E p i l o g u e

She looked down at her Clan, pride gleaming in her eyes, seeing their pelts dappled by the diminishing sun; the final cats had been laid to rest, Lion included; they all slept beneath the earth now. Finally, everything was finished, everything was done; the last remnants of their troubles were gone, impossible to see; they had won, she could truly see that now, and the victory tasted sweet against her tongue.

"AshClan," she said softly, and her Clan's eyes shone back at her in the dying light. "We have fulfilled our name, risen from the ashes to become more than we ever were before. We have lost cats, but such is a part of life, and we know that they reside in the stars now, shining gently down upon us. And we also know that, somehow, despite the losses and pain…life goes on."

Her gaze swept over her Clan, and her heart seemed to beat in her chest, like a bird yearning to fly freely.

"And because life goes on, changes happen, and it is these changes that I would like to recognize tonight. First, we honor Shredder and Primrose, as well as young Pyro and Merla; hopefully they will be with us for many moons to come."

The Clan murmured quietly, acknowledging them; Primrose looked away shyly, as did little Merla, but Pyro and Shredder kept their eyes on her.

"Shredder and Primrose have not earned their warrior names, but Pyro and Merla will soon be apprentices; as such, they should have Clan names," she continued. "Pyro, Merla, we recognize you both formally as cats of AshClan; you shall be known now and forever, until you become apprentices, as Firekit and Black-kit."

Firekit's amber eyes gleamed with ambition, but Black-kit looked wary of the attention; several warriors opened their mouths to call their names, but Silverstar held up her tail.

"We have a few more cats to name," she mewed. "Chill, would you come up here please?"

The white tom, sitting in the entrance to the medicine den, rose to his paws slowly. The wave of cats parted, allowing him through, and he sat at the bottom of the branch-pile, staring up at her with icy eyes.

"Chill, you are a member of AshClan now as well," she said. "It is time for you to be apprenticed. From this day forward, until you earn your apprentice name, you will be known as Chillpaw. I ask StarClan to watch over you and guide you until you find in your paws the strength and courage of a warrior." She stared down at her nephew, seeing the smallest glint in his eyes. "I will be your mentor," she said; a ripple of surprise ran through the gathered cats. "I learned much from all of BirchClan, and StarClan as well, and even the cats gathered here tonight," she continued, "and I will try to pass down all I have learned to you, young Chillpaw."

She reached down to touch his nose as he moved to touch hers; the slightest chill ran through her as their noses gently brushed, and she pulled back.

Lion's touched him more than he wants to admit, she thought, but every cat deserves a second chance, and he is no different. I will do whatever I can to help him now.

Chillpaw stepped back, and Silverstar turned her gaze to Forest, seeing hope and joy rising in his own green eyes as he stared up at her. She flicked her tail to him, and he padded forward, almost kit-like energy rising in his paws.

"I, Silverstar, call StarClan to look down upon this cat. He has trained hard to learn the ways of your noble code, and I commend him to you as a warrior in his turn.

"Forest, do you promise to protect and defend your Clan and uphold the warrior code, even at the cost of your life?"

His eyes, newleaf-green, glinted gently as he mewed, "I do."

"Then, by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name. Forest, from this moment on, you will be known as Forestheart. StarClan honors your compassion and energy, and we welcome you as a full warrior of AshClan."

She lifted her head, allowing the cries of her Clan to ring through her ears as they chanted the new names of the Clan. Forestheart smiled up at her, his face alight with pride and happiness. She smiled down at him, a purr vibrating through her pelt.

StarClan, we are complete now; I have built this Clan for you, made up of all four Clans and so much more….StarClan…have I done well?

The slightest hint of ash on the breeze was her reply.

. . .

Stonestar stood in front of them, addressing the Clan; it was the first time he had done so since the battle, since he had told them that they had won and acted as true warriors.

He glanced to the side, at Rosedapple, sitting next to him; her silver fur was beautiful in the moonlight, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

He glanced to the other side, seeing Rabbitleap sitting with her apprentice friends; her pelt was almost touching young Hawkpaw. He frowned, before tilting his muzzle back up towards Stonestar.

"My Clan," Stonestar rumbled; he could feel the leader's voice vibrating through his paws. "This speech is long overdue, I know that, and I apologize. As you know, everything has been very busy lately. We're buried many of our own this past few days."

He glanced to the side, seeing Hawkpaw and Icepaw had both lowered their heads; their father, Sandpelt, had been killed.

"However, take solace in that their sacrifices were not for nothing," Stonestar continued. "Their deaths brought new life and strength to our Clan, and we thank them for it. There are many ceremonies that are long overdue, and it is these that I shall perform tonight. Volepaw, Hawkpaw, Icepaw, come up here please."

The three apprentices' eyes widened, and slowly they made their way towards their leader; Rabbitleap's tail twitched with eagerness.

"I, Stonestar, call StarClan to look down upon these apprentices. They have trained long and hard to learn your noble code, and I commend them to you as warriors in their turn. Volepaw, do you promise to protect and defend your Clan and to uphold the warrior code, even at the cost of your life?"

The ginger tom raised his muzzle proudly. "I do."

"Then, by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name. From this day forward, you will be known as Volewhisker. StarClan honors your courage and honesty, and we welcome you as a full warrior of PeakClan."

Hawkpaw became Hawktalon, and Icepaw became Iceblossom; Rabbitleap was the first to yowl their names, a bit prematurely, but her father did not reprimand her.

He joined in, yowling the new warriors' names, before quieting as Stonestar raised his tail.

"There is another ceremony to perform tonight," he said, "one that is also overdue. Most of us do not remember that deputies are supposed to be named before moonhigh; I know I neglected this duty, to my regret, but the decision was not easy to make. However, now I am ready.

"I say these words before StarClan, that the spirits of our warrior ancestors hear and approve of my choice. The new deputy of our Clan is…Northstar."

His eyes widened with shock, and he turned towards Rosedapple; she gave him a bright smile.

"I…I can't," he whispered, his heart feeling like a stone. "You know…you know what I was. What I did. I can't be trusted with power. I don't want it."

Rosedapple's blue eyes were as clear as the greenleaf sky as she looked at him. "The fact that you realize that, and that you do not seek power," she whispered, "is exactly the reason that you're ready for this."

Northstar tilted his muzzle towards Stonestar, who was watching him expectantly. Then, slowly, he rose to his paws.

"I am honored," he said quietly. "I…I will serve PeakClan as best as I can. I will do whatever it takes to protect my…my Clanmates."

Stonestar gave him the smallest smile, and he felt his Clanmates eyes upon him. Slowly, he looked upwards, towards the gleaming stars that were just beginning to appear.

Brackenheart? He wondered. Am I good enough to walk the skies with you now?

He turned over his shoulder, seeing Rabbitleap and Rosedapple and Blackmoon and all of the others staring at him, hope and admiration glinting in their eyes, and somewhere within him he felt his own heart swelling.

He did not need a reply from the stars. He already knew the answer.

. . .

The air hung heavily in the air; he curled his lip, tasting it. It tasted like nothing, as usual; the trees, the rocks, the water…nothing held any scent now. Everything was dead, frozen in place; there was nothing here. It was a place of nothingness, truly. No prey moved in this place, the Dark Forest; all he ever saw were cats, and he saw those rarely.

He blinked up at the inky black sky, devoid of light, save for a single, blazing star; the north star. His lip curled, as the star reminded him of his enemy; he had looked into life once he had learned how from the other Dark Forest cats, seen how his rival had grown strong and prosperous, twisted by StarClan's touch.

His fur bristled; his other rival, and his killer, Lion…Lion had not been so lucky. A smirk played over his dark muzzle; he did not know where Lion had gone, nor did he care. The golden tabby was dead, and that was all that mattered. According to the legends, he had simply disappeared; most rogues did not believe in an afterlife. Whether that was true for all of them, he did not know, but he did not care, either.

