The Hidden Army is a Warriors fan-fiction created and written by Winterpaw and Fernfall. It has ten chapters, with many dark themes and inside viewpoints. It is currently being written, and will be posted on the Blog and the Wiki. It is planned and written on a secret page on the Blog. It is Fernfall and Winterpaw's first collaboration. It focuses on the Dark Forest's true brutality.
The Dark Forest is a cage with chains of darkness. It trains cats cruelly until they break, then it brings them back and repeats each step. It's brutality will only bring out the strongest, the swiftest and the smartest. It will make an army of powerful Warriors, a secret one.
For ten casual, intermixing, haunted cats of the Clans, this process becomes their home. The Dark Forest becomes their captor.
And in so many ways it will change their lives, for better or for worse, and not everyone will make it out alive.
This 10-chapter fanfiction by Winterpaw and Fernfall shows the true notoriety of the Dark Forest. It's horror comes to light in the stories of ten separate cats who were all affected by the one heartbreaking prison.
An inside look into the Place of No Stars, where no one knows the incidents that happened...
In high Greenleaf, with the sun speckling carelessly over pine needles, splashing rocks with peachy rays.
Or at least, I thought that it had started then. We all thought that it had, me and Pricklekit and Grasskit and Petalkit. Of course, we didn’t understand what was going on at the time, didn’t notice the harried looks and the dull pelts and skin-and-bone frames of our Clanmates. We played by the water and under the bushes and our only discomfort were the pine needles that got stuck in our pads. How were we to know we hadn’t even been born in our Clan’s camp? We were kits.
We left the island when I was young, but there was never lasting peace even back in our proper home.
Pricklekit never made it to six moons. Standing between my father’s legs, watching my mother sob over my brother’s still body, sickness thick in the air, I should have understood death for the first time. Age stole the memories away. Time was a mastermind.
I passed my apprenticeship with the innocence of the young. I didn’t have my brother’s friendly intelligence or my sister’s drive for stability, but I was loyal. I was no prodigy in fighting, no prodigy in hunting, but I was good enough. I managed. I was an apprentice, nothing more, nothing less.
The moon I became a warrior, drought settled over the lake. No, drought sucked the lake dry. For once I was useless, helpless, angry. My siblings remembered Pricklekit and his absence. I felt on edge, tetchy, tensions running high, and I wanted to do something.
Petalfur had learned to go to any lengths for our Clan’s safety. She would have given her life to help bring water back to the lake. My sister, a hero. And me? Nothing to my name.
My story didn’t truly begin for another three seasons.
Or perhaps, that was the beginning of the end.
It didn’t really matter, in the end.
I had been fighting with Petalfur. I remember what she said, what I said. My chest felt hollow. I hate war, but I wanted it.
“It’s my life, Beetlewhisker, leave me be.”
“I don’t want Mallownose hurting you!”
“He’s not, are you even serious?”
“Just stay away from him.” I wanted to make her listen to me. It wasn’t as much that I hated him, I wasn’t afraid for her; It was a twisted kind of curious. I wanted to see what I could do, what I could influence, fight and make myself something. It was cold, callous, and I regretted it later. In spite of that, though, the feeling never quite went away.
“He’s not going to hurt me, fish-brain, you know that! We grew up together, for StarClan’s sake! What’s it to you, anyway? You’ve never cared about our family before. It’s always been me! You don’t even remember Pricklekit!”
And didn’t that just sting. I had no idea how to respond. I gaped at her like a fish fresh out of water, and while I was searching for a reply, she swung around and, smacking me with her white-tipped tail, stalked away. I didn’t say anything. My cheek burned. I let it.
Don’t let the sun go down on an argument, my father always said. I didn’t listen, and went to bed still smarting from our fight. And, oh, how I was to pay for it.
Curled up in the reeds, trying to ignore the cold space where Petalfur had vacated the nest next to mine in favour of Mallownose’s, self-doubt pooled between my ears. A headache pulsing with the rhythm of my heartbeat. A disorder that fuelled itself.
Perhaps Petalfur was right. Maybe I had been selfish. But wasn’t death a part of our existence as warriors? It would be stupid to dwell upon it. But then, wasn’t it our duty to prevent it from happening as best we could?
Pricklekit was my brother. But he had died. Shouldn’t I move on?
I imagined her voice, saying something like; “Moving on and forgetting are separate things.”
I knew that they were. But I didn’t want to know that, I didn’t want to feel guilty for a situation I had no control over.
My mind was grey with thoughts. I hardly registered Sneezecloud murmuring goodnight to me. I let him do what he wanted, because right then, I was only concerned with myself.
Troubled musings became troubled dreams. Black, red, shadowed, unholy.
My mother weaving a white, glowing path through the mire. A graceful ghost.
“Icewing!” I called. I reached out, bounding to her.
It was only a dream. I told her my doubts, the inadequacies I never would have spoken in the waking world. She heard what my siblings had made me worry about with their needling and taunts for too many moons.
It was only a dream. I thought it was only a dream. How could I have thought it was only a dream? It was more than a dream, but less than reality.
A vision. A future.
“Beetlewhisker,” she said. “Do you want to learn to fight?”
I blinked at her. “I know how to fight, I’m a warrior.” Surety. “Well, I’m alright at it…” Doubt.
“I know where you can learn to be better.”
And she took me to a dark forest. To a place of no stars. The Place of No Stars, where dreams were killed and lives were bent. I never knew why it was her who took me, I never asked, but she did. And it WAS a dream, she was never really there, not physically. She was just the cat who wanted to slowly lay me down into a nest of lies and darkness. I didn’t see it until it was too late.
It was a dream.
I thought it was a betrayal at first. I knew I was walking among criminals. They changed my mind with crafted words and half-truth promises.
They were cruel teachers, but I was truly scared less often than I should have been. Ignorance provided me with strength.
They promised to make me stronger than all the others. They promised to teach me loyalty. They promised me things that they meowed out to any newcomer, but I felt special and strong.
I was fascinated by them, with their glinting claws and ragged pelts and their ruthless, calculated teachings.
Hawkfrost, with a gaze like the cold sky of a leaf-bare morning.
Brokentail, with the pelt patchworked with scars and shadows.
Mapleshade, wraith-like in the darkness, mad broken teeth and poison-green eyes.
Darkstripe, like a snake in the undergrowth, a worm in the mud.
Tigerstar, huge, scarred, pelt striped like the claw-marks of the ancients.
And then Thistleclaw. Little did I know how much of a role he would play in so many cats’ lives. He was our commander, a little leader of some faction.
Moons passed. I adapted to the lack of sleep, to the secrecy. My senses were sharper, my reactions quicker, my techniques more refined. Losses and gains.
They made me stronger than I had ever been. They made me a warrior. Not just a plain old warrior, defending the Clan out of boredom and strife. They wanted me to be a jagged, broken, unknowing fighter who didn’t just attack the enemies; he mauled them.
The most surprising gain of all was the friendships. The bond I shared with the others who bled in the Dark Forest every night was something I’d never had with even my siblings. I watched Hollowflight grow up in the Place of No Stars. Ivypool and Blossomfall and them. I didn’t just know them anymore. I was WITH them. I started to stay away less and less as we broke down our Clan boundaries, groups melting together.
I grew to train with them and know them, and we told stories glazed of white lies that made us each look better.
Because that’s all you do when talking to people. You lie to feel better about yourself, and for them to feel better about you. All about you.
When I first met them, I was different.
Moons passed, and we became the same.
I trained with Thistleclaw often. At first I was scared of his anger, his hate, but he was so strong I came to admire it. I found myself almost wanting that feeling. One night, I was fighting him, and I suddenly remembered Pricklekit.
I fought harder.
We hid our scars from the rest of our Clanmates.
Something had been building up for moons, the air humming with tension, the Dark Forest denizens’ eyes gleaming with anticipation, muscles ready to spring. Jaws clenched, because they couldn’t control themselves when they got mad.
They pushed us harder.
We trained in real Clan territory. The faded warriors of our dreams became startlingly real, tangible. I was all too eager to unlock RiverClan’s secrets for the cats I was foolish enough to call allies. I was foolish for most of my time there. A foolish warrior.
For me, it all culminated in a Dark Forest Gathering. The final black night of my last heartbeats.
Reflection was to gift me clarity, but in that moment, life brought only the blindness of one who didn’t know what it was to die. And youth, the drive of one who couldn’t comprehend its proximity.
I was late.
“Beetlewhisker,” said Brokentail. Icy, perilous. “Did you have trouble finding your way?”
Somehow I still didn’t understand the danger.
We learned the true purpose of our training that night, but I didn’t feel the fear.
In its place was horror, with indignation snapping on its heels.
They had trained us to be as fierce as a badgers and foxes. As sly as ravens and crows.
We had been trained to be powerful, in every way.
We had been trained to fight back.
So I fought back. “My loyalty is to RiverClan.” I made a speech.
And I then turned and stepped away. I thought I was strong. I didn’t look back.
I didn’t look back, and it was the last mistake I would ever make.
“You can’t stop me,” I said.
Brokenstar cut my nose open first, let the blood spray into my eyes as I staggered back in terror, vision swimming. Then he caught my neck, digging in deep, and I heard it snap like a piece of prey.
I wondered if Sneezecloud would wake next to me, drenched in my blood.
I wondered what my mother would do, I wondered why she chose this path for me. Blood-soaked shadows and harrowing shade fell around me, and the world was black and cold.
My story ended in death, and the Dark Forest thrived.
And I suppose it ended when his brother died, too.
It was just Grasspelt and his sister left to fight for a future, now.
Pricklekit was born young and bright and cheerful, but when the chill of leaf-bare crept over the lake, it reached him too and carried greencough into his tiny body. He died just before his sixth moon. I cried over his immobile form, my mate shivering behind me. But that, over time, I could deal with.
I could deal with my son being killed. It would bring me immeasurable pain, and I would see nothing but darkness and grief for the next few moons, but I could heal.
I could not heal from watching my kits move on too, knowing my youngest, Beetlekit, would never remember his brother at all.
He was always so quiet, growing up. His siblings were so lively and smart, and I always hoped he would be too, but my prayers fell on deaf ears.
I remember watching him see his brother, cold, dead, and the uncomprehending look in his eyes made my chest burn. My eyes filled with water. I began to shake, my legs gave way and the medicine cats came rushing.
Mintfur took the other kits and hid them away while I recovered. He darkened the entrance and blocked the light, until they –silent Petalkit, horrified Grasskit– learned to feel better.
Beetlewhisker didn’t need to learn. He was so young, he just forgot.
I moved on, and it still hurt. RiverClan went through its problems each year. A drought came, and our throats screamed with thirst. Leafbare came, and our pelts clung to our bones.
And the moons. They went on. They were nothing, yet everything at the time. I ran from my dreams each night and woke up with a forced smile.
I visited my kits –only three, now– in their dens each morning. Petalpaw and Grasspaw shared their tongues and gossiped, as blossoming apprentices would do. Beetlewhisker slept in, shivering, stayed by himself, entertained by his own thoughts. I would curl up next to him, and after a while the other two grew used to it. They knew I needed to help Beetlewhisker. Things weren’t turning out right.
And yet I was left wondering if he noticed. He woke up after I left, and thought, later, about completely different things. It was almost like I was never there.
He never got better, not in my eyes. He wasn’t meant to be quiet, I was sure. He wasn’t meant to be merely polite, with his only own company sufficient for him to be happy. He wasn’t meant to forget. It was all wrong. It HAD to be wrong.
So I did something drastic. Unplanned, mad, spur-of-the-moment with a risk you’d only take at the end of the world.
A world did end. Not mine, but his.
They came to me in my dreams. Tigerstar and Thistleclaw: strong, rugged, strangely handsome in a twisted way, and while I was happy with my life, they were so much more.
They spoke of fake hopes and deathly dreams and lured me in. They stood with their shoulders squared and tails raised, huge silhouettes in a dark sky that still glowed with an eerie mist.
I was delusional. We all were, the trainees. Every cat is, but you just need the right lies to make you make mistakes.
I didn’t listen to them at first, I wasn’t that mad yet, but only a quarter of a moon later I gave in. I was that easy to sway.
I eventually learned that it was never power for me, never that I wanted to be deadlier and stronger and swifter; I just wanted everything for Beetlewhisker.
I joined in. I met the trainees, and talked to Ivypool during the small breaks before each scarring session.
I grew on them, no, they grew on me, and I was assimilated into a new community. A struggling, lowly Clan versus a dark and unhappy one.
It didn’t take long for me to realise: I didn’t know which one was which, anymore.
I am a caring cat. Everything I do is to help others. All the wrong things can be done for all the right reasons.
I was excited to be there, daydreamed, giggled to myself in my head. It made me feel younger, made me an immature mother, but it didn’t make me less of an obsessive one.
I let Petalfur and Grasspelt lead their own lives. They were set. Mintfur, who had been, at one point, the love of my life, became a side character. I talked to him in our nest and during our life talks, and then I cast him aside.
It was Beetlewhisker now. Always Beetlewhisker. I loved him and worried for him and thought everything for him. Because I had decided he had a problem, and one I thought I could fix, I focused on him so much more than the others.
I didn’t know that it had been a ThunderClan mother’s downfall too.
I set my plan into action. I hardened my edges, steeled my nerves, and I became a determined mother, a hard mother, a mother who would push her kits as far as they could go.
I was obsessed.
I found Beetlewhisker in his dreams. I used the white glow of the stars as my makeup, fixing a smile to my face for effect. “Beetlewhisker, do you want to learn to fight?…”
And that’s how my story truly started. And ended. And began again, and finished again. It was a cycle of training and worrying and blood.
Through it all, I bit my cheek, bided my time, and watched Beetlewhisker the whole night long…
Worst of all, I started to believe them. Beetlewhisker was everything I focused on, but he was part of the Dark Forest too. It was my focus, he was my focus, my mind was warped.
I drank in their lies, learned to spit at the warrior code. I changed, grew edgy, grew moody. Where before I had been caring, I became violent and aggressive. Part of me was disgusted with what I was becoming, part of me loved the power.
That’s the only reason anyone does bad things. Power and delusions.
Whenever I had time to see him, I snuggled up to Beetlewhisker. I would whisper endearments, a mother’s mechanism, and he would look at me, a little bit disgusted, and slip away.
I made sure to set him up with friends, with Mousewhisker, with Furzepelt. I didn’t care for them –they were just a blur of cats with claws and teeth– but I wanted them to be with Beetlewhisker. He and Hollowflight got along.
It looked alright.
Then I looked deeper:
I hid in the gloom and watched them tease him.
He stayed away, and I stayed undecided.
He was a bit of an outcast, and I fit right in. But I didn’t want to if he didn’t.
It sounds like a love story. And it was, in a way; a twisted tale of motherly love that went too far.
My daytimes were short and useless. I caught prey and went on patrols and smiled at all my Clanmates. I laughed at tired-out jokes and giggled at bragging rights.
I didn’t have friends; I had accomplices.
RiverClan became SideClan. The Place of No Stars became a den, a home, all while remaining a brutal web of torture.
I don’t know why any of us stayed there. But I know why we went there. Power, fighting, greed, and self-hate.
If you truly loved yourself, you wouldn’t want to change that much. You wouldn’t want to put yourself through that process.
In alternate universes, I imagined myself bleeding to death at the claws of Hawkfrost.
I imagined, every time I went near the sluggishly-flowing river, that Snowtuft would push me in and laugh as I choked and drowned.
Everything I used to be rotted away, and Beetlewhisker carried on. I was mindless, I obeyed without a second thought. He had become a cat that questioned, a cat who fought back. The moment I realised that, was the moment I knew he would die at the paws of a Dark Forest cat.
I told myself I was wrong.
I didn’t say anything, ever.
And I should have.
I fought with him for the first time during the day. It was bright, sunny. I thought of it as ironic. He thought of it as stupid.
“Stop trying to fuss over me! You act like I’m a helpless kit!” Beetlewhisker growled, scratching at the ground with unsheathed claws. He didn’t meet my gaze. Tears pricked my eyes.
“I just love you so much, honey! I want the best for you, and I worry for you, and I–”
“Don’t call me honey, Icewing! I’m not your little kit anymore. Just– just stop worrying over me. Leave me be. How about thinking about your other kits for a change? I don’t want your help.”
He turned tail, storming off into the willows before I could reply. I sank down onto the ground, sobbing like there was no air, no tomorrow.
I picked myself up and followed him, later, and watched him stare into his reflection in the lake.
He stared, and asked the water what was truly wrong with him.
I found myself telling everything to Ivypool. We talked little, but I found her a good listener, and told her the stories from every part of my mind. I realised I was considering us best friends; she called us “buddies.”
Buddies like those cats who purred once about random nonsense, and then walked away in silence.
At first, she could have liked me. But I changed, and she did not.
Blossomfall ignored me. She and Ivypool stayed close on the riverbank, fell in love. Everyone else around me had their groups, divisions, and I had to squeeze myself into them.
One night Brokenstar shoved me into Hawkfrost, who slapped me back at him, scoring my cheek with his claws. I staggered to right myself, and grinned back at them with bloody teeth.
I still believed their lies. I was a mess. I was what was left of a caring, considerate, breaking mother, and everything just kept spiralling downhill.
“I want you to teach me the deadliest, most difficult move.”
Tigerstar grinned, his fangs showing. “Why?”
“I want to be stronger. I want to help my son.”
