Living in the Place of No Stars was eerily similar to living in the tunnels. The land was nearly pitch black. Light didn't shine down from the stars because the dense collection of trees blocked the sky. Although the darkness was unnerving, Hollyleaf wasn't afraid. She could handle this. But if she had the choice, she would choose the tunnels over this snake pit.
At least in the tunnels she was surrounded by comforting walls that protected her from unseen enemies. In this dismal place, she felt open and exposed. It didn't help that her fur still twinkled and shone like stardust. She was a gleaming target to whoever might still be skulking around after the great battle.
Her mind raced to recall who had been vanquished on the Dark Forest's side. Tigerstar bit the dust, and Hawkfrost was little more than a memory now. Though the thought of their demise brought her a slight comfort, she knew this place was still crawling with code breaking rouges and murderers.
You're a murderer too. The voice in her head whispered. Maybe this is where you belong.
Hollyleaf trudged onwards, compelled to keep moving but unsure of where she was going. The ground was soggy and damp. With each step she took her paws sunk down into the muck. It felt like she was walking on something rotten. Like a decaying carcass, it's flesh deteriorating and sliding off.
The black she-cat shuddered and felt sick to her stomach. She hadn't caught a whiff of prey since her hasty arrival. Hollyleaf tried to remember how long ago it was that she was chased into the Dark Forest, but it was too difficult to determine.
Since she died, time had become just another meaningless trifle that she couldn't let go of. After all, time mattered little to those who never saw the rise and fall of the sun. Even in Starclan the night reigned supreme, but at least the stars and the moon lit up the land.
The thought of trying to get back to Starclan fluttered in her mind, but she quickly squashed that hope. Many of her starry brethren thought she was responsible for the disappearances of two cats. It didn't help her cause that she almost wasn't allowed in Starclan to begin with, due her dubious past. She had committed a grievous sin while alive- murder. Her victim, Ashfur, had never forgiven her for murdering him. She supposed he had no reason to. What she did was wrong.
Hollyleaf wasn't responsible for anyone else dying, or for any of the disappearances. It was only bad luck that she was the last one seen with Honeyfern. She hadn't done anything to the sweet molly. Honeyfern was dear to her and the thought that her friend might be gone forever felt like a thorn in her chest.
They had been hunting together for little while before the two had parted ways. After that, Honeyfern never showed up. Sorreltail, Honeyfern’s mother, was the first one to notice the disappearance. After that, Starclan cats collectively began to search the realm, but no one was able to find her. One cat had picked up her scent at the Warm-Rocks, trailing off a little further west before the Endmost Forest, but then it vanished in place.
Hollyleaf recalled how many Starclan cats, especially those of Thunderclan heritage, convened together to discuss Honeyfern’s whereabouts. Many old souls showed up, such as Windflight, Sorreltail’s great-grandfather. Even a few of the fading cats attended, like Owlstar, who was little more than a slight wisp of starlight. He looked as if he could be blown away by a strong gust of wind. She was surprised to see him there, because cats that old usually preferred to walk in the Endmost Forest, away from everyone else.
In the end it was concluded that Honeyfern was too new to have faded away. Many cats feared that the only other possible explanation was that someone had harmed her irreparably and left her spiritual body to fade away. But who would have done such a thing? Redtail had suggested that perhaps Dark Forest cats had somehow managed to break through the mist barrier and acted out of vengeance.
Hollyleaf doubted that malicious, Dark Forest cats were able to pass through the barrier. It was much too strong for them. Also, it hadn't happened before, so why would it change now? She would have to try out the barrier herself, though, if she even managed to find her way back. But would she even want to return after what happened? The vast entirety of Starclan was against her. It just wasn't right.
After it was determined that Hollyleaf was likely the last one to see Honeyfern, that’s when everything went downhill.
Ashfur, still ever-so-spited, had asked her snidely if she had snuck up on Honeyfern and killed the molly while her back was turned. His verbal attack stirred up a debate. Everyone had to share their own thoughts. It was as if a stream had finally been unblocked, letting a cascade of opinions flow out that everyone had been too nervous to voice before. Some cats thought what Ashfur said was uncalled for, while others admitted to wondering if Hollyleaf was guilty of foul play. Some cats even questioned whether or not she deserved to be amongst their ranks for killing Ashfur to begin with.