He looked down at his paws, studying them; the first sign of fading had not yet appeared, but he was not surprised; he had lived a long, powerful, eventful life. He would be trapped here for a long time to come. There was the promise of salvation, of course, in the north star…but he would not lower himself to that level. He was Slaughter, leader of TalonClan, murder of dozens! He would not simply slink away into the darkness and disappear. No. A greater destiny, a powerful destiny…that is all he would accept. Even in death, AshClan and PeakClan would tremble from his power! He was learning things, many things, interesting things, from the cats who resided here in this forest…he could learn much by observing the other cats. Slaughter had been surprised to learn that there were indeed more Clans, but it didn't matter; once he dealt with AshClan, PeakClan, and whatever came of Tremor's control of the scraps of TalonClan, he could turn his focus to those other Clans. But right now, Silverstar's blood was all that he craved.

A wind, neither cold nor warm, swept suddenly over his fur, and with it came a strange scent; the scraps of life. He turned his head, interest flickering in his cold eyes; the wind was a result of displaced air, a cat appearing where there had not been one before. Someone new had joined the Dark Forest.

Whiskers twitching with interest, he rose to his paws, slinking forward; he had heard it was possible to steal life force from others, and if that was true, he would not rest until he knew the secret.

Slipping into a crouch, he slunk forward, following the tantalizing scent, the only scent in this dead, empty world.

. . .

She blinked slowly, staring ahead of her, blinking into the bright green leaves. Everything was perfect here; the sunlight was gentle, the breeze was soft, the scents fresh and bright, the prey tender and delicious. And yet…she was not happy. She had gotten here by the tips of her whiskers, she had been told; it didn't matter to her. Wherever she had ended up, she would not have been happy…because she was alone.

Was Robin here? She didn't know. She didn't know what Robin had believed, or whether or not Robin could have been able to reach StarClan even if she had heard of it. If she had told Robin of her strange dreams, might Robin have found the faith to climb into the stars after death?

She did not know. Even if Robin was in StarClan, she wasn't with her now…she was alone, sitting here in this perfect forest with no one to keep her company. She was just as empty here as she had been in life…tortured, alone, terrified…until she had found Buck, or Bramblethorn as he was apparently called, and brought to the light to her eyes once more. And now she was here, alone, without even a name for herself. That much was true; she had no idea what she should be called now. Neither of her former names fit her any longer; she was not kind and gentle. She was not plagued by fear of pain and fear of being lost. She was simply…here. Waiting, for something, even though she wasn't sure what she was waiting for anymore. There was nothing she had to wait for now…perhaps Buck. No, Bramblethorn. The name was hard for her to remember; he would always be Buck to her. It was the name that defined him; she had no such name for herself.

She found her heart aching in her chest; for seemingly no reason, her kits rose into her mind, all three of them. They were in good paws now, with Minnow, and yet…she wished she could be there for them, to nurture them, to take care of them…she wanted to teach them everything she had never been taught, to tell them everything that Mother had always told her, to nourish and protect them….

Mother, she thought, the sorrow and loss washing over her as if it was fresh. Her ears flattened, and her head lowered slightly, as she let out the quietest sigh. Where did Twolegs go when they died? Not StarClan, surely, but didn't Twolegs have their own sort of faith? A place where Mothers could be young and happy and free? But how could Mother be happy without her beloved cats?

Maybe that is where Robin went, to be with Mother…that was where she was happiest. Robin wasn't meant to live wild in the forest. She was a kittypet, through and through…but not me. I'm here, in this strange place, this StarClan...waiting for who knows what.

A rustle to her left caused her to turn; no cats approached her here. Most cats did not like her; some were grateful for her saving Silverstar, but she didn't deserve their gratitude. She still didn't know if she had sprung at Lion to protect Silverstar, or avenge Blight's death.

It was a tiny kit, blinking at her with wide green eyes, set in a dark face.

"Can you help me?" it whimpered; the kit was a she, small and timid.

"Help you?" she echoed. "What is the matter? Where are your parents?"

Her ears flattened. "Not here. They're still alive. My mother just kitted, and I was alive, for a few breaths, but I couldn't catch up and I could feel myself floating away, and then…."

She glanced around uncertainly; someone else should be looking after this kit, not her. What was she supposed to do with it? She was in a secluded part of StarClan, where few cats treaded; the places where cats like herself, purposeless and lost, stayed. There was no one to help this kit here.

How many of them are there? She wondered. Kits like these? Kits without parents even in StarClan? Kits who are confused, lost, scared? Who takes care of them? Who leads them home? Who tells them where they belong?

She blinked into the kit's green eyes, and for a moment she felt her own heart open; this kit was young, very young; in life she would be only a few minutes old, but here in StarClan her body had changed so that she could at least enjoy her brief life. And perhaps she would continue to grow; there was no way to know.

"Come here," she said quietly, and the kit stumbled towards her on unsteady paws. Gently, she wrapped her tail around the kit, holding her close. "I'll take care of you," she whispered to the kit. "I'll protect you, don't you worry."

The kit blinked up at her uncertainly. "What is your name?"

She hesitated for a moment; how could she answer? There was no answer, truly. She did not have a name.

But I do, she realized. There are more kits around here, more kits that need me, if only briefly. To them, I can only have a certain name.

"Call me Mother," she whispered, "for that is what I shall be until you no longer need me. And I will be a mother for all of these other kits as well, all of the lost and confused and hopeless, so long as I am here."

She could feel her heart beating gently as the kit snuggled against her, and she thought of her own Mother and smiled.

I shall be for them what she was for me, she thought. I shall fill them with praise and love and care…so long as I live here, in StarClan. Mother is who I am.

. . .

He sat in the den, feeling as though he was off to one side, away from his Clanmates, huddled in his own den. He rested his broad head on his paws, staring out of the den, his amber eyes slightly misty.

Belladonna's lost weighed heavily on his heart, seeming to grow heavier with each breath he took.

I looked for you, he wanted to tell her. I tried to find you. I tried to protect you. If you had just let me come with you, with Robin…I could have saved you both from all of this, saved everyone…none of this had to happen. But you had to be so headstrong and beautiful and amazing…if you hadn't been, Blight would have never wanted you. Why couldn't you be normal, Belladonna? Why couldn't you be willing to accept my help? Why did you have to be so…alluring?

He swallowed, feeling as though his throat was closing up. Memories flitted through his mind, coming and going faster than he could pin them down.

He was watching Belladonna as a young kit, his eyes wide, his pelt pressed against his mother's fur; he saw her tumbling in Mother's trash, pawing playfully at her young ginger friend, whose name he did not know.

He saw her crouch, hunting, striking forward quickly to snare a mouse between her claws. Most cats simply ate Mother's scraps, or fought over what was left; not Belladonna. She took things into her own paws.

And she protected those she cared about, as she fiercely clawed the feral tom that had tried to mate with her and Robin. The two of them fought against him, hissing and spitting, driving him away until he ran away screeching, never to be seen again.

Maybe that was when he had started to love her, when he had seen her fierce loyalty, her determination, her refusal to do as most she-cats would have done, allowed that tom to mate with her. He'd wanted to help her even then, to be her hero, to protect her from all dangers…but even then he had lacked the courage to ask.

He had never fought for a mate. He remembered the stares of she-cats and toms alike, wondering at his strangeness…but the only she-cat he had ever wanted was Belladonna, and she did not respect the toms that fought for she-cats, as if they were property. Some, like Queenie, who always seemed to be mothering new kits, worshipped toms that fought for mating rights; Belladonna couldn't care less about them. The only things she had loved were Robin and Belladonna.

He had never fit into that picture, even after Mother had died. There hadn't been a new space created in Belladonna's heart, one that he could fill; it had simply been an open, yawning hole, one that he could not get into.

It seemed that Blight had managed to worm his way in, somehow. Bramblethorn's lip curled with disgust; the very idea that such a cruel tom could have captivated Belladonna in any way sickened him.

How could she give up that spirit, for any tom? He wondered. I wouldn't have taken it from her. I would have embraced it…or would I have been able to? All I wanted was to protect her…but she wasn't the type to except protection….

He heaved a sigh, his heart feeling as broken as ever. He had followed these trails of thought through his mind more times than he could count, but they never led him to anywhere other than where he already was; lost, longing for her touch, her glowing eyes.

Would he even see her again, in the stars? Had she made it to StarClan, somehow?