“Of course you do.”
“Teach me!” I was hungry, not for prey, for defiance and strength.
I waited. He slashed my cheek open again, quick as lightning, and said: “the most difficult move is to learn to know, control, and face your opponents. If you truly want to learn, let go of your attachments. They will hold you back.”
I bowed my head, turned to go.
And whether I wanted to or not, I lost my most important attachment of all.
One night, Hawkfrost gathered us together, snarling at us to sit down and listen. We obeyed, but not without protest, shoving and grumbling at each other like a close-knit family of insubordinate apprentices.
“What makes us the rulers? What makes us able to defeat an enemy? There's caring, knowledge, strength, order, and cruelty. Now, tell me, which ones are the winners?
Hollowflight, cheerful to a fault, beamed. “Caring and knowledge!” He chattered.
Sparrowfeather and Darkstripe yanked his head under the sluggish water, and held it down until his screams were cut into silence. Then they threw his body into land and kicked him, and left him there to bring himself back to life.
I turned away for a second, unable to see blood and brine.
Hawkfrost asked again.
I narrowed my eyes and raised my tail. “Power and cruelty.” I whispered.
They told us of their real intentions at last, their whole master plan, piece by gristly piece.
I was blinded, broken and falling, and when I heard Ivypool, sounding half-crazed herself, I asked the empty sky what was really right anymore, I hissed back at her:
“Do you not trust Brokenstar to make the right choices?”
Beetlewhisker, once he realised what was going on at last, stood true and fought against the Dark Forest. He made speeches about the Clan code, being a true warrior, being strong on the inside.
I stood in the shadows to watch the meeting from the outside, biting a strip of slimy bark to stop myself from screaming out sobs. I clawed at my own skin so my tears would not escape. I held back the demons in my throat. I found Ivypool and clamped my jaws on her limbs so I could process the pain.
Brokenstar cut my son open and snapped his neck, threw his body into the river, and cursed his sinking body as it melt into the silt. It faded away in a black slash.
I went home and said nothing that night to Mintfur, or to my two remaining kits. They would find him in the morning, neck broken.
Something broke in me, too.
We fought at last. Beetlewhisker’s face swam unbidden into my mind. I betrayed the Dark Forest. I betrayed the place that helped me betray.
The war was over.
The war was over, and slowly, slowly, I moved on.
I locked my memories away, I trained myself to fight like a Clan cat again. I treated my scars as best I could. I made up with my kits and my mate. I never again mentioned the atrocities I had committed in the Dark Forest. I trusted Hollowflight to forget. I slunk back into Clan life.
New kits. New life. No holding on.
Grasspelt died. Pricklekit died before a drought, and she died with a flood. Opposite ends, same result.
I cried harder, angrier, when I realized her death didn’t hurt me near as much as Beetlewhisker’s did.
Still, I moved on.
I couldn’t forget what I’d done, though. Never. Not ever.
But I was finally free, safe, and able to be a true mother at last.
My story ended when I finally escaped that pit. The pit of rotting flesh and fuming bodies, a place where your deepest fears shredded into your pelt.
My story started the day Breezepaw forced me, alone, into a rabbit burrow and told me that if I screamed for my family he’d tear my ears off with his teeth.
I was four moons younger than him, and absolutely terrified.
I remember the press of the earth on my haunches, my tail crushed into the soil and the weight of the moor on my back. I remember Breezepaw’s amber eyes glowing with malice in the dark. I remember the gleam of light from the burrow’s entrance behind him circling his head, glowing, a mocking halo.
He was the first dark thing to enter my life, and definitely not the last.
We had been on a hunting assignment the day before, with the others. He had caught the most prey out of all of us, and yet when he took his catch to his father he had been met with cold criticism. Watching from a distance, I had laughed nervously. It was involuntary, uncomfortable. I was not sure if I was happy or not. I hadn’t decided, like every other choice in my life.
Breezepaw had been nothing but cruel to me, but I felt what was almost a pang of sympathy when I saw Crowfeather snub him.
I had grown up without a father, too. In that moment I forgot that Breezepaw had always been at the forefront of the whispering crowds. I saw Crowfeather’s disappointment through his eyes. I saw the clench in his tense jaws.
“I think his father hates him,” I had murmured to Heatherpaw. I was to pay for it.
She had made no reply.
Then that day passed and I was backed into a hole, a hurt and brutal apprentice glaring above me.
“You don’t know anything about my father. You don’t know anything about fathers at all,” Breezepelt growled, there in the burrow, black nose inches from mine. I could feel his breath on my whiskers. I could feel his hate hitting my heart.
“What makes you think you know what he’s like? You have no idea! You know nothing!”
I cringed back, shaking my head as best and as frantically I could without hitting the walls of the burrow. Earth clung to my fur. I shook. I cracked. “I- I didn’t mean-”
“You meant every word. Did you think I wouldn’t hear? Did you think Heatherpaw wasn’t going to come and tell me if I hadn’t? Are you that stupid?”
My throat felt as dry as the crumbling burrow. I couldn’t reply, there was nowhere to look but his eyes, endless and dark. Burrow, burrow, walls, eyes.
Something glinted more in his eyes’ depths. He took a step back, and I thought for a second he would turn and leave, but then he lashed out with his paw, striking me across the muzzle. The side of my face hit the muddy wall, and I had nowhere to reel to. Soil showered around my ears. I sinned farther down, choking, smothered.
Detached, I wondered how it would feel if someone was to rub the cuts blooming on my face into the dirt. A sting behind measure. More than wound; a nightmare.
“That was a warning,” said Breezepelt. “Next time I really will tear your ears off.”
I didn’t let him have a next time.
Heatherpaw and I stayed friends, and I somehow trusted her.
With her being the closest she-cat to my age, and me being slightly vacuous, as young she-cats often are, there was little chance of the alternative. I was undecided, naivë, and young.
We fought with each other, gossiped and giggled together, mooned, and didn’t mention Breezepaw.
We weren’t at all alike, but it didn’t matter at that age.
I avoided Breezepaw as much as I was able for the rest of his apprentice moons, but he and Heatherpaw, by virtue of their age, were destined to become warriors before I was. Perfection in shadowy bodies.
I was left an apprentice, and a lonely one.
Swallowpaw, Sedgepaw and Thistlepaw, younger than me, were the closest sisters I ever knew, and though I pretended that I fit in, and they pretended the same, it was never right.
I just want meant to be with them. I was my own cat, and while that wasn’t a problem, it also was.
Breezepelt found great pleasure in using his new position to torment me, ordering me about, exhausting me, regularly beating me up in training sessions. I could see what his father said to him many moons ago in the memories behind the walls of his eyes. I could see the lasting scars.
Again, the pang of empathy.
I thought, at the time, that’s all he was and would be: a cruel and hurt tom who used to bully, and now was just a grumpy warrior. Someone who I would be in a competition, a game with, someone to always beat.
That’s all he was going to be, I didn’t think far beyond into shaded forests and training.
I should have.
The first respite came in my last quarter-moon before my Warrior ceremony.
Furzepaw was Heathertail’s apprentice; sweet, sparky, naivë, just the right amount of shallow and vicious that we clicked immediately.
She cheered the loudest when I was given my new name.
“I wish you weren’t so old, Sunstrike,” she said to me one evening, as we watched the sun go down over the moors. “It’s no fun training without you, and I’m all alone in the den, my brothers are stupid.”
I laughed. It felt true, though as usual, I couldn’t decide. “You have me during the day.”
Furzepaw looked at me then, conviction in her green eyes. “I don’t care what Heathertail says about you,” she said. “You’re the best cat in all the Clans, and she’s stupid to listen to Breezepelt.”
“I hate Breezepelt,” I told her.
“I know,” she replied. “You’ve told me that twice today…”
Even when I decided to train harder to get the upper hand over Breezepelt, nothing worked. He seemed to improve faster than anyone I’d ever met. This game turned in his favour, and I a,ready saw it began to turn into more.
He woke up each morning like he’d been training all night, head full of new techniques. I couldn’t keep up. Something was just inexplainable.
He woke up each morning with his eyes full of shadows, pelt criss-crossed with fine claw marks.
Naïve as I was, I thought nothing of it.
Every time he beat me, he would pin me down and fasten his teeth around my ear, to remind me of the threat he’d made moons ago, a step closer.
For moons and moons I would give in, all through my apprenticeship, well into warriorhood.
“Stop giving in, Sunstrike,” Furzepaw told me one day, nursing my wounds. “It’s what he wants you to do.”
At first I stared away, embarassed. Naivë, moody, competitive, indecisive, empathetic, I was so mixed up that I didn’t want to be told what to do.
The next day after Furzepaw gave me that advice, Nreezepelt killed I rabbit I had been casing for almost five minutes, and smeared the blood on my chest, ears.
“Seriously,” Furzepaw stomped. “Stop giving in.”
He’d knock me into the dust, still.
The difference was that I would rise finally.
“Rematch,” I’d say, each time.
His lips would curl. “You’re no match for me,” he’d sneer, and stalk away. Who was left standing now?
“What’s your secret?” I asked him once, exasperated, as I lay on the moor grass, muscles aching. My haunches stung with wounds. My ears felt tingly, waiting to be threatened.
It was more time of back and forth, debating, fighting, competition. I turned different, more harsh and set in my ways. More decisive, which seemed impossible.
He had been walking away. He paused. “My secret? I don’t think you want to know.”
I hadn’t meant it as a serious enquiry, but now I was intrigued. “I want to beat you.”
He turned around, very slowly. His black silhouette stood dark against the grey-white sky. “I train every night.”
I sat up, a little, rolling my eyes. “You’ve told me. I already know.”
“I don’t think you do.”
I thought he was about to leave, but he surprised me by saying one more thing:
“It might be interesting to have a real opponent in you for a change,” he murmured. “I hope you slept well last night, Sunstrike. You’ll never have another chance.”
That night I met the brown and white demon, the monster with ice-blue eyes, the tormentor with darkly striped fur.
He told me he could teach me to be better than Breezepelt. He told me I deserved it. I was special, Breezepelt was not. I was the better cat. I was stronger, and I could WIN the game.
I believed him. I guess I was still naïve, because I should have known to never believe a cat like him.
It was easy, at first, when it was just me and Hawkfrost. I was learning already.
“Do you want to meet my friends?” he asked, in a saccharine way that I should have seen was so wrong. So insincere.
They scared me, and soon, so did he, but I was better than I’d ever been, stronger and faster than I thought I would ever be.
I couldn’t stop.
It was wonderful. The other trainees and I were in on a secret, the terror made it exhilarating.
My class was delusional, and Breezepelt the dark star pupil.
Furzepaw noticed, of course, like she always would. I had not intended to keep the Dark Forest a secret from her, but somehow it felt like something dark and shameful; something I shared with Breezepelt, and that’s how she knew. She would always know.
She cornered me near the RiverClan border on a patrol one day, looking furious and betrayed. “Are you in love with Breezepelt?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I stared at her. “Wh- what in StarClan’s name makes you think that?! Are you out of your mind, Furzepaw?!”
She looked unabashed. “You two are both exhausted every morning, like you’ve been out all night, you look at him now like the two of you know something we all don’t, and don’t you think I’ve noticed how your fighting style has changed? He’s the only cat in WindClan who fights like you do now.”
I felt strangely enraged. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, stiffly. I defended myself.
“Yes I do, and you’re proving it. I never thought that you of all cats-”
“I don’t love Breezepelt.”
She snarled at me. “Don’t lie to me, Sunstrike! I know you. Look what you’re becoming! Is he making you into this? Is this what you want?”
I snapped, breaking instantly. “What am I becoming? A better warrior than you? So what if he has something to do with it? You have no idea what you’re on about!”
She reeled. “Do you have thistledown for brains?”
I laughed. “You’ll never understand. They haven’t chosen you to train!”
Furzepaw’s face crinkled with disgust. She walked away.
I ran up behind her and pinned her down into the dirt, holding her until she could only see four walls of soil, and my everlasting eyes.
In the end, I came to her in a dream. I took her to the Dark Forest, to explain what she’d been missing. I apologized, but she never looked at me the same.
I said I was sorry for the misunderstanding, and hurting her, and everything.
She never apologised for accusing me; Furzepaw became one of the best trainees.
Eventually, I remembered that moment, what she had said.
I found her by the foul river and stared at her. I could see it in her eyes, the memories of looking into mine as I shoved her into the ground.
“I don’t love Breezepelt,” I meowed.
I had finally decided something.
“I just don’t hate him.”
I was under a spell in that place, blind to its evils even as my friends were made to shred each others’ pelts.
The forest was a little gross, but I was willing to put that aside. Furzepaw, cleverer than I, made her own conclusions. She stayed anyway.
I adored Hawkfrost and Thistleclaw, which disgusted me indefinitely later on. Tigerstar intimidated me. Mapleshade was fox-hearted, though I might have been jealous. Brokenstar was ugly and strange, Sparrowfeather unsettling. The other ones were just lingering ghosts with muscles.
Only Darkstripe I truly found terrifying.
He would corner me often, by the river or behind some rocks, call me “pretty thing”, and get far too close, putting his paws on my fur.
I feared for my life near him, and I would soon know why.
Breezepelt pinned me down in a training session, fastened his teeth in my ear.
I waited for him to let go.
“I don’t hate you,” I whispered, struggling.
Breezepelt lightened up.
“What are you waiting for?” barked Mapleshade.
Breezepelt jerked away from me at the command, teeth tearing through my flesh, ripping a V into my ear. I gasped, surprised, confused, horrifically bloody.
I shrieked, and my fur ran warm and red. Breezepelt watched me impassively.
I heard Darkstripe’s voice in my ear as it pooled with blood, telling me it was a shame to damage something so lovely.
A few nights later I gave Breezepelt a rip in his ear to match mine.
And after he lay on the ground, bleeding, snarling, I whispered for the third time to someone:
“I don’t hate you, Breezepelt.”
He stopped snarling.
I learned to shred a cat’s fur to ribbons for praise, divulged WindClan’s secrets to the Dark Forest with enthusiasm, fought to kill, and still I did not realise why I was in the Dark Forest at all.
I remember searching for Furzepelt in the crowd at the Dark Forest’s final meeting. That was the last I ever saw of her, I never found her in the battle that ensued, and never found out what happened to her in the living world.
Most of the trainees turned on the Dark Forest. Perhaps Furzepelt would have realized that they were using us to gain information on our Clans. Any additional loyalty or willingness to fight for them was a bonus.
I figured it out, and found where I stood. I decided. I rebelled, matured and in control.
I stood for WindClan.
We were hopelessly outnumbered against the Dark Forest cats, but they had taught me well, and I could match them blow for blow. At least, I could at first. They had been in the Dark Forest for seasons upon seasons, while I had been there for mere moons. As the battle wore on it began to show, and I began to tire.
Perhaps I should have gone out in a blaze of glory, true to my name, felling Dark Forest warriors left and right as I sank to the ground, but I did not. Life does not work that way, and nor does death.
It was quick and loud.
Even with my wounds streaming, claws aching, teeth stained red and mouth thick with the tang of blood, I could have fought on. I could have, and I was in the what of a war, but I didn’t:
Then there was a weight on my back, sharp pains on my dully aching shoulders as twisted claws sank in. I tried to throw off my attacker, but I was too weak.
I swung and looked into his eyes, soulless and ebony.
“Hello, pretty thing,” Darkstripe murmured. “Are you ready to die?”
I was destined, then, to die in the bloody haze of battle, my name only another name on a long list of the fallen, another pawn in the paws of the Dark Forest, another life wasted in pursuit of a goal that they never reached.
He reared on me, putting his laws in disturbing areas, claws out.
I looked over, screaming, and saw Breezepelt’s eyes.
He turned away.
My story ended with my blood pouring onto Darkstripe’s sinking claws, and with my undecided friend turning his back on my dying body.
My story started in blood with a birth, in darkness, then light. A fitting mirror image of how it would end.
The only things I had then, the only important things, were my mother and my Clan. I learned not to depend on her early on, with no father, no other family, only the one connection with her that we let go of together as soon as I was old enough. It was normal for me, it was good and I was happy. I was never one of the conflicted, never crazy, never one of the Clans’ high fliers, the socialites, the flames that drew in the moths.
I was a kit, and then an apprentice, and a warrior.
Kithood was the easiest time of my life. I woke up at unholy hours and cried to my mother, fed, made dirt in scary places and went back to sleep. I tripped up warriors in the middle of the camp, played with stones, marvelled at the apprentices. I was a single kit and loved it. I didn’t need any siblings to keep me in line, I knew exactly what I was and where I wanted to be.
My early apprenticeship was the happiest time of my life. I was old enough to learn, to fight, to make my own way. It felt like a flower unfurling in front of my paws, like the sun had broken over the hillside of my future. Inside I was so simply happy I could never bring myself to hate anything. I saw life with simple clarity, the good and the bad in their equal measures, and I didn’t let anybody talk me down. I saw light, heard truth, learned to protect it with a silver tongue and a second skin of sarcasm. It was a good balance.
Life, I was to learn, would not be content with the ease that I took complications in my stride.
The next pebble it threw under my paws was like an iceberg, a tiny peak above the water that I passed without a second thought, no idea as to how much I couldn’t see until I found myself cut open and drowning.
