The moment that Skypaw opened her eyes, she felt a wave of nausea flow over her like rainwater. She let out a soft moan and closed them again. Everything was both too bright and too dark, and her whole body was burning. It was hot and cold beneath her pelt.
All around her she heard movement, the coughing and stench of sick cats, and Skypaw knew that she was in the medicine den. She tentatively opened her eyes again, and everything was streaming and blurry. She pushed herself up, forcing herself into a sitting position. Her forepaw brushed against something that felt cold as ice and wet as a river, and she shivered.
She looked down, and through her hazy vision she made it out to be a soaked moss ball. Leaning forward, Skypaw drank and licked the water trapped in the moss as though she had not quenched her raging thirst for days. When she drew back, she suddenly felt something jump in her chest and into her throat; she coughed roughly, wincing as she felt her sore throat burn like flame with each harsh cough she made.
I must have been coughing for a while, Skypaw thought wearily, letting herself flop back down in her nest.
She heard a soft patter of paws echo around the den. Skypaw pricked her ears and heard the cat approach her. It was Aura. Skypaw blinked her eyes open wider as she saw the she-kit approach her.
She looked exhausted. Her dappled pelt was still ungroomed. Tiny flecks of herb clung to her pelt. Aura's eyes were dull, and yet she kept going, still walked on her paws. She hadn't collapsed. Skypaw felt a wave of shame wash over her. She had failed. Now she was sick as well.
"You are awake," Aura rasped. Her voice was tired for a kit. "Jayfeather was beginning to lose hope, but I knew you would find your way out of the darkness."
She ran a tail over Skypaw's flank.
"What...happened?" Skypaw choked. Her tongue didn't want to move and her throat hurt even more, as though she had swallowed the thorn barrier.
"You worked yourself to the point of exhaustion," Aura said, her voice sharp with concern. "You did not see yourself falling ill, did you?"
Skypaw ashamedly shook her head.
"You must let your mind be open to all possibilities," Aura said firmly to her. "Your power is still developing within you. But beware, Skypaw, the Clan's most trialing times have only just begun. You will need your concentration and focus even more if ThunderClan hopes to survive."
"But...but will we survive?" gasped Skypaw.
Aura let her eyes cloud. "Lilyflower was the first," she mewed. "And she will not be the last."
Skypaw desperately wanted to ask her what she meant, who else was going to die. Then Aura padded away and returned a moment later with a few bedraggled leaves of feverfew in her jaws.
"Here," she murmured, as she pushed the herbs over. "This will help you cope with your fever."
Skypaw shakily nodded her thanks, and leaned forward, and even though it hurt like Hookclaw's claws eating them, she forced the leaves of feverfew down. Then she sank back into her nest, suddenly exhausted and her throat aching worse than ever.
"I'm sorry," Aura mewed softly. "But...but we have no more honeycomb."
Skypaw shook her head slightly and simply rasped, "Jayfeather...?"
She couldn't even finish the question.
"He's with Bramblestar," explained Aura quietly. "It's...it's not looking good. Bramblestar is on his last life and the whole clan knows it, and Lionblaze is scared. He thinks that he is not ready to lead ThunderClan. He must find the courage to face this fact if we are to survive."
"Aura," Skypaw rasped, "Is Bramblestar...is he going to die?"
Aura paused. Then she sighed, flattened her ears and bowed her head low.
"Yes," she murmured.
When Skypaw awoke next, she felt even worse. She didn't think she could even swallow. Her throat had become so sore from coughing that it was excruciating and torturous to cough up the stuff that was gathering in her lungs. Yet she had to do it, and she moaned vocally whenever she had to.
"Your fever is growing worse," Aura whispered anxiously as she dabbed wet moss over Skypaw's brow and eartips. "You must not succumb, Skypaw. You must not succumb."
Why couldn't she? Skypaw wanted to argue. But she couldn't speak now. She could only lie, and watch, and listen.
