As requested, Flamepelt delivered a sudden diversion in conversation. It was...an interesting thought process. He pondered over the concepts of Starclan, something rarely discussed between warriors, at least from Branch's observations. Most cats seemed to accept that it was the medicine cat's privilege to see and bear witness to the holy imagery that was their ultimate goal. Questioning or imagining how that experience was never crossed their minds; for perhaps, they decided future was rested in compliance in order to maximise their effectiveness. Curious cats weren't a detriment to the clan, of course, but they still could use that time for more important matters. Flamepelt's curiosity was an intrinsic fascination, something that captured Branchfall's attention easily. His ability to just talk like that, so naturally, was honestly a small spot of jealousy for Branch. It was seamless, immediate and not the slightest bit disinteresting. Though, a social butterfly like him couldn't exactly mess up as something as simple as 'starting a conversation'.
As he went over to communicate his questions to Rainstripe, it gave Branchfall a moment to think over what had been proposed. Starclan, that almighty collective that had the valley in its paws, barely communicated with the common cat. All they had to go off was the word of the medicine cat and their stories. Other than that, their only experience would be in death. Some cats had embraced the chances of death with a welcomed embrace. For the good cats, they were ready to pass their souls off whenever that painful day came forward. Branchfall, on the other hand, was absolutely terrified of his passing. Would it come today, or tomorrow? Inquiries like those haunted him at night and during the day. Any patrol could be his last, and with the uprising of murders, who knew if he was the next target. How would he defend himself? Would his training be enough? Had it ever been enough for the cats who'd already died? For Starclan's sake, things had taken a turn for the worst. His heartrate accelerated, and not in the way when he saw another attractive clanmember, the kind of way that made him fear for his life. Was Starclan even enough for him? Maybe the more important question, was he enough for Starclan? Would they accept someone so dishevelled and disenfranchised as himself? He doubted himself more than any of his clanmates doubted him. Perhaps that's why he felt so hurt all the time.
"Oh, Starclan? An old idol of mine used to talk about her experiences with them a lot." He began with a cold reminder of Birchclan. It always came back to it, didn't it? Every single time. He couldn't escape them, even in passing conversation. It made him feel as if he were searching for excuses just to talk about them, when he really didn't want to. "Beautiful landscapes, celestial cats; everything we could dream of, but better. I guess it's right for it not to be known or understood, therefore we can appreciate it as the ultimate gift for when our time comes."
But Branchfall didn't want that time to come. Why was it so hard to appreciate that life must come to and end at some point? Where he ended, another began. His demise was the birth of someone else's story. The empty seat he'd leave behind could become the throne of any other cat. That would be his sacrifice to the clan, valley and world. Fading into obscurity, nothing of value nor any importance to the future of the clancats. There was no incentive to make something from himself because he was one of many. History and the mythos of the valley remembered one in every thousand clancats that lived. He felt no need to chase the unobtainable. And yet, despite knowing this was his fate, he could not help but feel terrified over it all.
It was a scary end, even if there was certainty of a life after. Flamepelt had accidentally sent him down a path of existential misunderstanding, nihilism and scepticism, but no one would know or care about what went on in his mind. He was that background layer to the grand story. A statistic, perhaps, in a list of murders, deaths, battles and eras. The greatest gift he could've been given was a single day's vigil after he moved on to the other side, where the day after not a single cat would remember or utter his name ever again. That's how Branchfall truly felt, it seemed, and only then was he coming to realise that.
"Hopefully you'll all be in better positions of power, notoriety and idolisation when that time comes. I'll just be doing whatever, I guess." Hiding his insecurity with a light-hearted, satirical prod at his carelessness, he tried to covertly step around the problems with his mind. Knowing full well that Rainstripe couldn't hear him, he put on a fake smile and beamed at Flamepelt to crack another falsely positive comment. "You'll have a mate by then, all kits and a lineage to go off of. If you aren't the Leader yourself by then, either your mate or kits will become it. Better choose wisely, though."