His head rose, and he blinked, gazing up at the stars twinkling above him. Surely, somewhere, Belladonna was up there. Somehow, her spirit had to have managed to survive.

And when I die, I will search for her, he vowed. And I will never stop searching, not until I find her. Not even if I have to leave StarClan's skies. I will never, ever stop looking for you, Belladonna.

. . .

He could feel her fangs sinking into his flesh, as his last breaths gurgled in his throat. She seemed to bite right through those breaths, and he could feel his blood leeching away, soaking his fur. He struggled, but for once in his life, he was weak…there was nothing that he could do, he was floating away….

No. That had already happened. He was already dead. He was…he was…what was he? Where was he? What had happened?

He tried to open his eyes, but found that he could not. Panic did not rise within him, nor even anger; he felt strangely calm.

I couldn't complete my revenge, was all he thought. I took a life for Zig…for Blue…maybe for Tiger too, if she died of that wound…but my precious Clover, you…you I could not avenge…why? Why did I fail for you, only you? My love, my heart…you should have been safe, you should have been hiding, you should have had our beautiful kits…your death is all my fault, my fault, my fault…Clover, I'm so sorry….

He suddenly heard a sound, the quietest sound, and this time when he tried to open his eyes, he succeeded. He could see nothing, only darkness; no, that wasn't true. Just ahead of him, just beyond his reach, there was the tiniest twinkle of light…light like…could it be…?

He took a step forward, pushing through the seeming paralysis. Then another step, and another, until he was racing forward, charging like a true lion towards the light. And the light seemed to swell and swell, until it flooded his vision, and he had to close his eyes or be blinded. And still he ran, running right towards it, right into it, this mysterious light. And as he broke through it, a breeze rushed over his fur, and he let out a soundless cry as the scent washed over him…as he smelled Clover's sweet, sweet scent.

. . .

He did not spend the night in the warrior den; instead he spent it in the nursery, with Ravenwing. There was plenty of room; Frostfeather was spending the night with little Robinkit, keeping her safe from all the dangers of the scary night, and Reedrush was with Jaggedclaw.

His muzzle pressed against Ravenwing's side as he stared down at their two kits; one of black, with Ravenwing's build, sleek and long-legged; he had white markings on his paws, chin, chest, and tail. The other was light gray splashed with darker gray, with one white paw and one dark gray paw.

He nuzzled her side gently; this was the first time since directly after her kitting that he had been able to spend any time at all with her.

"They don't even have names yet," she whispered to him.

"I know," he murmured. "I'm sorry. I've just been so busy…as deputy…."

Her green eyes glowed gently as she blinked at him. "We have time now."

He felt a tremor of fear run through him; he was not a cat that was normally afraid, but somehow the burden of naming his kits weighed on him; names defined a cat, shaped them forever.

"I want to name the tom Spiderkit, if that's okay," Ravenwing said, brushing her tail over the little black kit. "After that old tale, you know…the dark spider and his silver web that helped put the stars in the sky."

He nodded, remembering the tale from his kit-hood; he allowed himself to smile. "It is perfect. Spiderkit will have a great destiny, I know that."

"You name the other kit, she looks like you," Ravenwing purred, her green eyes glowing like twin flames. "Name her something good. She'll look up to her brave father, deputy of AshClan…she's going to be strong, just like her daddy…even though we nearly lost her…."

Ravenwing went rigid beside him, and he nuzzled her again; Ravenwing had lost one kit during the kitting, and apparently nearly lost this other kit as well. He thought for a moment, trying to come up with the perfect name.

His paw turned circles in the ash; some of it had blown into the den after the fire and storm, but the queens liked it for its softness. He stared down at the shapes he'd drawn; in the moonlight, they almost looked like little dapples….

"Sootkit," he said quietly, "for the soot and ashes left after the fire. We nearly lost her…but just like AshClan, she will come back bigger and stronger than ever before. She will be a force to be reckoned with. Their destinies will shape the forest."

His yellow eyes glowed with a strange sureness, an odd determination, and a smile spread over Ravenwing's muzzle as she looked down at her kits with pride.

"Spiderkit…Sootkit…their destinies will shape the forest."

. . .

She pressed her nose into his fur, her eyes closed, feeling his slow, rattling breaths. Each breath was tight with pain; even the poppy seeds couldn't quite keep him under. He drifted in and out of consciousness, never lucid, never recognizing her. Once, she had thought he had known who she was, but he had only whispered "Myrtle", before slipping away again.

Myrtle was his mate's name; that was all she really knew about the she-cat, besides that she had died giving birth to Jag's kits. The kits had all been stillborn.

Funny, she thought dimly, I learned more about him those first few days than I ever did afterwards….The only time he was truly open with me was when we were still strangers. Doesn't he trust me? Or is he just too afraid to open himself up to a cat that he actually knows and cares about? Or….

There was always that other possibility, the one she never wanted to think about. But it was possible, and it was there, gnawing at the back of her mind constantly. What if he doesn't feel the way that I do? What if he doesn't want to tell me anything because he just doesn't care about me at all?

She sighed quietly; she'd been running the same circles around her mind since well before Jaggedclaw was even hurt. Slowly, she opened her eyes, blinking at Rumble and Shimmerpaw; they were scurrying to redress his wounds, as usual. One half of his face was wrapped entirely in cobwebs.

She blinked at them anxiously; Jaggedclaw had been hovering between life and death for so long…it was as if he didn't yet know which side he was going to pick.

"Can you save him?" she whispered for the umpteenth time; she had never received a true answer before.

Shimmerpaw glanced at her, before looking up at Rumble questioningly; she quickly realized that he couldn't see the look, and nudged his side.

Rumble turned his blind eyes towards her. "Yes, Reedrush," he said softly, and her heart leaped, before she saw the sadness glittering in his vacant eyes.


"But…I'm afraid he's going to lose this ear almost certainly, and probably the eye as well. His shoulder was badly damaged, probably beyond repair. His gait will always be lopsided, even twisted. Without one eye, he won't be able to climb trees or judge distances accurately."

The hope that had briefly sparked within her died, and she looked down at Jaggedclaw, her ears flattening.

His strength…his power…his fighting skills…those were all he had, she thought. And now…they're gone, just like that…but how does a cat like him go on without them?

"He'll never be a warrior?" she murmured.

"I don't think so," Rumble said gently. "I'm sorry, Reedrush. I know you two are close."

She glanced up at him, confused; he had only been here a few days. How could he know that?

His whiskers twitched, as if he could sense her puzzlement. "You've been here for days, hardly leaving except to fetch food and make dirt," he meowed. "And there's this…bond between you. It's hard to describe if you can't see it…one of the benefits of being blind is that you see things that others cannot. And you obviously care for him very much. And he cares for you. I believe that if you weren't here for him…he wouldn't still be alive, even with our efforts. You give him a reason to live, Reedrush."

She swallowed; their words seemed hollow. They didn't matter; nothing mattered now. Jaggedclaw would live, but he would be even more bitter, more withdrawn; he would be a burden to the Clan, and he would hate that. He would be miserable, alone, hating himself for his weakness….

He shifted slightly, as if sensing her thoughts; she leaned closer to him, wanting to comfort him but knowing there was nothing she could do. Then, he let out the quietest sigh, and her pricked ears caught a single word,


Her eyes widened; bullet? What was that? Was it a cat? A place? An object of some kind? What did it mean?

Did I even hear right? She wondered, feeling confused. I'm pretty sure I did…but what did it mean? What – or who – is Bullet?

She blinked slowly. This might be the first time he mentioned his past since he spoke of Myrtle…and he didn't even mention Bullet on purpose.

Her ears flattened for a moment; then, her green eyes narrowed as her gaze hardened. Well, he won't be able to stop me now, she thought bitterly. I'm going to find out what this 'Bullet' is. And I'm going to uncover his past, all of it…I'm going to find Jag, the real Jag, and learn as much as I can about him. Because no matter what his past is like…I'll still love him. And I have to know. So long as he feels he has to keep these secrets, we can never….