Only the most serious patients were in the den with Skypaw. Leafpool lay curled up in a small, ragged ball, huskily wheezing and rasping as she tried desperately to fight off her bout of greencough. The catmint she was being fed didn't seem to be strong enough to fight off the sickness ravaging the old she-cat's body. Jaggedkit, fortunately, was recovering well, though Graykit and Frostkit were still quite ill. They lay curled in the curve of Mapleleaf's belly. The queen wasn't looking good, whose eyes were sticky with pus and whose orange fur had turned a shocking pallid colour. The elder, Whitewing, couldn't even move from her nest. She lay limply in her matted bed of ferns and bracken and moss, hardly breathing.
Aura managed the medicine den with the most serious patients. Jayfeather roved outside, going from apprentices' cave to nursery to elders' den, where the other cats who were unwell resided. Most of the well cats had retreated to the abandoned Twoleg nest, but Lionblaze and a small band of senior warriors—Hazeltail, Berrynose, Mousewhisker, Foxleap, Ivypool, Dovewing and Bumblestripe—made regular visits to the hollow, bringing fresh-kill that they had found in the forest for the sickly.
Skypaw knew that her mother and father were terrified for her. She discovered this by the way that Aura gave her a small morsel, saying, "Bumblestripe chased this halfway around the forest for his daughter." She had shaken her head in amusement and added, "He'll do anything to try and make you well again. Don't disappoint him."
The shrew had been good. Skypaw had been amazed that a rodent could run for that long.
Skypaw vaguely knew that she had been sick for about three days now, and that the Clan was running dangerously low on herbs. Jayfeather had had to use the catmint sparingly—so many cats were sick that he couldn't just give them a hearty dose and make them well again. There just wasn't enough to help them all.
Lilyflower was the first. And she will not be the last. Aura's haunting words rang in her head. Though Skypaw had known that cats would die from this bout of greencough, she was frightened at facing the actual prospect of dying herself.
A week since the actual sickness had begun, and already one cat was dead. How many more were to follow?
Weren't we meant to know if we would survive or not by this day? Skypaw thought wildly. But she couldn't summon up the strength to ask this.
Suddenly she heard paws pound over the earth and Jayfeather burst back into the den, his unseeing eyes huge with fear. He raced straight over to Whitewing's side and desperately began to rub the frail she-cat's body. Aura slipped in just behind Jayfeather, mewing, "I'm sorry, but StarClan is calling her..."
"I won't let them have her!" hissed Jayfeather, his voice shaking and cracked with weariness. He rubbed Whitewing harder, trying to get her to stir and complain and cough. "I can't let any more cats die!"
"Jayfeather, it is her time," Aura said softly. "She is so old now. She can go to StarClan and be with her friends and family anymore, and be forever young and healthy, and never know pain or suffering again."
She placed a paw on Jayfeather's shoulder. "Please, Jayfeather...it is time to let her go. It will be kinder for her to pass to StarClan now. There is no more anyone can do for her."
Skypaw felt a shiver of sorrow pass through her. Her grandmother...she was dying. Jayfeather froze, as though Aura's words had suddenly made clear sense. Then, slowly, numbly, he stepped back from Whitewing, who was only very feebly stirring.
Skypaw heard her grandmother cough, followed by a final whisper. "Take...good care...of...ThunderClan."
The word Clan fell on a breath abruptly cut short, and the nest rustled slightly, as though her head had dropped sharply on it. Her husky breathing had long ended.
"No..." Jayfeather rasped.
He took a few steps back, his eyes round and flashing disbelief. "No, no...not another one. I promised...I promised that no cat would go to StarClan. Lilyflower, she shouldn't have died. She shouldn't have died!"
"Peace, Jayfeather," Aura murmured, her voice clouded with grief. "Whitewing is gone."
Jayfeather shook his head slowly. "Another one dead...how many more do StarClan wish to claim?"