In the end it was too inconclusive to determine what had happened to Honeyfern, and random accusations weren’t getting anyone anywhere. The meeting adjourned, and everyone scattered off their separate ways. Afterwards, Hollyleaf could feel a change in the air. Cats she didn't even know kept looking at her as if she was some sort of rogue. She could feel uncertainty creeping along her flank, like angry red fire ants. For the first time since she came to Starclan, she felt unsure of her safety.
The news spread faster than she thought. Cats that had no business in Thunderclan affairs seemed to be watching her as well. Despite the terrible atmosphere, there were a definite few cats who genuinely sided with her and went out of their way to dispel the tension.
Firestar looked at her no hostility, only a gentle kindness. It was weird to think of the ginger tom as her grandfather. Hollyleaf had never been close to him while alive, and it was only now where they walked as equals where she began to look at him as actual family. But even he couldn't help her with what happened next.
Shortly afterwards Tallstar disappeared. This time there was no trail to follow and no meeting to discuss anything. The Windclan spirits scouted everywhere, but it was futile.
Tallstar was nowhere to be found.
Everything went from bad to worse after that, as many Windclan cats began using her as a scapegoat for their anger, treating her with open hostility, and demanding to know what she did with Tallstar. She insisted that she had nothing to do with it, but the angry spirits, spurred on by the hostilities between the living Thunderclan and Windclan, did not listen to her. Tallstar was well liked by all, which did her no favors.
Before Hollyleaf knew it, she faced an angry mob of cats. They gathered together and sought her out, determined to find answers and justice. A couple Thunderclan warriors in close proximity to her at the time, Ferncloud and Lionheart, tried to protect her, but they were taken by surprise and were too outnumbered. Hollyleaf fled, and was chased all the way towards the barrier between Starclan and The Place of No Stars. With nowhere else to hide, she had no choice but to run through. To her horror, cats had begun to follow her through, so she made a mad dash for the trees, disappearing within the grim foliage.
She hadn't stopped running. She doubted that they followed her in far. They were all too scared of getting lost or attacked by the Dark Forest occupants.
Hollyleaf blinked nervously, peering up past the dismal pine trees.
A sudden crack broke through the silence of the forest. Hollyleaf stood frozen, one black paw raised in the air to take a step. Her bright green eyes darted back and forth, examining the tall trees and checking the shadows for movement. Though she saw nothing, she knew that in this place there was no room for mistakes. She twisted her body around, scanning the area, looking for what or who could have disturbed the deadness of the night. For a solid few minutes Hollyleaf barely moved a muscle, her heart thumping wildly like a jack rabbit, and she listened and waited.
From some sulking underbrush behind her, a large body shifted out, obscured slightly by the shadows. Bright eyes gleamed from the darkness, reflecting light from the steady glow of Hollyleaf's fur. They were wide, the color of dead leaves, and had a small pupil.
The feline figure took a few threatening steps forward, staring Hollyleaf down. This was not a cat that Hollyleaf had ever met before. It fit the total definition of a rogue. It's multicolored fur was tangled and stuck out at odd angles. It obviously hadn't bothered to care for itself. The cat boasted scars on it's muzzle and ears, and it's yellowing teeth stuck out in a snarl.
Hollyleaf let out a hiss from deep in her chest, facing her adversary and extending her claws. The fur on her neck bristled and her tail shot up, as she made herself a little bigger to face the sordid spirit. The tortoiseshell rogue swished it's white tail back and forth, eyeing Hollyleaf like a piece of prey. Though it was a frightening looking cat, it was faded exponentially, and if worse came to worse, Hollyleaf could probably take it on in battle. The cat opened it's mouth to speak, sharp fangs flashing.
"What's a Starclan cat doing in my forest?" It's voice was deep and raspy, but had a tone that Hollyleaf deduced probably belonged to a molly. Hollyleaf said nothing.
The cat once again spoke, "Did the poor little Star Clanner get lost?" Her voice became sickeningly sweet, addressing Hollyleaf like a kit. "Didn't your mother tell you not to venture into the woods?"
"I don't belong to Starclan." Hollyleaf responded sharply.
