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2017 Note- you probably shouldn't read this it sucks

Part 1: The Death Ring

CHAPTER 1

Five cats creeped into the ThunderClan camp in the night. They searched the dens for a strong, fit warrior. A brown tabby motioned to a sturdy pale-gray tom with black stripes. Bumblestripe. The cats dragged the tom out of camp and headed away from ThunderClan territory.

Suddenly, Bumblestripe woke up. The brown tabby was dragging him by his scruff, amber eyes glowing in the darkness.

“Bramblestar?” he mumbled sleepily. “What in the name of StarClan are you…”

Bumblestripe realized the tabby couldn’t be Bramblestar because the tabby was a she-cat, and she didn’t have Bramblestar’s broad shoulders. He was about to yowl, but another cat cuffed his ear hard, and a black tom stuck a paw over his mouth. Bumblestripe began thrashing around.

The tabby spotted an herb she knew well.

“Eat it,” she growled menacingly. “Or we’ll kill your Clanmates. We still have a few cats there who know how to use their claws,” She threw in the lie to scare him, and forced Bumblestripe to eat the entire plant. He gulped it down reluctantly, the taste bittersweet.

A few heartbeats later, Bumblestripe’s vision was blurred. He stopped struggling as fuzzy blackness engulfed him, and he entered the realm of sleep.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

DUSKPAW

Duskpaw rustled uncomfortably in her nest. She had trained hard all day, but she was too tired to sleep. She wondered what to do. It was a warm night. She could climb, she could hunt, she could battle practice, or do something fun. Duskpaw decided to take a walk outside Clan territory. She’d been there before. It was a beautiful place. The soft grass grew thicker as she walked outside of ShadowClan scent markers, untouched by cat paws. The moon turned each blade silver. Flowers were closed, but in the moonlight they seemed even more beautiful than ever.

Duskpaw entered a patch of grass so tall it was over her head. Suddenly, the scent of a ThunderClan tom filled her nose. What was he doing out of his territory? Her pace quickened.

She burst out of the long grass and saw some cats dragging the tom, asleep, along the ground. She yowled loudly and rushed to his aid. Duskpaw had seen him at a border skirmish just yesterday. His name was Bumblestripe.

The cats whirled around, dropping Bumblestripe. The silver she-cat hissed, and launched herself at Duskpaw. A black tom rushed to her aid and they took turns quickly swiping at her. Duskpaw vainly struck back, slashing wildly at the ferocious cats. She rolled to get away, then reared up and tried to block their paws. But she made a horrible blunder. The she-cat surged forward and knocked Duskpaw off her feet, and her belly was exposed. The tom helped pin her down. She tried flipping over, but failed. StarClan, help me! she thought frantically. The silver tabby began ripping at her belly, and the tom bit down hard on her tail. Duskpaw screeched in pain, and felt blood pulsing from her wounds. She wrenched her tail from his grip and pushed forward. With her little weight, she barely managed to move the well-muscled tabby. She stopped writhing as she admitted defeat. The cats continued to rip her fur anyways.

All Duskpaw could do was see what had happened to Bumblestripe. A scratch over her eye was bleeding, making it hard to see. Duskpaw managed to make out a brown tabby she-cat and a white tom guarding Bumblestripe, while a ginger tabby she-cat was rummaging around the forest floor.

Duskpaw bit a nearby plant to channel her anger and pain. To her surprise, it seemed to be an herb. It had a mysterious bittersweet taste, and she bit harder. Its juices seeped into her mouth. It tasted interesting, and it blocked off the world outside of her head.

Duskpaw’s wound pains went numb. The agony of clumps of fur being ripped out disappeared. She yawned; why was she suddenly so sleepy? The noise outside faded to a low buzz and then a quiet hum. Her eyesight darkened, and she slipped into unconsciousness.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

CHAPTER 3

“Pine,” The black tom mewed, “she’s asleep.”

“Good job, Night; you too, Storm,” Pine, the brown tabby, addressed the black tom and the silver she-cat. “Marigold, treat her wounds. Stop looking for sleepleaves. The stupid kit ate some herself.”

The ginger she-cat nodded, and picked up some dock and marigold leaves. Marigold stopped the bleeding with goosegrass and cobwebs, then took them off and spread the pulp of the leaves over the little black cat’s cuts and gashes. She bound each poultice with catchweed to stay on.

“Frost, let’s go grab some cats from the other Clans,” Pine mewed. “I think there’s WaterClan and BreezeClan left. You three,” she told the rest of the squad, “Guard the Clan cats.”

The white tom grunted, and he and Pine left.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

KESTRELFLIGHT

Kestrelflight, medicine cat of WindClan, woke up next to Minnowtail of RiverClan. Curled up against her belly was Duskpaw from ShadowClan and Bumblestripe from ThunderClan resting his head on Kestrelflight’s hindlegs. They were all ringed by five cats he didn’t recognize: a brown tabby she-cat, a black tom, a ginger tabby she-cat, a silver she-cat, and a white tom.

What in the name of StarClan is going on? Kestrelflight nudged the other cats. He hissed into their ears, “Wake up.”

After waking up the last cat, the white tom noticed what was going on and spun around, teeth bared.

“Pine, they’re awake,” he growled. “The mottled gray one woke them all.”

Kestrelflight bristled. “I have a name, you know. It’s Kestrelflight.”

“Whatever, Kestrelflight,” The brown tabby spat the name like a piece of rotten prey, “You’re lucky you and the dark gray she-cat came quietly. I had to force the tabby to eat sleepleaves and the kit suffered a fight.”

“I’m not a kit!” Duskpaw replied indignantly. Kestrelflight’s whiskers twitched with amusement; Duskpaw had been apprenticed only a quarter moon ago. Minnowtail, the dark gray she-cat, yowled angrily, “Why are we here anyways?”

“Not telling you yet,” The silver tabby meowed. “You’re not trustable. After all, it’s your first time with us.”

Kestrelflight began sniffing Duskpaw, checking her for wounds.

“What’re you doing?” The black tom asked. “Why’re you snuffling over her fur like a dog?”

“I’m checking her for wounds,” Kestrelflight snapped. “I know herbs, and I need to treat her.”

“I already did that,” The ginger she-cat mewed gently. She was the softest of the five. “I used dock and marigold. Marigold’s my name,” she added. “And this is Pine, Night, Storm, and Sky.”

Kestrelflight stopped sniffing. “That’s good. I guess this will probably be a ‘no’, but now may we leave for our Clans back home?”

“No,” Pine mewed. “You’re coming with us to our home.”

Marigold’s eyes widened. “But Pine, you swore to the Snowflakes that we weren’t sending them home to the Ring.”

“I lied,” Pine said plainly, “so get over it. Stop whimpering like a kit.”

“Then what are we actually doing?”

Pine flicked her tail at Night, who whispered something into Marigold’s ear. Her eyes widened in horror, but Night said something else to her. Marigold blinked her eyes and then looked from Pine to the prisoners, and back again. She shook her head, but said nothing else. Kestrelflight’s heart sank.

He wondered how WindClan was doing. What if one of the queens kitted, and he wasn’t there? Something could go terribly wrong, and the kits could be lost, maybe even the queen, too. And what if a cat got hurt? No one would be there to treat a fox wound. Whitetail new a bit about herbs, but who would expect an elder to work in the medicine den?

Kestrelflight’s thoughts wandered from his Clanmates to Onestar. His leader was not the youngest, but had plenty of strength to lead WindClan. If he suddenly died, Harespring would take over as Harestar. He was a good cat. He’d been training in the Dark Forest, but had switched to the Clans’ side in the Great Battle. Knowing that his Clan was safe without him made Kestrelflight feel a bit stronger, but he knew he still had to get away from here.

They passed a farm full of fluffy white sheep.

“Those things look like walking clouds!” Duskpaw exclaimed. “Such soft and fluffy pelts!”

“Those are sheep,” Bumblestripe informed her. “We see them on the WindClan border sometimes.”

“Their fur makes the best nests,” Kestrelflight added. “You’re right, their pelts are extremely soft and super fluffy.”

“I’d love to sleep in some tonight,” Minnowtail commented. “Last night I was dragged from my comfortable nest to hard, bare earth. My back still aches!”

“Stop whining,” Storm snapped. “Do you hear us complaining? We slept on the ground too.”

“Liar!” Duskpaw squeaked. “Look, there’s scraps of moss in your fur! And I saw you cover some feathers and moss this morning with dirt.”

Storm growled. “The moss is from falling down on some earlier. And you lie about me scraping dirt over the remains of a nest.”

“Great StarClan,” Minnowtail grumbled. “I’ve never met such liars. She never fell down even once!”

Hunger was hard to deal with. One cat always stayed back to guard them, and their captors shared an entire humongous hare once, or got a squirrel each. The Clan cats shared two scrawny mice or finches once a day, and were lucky enough once to share a few squirrels.

The horrible ache gnawed at Kestrelflight’s belly, making him weaker. He searched for the traveling herbs that would take off the edge: sorrel, daisy, chamomile, and burnet. Finally, he found a few withered leaves of them, and had each cat eat a few. But, being fed so little food, the herbs had almost no effect. Kestrelflight groaned unhappily and listened to his growling, pained stomach.

I want to go back home.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

MINNOWTAIL

Minnowtail sighed. What could she have done to stop this from happening? Woken up, or attacked her kidnappers, or maybe begged StarClan for this not to happen. But maybe that might not have worked. What if she had angered StarClan? Then they would have made this happen no matter what.

Days passed, and the cats led them around the snow-topped mountains. Minnowtail growled in frustration. If only they had passed through them, they might have had the chance of getting help from the Tribe of Rushing Water. Minnowtail’s tail drooped.

“Cheer up,” Storm spat. “It’s not like we’re going to kill you.” She cast a sly glance at Sky, who moved his mouth and formed the word, Yet.

Minnowtail’s blood ran cold. Were they going to kill them? What had they done to harm them? The Clans didn’t even know about these cats.

A sharp thorn stabbed Duskpaw’s foot and went deep in. Kestrelflight quickly pulled it out before Pine and the rest of the strange cats would notice, and promised her he’d search for some dock and fix up her paw when they stopped. Bumblestripe said he’d help, too. A feeling of pride welled up inside Minnowtail as she realized that though they were from different Clans, they were sticking together and helping one another out.

