Skypaw wearily stumbled into camp, her jaws full of fresh moss. This ought to keep Jayfeather happy for a while, she thought as she crossed the clearing towards where the blind medicine cat was carefully arranging damp mallow leaves in the leaf-fall sun. That is, if he could ever be happy...
"Here," she mewed, dumping the moss beside Jayfeather and nearly upsetting his line of mallow leaves. "Is this to your satisfaction?"
Jayfeather narrowed his eyes at Skypaw for a moment, and then bent down to prod the moss with his nose. Wordlessly he scooped some up in his jaws and carried it into his den.
Skypaw purred to herself as she turned around, looking at the camp bustling with life. Flamefur and Yellownose were telling a battle story to a group of excited apprentices. Larkpaw was attempting to imitate Flamefur, and Whitepaw was his challenger in whatever battle they were reenacting. Stormpaw whispered something to Dustpaw and the pair broke away in a fit of giggles.
Yellownose sharply looked up. "What?"
"Nothing, nothing," chuckled Dustpaw.
"I doubt that," remarked Flamefur, sweeping his tail over his paws. "Do you want to be the badger?"
"Badger? Where?" Birchfall's agitated voice sounded from the elders' den, and a moment later the brown tabby tom shot out, eyes round with panic.
"It's all right, Birchfall, there's no badger," meowed Squirrelflight, gently easing the nervous elder back into the den. "And if there was, it wouldn't dare come; nearly every single cat in ThunderClan is back in the clearing."
"I hope an apprentice comes to change our bedding soon enough," Skypaw heard Leafpool meow. "It's starting to stink. And Whitewing's got a tick on her shoulder that needs removing."
"Uh-oh," meowed Dustpaw and Whitepaw in unison, and the two toms quickly shot away from the group and pelted towards the medicine den. Skypaw, purring with amusement, stepped back to allow the two apprentices to snatch up pawfuls of moss and continue towards the medicine den. Jayfeather hissed with frustration as their paws sent mallow leaves flying everywhere.
"And I'm supposed to be the blind cat!" he yowled irritably after them as Whitepaw and Dustpaw bounded away.
Skypaw, still purring with amusement, padded away from the medicine den, wondering vaguely where Fernpaw was. She had slipped out early this morning with Toadstep and Icecloud and hadn't seen them since.
She found herself heading towards the nursery, where she could see Hollythorn and Mapleleaf enjoying the sun, and watching their kits tussle and play together on a patch of sunlit grass. Frostkit and Jaggedkit, Skypaw reflected, were now four moons old and growing fast. Young Ravenkit, Clawkit, Owlkit and Graykit were also quickly growing, now a moon old.
Aura was also four moons old, and she had settled herself a short distance away from the two queens, calmly grooming herself in the leaf-fall sunshine. She looked up as Skypaw approached.
"Good to see you came," she said.
Skypaw sat down. "You already knew I was coming."
"I know. But I think it's still nice that I can greet you and pretend I didn't know," replied Aura, curling her dappled tail over her paws. "And it's such a lovely warm leaf-fall day. Probably the last lovely day that many of us will ever see."
Skypaw glanced quickly towards Aura. "What do you mean?"
Aura flicked her ears. "I know that you went and visited StarClan half a moon ago. You've been trying to put the prophecy out of your ears but you know it, and you know it well. But there is darkness coming to the lake, a darkness which many of us cannot resist."
"Yes, I know about—"
"Not just SunClan," Aura impatiently interrupted, her voice already lowered. "Now is the time for you to learn how to wield your abilities."
Skypaw stared at Aura. "Learn...how to use them?"
Aura nodded. "We will wait a day after the ceremony before you are ready to begin. So you may explain to Cherrypelt that you need a day's rest from apprenticeship. Explain the situation to Lionblaze and he will understand. In that day that we have together, I will teach you how to use your ability of mindreading, memory-walking and insightful visions."
Skypaw frowned. "As much as I'm eager to learn this, what do you mean, I'll have to do it tomorrow? And this ceremony...?"
Aura chuckled. "Why do you think Fernpaw went out so early this morning?"
At that moment, the thorn barrier rustled and the three cats returned. Fernpaw's eyes were bright with excitement, her tail lashing in her eagerness, and she was gazing happily at Toadstep.
