"You can be discreet," Morningstar asked, "can't you, Pinepaw?"

The small red tom nodded eagerly. He was an important cat; at least that was what Sorrelstorm always told him. That his leader was here, and speaking to him, was obvious proof of that.

"Good," the golden she-cat purred. "Your mentor and I have a small task for you."

She and Sorrelstorm had ushered him out of the medicine den and into the grass tunnel; this was evidently a conversation they did not want overheard by the sick cats coughing in their nests. The trio huddled in the shadows, struggling to hear each other over the roar of thundering rain outside.

"Ooh, a task? Is it important?" he asked, puffing up his chest. He was important, everyone said so. His mother Swanpath had always said he was special, lucky. He was going to prove her right.

The pregnant leader smirked. "Of course, Pinepaw. Certainly!"

The medicine cat apprentice could not hide his grin; after moons of sorting leaves into piles and shoving herbs down cats' throats, he was going to do something big.

"We need you to take these berries to Duskwhisker in the Elders' den," Sorrelstorm told him, sliding a large green leaf across the dirt floor. Numerous red and orange berries sat, plump and gleaming, on its surface. One rolled away and bumped softly against Pinepaw's foot. He leaned down at sniffed at them, but they were odourless.

"What are they?" he asked, curious. His mentor had not shown him these herbs before.

"Special treats," Morningstar said shortly, shooting Sorrelstorm a look that the apprentice did not understand. "Poor Duskwhisker hasn't been feeling well since Crowshadow died. Stop asking questions."

Pinepaw had not seen the dusky she-cat since his kithood, but two days ago he'd seen her dead pair. The dark tom had coughed, crusty-eyed and dry-mouthed, through the night, but when morning came, he was silent.

"Take them to her, and make sure she eats every last one. Wait for us there," his ginger mentor instructed.

Pinepaw nodded and stooped. He picked up the leaf package in his mouth, grimacing at the musty taste the leaf left on his tongue.

The two older cats gestured for him to leave, and reluctantly, he obliged. Slinking out of the tunnel, his red pelt was instantaneously plastered to his body by the rain. For days it had poured and the laden grey clouds seemed not to show the slightest inclination of stopping. The grass of the clearing was mud and muck, the fresh-kill pile a small sodden heap; the camp was virtually deserted. Most cats, smarter than him, had the good sense to stay in their dens. Others were being treated in the medicine dens. So far the elder Crowshadow had been the only one to die.

The apprentice tom plunged into the mud and waded in the vague direction of the Elders' den. An inch or so of clouded water lay on top of the mud. Clods of dirt, leaves and twigs floated in the freezing soup. Combined with the rain pelting his body, he was chilled to the bone, but Pinepaw, an important cat, had been given a task and he very well meant to see it fulfilled.

When he reached the dark entrance of the den, mud clinging to his legs and belly fur, he was soaked and shivering. A few berries fell from his mouth to land with small plops on the ground.

"Hello?" he called, peering in to the gloomy den. It was an odd creation; a mixture of slender fallen trees, boulders and rock slabs. His greeting was muffled by his leaf bundle, but still, it was audible. No reply came.

He pushed on anyway, stepping out of the giant mud puddle encompassing camp, flicking his paws and tail in annoyance. The ground here was dryer, yet still damp. He looked up and found two pairs of eyes, staring into his.

Webtail. Snowdapple. Even in the poor light, he could discern the she-cat's pale pelt and the tom's darker one. He had not seen the pair for moons- it was the normal apprentices who brought them their food- but he'd visited them often enough in his younger moons to remember.

Snowdapple's rheumy eyes flicked to the packet he clutched.

"You're here for Duskwhisker." It was a short, blunt statement; it wasn't a question and required no answer. He nodded.

"Over there." She jerked her head, motioning to the shadows to her right. Pinepaw nodded his head in thanks and turned away. The Elders were not as friendly as he remembered.

He took a few pawsteps into the shadows.

"Pinekit." The voice was a rasp.

The apprentice set the packet down. 'It's Pinepaw now, actually," he informed the darkness.

A pale brown face loomed out of the darkness, inches away from Pinepaw's nose. The ears were tattered, the nose scarred, the eyes old and deep and blue. Duskwhisker.

"I'll call you what I want," she croaked, prodding his shoulder with one white paw. Nervous, he backed away from her touch. Anything more than a conversation was forbidden, but this elder did not seem to care. He set the berries at her feet to distract her.

"I've bought you a special treat," he parroted, swiping his tongue over the fur on his chest to get rid of the odd taste.

An odd look flickered in the old she-cat's eyes. "I've lived for a long time, but I never hoped to live for this," she muttered.

Ravings. She was old and addled. She didn't know what she was saying and to be honest, he couldn't tell either.

"Eat them, please," Pinepaw commanded. This was his task and he would see it done.

"Don't blame me for the nightmares, kit," she warned, crouching with a creak of stiff muscles. She took a mouthful of the small berries and crunched. Dark juice ran down her brown chin. She swallowed and winced.

"Are they... pleasant?" the apprentice asked politely. He made an effort to use one of his big words. The presence of such an older cat seemed to demand an extra air of intelligence. Duskwhisker only laughed.

One of the berries rolled away from the leaf. It stopped between his paws, little and red and plump. The elder was not watching; she seemed intent on her laborious chewing. Pinepaw shrugged and ducked his head, swiping up the berries with his tongue. It did not taste like much- bitter and sharp. Pinepaw blinked, bemused. Shouldn't treats taste nice?

"Pinepaw!" Morningstar called, her voice just as sharp as the berry. "Come here. We have to hurry."