Aura gently pushed her head into Jayfeather's leg. "She is at peace now, Jayfeather. Let her rest. Let her honourably be buried."
Jayfeather stiffly, slowly nodded. "I'll...I'll see to it that she's laid to rest appropriately." He walked forward, gently grasped Whitewing's scruff, and heaved the frail elder from her nest. She was so skinny that she must've been very light in Jayfeather's jaws. Slowly, carefully, the aggrieved medicine cat carried Whitewing's body from the medicine den.
Goodbye, grandmother, Skypaw thought, sorrow flooding through every inch of her body, before she let the darkness of sleep claim her.
When Skypaw next blinked awake, it was to the sound of Frostkit sniffling. Groggily, every movement pained, Skypaw lifted her head, everything hurting and burning. Skypaw shivered and snuggled a little deeper into her nest, before she rasped hoarsely, "Frost...Frostkit?"
Across the den, she could see Frostkit's soft bluish fur. The small she-kit lifted her head and whimpered, "I don't like being sick," she choked.
Jaggedkit blearily opened his eyes and nuzzled his sister in a friendly way. "Don't worry," he coughed. "I'm all sicky, too. We can be sick together."
"But Mother's all sick," complained Frostkit. "And I can't swallow anything. It's not fair!"
Oh, Frostkit, Skypaw thought sadly. Many things are not fair. It wasn't fair that Whitewing and Lilyflower had to die. But they did, and they're never going to get better. She glanced at Mapleleaf. The she-cat was twitching faintly in her sleep, muttering hoarsely for her kits and for Moleclaw, her mate. Even though Graykit wasn't her own kit, the tiny gray tom lay curled at her side, snuggled against Jaggedkit and Frostkit.
Poor little mite, thought Skypaw. Ravenkit's grown strong again. Why can't he?
StarClan wouldn't be so cruel as to claim the lives of kits, would they? Skypaw closed her eyes tightly and prayed with all her might that Jaggedkit, Frostkit and Graykit would all recover. They're the future of the Clan. Them and their littermates. They have to survive.
They will survive.
Skypaw made a decision.
Stiffly, she pushed herself to her paws. For a moment, she was afraid that they wouldn't take her weight. But in a few heartbeats she was shakily standing. Trembling with each movement she made, Skypaw crossed the quiet den and into the herb store. Frostkit, Jaggedkit and Graykit stared at her but they didn't make a sound.
When Skypaw was in the herb store, she let her gaze wander until it fell upon the precious catmint, what was left of it. She struggled over to it and sniffed the leaves, drinking in their beautiful sweet scents, before she grabbed a mouthful and headed back out of the den.
She came to Mapleleaf's side and dropped the catmint in front of the kits. They stared at it with wide eyes and turned their gaze to Skypaw, almost questioningly.
"This is my share," rasped Skypaw. "But I don't want it. You need it more than I."
Graykit prodded the catmint nervously with one paw. Then, he looked up, and he whispered, "Skypaw...? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," Skypaw croaked, forcing a purr. "Never surer."
She pushed the catmint forward a little, so the soft green sprigs were touching the flanks of the sickly kits. "Eat this and get strong again," she said softly. "It's very tasty, don't worry. I've had a nibble of some catmint to help my fever go down and it's good stuff, and it'll make the sicky go away."
Before she could give herself a chance to hesitate, Skypaw turned around and headed back to her own nest. She slumped wearily down into it, her heart pounding twice as fast at the knowledge of what she had just done. She felt exhaustion creeping up on her, but before she did, she made sure that Frostkit, Jaggedkit and Graykit ate the catmint that had been placed before them. They pounced on it like a starving cat would pounce on a piece of fresh-kill, and Skypaw felt a warm flood of satisfaction—and a strong feeling of fear—go through her as the kits ate the medicine, every last scrap of it. They flicked their tongues around their jaws, obviously liking the taste.
Get strong, little kits, Skypaw thought, before she slipped into unconsciousness.
