed.  She saw who it was and instantly relaxed.  “Don’t sneak up on me like that,” she snarled.  Her fur gradually smoothed, and she sighed.  “To answer your question, I’m not sure.  I’ve cleaned her wounds, but I can’t figure out why she keeps coughing up blood.  She must have some internal injury.”

Ashpaw felt sick.  “Is that bad?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Stingriver said grimly.  “But I need to work in peace.”

“Hey, Stingriver!” Cloudstem’s mew came from outside the exit of the den.  “We need some more pine sap.  Should I go and collect some?”

“Not right now, I need you here,” Stingriver answered. “We really need some,” countered Cloudstem.

“I can do it!” Ashpaw cried.

“What?” Stingriver blinked at him.

“I can collect the stuff, I mean,” Ashpaw mewed hastily.  “It won’t be a problem.  Just show me what it looks like and tell me where to find it.”

Stingriver sighed and rose to her paws.  “Ashpaw, are you sure? What if your mentor says no?”

“I’m sure,” Ashpaw said.  “Just tell me where to find it.”

Stingriver walked over to the wall of the Medicine Cat den.  There was a little crevice in the stone.  Reaching out with one ginger paw, Stingriver reached into the hole and pulled out a large leaf crusted in dried golden liquid.  “This is what pine sap looks like,” mewed Stingriver.  “It dried up yesterday, and we need some more.” “How do you get it?” Ashpaw’s fur pricked.

“From pine trees.” Stingriver placed the sap back in its crevice.  “There’s one tree in the forest that is running with this stuff.”

“Where is it?” “You know where the apprentice training center is, right?” Stingriver wandered back over to Fernpaw.  Ashpaw followed, nodding.  “Of course I do!”

“Right next to the training center is a really thick-trunked pine,” Stingriver said.  “It should be running with pine sap.  You collect it with these.” The Medicine Cat hooked one of the large leaves with a silver claw.  “If you place the leaf right below the dripping sap, it’ll pool into the leaf.  Just make sure it doesn’t get in your fur, and you don’t drop it.”

“Got it,” Ashpaw said, bouncing on his paws.

“Good,” purred Stingriver.  “Now go.”

Ashpaw padded out of the den, clenching the leaf firmly in his jaws.  He started towards the camp exit. 

An infuriated screech from behind him made Ashpaw halt.  “Where are you going, apprentice?”

Ashpaw froze, trembling.  Gleamwhisker!

Ashpaw’s mentor stalked up to Ashpaw, her ears flat and a snarl on her lips.  “You little worm.”

“Gleamwhisker…”

“Rainstar told me what you did.” Gleamwhisker furiously broke Ashpaw off.  “You’ve been sneaking off to see a RippleClan cat.  RippleClan!”

“I’m sorry, Gleamwhisker, I know I disappointed you.” Ashpaw lowered his head. 

Gleamwhisker narrowed her blue eyes and hissed like a snake about to strike.  “Even so, you’re grounded.  You won’t leave the camp for one moon, and you’ll have to serve the elders.”

Ashpaw’s eyes widened.  “Gleamwhisker, no! You can’t!” “I can,” snarled Gleamwhisker.  “I already spoke with Rainstar about it.”

“Stingriver was sending me to collect pine sap,” said Ashpaw, trembling.  “Can I go?”

“No,” spat Gleamwhisker.  “You’re staying here, where I can keep an eye on you.”

Ashpaw’s tail drooped, and he blinked up at his mentor.  “Yes, Gleamwhisker.”  He glanced back towards the Medicine cat den and sighed softly.  At least I can keep an eye on Fernpaw, he thought sullenly.

“Now, go and see if the elders need anything.” Gleamwhisker’s voice had softened a bit, but her eyes were still flashing with anger.  Ashpaw nodded and dropped the leaf he was holding.  He plodded across the clearing towards the elder’s den.