"Today? Can I have it today?" she meowed, eagerly prancing around her mentor.
Toadstep purred. "Eager to get rid of me already?"
"Of course not," Fernpaw pouted. "You've been a father to me, in the two seasons I've known you as a mentor, and the four as a friend."
Lionblaze suddenly appeared at the top of Highledge, with Bramblestar just beside him. Skypaw felt a twinge of sympathy for Bramblestar. He was so old now, his joints stiff and scars visible through his pelt. Nonetheless his golden eyes were warm as he gazed at Fernpaw, who proudly walked into the centre of the hollow, and ThunderClan eagerly gathered around. Hazeltail and Berrynose slipped out from the warriors' den, with Mousewhisker, Rosepetal and Foxleap just behind. Runningleap leapt lightly down from the basking stones, trotting towards the other younger warriors.
Skypaw quickly leapt to her paws, Aura just beside. Nearby, the kits were eagerly trying to see the meeting, but were swept gently back into the nursery by Mapleleaf and Hollythorn.
"But I want to see the meeting!" yowled Frostkit indignantly.
"It's Fernpaw's warrior ceremony!" added Jaggedkit. "We're her friends!"
Everyone's her friend, thought Skypaw, with a small mrrow of laughter, watching as the two older kits were shepherded into the nursery, with the younger four tumbling in just behind. Owlkit paused at the entrance to the nursery, staring longingly out at Highledge, but Skypaw noted that she didn't make any kind of sound whatsoever. Hollythorn looked hesitant for a moment, before she gently picked up Owlkit by her scruff and slipped into the shadows of the nursery.
"Come on!" Aura's tail was straight up, and she looked excited as she bounded towards the gathered cats. Skypaw hurried after her.
"I guess you already know how the ceremony is going to go?" she inquired as she and Aura squeezed gingerly past Seednose and Patchwhisker, trying to get to the front with the other apprentices.
"Of course," Aura replied softly, slipping between Amberheart's legs and sitting down in front of the gray she-cat. "But I want to see it nonetheless."
Skypaw chuckled as she sat down beside Larkpaw. He jumped at her touch, startled for some reason. He glanced at her and greeted her awkwardly, and then quickly averted his gaze again. Skypaw thought little of it; Larkpaw was always acting a little strange around her nowadays. By now the dark brown mottled tom was almost full-grown and had been training for five moons, and Skypaw knew that it wouldn't be long before he and his littermates would be getting their own ceremony, too.
"Shh!" Patchwhisker chided irritably, flicking Aura's and Skypaw's flanks irritably with the tip of his speckled tail. "Bramblestar's starting!"
Skypaw blinked apologetically at Patchwhisker before turning to the front. Fernpaw stood proud and quite alone in the centre of the clearing. Lionblaze and Bramblestar quickly bounded down the rockfall, their movements lithe and agile, before landing lightly in front of Fernpaw. Lionblaze let out a small purr of satisfaction before respectfully drawing back and finding a seat beside his mate. Cinderheart curled her tail around his flanks.
"Cats of ThunderClan," began Bramblestar. His aged but certain voice rang around the silent hollow. "Today we are gathered to perform one of my most favourite ceremonies. The acceptance of a new ThunderClan warrior!"
Yowls and cheers exploded from the gathered cats.
"Fernpaw has persevered and trained hard in the ways of the warrior code," continued Bramblestar, his warm eyes falling to where Fernpaw stood. "And I believe that she is ready to become a warrior!"
Calls of agreement echoed from Fernpaw's Clanmates, and the tabby she-cat purred with pride, lifting her chin a little higher. Skypaw gazed at her friend, at how lean-bodied and elegant she stood, now a year old, and ready to accept her warrior name and status.
"Toadstep," meowed Bramblestar, turning to where the black-and-white tom sat amongst the crowd beside Lilyflower and Blossomfall. "Do you believe your apprentice is ready to take her warrior name?"
Toadstep nodded. "StarClan forbid if I don't."
Purrs of laughter rang around ThunderClan for a moment, before Bramblestar lifted his tail commandingly for silence, and it descended like a swooping hawk over the Clan. Then he lifted his eyes to the sky.