It happened a few days into my apprenticeship, when the moor was sweet with heather. I was padding through golden tussocks of grass, staring behind me out across the rolling hillside, everlasting to my eyes. The breeze ruffled my fur, a welcome chill that kept me going instead of curling up to slumber under the sun. The sky was blue, blue, blue, arcing empty away above my head as I wound my idle way in the direction of the lake.
It was peaceful, quiet, normal. And then I heard the screams.
I broke into a run, heading to the ThunderClan border in the direction of the sound. I searched all through the thin strip of WindClan trees, a few straggly cones dotting the landscape, scrubby gorse bushes squatting nearby. I found nothing, worry picking at my insides. When I checked all along the border stream and still I saw nothing, I made up my mind to go and find someone. A warrior could deal with this. The leader could. Anyone but me… I was too young, I thought, not ready yet to ruin the organized life I’d made for myself so easily.
Haring back to the camp, I found them on my way. Breezepelt (my mentor’s best friend, of whom I’d always been wary) and Sunpaw (my denmate, about whom I always heard them gossiping) at each other’s throats. I’d thought they were on a hunting patrol. I stopped dead, muscles freezing up as if ice water ran through them in place of my blood.
Breezepelt saw me first and broke away, lips drawn back from his teeth in a malicious smile. “What do you want, kit?” he spat, as if it was foul in his mouth. I sensed the bitterness behind his words, but I took a pace back and flattened my ears, saying nothing.
“Leave us alone, go back to your stupid friends. Tell anyone and I’ll tear your ears off.”
Fear and surprise lent me an indignant sort of courage. I was doing nothing wrong, he had no right to tell me to leave like a chastened kit. I stood my ground.
“Excuse me, but no. I am an apprentice and I will be treated like one. You call me a kit and you stick around here squabbling like one yourself? Go get some prey like you were told to this morning, and get back to camp yourself. Stop being useless.”
The moment the words were out of my mouth I wanted to take them back. Horror trickled like water across my skin.
Breezepelt, stared at me for half a heartbeat in abject shock. Sunpaw, a few paces away from him, snorted with amusement. Snapping out of his thoughts, he shot her a dirty look.
“This doesn’t mean you’ve won,” he growled in her direction, and then to me; “You’ll pay for this.” Cursing me under his breath, he turned turned tail and, to my shock, stalked away.
The incident was over as quickly as it had begun, and I had no idea what to feel, or how to begin turning over these new developments in my head. Then I met Sunpaw’s eyes, wide golden orbs reflecting back my own surprise. I sprang over to check on her.
She took a few paces back to look at me and her face broke into a tentative smile. “Thank you! He’s always so horrible to me, and he wins every time we fight… It’s meant to be a secret, and I probably shouldn’t tell you, but you know he once trapped me in a burrow? I thought I was going to die!”
I warmed to Sunpaw instantly. I knew my mentor Heathertail didn’t like her, but I wanted to make my own decisions. Troubles seemed to run off Sunpaw’s back like water down the moor grass, and I liked that. She didn’t let anything get her down for too long. Sunpaw was naïve, but she was nice enough, straightforward, and surprisingly loyal. But in the end, plain, an ordinary warrior.
Me, on the other hand, I was a star, I lit up the night, sometimes too bright, never stopped shining. I met each day like a challenge, made sure I filled it with as much as I could do before I burned out and went to rest. Then I would return the next morning, defiant and bright, unrelenting. I did not do things by halves, I didn’t water my opinions down to make them easier to swallow. I was take-it-or-leave-it, and people learned to love me for it.
If I was a star, then Sunpaw was a leaf. Pretty and changeable, but one of many, unremarkable in her own right, yet part of a much larger story.
And Breezepelt, he was a river. Used, twisting, always moving, uncontrollable.
Sunpaw and I returned to camp that day with squirrels and the beginnings of a friendship, and stayed up to talk late into the night. We sat on the edge of the hollow, looking up at the stars, and though the wind was chilling our stories kept us warm. The elders frowned, told us to sleep, and we replied, distracted, with promises we didn’t keep.
We stayed up all night, got woozy and out of breath, had the time of our lives. We took a night to form a bond that we’d keep for the rest of her life.
I kept her from sleep the night after, as well, and the night after that, even though her warrior assessment was only a few days away. My pelt pricked with guilt, and I kept apologising, but she always had the same answer:
“It’s alright, Furzepaw. This is the first time I’ve had an actual friend to I spend time with, and you’re worth staying up for. I don’t want to lose you.”
She didn’t know and I didn’t know, in the darkness of the night, that many moons later, I would lose her.
Miraculously, she passed. Sunpaw came shrieking to me and we jumped for joy on our nests until the they fell apart. We were too happy to care.
I was delighted that she came to me first, more so, I thought, than it would feel to be made deputy.
Her warrior ceremony was short and tidy. Sunstrike, in my eyes, a powerful name for a predictable cat. What I didn’t notice was that it was as beautiful as her.
I cheered the loudest I could, and I didn’t care who heard me. I would miss training with her, even it’d only been for a quarter moon. In other Clans, perhaps, we’d’ve been teased or questioned for the strength and spontaneity of our bond, but WindClan was different. WindClan was open, free, and we would never want to give that up.
I with her I was less sensible, more sparky, giggly. I lied to myself, each time on the moor when we ran together, that we were the same. I lied to her too, and she didn’t notice. Perhaps I made myself believe it too, that I shared her naïvety, her sweetness, shallowness.
The only thing that we had I common was our hate for Breezepelt, really, our disgust for Heathertail, and the time we shared together. When she wasn’t there I told myself we were friends because she entertained me, not because we were alike.
And she did hate Breezepelt, then. We’d get together and gossip, badmouth Heathertail behind her back. Sunstrike would always say the same thing, next.
“I hate Breezepelt,” she’d murmur.
And I would always reply, “I know.”
And I did know, I knew for certain. I was too young still to realise that even when you thought you knew them perfectly, things would always change.
The next thing we did together, the thing that would kick off a chain of events to turn our lives upside down was to train, fight, rebel, and all against Breezepelt. So many times I watched him overpower her, pin her down. He was too good, and I knew if she wanted to win it was her turn to change the game.
She was, angrier than before, more humiliated now I was there to watch her lose.
She began to challenge him, but still she lost.
I was fed up. I told her she was giving in, I told her she should stop giving in.
She’d be too proud to accept my help, I knew, and so I made it look like she was helping me instead. I asked her to teach me to fight. Heathertail, I told her, was no good at her job. Sunstrike was all too eager to join me, after that.
And so we trained together, all morning, every day. I couldn’t let the topic of Breezepelt stay silent for too long. I told her she’d have to get better if she wanted to beat him, and by that point she wasn’t about to give up on our training together.
She lost, again and again.
Train harder, I said.
She agreed, and that was the turning point, because she truly meant what she said.
And I didn’t know how far she was willing to go. I didn’t know the place she was going to to learn.
She was exhausted, each morning. She looked like she’d been running all night, and her pelt was full of dust and laced with cuts.
I asked her where she’d been, and she avoided the question. I stopped asking. Watching, I thought, would give me all the answers I needed.
She fought less with Breezepelt. Somehow, without me noticing, they had resolved their conflict. Little did I know that they’d just taken it somewhere else. She nodded to him each morning, and he looked as tired as she did. Their glances indicated secrets they shared with each other.
My mind raced.
I’m wrong, I thought, I must be wrong.
But I couldn’t deny it, and every time I spoke to her there was a voice in the back of my head branding her a traitor to me.
It was soon to be dawn, and she’d woken up covered with dust, gone down to wash her cuts in the lake. I followed her in a patrol to the WindClan border.
I lied to keep us behind. The others went on without her.
The moment they left, I cornered her between me and the lake, and our dispute began. She had nowhere to run to, and the water lapped at her heels.
“You’re in love with Breezepelt!”
I didn’t dare say he wanted to hurt her, or that she was blindly letting him take over. That would be too far. The consequences wouldn’t be measurable.
She denied it, told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I accused her of all the things I’d been watching her do, of her sleepless nights, the scent of the outside on her pelt each morning. She said I was mad, but I could see the guilt in her eyes that gave her away.
I pressed harder, attacking her with off-the-top-of-my-head questions. She pushed me over my usual passive-aggressive mark, I was nearly full on screaming, desperate to make her reveal the truth to me.
In a way I was accusing myself too. Furious that I could have been so stupid as to trust my happiness to a cat I’d already pinned as fickle, not expected her betrayal.
She just looked disgusted with me.
I told her she was becoming a monster, and she retaliated with the cruelest words that came to her mind in that moment. I didn’t care, too angry to understand, something about not being chosen to train. I had too much pride to rise to her petty insults.
I walked away.
For a moment I thought she’d just let me go, head spinning. She came up behind me and before I could react, slammed me into the ground, my chin hit the dirt, jaws clacking together with a sickening sound that made my ears flatten. I felt the grit pushing into my face and eyes and mouth. I struggled, but all the earth was dirt. I screamed into the ground. I twisted just enough so I could look up (I wanted to see the sky, the bright blue to relieve me. Or the clouds, something free and wild.) and all I saw were her two eyes, even, round globes, two shiny ghosts I’d never forget. There was no remorse in them.
I wondered how she could have gone so wrong.
She came an apologized, tearful and heated, that night in my dream. She’d almost killed me, attacked the one and only friend she’d ever found important. She begged for my forgiveness.
What is there to lose anymore? I asked myself, and accepted her apology with a smile that wasn’t all true.
I didn’t question what she was doing in my dream. I didn’t question why it felt so real.
“I never betrayed you,” she said. “I can explain, I can show you the secret.”
Being friends with Sunstrike would ruin me.
I followed her to the Dark Forest, one of the worst choices of my life.
The first thing they did when I got there was cut my leg open and beat me to the ground, lecturing me about power and strength. It didn’t take much observation for me to see that Sunstrike got it better, took it worse, and I suddenly knew I couldn’t leave while she was around.
On the second night, we were sitting beside the river. It was uneventful enough to make me suspicious, and we were talking about Heathertail, eye colours, battle moves and slugs, when she jerked like she’d been hit, went sliding into the water like a weightless sacrifice.
She floundered in the water, tumbling with the river until she hit a log farther down, and dragged herself onto a bank to vomit up black water. I didn’t have time even to consider jumping in after her.
I turned around, furious, to see who’d pushed her (it had to be angry Thistleclaw, creepy Darkstripe, or masterful Tigerstar…).
It was Breezepelt, I saw him slipping away. But he didn’t look happy about it. I never told Heathertail.
I was young, but I could run fast, think faster, and I was already becoming one of the best cats there. I told myself I was there to protect Sunstrike, to stop her from becoming something worse than she was already, to protect her, mostly, from Breezepelt.
I was shaping up to be one of the best trainees they had. Sunstrike shouldn’t have been. I knew why they let her be.
(They’d been watching, saw our fight, saw our resolving.)
I never truly regained the bond I had with her, never apologized for the accusations I’d made.
Still, she’d never resolved her drama with Breezepelt either.
I had to watch her struggle, she was trapped in his web and the Dark Forest’s web and I wanted to help but I was still trying make sure I steered clear. The moment I got too close, I knew, got attached to that web, I could never leave.
I helped her as much as I could, but I kept my guard up. Breezepelt was changing, and I never figured out if it was good. He took no notice of me, treated me like a fly buzzing around Sunstrike constantly, treated me like the clingy one that everyone hated until I was gone. Maybe that’s what I was, but I had to be that or she would break.
Then I saved her from him, pushed him away as he tried to attack. She never saw us.
He snarled at me, and threatened my life, with his sharp fangs and snake’s eyes.
I snarled back. He’d never beaten me. I would fight him for her.
I lived for the night time, now. So did she. My warrior ceremony passed us by like leaf in the wind.
Training picked up as the Great Battle loomed on the horizon, even if we didn’t know it at the time, and it broke us all. Antpelt and Beetlewhisker fell first, and I watched the dismal aftermath. Icewing had to revive herself with lies and new memories. Ivypool and Blossomfall’s love barely hung on. Redwillow became one of them, the demons, the cats who lured us into the forest and turned our lives into their own.
Sunstrike didn’t notice. She still delighted in the thought that she might be special like they said she was. She wasn’t as jaded as me.
I knew I couldn’t get away, now. I saw what they’d done. They’d kill me if I tried.
The night came thick and black with the war. I watched my friends fall around me.
Redwillow, Hollowflight, Applefur…
They all perished, some for the trueness in their hearts, some for the coldness that the Dark Forest put into them.
I thought we would survive. I chose the correct side, but I don’t even know why. Maybe I was tired of turning dark. Maybe I was tired of being top of the class. Maybe I was tired of Sunstrike and the trouble she dragged me into without even knowing.
I wanted my old life back. I wanted to be the true Furzepelt, not the traitor Furzepelt who trained with the enemy.
I couldn’t find Sunstrike in the battle.
I was fighting for my life, and I would have fought for hers too.
Darkstripe found her first.
His would be the last voice she’d ever hear, and it burned into my brain.
“Are you ready to die?”
If she could talk before he ripped her apart, she would have said no.
Darkstripe tore Sunstrike open with his teeth, and let her blood soak his jaws, fill his mouth. If he’d swallowed, I would have vomited. I couldn’t not look, even after the light in her eyes faded out. Her body went limp
And the battlefield raged on behind them. Why hadn’t time stopped for her death?
Darkstripe grinned at the starless sky with bloody fangs, kicked Sunstrike’s body aside. Then, with a howl, vanished into the mass of fighting cats to find himself a new victim.
I hurtled over to her body, limp on the bloodsoaked ground, tortoiseshell fur nearly unrecognisable under the crust of mud and blood. I wished for someone to come up behind me and kill me. It was the best solution.
Then I realized I’d got what I wished for:
I wanted to change, go back to my normal self, be free again. Be normal and happy and sparky. I wanted to be Furzepelt again.
And I was only ever someone else when I got sucked in too deep with Sunstrike’s intricate life.
I used to think she was normal. Then I realized she was the most unique cat to ever have lived. So simple and typical, and yet drew everyone into her endless drama, and they each came out either happy or broken.
She was unbelievable, a true mystery, but I never solved her.
I kept crying and crying over her broken body, and when I finally looked up, I only saw Breezepelt turning away. She could have loved him. He left her behind.
I should have got revenge, on him and Darkstripe and everyone in the Dark Forest. But I was finally free, and that came with a cost, I’d have to pay the price.
I got up and shook most of the dirt and grime off my body, and I headed away, too.
I didn’t figure out if Breezepelt ever remembered her, or truly loved her. He became mates with Heathertail (I hated her still, just to keep Sunstrike’s memory alive,) but I didn’t know if it was real love.
I returned to my old self, but still held her memory, and a bit of darkness that I’d never be able to shake.
My story ended not with scars and horrors of my time in the Dark Forest, but with the memories I had of my most intricately innocent best friend, who I lost to them.
Chills, mostly. I ran a fever more often than not and my ribs were more prominent than my eyes. Cold played along the surface of my skin, frost on icicle fur. It covered me like a roof, subtle and silent. I thought it deflected the taunts and jeers that I could always hear whispered in the shadows.
My denmates ignored me. If I’d been a body, they’d have left me for dead. I was contained in the ice, I was separate and alone.
I was five moons old when I was too big and the ice cracked like an eggshell. I was no longer invincible by virtue of my invisibility. They hit me. I felt it.
I had always been the runt, the weakling. I had less body than I needed. I did not know how to look someone in the eye.
“Prove you aren’t as pathetic as we think you are,” Troutkit whispered, her paws pushing into my fur so hard it was hurting, and I couldn’t move away and I couldn't cry; all bite and bruise. “Come sneak out of camp with us.”
My sister Mossykit: my random, shallow sister, sat behind her, face horrible with indifference. Rushkit was farthest away from the wall I was pushed up against, face longer than the horizon. Body still.
“No,” I mumbled, warm and woozy from the pain. “We have to wait until we’re apprentices. You can go, but I’m staying.”
Dead silence, cut. It was all vaguely a fairy tale, a kit story. The beaten underdog facing his tormentors. His sister and his only friends. Only the young know the cruelty of children. Lies and overcoming war.
That’s how it happened. The punch. The wound. A single, vibrating moment. I felt it first in my teeth (a rattle like thunder) and then in my cheek, where her paw left a feeling that I could only describe as red.
I slumped down and Troutkit left, dragging Mossykit with her, and though I couldn’t see it, she was rolling her eyes as if all she’d been doing was asking me to play and I turned her down. The warriors would have seen it that way. But they don't see anything anyways.
It could have been a dream, but I swore long after the fact that Rushkit stayed behind. Found poppy seeds and fed them to me. He treated my wounds like treasures, treated me like a foreign species. Family. He smelled of our shared home: dirt, reeds, and lakes. The willows were my worst favorite part; they were too pretty to be innocent.
The kindness was an impossibility.
I thought the shock of pain would leave me numb and slowly broken. I believed the dirt in my mouth and the ache in my skull would make me avoid pain at all possible costs. How wrong I was. My first encounter with violence was never meant to put me off.
It was the beginning of an addiction.
I spent my moons as an apprentice trying to become less. Less there. Less alive. I walked like suicide; every breath I took was an apology and a tribute. Troutpaw remained in control, and ambition burned her inside and out. Mossypaw at her side, more reluctant, now, and yet more afraid to move away. Decided yet unsure.
Rushpaw I could never quite figure out. Too rebellious to leave me for the crows, but to afraid to help me openly. Risky but caring.