When the dawn came, Skypaw awoke with immense difficulty. Every part of her was burning and aching, and her vision was cloudy and spinning. But she saw that Graykit, Frostkit and Jaggedkit were all sleeping soundly, curled up against Mapleleaf's belly, looking very at peace.
The catmint's doing its work on the kits, she thought with relief. They'd recover. They probably needed another day or two of rest before they could go and rejoin their littermates. Skypaw was glad she had sacrificed her medicine for the kits. They needed it more than she did—and she'd changed their fates for the better.
She heard Jayfeather enter the den, and quickly she closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep, though she could still listen to everything that would happen around her. For a little while, the medicine cat paced quietly in between his sleeping patients, sniffing their pelts, checking their temperatures, muttering curses to StarClan as he did so. When he drew near Mapleleaf, he paused and stiffened.
Skypaw held her breath. Would he detect the scent of catmint on the kits?
But instead, she heard Jayfeather croak, almost questioningly, "Mapleleaf?"
Skypaw's eyes opened. She saw Jayfeather standing over the queen, gently stroking her fur with a forepaw. His blind blue eyes suddenly rounded with horror, and he began to vigorously shake her. "Mapleleaf?" he repeated, more urgently. He sniffed her pelt and rubbed it even more, and Skypaw felt a cold weight settle in the depths of her stomach.
No...it was impossible. It can't be. She was sleeping the last time I saw her. She was resting. Resting! She...she can't be...
Jayfeather took a few pawsteps back, staring at Mapleleaf with wide blind eyes. His fur began to bristle and ripple on his shoulders uncontrollably, and his tail twitched once. Then, he slowly approached the dead queen again on trembling paws. He pushed his muzzle into her fur and whispered huskily, "StarClan be with you, Mapleleaf."
He looked down at the kits, and Skypaw heard him murmur, "Cat...catmint?"
He bent his head and sniffed Graykit's fur. "They've eaten catmint," he whispered. "And they're...they're strong again."
Anger suddenly flashed through Jayfeather, and his thoughts rang clearly in Skypaw's mind. Did they sneak into the store to steal catmint?
Skypaw let out a soft sigh and lifted her head, and Jayfeather looked sharply towards her.
"I gave them the catmint," the apprentice confessed.
Jayfeather hesitated, his ears flat against his head, before he approached Skypaw and growled, "Did you give them Mapleleaf's share?"
"No," Skypaw wheezed, resisting the urge to cough. "I gave them my own."
Jayfeather's eyes grew round as two moons, and he hissed, "What? Are you insane?"
"No!" snapped Skypaw, guilt giving way to anger. "They needed it more than I do!"
"They were getting better the catmint!" Jayfeather snarled, lashing his tail. "By giving thewithout m your own catmint, you've just doomed yourself to die! Look around you!" His tail swept widely around the den. "ThunderClan needs you, Skypaw! You can't forsake the life that's been laid out for you! What about the Dark Forest? What about your destiny?"
Skypaw relaxed back into her nest. "Maybe my destiny is meant to be fulfilled in StarClan," she mumbled.
Jayfeather stiffened, and Skypaw sensed grief flowing from his gray tabby fur.
"Skypaw," he murmured, "your destiny is meant to be fulfilled in the land of the living. I think we both know that."
He pressed his muzzle into Skypaw's fur. "I just hope that the kits' lives are worth more than your own."
Then he retreated from Skypaw, as she heard Graykit mewl quietly, "Why does Mapleleaf smell funny? Why is she so cold?"
Skypaw squeezed her eyes shut and flattened her ears to her skull, so she didn't have to hear Jayfeather slowly break the news to him and to Frostkit and Jaggedkit. She slipped gratefully into unconsciousness before Frostkit and Jaggedkit began to wail with horror and grief.