"I, Bramblestar, leader of ThunderClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down upon this apprentice," he began solemnly. "She has trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend her to you as a warrior in her turn."
Can they hear him? Skypaw wondered. Even when their connection is nearly broken?
Bramblestar lowered his eyes to gaze at Fernpaw, and he meowed, "Fernpaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and to protect and defend this Clan, even at the cost of your life?"
"I do," mewed Fernpaw.
But she had a note of sorrow in her voice, audible to all who were around, and Skypaw understood why. Branchpaw. Her brother. She feels that he deserves to be here with her. She looked up at the cloudy sky and wondered why she hadn't seen him in StarClan. Maybe I just missed him.
"Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name," declared Bramblestar.
But StarClan has no power left...
"Fernpaw, from this moment you will be known as Ferndust. StarClan honours your compassion and dedication, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ThunderClan."
Bramblestar fell silent, and rested his muzzle upon Ferndust's head. The slender gray tabby she-cat licked his shoulder and respectfully stepped back. Skypaw knew that soon the Clan would begin to chant her new name, but Bramblestar, she saw, had not finished yet.
"There is another apprentice that deserves to be honoured today, even if he is not here with us," Bramblestar went on, and a hush fell over the Clan. Sorrow gleamed in many cats' eyes, and Ferndust stiffened, her eyes round. "Branchpaw."
Each cat bowed his or her head. Skypaw lowered her gaze. She had known Branchpaw as a kit, the oldest kit in the nursery. He and his sister had played with her a lot, as they had done with Cherrypelt's kits. He had been just as kind and as compassionate as his sister had been. He hadn't deserved to die so young, after the hard leaf-bare he and Ferndust had struggled through.
Skypaw's gaze flashed to Hazeltail. Her ears were flattened, and her fur prickling. She had been Branchpaw's mentor, in the short time he had been an apprentice, and she felt a wave of sympathy for the she-cat. Mousewhisker curled his tail soothingly over his sister's flank and pushed his muzzle into her fur.
"Branchpaw was a wonderful member of ThunderClan," Bramblestar said softly. "We knew him for longest as a kit, but he had the maturity of an elder and the heart of a warrior. He died too young, long before he could receive his warrior name. So we honour him now."
"He was such a hard worker," Hazeltail rasped. "A cat who was truly dedicated to ThunderClan."
"He was my brother," mewed Ferndust softly. "He was the best brother any cat could have. I loved him."
"We all did," said Cinderheart.
"And we'll always remember him," Dewclaw added.
Snowfoot lifted his eyes. "Sometimes, in my sons, I can see a little bit of Branchpaw in them. Clawkit and Graykit are just as playful and cheeky as Branchpaw was. Always putting beetles in nests and sneaking into the warriors' den..."
"And whenever I look at our apprentices, I can see Branchpaw's dedication shining through in every one of them," Lionblaze added. "Branchpaw's spirit continues to flourish in ThunderClan, shining through in every one of his former Clanmates. May this serve as an example to all of us, to be as much like him as any cat."
Bramblestar nodded. "And we honour him now. Branchpaw, if you can hear me in StarClan, know that we praise you for your short length of service to us. Your sister is now a warrior, and in our minds and hearts, you are, too."
"Ferndust! Branchpaw!" yowled Hazeltail.
"Ferndust! Branchpaw!" echoed her littermates. The apprentices, including Skypaw, echoed them. Cinderheart, Lionblaze, Toadstep and Icecloud joined in immediately after. Seednose and Lilyflower called their names, and the younger warriors joined in, and soon all of ThunderClan was yowling their names to the sky high above.
Ferndust's eyes sparkled with emotion.
"It was his time to die," meowed Aura softly beside Skypaw. Quickly the gray apprentice looked down at Aura, and she saw that distant faraway look in her gaze again. "But his time for forgetting is not over yet. His destiny has only just begun."
"What do you mean?" whispered Skypaw, puzzled.
"The Clans will see Branchpaw again," purred Aura. "Just...not in the way any of them expected."
Shadows haunted the edges of Skypaw's vision. Frightened, the she-cat whirled around, expecting to find herself in the Dark Forest again, hearing the sneering snarls of the dark spirits as they approached her, ready to end her life for knowing too much.