She sat up. I won't be able to look for Bullet any time soon…not with Carmelo hanging around. But when that threat has passed, and whatever comes after that…I'm going to find Bullet. StarClan, I swear it. I am going to find this truth, no matter what.

. . .

He hummed quietly to himself, his quick paws sorting the herbs; he glanced to his left, seeing the many injured from the battle. Some of them he could save, some he could not, but he would give them all his attention and care, and if they were to go to StarClan, he would ensure that they passed peacefully and without pain. It was his duty.

A slight smile came to his muzzle; this was his destiny, his calling. He had been born to be a medicine cat, even though Graywing had filled that position for a short time. He would lay the foundation of loyalty for the next medicine cat; things would be changing in the Clan, he was certain of that. Old Clan traditions were coming to light under Stonestar's reign, and he would be there to support his leader as best he could. He would train his own apprentice to be loyal to StarClan, to do whatever it took to protect PeakClan, and to, above all, give up having a mate.

The thought made his icy blue eyes cloud for a moment; he glanced towards the entrance of the den. The Clan was asleep now; he was one of the few still working, but he imagined he saw the flicker of a silver pelt in the nursery.

Rosedapple, he thought softly, letting out a soft sigh, feeling the tug of longing. But he had given that up long ago, when he had committed himself to truly being PeakClan's medicine cat. And she was obviously happy with Northstar now; if Rosedapple was happy, then he was happy, even if it was still difficult for him to see her as simply a friend, rather than the one who made his pelt prickle, his heart flutter, his muzzle curl into a smile.

He turned away from the entrance, returning to his herbs, humming again quietly; this was how he spent most of his nights, sorting herbs and simply thinking; being a medicine cat was not a busy life, so he had plenty of time to sleep during the day.

Then, he went rigid as a strange scent entered the den. Puzzled, he turned, opening his mouth; there was no one there, but that made his puzzlement grow; the scent belonged to Graywing.

"Graywing?" he whispered, not wanting to wake his sleeping patients. "Graywing?"

"Blackmoon," she whispered in his ear. "I have news for you. A chill is coming, one that shall settle over the entire forest, like the first frost of leafbare…like the first frost, it will kill everything, unless it is stopped…."

"A chill?" he asked, but her scent was already fading. "Graywing, wait! What chill?"

Blazingfoot, one of his patients, stirred; he had a horrible gash down his side. "Blackmoon?" he rasped, and the medicine cat quickly padded to his side.

"Relax, Blazingfoot," he said softly; the warrior was barely clinging to life, it was obvious that he wouldn't be alive much longer. "Sleep, brother. Nothing's wrong."

Blazingfoot let out the quietest rumble; Blackmoon pushed a poppy seed into his paws with his tail, and the warrior obediently lapped it up, falling back into his slumber. Blackmoon sighed quietly, sitting beside his brother, resting his muzzle gently on his brother's flank as his breathing slowly faded.

. . .

He gnawed on the mouse's bones; the flesh had been long stripped away, but he was not used to having so much free prey to fill his belly; his life in the mountains had been hard, and he had to keep reminding himself that he didn't have to eat the bones if he didn't want to. Still, gnawing on them was oddly comforting, like being home with FrozenClan; it was almost enough to make him forget that FrozenClan no longer existed.

Neither did TalonClan, of course, according to what he'd heard. According to the celebratory yowls of StarClan, Lion had been defeated, even though Silverstar had lost two lives. He didn't really care either way; he hadn't even known Lion, had not even known that the golden tabby had killed Slaughter.

Because Toxin killed me, he thought glumly. What a fool I was…controlled by my overpowering lust….But at least I'm here, right? With Cinderstream? Even though she already has a mate that she loves, and two more kits that I didn't even know existed…even though she hasn't spoken to me since I arrived….He swallowed. I thought we had a bond, a connection, but ever since I came here, it's like I don't even exist.

He sighed quietly, shuffling his paws; it wasn't that he didn't like being here in StarClan. No, that wasn't it; he enjoyed the soft sunshine and the rustling leaves and the abundant prey. He had even gotten his eye back; sometimes he found himself opening and closing it, marveling at the depth perception that he hadn't even realized he had been missing. Being in StarClan was great; being ignored by Cinderstream, the only cat he had really loved beyond a purely physical feeling…that was not so great.

He smelled ash, and his lip curled with distaste as Cinderstream's mate's voice reached his ears. He didn't even know the gray tom's name, but that didn't matter; he hated him. Anger crackled over his pelt, but he forced himself to let out a quiet sigh; attempting to murder a StarClan cat would not go over well with the rest of them.

He heard Cinderstream's beautiful, bright laugh, and his heart seemed to clench in his chest.

I know I did plenty of bad things in my life..things that I regret…which is the only reason I even made it here. But what does he have that I don't? I trained by her side, protected her, fought for her, dreamed of her…and yet all this time, while I thought she was probably dying somewhere, she was living with him. Raising his kits. How could she do this to me? She won't even look at me now!

"Wait," he heard Cinderstream say. "I think I scent him, over here."

"Do you want me to give you a moment?" the tom's voice was soft, gentle, tender. He could feel more hatred welling up inside of him just by hearing how much the ashy-smelling tom loved her.

"Please," Cinderstream said, and after a moment, the tom's ashy scent faded. He could hear the crackling of the undergrowth, as Cinderstream headed towards him. He kept both green eyes looking firmly in front, refusing to acknowledge her.

"Snake?" she whispered; he hadn't taken back his old Clan name, not yet. He wasn't sure if it still defined him, or if he had become another cat, known only as Snake.

His gaze dropped to his paws, and he felt a strange sensation running through his pelt, almost as if underneath his thick fur he was aflame, burning with desire. He rasped his tongue over his muzzle, but nothing could quench the flame he felt just by being in her presence.

"Snake," she said again; this time her voice was gentle and soft, and his pelt seemed to crawl. He was unable to ignore her any longer; he turned towards her, his green eyes burning into hers. There was sadness, even regret, flickering in her eyes; slowly, she came to sit beside him, almost close enough to touch. The prickling under his pelt intensified, but he would not touch her unless she wanted him to; he loved her, loved her so fiercely that he would do anything for her; he didn't want to force her into anything.

"I missed you, you know," she said quietly. "While I was wandering."

"But you got over me pretty quickly," he growled; there was pain in his voice, and it felt like each word was tearing itself out of his chest.

She shook her head. "It took me a long time to even trust Ashstir, let alone…but you're right. I love him. More than anything."

His heart seemed to clench; didn't she realize what she was doing to him, with each barbed word? As he glanced at her again, he could see that she did understand; she was doing this on purpose, trying to force himself to tear himself away from her.

To move on, he thought, because even now, she wants me to be happy.

Gently, she reached out, her tail brushing his flank. "I love Ashstir, and I always will," she said quietly. "Nothing can ever come of us being together, Snake, not again."

"Nothing came of it before," he hissed. "Crowtalon still stole you away from me."

"That's not quite true," Cinderstream mewed; her eyes seemed even darker and more troubled as she blinked at him. "You see…you and I…that one time we mated, shortly before Crowtalon chose me as his mate, and…." She sighed softly. "I have two kits. Toxin was Crowtalon's, through and through. But the other…Reedrush…."

Snake blinked at her, confused; what was she saying?

"Reedrush has green eyes," she said finally, and his own eyes widened in understanding.

"Blue eyes are rare," he croaked. "They could have come from you."

She nodded. "They could have. But Reedrush…she has your strength. Your determination. Your endurance. She's not calculating, like Slaughter…or vulnerable, like me…I think she has to be…."

His throat felt as though it was tightening. Was it possible? Could something truly have been created from their brief union?

Cinderstream slowly rose to her paws. "I just wanted you to know," she mewed. "You have the right to know. But Ashstir's waiting for me, I have to go to him."

Snake reached out with his tail, caressing her flank. "Stay with me. Please." His own voice was quiet, torn, and he could see the same pain reflected in her eyes before she turned away, padding away silently. She quickly disappeared into the brush.

He bowed his heads, eyes closed, feeling as though his heart was tearing apart, as he lost her for the second time.