The elder’s den, out of all the dens in the camp, was the homiest.  It was made up of large slabs of gray rock leaning against each other.  All around the rocks were dense bushes and undergrowth to keep the worst of the wind and weather out of the den.  Inside, there were mossy nests where the elders could sleep and gossip.  Leaping across the dusty clearing of WolfClan’s camp, Ashpaw reached the den in a few heartbeats.

Ashpaw paused as he drew near to the den.  He could hear voices coming from inside.  He recognized the deep, gravelly voice of Russetsky, followed by the eager squeaking voice of a kit.  Ashpaw’s fur lifted.  The elders are having storytime! He remembered those days when he was a kit.  He would sit for hours with his littermates, listening to the wild and crazy stories that the elders would tell.  Ashpaw padded into the den, blinking as shadows swamped him.

At least seven little kits were crowded in the den, a bundle of fuzz and fluff.  Everyone glanced up when Ashpaw entered, and Russetsky stopped his story.  “Hey there, Ashpaw!” the elderly tom mewed.  “We were just telling some stories.  Did you come to join?”

“No, actually, I came to see if you need help with anything,” Ashpaw said.  “Fresh bedding, water, ticks…”

“We’re good, small one,” chuckled Russetsky, with a glance at the other elders.  “But that’s very kind of you.” “Come and listen, Ashpaw!” crowed the littlest kit, a fiery ginger kit named Yellowkit.  “They was telling stories about battles and blood and stuff!”

“I’m Bloodstar!” roared Yellowkit’s littermate, Duskkit.  The brown kit reared up above Yellowkit and tackled her, smashing her into the dusty floor.  Yellowkit screeched.  “Let me GO, DUSKKIT!” she screamed.  “I’ll tell mom!”

“You can’t if you’re trapped,” sniggered Duskkit, sitting on Yellowkit.  Another screech tore from Yellowkit’s jaws, and Ashpaw’s ears flattened.  Near the back of the den, Fernpelt rolled his eyes and sighed.

“How about another story?” Russetsky offered, glancing in amusement at the tussling kits.

“YES!” Duskkit yelled, jumping off of Yellowkit.  “Another STORY!” he rolled into Windkit, who was sitting with her littermates.  Windkit hissed, flattening her tiny gray ears.  “Watch it, Duskkit!” she hissed.  “You’re messing up my fur!”

“I’ll mess up your fur!” Jaykit squealed, leaping for Windkit.  As another tussle broke out, Russetsky cleared his throat and started to speak.  Instantly the kits quieted like the sudden stilling of the wind.  Ashpaw settled down beside the kits, wanting to hear the story as well.

“Have you ever heard the story of how the earth was made?” Russetsky breathed, his voice low and mysterious.  The kits all shook their heads, and Ashpaw found himself saying no along with them.  Russetsky smiled and stretched in his nest.  “Well, a long, long time ago, there was no sun, or moon, or earth.  There was nothing anywhere, just darkness.

“Suddenly, at the edge of the dark void, a little light appeared.  It spread across the darkness, chasing it away until everything was white.  Then the light twisted and spiraled up and up and up, and it formed a great beast.  It was a wolf.”

Now Ashpaw was intrigued.  Hearing about a wolf made him interested.  Russetsky continued.

“The wolf took his great paws and grabbed the whiteness with his claws.  He rolled it and rolled it and rolled it until it was a ball, and then he tossed it up in the blackness.  It went up and up and then it grew and stretched until it became the sun.  The light spread across the black void, and the wolf followed it.  When he ran, the earth ran with him.  It rose into great mountains and hills and valleys until it covered the whole void.  Then the great wolf dug with his giant paws and made deep canyons and holes.  He gathered the clouds and made it rain until there were oceans and rivers and creeks.  When he howled at night, the moon came up, and he sang a lullaby to make the sun sleep below the earth.  Then he finally rested on the place he had made, in the field of dancing flowers and whispering willows.