The ninth day of the sickness dawned. In just a few days, Skypaw told herself, she'd have been in training for two and a half moons. It was amazing to think that Aura had been in the Clan for nearly all of that time. The kit had certainly settled in well to Clan life, enough for Jayfeather to trust her with looking after the sick cats. But the herb store was almost completely depleted, and there were still so many cats unwell.
When Aura came to Skypaw, her eyes were grim.
"Jayfeather told me what you did," she mewed. "And I am uncertain about your future."
So I could die, Skypaw thought. The Tigermark may give me a power, but it doesn't make me immortal.
"But you did right in giving the kits the medicine," Aura continued softly. "They would have died from their greencough, strengthened by their grief for Mapleleaf's demise, even if they truly were growing stronger. For Frostkit and Jaggedkit are young, very young indeed, and Graykit even younger, at only just over one and a quarter moons old. The greencough has claimed four cats' lives already."
"Four?" gasped Skypaw in horror. Who else has died?
Aura bowed her head low in grief. "At around the same time Mapleleaf succumbed, Snowfoot ascended to join StarClan."
Skypaw's eyes rounded with shock. "Snowfoot?" she croaked.
"Yes." Aura flattened her ears and let out a mournful meow. "How awful for the kits. The loss of parents for younglings is always, always a tragedy." Then a trace of bitterness came into her eyes and she growled, "Except, perhaps, in my case. I was glad to leave my father behind. I wish that he walks the foul Forgotten as does the tom Redwillow."
But Skypaw could only think of Snowfoot. Amberheart's and Dewclaw's brother. The tom...the poor tom...Hollythorn was probably distraught, her kits wailing their sorrow. He had only just become a father, and he hadn't even been able to see them grow up into apprentices. He would have to watch over them in StarClan, and even then he might not be able to. Skypaw realized that she would have to break the connection to the two worlds if they were both to survive. And it would be a very long time before Snowfoot even saw his kits again...
Aura, sensing misery in Skypaw's heart, leaned over and gently gave the dusky-gray apprentice a lick on the cheek. "Have some faith, Skypaw," mewed the kit quietly. "Think of the countless lives that you have saved. All the cats that you saw in your vision would have died by now if you had not warned Jayfeather in time. I said that there was not enough catmint for all the sick cats. But we could reduce the number of deaths that the sickness caused.
"And the kits...they are alive, and they are well. I know that all will grow to become apprentices in the future. The apprentices of today are healthy, all of them. None have died and none will die. The younger warriors are the strongest, and they are fighting off their bouts of greencough exceptionally well, considering the small doses of catmint that Jayfeather has had to give them. Ferndust and Thrushsong are nearly fully recovered and will return to their warrior duties soon enough. Runningleap is also growing stronger."
Skypaw looked blearily up at Aura. "They...they all will survive?"
Aura purred. "What do you think the answer is?"
She curled her tail over Skypaw's flank. "The ones who have died and who will die will go gladly to StarClan, knowing that their sacrifices will not be in vain. With one death, three more will survive. The kits, the apprentices, the younger warriors. ThunderClan, thanks to you, will survive."
"And you too, Aura," murmured Skypaw. "You—" She broke off in a rough bout of coughing, before shakily continuing. "...you helped Jayfeather tirelessly throughout the whole epidemic. Advising him which herbs to use, so we didn't run out of them too quickly. Lots of cats have recovered thanks to you."
Aura gave a small, shy purr.
"Working as another medicine cat has had its toll on me," she murmured. "I cannot keep this up as a full-time duty. But...it does feel good. Saving the lives of the cats I have foretold to die. It lessens the burden of my duty as Guardian when I can change the future."
"No...Mother, please. Don't leave me."
"I'm sorry, Jayfeather. But...but I cannot go on. My strength is spent."
"Leafpool, hold on! Aura, go and grab—"
"No, son...it is too late. But I die happy, knowing that you are with me, beside me...that you and Lionblaze have forgiven me. I truly am sorry for what I have done to you. StarClan will judge me now."
There was already starlight in Leafpool's eyes, and Jayfeather let out a furious mew.