Then, another scent caught his nose, and he blinked with surprise; Rainsplash, the she-cat who had cost him an eye. The memory of her silver pelt flickered through his mind. She was nothing like Cinderstream; she was fiery, spirited, fierce.

Maybe that's exactly what I need, he thought. Cinderstream wants me to move on, doesn't she? And…I don't like how things ended up, between Rainsplash and myself. I was lonely, missing Cinderstream…weakened by my own desires. But I'm in StarClan now…that's not the kind of cat I want to be. I should apologize, at the very least…and maybe later, if she's willing, we could talk….

A slight smile curled his muzzle, as something else occurred to him.

After all, it's not like she can claw out an eye here.

. . .

She felt the pain of Northstar's bite shoot through her body, screeching as everything dissolved into a red haze. Dimly, she could feel a gentle touch, almost motherly, but before she could push it away, she was torn from her body, her spirit floating away like a feather pulled by the wind. She let out a second screech, of anger and rage.

Darkness swept over her, and she felt a breeze ruffle her pelt, before the air went strangely, eerily still. She shivered despite herself, slowly opening her eyes.

An alien world stretched out before her; everything seemed sunken, colorless; the trees, the earth, the boulders all seemed to have been leeched of color, leaving them lifeless. She saw the reason for this as she looked up, blinking into the inky black sky; it was devoid of light, save for one sparkling star to the north. She frowned at the strangeness of it, before a strange feeling rumbled in her belly. It was almost like hunger…and yet less than that, not sharp enough to truly be called such. She touched her stomach with one paw, but the feeling did not lessen, nor did it intensify; it remained there, a grating feeling, dull but still painful in some way.

She swallowed, feeling nervous.

It has to be a dream, or something, she thought. This place…it can't possibly exist. Why would a place like this be here? Why am I here?

Her eyes widened with the realization of where she had come.

The Dark Forest, she thought, feeling horror creep into her. No! This isn't right, it can't be! I wasn't supposed to die! I was supposed to lead TalonClan, with Carmelo at my side!

The thought of the handsome honey-colored tom, his golden eyes glowing gently, made her heart clench.

No, she thought again, but the thought was weaker this time; there was no denying what had happened.

Then I'll undo it, somehow…find the way out. Yes, that's it. There has to be one, right? After all, the legends mention StarClan cats sometimes going into the Dark Forest…so there has to be a way out.

She looked up again, seeing the glowing star. Perhaps that way? She wondered, her icy eyes narrowing. Yes. I'll follow the star and find StarClan…from there, perhaps I can find a way to come alive again. I have so much to do still, so much to live for…this can't be the end of my story! I won't allow it!

She took a step then, not knowing the threat approaching her; the very air was dead and skill, making her unable to scent the danger.

She was knocked off of her paws almost instantly, rolling onto her side and held there with powerful paws. She went rigid with shock, then let out a hiss of anger – did this attacker know what he was dealing with? – before twisting to gaze upon her attacker.

Her eyes widened with shock; she recognized the icy blue eyes staring down at her.

"Father," she whispered. "It's me, Toxin!"

Her father stared down at her coldly, his muzzle still twisted in a snarl. She saw the murderous gleam in his eyes, and felt her heart flutter with fear.

"I'm your daughter!" she cried, but his expression didn't change.

"You're a miserable failure, that's what you are," he snarled. "A traitor. Because of you, TalonClan is no more!"

She opened her mouth to defend herself, only to let out a gurgling cry as his fangs sunk into her throat. The pain seemed to lance through her body, but it was more than the silvery life force dripping from her neck as her father stepped away that pained her; the flame of betrayal seemed to burn within her, surging through her veins.

Somehow, she found herself on her paws, her father watching her with slight surprise.

"You should be too weak to stand," he growled, but she wasn't listening; using the last of her already fading strength, she sprang forward, claws outstretched, catching him on the side of his throat as she fell to the ground. She could feel her body fading, disappearing bit by bit, and she felt her heart pounding as fear overwhelmed her. She was dying in the Dark Forest; this was it, there was nowhere else to go.

Her father was making a choking sound, staring with disbelief at his silver life force, which was disappearing before it even hit the ground. His blue eyes widened with fear and rage, and he let out a feral yowl, but it didn't matter, because she could no longer hear him, as she faded away piece by piece.

The last thing she felt was the slight curl of a smile; if she was going to disappear, her father was coming with her.

. . .

He shivered, his tabby fur ruffling; it was nearly new-leaf now, but the forest didn't seem to care; it seemed utterly convinced that the nights were supposed to still be chilly and dark.

He licked his chest, ruffling his fur, then yawned; it would still be many hours before the sun rose and warmed his fur.

Honestly, why'd you have to go and make yourself a warrior during leaf-bare? He chided himself. What were you thinking? You'll have icicles growing on the end of your whiskers at this rate, Forestheart!

He let out a low purr despite himself; just the mention of his name seemed to warm him from the inside; he was proud of be a warrior of AshClan, now in the truest sense. He let out another purr, then shook himself; it really was cold, despite his pleasant thoughts and warm fur.

His ear swiveled as he heard approaching pawsteps; he glanced over his shoulder, wondering if this was another secret test of his standing-vigil skills. His gaze softened as he saw that it was Silverstar, her silver coat looking beautiful in the shining moonlight. Her blue eyes seemed to give off a gentle glow as she nuzzled him.

"It's cold out, isn't it?" she asked; he opened his mouth to reply, before remembering that he was supposed to be silent. He frowned at her, and her whiskers twitched.

"Okay, you passed that test," she purred, leaning against him; her pelt was warm as she pressed it against his, and he leaned in against her, comforted, her sweet scent filling his nose.

"You know," she murmured into his ear, "you're the only one standing guard tonight…no one but me will know if you go anywhere. And so long as you're with me…." The slightest smile curled her muzzle, and Forestheart blinked; was she implying what he believed she was implying?

"After all, Lion's dead," she meowed, leaning her head against his shoulder. "No one in this forest has anything to fear, except Carmelo, and it'll be some time before he has the forces or guts to challenge us again, with so many of his allies dead."

Her icy eyes glittered as she blinked up at him, and he could feel himself melted; he wanted nothing more than to succumb to her touch and her warmth. He pressed his nose into her fur, breathing in her scent; she smelled of rainwater and the first flowers of newleaf.

Slowly, she rose to her paws, pulling away gently, and his ears flattened at the sudden loss of warmth. She blinked at him, eyes glowing mischievously, before flicking her tail towards her den.

"What's a single vigil?" she purred. "The Clan never has to know."

Forestheart swallowed; there was nothing he wanted more than to rise to his paws and follow her into the yawning mouth of the den, to curl up beside her, feel her tongue, rasp his tongue over her fur, see her gentle smile as she blinked up with him. He swallowed again, whiskers trembling, torn between desire and loyalty.

Then, his ears flattened; as much as he might want to go with her, he had a duty as a warrior to finish this vigil, whether he wanted to or not. Wasn't that part of being a warrior, putting others before yourself?

He gave her a small shake of his head, flicking his tail towards the camp entrance, signaling that he could not leave his post.

To his surprise, her muzzle split into a delighted smile, and she pressed against him again, deep purrs vibrating through her body.

"A warrior through and through," she whispered into his ear. "Not that I had any doubt."

He blinked with surprise, realizing that he had passed another test, and licked her muzzle gently; she was so beautiful, her silver coat shining like starlight; there were a hundred things he wanted to say to her, but knew that he could not.

She pressed her muzzle against his. "I've got to go back to my nest; warriors aren't supposed to have company, of course," she mewed. "I just wanted you to know how proud I am, Forestheart, that you joined the Clan and earned your name…I love you." She gave him a soft lick, before rising to her paws and padding away. She disappeared into her den, with Forestheart's leaf-green eyes following her movements.

I love you, princess.

. . .

His eyes were wide open, despite how late it was. He was trembling slightly, in spite of his valiant efforts to remain still, to close his eyes and drift off to sleep. But how could he sleep, with a monster in the den?

Slowly, his eyes were drawn to the side, and his throat seemed to close up as he glanced at her; Robinkit. Her ginger pelt, turned silver by the moonlight, rose and fell evenly; she was obviously asleep.