“When he awoke, he felt like something was missing.  There were no little animals for him to play with and dance with in the fields.  So, with a great sweep of his paws, the wolf made little fish come up from the oceans, and birds come down from the sky with feathers like the sun.  He made mice and voles to run in the fields, and deer to romp among the hyssops.  And then he made the greatest creature of all.”

“What did he make?” breathed Yellowkit, her eyes wide and full of curiosity.

“Cats,” whispered Russetsky.  “Cats were the greatest creatures of all.  He gave cats dominion over the fish and the mice and the birds and the deer.  Cats were the great beasts of the forests.”

“What happened to the wolf?” Ashpaw found himself asking a question.  His pelt flamed as Russetsky turned to look at him, amusement sparking in his gaze.  “The wolf went away, back up to the sky.  And every time a cat died, a new star took a place in the sky, and the wolf made StarClan, the great spirit-clan in the sky.  He gave those cats the job of looking over the earth, and then the wolf was gone.”

“Forever?” Yellowkit mewed.  “Did the wolf go away forever?”

“Oh no,” Russetsky purred.  “The Great Wolf Spirit lives inside the heart of every cat.  That is why we are called WolfClan… to honor our great creator.”

Fernpelt rose up from his nest in the back, his whiskers trembling.  “Legend tells it that, every one hundred years, the great wolf will appear to a special cat.  Sometimes the wolf gives a prophecy, sometimes he blesses that cat with great powers.”

Russetsky nodded in agreement.  He knew that it was just a myth, but the legend made him think of that great starry wolf he had been seeing in the forest.  Is that the wolf from the legend? Our ‘creator?’

His heart thumping, Ashpaw looked over at Russetsky.  “What was his name?”

A slow smile trickled across Russetsky’s face.  “Gateway.”

Chapter Eighteen: Ezra

The familiar call of his housefolk’s tickled Ezra’s ear-fur.  They were calling him inside to eat… again.

Ezra didn’t want to eat.  Not right now.  He was stalking a bird.

The memory of what had happened the other night flitted through his mind again.  It had all seemed like a dream, being captured by the wildcats and meeting Fernpaw… or was it?  He shook the thought out of his head.  It hadn’t been a dream… the familiar sting of the claw-wound in his back leg reminded him of his little visit to the forest.

“Since when did you start hunting?” the mew came from behind Ezra.  At the sound of the voice, the sparrow that Ezra had been stalking alighted into the air and descended into a nearby tree, shrieking.  Ezra whipped around with a hiss.  He relaxed as he saw who it was.  “June!” he yelled.  “I was stalking that bird!”

June laughed.  “All right, I know, but when did you start hunting? Last time I knew, you were saying how disgusting wild prey was.” Ezra puffed out his chest.  “If the wildcats can do it, so can I.”

“Wildcats?” June said incredulously.  “What wildcats?”

“The wildcats I met in the forest,” Ezra said, licking his paws and passing them through his dusty whiskers.

“Forest?” June choked.  “You went into the forest?”

“Yep!” Ezra said proudly.  “And here’s the scar to prove it.” He held out his injured leg, still crusted with dried blood.  June’s ice-blue eyes widened like two full moons.  “Holy mouse,” she breathed.  “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Some of the wildcats caught me,” Ezra said.  “They were going to kill me, and they beat me up real bad, but then this one nice cat named Fernpaw helped me escape!” his green eyes twinkled.  “It was actually really fun.  Fernpaw has this friend from another Clan named Ashpaw, and we met this giant silver wolf that said some really weird stuff and led me back here!” his tail curled around his paws as he sat down.  June was speechless, her fur bushed up along her spine.  “W-wow,” she breathed. "That's crazy, Ezra! But... how did you end up in the forest?"