"Leafpool, so many have already died because I couldn't save them. I won't let you die to greencough. You were meant to die warm and safe in your nest with Squirrelflight at your side. Not...not like this."
"I'm sorry, Jayfeather, that I was not stronger. I'm sorry for hiding the truth from you and Lionblaze, for breaking the codes, for...for doing so many other things. I hope that one day in StarClan, I will see you again."
There was a brief silence, broken only when Leafpool let out a harsh cough, before slumping, her strength spent, in her nest.
"Mother, I will see you again in StarClan. I promise."
There was happiness in Leafpool's eyes as she gazed at Jayfeather. And Jayfeather gazed back at Leafpool, as his mother. There was grief and love in his eyes, such strong feelings coming through the grouchy medicine cat that Skypaw was amazed, and she knew that he truly had forgiven her; he hadn't gathered the courage to tell her this until Leafpool lay upon her deathbed, ready to go to StarClan.
"Thank you, Jayfeather. I...I am truly proud of you and Lionblaze. He will make a great leader one day, and you have become a better medicine cat than I could have ever taught you to be. Farewell, Jay...goodbye..."
Skypaw's eyes flew open when she realized she was awake...and more curiously, that she wasn't feeling sick anymore. All around her, she could see tall, spectral images shimmering before her eyes. Everything glimmered with starlight, and a soft mist wrapped itself around the tall trunks of beautiful big trees.
I know this place...
Skypaw leapt to her paws, suddenly alarmed and frightened. She knew this place very well from her visit here once before. Fear pulsed through her as she realized that she was in StarClan's hunting grounds.
How did I get here?
Skypaw closed her eyes as she remembered that suddenly, on the tenth day of the illness, her fever had escalated to a critical level, very suddenly, unchecked with no herbs to control the greencough that was ravaging her body. Jayfeather and Aura had rushed to her side. But there was little that they could do for her.
Then suddenly, amidst the burning heat, the pain, the aches...darkness had washed over Skypaw's vision, and she felt the world go still and thick around her.
She slowly felt her fear ebb. Was she dead?
But no StarClan cats were coming to her, coming to welcome her to StarClan...or expressing their disappointment that she had failed in her task. Skypaw felt a shiver of fear crawl up her spine. She was standing at the edge of the tall, starry trees with the big branches and the wide green leaves budding on the twigs. The grass was cool and soft underpaw. It felt very real. Very genuine.
But then Skypaw felt a chill wash over her, and the faintest scent of decay washed over her tongue. She slowly turned around, and felt her fear suddenly return.
Beyond lay a darker wood, the place where there was endless death and decay, where the trees grew twisted and ragged and a thin, white mist wrapped around the bone-white trunks. Where there was no starlight, no warmth, no life.
Yet Skypaw felt herself being drawn to it.
Slowly she approached the border. The grass began to grow a little dry, even a bit sticky, underpaw as she walked away from the fields of StarClan. The Dark Forest loomed before her, as haunting, and as terrible, as Skypaw remembered it.
Do I have a choice? Skypaw wondered.
Suddenly, voices echoed in her head, in the same way that Leafpool's and Jayfeather's final moments had done. The terrible voices that thrummed in her ears now were ones that she recognized.
I sense a power.
The cold, drawling voice of Breezepelt suddenly whispered in Skypaw's mind, and in shock, the apprentice halted.
Is it Aura? asked a second voice sharply. It was Silverhawk.
We should send the whisperer to go and check, hissed a third voice, Mapleshade's, and Skypaw began to tremble, trying to back away. She found, to her rising horror, that she couldn't move. Her legs were like stone.
Redwillow's in the Forgotten, in a meeting with Scourge, growled Silverhawk. There was a pause. Wait—I sense her awareness. It's definitely female, whoever's hearing us now. But...
Skypaw gasped, finally finding her paws, scrambling back, but even as she did so, the trees before her loomed in front of her, growing taller, dead hollow branches reaching for her like claws.