But what if she isn't? He thought anxiously. What if she's just waiting for me to fall asleep, so she can attack me?

Rumble had been unaware of his phobia, when he had moved both the injured kit and the terrified tom to another den, where the prey had previously been stored in preparation for the battle with Lion, to make room for Jaggedclaw and Reedrush. And every night, he had been here, trembling and not getting a wink of sleep, with the little ginger kit by his side.

His ears flattened against his head, and it was all he could do not to whimper. He felt a sudden surge of dislike for the silver medicine apprentice; she had known about his phobia, after all, but had said nothing of it to Rumble, and he himself had been too ashamed to say a word. It wasn't so bad in the day, when Rumble would let him walk around the camp and soak up the sunshine, but at night….

Robinkit made a noise in her sleep, and his golden eyes flicked to her, every hair on his pelt standing straight up. He watched her, but she did not move, and slowly the hairs lowered themselves.

He rasped his tongue over his whiskers anxiously, praying that morning would come so that he could catch up on his sleep without fear of the kit menace. And when a light pelt slipped into the den, he thought for a moment that it was the sun, and that his praying had done the trick.

One look at her green eyes told him that it was not the sun, but something far better; Frostfeather. She ignored him, heading for Robinkit, before abruptly stopping and glancing at him.

"Darkstorm, are you awake?" she hissed. His ears flattened.

"Maybe," he said, his voice an anxious whisper. She stared at him.

"Why aren't you asleep? Aren't you tired?"

All he could do was flick his tail towards the sleeping kit. Her eyes brightened with understanding, and for a moment her whiskers twitched with amusement.

"You're afraid she'll eat you, or something?"

He swallowed, feeling shame heat up his face, and he thought he saw pity enter her green eyes. She sat down, staring at him, looking uncertain.

"Why didn't you say anything to Rumble? Or Shimmerpaw?"

All he could do was shrug; the shame made it feel as though his face was on fire.

"Why are you here?" he meowed, not wanting to speak of his own shortcomings any further.

She glanced at Robinkit. "I don't know…I just felt anxious. I wanted to make sure she's okay. I spend time with her during the day, but I know she's lonely…no kit should have to go to sleep without their mother, but I've got Jaykit and Redkit and Bluekit depending on me…." She cocked her head to one side. "Are you trembling?"

He would have closed his eyes so that he didn't have to see her pity, but doing so would leave him open to attack if Robinkit really had been faking being asleep. Instead, he stared at her, his golden eyes wide and sorrowful.

"I didn't think it was that bad; you saved her during the fire, remember? Carried her all the way to the Pool of Stars."

The memory of Robinkit's fur in his mouth send a wave of revulsion running through him, and for a moment he feared he would be sick. "Don't remind me, please…."

Her whiskers twitched again. "Please, huh? That's a first, coming from you. And you haven't hit on me at all yet; you must really be feeling bad."

He stared down at his black paws. "You didn't want me to do that anymore right?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but I didn't think you'd ever actually listen."

"But that's what you want, isn't it? A tom that will listen to you? You told me that, a long time ago…so I thought I'd try it, listening…." His ears flattened, and her eyes gleamed with interest.

"You didn't change your behavior after I spoke to you. Why the change of heart?"

His ears flattened. "Well, on the battlefield…Silverstar saved me when I was fighting two cats. But right after that, two more ganged up on me…you can see the results for yourself." He flicked his tail over his cobweb-studded pelt. "And there was a point where I actually thought I might die…I was terrified…and I thought over my life, all of it, and how I've always bounced from one place to the next...mates are supposed to respect you, you know, and no one ever respected me…I didn't deserve it. But I thought if I had a mate that maybe that would change, so I tried to impress the she-cats I met, but it never worked…and some of them hated me…." He blinked at her guiltily. "And then I remembered what you said, about not wanting to be loved just because you were pretty, or because a tom thought you had to be taken care of. You just wanted to be listened to. And I think, at that moment…I kind of got it. I understood. And so I haven't spoken to you since then, because I didn't want to make that mistake again…." He trailed off awkwardly.

Frostfeather was quiet for a moment. "That's very sweet," she said finally; he dropped his gaze to his paws.

Then, with surprise, he heard her move, and suddenly she was lying next to him, her pelt pressed between him and Robinkit.

"You look cold," she said quietly; he stared straight ahead, his pelt prickling furiously as her scent drifted into his nose; those lustful thoughts were all coming back, and it was all he could do not to open his mouth and let something crude fly out.

"I appreciate it," she meowed. "The…listening thing, I mean. It really is sweet…but listening is only half of it, you know? A good conversation requires two cats…and I don't think we've really ever spoken…I mean, you were always saying that sort of stuff and I was always hissing at you…I don't think we've ever really talked." He could feel her gaze on his face, heating up his fur. "So let's talk."

His jaw was clamped shut, still holding back all of his shameful lines; Frostfeather was quiet too, and for a moment he thought she might have fallen asleep as well, before she surprised him by speaking yet again.

"Here's something I could never figure out," she said. "You're terrified of kits…but you pursue she-cats. And if you ever managed to catch one, it would lead to a rather inevitable end. And that end could, in turn, lead to kits…and then you'd be a father. Didn't you ever think of that? What would you do?"

"It would never get there," he said quietly. "I mean, for one, I would probably never managed to get a she-cat to like me…and then even if I did, we could never…I couldn't…I mean, I would want to. Those things I say are true, you know, I do have those…feelings. But I couldn't act on them. I couldn't ever be a father."

"So why do it at all? It sounds like you're torturing yourself."

"Like I said…if you have a mate, they'll respect you…and that's really just what I want. Because if someone respects me, then maybe other cats will too…and I won't be a loser anymore…I'll be, you know…important."

He felt more shame, mixed this time with just a hint of misery, course through him; he could only imagine what Frostfeather was thinking now, how pathetic she must imagine him to be.

"You are important," she said quietly. "You're important to the Clan; you're a warrior."

"Yeah, but it's not like I can mentor anyone; I'm still kind of scared of them when they're six moons old," he meowed. "And I'm a lousy hunter and a worse fighter…."

"You don't have to mentor apprentices to be important," she argued. "And you aren't a bad hunter. Remember that crow? You caught it."

"It was a fluke."

"And in the battle? You said you were fighting two cats at once, twice! A lousy fighter wouldn't have survived that."

"Silverstar helped me the first time…and the second time, it had to have been luck…."

She was glaring at him now. "Quit putting yourself down, Darkstorm. Your name even conveys power. The second part, storm…that's for strong, loyal cats. That's what Silverstar sees you as. That's how the Clan sees you."

His ears pricked, and he blinked at her. "Strong? Loyal?"

I'm not strong, he thought. And loyalty…this is just the first place I've been accepted in for more than a moon. Why would I leave, unless they kicked me out?

She nodded, green eyes burning. "You've changed a lot since you joined the Clan; you're bigger now, stronger, and you saved my Robinkit, despite your fears. You may not have conquered them, but you put up a good fight at the very least! You fought as bravely as any other warrior during the battle, and once you're healed you'll be hunting for the Clan. You're not useless! Cats respect you here!"

He felt a slight warmth, like a flame had kindled itself within him. Cats…respect me?

"You don't need a mate for that, any of it," Frostfeather said. "You don't have to prove yourself to anyone here. And you've changed beyond just the physical aspects…like you said, you tried listening to me, more than before. That's important, too." She seemed to hesitate for a moment; then, gently, she licked his muzzle, long and slow. He felt as though he was igniting under her touch, and he was trembling again, but this time it wasn't from fear or cold.

Her eyes were glowing now as she looked at him, and she licked him again. He breathed in her intoxicating scent, feeling lulled and safe.

Then, the familiar hardness in her green eyes set in. "Sleep," she ordered; he glanced at Robinkit, and she flicked her tail against his muzzle. "You need your rest; you can't heal by lounging around the camp all day, sleep-deprived. Go on." She gave him a small smile. "I'll be here to protect you, okay? No one's going to hurt you while I'm around."

He blinked at her, then smiled. "Thank you," he said quietly. Then, slowly, he forced himself to close his eyes, every hair on his pelt aware of Robinkit's closeness; then, the awareness changed to a different sort, as he felt Frostfeather's tongue slide over the back of his ear.