“Stop,” Pine ordered. She seemed to be the leader. “Let’s rest. Guard the Clan cats.”

Kestrelflight immediately went to Marigold, the kindest cat, and whispered in her ear, “I need to grab some herbs. Duskpaw had a thorn deep in her paw. I don’t want it infected.”

Marigold nodded and called out, “He says he needs to make dirt. I’ll guard him and make sure he doesn’t run away.” Before bounding after Kestrelflight, she glared at her companions.

Minnowtail tipped her head curiously. Marigold seemed to hate them, and was compassionate towards the prisoners. That was odd for a cat who had helped kidnap them.

Minnowtail began washing, feeling Frost’s gaze bore into her. He was standing right next to her, and she decided to fight back in small ways. When she finished washing, she gave herself a luxurious stretch, also knocking into Frost and tumbling him over.

“Sorry,” she purred. “That was bound to happen, you know, with you practically touching me; you were so close.”

Frost grumbled something she couldn’t hear and took a step back.

Kestrelflight returned with Marigold herding him along. He was limping awkwardly, making sure his left forepaw never touching the ground. His pelt was covered with cobwebs. Minnowtail was surprised. What had Marigold done?

“He stepped on a thorn,” Marigold explained to Pine. “Weak cat, it was a small thorn.” She slapped his ear with sheathed claws, and Minnowtail noticed that there was tansy pulp smeared all over Kestrelflight’s paw. So that’s why he’s not letting it touch the ground!

Kestrelflight flopped down next to Duskpaw and began licking her foot. Then he rubbed the tansy pulp over the deep scratch. He bound it with the cobwebs on his fur. Smart! Minnowtail thought.

Dusk had begun falling, and they started setting up beds for the night. All the strangers had gotten moss and feathers for nests, while Minnowtail and the rest of the cats had leaves.

“I’ll take first watch,” Marigold volunteered. “You guys get some sleep.”

Minnowtail couldn’t sleep. Neither could the rest of the Clan cats. Once their captors were asleep, she crawled over to each cat and whispered, “We need a plan.”

Marigold had overheard, and she looked at Minnowtail and said, “You’re right. I’ll tell you everything now.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________

BUMBLESTRIPE

Surprise rocked through Bumblestripe.

“How do we know you won’t just tell your friends what we’re doing?” he challenged. “Why should you be on our side?”

“Because,” Marigold explained, “this is wrong. Taking cats from their homes and forcing them to fight to the death--”

“What?!” The Clan cats yowled.

“Hush!” Marigold hissed. “Yes, that’s what they’re going to do. It’s called the Death Ring, where we come from. Each time a new leader is assigned--right now it’s Pine-- we collect four cats and send them to fight to the death in three rounds. Round one: two matches, the cats split evenly. The two winners fight together in Round two. Then the winner is to fight the new leader. If the leader dies, then that cat becomes leader. If that cat dies, then the leader has proven his or her worth.”

There was a shocked silence.

Marigold gave their ears a comforting lick.

“We’ll figure something out,” she soothed. “Now, get some sleep.”

Duskpaw was whimpering. Marigold settled down next to her and began washing her fur.

“I’m not a kit,” she protested.

“I know.” Marigold continued to wash her, and this time Duskpaw didn’t complain.

Bumblestripe watched Marigold’s rhythmic strokes, and remembered his mother, Millie, stroking him with her tongue when he was both a kit and an apprentice. Comforted by his memories, Bumblestripe fell asleep.

Storm gave Bumblestripe a hard push in the morning that awoke him.

“Get up,” she growled. “Time to get moving.”

Bumblestripe’s paws ached from walking so far. He mumbled to Kestrelflight, “Are there any herbs for aching paws?”

Kestrelflight just nodded. “Dock leaves and cold running water. I’m sure we’ll find one of them soon.”

Kestrelflight was right. The journeying cats reached a rushing stream.

“If you have aching paws,” Kestrelflight mewed. “Step in the stream and stay there for a bit. I’ll find some dock juice soon.”

Night overheard and mewed it louder for the rest of the cats to hear. Bumblestripe was frustrated that now Kestrelflight had to treat them too.

Bumblestripe’s anger dissipated as he relaxed, the cold water soothing his scraped, aching pawpads. After a short time, Pine called them to move on.

The undergrowth became less shrubby and grassy, with a lot trees around. Kestrelflight sniffed the air, then broke off and returned with a bunch of dock leaves. He began spreading their juices over the scraped pads and bound it with the cobwebs nearby. Bumblestripe felt energy come from the stinging juices, and was glad that the cobwebs held them in place. He watched as Kestrelflight tended to Marigold, then himself.

“Hey, what about us?” Pine complained. “My paws feel like they’ve had to hold up a mountain.”

Kestrelflight growled as he took the leaves to them. He used only one leaf per cat, while for the Clan cats and Marigold he used one per two paws. Then he bound it with catchweed, which, while very good at sticking on poultices, were not as effective for paws as cobwebs.

Storm whispered something in Pine’s ear, and she smiled coldly.

“You cats,” she gestured to Bumblestripe, Duskpaw, and Minnowtail. “Get us some food. You--” She flicked her tail at Kestrelflight. “--get us some traveling herbs. I hear there’s such Clan herb knowledge you haven’t shared. Now get to it.”

Bumblestripe was suspicious of the chance to be out and about without being watched. Minnowtail and Kestrelflight seemed to be, too. He glanced over at Duskpaw, who looked like she was about to burst with joy. Bumblestripe hated bearing bad news, but padded over to her.

“Hey,” he hissed in her ear. “There’s no use. Why would they give us the chance?”

Bumblestripe watched guiltily as Duskpaw’s face darkened and she nodded slowly.

“I said,” Pine screeched, “GET TO IT!”

“Okay, okay,” Minnowtail flicked her tail in annoyance. “We’ll go hunting. Sheesh!”

Bumblestripe touched his tail to Duskpaw’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go.”

The forest was full of prey. Just a mouse-length away from a vole was a squirrel, and a fox-length away from that was an extremely plump hare. Minnowtail caught the hare, Duskpaw the vole (very clumsily), and Bumblestripe was about to get the squirrel when he spotted something much better.

“Over there,” he whispered, and flicked his tail in the direction of a pheasant. Minnowtail brightened, and Duskpaw’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ll creep up on it,” Bumblestripe ordered Minnowtail. “You two climb into the trees. When I pounce on it, you guys need to jump down and join in.”

“But I haven’t learned to climb yet.” Duskpaw looked crestfallen. “And I don’t think Minnowtail ever needed to.” Bumblestripe narrowed his eyes as he saw Minnowtail’s ear twitch.

“Just jump to the branch above it,” Bumblestripe mewed. “And hurry! It could get away any moment now.”

Minnowtail nodded and leaped gracefully up the tree. She went higher and higher, then seemed to remember that Duskpaw needed help. She jumped down and landed silently on the lowest branch. Minnowtail helped Duskpaw scramble up. Bumblestripe watched her graceful movements. He remembered Ivypool telling him that the Dark Forest cats had been trained to climb trees, and a RiverClan cat was the best. Was Minnowtail that cat?

A cry from the pheasant jerked Bumblestripe out of his thoughts. He began stalking it, setting his paws gently on the forest floor. Then when he was close enough he leaped and twisted in midair, landing squarely on the pheasant’s back. Bumblestripe struggled to hold down the large bird, and was relieved when Minnowtail and Duskpaw helped him pin it down. With them holding down the pheasant, Bumblestripe lurched forward and bit down on its throat. Minnowtail and Duskpaw were clawing at its wings so that it couldn’t fly away. It was hard to hold onto, with the pheasant struggling madly and thick feathers blocking its soft flesh. Bumblestripe bit deeper in. The pheasant thrashed a little longer until a large pool of blood was forming at its throat. It jerked once, then lay still.

Bumblestripe’s paws were sticky and matted with blood. It clogged his fur and splattered all over his pelt. Who knew a pheasant had so much blood?

“The water over there,” Bumblestripe angled his ears at the tinkling sound of water passing over rocks. “Let’s wash our paws. Bring the pheasant,” he added. “We don’t want a fox taking our catch.”

They hauled the pheasant with them towards the creek and washed out their paws. Bumblestripe ducked under and relished the feeling of the crisp, cool water streaming over him and wiping all the blood off his fur. He bobbed back up in time to see Duskpaw leap onto Minnowtail’s back, thrusting her down into the water. A scarlet cloud formed as the blood on her fur entered the water, but was quickly dispersed by the rushing creek. Minnowtail swam underneath and hooked Duskpaw’s feet out from under her. She popped out of the water, purring with laughter until Duskpaw pulled her by the tail back in.

Bumblestripe, laughing, leaped onto Minnowtail’s back and helped Duskpaw. The apprentice batted at Minnowtail with sheathed claws.

“And take that--” Duskpaw slashed along Minnowtail’s flank, “--and that--and that--and you’re dead!”

Minnowtail was laughing, then choking on the water. Bumblestripe purred as he pounded her back, trying to help her spit it out. Duskpaw danced joyfully around them in the water.

Just then, Kestrelflight emerged from the bushes, spitting out a bunch of leaves.

“Honestly, are you a bunch of kits?” he demanded. Duskpaw stopped and stared at her paws. “I’m sorry.”

Kestrelflight, eyes focused on Duskpaw, pulled back a paw to make a huge splash. Bumblestripe yowled, “Watch out!”

Duskpaw looked up in time to be showered by the wave of water. Mock-growling, she splashed him back.

“Hey, you can’t harm a medicine cat!” Kestrelflight complained, but his eyes were gleaming playfully.

“I’m not harming you.” Duskpaw brought her paws down hard on the water and soaked Kestrelflight. “I’m wetting you!”

Night crashed out of the bushes.

“Playing in the water like kits?” he mocked. “Wow, I’m so scared you might actually be smart enough to escape.”

Duskpaw hissed, all of her playfulness gone. Bumblestripe noticed her claws sliding out. He stepped in front of her.

“No,” he ordered. “Fighting isn’t going to get us anywhere. Listen to Night, he’s really smart to have thought we’re dumb cats.”