We were friends. That is something easy for me to confess. Dissect us and you would have found hordes of kittypet food, shared wounds, an uncanny knowledge of herbs; water.
“I hate them,” Rushpaw whispered after a training session with me, wet and panting. “Troutpaw and Mossypaw. They’re cowards. When I imagine their faces, that’s when I hit hardest.”
I strived to have the same feeling as him, to want to hurt more when feeling anger.
I never thought Rushpaw knew quite what to do with himself. Resentment and fatigue bubbled over in equal measures at frequent intervals. He would be resigned first, and then suddenly he would be furious, and then he would be as bad as them. I wanted to hide from him as much as I did the others when he dragged me from my nest and coerced me into troublemaking. I wanted him to help and hurt me.
With a scowl on his face he’d say to me; “Nobody cares about us, we can do what we want. You’re letting them win by doing nothing.”
I would ignore him as best I could, and then he would grin in the cruel way he learned from our sisters. “I’ve told you what I’m going to do, and if you stay here and do nothing, you’re still complicit. You’ll get in all the trouble with none of the fun.”
And then we would be off, and I would tell myself it was okay, because one day it would be over altogether.
When and Rushpaw and Troutpaw became Warriors, I sat at the back of the crowd and imagined that Troutpaw did not exist, was not standing there in the sunlight, gleaming like she had StarClan’s trust woven into her pelt. I howled Rushpaw’s new name like an incantation. Like a prayer. Rushtail. Rushtail. Rushtail. I left spaces for Troutpaw’s name, blank and unforgiving. I would not say it. She would not need me to share in her success, and I did not wish to do it. The world was hers already.
I sat vigil with him on the other side of the camp from his sister, so he wouldn’t be alone. Friend or not, I thought I owed him that. I told myself I was not just there to get away from Mossypaw, alone in our den.
Rushtail and I sat in silence until the deepest midnight gave way to a dizzying dawn. I never knew if he looked at me, because I did not look at him, I looked at the spaces between the stars and wondered what became of bullied kits that nobody wanted. I looked at the moon and wondered what dank hole my body would be thrown in when I died.
“Hey! Hollowpaw! I need something from you!”
The fish I was hunting darted out of my reach. The resulting surge of frustration made me uncooperative. I stood where I was in the shallows and let her come to me. It was a small act of rebellion, but I felt a thrill in it nonetheless. Troutstream had grown from the blunt nursery bully into something beautiful and dangerous, a creature of short, glossy fur and perfect sharp teeth. She flashed me a smile that brought toms to their knees, and some she-cats too, I wouldn't doubt.
“Your sister and I are going somewhere tonight. I need you to take our patrol shifts, okay? And to hunt for us too.” She demanded, voice like rain and fire.
The easy answer would have been ‘yes, of course I will,’ but instead I asked, “Where are you going?” Because curiosity kills cats.
“None of your business. Just take our shifts.”
She was on me in an instant, pressing my face into the damp soil, choking out air. Troutstream dug her claws into the soft skin of my sides. I felt them prickle like heated thorns. “Your sister is so much better than you. She listens to everything I say. You're worthless and stupid. Now, you will take our shifts, correct?”
“Yes,” I murmured. “I’ll do it.” Tears sprung into my eyes and I couldn't fight them.
She giggled in a sky-high tone and let me go. “Yes! Good, good. Thanks, Hollowpaw!"
My heart throbbed in my chest and my breath came in sighs. All I could hear was the wind. The moon wasn't there to take my darkest thoughts away.
Rushtail tossed me a fish and told me to eat five. I glared at him and flopped onto my nest, exhausted from the endless hunt and looping patrols. Troutstream’s ‘requests’ came with no respite, and I had no trouble falling asleep. I sank into rest and dreams.
The place I dreamed was only lit with the glow of the grey sky, tiny white flowers spangling the ground like specks of ice, but somehow more wrong. Demented.
“They’re called moondrops.” I jumped at the voice, fluffed all my fur on end as if it could protect me with its thickness.
The voice’s owner slipped into my field of vision. A brown tabby with a ghostly white stomach, he was all I ever wanted to be: sharp claws and hard muscle. Fatally handsome, undeniably masculine. He moved like the shadows. His fur was shredded and long, and his eyes trapped me under ice.
“The flowers,” he said. “Moondrops. I wouldn’t touch them, if I were you. Even a trace of their nectar is deadly. Youll be gone in an instant."
I nodded, under his spell. “Who are you?”
He ignored me. “Your sister and her friend are off frolicking with a ShadowClan tom, doing things that SarClan disapproves of." He said StarClan like a swear.
"When you wake up, you’ll be aching all over from the patrols and hunts you did for them. Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?”
My eyes shifted from his broad shoulders to my ragged paws. Heat prickled in the tips of my ears. “I can’t. I can never stand up to Troutstream. I’m terrible at fighting, I’ll never pass my assessment. I'm dumb and bad." I had to hold myself back from spilling out my emotional insecurities to the phantomous tom.
“You have no faith in yourself, Hollowpaw.”
I don’t ask how he knew my name. I always choose the wrong things to say. “I know.”
The tom moved closer. “I can teach you,” he says, quiet and slow. “I can teach you to be strong. Troutstream is only the beginning. By the time I’m done with you, you will face armies without flinching."
The dream pulsed and spun. I was there, and then I was gone, and then I was back again. The movement of a heartrate. I repeated, “Who are you?”
“Call me Hawkfrost. I’m from RiverClan as well. I know all of your struggles."
“Are you from StarClan?”
“Tomorrow, then. Train me tomorrow night.” I found the words I wanted.
Hawkfrost chuckled. His eyes gleamed with something hidden. “Armies, Hollowpaw,” he whispered, glazed. “Armies.”
“You need to rely more on your hind legs. They provide more power with less effort.”
I ran through the drill with Ivypool again. She was just as skilled as she was distant. Never looking at me, but through me. At something beyond the frame. I never knew what.
Blossomfall padded by.
Hawkfrost stared at Ivypool's body.
“Why are you here, Hollowpaw?” Ivypool snapped.
My answer was practiced, immediate. “For strength.”
She laughed and I could taste bitterness in it. “Strength, huh? Fine. I want the exercise down by tonight. Do it again.”
I had not been in the Forest long when I met Harespring.
I tripped over him, because he was sitting in the shadow of a black and poisoned tree, and instead of hurting me further he helped me up.
I took a few steps back, and a few moments to place the patched face.
He was WindClan, and revered. I had seen him on patrols before, streaking across the moor like the breeze was in his paws, and I had seen him at gatherings, sitting at the front of his Clan with a cluster of admirers, slender and proud and assured.
And now he was in the Dark Forest, half hidden in the gloom, pelt flecked with black mud, moor-grass green eyes glowing. I wondered what he could possibly have to learn here.
I looked at his white paws. He was wraith-like and slim in the gloom.
“Hollowpaw, right?” he said.
Startled that he knew my name, I nodded.
“You’re terribly young.”
“I’ll be a warrior in a few moons,” I mumbled. “Or maybe sooner, I learn faster here.”
In the corner of my vision Harespring turned his head away. “Yes,” he murmured, but it seemed like he was saying it to himself and not to me.
“-I’ve seen you before-” I blurted, to break the silence, and then wished I hadn’t done it. “-At gatherings and stuff, I mean… you’re- um-”
He looked at me, amused and just a little sad. “Oh, have you?” Like he was toying with me.
“…Yeah. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to learn from you.”
Harespring stood up, and for a second I thought he was about to leave, but instead he said; “You can find out what it’s like to learn beside me. We’re all the same in Tigerstar’s eyes.”
He sounded a little bitter.
“Just be careful, Hollowpaw. These cats won’t hesitate to kill you. Nothing here is your friend.”
I trained with Ivypool in the black river, later, and repaid the favor for what she had been teaching me. It did not even seem strange that I was teaching a ThunderClan cat to swim. I could hardly see our divisions anymore, we were just tattered pelts and we moved in tandem. At first the Dark Forest had been a means to an end. Now it was the end, and life was the means. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed.
I was terrified, to begin with, when it had seemed like a world filled with Troutstreams. Clones and copied bodies. Then I learned to love it, to stalk for it in my dreams and push the day faster.
I learned to love the fight and the chase and the technical work behind each fighting move, I learned to love the viciousness that ran in the veins of the cats who lived in the shadows, I learned to love the power that it truly was gifting me. I was reinvented and renewed.
I took, and I did not count the cost. Payback was only for being scarred a little too much.
The flaws on my skin were irrelevant. I was stronger than I had ever been, mentally and physically. I was not afraid anymore. I could rebel again.
When Troutstream came for me again, I was ready. She carried herself like she was made of sugar and cherries. I was bigger than her now, I realised, all sinew and muscle, a contrast to her sparrow frame.
Sunrise nose. Slit for a mouth. Almond eyes. "Hey,” she says, “Do something for me, would you? Mossypaw and I are–”
She lashed out, but I was quicker. I caught her paw, used it to twist her over and slam her to the ground. Reverse the roles. She smelled of mint leaves and strawberries, always fruit with her. If we didn’t loathe each other so much, I might have fallen for her. “You aren’t going anywhere,” I said, for the first time.
I stepped over her so I could pin her with four paws. We were nose to nose and I caught one of her paws with my own, dug my claws into her pads. Blood welled up where I had pricked her. She didn’t look at all threatened. “Red suits me,” she said. "But you look bad in any way."
I wanted her to feel afraid, to feel how I had felt for seasons. I wanted her to be hurt. (I was just like the words Rushtail said, then.) But how did I feel, I wondered, that I could make her feel too? Humiliation I hated, but pain? I was obsessed with pain, and she seemed to almost revel in it as well. It was strange to see her pinned down, to see her bleeding like the cats I trained with every night. If this was justicel it was not like how the stories told it. It was as corrupt as the Forest.
“What happened to you?” she asked. “When did you become so strong?” Her expression faded to concern, almost.
“Overnight,” I replied, because it wasn’t entirely a lie.
I made her take on my patrols for the next three moons, so I could train, and also just partly because I could. She deserved it, I told her, and as I stepped away, I looked her in the eyes for the first time. I clawed her again later.
After that, we moved in different circles. I had no time for anything outside of the Dark Forest, anymore. Mossypaw seemed to be nearby more often than she had ever been, and she looked worn down and worn out, but I did not have time for her either. My parent were ants.
Maybe if I was not so consumed by the world I lived in when I was sleeping, then I might have been glad to receive my sister as a friend for the first time in my life, but as it was she existed as a distraction. A "friend" might be a stretch, anyways.
Rushtail had had little time for me since he had become a warrior moons ago, and for that I was now almost glad, I decided now. I did not need friends, attachments to consider and maintain.
Training was the only important thing. And power.
The only two of my Clanmates that did not blur into the background with the others were diligent Beetlewhisker and his mother Icewing, whom I saw most nights, if we were training in the same part of the Forest.
Icewing was all gleaming teeth and blackthorn claws, but the most caring and two-faced cat. She fought like a hurricane. Beetlewhisker was thoughtful and quick-witted, quietly innocuous, you did not suspect him until he had you pinned on your back and his teeth in your flesh. He took the longest of us all to learn but had the most effect. Icewing and him carried their own drama throughout the night.
Blossomfall and Ivypool got it on by darkly trees and Hawkfrost fought them. Furzepelt watched Sunstrike, Sunstrike watched Breezepelt, and everyone ended up depressed. Ratscar and Redwillow and Antpelt and Mousewhisker and everyone.
They were as drunk on the Forest’s acid as I was.
My warrior ceremony came and went. Despite my brief concerns that my lack of focus in Clan life would hold me back, I passed with flying colours. Compared to the Dark Forest, the tests were kit’s play. Doodles of knowledge.
The night before Mossypaw and I were due to receive our names, we duelled each other at close range.
She could hardly land a paw on me, and I caught her each time, flipping her, pinning her, filling her black-and-white pelt with dust and then beating it back out of her.
"How...?" She cried, and I hit harder and grinned.
When it was over, I walked away before I would have to hear her say what she wanted to. I was too slow, though.
“Hollowpaw, I wish we could be friends.”
I did not want to hear it.
I trained to be faster.
Two nights later: I was in the Dark Forest as Hollowflight, and suddenly everything fit in place.
Spiraling heights and close battles. Finding a Clan within the Clans. Ivypool, staring at tortoiseshell she-cats and mapping their bodies from across the river. Or just one, the special one we all know of.
I was where I was meant to be: deep within the forest, surrounded by the dead and the dying. Thistleclaw used to be the cat's guy, the one who would talk and socialize with each of us souls. Hawkfrost took over, but always had the most attention on Ivypool.
I was desperate still to learn, I drank down every word that spun my way and copied every flick of the warriors’ claws. Young and yet growing.
I had never been so confident. I had never made jokes before. I looked into cats' eye and fought them with my retinas.
Sometimes Harespring was next to me, like a shadow or a ghost. He always was. So brave and strong in the limelight, but a creeper hidden away.
“I don’t think they are what they seem,” he said once, when nobody else could hear. “I’ve heard they want to destroy the Clans. Our home. Who would stand for that?
“I'll stand by them. Besides, what have the Clans ever done for us?”
He did not reply, but when I met his gaze it was filled with the same sorrow. Why did he hate this place so much, I wondered, and still come here every night?
I was blinded by my selfishness. Becuase I was tormented throughout my greasy child years, I forced down other cats' throats that the Clans were bad, too.
I grew stronger still. My pelt was a map of my life, scars testament to my trials.
Harespring gave me another. Long and thin, down my cheek, when we were fighting. He was WindClan, thinner and lighter than I. My weight was an advantage, but he was quicker. He darted back and forth like a minnow, and left little scratches all over my muzzle.
I pinned him down.
“What happened,” he asked, “to Hollowpaw?” And he clawed my face.
“This is what I want, Harespring,” I replied. I flipped him over and I was pinning him down.
My blood dripped onto his nose. His eyes were wild and he was so immersed in the struggle. He didn't notice the scarlet drops slither into his mouth.
There was no dawn, on that last day. There was no cue to battle, there was no final moment of preparation. War calls and cat falls, but no dress rehearsal.
I realised for the first time that I still did not know what I was doing.
I did not know who to fight for. I would claw, still angry and powerhungry, but against who?
“If you die out there, Hollowflight, I’ll find you and kill you again.” Harespring pressed his nose to mine and laughed. He would fight for WindClan, I knew.
“Nobody knows my mind like you do,” I said. I did not think I knew myself.
And then he was gone.
I’ll stand by them, I said. These are my people and I can be strong. My life is here, now, and Troutstream can fall beneath me.
When Hawkfrost attacked Rushtail, I changed my mind.
I threw him off Rushtail, the one who’d been my only friend. Newborn power crackled through me. I made a scratch at his stomach, his ear, went for his eye, let ignorance and rage overcome me.
Big mistake, bad mistake.
Hawkfrost gained the advantage, dangerously close to my right cheek, where I had first been hit, years ago. He unsheathed his claws.
“I promised you, you would face my hidden armies,” he snarled. “I never break my promises. The Forest was your home, and you betrayed it." He killed me before his profound speech.
He left me for dead, in the way I had always thought my denmates would. They did not see me either, as I lay under a bush that I had dragged myself to for concealment. I watched the other Forest trainees' lives unfurl ahead of them—those who survived.
What did I regret?
I let Rushtail leave me behind. We had shared our childhoods, but I had let him throw it all away. I died for him.
I had never made up with Mossyfoot, and Troutstream stayed as queen. They snuck away at nights again.
By the end, I had no family.
I never saw Harespring again. I imagined him standing beside my bloodied body, head bowed. He was too noble for tears. In my imagination, he said that he didn’t want to remember my humour or my skills, he wanted me back. I imagined pressing my nose to his. Then I saw the blood dripping into his mouth.
My story ended like it had begun; everything was black and cold, and I was alone.
My story started with instability, choking and the reconnaissance of swarming patrols. I was born into a fractured ShadowClan, beaten and forlorn by moons of tyranny under Brokenstar.
My sister and I had been just shy of a moon old when Brokenstar was exiled, too young for him to force us into early apprenticeship, but the broken Clan he’d left us in did not make the latter days of our kithood any easier than the first.
I broke the rules as soon as I could leave the nursery. I was only three moons old when I snuck out of camp, out of the scrubby trees, ran to where the earth was wet and sticky, and brackish water pooled under the wiry grass. Snowkit came halfway to the marsh with me, and then, too scared to carry on, turned back. I taunted her for it and proceeded on, fearless.
I heard my mother’s distressed howl back at camp. They must have discovered our disappearance. I snickered to myself and sped up, as fast as my waddling kit legs could carry me over the poky swamp ground. I could hear the crashing footsteps of patrols scouring our new territory, calling my name, and I suddenly felt like what I was doing was wrong. I changed my mind.
I turned to go and run freely to camp, lost my footing on the slippery ground and went crashing into the lake. I gurgled as it covered my head, thick and oily, pulling me under and coiling into my fur. It felt like demons were dragging me down. Unforgiving and unhesitant. Cats’ faces swam above the water but whenever I opened my mouth to call them, it filled my mouth and stifled my words with choking.
The whole world went dark.