Mates. Oh, starclan, why must he flood his mind with such troubling aspects of life? Mates were that next step, that settling of his life and loyalty, finding someone specifically to dedicate his soul to. Forget that, Branchfall thought, it'd take reciprocation for that to happen. He realised how downtrodden his mind had been that day, taking a moment to try and cleanse a new slate, a tabula rasa, and to cheer up.
Unfortunately, the day still had things in store for them. Along the beaten path of their border, colliding with Birchclan's territory, something had been left in waiting for their discovery. A small gathering beside one of the oldest trees on the border...
When Branchfall noticed it with his eyes, barely catching a whiff of the aftermath, he squinted to make out its purpose. Three or four cats, all clustered together, seemed to be dragging something away. Rather uncharacteristically, Branchfall was the first to step forward and approach the situation, forgetting who those cats belonged to. By the team he'd reached them, it was too late to back out. He came into full view of several cats, some of which he knew at first glance. Their unforgettable appearances, colourations and voices. The disdain for rushing forward, knowing he had something to prove to MistClan, had left him face to face with four cats: Addershine, Wolfheart, Amberdawn and...Reedcoat...
The siblings looked at each other with estranged stares. For a moment, the desperate reunification saw them immobile, simply surprised by the presence of their next of kin. A foul scent was in the air, the decaying whiff of a fallen cat. It would've sickened him if he'd noticed the horrific scent to begin with. Instead, his eyes were locked onto his sister's and she returned the gaze with an unsettled look in her iris. Her expression was blended with the foul nature of her own discovery, and the arrival of the grace-fallen Branch. He never saw the others who accompanied him arrive, even if they did just as quickly as he had. Before either Branchfall or Reedcoat could question why the other had arrived, Wolfheart was the first to assert his presence.
"Hey, back away! We don't need interference from the likes of MistClan cats!" At an instant, the tension in the air blistered their chance at an easy communication. Branchfall was swabbed out of his trance to meet the apprehensive Wolfheart, who hissed with such a vile introduction that the former cowered back a little. "Go on, keep on backing up."
Having full control of the situation right from the get-go, Branchfall was hesitant to apprehend and question the happenings. Yet, before he could ask anything, he was shown a horrifying sight. Behind them, cut and scarred all across their body, with what looked like a sliced open belly, was the remains of a clancat. The name slipped his mind at first, the sight alone had left him speechless. It was the first of many excruciating corpses he'd witnessed first-hand. At the expense of their life, from what looked like a brutal showcase of murder, he felt even more sick in his stomach. Could it be yet another-
"Ey, they're peeping. I'm going to take him back to the camp and let them know of the news, watch them." Adamant to continue his dominating presence over the situation, Wolfheart delivered several orders before taking the body by the neck and dragging him across the floor. It was just as he was about to disappear into the bushes with the disgusting mess of a tom where he remembered the victim's name: LakeTalon, or something like that. It wasn't one of the older ones, someone who was a few moons older than Branchfall was himself. He remembered him being someone of a loved figure, a spritely kit that was playful with everyone and everything, even at his own risk. To see such a life extinguished and left in a unholy mangle was far too hard to believe. That was part of the horror that life had in store for the cats, and one of the many reasons Branchfall had an unrelenting fear of when it'd happen to him, where he'd be alone and friendless, without family to watch him drift away.
Wolfheart had vanished and dragged the body back to the Birchclan camp. In his wake, the awkward and tense environment was left to them. Almost without so much hesitation, Reedcoat walked off to the side and beckoned for Branchfall to follow her. It was still within eye and earshot of the others, just off to the side. The two other cats, Addershine and Amberdawn, were left to deal with Rainstripe and Flamepelt. There wouldn't be much cooperation, unless they worked something out. Either way, BranchFall focused on his sister, who seemed withdrawn in talking to him.
"Hey...Reedcoat...how're you?" Even before the sister who had a crumb of trust and empathy for him, he was as submissive and pitiful in conversation as ever before. She gave him a pained stare, letting out a little sigh. Perhaps smalltalk was the best way to bridge the gap between them.