Before he knew it, he was drifting away, her scent following him into his dreams.

. . .

He stared ahead of himself, even though his eyes could not see. He was nervous; StarClan had just delivered unto him a warning, and given one to Shimmerpaw as well.

A chill is coming, he thought, turning his muzzle slightly towards his apprentice; she was sleeping again, but he could not, his worried thoughts keeping him soundly awake. It must be about Chillpaw…what else could it be? My…senses don't work on him like they do with others cats. Generally I can get a sort of feeling for others, but with him…it's blank. Empty. Nothingness. I can't feel the emotions that drive him at all. It's like they're completely absent, or at least well buried…it's worrying.

But Silverstar believes in second chances, and that is not a belief that can be changed until it is proved wrong, broken. Although I fear if her belief is broken, by Chillpaw or any other cat, then she herself might also crumble...

He sighed quietly; being a temporary medicine cat was a heavy burden to bear; he wasn't even sure he would be around long enough to see Shimmerpaw as a medicine cat. He could feel it, the disease that had made him so small and stolen his sight, still lurking within him; it was waiting to strike again, and the next time it did he would be unlikely to survive.

I lied, brother, he thought, thinking of Tremor. I do not think we will see each other again…even if I survive the disease coming back, I could never brave the mountains to find you….He sighed quietly. All that I can hope is that my faith in StarClan has brought faith to you as well, and that we will join each other in the stars someday.

His blind gaze drifted to Jaggedclaw and Reedrush; he could hear the tom's slow, ragged breaths.

He'll survive, so long as he doesn't catch some other disease, he thought, but I'm not sure he will want to.

His thoughts turned back to the prophecy. The chill doesn't have to be Chillpaw, he thought, clinging on to some small hope. Perhaps it's simply another disease…greencough, or something like that. We've been blessed not to have had any this leaf-bare. If it's a disease, it is probably treatable, and a crisis could be averted, perhaps….He rose to his paws slowly, padding over to the herbs, sniffing them. He knew he was probably clinging on to false hope, but a betrayal from Chillpaw, Silverstar's kin…that was unthinkable for the Clan.

Slowly, he ran his paws over his herbs, thinking.

If a disease is coming, perhaps I can get ahead of it; perhaps that is why StarClan contacted us, he thought, selecting a small, round berry and a rough leaf. If I can find the right combination of herbs for every symptom I can think of…that and training Shimmerpaw will be a worthy use for my final days.

StarClan, please let me have enough time left.

. . .

She yawned, rolling to the side in her half-awake state, pushing another warrior as she did so. She mumbled an apology, rolling back into her own nest, before realizing that she had drooled a bit on her paws.

The cold sliminess was enough to wake her up further, and she stared down at them in disgust, wrinkling her nose.

She yawned, then blinked, feeling oddly awake, almost buzzing with energy, and she sighed quietly; her hyperactivity meant that if she was somehow pulled out of sleep, it was difficult for her to fall back asleep again.

She didn't have the patience to wait; surely dawn was coming soon, and she could be on the morning patrol. Slowly, she rose to her paws, padding out of the den; she was heading towards Stonestar's den to ask about the patrol, before stopping short; she frowned as she blinked at the camp entrance, seeing only one cat sitting there. It was wrong, but her sleepily fuzzy brain couldn't work out why for a moment.

Where are Volewhisker and Iceblossom? She wondered, and trotted towards the tom – Hawktalon, she thought with a smile; she liked his new name.

"Where are they?" she asked; he blinked at her mutely, and she frowned as she remembered he couldn't talk. "I won't tell anyone, I promise, if you speak," she meowed, but he remained silent, his yellow eyes glittering at her in the moonlight. She pouted, sitting beside him. "Are they gone to…spend some time together? Since you're the only other one awake?" she asked. Hawktalon glanced at her; then, slowly, he nodded.

She felt a slight pang, thinking of Volewhisker; why had he chosen Iceblossom, of all cats? She was pretty, sure, but underneath her prettiness, "ice" fit her rather well.

Maybe he sees something more than an icy, mean, sharp-tongued snob, she thought, although I don't know how he does…although I guess he sees more to me than a hyper, impulsive, thoughtless kit-brain, since we're friends.

Hawktalon gave her an apologetic look, and she flushed, realizing that he felt sorry for her.

"It's fine," she said, and then, without thinking, blurted, "I mean, it's pretty much just the same for me as it is for you, right?"

His eyes clouded with pain, and she winced.

Comparing you pining for Volewhisker while he's off with Iceblossom, to him wanting you while you're pining for Volewhisker; good going, idiot!

"Sorry," she said quietly. "That sounded a lot less…awful in my head."

He didn't look at her; his gaze was focus stoically on the horizon. Feeling awkward, she wanted desperately to retreat back to her den, but knew she couldn't; there was pain gleaming in Hawktalon's eyes, and that was the last thing she wanted.

She sat down beside him. "If they get back in time, are you going to tell Stonestar?"

Without looking at her, he shook his head. She nodded. "I knew you wouldn't. You're a good friend. I don't really deserve you…I'm a total mousebrain. I'm sorry, really. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I just blurt stuff out sometimes, without thinking…I do that sort of stuff all the time, you know, like being up right now…I know I shouldn't be, but I am, and I'll regret it tomorrow when I'm bone-tired and all, but right now it seems perfectly fine. That's how it always is with me, everything seems great when it happens but then right afterwards I'm always guilty and wish that I could take it back and I can't and that just makes it worse." She clamped her jaw shut, cutting off her wild babbling. "Sorry," she said again, after a brief pause.

Hawktalon was rigid for a moment; then, slowly, he glanced at her, his eyes gentle, and she knew that she was forgiven. But, somehow, that only made it worse.

I don't deserve a friend like him, not at all, she thought miserably. He's always tried to protect me, even when we were little, and I just keep doing this sort of thing over and over…I'm like the worst friend ever. No, even worse than that. I'm like the…the Lion of friendships! Yeah, that's what I am! And I hate it!

She stiffened as she realized that Hawktalon had touched her with his tail. He was frowning at her; even now, he didn't want her to feel bad. And, of course, it made the feelings worse.

"I'm sorry!" she exclaimed. "I'll go now, okay? I shouldn't have come over here at all, it was wrong of me, and I'm sorry. Tell Volewhisker and Iceblossom when they get back that I said high but of course wait for the vigil to be over because I don't want you breaking any rules or anything and I'm sorry!"

And with that, she rose to her paws, ready to spring away. But Hawktalon was standing now as well, still frowning at her. He nipped her on the flank, then shook his head.

"I shouldn't be sorry?" she asked, and he nodded. "But I am! And I can't help it! I just feel so awful for you because I know that you like me and you're always trying to protect me and you sprang at those AshClan warriors for me and everything, and you blame myself for my tail thing when it was my fault you almost died to begin with!"

Slowly, he reached out with one paw, tapping one of her front legs, and then the other.

"Yeah, I know you couldn't protect me when I fell from the cliff, and you probably feel awful about it, but it wasn't your fault! I was angry and stupid and my balance is horrible and so I fell and—" She broke off again, as he touched her stubby tail with her own.

"Yeah, if I had a tail I probably would have better balance…but it doesn't mean that I wouldn't have still fallen. I probably would have. And…maybe my legs wouldn't have been injured so badly, because I could have turned better and landed better with a long tail…but that's still not your fault."

He nodded, and she shook her head at him. "No, furball, it's not! It's completely my fault! I went with Volewhisker on his mouse-brained schemes, because he thought it was a good idea to send a poor kit to go fight a badger and I thought if he thought it was good then it was okay, but it wasn't! It was horrible! And it was his foxdung-brained fault, and mine too!"

She broke off, eyes widened at the venom in her voice; but it wasn't directed towards Hawktalon. It was towards herself, and Volewhisker too, for nearly causing a fellow Clanmate to die. Her ears flattened suddenly, and she stared down at her white paws, remembering. Back then, everything that Volewhisker had done had seemed right and just…but now she could see it, could see how his actions had nearly killed Hawk-kit and herself; she could see his flaws, his arrogance, his lack of foresight. And even though he was her best friend, he wasn't…perfect. Not like she had idolized him as being. He was just another cat, like any other warrior…and he had the right to be happy, even if it was with stuck-up Iceblossom.