"Yeah, and I'm a fox." The large rogue spat out sarcastically. "You've been sparkling through the entire forest." She paused and leered at her threateningly. "Maybe we ought to turn out the lights."
Hollyleaf recognized the menace in the she-cats voice, and took a step back. "I was kicked out of Starclan."
"Oh? What did you do to get dumped out here?" The black and ginger she-cat seemed surprised. Hollyleaf saw the rogue eyeing her up, as if appraising her.
"I didn't do anything." I don't deserve to be here. She thought bitterly.
"That's what they all say." Joked the molly, grinning with her yellow-stained teeth.
Hollyleaf remained silent and just stared at the stranger.
"Once you stop sparkling you'll fit right in with the rest of us." The fading cat sat down with forced leisure and lifted a paw up to groom the side of her face.
"I don't want to be here." Hollyleaf said simply, still not letting her guard down.
"You think the rest of the miserable fleabags in this forest want to be here?" The cat's voice was hostile, "For the record, Sparkles, I don't trust you at all. I don't believe for one second that you were ousted from the land of moonlight and merriment. I think you're here to spy on us, to see if we're raising up another army."
Hollyleaf's bright green eyes narrowed. "I don't care what you or anyone else thinks. Why should I? You're all just a bunch of code breaking killers." The words slipped out before she could stop herself.
As soon as Hollyleaf finished speaking, the furry she-cat began cackling loudly. "We are? Pray tell, who exactly did I murder? No one. But here I am." Her laughter stopped and her words took on a bitter edge. "My only true crime was having kits with a tom from another clan."
Hollyleaf blinked in surprise. She didn't know that such a simple crime could get you sent to the slammer. In fact, she could recall cats in Starclan who had done the exact same thing but weren't punished. Even Hollyleaf herself was a product of an illicit relationship, and she was certain that her birth mother would be accepted into Starclan.
This Dark Forest cat must have done worse than she's revealing.
"If that was truly your only crime, then why are there cats in Starclan who have done the same?"
The molly's face contorted into a nasty, venomous scowl. "Because Starclan is partial and prejudiced."
"No they aren't!" Hollyleaf growled, her tail lashing.
"Ha!" The rogue bellowed out loudly, causing Hollyleaf to jump in surprise. "They're narrow-minded enough to allegedly kick you out." She paused, "Or you're here to spy. It really doesn't matter which is true, because I'm right about Starclan either way. Do you think my code-breaking mate ended up in this awful place? Of course not!"
Hollyleaf flattened her ears. What the rogue was saying didn't sound fair. If she really was sent here for just having relations with a cat from another clan, then it would only be fair if her mate was punished as well. But the idea that the rogue was trapped in here to begin with didn't make sense either, because other cats had done the same thing and ended up among Starclan's ranks.
"You must have done something else to deserve to be here." Hollyleaf meowed uncertainly.
The tortoiseshell feline only sneered at her and said, "You and the rest of those Starclan fools are so self-righteous."
"Maybe you're the one who's self-righteous." Hollyleaf let out a growl, "Your story is unreliable. How do I know if you're telling me the truth? And besides, what you claim you did was still wrong. It's against the code."
The stranger let out an angry sigh. "I'm done trying to talk sense into you. What was I thinking? All Starclan cats are the same. Can't see past their own whiskers." The dappled orange and black she-cat got up and stared at Hollyleaf. "I was thinking of shredding you, but that's too much effort on my part. There are worse cats in this forest than me." She turned and started walking away. "You better watch your back."
Hollyleaf watched the Dark Forest resident head toward the foliage she emerged from earlier. However, before she disappeared through it, she turned and looked at Hollyleaf once more. "What's your name?"
"Mapleshade." And with that, she disappeared into the brush and out of sight.
Hollyleaf stood still, watching the spot where Mapleshade disappeared to, wondering if the tortoiseshell cat had actually left. She was surprised to leave this encounter unscathed. Hollyleaf knew she couldn't trust Mapleshade's word, but if one thing the rogue said was right, it was that there were most likely many more fiendish felines creeping around this forest. It was probably best to avoid them as much as possible. Staying in one place wouldn't be a good idea either. Quietly, she turned around and slipped past some pine trees, headed for who knows where.