But instead, all she could smell was an awful scent, which scoured the insides of her nose, burning itself into her memory, the stench of decay in the hearts and the bodies of the living. The smell of sickness. The smell of death, and of total extermination.
Skypaw leapt forward, unsure where she was even running, but it seemed to be the right way. Colour flooded around her, and she found herself standing in ThunderClan's camp.
She was nothing more than a spectral being, completely ethereal. And the clearing was massed with...
Skypaw felt her breath catch in her throat and she swallowed the bile fast rising. The bodies of cats, so many cats, were laid out in the clearing, prepared for a night's vigil. Skypaw felt her eyes widen as she recognized them. The elders, lying side by side, their eyes open, glazed and still stretched wide with pain. Lionblaze's and Cinderheart's kits lay cold and unmoving. Cherrypelt and Moleclaw were side by side. Lilyflower lay curled in a small skinny circle. Mapleleaf wound protectively around two stationary kits, one with crooked, jagged paws that would never heal. Bramblestar and Squirrelflight rested beside Poppyfrost. Cinderheart and Lionblaze were intertwined with one another, as though their final moments were spent together. Hollythorn lay dead beside three of her kits. Only one of them was still alive, and she paced distressed around the clearing, her eyes wide with grief. Owlkit could not wail in despair.
Beside her, Skypaw suddenly heard a voice etched with grief rasp, "No...we were too late..."
It was Jayfeather. He was sick, and though he seemed close to joining StarClan himself, he was still standing, gently rubbing rosemary into Runningleap's body. He lay beside his sisters, his eyes already closed. "Everyone's dead...gone..."
"Have faith," rasped Toadstep. He crouched beside the corpse of Ferndust, grief in his eyes. "We...we are still ThunderClan. We still have you."
"But what can one blind medicine cat do?" croaked Jayfeather. "My brother...he is dead. Our leader is dead. Everyone..." He slowly, senselessly, shook his head. "Everyone is dead, gone. The kits, the elders, the queens...nearly all the apprentices."
Stormpaw and Larkpaw stood beside the unmoving bodies of their brothers, and they wailed piteously.
"No! What could have caused this?" shrieked Blossomfall, her eyes wide and haunted.
"It's the end of the Clans," whispered Bumblestripe. "The Clans have all been struck. We were never warned. We could not have hoped to save them."
"The sickness is claiming the lives of all the Clans," rasped Seednose, and she looked up from gently smoothing the fur on her sister's body. "Now there are only a few of us left."
Skypaw saw that she was true. Foxleap and Icecloud walked stiff-legged towards where the apprentices stood uncertainly. Rosepetal was trying in vain not to cough. Owlkit was gently scooped up by Ivypool, who nestled the tiny kit into her chest and licked her tawny fur protectively. But the silver tabby was grieving, too. Her parents and her sister were dead.
Skypaw's mother was dead.
Dovewing. StarClan, no...please, no...
Skypaw stared at her mother, horror shooting through every inch of her body. Her gaze travelled to all the remaining warriors who had survived the onslaught of sickness; Ivypool, Icecloud, Foxleap, Rosepetal, Toadstep, Flamefur, Yellownose, Dewclaw, Blossomfall, Bumblestripe, Hazeltail, Mousewhisker...
So few, Skypaw thought. So few have survived. We are leaderless. Jayfeather is close to joining StarClan...
She could only stare in horror at the bodies in ThunderClan. There were so many. Apprentices, kits, queens, elders, warriors, deputy and leader...
The thorn barrier rustled. Jayfeather lifted eyes clouded with grief.
"Jayfeather..." rasped a familiar voice. Skypaw stared. It was Pinenose. The black she-cat coughed once, and then croaked, "Nearly all of ShadowClan is..." Her voice faltered as she stared at the many dead in the hollow. "...is destroyed. We were hoping that you could give us some more of your catmint."
The words were hollow on her tongue. She knew that Jayfeather had none to spare.
He shook his head, too tired to argue. "Try RiverClan," he whispered.
"It's too far," murmured Pinenose. "We can't make it. None of us are fit to travel. And those who are must hunt and feed us."
"Is this the end of the Clans?" whimpered Flamefur.