When at last I opened my eyes, I thought I was dead. I was only three moons old, lost and crying, looking around at a place I couldn’t focus my eyes on. Suddenly a shape swimming in the blur approached me, solidifying into the biggest tom I had ever seen. His pelt was thick and cloud-like, grey and white swirled together in a tornado. I would have thought he was made of mist if his yellow eyes hadn’t glowed in his face like cruel twinned moons. They stared farther into me than I could ever see. He looked down at me with the largest grin, showing rows of deadly-sharp stained teeth.
“You need to learn how to be stealthy, and to be faster, young kit.”
I started shaking. He was eating out my thoughts.
“Come to us when you are older. Remember, we are your home.” His form twirled.
And then he was mist again, and I woke up, vomiting water on the grass and remembering his piercing eyes.
Later, Snowkit became Snowpaw.
I was delighted to be an apprentice at last, excited and bouncing, ready to explore the territory I’d been forbidden from seeing for my whole life so far. Learning to fight. To be stronger than the hard-eyed warriors that made up the core of our fragmenting Clan.
Excitement shattered, and in the first time in moons I thought about that tom. I had forgotten what his fur looked like, what shape he’d been, even how big he was. Was he menacing or cowardly?
I could never forget his eyes. I’d seen layers in them, layers that I could list, describe, feel in my blood:
My apprentice days were under Nightstar’s rule. He was weak and stumbling; trying to keep ShadowClan from falling apart broke him instead.
Starving, ragged, cold, we kept all the scrawny prey we could catch, didn’t share, and fought over the remains. We went wild and desolate.
We scrapped with ThunderClan over territory and prey, desperate to sustain ourselves. Even fighting alongside ShadowClan, they, prosperous in a way we hadn’t been in seasons upon seasons, defeated us.
They were harbouring our fugitive leader. Our oppressor, our enemy, and also our saviour. We fought them again, desperate to punish him for what he had done to us. Blind with hunger and vengeance.
His own mother got there first. Cats say she poisoned him; I believe she ripped him apart.
“This calls for celebration,” Nightstar said, but we had nothing to celebrate with. No food, no strength, no warmth or even sleep. A feast was more like an unreachable dream. Snowpaw brought me a water vole to share. I ate the whole thing instantly, turned my back on her, and she slashed my cheek so that it bled.
I didn’t go to Runningnose for cobwebs. I needed the experience.
In the end, we turned to the Carrionplace for food.
I never classified fed it as prey…more as desperate measures.
We lead perilous missions to grasp rotting remains, which we were forced to swallow down, lying to ourselves that it was “to survive.”
“You go too far,” my prestigious mentor Cedarheart said to me one evening, as we sat nursing our wounds in the gloom of the camp.
Our mission had been unsuccessful, we’d been attacked by rats and returned empty pawed. We were so tired that the prey became predator.
I turned my head away from him, stifling a snarl. Nothing was too far for me. I could break every rule if I wanted to. I counted it all as experience.
“I hope you sleep well tonight, we have difficult training to do tomorrow, if we ever want our Clan to be strong again,” he said, padding away from me. ‘And if your scratches pain you, well, it’s your fault,’ is what he didn’t add. He should of.
The tom interrupted my dream that night, and all the nightmares I tried to remember sprang back into my head.
“My name is Thistleclaw,” he said. “You must remember me.”
My mouth went dry.
“Do you want to start your training?” He asked.
“Yes!” I said, but my mind went; “No!” I didn’t know what I wanted. Even in my dreams I was starved.
(The day before, Snowpaw had asked me when I wanted to have my assessment, as we sat together on the fringe of the training hollow. We watched Wetpaw and Brownpaw cringe away from each other’s attacks. Snowpaw shared their sympathy and I mocked them.
“Soon,” I had said, but my mind had gone; “In a while.” Nothing ever did come out right. My mind warped things and threaded them with cruelty. My mind had a mind of its own. Snowpaw never cared. After all, she only had one brother, and it made her blind to my faults.)
Thistleclaw circled around me, deep yellow eyes flicking over my pelt. He seemed like a villain to me, someone who would fight the heroes in old kit stories. A mastermind, maker of lies. I could see him as a brutal killer and that only made me more interested. I could learn from his mistakes…?
“Well, you’re quite the go-getter.” A vicious chuckle.
“I don’t know what that means,” I growled, because everything came out as a growl, or didn’t come out right at all.
“You’ll be our top warrior in no time. But don’t worry, it’ll be a while yet until we call on you.” Deigning, now.
I didn’t know what that meant either, and I could have whined and pushed Thistleclaw past the edge, but I didn’t. My eagerness got the best of me.
“Okay. I’ll be the best.” I snapped, smug. I puffed out my chest and acted as a warrior. I couldn’t ever settle with any stage I was at.
Thistleclaw smirked at me. “I think I’ll need to give you something to remember me better, this time.” And then he was on top of me, claws out and slicing my back in a long, arching movement, faster than hypersonic snakes. I cried out and he dug deeper and faded away in an instant.
I woke up bathed in blood, fur spiked warm and sticky, and it seeped between my claws. My Clanmates screamed, and I screamed, and somehow in between the blood and the rush and the dizziness I cried and told them I went to the Carrionplace, and was attacked by rats, because it was easier than the truth.
I lay in the medicine den for a half-moon, and the gash he’d left me eventually scarred, but never left my body, dividing me in half, parting my dark fur in an ugly split. A reminder; an oath. Half of me to be light, half to be dark.
Ratscar, they named me, for Thistleclaw’s gift/curse. My wraithlike sister became Snowbird. She was beautiful. I had scars.
Sickness swept through our Clan. It took our deputy Cinderfur. It took my mother. It took hope.
We were in disarray, population dwindling, our leader sick in the medicine den. I had no friends and nobody to care for, and so I had enough to eat. Snowbird and I hadn’t spoken since she took Boulder to be her mate. She was so young. I didn’t think he loved her, but I could see her telling herself that she loved him all the same.
That was when Tigerclaw came to our Clan, flanked by cats who had once been our Clan’s strongest warriors, banished moons before.
They promised to help us overcome our sickness, make our Clan strong again.
He was powerful, direct, inspirational. We believed him. We had to.
Just when we thought our Clan was recovering, the sickness took one last victim, our leader, Nightstar.
We had no deputy. We were leaderless. Frail Runningnose, our Medicine Cat, was the only leader-figure we had and he couldn’t stand up to the pressure. He tried, but didn’t do. We waited, and eventually got our solution.
About half a moon later, StarClan sent a sign, and Tigerclaw was made our leader.
And ShadowClan was strong like he had promised. We were healthy again, and prey was plentiful. Spirits were high for the first time in my life. I knew where I was, slightly.
My sister gave birth to kits, and she named them Wildkit and Nightkit.
“After Nightstar?” I asked.
She tipped her head to one side. “Perhaps.” I smiled and it was a foreign, alien movement, the emotion that followed it was an outrageous difference. It was like our lives dawned, rebirthing into a better life.
Our happiness could not last.
We fought ThunderClan. We joined RiverClan. We fought BloodClan. Tigerstar was disembowelled and died.
Turmoil, destruction, and turmoil again. (Boulder left my sister, and when she cried I could only tell her that I’d warned her and she hadn’t listened. I bled for that remark. She still told herself she loved him.)
Blackfoot, at last, took his place at the head of the Clan. Maybe, ShadowClan hoped, we might begin to heal. But every time we had hoped before, our lives brought us down again.
Still, Thistleclaw did not come for me, but he was always in my dreams; in the corners of my eyes and slinking through the shadows. His eyes were always lighting up the night, in the stars or the river or the pine needles I tread on. He was everywhere.
In my whole, twisted life I only ever truly cared for four cats. Four she-cats, none of them related, none of them friends, all of them a bit messed up, just like me.
The first, my poor sister, lithe little Snowbird. We had nothing in common but our blood and our kithood. We rarely spoke, but when we did, we either fought or cried or screamed together.
But I knew if I had nowhere else to turn I’d go to her.
The second was Whitewater. Hardly, anyone spoke to her, which suited her just fine. She was soft and caring, never one to give up. Blind in her blue eye, indifferent in her amber one, with enough thick white fur to keep three cats warm, she would have been an outcast in anywhere but ShadowClan.
She laughed at ThunderClan, coddling their own half-blind Brightheart. Whitewater climbed the tallest trees just for fun, higher than any of the other warriors would go, just to prove that she could. Whitewater didn’t care what anyone else thought of her, or what they thought she could or should do; she just lived.
And so I left her alone too, just as I was left alone. I never could have imagined that we would be friends, that I would have friends at all, apart from Snowbird, until our circumstances changed drastically.
The Twolegs attacked our camps, drove us from our homes. The four Clans gathered and, eventually, left the doomed Forest forever. Following the word of five wayward cats, barely older than apprentices, with tenuous loyalty, we left behind everything we’d ever known. (I thought maybe I’d leave Thistleclaw behind, him and his eyes.)
I stayed separate from the group as we walked, and I could see cats from the other Clans fussing over Whitewater, guiding her steps as we walked, helping her judge jumps between rocks as we climbed. They clung to her like fleas, and she hated it. She got attention and wanted it gone.
We were about the same age, Whitewater and I.
We found ourselves walking together, and they left her alone after that. If I snarled at a few cats, well, then it probably wasn’t on purpose.
We hardly talked, and when we did, it was mostly about trees. Trees, I found, were Whitewater’s favourite thing. I should have guessed, after all the risky climbing.
Way up in the mountains, with the wind whistling round the rock that sheltered us from behind, she and I gazed out over the snowy peaks, watching the world unfurl. The land spread endlessly, with streams threading through forests, and hills rising undefinably.
“Would you look at that,” she said, deadpan, and gestured to the view.
“Look at what, you’re blind.”
I looked for a moment, at everything I’d ever known and everything I hadn’t all rolled out in front of me. I considered its layers, layers like Thistleclaw’s eyes. “I hate it,” I replied, because it wasn’t what I meant at all. “It goes on for too long.” I loved it, though.
She laughed. “You’re right…I have no depth vision, it all looks flat to me. Even the hills…I hope those are hills!”
I held a laugh, we walked for a while in a more companionable silence than I’d known in a while, and the world was calm.
“I like you, Ratscar. You don’t care about anything.”
“I don’t care about you, either,” I told her, because it wasn’t true.
“That’s refreshing,” she replied, and then winked her blind eye at me. “I guess we have mutual feelings.”
My brain: …
She saved me. “Help me judge this jump?”
Snowbird walked with us, occasionally, when she wasn’t walking with her kits, or with some random toms. Less often, as we approached the lake, most likely so she could stay by Nightwing’s side and they could grieve together over Smokepaw’s death, but maybe, I thought, because she didn’t like Whitewater. Or maybe I was paranoid.
Territories were divided around the lake. Land was mapped, borders sprang up, camps pitched. Snowbird searched for a mate.
The pine forest provided Whitewater with more than enough to distract her, and the two of us went our seperate ways.
WindClan fractured in two over its’ leadership. ThunderClan were torn apart by badgers. ShadowClan fought vicious kittypets. Spoiled RiverClan complained about trivialities. Thistleclaw hadn’t appeared.
The third she-cat, Kinkfur, was born as soon as we reached the lake. If Whitewater had understood my strange harshness, Kinkfur embraced it, revelled in it.
She was Rowanclaw’s apprentice, rebellious, sharp tongued. She was eight moons old when I found her paddling in the shallows of the lake in front of RiverClan territory, so she could observe their territory without getting caught by her scent. I didn’t tell anyone.
Two days later she found me doing the same thing, and, grinning maniacally, waded out to join me. Her spiky fur looked amusing when wet.
We became friends. The other warriors saw us together and narrowed their eyes in disapproval. I didn’t care, and I think she enjoyed the attention.
I remember late in the days of her apprenticeship, sitting with her in a shady corner of camp, cracking lizard bones, because she’d just caught it, and just eaten it, and now had to play with what was left. “You’re not ready for your assessment,” I told her, because I meant to ask her when she was wanting to have it. Kinkfur never minded when I said these things. If she wasn’t just ignoring it, she looked at me and cackled, told me I was as twisted as her pelt.
Snowbird found herself a new mate. Scorchfur was half her age. But who was I to question her decisions. I could never make any.
Shrewpaw was my first apprentice’s name,
She was observant, precise, more intelligent than I. Everything she did was measured and careful, and she was the fastest learner I ever knew. She asked questions, probed me for every extra thing I could teach her, but was always courteous and respectful.
She was calculated, had every inch of potential to be cruel. I didn’t care. She was everything me and Snowbird couldn’t be for our parents.
She had Blackstar’s dark feet, his yellow eyes. The Clan talked.
Sol was the first cat I saw her afraid of in a fundamental way. He didn’t scare her like a fighter too strong for her to take on, or like a forest fire; he frightened her like a persistent nightmare. How Thistleclaw had terrified me.
Sol got into cats’ heads and twisted their minds. He toyed with them and chose their paths. Shrewpaw’s mind and destiny was everything to her.
I was twisted already, but Shrewpaw would not be manipulated.
For a moon he held sway over Blackstar and ShadowClan, for a moon I did what I wanted. Kinkfur and I cracked lizard bones. Whitewater climbed trees with me, higher than we should. Shrewpaw and I sat for hours beside the lake. I visited Snowbird in the nursery, brought her feathers for her nest.
Thistleclaw wasn’t alone in my dreams those days.
Shrewfoot didn’t need me after she became a warrior, but that was fine. Snowbird’s kits didn’t live to see their apprenticeship, and she dedicated her time to sleep and grief. Kinkfur had kits and a mate of her own. Whitewater moved to the Elders’ Den. I had a second apprentice, Pinepaw, but she was never a friend to me. She was more of a demanding student.
I had spent most of my life alone, but now, for the first real time, I was lonely. It was a surprise, because it had been a miracle that a cat like me had ever had friends in the first place.
“Ah, Ratscar, why do they not pay you more attention?” It was Thistleclaw, speaking to me for the first time since he had given me that scar. “The time to train has come at last. Meet me here tomorrow night.”
I couldn’t say no. It felt, I realised, like my whole life had been building up to this moment.
I was late to meet him. My eyes stung, and my breath rasped in my throat, I barely managed a walk, as I headed at last back to camp. It had been a long day of training, and it was long walk back from the area we’d been at. I couldn’t stop thinking about Thistleclaw. The yellow-eyed phantom. Tyrant of darkness and scars. He’d hurt me more than anyone had since, but I’d never wanted to see someone again so much, all the same. I couldn’t settle.
Sleep came abruptly, an uncomfortable slam against my brain. Shrewfoot on the other side of the den, near the most important warriors. Blackstar and Russetfur canoodling in the night. Whitewater in the Elders’ Den with rickety Cedarheart. Snowbird and Kinkfur in the Nursery. ShadowClan all in their nests and me dreaming in a black, sluggish, dirty forest.
I padded slowly towards him. Thistleclaw gave a vicious smile and gestured me closer. I reached him, every nerve on edge, and he leaned down with his dank breath and whispered in my ear;
“We are your home now. We own you.” And repeated.
He whisked me away into a caging Forest, pure darkness and shaded indigo skies and ebony rivers. Cats swarmed everywhere, fighting each other with jagged claws, ripping ears and fur. Cats who resembled Thistleclaw in cruelty and raggedness were yelling at smaller ones, whom I recognised as cats from other Clans. All younger than me, as far as I could see. The ones who began to cry were thrown into the river to be sucked down by oily water, and the ones who stood taller were beaten.
Thistleclaw jostled me forward, and then the crowd parted to let a cat through. Huge, with amber eyes that glowed like fires, claws that looked too big for his paws. I knew him well. It was Tigerstar.
He nodded to Thistleclaw, glanced over my face, but I saw no recognition in his eyes. He was about to turn away when I shifted, and the scar on my back was suddenly in his line of sight.
Memory flared in his eyes and he grinned; toothy, insidious. and then shoved me into a ring of cats.
They passed me back and forth like a moss ball, beating and battering me. I nearly cried out. For all my age and experience I was no match for them. I should have been beating them with no trouble, but instead I was dizzy and confused.
Eventually, I could see dawn erupting on the real world below through a grimy puddle. I waited until the other cats, who I learned were trainees, streamed away, and then hit myself against a tree so I could wake up faster.
Moons passed, and suddenly I had a new life. Every night I saw them; Ivypool, Blossomfall, Icewing, Harespring, an array of cats from all the Clans. They were the trainees and my fellow prisoners. Some died in the Forest, and some were viciously loyal. Beetlewhisker, Mousewhisker. I had a stance as all of those in between—blind, unknowing, stuck between reality and fate. I felt like I’d been missing out all my life, this was what I had lived for. Redwillow and Applefur became my friends. They weren’t the same to me as Snowbird was, as Whitewater and Kinkfur and Shrewfoot were, but they were something. We saw each other every night, and soon enough we stayed together in the day as well. We became the tight-knit group of traitors and wounded Forest-followers.
Clan life became extra, a hobby. My morale and ranking went lower. I slept away in my den long into the morning even though I was distressed over the thought of those yellow eyes. Of an obsidian river and cracking skulls.
It didn’t take long to be swept into the system. Sleep, train, break, wake, repeat. There were the little side jobs and arguments but from then on, you weren’t allowed to be different. You weren’t allowed to escape. We were a secret and hidden army, trainees as one, and we could only ever escape with a final war.
The Place of No Stars was my life. Nobody in the Clans noticed I was different. I was angry, old lone Ratscar, now with more sleep.