"I'm...okay? I guess that's the way to put it." She looked over to the rest of the group, two Birchclan cats facing down two Mistclan warriors, and waited for them to explode into argument. Faking her interest, at least to be courteous, she pointed her tail toward them. "Friends? She looks nice."
"Oh, Flamepelt is. I've mentioned...him to you before I think? Rainstripe is-...she's another one, I guess. She's nice." Silence. Oh, by Starclan's will, the horrifying hesitation between the two ached their hearts. How was talking to family so frustratingly difficult?
Such difficult circumstances had placed two family members on opposing borders, driven by different ideologies and goals. When those walls were broken down, they could talk like nothing divided them at all. Today, however, was not one of those days. Tragedy had struck Birchclan, and there was many emotional and frustrated eyes getting ready to point their claws at their biggest adversary. Birchclan outnumbered and overpowered Mistclan in size and strength, sometimes considered the most influential player in the valley's politics. The last thing they needed was a conflict, but the series of murders had left them eager to take the first claw to one another's throats.
"Branch," she said suddenly, notably not using his suffix, "what're you doing? What's the clan done?"
"Wait, what're you-"
"Branch, I just want to know you didn't do this." His horrified look seemed to give her the answer she needed, and she sighed heavily. As she sat against the grass, near the dried blood stains of the corpse, she wiped her face with frustration and a desire to relieve her stress. "Sorry...I know you couldn't do something like this, not even out of necessity. I'm just so worried. Everyone back at the clan is so suspicious of your clan that I can't help but just feel something's wrong."
So, Irisstar had just as many suspicions as the other clans had toward him. He was always a shady figure that seemed to tiptoe around the political scene with grace and prowess, with everyone unsure of what his next unpredictable move would be. If it were true that he were worried about the wellbeing of his clanmates, something which many found hard to believe because of his obscure personality, then things were worse than he'd imagined. Everyone was impossible to believe, but no one seemed guilty enough to lay the blame on. And with BirchClan taking several of the deaths themselves, the idea that it was a conspiracy against them wasn't hard to disbelieve.
Reedcoat looked around her, clearly on edge by what she and her patrol had found. A fellow clanmate, another one, dead and slaughtered for no discernible purpose. Things couldn't have been worse unless there were a swarm of bears descending on their territory.
"By Starclan...this is horrible. I think Violetbriar has stopped hearing from them, the rumours are spreading fast around our camp." She shot a quick gaze at Branchfall, realising that she'd gone off on a slight tangent of her own. Assertively, she put a paw forward and tightened her stare. "For the love of Starclan, Branch, please don't get involved in things like this. These...maleficent acts are unforgiveable by everyone."
"You take me for a tom capable of that?" Upset by her suspicions and lecture, he let out a light whimper. The last thing he needed was for the only family member who was willing to talk to him to abandon him out of fear. "I'm not the kind to commit such atrocities. You know that, right?"
"I don't know, Branch. You've fallen into a bad partnership before..." As soon as she reminded him of his mistakes, his turn-coating and potential manipulation, he felt a metaphysical claw strike at his heart. The pain and agony, the burden of his mistakes, had barraged the rift between them and created a plunging pit to an unsanitary abyss. He would've been offended if it weren't true. Instead, he felt himself wither away into sadness, looking down at the grass. She noticed his sudden change in heart and tried to backpedal her statement. "No, Branch I...didn't mean it like that. I-...I'm sorry. Just, forget it. You should probably go back and report this to your deputy or something. They'll need to know about this as soon as possible."
Without much hesitation, though still plastered with an expression of dismay and distress, he approached Flamepelt and Rainstripe quickly. In a slight huff, he shook his head at them and took a deep breath. He didn't know how they'd take him taking the orders of his sister so easily, even if it was the right thing to do in that moment. Branchfall hadn't noticed if the four remaining cats had exploded into an argument or began a civil discussion over who to blame, which seemed unlikely to him, but he interjected for just a second to let them know what he was doing.
"I'm going to report this to Silverflight immediately. Just keep an eye on this, then when you're ready back away and leave. Don't escalate things...please?" And with that final question, he disappeared in a rush back to the camp, not looking back at the bloodied stains of another victim's essence.