Yellownose pressed into his brother's side and said nothing.
For a moment, Jayfeather was still. Then he mewed, "Yes. It is the end of us."
At Skypaw's side, she suddenly felt fur brush her, and she glanced around in surprise to see Aura standing beside her. She turned emotionless eyes to Skypaw and murmured, her voice strangely eerie, "Behold, the future of the Clans, should you fail to grasp your destiny."
"No! This can't be happening!" wailed Skypaw. "My parents, my family, my Clan...they're all dead, all gone! Others will follow!"
"They will all die if you are not strong enough to save them, Skypaw," whispered Aura.
Then everything faded in a flash of white.
"Skypaw! Skypaw, wake up!"
Skypaw's eyes flew open. Aura stood just before her, urgency written all over the small kit's face.
"What did you see?" demanded the kit urgently.
"Wha...?" Skypaw pushed herself groggily to her paws, looking around. She frowned in confusion. She couldn't remember where in StarClan she was. How did she get from her nest to the middle of the leaf-fall-struck forest? Russet leaves spiraled lazily down on either side of Skypaw's pelt.
"What did you see?" repeated Aura quickly.
"I saw...ThunderClan. All dead," Skypaw gasped, finally beginning to remember, to grasp her memory. She had woken that morning, Cherrypelt had reluctantly given her a day off from her usual training, and she and Aura had headed out into the woods before the dawn patrol had even headed out. She frowned as she looked up at the sky. The sun was nearly directly overhead. Sunhigh already? How long ago was I dreaming?
"What killed them?" asked Aura.
"Sickness," rasped Skypaw. "Sickness killed them."
Aura frowned. "An outbreak of greencough, occurring suddenly and unexpectedly in the Clans," she meowed, almost curiously. "Do you remember how you entered the vision, Skypaw?"
Skypaw frowned, trying desperately to recollect.
Skypaw and Aura came into the clearing. They stood for a moment amidst the grass and fallen leaves, before Aura turned to her.
"The first thing you must know about looking into the future is acceptance of all things to come," meowed the little kit. "You must become aware; let your consciousness escape you, let all possibilities enter your mind. And you must decide which is the most likely outcome of the most current situation...or the most unlikely outcome."
Skypaw stared. "What do you mean?"
"Close your eyes," instructed Aura.
She obeyed, shutting her eyes, so that darkness overtook all her vision. "What now?"
"Be silent," instructed Aura, and Skypaw obeyed. With a small mrrow of amusement, Aura continued. "Now release your subconsciousness. Feel your body just...lift away from the ground. Let your mind wander. Let certainty fill your mind and heart, every inch of your body. You can be anything you want to be. You can become a dog. You can run as fast as one. You can ride on the back of a sheep, run around the world, drink from the Sun-drown-place. Anything is now possible."
And Skypaw could. She felt her paws pounding over the earth, heard her hoarse barking. The soft, woolly fur of the sheep beneath her tickled her nose. The world spun wildly beneath her paws as she pounded over the earth. Skypaw paused and drank from the crisp, restless waters of the Sun-drown-place. The tang of salt caught in her throat.
The ground disappeared beneath her.
"Now you must embrace the future," said Aura. "Look a week into what is to come, Skypaw, for a test. Count the sunrises and sunsets that flicker before your eyes."
Colours flooded before Skypaw's shut eyes, as clear as if she were dreaming. The sun rose, spun over the sky, and set. The next day came, and the sun climbed high. Clouds dotted the path of the sun rays. More leaves fell from the forest. The third day came and went. The fourth day was overcast. The fifth day, rain pattered the forest floor. The sixth day, the sun emerged once again, though there were much less leaves in the trees now.
The seventh day, Skypaw woke in the forest, and she smelt a strange smell. She knew at once that she had to return to the ThunderClan camp...and suddenly everything went unusually dark, though she sensed that she had not awoken yet.
Skypaw's eyes flew open.
"I remember," she rasped. "You told me to look a week into the future."
Aura nodded calmly.
"StarClan, no..." Skypaw felt horror flood through her. "In less than a week...ThunderClan is dead? The whole Clans are wiped out?"