The aggressiveness disappeared from Duskpaw’s face, although her claws were still out. Night curled his lips into a snarl.

“Take your prey and herbs back to the camp,” he commanded. “Since you were fooling around and mocking me, we get the pheasant.”

“I don’t think they even planned on letting us keep whatever big thing we caught,” Minnowtail whispered to Bumblestripe as they walked back to their makeshift camp.

Bumblestripe nodded, then blurted out, “Did you train in the Dark Forest?”

Bumblestripe clamped his jaws down harder on his prey, but it was too late.

Minnowtail didn’t seem to mind. “Yes, I did. How’d you figure it out?”

“Oh, Ivypool told me that a RiverClan cat was really good at climbing in the Dark Forest,” Bumblestripe relaxed. “I guessed when I saw how well you climbed, even though you’re a RiverClan cat. And you water-fight with ease. Your Clan does fight in the water, but something about you was more than that.”

Minnowtail nodded. “Just don’t judge me based off of that, okay? I don’t like it.”

“Of course I won’t,” Bumblestripe mewed. “I just wanted to know.”

“I won’t either!” Duskpaw mewed clearly, dropping her squirrel. Apparently she’d been listening. Minnowtail purred through her mouthful of hare.

When they got back to camp, they set down their prey. Kestrelflight placed his herbs gently on the ground, and Pine darted forward and chewed up a few. She beckoned the others with her tail, and they all swallowed the rest of the traveling herbs.

The Clan cats shared the squirrel and the hare. Surprisingly, their captors allowed them that much food “Because we’re kind,” according to Pine.

Is it really kindness? Or are we being fed well for a different reason?

_____________________________________________________________________________________

DUSKPAW

Duskpaw yawned. Her belly was full for once, her fur warm from awaking in a patch of hot sunshine. It was already sunhigh; she couldn’t believe she’d slept that long, or even been allowed to.

She stretched luxuriously, feeling her muscles loosen as she arched her back. Pine, Storm, Night, Marigold, and the Clan cats: Bumblestripe, Minnowtail, and Kestrelflight, were still sleeping. That’s odd.

While she waited for them to wake up, her thoughts wandered back to ShadowClan. Were her parents worrying about her, or her brother Slatepaw?

(NOTE: Not the Slatekit that appears in The Apprentice's Quest allegiances. Forget that kit ever existed)

What about her mentor, Crowfrost? He would be worried. He was a great mentor, teaching her everything she needed to know to be the best warrior ShadowClan would ever have.

A horrible thought crossed her mind. If she couldn’t get back to ShadowClan, who would be her mentor the rest of the time? Maybe she should ask Bumblestripe and Minnowtail to be her temporary mentors. Minnowtail was the best at fighting and climbing because she’d trained in the Dark Forest, but with good intentions. But she lived in RiverClan, so she wouldn’t know the forest things Bumblestripe could teach her.

Bumblestripe was getting up, and Minnowtail rustled in her leafy nest.

“Bumblestripe,” Duskpaw mewed, “Can...can you and Minnowtail be my mentors till we get back to the Clans? I’ve already missed a moon of training.”

Bumblestripe blinked warmly. “Of course. If Minnowtail agrees.”

“Yes, I will.” Minnowtail was awake. “You don’t want to be held back from being a warrior just to catch up on training.”

“Oh, thank you!” Duskpaw was bursting with joy. She bounced up and down happily. “When can we start?”

“Now,” Bumblestripe meowed. “Let’s practice hunting. Crouch down.” He demonstrated for Duskpaw, tucking in his tail and still as a tree. “Now the pounce-- like this!” Bumblestripe leaped forward and his forepaws dug into the stick he’d been focusing on.

Duskpaw copied the hunter’s crouch, her tail wriggling happily.

“Whoa, steady that tail!” Bumblestripe exclaimed. “You’d rustle some leaves, and then the prey would hear you.”

Duskpaw relaxed her tail, letting it touch the ground.

“Now it’s going to brush branches and bushes,” Bumblestripe mewed. “Hold your tail up, but not too high.”

Duskpaw crouched perfectly.

“Leap!”

She focused on a fallen blueberry and pounced, feeling her paw pads sink into soft, fruity flesh. Licking her lips, she hooked it in a claw and popped it in her mouth. Sweet juices exploded inside as her teeth burst open the skin. Mmm-mm, she thought. Blueberries are good, just in a different way than prey.

“Working on your hunting skills?” Kestrelflight had woken up from the sound of training. “Why don’t we take a break and learn about herbs?”

“But I’m not going to be a medicine cat!” Duskpaw burst out. “I don’t need to learn herbs. I’m going to be a warrior.”

“Yes, but all warriors know the simple stuff,” Kestrelflight meowed. “Here. This is a dock leaf. I used it on our aching paws, remember? Just chew up a leaf and spread it on your paw, and bind it with something that won’t easily rub off when you put your paws down. If there are no cobwebs around and someone is bleeding badly, use goosegrass. And over there--” Kestrelflight pointed his tail at a bush full of bright scarlet berries. “--are deathberries. Eating just one will kill you. Don’t ever, ever touch them.”

Duskpaw stared at the bright red berries. One tiny berry could kill her? She shuddered at the thought.

“Taking lessons that everybody already know?” Storm sneered. Duskpaw looked around. Everybody was awake now. “Silly little kit.”

Duskpaw bristled. “I’m seven moons old already! Dumb cat! If you call me a kit, I can call you an aging old elder!”

“Shut up,” Storm spat. “And don’t you ever let me catch you disrespecting me again. Come on. It’s time to go.”

Duskpaw was filled with rage. Why did everybody treat her like a kit, and she still had to treat them with respect! She kicked a pebble and watched it soar through the air, landing in the blueberry bush.

“Calm down,” Minnowtail meowed. “It’s not worth getting angry. But,” she added, her eyes twinkling, “you do have a point.”

Duskpaw puffed out her chest fur and held her head high. She was pleased.

“Once we stop,” Minnowtail meowed, “I’ll teach you how to climb trees, and then we’ll learn fighting moves with Bumblestripe.”

Again, they stopped to rest and Pine sent them to hunt.

“I’ll let you teach her how to hunt,” Minnowtail mewed to Bumblestripe. She broke away from the group. “I live by the river, not the forests that you live in.”

“See that hare over there?” Bumblestripe gestured towards a hare blending in with the trees. “You chase it towards me, and I’ll kill it. I’ll be under that bush.”

Duskpaw nodded. This was exciting! As soon as Bumblestripe was hidden, she walked around to the hare. Her paw snapped a dry twig. Oops!

The hare whipped its head around to stare at her. Then it turned and bounded away.

“Mouse dung!” Duskpaw spat.

“Next time,” Bumblestripe slid out of the bush, “Put your paws down lightly, like this. That’s stalking prey. And don’t forget to always be downwind of your prey.”

“Got it,” Duskpaw meowed. “Can I try catching that rabbit on my own?”

“Okay, but since we’re practicing pair hunting, we have to hunt something else after that.”

Duskpaw stalked the rabbit, setting her paws down lightly. She tasted the air. The rabbit’s scent was blowing towards her, not the other way around. Good.

Duskpaw leaped, her claws sinking into the rabbit’s flesh. It struggled madly, trying to escape. She gripped it in her jaws and flicked her head. Its spine snapped, and it was dead.

Duskpaw hid it under a patch of brambles.

“I don’t want to kick dirt on it,” she explained to Bumblestripe. “I think dusty prey doesn’t taste as good.”

“Suit yourself,” Bumblestripe shrugged. “Your pelt will be full of thorns when you retrieve that.”

Duskpaw inhaled deeply. The scents of the forest swam around her, then ordered themselves into a clear picture of the surrounding area. A young blackbird was only a few fox-lengths away, nosing the ground for food. She licked her lips.

"Bumblestripe, what about that?"

"Sure,” Bumblestripe meowed. “But know this: Birds don’t smell well, but they have extraordinary vibration senses. Walk very lightly, like this.” Bumblestripe lowered himself to the ground and smoothed his fur. He slithered like a snake towards a rock. “Then pounce. But I just want you to chase it towards me.”

Duskpaw copied him, smoothing her puffy fur and sticking close to the ground. She felt her belly fur brush each bit of fallen foliage. She held her tail above the ground, just enough to clear the twigs and leaves on the ground. She slithered towards the bird, then broke into a hard run.

It flew up, but she gave it a glancing blow with her claws and herded it towards Bumblestripe. It began flying again, but she let it go. The bird flew straight towards him, up in a birch tree and completely camouflaged. Bumblestripe met it in midair and held it in his jaws. He landed and tossed his head suddenly. There was a crack as the bird’s spine snapped and it fell limp in his jaws.

“Let’s bring back our prey,” Bumblestripe picked up the blackbird. “You’d better pray to StarClan that you don’t lose some fur to a fox-hearted bush.”

Duskpaw merrowed with laughter. She lost a clump of fur off her hind leg, but nothing else. The rabbit’s delicious juices made her mouth water, and she wanted to eat it right on the spot.

Crowfrost’s voice floated through her head. The Clan must be fed first.

But it’s not a Clan. Still, Duskpaw restrained from eating the rabbit.

Minnowtail had caught a few fishes and a shrew. They piled their prey into a fresh-kill pile and back backed away as Pine and her group chose their share. The fish and the shrew. Then Minnowtail shared the blackbird with Bumblestripe. Kestrelflight settled down next to Duskpaw to share the blackbird.

“So, how’s your training going?” Kestrelflight asked. “What’re you learning?”

“How to hunt,” Duskpaw clawed at the bird to peel off its hard feathers, exposing the soft meat below. “Minnowtail’s going to teach me battle moves and how to climb better.”

Kestrelflight chewed a mouthful of blackbird. “What did you catch?”

“The rabbit on my own,” Duskpaw answered. “And me and Bumblestripe caught this blackbird together. I chose it and chased it to him. Then he killed it.”

Duskpaw chewed her bite of blackbird slowly. It was really good.

“This blackbird is really tasty,” Kestrelflight meowed. “You chose well. It’s young and soft, not at all tough like aged prey.”