I spent my short days alone, often, though increasingly I found myself on patrols and hunts with Applefur and Redwillow, or Shredtail and Tigerheart. We shared an experience that none of our Clanmates would ever understand. We were different, and we knew it.
Tigerheart was there for his relatives, the dark tabbies he looked so much like, with their huge claws and glowing eyes.
Applefur was there because she thought it was only to make her strong. She was decieved.
Redwillow was there because he was bloodthirsty and ambitious. He had been Whitewater’s apprentice, I recalled. They were nothing alike. He thought her weak. She thought him loud.
Redwillow and Applefur had a fling and never mentioned it.
Shredtail was the same. He and Redwillow spent most of their waking hours together, training with each other in ShadowClan’s territory when they couldn’t be in the Dark Forest.
I was there because I’d been waiting for it my whole life, and it didn’t feel any more wrong to be there than it did to be in ShadowClan, where I’d never really been happy. But I’d also never wanted to go.
The war arrived. I had trained for countless moons and lost myself between the Forest’s branches, and then I was thrust into something I’d been preparing for forever. And I had no idea what to do.
I don’t think anyone did. Ivypool and Blossomfall cried to each other and were the first to recognize their mistakes. Cats like Sunstrike and Hollowflight, the mysterious cats with their own stories, perished in the lines.
Furzepelt and Mousewhisker and cats like them fought for the rebellion. They followed Ivypool and defended the Clans, and survived just to die another day.
Redwillow chose violence. He found what he thought was truth in Tigerstar’s lies, and every other harrowing cat stuck in that travesty. I watched as he rose up to Blackstar’s height and glared into his eyes, extending his claws. Applefur cried out and knew she had lost him.
Blackstar killed him and I knew my fate.
I could follow the fighters that scarred, choked, and ruined me, I could fight for the darkness and emerge either victorius or dead. In this case, both were haunting.
Or I could choose my home, the cats I’d known my whole life. The cats I ran away from as a kit, who I hated and loved and hated and needed. I almost drowned, and found the Forest that I’d hoped to avoid, that would break me later on. They supported me the best they could throughout it all…even if I was never happy.
War: I didn’t want to die, but if I had to, I wanted to at least die for what was right.
I joined the rebellion and fought back. I didn’t meet Thistleclaw on the field; I purposefully hid from him. I couldn’t have met his eyes, after everything that happened, and tried to kill him.
The truth was, I didn’t hate the Dark Forest. I fought alongside the Clans because with them at least I had slept easily every night, but the Dark Forest had been the culmination of a lifetime of waiting, and they’d given me occupation, comrades, strength. They gave me a true decision I could make.
When Shredtail found me at last to punish me for my treachery, Snowbird hurled herself in his path. She declared me loyal to ShadowClan.
I looked away. Am I really, Snowbird? I didn’t stick around to see her reaction when Shredtail told her I’d been part of the Dark Forest. I waited out the war and pushed my life behind.
My story ended with me breathing and free, and with a decision I could finally make. Even though I’d hesitated to choose the light over the dark, it hadn’t mattered. Neither could make me truly happy, and I knew that even though it was gone, the Dark Forest wasn’t something I ever wanted to forget.
My story started in the rain, when my brothers and I met Birchkit for the first time at Sunningrocks. Both ShadowClan and ThunderClan were there taking shelter, hollow-eyed with destruction, pelts slicked flat by the watery drops. His sisters were both dead, and he was alone. We got along instantly, and with our mothers’ blessings we spent as much time together as we could.
Sometimes we were wet, and sometimes we were cold, but we were too young for life to scare us yet.
We played games all the way up the mountains and back down the other side, the four of us inseparable until we reached the lake. There, I started questioning the world.
“Why can’t we go to ThunderClan, Tallpoppy?”
“Because this is where we were born, my kits, this is our home, and this is where we’ll stay.”
“But it’s not, we’ve only just got here.” I tested my boundaries. The others had defiant eyes.
“You know very well what I mean. Now hush and go to sleep. You’ll see Birchkit again, soon, at the Gathering, and you can show him how strong you’ve all gotten.”
Privately, she thought we would stop thinking about him within a few moons.
Marshkit never lived to see his sixth moon. I remember him going missing, I remember searching for him in every corner of the camp, I remember Tallpoppy’s screech when they found him dead in one of the twolegs’ shiny fox traps. I remember his amber eyes, unfurled and glassy, when they carried him home.
My apprentice days were uncertain, but easy.. The Clans were struggling to gain a clawhold in the lake territories, everyone muttering dissent in the shadows. Toadpaw and I were good enough at what we did. We were loyal, and decent fighters and hunters, and if we questioned the authority we never did it out loud. We shedded our rebellious kit loves. We stayed steady.
If our eyes were a little wistful sometimes when we looked towards the ThunderClan border, well…
I dreamed of Marshkit sometimes in the early days without him. I’d see white fur in the corners of my vision, I’d spin, and it’d be my father or Whitewater, never Marshkit.
If Marshpaw and I could convince them, sometimes we’d train with Smokefoot and Snaketail, but our older brothers had their own agendas, and usually we were stuck with each other.
Two was a lonely number, I thought.
But one could be worse.
I caught Greencough in my apprenticeship, and I remember lying in the medicine den, hearing my breath rasp like it was burning me inside out, shivering despite the heat I knew was rolling off my body. Sometimes I’d hear Marshkit singing in my ears. Sometimes he’d tell me he’d gone to ThunderClan to be with Birchkit, and he wasn’t dead at all, but happier. Littlecloud caught me struggling my way out of the Medicine Den, half-mad with fever, choking Marshkit’s name.
I remember training with Blackstar one day, a privilege, Toadpaw and I against him in a shady hollow with the wind in our fur, and he beat us both with ease. I remember looking at Toadpaw and wondering if he’d grow into our father’s shoulders, or if he’d grow skinny and tall like our mother.
I wondered if Marshkit was Birchkits’ brother now.
“Toadfoot! Applefur! Toadfoot! Applefur!”
ShadowClan warrior vigils were always a little different from those of other Clans. It was never just the new warriors, out watching the stars. Toadfoot and I sat with our family all night, even if Smokefoot was asleep on Tallpoppy’s shoulder come sunrise.
ThunderClan came to ask for ShadowClan aid on a journey to the Tribe of Rushing Water. I was out of the camp at the time, but when I returned I knew something had happened. Warriors milled around the clearing, murmuring to each other, and Toadfoot sat in the corner with his eyes full ofdespondency.
“You remember Birchkit?”
“Of course.” I couldn’t forget him.
“One of the ThunderClan apprentices asked me about him, that’s all. His name’s Birchfall now, and we didn’t even know that. I was thinking of the Great Journey. Happy?”
“Oh, Toadfoot, I think about it too. You’re allowed to miss him.”
“Yeah…” he mumbled, and wistful eyes stared out beyond the camp.
Starlingkit, Ferretkit and Pinekit liked to swarm me and pin me to the ground, nipping at my ankles. I loved to play with the kits, tell them stories, usually about the Great Journey. I never left out Birchfall, never neglected to mention how all four Clans had worked together as one, even if the elders frowned at me for it. ShadowClan was so proud.
After aching joints and shrieking kits, I’d have the conversation with my mother. Toadfoot was off at sunset.
“You’d make a good mother one day, Applefur.”
“I don’t want to be a mother, Tallpoppy. I don’t even have a mate. I don’t want a mate.”
“That day will come.” A sweet smile.
“Easy enough for you to say, you fell in love with your mentor and hitched up. I’m not doing that, thanks very much.”
But I was smirking too.
Sun burned the lake dry, and Toadfoot left with Tigerheart to bring the water back. It was the longest I’d ever been without him, I realised.
It felt like I would lose him too. It felt like he would go to ThunderClan and live happily with Marshkit and Birchfall and I’d be forgotten.
We fought a fox chased from ThunderClan territory, and it sliced open my leg. I had rested in the Medicine Den, Flametail crouching beside me, telling me stories of the worst wounds he’d ever treated, and about herbs, and about delivering kits, until I forgot aboutpain in my torn flesh, and pain in my heart.
Flametail was clever, I recognised, and he was fast and witty and clever and his deep blue eyes held a sort of fervour for life that I envied. And he died.
I still told the kits stories; Dewkit and Mistkit and bright little Sparrowkit. How could all the Clans have been friends? They asked. We’re too different. Don’t be silly.
“Not in the ways that matter,” I told them, but I didn’t have the heart to finish the tale.
That night he came to me in my dream. Hawkfrost, with ice eyes flashing. I knew about him but didn’t do anything to escape.
“I know a place where all four Clans train together, Applefur. I know a place where you can learn to be respected by everyone. The kits’ll listen to everything you tell them, you’ll be able to protect everyone. No more lives lost like Flametail, no more lives lost like Marshkit.”
And I followed him blindly. A world where all four Clans could come together? Nothing seemed better. I should have known, I should have known it was too good to be true.
Sure enough, we were all together. Sure enough I got stronger.
But what was the price?
“Put your claws out, Applefur, before I show you what happens when you fight a real fight with them in!”
“If I see you going easy on the apprentices tomorrow night, you’ll be in the ring with them, and everyone will bleed together.”
“Bite him! Bite his tail! Can you taste blood? Can you taste it? No? Not good enough!”
I wouldn’t unsheathe my claws against my allies, against my friends. I watched the Dark Forest cats snapping each other’s legs and necks and I closed my eyes and willed myself away. I was naivë and so heavily nostalgic that I accepted to come to the most vile forest in history.
But nowhere else could we all be together like Clanmates. In my waking world we were drawing apart even further than before, each meeting at the border became a standoff, each little spat a full on fight. Tensity ran in our marrow.
Every night I was swept into an eerie dark world where I tore pelts and broke bones and every day I staggered through the daylight and tried to fulfil my duties, at least to the bare minimum, scraping the bottom.
Toadfoot fought with the kittypets on our border and came out victorious and gory. I hoped he would never follow me to where my head went at night time.
I hoped everyone would stay away.
“Applefur? Applefur, is that you?”
“Birchfall? You come here? I—You—….
“Of course, who wouldn’t? My daughter does too. It’s been so long since we saw each other last.”
He had a daughter, a mate. I was dumbstruck and gaping and couldn’t acknowledge it. I rambled out sharp words:
“We haven’t spoken properly since we were kits! I can hardly believe you’re real!”
“How do you know I am? How do we know what’s real and what isn’t, in this place?”
Birchfall made the Dark Forest worth visiting. We fought together like we’d always hoped we would as kits, and it didn’t matter that he was ThunderClan and I was ShadowClan because we were all the same when there were no stars to watch us.
We talked as much as we could between each session, about his mate and his two daughters, about Toadfoot and ShadowClan’s kits. I asked about Marshkit. He was dead all along.
I saw more and more of Tigerheart in the daytime. We spoke about Flametail once, we went on patrols together.
“I didn’t know you two were friends,” Toadfoot observed.
Shredtail, the one from ShadowClan who no one ever thought about, and Redwillow, spent every waking moment pretending they were still asleep. They trained in the forest, tussled in the corners of the camp, I found them drowning each other in the shallows of the lake, laughing maniacally.
“Those two spend so much time together, we should be expecting an announcement soon,” Tigerheart joked.
“An announcement of what? Death? Those idiots are going to do each other some serious damage one of these days.”
I became one of the most reliable warriors the Dark Forest had.
In ShadowClan, I was disgusting.
One night Hawkfrost called me away from the group, where we were practicing jumping across and between some fallen trunks, guiding and aiming our landings. My muscles felt stretched and aching as he lead me to Tigerstar, sitting between the roots of a blackened tree, fur lit eerily from above by a glowing fungus.
“Applefur, you’ve been doing very well,” his voice was a low rumble in my ears. “I’ve heard good reports from all over the forest. Hawkfrost holds you in high esteem.”
I looked back at the white-chested tom, in my surprise my legs forgot to shake. He dipped his head in confirmation of his father’s statement.
I turned back to Tigerstar.
“You will take on two apprentices,” he was telling me. “I’m sure you know Hollowflight and Blossomfall well by now.”
Blossomfall, the she-cat that purred against Birchfalls’ daughter between sessions.
I nodded mutely. His paws were so big he could swipe my muzzle once and blind me forever.
“We will be monitoring your progress. See that you don’t fail.”
“I won’t,” I murmured. Hawkfrost gestured to me and we turned to go.
“Oh, and Applefur?”
I froze, turned to meet his gaze again. “Yes, Tigerstar?”
“Weakness is never rewarded. Don’t make us have to punish you for showing it in the face of your comrades.”
Blossomfall was slender and beautiful, scented like her name, with a kind of indifferent air to the way she carried herself that told me that really she cared about everything far more than she should. Ivypool’s blue gaze lingered over her dappled pelt.
Hollowflight was small but canny, yellow eyes springing with intelligence. He’d been shy and nervous when I’d first met him, and that was all but gone now.
They were quick learners, together we made short work of the exercises we were given. Reluctantly, I left my claws unsheathed as we fought, but only because they did not sheathe theirs. I had learned to be fast, so I was rarely snagged by them.
Every night I’d dream my way to my apprentices and the three of us would fight together like we’d done it all our lives. I knew how Hollowflight’s instinct was to trip and disarm rather than overpower, I knew that Blossomfall’s lunges defaulted to the left. We learned to plug the gaps in each others techniques, fight like a well-oiled machine. The only cat I’d ever fought so well with before was my own brother.
I’d never trained anyone at all before, and it made me wonder why. Was I not loyal? Was I not good with the kits? Or was I just that bad.
I had never felt so energised as I did in the Forest. Our training got harder and harder, taking more and more of my strength. I felt as wound up as a baby mouse in it’s nest, everything felt coiled as tight and thrumming with tension like a fox about to spring.
Tigerclaw no longer offered praise. Hawkfrost attacked with no warning. Mapleshade pinned cats down in the shadows and flayed their pelts until they were speckled with blood all over. Thistleclaw shredded black plants in frustration.
Each waking day was a sunlit dream. A few nights before the Great Battle I played with tiny Weaselkit under the fringe of the nursery entrance. There was so much potential in his shining eyes. He was to die, and I didn’t know it.
Everyone was to die.
“Four Clans will unite as one when it matters most,” they said.
And that was what I wanted. Four Clans as one, peace and harmony all around the lake. Everyone free to be friends with everyone else. No divisions, no war, no crooked borders.
The Dark Forest promised to tighten our loyalty, and maybe it was their downfall in the end.
“There’s one more thing you need to learn, Applefur, to make you a full Dark Forest warrior,” Thistleclaw told me. “We’re going to a Gathering, and you don’t want to miss it.”
So I went, and I saw Beetlewhisker have his throat torn out because we agreed that warriors don’t kill.
“Would anyone else like to leave? Applefur?”
In the end, Ivypool showed me that I still had a choice, that I could use my skills for the good I believed I had been learning them for.
“I fight for the Clans.”
The battle was a churning, screeching mess of cats and organs. I stumbled and clawed my way from tree to tree, flooring as many cats as I could in my path.
Blossomfall and I fought back to back for a time, blood dripping from our whiskers, but we were soon separated by our opponents, carried away from each other by the sea of claws and teeth.
There was only one cat I wanted to find. My brother, Toadfoot.
And I found him at the bottom of a hollow, I recognised his dark brown pelt, he and our blood-spattered mother against a circle of Dark Forest Warriors. I saw one of them cut Tallpoppy down before I could hurl myself into the fray.
I sprang at them with a screech of rage, dragging a grey tabby off my fallen mother’s back.
“Tallpoppy, Tallpoppy, please!”
Her dusty green eyes, like mine and Toadfoot’s, were wide and vitreous. “Tallpoppy!”
Another cat raked her claws down my haunches, I spun and slashed at her muzzle with a screech.
Soon Toadfoot and I were tail to tail, our mother’s body unresponsive by our feet, surrounded by a snarling ring of Dark Forest warriors.
“We can’t take them all,” murmured Toadfoot, surprisingly quietly.
“No,” I agreed. “But you don’t have to. I’ll distract them, you get out of here, save yourself!”
“That won’t work, Applefur,” he replied. “It’s been an honour fighting with you.”
“Please, Toadfoot. You don’t deserve to die. You didn’t train with them, you didn’t betray the Clans!” I begged, voice cracking over the last word.
“I don’t care what you did before. You’re fighting for us now. We go down together, I won’t leave you.”
They were closing in on us. He couldn’t get out now even if he wanted to. Mother was unmoving.
“Okay,” I breathed, steeling myself. “Okay. On three.”
“One, two, three-”
My story ended along with Toadfoot’s and my mother’s, and with a last prayer to StarClan to keep the rest of our family safe, I felt jaws lock around my throat, then my vision spotted to black. I said goodbye to Birchfall in my head. Marshkit appeared instantly.
My story started in the Dark Forest. It was destined to. Before that, it was me and my thick attitude.
Everything before the Forest was indistinguishable and blurry. I loved WindClan, though I acted like it was dismissible. I fought in fiery battles. I ate stringy prey and slept till dawn.
That life was calm, was warm and full of life. My friends were nothing special but were far from being distant. We went on patrols together, challenged loners, ate crow-food just to see what our vomit would look like.
My family didn’t mingle with me. We led our sundered lives and branched out through WindClan. I developed a fame for my mood and shrewd behaviour. My friends laughed when I talked back to the elders, and my ego grew. They had a light in their eyes and that light made me feel special.