"No, Skypaw," meowed Aura. "You saw this, but you, bearing a Tigermark of Time, have the ability to change this. I sensed that darkness lay ahead for the Clans, and ThunderClan in particular. I needed you to confirm this. Now it has been affirmed and the deadline is set. The Clans are doomed to be sickened by a powerful flood of greencough, spread from one Clan to the next."
"But...but what can I do?" rasped Skypaw.
Aura looked levelly at Skypaw. "You now know how to look into the future, Skypaw," the tortoiseshell kit mewed. "I have taught you how."
"Is...is that it?" mewed Skypaw in confusion. "Just...a few sentences and then I know how?"
"All that remains is practice," said Aura. "Much like anything that is first taught. You know it, but you need to perfect it so you know it in a single heartbeat when that knowledge needs to be called upon. Now you need to work on mastering your ability of insight, and to use it for your advantage."
Skypaw despairingly shook her head. "I'm exhausted after one look into the future. I'll never get this."
"You are young, Skypaw, only eight moons old. Your power is growing fast alongside your own physical body," Aura meowed. "When my time comes to replace Rock as Guardian, then you will be meant to remain behind, to use your abilities of insight to protect ThunderClan."
"But when will you descend into the tunnels?" mewed Skypaw.
Aura flicked her ears. "When your destiny is complete and the connections between dead and living are broken. Rock will fade, and I will take his place."
"You must be looking forward to it."
Aura's eyes brightened. "Yes, I am. My Quarter blessings are far better used down in the peaceful shadows of a tunnel than in the evil darkness of my father and SunClan. But be wary, Skypaw. There are many threats coming to the lake."
Skypaw's eyes flew wide. "The sickness...the greencough...what can I do?"
"You can warn Jayfeather," Aura instructed. "Death will grip the Clans, but we can reduce the number that it claims."
"What is the cure to greencough? Catmint, right?"
Aura nodded. "I believe that Jayfeather has some in his garden."
"But how much?"
Aura's eyes grew grim. "Enough to help ThunderClan...most of them. Frost has begun to kill a few of the plants."
"So cats in ThunderClan are doomed to die?" Skypaw wailed in horror.
"But it will not be destroyed," growled Aura, her voice suddenly firm. "We must go back to ThunderClan and inform Jayfeather at once. He must gather in his catmint, now, before the sickness begins."
Skypaw leapt to her paws. "I'll go and tell him now. Where is he?"
Aura looked at Skypaw.
"Right, um, of course." Skypaw sighed, closing her eyes obediently, rapidly casting out her consciousness and accepting that all truths could be relevant, accepting that anything can happen in the future. Then, suddenly, amidst all the options, one became clear as day.
"He's already in the forest," she mewed. "Picking...horsetail. Somewhere near the shore."
Aura nodded. "And Ferndust is now approaching us."
Skypaw scowled. "You're only four moons old and you're completely at ease with looking into the future."
"Then again, I have been aware of my blessings and abilities since birth," Aura said.
At that moment the underbrush rustled, and a light silver tabby she-cat jumped into the clearing, eyes bright with friendliness. "Aura! Skypaw!" she chirruped, bounding over to them with her tail high. "I thought I recognized your voices. What are you two doing out here alone?"
"Ferndust," Aura purred. "A pleasure to see you."
Skypaw was about to mew a greeting when the memory of the future resurfaced. Toadstep was gently smoothing down his former apprentice's pelt. Ferndust had died. She had died.
And so would many others, if she didn't prepare ThunderClan in time.
"Ferndust, there's an urgent matter," Skypaw mewed quickly. "I have to find Jayfeather right away."
"Why?" Friendliness disappeared from Ferndust's eyes, to be replaced with great concern. "What's going on? Is everything all right?"
"No," murmured Skypaw. "Aura's been teaching me."
Ferndust's eyes widened in immediate understand. "Oh. What did you see?"
"Something terrible that will happen if we don't find Jayfeather right now."
Ferndust looked worried, but then her face hardened in determination. She had been a warrior for two days, Skypaw reflected, and already Ferndust was looking as tall and as proud as a senior.
"Do you know where he is?"
"Picking horsetail near the shore." In a flash Skypaw made a decision. "Come with me, Ferndust. Jayfeather will need help getting all his plants back to ThunderClan in time."