“Some of the wildcats caught me,” Ezra said.  “They were going to kill me, and they beat me up real bad, but then this one nice cat named Fernpaw helped me escape!” his green eyes twinkled.  “It was actually really fun.  Fernpaw has this friend from another Clan named Ashpaw, and we met this giant silver wolf that said some really weird stuff and led me back here!” his tail curled around his paws as he sat down.  June was speechless, her fur bushed up along her spine.  “W-wow,” she breathed.  “That’s crazy, Ezra.  But how did you end up in the forest?”

“Jigsaw and Dinah brought me there,” Ezra explained, blinking.  “They knocked me out, and then I woke up in the forest and RippleClan found me! So now I want to try and hunt!”

“All right then,” June muttered, her eyes narrowed.  “If you say so…” her tail flicked in agitation.  “Did you say… Jigsaw and Dinah brought you into the forest?” her fur was rippling.

“Yeah,” Ezra said, turning back to the bush.  “They did.”

“Against your will?” June narrowed her eyes.

“Yeah,” Ezra said.  “Pretty much.  I tried to fight, but Jigsaw is bigger and stronger than I am.”

June shook her head.  “I don’t like this.  What if they come back for you, Ezra?”

“They won’t,” Ezra said, trying to sound confident, but doubt was rippling in his mind.  What if they do? What if they bring me back to the forest, and this time I’m killed!

“I’ll keep you safe,” June said, flicking her tail across Ezra’s nose.  “Now, go catch that bird!”

Chapter Nineteen: Fernpaw

Fernpaw’s eyes flickered open.

Pain.  Blood.  Death.

Pain ripped at her chest.  Violent.  Searing.  Fernpaw’s foggy gaze slipped back into unconsciousness.  Hareclaw.  Swiftriver.  Voidstar.

She saw Voidstar’s claws swinging for Hareclaw’s throat.  She saw the terrified eyes of her mentor, of the cat she loved, bleeding to death on the sandy earth underneath Voidstar’s evil gaze…

“NO!” Screaming, Fernpaw ripped out of the darkness and sat up in her nest.  Pain gripped her again and she moaned.  Shivering, she sank back into the nest. “Stingriver, she’s awake!” the voice was strange and high-pitched.  Fernpaw had never heard it before.

Stingriver.  Stingriver.  Were there any cats named Stingriver in RippleClan? Her world was fuzzy.

No, no, RippleClan cast me out.  The injury… my mother…

“Hareclaw!” she screamed, ripping out at her nest.  It tore around her claws.  No, it wasn’t a nest… it was Voidstar! She seethed, clawing at the evil tom, ripping for his eyes…

“Shhh, shhh, calm down!” cried a voice.  A gentle paw rested on Fernpaw’s shoulder, holding her down. 

“No!” Fernpaw lashed out with her claws.  “You can’t kill him!”

“It’s all right, little one, you’re safe.  Just look at me.  Look up at me.”

Fernpaw looked up, her blue eyes foggy and bleary.  There was a ginger cat hovering over her, with golden eyes.  Her face was serious and concerned, and she smelled of herbs.

Fernpaw slowly relaxed her body, but her heart was still thumping madly.  “Where am I?” she whimpered.  “Who are you? Where’s Hareclaw?”

“You’re in WolfClan.” The ginger cat spoke in a quiet voice.  “Just relax, we’re helping you.”

WolfClan.

Ashpaw’s Clan.

ASHPAW!

“Ashpaw!” she mewed out loud.  She tasted blood in her mouth, and she coughed.  The searing pain ripped through her chest again, like claws were digging into her lungs.  She curled up in her nest, whimpering in pain.  “Ashpaw,” she muttered.  “I want Ashpaw.”

“Ashpaw’s gone looking for herbs,” the ginger cat mewed.  “He’ll be back soon.”

Fernpaw’s mind swirled.  She was so dizzy, so weak… “I’m thirsty,” she whispered, blinking sleep from her eyes.