They polished off the blackbird till nothing was left but a pile of feathers. Duskpaw crunched through the last bone. Kestrelflight gulped down the last scrap of meat. Minnowtail and Bumblestripe had finished off the rabbit, and Minnowtail eyed the remains of fish hungrily. The skin and spine of one fish looked ragged, but bits of meat clung to them. As soon as Pine backed away from it, she darted forward and gulped down the delicious scraps.

“You act like a fox,” Pine sneered. “Eating another cat’s food.”

“Excuse me,” Minnowtail mewed mockingly, “but I caught that. And I think that you act like a fox, too, you fox-hearts.”

“Shut up,” Pine bristled. “You didn’t even catch real prey, only fish and a tiny shrew.”

“I’ve met plenty of cats who eat fish,” Minnowtail meowed curtly. “Many cats also eat small creatures.”

“Come on, make your nests,” Storm broke in. “We’ll take those feathers, if you won’t mind.”

She scooped up the blackbird feathers and brought them to the piles of moss to be separated into nests.

Bumblestripe collected some fronds of bracken and piled them into nests.

“Hey,” Kestrelflight meowed, “Can’t we use this rabbit pelt?”

“Yes, that would be comfy,” Minnowtail mewed. “And why don’t we move the nests to surround that patch of comfrey? Its leaves are soft. Duskpaw or Kestrelflight could have the comfrey nest.”

“I don’t need to be treated like a kit!” Duskpaw mewed indignantly. “Kestrelflight can have it--he’s a medicine cat.”

So Duskpaw helped drag ferns around the comfrey, and Kestrelflight settled down on top of it.

Minnowtail ripped open the rabbit pelt and stretched it to its full length. She placed it on top of the nests. Duskpaw settled down on it. It was warm and soft, making a wonderful furry nest. She rolled onto her side and tucked in her tail. Surrounded by the soft breathing of her friends, she fell asleep.

She dreamed of ShadowClan, playing with her sisters, Poolpaw and Sweetpaw. They tumbled around in the dirt, laughing happily. Then, as Sweetpaw leaped onto Duskpaw, a blizzard was suddenly swirling around her. Duskpaw’s sisters were nowhere to be seen. A shadowy shape appeared in the snow, and whispered, The darkest moment for four is approaching.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

KESTRELFLIGHT

Kestrelflight woke up on the soft rabbit pelt and comfrey patch. He stretched and waited for the others to wake up. An entire two moons had passed since he’d been sneaked out of the WindClan camp. When would he return home?

Duskpaw suddenly thrashed in her nest. Her jaws parted as if she was saying something, but they didn’t move anymore. Her tail tip twitched, then she stilled completely. Kestrelflight wondered what she was dreaming. Being chased by a fox? A badger? Or maybe a Dark Forest warrior. Kestrelflight shivered as he remembered the Great Battle with the Place of No Stars. Flashing claws, cats fighting to kill, always searching for a way to get a killing grip. Spines snapped, throats were slashed, wounds bled until the victim died even after the battle was over.

Duskpaw suddenly woke up, lurching out of her nest. Kestrelflight stared at her wild, mismatched eyes. The green one was panicked and the blue one carried an emotion that was both distress and puzzlement.

“What is it, Duskpaw?” Kestrelflight mewed gently. “What did you dream?”

“A-a cat from the s-snow said something c-c-creepy,” Duskpaw stammered. “‘The darkest moment for four is approaching.’ Then the snowstorm passed and I saw cats screeching and fighting and bleeding and ripping, and oh, it was horrible! What does it mean, Kestrelflight?” Duskpaw was wailing now. “You’re the medicine cat!”

“Calm down,” Kestrelflight soothed. “It’s a message from StarClan that will unravel by itself in its own time.”

Duskpaw had woken up everybody else.

“What the heck are you screeching about?” Frost demanded. “Anyone would have thought a badger had clawed your fur out.”

“A nightmare,” Duskpaw lied. Kestrelflight noticed her whiskers twitch as she lied. “A badger did claw my fur out in the dream, then the badger turned out to be you.”

“Liar,” Storm growled. She looked lovingly up at Frost. Kestrelflight wondered why. She hadn’t acted like this before, and he’d never have thought that Storm was capable of loving someone. “Frost would never be a badger, even in a dream.”

Frost looked pleased, and he licked Storm’s ear. “Right. And neither would you.”

Pine yowled loudly to get attention.

“It’s time to go.” Pine signaled with her tail to leave. A devilish glint entered her eyes. “We’re almost home.”

Kestrelflight felt as if ice-cold water was trickling down the base of his fur. What would happen when they got to Pine’s home?

“What about food?” Marigold asked.

Pine looked at her scornfully. “You’re the fastest. Run ahead and tell everyone to prepare a feast.”

Marigold dashed off. Kestrelflight watched her paws skimming the ground, her fur a rippling blur. She cleared six fox-lengths in seconds.

"She’s got to be the fastest cat I know!" Kestrelflight thought.

They trekked on. It was sundown when they reached a meadow ringed side by tall, dark trees. Mountains were on one side of the place, but they weren’t the mountains of the Tribe of Rushing Water. Cats peeked out from various places, and there was a scoop stocked full of fresh-kill. Some were lapping at a clear spring of water in the middle of the meadow.

“These are the four cats for the Death Ring,” Pine’s meow was clear and held authority. “We will eat in the honor of cats to prove the strength of a new leader.”

Cats began cheering and their yowls filled the air.

“Now let us feast!” Pine yowled.

Everyone darted forward and snatched up pieces of prey. Each had its own piece. No one attempted to share except those that seemed to be mates, and kits sharing prey with their parents.

Marigold was suddenly next to Kestrelflight and the others, who were just staring hungrily at the fresh-kill.

“Eat,” she urged. “From now on you won’t have to do any work, and you can eat as much prey as your belly will hold.”

Kestrelflight walked respectfully over to the fresh-kill hole, aware that the other cats had simply rushed in. He chose a juicy-looking hare and dropped it at Bumblestripe’s paws.

“Would you like to share?” Kestrelflight dipped his head.

Bumblestripe flicked his tail, signaling yes. They crouched down and ate. Minnowtail and Duskpaw shared a trout.

When everyone had finished, cats walked over to the trees and settled down among the roots. Mates and kits washed each others’ fur, but no one else did. They’re so distant. Kestrelflight thought. Why do they even live together, then?

A white-and-black tom walked up to them.

“I am the Leader’s Helper,” he meowed. “My name is Stone, and I will show you where to sleep and what to do tomorrow.” He led them to a shallow dip at the roots of a tree. Fresh moss cushioned the dip, but old, musky scents rose from from under it. Kestrelflight flopped down into it, wrinkling his nose at the odor. Minnowtail lay her head his tail, and Bumblestripe allowed Duskpaw to curl up next to him.

Kestrelflight felt apprehension fill him. What would happen tomorrow? Would they enter the Death Ring already? He couldn’t sleep, but the Ring cats were soon snoring.

The soft pad of pawsteps made Kestrelflight open his eyes. Marigold was bending over them.

“Get up,” she whispered. “This could possibly be your last night here, unless we do something. And we could all enjoy it.”

Bumblestripe got up first. Kestrelflight sensed exhaustion and dread rippling off his pelt like waves.

“What can we do?” Marigold mewed softly. “I don’t want anyone killed.”

“Challenge Pine four-to-one?” Minnowtail suggested. “We stand a better chance of beating her altogether.”

“That could work,” Duskpaw chipped in. Kestrelflight stared at her. Her expression was serious. He realized she’d grown from the near-kit at the beginning of the journey to a fit young cat. A pang of homesickness hit him as he realized how long he’d been away from WindClan, but he brushed it off. This was not the time to be brooding on his woes.

“But what if Pine thinks we’re weak?” Bumblestripe pointed out. “That and the tradition might make her still have us fight to the death. Besides, no cat wants to fight a losing battle. Especially an ambitious one.”

“You know,” Kestrelflight piped up, “Jayfeather told me Lionblaze once defeated a fox single-pawed. We could tell her that where we come from, cats can defeat foxes single-pawed and drive out rogues on our own. The fox thing will be a little bit true.”

“Great plan,” Minnowtail meowed. “Let’s get it working tomorrow.”

“I can’t sleep,” Bumblestripe suddenly burst out. Kestrelflight saw his pelt burn with shame, and he clapped his tail over his mouth.

Marigold’s eyes grew soft. “This always helps me sleep. Look around,” Marigold mewed with a sweep of her tail, “this is called the Moonlit Meadow. See why.”

Kestrelflight’s eyes grew round as the full moon above. The bright moonlight illuminated the meadow. Little wildflowers dotted the grass, reaching up to the nonexistent sun. Every single blade of grass was tinted a silvery color. The trees grew high up into the starry night sky. The light of Silverpelt lit up each cat’s face, even Duskpaw’s jet-black fur. Her mismatched eyes, usually portraying different emotions, both showed awe.

Kestrelflight breathed in the sharp night air. A soft breeze ruffled his fur as he gazed up at the stars. Is that StarClan, or a different group of ancestors? Whether it was StarClan up in Silverpelt or not, the beauty of the meadow alone relaxed him.

He slept well that night.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

MINNOWTAIL

Minnowtail woke up to soft prodding by Duskpaw. She yawned and stretched. Last night had been a wonderful experience. And they’d figured out a good plan.

“Minnowtail,” Duskpaw meowed, “Stone says we need to get up and go to the spring.”

Pine was waiting for them.

“Good,” she meowed. “You’re here. Eat your fill,” Pine motioned to the fresh-kill hole, “you’ll need all of your strength.”

Pine ate with them, selecting a squirrel from the hole. Minnowtail chewed the succulent meat of a water vole and a minnow. The prey reminded her of what she ate in RiverClan. They all ate in silence.

When she had finished, Pine began washing.

“So,” she meowed in between licks, “At warmsun you will fight to the death. Duskpaw versus Kestrelflight, Minnowtail versus Bumblestripe. Winners fight together. Then that winner fights me. Any questions?”

“What is warmsun?” Minnowtail asked. She’d never heard of it before.

“Cloud-brain,” Pine grumbled, “warmsun is--duh--when the sun is highest in the sky and at its warmest.”