My assertiveness took control when an undernourished RiverClan hunting party stumbled along our border. A warrior tracked a squirrel onto our territory and I bolted past my patrol. I ran up to them and started screaming hysterically.
I slid my claws out and threatened them. My friends watched and laughed. I smirked and Ashfoot scolded me for it. The bony RiverClan cats hobbled away and she tried to discipline me.
I rolled my eyes as our patrol headed back to camp. My friends and I slipped away onto the moors, the prolific hills. We rolled on the ground and laughed at what I’d done until we cried. They went home, I stayed out, thinking about myself, about the stars.
When I snuck back into camp at midnight, Onestar was waiting for me with a grimace on his face. Ashfoot stood beside him, poised.
They talked for an immeasurable amount of time, admonishing me. I tilted my head in the most condescending way I could, slumped my shoulders. I stared insolently back at them as I spoke, and when they spoke back I looked away lazily.
I thought about my friends, watching from the dens in the shadows, and evaluated my life. By them I was admired and always in the attention, and my other Clanmates thought I was an ignoramus.
I was on the edge, and when I discovered the Dark Forest, everything crumbled.
I’d angered even bubbly Kestrelflight by stealing some herbs that day. I’d snuck into his den and snatched some catmint. After allocating it equally between my friends, we headed down to the lakeside. We sat on sandy beaches and our minds exploded into illusions, colours, states of being happy and fake.
We returned to camp before dawn, dragging ourselves back to our nests to sleep off the effects before the day began.
I slept in, and unlike every other cat who visited the Forest on a cold and tenebrous night, I went during vivid daylight.
Thistleclaw formed in front of me when I opened my eyes. Around me was a foggy and sinister forest. The Forest, the one in every nightmare, that held the worst cats.
I heard stories. I saw visions. Tigerstar and Brokenstar and every demonic soul. I never imagined it to be so terrifying. I thought I was ready. I shivered.
“You’re dangerous and powerful. You love disobeying rules but you still love your Clan.”
Thistleclaw, a treacherous brute I’d never met, was defining my life.
“You want more. You want to impress your friends indefinitely, yet they already are in awe of you?”
I managed a word. “Yes.”
“You have great ambitions, Antpelt.” Manipulative. “I can help you achieve them. We all can. You can be as risky and rebellious a—”
I choked. “Please take me. I want to go to the Dark Forest. Train me and make me stronger, I wanna be deadly!”
He stopped, eyeing me. “Oh, well that’s new.” He gave an insidious grin. I bit on my cheek, sharp anticipation.
“Your wish has been granted.”
My first time there: “I’m here to impress.”
I directed it mostly to pretty Blossomfall, but when she saw my hungry eyes, she gave me a look of disgust and whispered back, “I play for the other team.”
I made a noise of repugnance, cursing her kind under my breath, but before I could say anything more Hawkfrost was there, looming over us trainees, lining us up, a malicious teacher among pupils.
The others were benign and smart enough, but I wasn’t in it for friends or feuds. (That second part came naturally, forcefully, though.) I wanted to be able to look at every cat in my Clan and frighten them. I wanted my allies and friends to be drooling over my existence. I wanted the Clan leader to bow to me. I wanted everything.
A mass of abominable warriors swarmed around us. I heard the whispers of their names — Darkstripe, Brokenstar, Sparrowfeather…
Then Tigerstar arrived.
He was a fiend; prodigious and fatal. He wove around us and stared down at us like we were his subjects, pieces of prey, like he was about to decide which one to bite into first. We quivered at every step of his paws.
Instead, he divided us into batches, to train, and walked imperiously away.
I found myself talking to a silver she-cat named Ivypool, she was easy on the eyes. I pressed up against her, introducing myself with a smirk. She stepped away from me like I’d burned her.
“Sorry, I don’t do toms. At all,” she snapped, snarky.
I stared at her, on fire with anger. “Is this whole place full of flowery kittypets, like you, prancing around? Where are the real warriors?!”
She slashed my cheek open and stormed off; Thistleclaw rolled his eyes, impatient.
“Keep your puerile drama to yourselves. We are here to train,” he commanded.
He beckoned to Blossomfall, told her to retrieve Ivypool from wherever she’d gone. Blossomfall gave me a look of disgust and bolted off, disregarding the comment I aimed at her back:
“You two make me sick! ThunderClan must be all fools to let you go on like that.”
Blossomfall brought Ivypool back, and the two of them approached me to claw me, together..
“We will NOT train with him!” Blossomfall screeched, and they flounced out again. The Forest wind grew frosty, harsher. The trees stood, silent around us. Tigerstar was haunting cats in their dreams.
Thistleclaw swung back to me and slashed my leg. “Stop being an idiotic kit and get over yourself! You have one more chance or I bring you to Tigerstar…”
I didn’t have an answer. I woke up.
Next training day was with Ivypool again. We never spoke. Thistleclaw assigned us to work together, and the look we gave each other was so full of hatred it could have burned down the black trees.
I had to prove myself. I didn’t want to see Tigerstar.
We steadied, breathed. Thistleclaw backed away into the shaded ferns and waited. I rolled my neck on my head.
I narrowed my eyes.
She leapt as I did and we crashed into each other, shaking skulls and skin.
Wind whipped; pebbles scattered; cats gathered.
We collided with the ground and Thistleclaw screeched insanely.
I heaved myself to my paws when a rock impacted with my head, ear. It was a paw, actually. Solid, claws unsheathed. Thistleclaw unchained his anger. My blood splattered around the Forest. Ivypool got it on her fur and spun away, retching.
I was unresponsive on the ground, a fuzzy world, when I felt another paw against me. Maybe Thistleclaw was ending it all. I cursed him through my slack mouth.
I closed my eyes and I only woke up to harsh light.
I spent the whole day in the medicine cats’ den. My friends didn’t deign to come see me. I vowed to never talk to them again, but then I realized I had nothing else to live for.
The next time, I didn’t make a single sound. I only felt my eyes shimmering as Tigerstar preached about ending the Clans, letting the Forest reign everywhere.
Maybe I could show those queer ThunderClan cats what was coming for them.
A couple more training sessions. Always with Ivypool. I didn’t know why we were together, but I could manage to talk to her eventually. Besides her relationship with Blossomfall, which repulsed me, she was decent enough. I both hated her and didn’t. I didn’t care for her, but we worked well together. Her personality was uptight, and her orientation didn’t work with mine, but our fighting was compatible when it mattered.
Eventually she became too much. Thistleclaw challenged us to skirmish and I toyed with her. I sheathed my claws and danced around her, taunting. I batted at her until she tumbled and I laughed.
I wanted to frustrate her, show her how irritating it was to see her noxious epression.
I faked sympathy as she gained her footing, whispering quietly: “Aww, did poor little gay cat fall down?”
Thistleclaw heard, and he had had enough. He sprang at me with a twisted face and sank his claws into my throat. Kicked my back and ribs until they snapped one by one and I became a writhing mess of skin on the ground. Bashed my head in and let the blood from my neck create an angelic glow around me, tainted red. Ripped out each grimy claw, ripped the fluff out of my ears.
I gasped for air that wouldn’t come. I clawed at the indigo skies and felt my insides draining.
My last sight was Ivypool, and I wondered what it would have been like if I could have impressed her, if she had forgiven me and become my friend, if I could now be as spectacular as I did in the start and forget what she was like.
Then I woke up again, only this time I was still in the Dark Forest and I’d stay there forever. My family might have wondered where I was. I watched them find my body with crisscrossing gashes all over my pelt, my nest soaked in crimson. The Clan entered chaotic times.
I questioned everything. They would wonder why I wasn’t helping them from StarClan. Ivypool would wonder why I wasn’t discriminating her from the Dark Forest.
A gathering happened. My death was revealed, sickening.
That was because I spent the rest of my days, the millenniums of time, hiding in the darkest roots of the forest. Running deeper and deeper until I couldn’t see myself. Tripping in sludge and watching my fur attach to my pelt. Feeling my body fall apart from the inside.
Hiding from Tigerstar and Thistleclaw and Brokenstar, the criminals who called my name out at night, who clicked their jaws in thirst for blood and weaved through the fog. I wedged myself inside the spindly roots of an oak tree and waited for someone to come kill me, to take away what little I had. That was all pain.
They were striving for my death, the second time, the final time.
I wanted them to come impress me. I could be a friend. I could be a follower.
Nothing worked out. My family forgot about me. I mashed into soil, food for a tree; decades of rotting away in fear and waiting. My friends moved on, were impressed by new antics, consumed more catmint by the lake.
Ivypool and Blossomfall fell in love. ThunderClan and the others won. The Clans recycled their lives and built new ones, moved on. I was a skeleton still breathing, faintly; living and dead.
In time, my story ended with ultimate death. And that was all.
My story started in the barn, me and Berry and Hazel newborn-small and curled up at our mother’s belly in the sweet-scented hay. Floss and Smoky dozed in the rafters overhead.
I was too young to remember when Daisy vacated with us, left our father behind with his other mate. Daisy headed to ThunderClan with a kit swinging from her jaws and two more stumbling at her feet, us, too small to remember those early days of mistrustful glances, too small to remember being renamed, too young to ever remember just being Mouse at all. Mouse.
One of my earliest memories, when I wasn’t too small, was hiding in the brambles above the camp, listening to the shrieks and screams of my Clanmates as they fought the badgers to keep ThunderClan’s home. I remember even Berrykit sitting in wide eyed silence as we sheltered under our mother’s legs, too busy shaking in fear to realise that she was too. The rocky walls delved down beneath us.
We always felt like Clan cats, my littermates and I, even if the blood in our veins was that of loners and our thick pelts had pale, alien colours. We were marked out as different from our Clanborn denmates. Berrykit was always the most ThunderClan of all of us, though; loud, brash, curious, loyal to a fault, he was the one to escape the confines of the camp early, and he was to bear the mark for it forever after.
The day Brambleclaw carried him home, comatose from the blood loss and tail half severed by a fox trap, was not one we’d ever forget. Daisy never forgave it for happening, either, and when he was healed (though he’d never have his tail back) she whisked us away from home, like she’d done so many moons before. She brought us back to the barn where we’d been born, home number one.
The things I remember from the barn: Smoky’s yellow stare as we three strange Clan kits refused to play loner in our birthplace; Floss, soft-edged and reclusive in the shadows; the smell of the straw that filled the room to the rafters, tickling edges creeping into our noses. We slept and it made us sneeze; dust motes swirling in the sunlight that filtered through the cracks in the walls.
In the way kits do when the world seems small and certain, we always believed we’d go back to the Clans one day, one day soon that we kept asking Daisy about. And we did; Brambleclaw and snow-singed Cloudtail came to bring us home to the place we never planned to leave again. Even in a life like ours, loyalty seemed such a simple thing when we were young.
Leaf-bare was to bring us three new denmates, even as we were itching to get out of the already-cramped space. Leafpool and her sister padded into camp with the snow falling, carrying three newborn kits they called Squirrelflight’s; brave Lionkit, sharp Hollykit, blind little Jaykit.
We were not denmates for long; my siblings and I soon became apprentices. Berrykit also became insufferable, in addition to the Deputy’s apprentice. My mentor was Spiderleg, and he was good enough at what he did. Hazelpaw got on with her life quietly, while Berrypaw happily threw us in his shadow with his antics, desperate for the Clan’s attention. And very much getting it.
He was fairly certain that he was the best thing to ever have happened to the world. We disagreed.
Soon the three she-cats we’d grown up with were old enough to be our denmates again. Cinderpaw was unhappy to leave her best friend Hollykit behind in the apprentices den, but Honeypaw and Poppypaw met the new stage of their lives with giddy excitement. Berrypaw made it his job to dazzle them, direct them.
There was never a dull moment in my apprentice days: attending the Gatherings and talking to all the pretty she-cats, though they never noticed me over Berrypaw; Millie having her loyalty questioned in front of the whole Clan for not taking her name, my mother and Brook called into question with her, and me and my siblings yowling the loudest protest; watching Hollykit and Jaykit dance around the Medicine Cat Apprenticeship; hunting (and missing) squirrels in the forest with my friends.
We gathered at the Sky Oak one fateful day, Spiderleg and all the apprentices together to watch me climb to the top and catch a squirrel at last. I’d been practicing. I would prove myself at last. Each jump took me higher and higher, branches swaying sickeningly under my paws as I climbed. The squirrel got away, and I was stranded. Bright Cinderpaw followed me up, coaxed me down as gently as she could.
She took the fall for me.
I remember shivering in the Apprentice Den that night, wracked with guilt as Cinderpaw lay wounded in the Medicine Den with Leafpool, whom I’d never seen so uneasy before. I buried my nose under the moss of my nest. Maybe I would never catch squirrels. Maybe it was my loner blood—
“Mousepaw?” a whisper cut through my thoughts. I sat up.
It was Honeypaw, silhouetted in the entrance to the den, the moon-washed camp visible in the space behind her. She padded towards me as silently as she could, stepping over our sleeping denmates, careful not to wake any of them, and deposited something beside my nest.
“It’s a squirrel,” she explained. “I mean, a bit of a squirrel. I ate some. Sorry. I thought you might like it because you missed that one today and you looked really down just now.”
I smiled at her, gratefully. “Thanks, Honeypaw.” I looked down at the remains of the squirrel in the blackness of the den. I knew we shouldn’t eat in here, but she’d gone to all the trouble of bringing it in for me…
“Do you want some more?” I asked, and then added “I already ate,” because it was nicer than saying I can’t eat squirrel right now, but thanks anyway.
“Okay,” she said, and we shared out the rest of it in the dark. I took a few bites, but it still tasted like dust and did nothing to soothe the sick feeling in my stomach.
I watched as Honeypaw took the bones away, and wondered why I was just a friend to every cat. Honeypaw saved her higher admiration for Berrypaw.
“What does anyone see in your brother?” Spiderleg asked me one day, as the tom in question bounced away from us, having just claimed he could catch twice the amount of prey I could.
We watched the bob of his tail vanish in the undergrowth. “I don’t have a clue,” I answered.
Soon enough we were awarded our warrior names. The most notable thing about the day was the pride I saw flash in Spiderleg’s eyes. We’d never been close, and our relationship had grown even more distant after Daisy had had his kits, but as I looked over the crowd cheering our names, I saw him lurking near the back. He called my name as loud as anyone, with no less enthusiasm.
I missed Honeypaw, Poppypaw and Cinderpaw at first in the Warriors’ Den, but at least Hazeltail felt as lost as I did among the Warriors. Berrynose didn’t so much fit in, either. His adventures were kit-play to them.
My first moons as a warrior were as packed with events as my life had been until then; I fought in a battle against WindClan, the worst bout of Greencough I’d seen in my life banished half the Clan to the abandoned twoleg nest, Sol took control of ShadowClan by whispering poisoned words in Blackstar’s ears.
She-cats always noticed my brother first, liked him better, and Honeyfern had never been an exception. We had been good friends, she and I, but never anything more. I was too used to Berrynose to resent him for it when they announced that they were mates, but I did allow myself to feel angry when I saw Poppyfrost watching them with sad eyes. I wondered if he’d ever stop to look at the problems he caused.
Then Honeyfern died. Sweet, beautiful Honeyfern, nothing but kind to everyone she met, gone in a few tortured heartbeats. A snake had struck its jagged fangs into her heart. Poppyfrost had a chance now, I saw, but what kind of a chance was it when you could only get something from your sister’s death?
Looking back, that was the turning point in my life, when suddenly the knowledge that I’d always been at peace with before—that life was hard—crystallised in my head as our existance slowly tumbled down the slippery slope to disaster. It had been a simpler time when I was young. Everything was at its peak in those times, I realised, before Hollyleaf turned ThunderClan upside down, spilling her parents’—both sets of them—secrets for all four Clans to hear, before the drought came to the lake, before the Clans began to fight in earnest.
I was given an apprentice, Bumblepaw, a brief respite from the worsening events. Hazeltail and I spent most of our time together, as we’d always done. Berrynose rarely had a moment to spare from his new, pregnant mate.
Soon, Poppyfrost’s kits were born: tiny Cherrykit and Molekit (he was named after her dead brother).
We all gathered around their nest, jostling and pushing to see the newborns. Me, Hazeltail, Daisy and Rosepetal, while Jayfeather ran harried circles around us.
“Oh, Berry, aren’t they beautiful?” Only Daisy called us our old names, only she ever had.
Berrynose licked Poppyfrost’s ear and purred. “Of course they are, mother, they’re mine!”
I’d never found that the events of Clan life affected me in particular. I carried on with my life, I hunted, I fought, I trained Bumblepaw and shared tongues with Hazeltail.
My sister and I were always there in the battles ThunderClan needed us to fight. We were always ready to keep our camp stocked with fresh-kill, to mend walls and barriers, collect herbs if we were asked. It was never our destiny to have mates and kits, or anyone’s attention. Those successes were for Berrynose. The best we could do was be loyal, melt into the background of Clan life and work hard enough to stave off the whispers about our heritage.
I remember, a few nights after Bumblepaw’s sister broke her spine, asking Hazeltail if she was content with our lot in life.
We were keeping vigil over the camp that night, motionless by the bramble tunnel that led into the camp. She looked over at me, green eyes gleaming in the darkness. “Why would I not be?”
“Don’t you ever wish we were anything more?”
She laughed, softly. “More? What on earth do you mean, Mousewhisker? What more is there for us to have?”