A moment later, a wet bundle of moss was shoved under her nose.  Fernpaw sucked at it, lapping at the cool liquid with her tongue.  Her ears flattened against her head, and she wheezed softly. She tasted more blood.  What’s wrong with me?

“Eat this, love.” Some strong-smelling leaves were set into her nest by her muzzle.  Fernpaw swallowed and sniffed at them.  “What is it?” she croaked.

“Herbs,” the ginger cat mewed.  “They’ll help you.”

Fernpaw feebly lapped up the leaves.  Her snout crinkled at the strong taste, and her eyes and tongue watered. She swallowed them quickly, feeling them slide slowly down her throat.  She shuddered, and curled her muzzle.  “Are you a Medicine Cat?” Fernpaw whispered, looking up at the ginger cat.

“I’m Stingriver,” said the ginger cat.  “This is my apprentice, Cloudstem.”

Fernpaw suddenly noticed the gray-and-white cat standing beside Stingriver.  Fernpaw swallowed again.  “We… we don’t have a Medicine Cat in RippleClan anymore.” She shuddered.

“What happened to you?” Cloudstem mewed, pressing her muzzle forward.  “Was it RippleClan? Who hurt you?”

Fernpaw struggled to remember, her pelt rippling.  “Hareclaw,” she whispered.  “They killed him… he was too injured…” she broke off into a violent fit of coughing, her chest and sides convulsing.  Grief and pain racked her.

“Shhh, save your energy,” Stingriver mewed.  “Cloudstem, don’t pester her with questions.  Let her rest.”

Fernpaw was starting to feel drowsy again.  She closed her eyes, her whiskers trembling.  She took in a deep breath and wheezed softly.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “For taking me in.”  Her world swam and churned and then, like a fish descending into the deep, went dark.

***

When Fernpaw’s eyes finally opened again, the light in the cave was brighter.  She could see a little better, but she still felt woozy and disoriented.  What time was it? Where had Stingriver gone?

Her mouth felt parched and dry, and she smacked her lips softly.  “I need a drink,” she muttered to herself.  She glanced around the den, looking for the Medicine Cats.  There was no one there.

A gentle breeze wafted in from outside, filling Fernpaw’s nostrils with fresh air and smells.  She shook her head gently.  The air smelled warm and fresh, tainted with the scent of pines and the musky smell of WolfClan.  It reminded her of Ashpaw.  Where was he? How had she gotten here?

She rose up gently in her nest.  The pain in her chest had numbed somewhat, and it didn’t feel as sharp.  “Stingriver,” she mewed out loud.  She was thirsty.

A shadow fell across the den, and a shape appeared at the entrance to the den.  “Stingriver,” Fernpaw mewed again.  “I’m thirsty.”

The cat that emerged into the den wasn’t Stingriver.  It wasn’t Cloudstem either.  Fernpaw’s eyes brightened, and she purred.  “Ashpaw!”

“You’re awake!” Ashpaw dropped the bundle of moss he was holding.  “You’re actually awake! Are you feeling all right? What happened!?” the fluffy gray apprentice bounded over to her and gazed into her eyes.  “RippleClan,” he breathed.  “What happened with RippleClan?”

Sorrow filled Fernpaw’s eyes.  “I… I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“All right.” Ashpaw swallowed, blinking down at her.  “I understand.  But are you feeling better?”

“A bit,” mumbled Fernpaw, her eyes starting to close again.  “I’m thirsty though.”

“Oh, that’s why I came in here!” Ashpaw cried.  He rushed back over to the entrance and picked up the moss he had dropped.  “Here you go!” he purred, placing it beside Fernpaw.  “Stingriver told me you may get thirsty.”

“How did I get here?” mumbled Fernpaw as she gratefully lapped at the water. 

“I found you,” Ashpaw said.  “I thought you were dead! But you know that starry wolf that you and Ezra and I saw?”

“Yeah…?” Fernpaw said, licking water off of her whiskers. 