“Oh,” Minnowtail’s fur grew hot that the answer was so obvious, “We call that sunhigh.”

“I have something to say,” Kestrelflight asked. Pine gave her head an annoyed flick. “I have an idea that will prove you are even stronger than that. First, if we try killing each other, we will be severely wounded, the wounds probably fatal in the second round. Even if we make it, you, at full strength, will surely kill us. So we should all battle you at full strength, and prove you are strong enough to lead your cats into battles where you are outnumbered and against fit opponents, and you still win.”

Pine cocked her head. A hateful glint showed in her amber eyes.

“That would be a good idea,” A massive tabby tom padded forward. Minnowtail’s eyes widened. He was twice the size of a regular cat, and didn’t look like a regular cat at all. His black markings were a mix between spots and stripes. He had yellow eyes and his voice carried a strange accent. Something told her that this tom was not all cat.

“Cheetah,” Pine glared at him, “As a cat whose parentage is not truly of cats, you have no right to speak. Being with cats who will feed you and care for you is the most we can do for a you, who is half serval. Leave us now. It is not in your rights to discuss matters concerning my leadership.”

Cheetah’s yellow eyes blazed, and he narrowed them to slits.

“Very well, Pine,” he said smoothly, but his voice held a hiss that he did not try to disguise underneath his polite tone. “But be warned that you too are a cat whose lineage is unclean. I will bet you all the mice in the Moonlit Meadow that your ancestor, one cat or another, mated with a collared-cat.”

Cheetah stalked away. Minnowtail felt uncomfortable knowing that the cat next to her had been a half-cat.

Stone suddenly stepped forward.

“Pine, it would be wise to choose this,” he mewed. “Remember Killdeer? He died in his first battle. He wasn’t fit to be our leader. He only beat that mangy she-cat because she was so weak from her previous fights.”

Pine lashed her tail. She analyzed each Clan cat warily, and grudgingly grunted her consent.

Minnowtail noticed that another large pale brown cat with black markings, but it was a she-cat. She was just was big as Cheetah, and Minnowtail guessed they were littermates. As if StarClan was proving it to her, she began licking Cheetah’s ears and then washing the rest of his fur. He purred affectionately, and Minnowtail envied how close they were. They only have each other, which ties them closer together.

“Stop staring at the Serval twins,” Stone cuffed her ear with unsheathed claws. “Cheetah and Serval are half-cats. They might even be some of the tributes in the next Death Ring. Half-cats are useless to real cats.”

Time until sunhigh passed slowly. Minnowtail felt apprehension and nervousness gnaw at her belly. She felt like butterflies were wriggling inside her body as her nervousness grew stronger. A stick had been propped up next to the spring, and claw marks in the ground indicated each movement of the sun. Minnowtail admired the time teller, but pushed that away. She watched anxiously as the shadow of the stick moved to the largest claw mark in the ground. The Death Ring had begun.

Upon seeing that, all Meadow cats except Pine leaped into the trees to get out of the way, even the tiniest of kits. Minnowtail watched Serval and Cheetah soar through the air and land on a high branch of the tallest tree in the Moonlit Meadow. Great StarClan! Did they inherit that jumping from their serval parent?

“Now,” Pine yowled, “The Clan cats will all fight me, to make sure that I am the strongest leader possible. Do not question me. And the Death Ring begins...NOW!”

Pine leaped towards the Clan cats and raked her forepaws, claws unsheathed, down Bumblestripe and Duskpaw’s noses, then immediately kicked out behind her by leaning forward on her forelegs. Minnowtail narrowed her eyes. Pine fought like a Dark Forest cat for sure.

Pine performed the same moves again. Minnowtail was unable to break through her offensive defenses, and only got hurt more and more. Pine suddenly twisted on a forepaw and scored her claws down each cat’s face in the twist. Minnowtail ducked another strike and slashed, then performed a leap-and-twist and landed on Pine’s back. Pine gasped as the air was driven from her body, but suddenly surged upward, knocking Minnowtail off. Pine turned on her and pinned her down, raking her claws along Minnowtail’s back. She screeched in pain.

Pine’s weight was off of Minnowtail. She quickly got up and saw Duskpaw and Kestrelflight hauling Pine away. Pine broke free and scampered away. Panting, Minnowtail stared at Pine. She was a better opponent than Minnowtail’d expected.

Kestrelflight led the attack, charging at Pine and yanking her by the tail off balance. She fell down, but got up again and gave his nose a vicious swipe. Then she straddled him to get a killing grip on his throat.

Duskpaw screeched. “Do not harm a medicine cat!”

She bit Pine’s ear hard. Minnowtail darted in and slammed her claws down hard on Pine’s other ear. Pine ran away and shook her head vigorously to clear the blood out of her ears. In that moment, Bumblestripe led the charge to defeat her. Just as they were a mouse-length away, Pine looked up in surprise. Satisfaction warmed Minnowtail pelt.

Then a yowl of pure agony. Bumblestripe’s eyes were wide with terror as Pine bit into his throat.

“Let--him--go!” With each word Duskpaw bit harder on Pine’s tail. She let go and each side ran away to an opposite part of the meadow. Minnowtail knew the pause in the fight would be short, and her lungs ached to use the precious time to catch their breath, but she knew she had to make a plan and notify the others.

Minnowtail gestured with her tail at the trees, and pointed her muzzle at Pine. Bumblestripe nodded, and so did Kestrelflight and Duskpaw. They understood.

Minnowtail launched herself back into battle with Pine. Duck, scrape, twist, turn, kick, slam, scratch--Great StarClan, Pine is tough! Minnowtail slipped away. Meanwhile, the other cats distracted Pine as Minnowtail charged towards a tree. She climbed higher and higher, remembering her climbing training in the Dark Forest. Dark Forest lessons could still be used in a life-or-death situation, right?

Duskpaw slammed her paws down hard on Pine’s back, sending her reeling in Minnowtail’s direction. Her friends continued to herd her towards Minnowtail, until Minnowtail was right above her.

Yowling a battle cry, Minnowtail jumped down and landed heavily on Pine’s back. She winced at the sickening crunch that came from Pine’s hind leg, but forced herself to continue. Minnowtail flipped Pine over onto her belly.

Fear flashed in Pine’s eyes. “I’m so sorry,” Minnowtail whispered, “but it has to be this way.”

Minnowtail raked her claws down Pine’s underbelly, then snatched her throat in her jaws. She sank her teeth deeper into Pine’s neck. The blood spilling into her mouth made her want to spit it out immediately, but she held tight. Pine thrashed around in vain, and Minnowtail could see again the fear and pain in her expression. She suddenly fell limp in Minnowtail’s grip, and she dropped her to the ground. Death was clouding Pine’s eyes, but Minnowtail knew she was still alive.

“I’m sorry.” Minnowtail bent down to Pine’s ear and whispered the words again.

Pine jerked feebly, then lay still. Her eyes were lifeless, unseeing. She had finally died.

I’m so, so sorry, Pine. Minnowtail felt guilty. She’d never killed a cat before, and her heart was breaking at the thought of having to do it. Minnowtail wondered why she felt like this towards a future tyrant. Why do I feel like I committed a crime just by saving my own life?

_____________________________________________________________________________________

SERVAL

Serval watched as Pine died. The muscular brown tabby jerked, and her tail twitched. Then she lay still, her body no longer rising and falling with the breathing that meant life. An elated joy filled her chest. Pine Trees on a Windy Day While Leaves are Falling is dead!

Serval remembered Pine’s mother. How kind she had been to them after joining these cats. They’d become very good friends, but an infected wound had sent her to join the dead. It was Pine’s mother, Scorched Leaves by Snow in Cold-Moons, or Scorched, who had told Serval that only close friends and family knew of each cats’ true name, or their extremely long name. Scorched told Serval that Pine’s full name was Pine Trees on a Windy Day While Leaves are Falling. She’d helped Serval fill in her name from Serval to Serval Who Leaps Higher than the Tallest Trees, and Cheetah to Cheetah Who Runs Faster than the Harshest Wind.

Pine had never been as kind as Scorched. It was impossible to guess they were related by looks and personality. Scorched was kind, loving, and quite forgiving. She had a long cream coat and pale yellow eyes. Pine’s brown tabby fur and amber eyes always held a haughty look, even during the sad times when she was grieving for the death of her parents.

“Who will lead us now? There are still four of you.” Stone’s meow pulled Serval out of her deep thinking. She was brought back into the present, with blood staining the meadowy ground and filling the air with its metallic reek. Kestrelflight was tending Bumbletripe’s dangerous throat wound.

“Me,” Minnowtail’s silvery gray fur was hidden under Pine’s blood, “but not for long. I will leave you in the paws of an honorable Moonlit Meadow cat, but only after I establish some new rules.”

The Meadow cats listened intently to their new leader. Kestrelflight continued to patch up Bumblestripe while they both listened.

“First, there will be no more Death Ring.” Shocked gasps filled the meadow, but Minnowtail continued. “Why do you need a good leader in physical strength when you can have one who will prove himself or herself by wisdom? Avoid bloodshed and unreasonable battles. Yes, you may fight of course, but try not to provoke it for small reasons. That is what a wise leader would do.”

“Next, I want you to become closer to each other. Be kinder, caring, compassionate. Why don’t you share prey with others who are not mates and kits? You need to live together with trust or you will break apart one day. You would not be called a group of cats. Just cats who live in the same territory.”

“Have a system for new leaders. Maybe the leader can choose a strong and smart young cat to be leader after that leader dies. If that cat gets old, you can choose a new one or keep that cat in the will-be leader position.”

“Now, I’m leaving you under the command of Marigold Flower Blooming in the Sunshine on a Warm Day,” Minnowtail continued. “She is wise. She is loyal to good. I trust her to lead you through your darkest times and greatest joys. Bumblestripe, Kestrelflight, and Duskpaw will leave back home.”

“Who will take you back?” A random cat called out. “You don’t know the right way, do you?”

“I will.” Serval found her mouth moving before she realized it. She opened her eyes wider in shock. Why did I do that? I don’t know how to get there!