She blinked at Hawktalon, and saw his eyes gleaming with concern. "Is that all what you meant to say?" she asked slowly, and he nodded.

All he had to do was flick his tail, and I understood everything, she thought. A few nods of his head, and suddenly…suddenly Volewhisker isn't so important anymore.

But had he really been that important before? Yes, there was that slight tug when he had been with Iceblossom as apprentices; there had been that pain when it was clear that he preferred the prettier she-cat over her, even though he liked her just fine as a friend. But over the last few moons – even before Hawktalon saved her from the AshClan cats – hadn't that pain been dimming, just slightly?

She stared at Hawktalon, and it felt as though she was looking at him for the first time, seeing him for the handsome, noble warrior that he was instead of the whiny, courageous little kit he had once been, just as she was seeing Volewhisker for who he really was, instead of some perfect being. And she felt the slightest fluttering in her chest, nothing like the tug she felt while looking at Volewhisker. And she blinked, realizing that through a few simple movements, Hawktalon had communicated more to her than Volewhisker ever had.

"Hawktalon," she said quietly. "I think…I mean, I feel…you know how I just told you I was impulsive and everything? That I felt best in the moment, and afterwards I kind of…regret things?"

He was watching her now, his yellow eyes glowing just slightly.

"I'm going to go out on a limb here," she said slowly, "and…and for once, I don't think…I don't think I'm going to regret this. Because I'm already sort of starting to regret mooning over Volewhisker…because…I don't know, maybe my vision's suddenly grown sharper tonight or something. But I think…I think that I…I think that I kind of love you."

Hawktalon's eyes glowed brighter, like twin suns. "I love you too, Rabbitleap," he meowed, grinning from ear to ear. Surprised, Rabbitleap looked up, and smiled as she saw the first streaks of dawn splashed over the sky.

. . .

It was amazing to him how stupid these Clan cats were. Forestheart's eyes were fixated on the camp entrance; he had no idea what was going on behind him. The only other apprentice in the Clan was Thistlepaw, and he snored louder than a Twoleg monster; no one had been him slip out of camp.

But he had done so, leaving snoring Thistlepaw and fixated Forestheart behind, and he had wandered through the forest, enjoying his last taste of freedom; after all, he had a new name now, and all the responsibilities that went with it. And he had wandered far and wide throughout the territory, as the night had progressed, growing slowly darker and darker. And just when it had been at its darkest, he had found his way here, to the battlefield clearing.

The clearing was dotted with slightly raised mounds; he had known they were graves. And he had known which one belonged to Lion; it was the biggest by far. And he had padded over to it, sat down beside it, and stared.

And he was still staring at it even now, as the night slowly lightened.

He wasn't sure why he was there; Lion was dead, his spirit had fled his body to wherever it was that spirits actually went. He had no idea where they would go, if they even still existed. He didn't care if they did or if they did not; there was no way to know until you were dead yourself, and by then it was too late to change your course for another.

His paws had been set on this course from the moment that his mother had chosen him simply by chance, over Shimmer.

He continued to stare down at Lion's grave, feeling as numb as ever; then, an image entered his mind; Lion, staring down at him for that first time, tenderness glowing in his eyes. And another came – Lion's slightly twisted expression in the middle of the night, while he slept as Chill remained awake, encompassed by his fur – and another – Lion, battered and bloody after single-pawedly killing the badger that had killed Chill's own mother – and another – Lion crouching, showing him how to stalk a mouse – until he was overwhelmed by them, hundreds of images and memories flying through his mind more quickly than he could latch on to them. And always, always, there was that tenderness and warmth as he looked down at his supposed son, his precious Chill.

He felt a strange, almost alien sensation in his chest; for a moment, he was afraid, thinking that some sort of parasite had found its way inside of him, but it only took him a moment to realize that this was not a physical thing. And yet it felt like one, as it squeezed his heart and made his breath rasp: sorrow, maybe even a bit of regret.

He died to avenge his family, Chillpaw thought, but also to protect the only family that he had left.

He bowed his head, just slightly, closing his eyes; for a moment, still in sorrow's grasp, he didn't care whether spirits were real or not.

Lion, I'm sorry, he thought. I'm sorry I lied to you. I was not Clover's son. But…I am yours. And I will do whatever it takes to make sure you are avenged. I will balance the scales, Lion, I promise. Just as I told you before…a life for a life.

His head rose, and gently he reached out with one paw, touching the dusty top of Lion's grave; and slowly, he felt the sorrow ebb away, leaving him as frozen and numb as ever.

His head rose, and he blinked, seeing dawn casting itself over the sky; a breeze stirred, and he opened his mouth to catch it.

For a moment, the breeze almost tasted of ash.

AN: Hinty hint; the cats aren't all named, but they appear in the orders of their FIRST POVs throughout the story, beginning at the prologue. So we start with Silverstar, and end with Chillpaw; nice and neat.

I couldn't change Forest's prefix. It just wouldn't be right, y'know? Normally I don't agree with using Forest as a prefix, but in his case…Forest is Forest. D:

As we saw in Rabbit's chapter and her one-shot (read it if you haven't already, it's titled 'Take Your Best Shot', Volepaw/kit was a good reader of other cats, and a good manipulator when he needed to be (especially with Hawk-kit). He's sensitive to emotions and a good tracker (when he tracked Hawk-kit) which is why his name fits. The others are pretty self-explanatory.

I'm not gonna touch the rogue afterlife at this moment. Maybe they have one (Lightning's parents from Snatched made it to StarClan somehow) or maybe they don't (Scourge and Tadpole both faded in my canon) or maybe only certain cats have some other afterlife that we haven't explored. I've no idea, and I don't intend to form one, so believe what you like about Lion's fate.

We've seen Bullet before. You probably don't remember him.

Also, Volewhisker and Iceblossom got caught sneaking back to camp when the dawn patrol went out, after Hawk's vigil ended. Just so you know. ;)

Longest. Epilogue. Ever. But a fitting way to end a story with so many characters speaking throughout it, don't you think?

EDIT: This story was recently reported because in the old format the final AN was its own chapter. Allow me to remedy that by combining the two.

AN: Yes, yes, the final AN, as always. Sure, I have a blog now, but who cares? This is a tradition, darn it!

Anyway, Shattered is officially over…and might I say, it's been quite a ride! At the time of writing this, Shattered is easily the longest fic on the entire site, and I'm proud to have written it. And you should all be proud to, to have dared embark on such a journey with me! I don't think I say this often enough, but THANK YOU, reviewers. The only reason these stories exist is because you all take the time to click that button and make me feel loved.

Now, although I said this before I'll say it again; I am writing the sequel, Chilled, and when I post that prologue any and all questions about this epilogue will be answered on my blog, so everything is wonderful and normal again for you guys.

However, said prologue might be awhile coming. This is partly because I need a little time to rest (you aren't gonna begrudge me that, are you? D:) and partly because I've got a lot of real-life work to do; finals and junk. Just know that I have not abandoned you!

Also, the compare/contrast thing will be on the blog soon, I'm not sure when; it just depends on whether or not I have time. It'll be in a separate post from the rest of the questions and stuff, just to make it easier on everyone.

Now, about the story itself; all I have to say is that if you have not written a story with more than five POVs in it (Shattered boasts SIXTEEN, if I counted right), DO IT. It's really an incredible experience, to see how many tones and characters you can explore. I mean, make sure it makes sense, how the POVs flow and all, but at least give it a try. It's incredibly fun, if a bit confusing (make an Excel doc to keep track of your timeline, that's how I survived), and extremely valuable for writers, in my opinion. Some will be harder than others (Lion, for example, was really hard to write for, versus Northy, who just slid perfectly off of my fingers).

Anywho, I'm drawing a blank, so that's all I've got to say for the moment. Please hang on for Chilled, and tell me what you thought of the epilogue, and story as a whole! I love you guys!