What is this? a fourth cat spat in shock—Thistleclaw. It's...it's an apprentice!
A ThunderClan apprentice, Breezepelt added. And bearing a Tigermark, too...most unusual...
Which one? demanded Mapleshade.
Ah...she seems to possess the mark of Time, hissed Silverhawk.
Skypaw felt cold fear flood through her. They knew. They knew that she was alive, that her destiny was to defeat them. She turned to run, but the borders seemed to be flying away from her, and the Dark Forest was rising to swallow her whole.
Bring her here, growled Silverhawk. And we can see just how strong this Quarter Tigermark really is.
The scent of decay and ice-cold mist wrapped around Skypaw, and she felt herself slowly being pulled into the Dark Forest. She sank her claws into the dirt but it was growing peaty and slimy. She couldn't get a grip. With a frightened yowl, Skypaw struggled, but already she saw the warmth of StarClan fading from sight.
Then she heard a furious yowl break the whisperings in Skypaw's head, and suddenly the Dark Forest froze. Terrified, Skypaw pulled herself free of the strange dead bonds and raced towards the StarClan border, just as four cats exploded out from it—and to Skypaw's immense relief, she recognized them.
"You will not have her!" roared Firestar, his green eyes blazing.
"Hurry, Skypaw!" yowled Hollyleaf. "We cannot hold back the Dark Forest for long. Get across the border, and you should be safe."
Skypaw ran as though her life depended on it. Even though it was only a few bounds away, it felt as though she was running a hundred bounds. Then suddenly she was across into the lands of starlight, and everything was fresh and green and alive again, and the Dark Forest couldn't touch her. Trembling, Skypaw crouched in the grass, and Hollyleaf wrapped her dark body protectively around her.
"Is she all right?" Firestar asked quickly, turning his piercing green eyes to Skypaw. "You never entered the Forest, did you?"
Skypaw shakily shook her head; feeling oddly drained but her fear lessening, she rose to her paws. She looked around at the gathered cats. Three of them, she recognized straight away. Firestar, Hollyleaf and Yellowfang, the three cats who had first guided Skypaw to StarClan so she could hear the prophecy from the four Clans.
Then she turned around to meet the fourth cat.
He was significantly smaller than the three others, and with friendly yellow eyes. He was a handsome, well-built little tom, though he was only as large as Skypaw. He had a blaze of white going up his muzzle and narrowing at his forehead, a creamy white ruff, two large white paws, and a very fluffy tail. Dark stripes mottled his hazel-brown fur.
And what was more, Skypaw recognized him.
"Branchpaw?" she gasped.
"I'm glad to see that you remembered me," Branchpaw commented, with a small purr of laughter, and he flicked his star-flecked tail joyfully. "It's good to see you again, young Skykit—but I should be calling you Skypaw, shouldn't I?"
Skypaw nodded. "I received my apprentice name almost two and a half moons ago."
"So you did," Branchpaw meowed apologetically. "Sorry. Perspectives of time here in StarClan are a little different than they were in life."
Skypaw looked around at the four cats who had protected her, saved her from the Dark Forest, and she mewed quietly, "But...but why am I here?" she asked quietly.
Firestar looked sympathetic. "I know that you must be confused and frightened," he meowed kindly.
"More to the point, you think you've died," Yellowfang interjected.
"Yes, a really great way to put it for Skypaw," Hollyleaf snapped. Turning back to Skypaw, she mewed, "Well, she does have a point. You do think you've died, don't you?"
Skypaw nodded and frowned. "What do you mean, I think I've died? I know I died!"
"Incorrect; taken a look at yourself lately, kit?" Yellowfang commented.
Skypaw frowned, and she glanced at herself. What am I meant to find?
And then she realized...
"There's no starlight in my fur." Skypaw turned back to Firestar, Hollyleaf, Yellowfang and Branchpaw, and repeated it with greater confidence. "There's no starlight in my fur."