"His...his plants? You mean his herbs from the garden?"
"Yes." Skypaw was already bounding into the trees. "Quickly, Ferndust, come with me! Aura, can you get back to the camp on your own?"
Aura calmly nodded, rising to her paws. "May your pawsteps be swift and fortune favour you," she meowed after Skypaw and Ferndust as they leapt into the gold-splashed trees.
"So what's happening?" Ferndust gasped as she raced alongside Skypaw.
The gray apprentice pushed harder into the ground, pounding faster through the forest. "Something bad's going to happen to the lake. Something really bad. Sickness or something is going to ravage the Clans and if we don't do something now, lots of cats are going to die," she panted.
Ferndust's eyes widened. "Sickness?"
"It's coming, and fast," Skypaw meowed, clearing a fallen tree branch. "Look, I saw into the future. Most of ThunderClan was dead. Even you."
Ferndust eyes widened in shock, but she only mewed, "I think I caught a whiff of Jayfeather's scent."
Skypaw skidded to an abrupt halt and Ferndust halted beside her, raising her head high and tasting the air. Skypaw pricked her ears, wishing irritably that she had her mother's intense sharp hearing and sight, trying to determine where the medicine cat was.
Then Ferndust meowed sharply, "He's headed towards the WindClan border. Come on!"
She was the first to leap into the trees. Swiftly Skypaw raced after her friend, their strides matched and even. Two moons of training had granted Skypaw with great strength and stamina, and she could match Ferndust stride for stride.
Suddenly, in moments that took too long and too short, Ferndust and Skypaw burst out from a clump of bracken to see Jayfeather picking his way casually through the forest, horsetail gathered carefully in his jaws.
"Jayfeather!" Skypaw nearly shrieked his name.
Startled, the medicine cat whirled around, dropping his horsetail. Angrily he lashed his tail as he recognized the scents of Skypaw and Ferndust, and he growled, "What in the name of StarClan is going on with you two? You look as if you've been chasing a fox!"
"Jayfeather," panted Ferndust, rapidly catching her breath. "There's something...bad...happening...in the future..."
"What?" Jayfeather's blind eyes snapped to Skypaw. "Well? What happened?"
Skypaw's lungs were screaming but she spoke nonetheless. "We have to get all your catmint supplies into your medicine den," she gasped. "Before the sickness strikes ShadowClan first and they resort to thieving."
"What?" Jayfeather frowned. "Are you...are you serious?"
"Of course!" snapped Skypaw indignantly. "I looked into the future! Sickness is going to destroy the Clans if we aren't prepared beforehand! There won't be any time when it strikes; it'll strike hard, and it'll strike soon. I only looked one week into the future and nearly all the cats in ThunderClan were dead."
"Who were dead?" Jayfeather's voice was taut.
"Everyone. Ferndust, Lionblaze, Dovewing, Mapleleaf, Hollythorn, Bramblestar...countless others. You were to join them eventually, Jayfeather. You were badly ill when I saw you in my vision."
Jayfeather looked alarmed, his fur on end. Then he bent his head, picked up his horsetail, and dropped it at Ferndust's feet. "Carry," he instructed, before turning and springing into the forest. Wordlessly Skypaw and Ferndust raced after him, the tabby warrior obediently carrying the horsetail in her jaws.
They raced through the trees, the falling leaves flying by. Skypaw glanced anxiously at Jayfeather, wondering if he would be able to cope. Would his blindness slow him down? But he wove amongst the trees as easily as any cat with sight, and she felt her respect for the medicine cat increase. Even when a mossy, fallen tree loomed before the three of them and she and Ferndust cleared it with ease, Jayfeather did, too.
Soon Skypaw found herself racing across the old Thunderpath, heading towards the abandoned Twoleg nest. When it came into view, the ancient, crumbling den covered with ivy and the walls decaying posts, Jayfeather slipped through a rotted hole in the planks of wood, into the garden. Wordlessly, Skypaw slipped in after him, while Ferndust remained outside to guard.
Skypaw felt her spirits sink as she saw the catmint. There was quite a bit of it, growing lushly in the soft soil around the Twoleg nest, but she immediately realized that Aura was right; there wouldn't be enough of it to help all of ThunderClan from the sickness...if what she had seen was to come true.