Duskwhisker groaned and rose to her paws, swaying. She hiccuped and began to shamble towards the leader. Pinepaw followed, dipping his head to the retired pair, Snowdapple and Webtail. They didn't acknowledge him; they merely sat huddled, staring at him owlishly.

The rain had relented, he discovered, when he trotted outside. There was only a slight misty drizzle descending from the sky. Duskwhisker shivered in the cold and struggled through the mud, but she did not complain. They met Sorrelstorm by the edge of the clearing, with his habitual sullen scowl planted firmly on his face.

"Well done," he praised when Pinepaw reached him. The warmth in his voice was forced; he did not look pleased. Pinepaw twitched an ear nonchalantly.

Sorrelstorm is never pleased about anything, he mused, as the small group moved soundly into the trees. The undergrowth was dripping, the forest floor sodden. Even hobbling Duskwhisker managed not to make a sound. They departed like ghosts, like dead cats walking. No one was stupid enough to sit out in the drizzle and no one was stupid enough to watch them leave.

It was eerily quiet; nothing stirred, nothing moved, nothing sang nor squeaked. Much of PureClan's prey were hiding in their nests, providing a problem for the warriors. Mostly, they brought scavenged food home- prey killed by the cold or starvation. Mice drowned in their burrows. Birds so laden with heavy, wet feathers they could not fly. The clouds did not care who they killed with their unprovoked deluge.

"Where are you taking me?" the elder demanded. "I want to know... where." Her voice hitched for a moment. Her fear was evident. Pinepaw did not understand.

"The normal spot," Morningstar said, flicking mud daintily from one paw between steps. "The usual place."

Pinepaw opened his mouth to ask what in StarClan's name they were talking about, but Sorrelstorm shot him a dark look that kept him silent. The young tom pouted; his curiosity expected an answer.

Duskwhisker stumbled and hissed. "It's where you took her, isn't it? My poor kit, my poor beautiful kit. Crowshadow told me - he told me everything. She's dead."

"That was Oakstar's era," Morningstar replied smoothly. "A long time ago. I had nothing to do with it."

"I was glad when that foxheart disappeared. I won't say I was not suspicious."

The golden she-cat inclined her head. "The circumstance of Oakstar's passing was suspicious, I'll grant you that."

Duskwhisker coughed and spat a glob of orange-tinged spittle at Morningstar's heels. Morningstar growled and lashed her thick tail across the elder's muzzle.

"You're dying, not dead," she snapped. "Show some common courtesy for your revered leader."

"I would, but Lakestar is dead. She's been dead for moons, just like Oakstar."

"Dead and buried, StarClan bless them," the leader retorted.

The elder only coughed again, saliva flecking her chin. Pinepaw's training might have been limited, but even he could tell that Duskwhisker grew weaker with every step. He noticed Sorrelstorm flicking a calculating eye over the retired warrior's thin pelt.

"Shut up, we're almost there," Morningstar muttered, ducking underneath a low branch.

Duskwhisker exclaimed, "I'll shut up when I'm dead!"

The other she-cat's mouth twisted into a grimace.

Pinepaw trotted ahead of the bickering cats, shaking drops of water from his pelt. He was feeling odd; heat rippled beneath his fur, seeming to contradict the cold damp air surrounding him. When he saw the river, the apprentice felt ready to plunge into the roaring currents if it meant a little relief from the invasive warmth. Taking a second glance at the raging water, he decided not to. It was vastly swollen, brown with mud and laden with debris from the forest. A tree swept past, its brittle branches raking the river bank and leaving a long set of scars gouged into the mud.

A low moan reached his ears and he swung around- suddenly clumsy, suddenly stumbling- to see Duskwhisker stagger out of the trees. Their eyes met.

Don't blame me for the nightmares, kit.

"Die already," Morningstar growled, emerging behind the elder with the medicine cat at her tail. "You can hardly force a pregnant she-cat to stand in the rain all day."

Duskwhisker snorted and fell on her haunches, fur streaked with mud. Her thin frame jerked and she gagged.

"Burns!" she wailed. "It burns!"

I know, Pinepaw tried to say, but he found that he'd collapsed, too. The fire in his belly trapped his words and he could only manage a low groan.

"What's wrong with him?" Morningstar asked.

Sorrelstorm frowned. "Must've had some berries."

Pinepaw held out his paw. One, just one, I swear. Make it go away, it hurts and I don't understand.

Duskwhisker screamed, writhing in the leaf litter, her jaws slavering. Pinepaw licked his own muzzle and found it damp with saliva. The rest of his mouth was dry; his tongue a lump of moss.

He'd never seen fire before, but he'd heard about it in the old stories. It was bright and orange, devouring anything it could lay its burning tongues on. Message was, fire was hot and it hurt. Stay away.

Yet now it was consuming him, eating him from the inside. No elder's tale could've warned him such pain existed. Would he have been smart enough to listen?

From the corner, he saw his mentor pick up Duskwhisker's limp scruff in his mouth. The she-cat was still kicking, moaning, but Sorrelstorm began to drag her towards the river. When the water licked his belly fur, he let go. The water swallowed her with a splash and at once, she was burning and drowning.

He blinked, for a moment, for a minute—who knew?—and when he opened his eyes, a pair of bright golden forelegs stood before him. Above it, a round stomach swayed.

"He'll live?" Morningstar asked.

"If he hasn't died by now, he should be fine."

"Well," she sneered, crouching to press her nose to Pinepaw's.

"Maybe now you'll be discreet, sweets."

So sorry I haven't updated for ages ;-; Skuurl. Homework. Laziness.


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