“Do you know the way?” Marigold’s soft ginger pelt shone out among the other cats’. When Serval didn’t answer, she told her, “Just go through the mountains and then keep going. Head to Squirrel Rock and then keep going straight. It should take only a moon or so. Storm, Frost, Night, will you volunteer to help them?”

“Never,” Night hissed. “I’d rather die nine times than serve under a weak fool.”

“Us too,” Storm spat. “Frost and I will go live our own lives, maybe with Night. Away from you weaklings. Your softness could be contagious.”

With that, the trio bolted from the clearing, getting as far away as fast as their legs would allow them. Marigold looked around. “Anyone else want to leave?”

A few cats had been watching Marigold with contempt. Now they nodded sourly and ran in the direction that Night, Storm, and Frost had gone.

A skinny old gray-brown cat padded towards Marigold.

“All the seasons I’ve lived,” he rasped, “I have been waiting for such a change. A change that would mean peace and less death. My family all died to useless battles that were provoked by us. Finally there is this change, but I am too old to enjoy it long. I hope you live much longer than I do and keep us going in this golden age of the Moonlit Meadow.”

“Thank you, Nightshade,” Marigold dipped her head respectfully to him, then turned back to the Clan cats. “Serval will lead you. I wish I could, but I’m afraid that my cats could return to being mean and cruel. So good luck. Serval, I hope you’ll be back by in a few moons.”

“Can I go too?” Cheetah stepped forward. “I don’t want to leave Serval alone.”

“Of course,” Marigold replied. “Rest tonight. You can leave tomorrow morning.”

Marigold sent Deer, Grass, Patch, and Roar to catch prey. Then she herself led Moose, Sun, Tail, and Moon out to fully stock the prey hole.

They returned with lots of prey, going back a few times to retrieve it all. Serval spotted Tail, his paws moving slowly, gently rolling five bird eggs. Serval licked her lips in anticipation. Bird eggs were delicious.

Each cat carefully selected their food. The best bits went to the kits, the second-best to the old cats, and the rest for everyone else to take. Serval raced to the prey, then carefully rolled away two eggs and a squirrel. She gulped them down eagerly.

Serval settled down on her grassy sleeping area at the roots of the tallest tree. Cheetah lay down next to her. Serval enjoyed her littermate’s warmth.

“Hope we get back soon,” she murmured sleepily. “Marigold’ll be a great leader. I’d love to serve under her.”

“Me too,” Cheetah mumbled. “Me too.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Part 2: The Journey Back

Serval was pulsing with the exhilaration of the journey. She’d quickly gotten over the fact that she’d never taken the path before.

Squirrel Rock, Squirrel Rock, Squirrel Rock, she chanted in her head.

The Clan cats had been silent most of the trip. In an attempt to kill the silence, Serval meowed, “How is it like in a Clan?”

Wrong question. The cats shifted uncomfortably, making the quiet even more unbearable.

Finally, Duskpaw spoke.

“I don’t really know,” she mewed. “At home, I left as a kit who found ShadowClan the best Clan ever. I thought the other Clan cats were weird.”

Duskpaw looked at her companions with a glow of warmth.

“I know that was wrong, and I don’t know if what else I believed is true.”

They were so close to each other. As close as Serval was to Cheetah. This made her jealous, because littermates should be closer than friends were to each other…right?

“I wonder how…” Bumblestripe cut himself off. “Nevermind.”

“What?” Minnowtail asked.

“It’s nothing,” Bumblestripe insisted.

“It’s Dovewing, I’m sure of it!” Duskpaw mewed. “Every kit in ShadowClan thinks you’re in love with her!”

“Why do they--” Bumblestripe sighed. “Okay, yes, I admit I was thinking of her.”

“I thought you two aren’t mates anymore,” Kestrelflight meowed.

“We aren’t, but she was a good friend,” Bumblestripe answered.

Cheetah was silent. While the others were asleep last night, he’d told Serval his concerns for leaving the Moonlit Meadow. There was food, proper bedding, and a sure source of water, he’d said. But Serval was determined to go. So he’d stayed with her.

“Let’s hurry up, Marigold said it’ll take two moons to get to your Clans,” Serval meowed, quickening her pace. Her companions nodded, and they walked on in silence.

Hope we get there soon, Serval thought.

“My paws are so sore,” Serval complained. They’d been traveling for what felt like season-cycles, but she guessed that, in reality, it’d only been a moon. “I swear to the spirits I will kill if my paws don’t stop aching.”

“Lazy,” Cheetah mewed, bumping her shoulder affectionately. “Look, the sun will be setting soon. Then your paws can rest while we sleep.”

“No, I can find some herbs now,” Kestrelflight offered. “Just wait here, I’ll go get them.”

“Okay,” Minnowtail meowed. “Or maybe we’ll go hunting instead, to make use of the time.”

“That’s a great idea!” Duskpaw piped up. “I can show you all the new, cool hunting moves I know!”

Serval smiled. The little kit, who was, at the beginning of their journey according to the others, only six moons old. Now she looked much older, with sleek fur and muscles that rippled beneath them. Serval guessed she was around seven to eight moons old.

“Let’s hunt in groups,” Serval suggested. “Here, I’ll go with Duskpaw.”

“I’ll hunt with Cheetah and Bumblestripe,” Minnowtail mewed.

“I’ll catch the biggest prey!” Duskpaw yowled.

“I’m sure I’ll beat you!” Bumblestripe challenged.

"Oo, we’ve got competitors,” Cheetah meowed, a playful gleam in his eyes.

Serval and Duskpaw hunted in a thick swath of bushes and trees.

“Look, there’s a bear.” Serval pointed her tail at the bear foraging for blueberries. “Let’s stay away. If a cat gets too close, a bear could kill it.”

Serval watched as Duskpaw’s eyes widened at the sight of such a huge beast. They wandered off until they found a fat squirrel munching on some berries on a low branch of a tree. Serval nodded at Duskpaw. Immediately, Duskpaw crept forward, making sure she was downwind and watching the squirrel carefully. When she was close enough, she launched herself forward and wrapped her paws around the squirrel, digging her claws in and biting it to snap its neck.

“Great catch!” Serval congratulated.

They returned with a vole, a mouse, and the squirrel.

“Let’s wait for Kestrelflight, so we can share,” Bumblestripe meowed. Everyone agreed, and Serval lay down to wash herself.

Suddenly, a terrified yowl split the air, causing five crows to fly out of the treetops. It chilled Serval’s blood, making her fur and hackles rise.

“That sounded like Kestrelflight!” Cheetah jumped up, staring at the place where the screech had come from. A panicked Kestrelflight burst out of the bush, a yapping dog on his heels.

“Wha--”

“RUN!” Kestrelflight screeched. They all turned tail and ran for their lives. Serval darted up a tree, watching the dog bark below her. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that everyone was safe. The dog was lunging for Duskpaw, but kept smacking against the tree. Serval realized that it’d gone mad. Insanity sparkled in its eyes, and foam frothed at its lips. Serval began to pity it. Obviously its soul was gone, leaving its body with this shell. She’d seen it happen before, when she was a collared cat, and her friend Rocky had went crazy.

“We can get it!” Cheetah cried. He leaped off the branch and landed on the dog’s back. Serval watched, but didn’t join. It cracked her heart that her brother had to face it alone, but a chill had settled over her. Something was very wrong with the dog, and the whole fight in general…

Finally Cheetah gave up and scrambled weakly up a tree. He was bleeding from countless places. Eventually the dog gave up and toddled away.

When the threat was gone, they all returned to the forest floor. Cheetah was bristling with rage.

“Why didn’t you help me?!” The words stung Serval. “I needed help! We could have beat it! And Serval. I thought you of all cats would be the one to help.”

“Some--something was wr-wrong,” Serval stammered. “It felt so wrong, and, and--”

“And what?” Cheetah demanded. “We were the closest littermates to ever exist! And you turned your back on me!”

Shaking with fury, Cheetah stalked off. He curled up and slipped quickly into a deep sleep. Serval’s heart was prickling with guilt and misery. Everyone was left silent by Cheetah’s anger.

Serval let out sad meows as she fell asleep.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

KESTRELFLIGHT

The other cats were falling asleep, but Kestrelflight padded to Cheetah. He was not looking good. His breath shook, he wheezed, and his fur was too hot. He foamed a little at the mouth. Kestrelflight looked for some coltsfoot, feverfew, goldenrod, horsetail, juniper berries, lavender, marigold, and tormentil, but only found some of the herbs he needed. He applied a poultice to Cheetah’s wounds and trickled juice into his mouth. It was the best he could do to fight the sickness, but he worried that the juice of the herbs alone wouldn’t be enough.

Kestrelflight kept a watchful eye on Cheetah through the night. By the time the sun rose,he was ready to collapse.

Kestrelflight had no idea when his eyes drooped shut.

It was a bright, sunny day in a grassy field. Kestrelflight smiled as he gathered bunches of herbs.

This’ll be plenty for the trip, he thought. Then a cat approached him.

“Are you from StarClan?” Kestrelflight asked, recognizing the stars glittering in her fur and the transparency of her shape, like a cobweb ready to drift away at any moment. He dropped his herbs. “What is it?”

The cat gave him one answer.

“Mothflight,” she replied. “I was the first medicine cat ever. You cats now would call me an ancient. Follow me.”

She led him through the meadow until they reached a gushing stream.

“Watch,” Mothflight whispered. She daintily placed a single claw into the water, and a reflection of the sleeping Cheetah appeared.

“This cat can’t be saved,” Mothflight announced. Kestrelflight opened his mouth to protest, but she lifted her tail for him to stop. “He’s been infected with a fatal disease. If he isn’t killed soon, he’ll unleash it on you and your friends.”

“I’ll cure it,” Kestrelflight growled. But Mothflight shook her head.

“It’s a disease never heard of by the Clans,” Mothflight mewed. “After having saliva enter the blood, it begins to attack the mind. The closer to the spine or head, the faster the disease acts. It shoves the soul of a cat in the back of the body, and leaves an insane, hollow shell of its former self until the cat dies. While spirit watches itself act out and try to give others the disease, it suffers, until finally the cat dies and it’s free. Do you want this Cheetah to be subject to this torture?”

Kestrelflight looked down. “No.”