I can save lives, but not all, Skypaw thought. Unless we deal with the sickness the moment faintest signs appear.
But I can't jump at shadows. It's leaf-fall. Herbs are becoming harder for Jayfeather to find. We waste all the herbs on simple stomachaches and headaches and more cats will die...
"So how much do we need?" asked Jayfeather.
"All of it," Skypaw answered without hesitation.
Jayfeather stared incredulously at Skypaw, and she looked steadily back at him. When she felt him probe her mind, searching for the memory, she sighed and gave it to him—and watched him physically recoil in blatant shock when he saw it.
He rapidly receded out of her memory and rasped, "Great StarClan...so many dead..."
"We need all of it," said Skypaw listlessly.
"But we don't have enough for all ThunderClan." Jayfeather sighed. "I can feel your despair, Skypaw. You don't need to say the words aloud. I can feel it pulsing from your fur."
"We'll just have to do the best we can," said Skypaw glumly.
Jayfeather nodded. "We will." He began to swiftly and carefully dig up the tender green shoots, piling them neatly at the side of the clearing. "Press the shoots as cleanly as you can together," he instructed without glancing at Skypaw. "We can't waste a single drop of their interiors if the sickness is to come, and we need them as potent as possible."
Soon the patch was empty of catmint, and a large pile of green sat at the edge of the clearing instead. Jayfeather frowned, and then yowled for Ferndust. She came shooting into the clearing, the horsetail swinging from her mouth.
"Drop that," Jayfeather ordered. "We'll have to come back for it. We need you to help carry some of this catmint back to the hollow."
Ferndust nodded, obediently dropping the horsetail and approaching the nearest bundle.
"Even if we tuck it under our chins and hold it in our mouths, the way that we carry moss, there'll still be more to carry," Skypaw realized.
Ferndust's eyes suddenly brightened. "Why don't Jayfeather and I walk together, our sides touching, and carry some of the bundled catmint on our backs?" she suggested. "As long as we move slowly and carefully, we'll be able to carry everything back. Jayfeather and I are roughly about the same size; it'd be perfect."
"Great idea, Ferndust!" Skypaw praised.
Jayfeather was quiet for a moment, and Skypaw guessed he didn't exactly relish the thought of walking...so close...to another she-cat. Then he gave a small groan and meowed, "We'll have to tie the bundles together with grass so they don't spill everywhere."
He got down to work, tying bundles of catmint together with long grass blades, before reluctantly obeying Ferndust's idea. He and Ferndust stood close together while Skypaw reared up on her hind legs and placed several of the bundles on their shoulders, spreading over their backs, including the horsetail. Then they each grabbed a bundle of catmint in their jaws and set steadily back to camp.
I sure hope you're right about this, Skypaw was sure Jayfeather was thinking. His words were practically echoing in her head. She glanced at Jayfeather to see doubt and uncertainty flickering in his blue eyes. If you're wrong...we'll have no catmint for leaf-bare. It'd all rot before it'd be needed.
For a moment, Skypaw felt a flicker of doubt.
Then certainty came in its place. Aura had seen it. Skypaw had seen it, and confirmed it. It was to come.
I just hope we'll all be ready when it does, she thought.
Suddenly the ground wildly swayed beneath her paws and colour flashed in front of Skypaw's eyes.
She saw Whitewing crouched outside the elder's den, and Briarlight checking the old she-cat in worry. Her eyes betrayed her anxiety.
"Whitecough," she informed Whitewing. "You have whitecough. StarClan, I hope that Jayfeather gets back here soon. It's hit you rough."
Whitewing coughed once again, and then rasped, "Don't fret about an old thing like me. I'll be fine, trust me."
Skypaw jerked back to the present, in time to feel the cold trickle of fear run down the length of her spine.
She slowly turned back to Jayfeather and Ferndust.
At once Jayfeather stopped, and Ferndust quickly halted so she didn't upset the herbs that were balanced slightly precariously on their shoulders. The medicine cat's eyes flashed with alarm.
"What did you see?" he demanded at once, dropping the catmint.
Skypaw slowly shook her head, lowering her own, before meowing three words solemnly and shakily.
"It has begun."