“He helped me bring you here!” Ashpaw said.  “And he also said a bunch of creepy stuff like ‘blood is feeding the flower’ and bla bla bla too much blood has fallen stuff like that.” He shook out his fur.  “Anyways, I’m grounded for meeting with you, but Rainstar may let you stay.  He just held a meeting about you and me and stuff, and most cats were mad but a lot were sympathetic, and we’re going to vote tomorrow!”  He paused, his tail flicking.  “That is… unless you want to go back to RippleClan.”

“I HATE RippleClan!” spat Fernpaw ferociously.  Grief and anger swarmed in her.  “They took everything from me.  They BETRAYED me!” she broke off into a fit of coughing and hunched over in her nest.  Her mind swarmed, and her eyes stung from the memories.  She wished Hareclaw were here.  Or her mother, or even her father…

But they were gone.

All gone.

She felt Ashpaw’s tail rest gently on her shoulder, and she looked over at him.  Ashpaw’s warm amber eyes were compassionate.  “They killed my mentor,” she swallowed.  “Because he was too injured to be of any use.  When I protested they… they also killed my mother, and they tried to kill me.” She hung her head, trembling.

“I’m sorry, Fernpaw,” Ashpaw said softly.  “I wish I could have been there.  I would have stopped them.”

“No, you couldn’t have!” Fernpaw cried, snapping her head up.  “They would have killed you too.”  Something recoiled in her chest and she coughed violently.  Alarm flared through her pelt as she tasted blood in her mouth.  “When I cough, there’s blood,” she whispered.  She couldn’t stop coughing, though.  Wheezing and hacking she bent over and vomited into her nest.  Ashpaw’s pelt flared.  “Let me go get Stingriver,” he yelped.  “I’ll be right back!”

Feeling sick, Fernpaw lifted her head.  Her eyes were bleary, and her world swam.  When she coughed, her chest rattled, but if she didn’t cough, it was hard to breathe.  Her ears flattened, and she started to cough again.  It wasn’t long before Stingriver came rushing into the den, her fur puffed up.  “Hold on, dear,” she said to Fernpaw.  “Just relax.  Get some water.”

Fernpaw had forgotten about the moss Ashpaw had brought her.  Bending over, she lapped at it gratefully.  “What is wrong with me?” she wheezed.  It was like the RippleClan cats had injured her insides.

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Stingriver said softly, pulling a few herbs out of her stock in the den wall. 

“Is it bad?” Fernpaw looked up, water dribbling from her chin.

“We don’t know yet.” Stingriver turned back around to look at Fernpaw. 

Fear laced up Fernpaw’s spine.  “Am I dying?” she squeaked.

“No!” Ashpaw said instantly.  Fernpaw jumped.  She hadn’t realized he had come back into the den.  “You’re not dying,” Ashpaw insisted.  “You’re going to get better.”

Stingriver didn’t say anything.  One of her golden ears twitched, but she was silent.  Fernpaw swallowed hard.  Oh StarClan. 

Stingriver brought another pile of herbs over to Fernpaw.  She unwillingly ate them, feeling her chest ache as she swallowed. Panic scored through her.  What’s happening to me?

“Do you remember anything that happened during the fight?” Stingriver mewed, sitting down next to Fernpaw’s nest. 

Fernpaw numbly shook her head.  Her mind wavered.

“I need to know, Fernpaw,” Stingriver said.  “If you tell me, maybe I can figure out what’s wrong.”

Fernpaw’s heart pounded.  She struggled to remember.  “Duskbranch and Pinestream dragged me out of camp,” Fernpaw murmured.  “Pinestream hit me really hard in the head.  I almost lost consciousness.  Everything was black but I could feel pain.  I just remember them throwing me against something and my chest hurting…” Fernpaw shuddered at the awful memory.  The horrors flooded back into her mind, and she shivered, curling back into her nest. 