Mothflight rolled three brilliant red berries toward him. His eyes widened. They were berries from the yew bush, known as deathberries for how quickly they killed.

“He needs this,” Mothflight meowed. “It will be a mercy to him. Sometimes, a medicine cat must deal out the lesser evil.”

Fury welled up inside of him. “No way! Medicine cats heal, not kill! Maybe medicine cats have evolved from the first ones, because apparently they’re fine with handing out death like fresh-kill!”

Mothflight’s eyes sparked with anger.

“Do you know what I’ve gone through?” she spat. “I had a mate who died in a useless argument between two Clans. I had four kits afterwards, then was forced to give them up because I realized how a medicine cat can’t raise kits. I had to tell my friend not to become the mate of the cat she loved, because it was the way of a medicine cat. I went through so much more than you, and I understand doing bad things for the better of a good cat. If you can’t help your patient when StarClan gives you clear instructions on how to, then you are no medicine cat. You are a failure.”

“I’ll do it,” Kestrelflight mewed meekly. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t suffer.”

“Good,” Mothflight replied. “Tell him I’ve found a peaceful place for him to frolick, and when it’s his sister’s time, she can join him.”

Kestrelflight awoke next to Cheetah. He quickly scrambled away, fearful of the disease. Cheetah’s breathing had gotten more laborious, the foam at his mouth had increased, and his pelt brimmed with heat. The three deathberries that Mothflight had given him lay by Cheetah’s side.

He gently prodded Cheetah awake.

“Uh?” Cheetah mumbled. Kestrelflight showed him the berries.

“I need you to eat this,” he mewed, his heart rippling with guilt. “Eat it and everything will be better.”

“Will Serval forgive me?” Cheetah asked. “I realize it now. The dog was sick. Now I’m sick. She would’ve gotten sick too.”

“Yes.” Kestrelflight vowed to help Serval forgive her brother. He didn’t want to have to lie to a dying, pitiful cat.

He watched as Cheetah weakly speared a berry with his claw. He lifted it to his mouth and chewed before lapping up the other two with his tongue.

Spasms began to wrack his body. Even more spittle appeared on his muzzle. Kestrelflight stepped back to avoid the flying saliva, remembering Mothflight’s words.

“What did you--” The words were cut off by a gut-wrenching screech. Soon he grew too weak to move. Kestrelflight walked to him and leaned close to his ear.

“The spirits have found you a place in the life after death,” Kestrelflight whispered. “May you find good hunting, swift running, and plenty of prey. Goodbye.”

Cheetah’s eyes glazed over with death. Kestrelflight felt bad for forgetting to tell him that Serval would join him when she passed.

Killing a cat was the hardest thing Kestrelflight had ever done. It was worse than losing a cat, worse than having a kit die on your watch. Kestrelflight was numb to the yowls of horror from his companions.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

BUMBLESTRIPE

Bumblestripe looked in horror at Kestrelflight leaning over Cheetah’s dead body. Had he just fed him deathberries? Serval rushed forward, wailing in misery.

“Cheetah!” she cried. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have left you alone to get sick! Cheetah!”

Her cries eventually faded to silent woe.

“No…” Bumblestripe hadn’t known the cat for long, but it stung to see death right in front of him. It stung even more to know that the cat he’d befriended had just murdered another cat. “Kestrelflight! Why?”

Kestrelflight looked up, his eyes glittering with sorrow. “ A StarClan cat told me to. Cheetah was going to die either way.”

“Wait!” Serval turned towards Kestrelflight, hackles raised. “You killed him? And do you just listen when someone tells you to murder someone? And if he was going to die anyways, why didn’t you give him more time to live?”

Minnowtail, Bumblestripe, Duskpaw, and Serval all glared at him angrily.

“Because he would have given us the sickness!” Kestrelflight yowled. “I’ve been trained to heal cats! This was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life!”

“I’m sorry, Kestrelflight,” Duskpaw mewed. “We didn’t  know that. Please forgive us.” Bumblestripe did feel sorry, and he was sure that Minnowtail did too, but Serval looked completely unforgiving.

She’s just grieving, Bumblestripe realized. She’ll come out of it when it’s time.

They buried Cheetah at sunhigh.

“I miss you, Cheetah,” Serval whispered as she clawed dirt over his body.

“It’s time to go,” Minnowtail mewed. But Serval immediately turned on her.

“No!” she hissed. “We can’t leave him! I can’t leave him! He’s my brother!”

“He’d want you to continue the journey,” Minnowtail meowed gently. “He’d come all this way with you, and it would be a waste to see all that time and effort scrapped like that.”

Serval looked bitter, but she finally consented. “Okay. But we leave tomorrow.”

Bumblestripe and Minnowtail went out to catch the morning meal as the sun began to wake.

“How do you feel about going back?” Bumblestripe mumbled arounda mouthful of hare.

Minnowtail, who was carrying nothing more than two mice, answered, “I think it’ll be great to be back in RiverClan. But I’ll miss traveling with you guys. And hunting whenever I feel like it.”

Bumblestripe nodded. He felt the same way. The journey had tied them closer together than he could have ever guessed, and parting would be difficult.

They ate and chatted a little, and gulped down Kestrelflight’s herbs.

“Blech!” Serval mewed. “It tastes terrible!” “But it’ll help,” Kestrelflight promised. “In the Clans, we call these traveling herbs.”

They walked on until they reached a Twolegplace.

“Uh oh,” Serval muttered. “I don’t think Marigold told us that there would be a Twolegplace along the way.”

“You mean we’re lost?” Bumblestripe exclaimed. “We’ll never make it back to the Clans!”

“Relax!” Serval mewed, not sounding very relaxed herself. “Before we left, Marigold told me to keep heading for the sunrise. We’ve been going that way the whole time. This must be the right direction.”

The she-cat had barely spoken since Cheetah’s death. She was always irritated, and had flared up when Bumblestripe spoke.

“Well, how are we going to get through this maze?” Duskpaw asked. “It’s so weird and twisty and turny and smells bad!”

Duskpaw was right. The whole place reeked of Thunderpaths and monsters.

“Hi.” Bumblestripe looked up and saw a brown tom with amber eyes staring down at them.

“Wow, you’re wild cats!” a ginger tabby, next to the tom, meowed. “Just like Shaft and Towhee!”

“Who are they?” Bumblestripe asked.

“Oh, our friends,” the tom answered. “They went looking for a home. By the way, my name’s Jack. This is Cracker.”

“I’m Minnowtail.” Minnowtail stepped forward. “These are Serval, Bumblestripe, Kestrelflight, and Duskpaw. Do you have any idea where the opposite end of this place is?”

“You mean from where you’ve entered?” Jack asked, giving his paw a casual lick. “I think. It’s around where Rima lives, right?”

“Rima and Minty,” Cracker mewed. “How could you forget our kits? Minty lives with Rima, Skye went with her new owners, and Ryan is with that sweet old housefolk couple.”

“Just teasing,” Jack meowed, nudging her lovingly. “I’d take you there now, but it seems like the sun will go down soon.”

Bumblestripe turned to face the sun and sure enough, the sky was turning a more orange color, and streaks of pink were appearing.

“Do you know a place we can stay the night?” Serval asked.

“Oh, you can bed down at my place,” Cracker offered. “I have a bed inside and outside. Sometimes my housefolk make me sleep outside in a den that looks a lot like a dog’s. You can sleep in there. It fits two cats, just barely.”

“What about the rest of us?” Kestrelflight asked.

“I’m not sure,” Cracker admitted. “Maybe you could find a spot in the bushes?”

“I guess that’ll work,” Serval mewed.

Cracker’s nest was made of weird colorful soft things. It reminded Bumblestripe faintly of animal pelts.

“Who’s going to sleep in there?” Minnowtail asked.

“Kestrelflight and Duskpaw,” Cracker replied. “They’re the only ones that will fit in there together.”

“Okay,” Duskpaw meowed. The two bedded down in the comfy pelts.

“That spot looks good in the bushes.” Bumblestripe settled down there, leaving Minnowtail and Serval to find their own sleeping places.

But with his head swirling with anticipation for the Clans, he had trouble sleeping.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

DUSKPAW

Duskpaw stretched luxuriously in the warmth spilling from the morning sun.

“Good morning, Cracker,” she meowed.

“Good morning,” the ginger tabby she-cat mewed cheerfully. “Why don’t you go catch your breakfast and then we’ll set off.”

“Is everyone else awake yet?” Duskpaw asked. Cracker shook her head.

“I bet they’ll be surprised how much prey you can catch,” Cracker meowed. “Can I go with you, to learn how to hunt?”

“Sure,” Duskpaw answered.

“I know the perfect place. Follow me.” Cracker bounded away, her pale ginger pelt glowing in the golden sunlight.

They ended up in what seemed to Duskpaw like a miniature forest.

“Whoa,” she mewed. “I never knew Twolegplaces had hunting grounds.”

“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Cracker ran to the forest, but Duskpaw shouted, “Wait!”

“We need to be quiet,” Duskpaw explained. “If we make a racket, the prey will know we’re there. Even squirrels have brains. They don’t want to die.”

“Oh, okay.”

Duskpaw taught Cracker the basics that Bumblestripe, Minnowtail, and even Crowfrost had taught her. They returned to Cracker’s home with a thrush, a rabbit, and a vole. Cracker had actually caught the vole, while Duskpaw had caught the thrush and the rabbit with Cracker’s help.

“You know, you’re a good teacher,” Cracker meowed, dragging the rabbit along. “You’d make a great trainer one day.”

“A trainer?” Duskpaw was confused.

“My friend Shaft knew a cat who was a trainer. Trainers pick a kit and train it to become a proper cat,” Cracker explained.

Sounds a lot like a mentor, Duskpaw noted.

“Thanks,” she mewed.

“Would you like to share the thrush?” Duskpaw offered as her friends took the vole and rabbit.

“That sounds great,” Cracker meowed, licking her lips. “But take as much as you want. I have food inside.”

Cracker was such a great hunter for her first time, Duskpaw had almost forgotten that her Twolegs, or housefolk, provided food for her.

Cracker only nibbled a couple bites before turning to her kittypet food. Duskpaw knew that it wasn’t because she didn’t like it but because she understood that the thrush was the only way Duskpaw would fill her belly.