I ducked my head, regretting that I’d spoken the question. “I don’t know. Something else. Something interesting. Even Berrynose has more of an exciting life than us.”
“We’ve never been like him! The best we can do is what we are, we’ve never been cut out for a special destiny. We’re lucky enough to be here as it is, we’re lucky to have been taken in.”
I clenched my teeth to stop myself from mentioning that Firestar’s kin had outside blood, just like us, and they all had sparkling destinies.
“I can hear you fuming,” Hazeltail told me, voice tinged with amusement. “You should stop worrying. Life is still good. Think about poor Briarpaw, not us.”
I went to sleep at dawn, head full of doubts.
It wasn’t long after that when Hawkfrost appeared in my dreams.
He told me I’d always been destined for bigger things, that he’d teach me how to be more powerful, to be faster, to be better and stronger.
He told me that he was half-Clan. He understood.
So why didn’t I quite trust him?
The first time he took me to the Dark Forest… I remember the creeping, bone-deep fear that something was wrong. The forest dripped, it groaned. There was no starlight here. This was somewhere I could never go with Hazeltail. This was a thing I could do alone.
Hawkfrost seemed transformed under the warped black branches of the trees. His white chest gleamed like bone against the mud, wraith-like cats scattered into the shadows under his winter-blue gaze.
After that first night, each trip melded into the others, a dizzying reel of flashing claws and black blood spraying onto even blacker earth.
I wasn’t the only ThunderClan trainee there, but I recognised many of the others from different Clans. Aged Ratscar with his ragged pelt, looking for all the world like he’d been there for moons. Direct Sunstrike, so out of place against the blackness of the forest. Minnowtail, her rippled fur as kit-soft as it had always looked, her golden eyes more grim and shadowed than I’d ever seen them before. I saw her at a gathering once.
She and I trained together, at the beginning. We were down by the sluggish river, learning to fight in the black water. Minnowtail was leaning against a twisted tree-root, watching the process with distain. Her white-tipped tail flicked lazily to and fro, and in that moment she looked like the embodiment of the numerous she-cats I’d crushed on when I was an apprentice, all rolled into one entity with delicate limbs and downy fur.
Then her Clanmate Icewing was beaten in the river by Sparrowfeather, white tail muddy and thrashing, and Minnowtail sprung forward with a snarl. Mapleshade gestured her into the fray, with a flick of her insubstantial tail, light green eyes narrowed with satisfaction.
Minnowtail made short work of her opponent, climbed delicately from the oily water, muddy brine streaming in rivulets from her thick pelt. Mapleshade crowed with delight as Sparrowfeather dragged herself, spitting, from the river. She shot a mutinous glance over her shoulder at Minnowtail. Minnowtail regarded her, unruffled, with cold eyes, I remembered why we’d never talked much. Underneath the pretty exterior was something damaged and dangerous. I wondered what had made her that way.
Hawkfrost kept one promise, at least. The training did make me stronger than I’d ever been. Soon my pelt was littered with scars I was finding harder and harder to explain to Hazeltail each morning, my muscles strained by the effort of each night’s exertion.
Soon, life was a blur. Hunt, eat, train. There was no room for sleep in the cycle, no room for thought. The Dark Forest was training an army of sleepwalkers. Sleepwalkers and the undead we’d be, I thought one night, as I scored three cuts into Blossomfall’s flank. Sleepwalkers and the undead pretending, in a star-forsaken forest.
Dreamers and misfits we may have been, but the things we did in the Place of No Stars would have echoes for the rest of our lives.
I hadn’t gone there to fight against the Clan that took me in, but nor had I gone there out of gratitude for what they’d taught me.
I was a traitor, and I’d suffer for what I’d done.
I should have listened to you, Hazeltail. I thought, as the Dark Forest amassed for an invasion. Leave the destinies for the destined.
Birchfall, Blossomfall and I hid on the eve of the battle. It was only on Ivypool’s insistence, that we get up and fight for the Clans, that we did.
I didn’t see Hazeltail all through the battle, but I did once see Berrynose, diving from a tree branch with a shriek into a throng of Dark Forest warriors.
Cherryfall and I found ourselves defending the entrance to the ThunderClan camp, but still I couldn’t see my sister.
I don’t think she ever forgave me for what I’d done, after that. She said she did, she said she knew I’d been loyal in the end, but there was no conviction in her eyes.
She avoided me during the day, we spoke little when we were together. She was constantly out on patrols, and every time I went out on one I could see the damaged forest as a reminder of what I’d done. I’d never felt so alone before. It had always been Hazeltail and me against the world, and now she’d turned her back on me too. I couldn’t find it in myself to blame her.
This was my punishment, because she died of greencough before I could prove my loyalty.
My story ended, and although I still had my own life… my sister was gone, Minnowtail was cold, Berrynose was adored, Tigerstar reigned, and darkness lingered in my nightmares.
My story started with gaiety, the relief of finding the quest cats set paw on their homeland. I was starstruck, a calm sort of stuttering, then we all bolted back to camp.
There, I was young, had a heart filled with happiness. My tongue was soft and I sought for the light at midnight, not the scares. Not the thrills.
Time went on and I was at gathering, enemy growls all around, and me in a mood to match. I gossiped and flirted and flaunted; a life of normality, still.
I fought against ThunderClan, angry because everyone else was. Scratching and scraping because that’s what we did in war, not ask questions and betray brothers in arms. ShadowClan warriors fought for ShadowClan, that was common sense in our minds.
I felt the pain of that short war in more than just my skin. That dissatisfaction, like a wound healed wrong, itched under my fur. I slept in overcrowded dens and learned how create myself a façade of strength. Eventually, the lake froze over, and a smile broke through.
I remember sliding across the ice, feeling it slip and scratch beneath my claws, numbing my paw pads, my heart racing in a way that I’d always remember. The cool expanse of it holding beneath me, little crevices and rough patches on the surface. The rush of possible danger, unexpected and undeterred. The ice and its danger on one side of me, stretching on and on and on, and my Clanmates and their safety on the other.
I was at a halfway mark. One side of my heart was red and beating beautifully; one side was gray and squeezing out thick black blood.
I would have dreams about this anomaly. A giant, divided heart would part the sky, and below it, two battlefronts. A glittering and opulent hunting ground, and then a blur. Fuzzy nothingness.
But the third time the dream came, it was the blur that intrigued me the most.
Whitewater. She was something no one could hold down. She was a fireball spinning through the sky, a blazing body.
Whitewater was more than a mentor. She was a friend, eventually my enemy, though I was not to know it. But I loved her, sisterly. She was older and odder than me and irreplaceable. ShadowCan cherished her.
When she trained me I wasn’t craving more. I didn’t turn to sketchy kittypets in the allies to give me something on the side. I didn’t pester Blackstar in petulance, and make curses to my colleagues at night.
She trained me and I grew stronger. She trained me and the dreams happened more often.
She was kind and creative, Whitewater, my mentor, and I had friends and foes, and one night the blur made itself a clear picture.
It was a forest. The colour of obsidian and full of dark flowers, dripping black leaves and strange glowing fungi.
A choked-up river struck through the heart of this forest, slime-water chugging along slowly. The trees were so tall they reached the blackened sky, and no one ever found the top, the divider between cracked skies and bad branches.
First, it was deserted. I spun around and behind me the brighter side of my dream was untenanted too. A world to myself.
The question was, and always would be, which side should you go towards?
Whitewater aged. Through the adventure of my life, the wars and loud gatherings, she was happy in the elders den.
Her exuberance hung on, but her bones gnarled over, her claws became crooked. She was beautiful in a faded kind of way. An experienced type.
I visited her every day, chatted, and she became more like a mother. Kin. I would bring her food in which she’d fling everywhere in her hungry bouts, and we’d gossip over the new pairings. I was happy.
Then, everyone forgot about her. And that was something I could not condone.
So I dreamt, unstuck my feet from the border, and stepped into the Dark Forest. The instant I crossed into it, floating into anguish and ebony, the army swam into my vision.
I knew the leader instantly. The air around him was thick and humming with fear, fear of others. He stood with a terrifying kind of grace, and ominous command.
“I am Tigerstar. We welcome you… to the Dark Forest.”
And I entered. Hawkfrost and Brokenstar and Darkstripe and Shredtail (Shredtail number two, the scarred and dangerous one, not my friend) and Sparrowfeather. These were villains and foes at their finest, and they mesmerized me.
I thought of Whitewater, snoring away, while the Clan led lives beyond her.
I narrowed my eyes and let them take me deeper to the forest.
They presented me to the trees, the crippled trunks, the tangled mess of branches. The night was filled with black air and I studied the foreign landscape.
Then, in a blink I woke to bustling dens, and ShadowClan was in my eyes.
Pinenose. Shredtail. Ratscar. Applefur. These were my friends and the cats who I cared for. The only cats that didn’t fade into the Forest’s daytime blur.
Ratscar trained Pinenose. Applefur shifted throughout the Dark Forest and I found her, catching her off-guard. She had the icy stare of guilt. She jumped, more afraid than I had ever known her.
Ratscar was ashamed, almost. I never knew why he was there. He was a calm sort of crazy, contained sanity in a prickly shell.
I trained with them, and with Tigerheart, who burned with the Forest’s energy as if he’d been there for eternity. We fought and clawed each other and woke up laughing.
Whitewater heard us, barged into the den and sat on me until I told her. I lied, using a patrol as a getaway.
No one was ever quite sure why I loved her. I’d sneer at those who misinterpreted, the petulant apprentices who pried at out friendship. The ones who suggested more, mates.
It was never that. She was just perfect. She was a mother and a daughter and a friend and a mentor and an elder.
Maybe that was why I didn’t notice her fading. Where before she would have bitten back at the remarks I was beginning to make about my clanmates, the arrogance that was twisting its way into my words, she would now frown, but say nothing.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was making me darker, crueler. Even after a few nights I was relishing in the fights, the blood spraying on the leaves, the dark cats in the darker shadows.
I liked watching the flash of teeth, I liked watching cats’ bodies spin and twist as they fought. I liked even more to be part of it.
This was strength. This was loyalty. Would you be proud, Whitewater?
She was in my thoughts less and less often, each time I went there, each time it was less about her and more about the hunger.
My other Clanmates were weak, I decided. They hadn’t felt true pain since they had never been to the Forest. I found myself treating them with contempt.
Ivypool and Blossomfall were awkward lovers and they didn’t even know it, they were waiting on it. Hollowflight and Beetlewhisker were the young, unmatchable ones; the hungry. Icewing was a mother through and through. Furzepelt reminded me of Whitewater in so many ways and I never even talked to her.
Breezepelt, Sunstrike, the tension between them laced with lies and bitterness. There were some others, the hidden ones, the true components of the war. The bulk and the brawn.
Mousewhisker and Minnowtail scrapped in the sidelines. There were more, always more. Birchfall, the one who Applefur was addicted to. There were cats whose names I didn’t even catch, who were snatched off from the moment they feel asleep to when dawn first fractured the sky. They trained and trained and ended up as wraiths of knotted fur and blue-black bruises.
Tigerstar never let any of us leave until we couldn’t distinguish our pelts from the scrapes and scratches. When he did, commanding us to search for new recruits (I eyed ThunderClan apprentices at a gathering), we still were far from freedom.
On patrols, I’d nod to Ivypool, hoping no one would notice. This would strengthen our bond, bring the trainees together, I decided. Breezepelt was good at it.
Someone did notice with Ivypool, though, and teased her. She told me, and we never caught each other’s eyes again in the waking world.
And that was the Dark Forest. I never visited StarClan. Sol came, once, and my faith faltered. Everyone’s did. I don’t think ShadowClan ever fully recovered. Some still slept with uncertainty, tainted and atrophied. StarClan was just a clump of fallen cats, scattered with oracles. And none of them ever made sense, were never clear.
So they did not interest me, grip me, not the way the Dark Forest did. One day at dusk, before I fell into transparent sleep, I visited Whitewater. Tallpoppy, Cedarheart and Snaketail snoozed in serenity on mossy nests.
I felt different. I grew detached of my faith in my ancestors. I grew stronger in the confidence of the Forest.
I went to Whitewater and curled by her tail, smelling her frail scent, and told her everything. Everything.
It took her a quarter-moon to talk to me again. She was hurt, in a way more desperate than I understood. I explained, I defended, and it crumbled past her head.
But strangely, she told no-one, all the same.
I realized the best thing to do was give her time, patience. In that time, I fully embraced myself in the Forest; held my head beneath the river so I could learn to tolerate the water, scratched and smashed pebbles to sharpen my claws.
More often than not I trained with Shredtail. My ShadowClan Shredtail, in the daylight, the two of us sneaking off into the pine forest and pretending we were in the Dark one.
He didn’t ask questions. I didn’t ask questions. We fought and trained and bled and did it all when we were awake, and I stayed away from camp and the cats that didn’t matter and Whitewater’s accusing eyes.
One evening we sat, impatient, by the lakeshore, waiting for the sun to go down over the distant hills so we could sleep.
He said; “We could train.”
I said; “We already did that. I want to be strong for tonight.”
He said; “We could have patrolled.”
I said; “We’re more important than that. Leave it to the rest of the Clan.”
And so, satisfied with this answer, I watched the sunset ripple gold across the lake. Killing time outside of camp, away from prying eyes.
In my mind I went over the techniques I’d be using when I went to sleep.
This was the climax of things, the true light of the Forest being shone. We were ready for the war, the war I rarely thought about because it was so dark. Whitewater would not let me talk about violence. When I told her Tigerstar’s master plan, she winced away from me.
I wondered what she’d seen in her life that she hadn’t told me.
Once she’d finally spoken to me again, I visited her for the whole day.
Scorchfur and Ferretclaw stopped outside the elders’ den. Their shadows lingered, like fear did in the Forest.
“Redwillow, you elder-loving fox! Come on! You haven’t gone on a patrol yet!” Ferretclaw screeches.
“Leave him, he’s attached to that wrinkled old she-cat. We’ll get someone else.”
I gaped, dumbstruck with fury, glaring at the entrance as their muscular bodies strolled off.
When I finally turn around, Whitewater was turning away. I barely caught her eyes as she shifted. Angry tears lay inside them, big and threatening to fall. She curled into her nest and slept, but I would not leave.
I was in the Forest, and I had steam coiling in my chest, a misty fury pressing against my ribs.
Hawkfrost hurled me and Ivypool together, her father joining us.
We leapt at each other and bit down on fur and scratched at skin. Birchfall nicked my ear and Ivypool yowled, stopping the session. I had leftover rage from earlier, and I shoved my ear to her face and snapped that it was fine.
Hawkfrost swept over and questioned Birchfall. We talked about our lives, our Clans, and I could hear the bittersweet tone in my voice.
We fought more. Ivypool was skilled and calm, knocked me down.
We stopped and changed areas. Ivypool sought me out, her father with her, and we talked for a little while. In a burst of politeness thanked her for training with me, lied about how much I had learned.
Hollowflight, the kit who grew up too fast, started a rant. He called the Clans weak, and found the pros of the Forest’s ways.
And somehow, just somehow, I remember Scorchfur and Redwillow and Whitewater’s shimmery eyes and I agreed.
Ivypool flipped on me, quizzing my motives. I stumbled over my words, not sure what to say. Everything in my mind was blurry, raw emotions, not yet put into sentences. It tumbled out; my frustration with my Clan for their weakness, the kinship I felt in the forest. Ivypool asked philosophical questions.
I used the Dark Forest as a barrier, said that true warriors were here. I said that ShadowClan could be a kittypets’ Clan in comparison.
Then the war loomed on the horizon.
I couldn’t trust StarClan to do anything. I couldn’t trust my own Clan; in my eyes Blackstar was pretentious and pushed everyone aside except his trusted circle, the warriors were cocky and they cried about war.
I lashed out at my Clanmates, talked only to Shredtail number two.
I saw Ferretclaw and Scorchfur and made an excuse about the Warrior Code and its flaws. ShadowClan had worsened anyhow.
And yet the Dark Forest was clear, straightforward, and it made sense. I chose my side, and Whitewater met my eyes in the midst of it. When cats upon cats streamed on each other, when the air was thick and stuffed and everything was violence. She stared at me, and there was disappointment and horror in her eyes.
Those same tears.
Blackstar appeared in front of me and we stood nose to nose, hate boiling over.
I called him an elder, with Whitewater in my eyes, and in my head I asked him if he would treat himself how he let his warriors treat the other old cats. How they treated Whitewater, and most likely Tallpoppy and Cedarheart and Snaketail, too.
I told him to just die already, if ShadowClan was nothing more, if this was all it was. I pledged myself to my new Clan, the one I found peace and order in. The one where I believed Whitewater could be loved, even if she would never accept it.
Blackstar struck me across the chest and throat and stared, strong. I gurgled, gagged, saw Whitewater last, saw her tears, saw Scorchfur looking smug, saw the signs of stupidity, Tigerstar’s brutality, and the world ending around me.
My story ended with the Dark Forest, the way every story would. Every trainee would be haunted and followed by their past. No one would forget this day. This war was history itself.
I was a slave in the hidden army, and I thought I loved it. I made the wrong choices that I thought were right. I was misguided, was ruined. The Dark Forest owned me and cast me away, those who survived bore all types of scars. The Clans took seasons to recover.
This world was upturned, StarClan and mortals alike. Cats crumbled.
In finality, The Dark Forest dominated everything.