Stingriver nodded.  “All right,” she murmured.  “It sounds like, when they did that, they may have broken something internally.”

Fernpaw’s gaze sparked.  “Is that bad?”

Stingriver rose to her paws.  “It may take some time to heal.  Right now, I don’t think it’s fatal.”

A wave of relief crashed over Fernpaw.  “So I’m not dying?”

“Not right now,” Stingriver purred.  “Just rest.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” Ashpaw asked, looking over at Stingriver.  “Is she going to stay in WolfClan?”

Fernpaw shut her eyes, draping her tail over her nose.

“I don’t know yet, Ashpaw,” Stingriver said.  “Let’s let Fernpaw sleep now.”

“Bye, Fernpaw,” Ashpaw said softly, glancing back at her.

“Bye,” Fernpaw whispered.  Her brain felt heavy and muggy.  She just wanted to sleep…

Chapter Twenty: Ashpaw

Ashpaw kneaded his paws anxiously in the sandy earth.  The sun was just rising above the camp.  It was time for the cats to vote.  He looked up at Rainstar sitting at the outside of his den.  The gray tabby tom looked a silver-blue in the sunlight.  Ashpaw shivered, anticipation crawling through him.  He hoped that Fernpaw would be able to stay in WolfClan.   Glancing around, he saw that many of the cats were avoiding him.  Adderstrike and Deepsight especially were giving him a cold glare.

Ashpaw’s fur lifted as he heard pawsteps coming up behind him.  He smelled the familiar scent of Snakefang.  He turned around and faced his father, his paws tingling.  “Hey dad,” he murmured.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” Snakefang hissed.  “What were you thinking, making friends with a RippleClan cat?”

“She’s different, dad,” Ashpaw said defensively.  “She’s a good cat.”

“Ashpaw, she’s the enemy,” snarled Snakefang.  “She’s not your friend.  She’s not our friend.”

Anger and frustration boiled in Ashpaw.  “She’s different from the other RippleClan cats! She’s good and kind.  She even hated her own Clan.  That’s why she was cast out.”

Snakefang curled his lip.  “I don’t care what she is.  I want to see her gone.” He started to turn, but then he halted and whipped back around, his green eyes blazing.  “And I can’t believe that my son made friends with her, of all things.”

Ashpaw’s eyes widened.  “Dad, wait…” he trailed off.  Snakefang had vanished into the mingling crowd of cats.  Ashpaw sat back down, swallowing back anger and resentment.  His father hadn’t even met Fernpaw! Maybe he would change his mind.  Ashpaw looked around and wondered where Snowwing was.  He hadn’t seen his mother in a while.

“I knew you were hiding something.” Cinderpaw padded up to Ashpaw, her eyes narrowed.  “You’re a traitor!”

Ashpaw’s pelt stung.  He was tired of cats calling him that.  “I wasn’t trying to be a traitor,” he said.

“But you are,” sniffed Cinderpaw.  “You associated with a RippleClan cat.”

Ashpaw’s ears flattened, and his tail twitched across the dusty earth.  “What’s so bad about her? She’s a good cat.”

Cinderpaw shrugged, unsheathing her claws.  “I don’t know.  I haven’t met her.  But I have heard stories about cats from other Clans.  They’re all evil and horrible.”

“They’re not,” Ashpaw protested.  “Fernpaw’s a good cat.”

Cinderpaw yawned.  “Yeah, you’ve said that like five times.”

Ashpaw’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing more. He flicked his tail crossly and sighed. "That's your own opinion," me muttered after a long moment. "But know this. Fernpaw is my friend, and I think that she's a noble cat. She's nothing like any of the other cats in RippleClan."

Cinderpaw looked shocked. Her long, gray fur rippled, but then she turned up her nose. "Fine," she spat. "But I still think your a traitor." She waited a long moment for Ashpaw to respond, but he never did. After a long moment she whipped around and started towards her siblings that were gathered near the back of the crowd.