“Well, Jack volunteered to lead you over to the edge of the city, but I’m coming along,” Cracker announced. “Just to make sure he doesn’t lead you down the wrong path or something. We’ll leave when he comes here.”

They travelled through the labyrinth of Twoleg dens, led by the two mates. Sometimes they bickered over which way to go, but eventually agreed on one.

A huge Thunderpath lay in their way.

“Uh-oh,” Jack mewed. “I don’t think that’s safe. Cracker, do you know any other way to get through?”

“No,” Cracker replied. “We just have to cross it.”

There were seven long lanes of rushing monsters.

“We can make it if we take a break on those white lines,” Duskpaw suggested. “It seems like almost no monsters run their paws over there.”

“Sometimes they do,” Jack corrected, “When they’re switching lanes.”

“But they go slowly,” Cracker mused. “That’ll give us enough time to cross and think of which way to go and not have our skulls bashed to a pulp.”

“Very positive,” Bumblestripe muttered.

“Let’s go!” Serval was the first one to bound through the Thunderpath, stoppping on the white lines to check her surroundings. She made it halfway through to a short stone wall dividing the Thunderpath.

Duskpaw took a terrified step forward before realizing that gentle, tiny steps wouldn’t do. She bolted onto the pale gray stone, tucking her tail in to prevent a monster from rolling its paws over it.

Finally she got to Serval.

“That...was...terri...fying,” she panted to the large spotted cat. Serval nodded in agreement. Eventually, one by one, they all made it to the other side.

“I will never do that again,” Minnowtail mewed. “I was scared for my life every pawstep!”

“We all were,” Kestrelflight meowed. “But now we can get to our homes faster.”

“The Clans.” Duskpaw felt a lake of mixed emotions swish inside of her. She would finally be back in ShadowClan--but without Minnowtail, Bumblestripe, Kestrelflight, or even Serval. They’d all have to part and act like their adventure had never happened. But on the other paw, she would be reunited with her family and friends.

“We have to go now,” Cracker mewed. “Kyle lives around here. He visits us all the time. Jack and I need to see if Kyle knows a safer way to get back to our homes.”

“How do we make it back to ours?” Minnowtail asked.

“It isn’t that far,” Jack assured them. “Just cross one more road and you’ll be out of the city.”

Duskpaw was getting used to kittypet vocabulary. Roads seemed to be Thunderpaths, and cities were Twolegplaces.

They said their goodbyes and left, headed for their homes.

“When do you think we’ll make it to the Clans?” Duskpaw asked.

“I honestly have no idea,” Minnowtail replied. Completely switching the subject, she mewed, “Ready for battle practice?”

“Oh yeah!” Duskpaw exclaimed. “You and Bumblestripe are still my sort-of mentors!”

“Can I join in?” Serval asked.

“Of course,” Bumblestripe mewed.

“Okay, so when an enemy is attacking you like this--” Minnowtail lunged for Duskpaw with sheathed claws, “what do you do?”

“Um...slip under them?”

“Right! Try it now and let’s see where the battle goes.”

Minnowtail lunged again and Duskpaw slid under her, flipped onto her back, and kicked her legs up.

“Good try,” Bumblestripe commented, “but try to kick your legs where it’ll make her fall, then roll out of the way.”

This time, Serval pinned down Duskpaw. She kicked her back legs and scrambled away, watching Serval collapse onto the floor.

“Great!” Serval mewed. “What about we do a full mock fight?”

Serval pounced and Duskpaw rolled away. She swiped with sheathed claws at Serval’s cheek and slammed herself against her flank. The force did little against the large cat, but she did lose her footing for a moment. Duskpaw struck her legs and Serval fell.

“Good job,” Serval panted.

“You’ll be a fierce warrior in no time,” Kestrelflight assured her.

“Let me show you a move my friend Scorched taught me,” Serval mewed. “She called it the Storm Strike.”

Serval lashed out with a swipe with her left paw, then right. Duskpaw knew this trick--every Clan cat did. But then she ducked low to kick out her opponent’s legs with her forepaws.

“You try now,” Serval mewed.

Duskpaw used the two-paw strike move, then tried to knock Serval over, but the big cat was too sturdy. Instead, she gently placed her jaws around her leg.

“Creative,” Bumblestripe observed, “but we really need to teach you about how to knock out your opponent’s legs.”

“I’ll show her,” Kestrelflight meowed. Replying to the surprised looks of his companions, he added, “It’s one of the battle moves a medicine cat learns.”

“Strike as hard as you can to the back of the knee joint,” Kestrelflight mewed. “See?”

Suddenly Duskpaw felt something smack her knee and she crumpled to the ground.

“That’s great!” Minnowtail meowed. “Let’s do a little more training, then get back on the path.”

Finally Duskpaw got the move down and they headed on.

The first landmark they saw were the mountains.

“Please don’t tell me we’re back in the Moonlit Meadow,” Bumblestripe mewed.

“No--it’s the some other mountains!” Serval leaped up in happiness. “We weren’t running in circles at all! Hooray!”

“The sun sets in that direction.” Minnowtail pointed her tail in the direction of the mountains. “Looks like we have to go that way to get to the Clans.”

“Um,” Duskpaw meowed uncertainly, “am I just imagining those cats up in the mountains?”

Four figures were perched on a rock, watching the travellers with beady eyes.

“No, you aren’t.” Kestrelflight stared at the cats. “I hope they’re friendly.”

The cats began marching down towards them.

“What are you doing in our territory?” one hissed. It was a tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat with large pointed ears.

“Manners, Spring,” the silver tabby meowed. “Let’s start again. Hi, my name is Stripes, this is Twist, and Flick,” he motioned to the tortoiseshell with white stripes on her face and the lithe brown tom, “and their daughter Spring. Now if you don’t have a good reason for being here, we’ll rip you to shreds.”

“Even I have better manners,” Duskpaw mewed. “And I’m moons younger than you all.”

“Whatever, just tell us why you’re here,” Stripes spat.

“Calm down,” Flick mewed. “Just be a little welcoming? There’s a kit here, you know.”

“I am not a kit!” Duskpaw yowled, but everyone ignored her.

“We’re here to get home,” Bumblestripe explained. “Do you mind if we rest in your mountains for a little?”

“Go along,” Flick hissed. “It’s none of your business.”

“They’re just trying to get home,” Twist meowed, stepping forward. “I’m sorry, we had to fight hard for this land. We can accommodate you, but not for long. I don’t think my friends will enjoy it much.”

“You can’t just make decisions, Twist!” Flick meowed. “We’re a group!”

“But these cats need our help,” Twist argued. “Can’t we do a nice thing and support them so they can continue on their way?”

“Stop!” Spring yowled. “Listen. We’ll bring them back to camp and have a vote. Even if it’s voted that they leave, they can rest for a night at least. Deal?”

“Fine,” Stripes grumbled. “Come on, our camp’s over here.”

The camp was located in a cave. A stream ran clear outside. Cats were gathered inside the cave, looking surprised at seeing the newcomers.

“Who’re they?” a dark brown and white she-cat asked.

“Guests,” Stripes replied, licking her ear. “How are the kits, Flora?”

“They’d be much better without invaders,” Flora meowed with a glare.

“VISITORS!” A large gray tabby kit charged out of the cave, followed by a little brown one. They skidded to a stop in front of them.

“Wow, she’s got two different eyes!” the gray one observed, rearing up on her hind legs to peek closer at Duskpaw’s face. A bushy bunch of gray fur filled her vision. “How did that happen?”

“I was kitted like that,” Duskpaw replied, gently batting the kit away. “My name’s Duskpaw. What’s yours?”

“I’m Storm,” the brown kit answered, puffing out his chest. “This is my sister Ember.”

“Hello, Duskpaw!” Ember mewed. “Can we play hide and hunt?”

“I love hide and hunt!” Storm cried, excited. “Please, weird multi-colored eyes kitty?”

“Only if you don’t call me weird,” Duskpaw mewed. She remembered playing count and hide when she was little, and hide and hunt sounded like the same game.

“Don’t play with strangers,” Flora growled. “Go back to the nest. Your father can bring you a squirrel.”

“Daddy can bring us a squirrel when we’re done playing hide and hunt!” Ember meowed, prancing around.

“Go play, Duskpaw,” Kestrelflight suggested. “We’ll talk with these cats.”

“I count!” Ember announced. “Go hide now, Duskpaw! One! Two! Five! Three! Eight! Ten! Seven! Four!”

Duskpaw realized that Stripes and Flora hadn’t emphasized numbers in the kits’ lessons. She dashed away, hiding in a cleft between some rocks. She closed her eyes to hide the colors.

“Eleven! Twenty! Ready or not, here I come!” Duskpaw heard Ember scamper around, searching for her and Storm.

“Found you!” Ember cried. Duskpaw opened her eyes to the little kit poking her fur. “Now we battle! Rawr!”

Ember launched a series of little swipes at Duskpaw. She gently bowled the kit over.

“Aw! I lose!” Ember mewled. “Okay, now you have to help me find Storm!”

Duskpaw’s ears pricked to the sound of muffled pawsteps. Flicking her gaze in the direction of the noise she spotted a small gray shape padding behind a big rock.

“Found you!” Duskpaw ran towards it.

“CHARGE!” Storm yowled, rampaging out of his hiding place to fight. Knocked over by his tackle to her legs, Duskpaw admitted defeat.

“You win, Storm.”

“Yay! I did it!”

“Yes you did!”

“Wow, Storm! Duskpaw could find you!” Ember grinned. “We have a new playbuddy!”

“See, Tunnel used to be our playbuddy,” Storm explained, “but then during the super-cold months, he didn’t wake up. Mommy says we’ll see him when we’re gone.”

Duskpaw winced. It seemed like the kits didn’t realize that Tunnel was dead forever.

“Well, I’m tired,” Duskpaw mewed, yawning. “It’s been a long day.”

“I can make you a nest!” Ember mewed, bouncing up and down. “Storm will help! Hey, maybe we could make nests for all the new cats.”

“Great idea, Ember!”

Duskpaw settled down in the soft feathery nest the kits had prepared for her.

Exhausted, she fell quickly asleep.

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