Branchpaw nodded and purred. "That's because you're not dead."
"I'm...not?" Skypaw repeated dazedly.
"But you were close," Branchpaw mewed. He padded to Skypaw's side and ran his tail along her back in a soothing manner. "The greencough was very close to overwhelming your body. But just before you died, we pulled you up into StarClan with all our combined energy, before the spirit left the body itself. We pulled you up into StarClan, so we could Heal you."
Skypaw stared at her former denmate. "Wh...what? I don't understand. If you pulled me up, then doesn't that mean I died?"
"No," Firestar mewed. "When we pull a spirit into StarClan, it is not the same as a spirit ascending to StarClan. For example, before the Dark Forest uprising, medicine cats had their spirits pulled into StarClan on a regular basis—every half-moon, in fact."
Skypaw's eyes widened. "At the Moonpool?"
"Yes," Hollyleaf said. "And the medicine cats don't die, do they? But we have had to pull spirits into StarClan before, when they aren't at the Moonpool, which is somewhat more dangerous. When Jayfeather fell into the hollow as a kit, being chased by a fox cub, Spottedleaf had to swoop down while he fell and pull his spirit into StarClan before his body had a chance to die. Because his spirit was safe and protected in StarClan, he did not die, even though he fell a great height. We Healed him—Spottedleaf gave him star-water to drink, and he returned, alive."
Skypaw had heard the story, how Jayfeather, Lionblaze and Hollyleaf, as kits, had ventured out of the hollow and unearthed three fox cubs. The cubs had chased them through the forest, and Jayfeather had fallen over the edge of the hollow and nearly died.
"What about me?" Skypaw mewed. "Will I have the star-water?"
"No." Firestar shook his head. "Jayfeather was broken. The star-water Heals broken bones and spilled blood. But what we will do is banish the sickness from your body. We will fill you with energy. We will give you a life."
"Like...in the way that a Clan leader gets one?"
"More or less," Firestar shrugged.
Skypaw hesitated. "Does it...hurt?"
Yellowfang snorted. "Hurts much less than dying of greencough, that's for sure," she growled hoarsely.
"Hush!" Hollyleaf flicked her tail lightly against Yellowfang's flank. "Who will be the one to Heal her?" she asked, turning from Firestar to Branchpaw and then to Yellowfang again.
"But...can't you only get a life when you go to the Moonpool?" asked Skypaw, confused.
"When we Heal, a cat doesn't need to go to the Moonpool," said Hollyleaf. "Your belief in StarClan is strong, because you have been to us before. Strong enough for us to reach trough the damaged connection, to strip away your diseased life, and fill you with a new one."
Then Branchpaw stepped forward. "I'd be honoured, Hollyleaf, if I could be the one to Heal Skypaw," he mewed solemnly.
Skypaw glanced in surprise at the dark brown apprentice. He padded forward and rested his muzzle lightly upon Skypaw's forehead. She closed her eyes and waited for something to happen.
"With this life," she heard Branchpaw mew, "I give you courage. You will need it for what perils you must face in the future."
Then a curious thing began to happen. At the same time Skypaw felt a bolt of searing, almost painful, energy ravage her body, she felt something...else...leave her. The sensation was almost like exhaling after holding her breath for too long; only the release came out through every corner of her body, flooding out from her fur. As she felt the new life flood and settle into her, she felt lighter, stronger and surer of herself, and searing warmth flooded into her heart. The ability to do anything and everything, to face the Dark Forest, to fight a pack of a thousand dogs and a hundred badgers and all the Twolegs in the world.
Then Branchpaw stepped away, and he purred teasingly and asked, "Feeling better, Skypaw?"
Skypaw nodded. "I feel...fresher."
"Not surprised," grunted Yellowfang. "After a severe bout of greencough like the one you had."
"So...what exactly happened?" Skypaw glanced uncertainly at the StarClan cats, and then eventually just turned to Firestar, as he was the one who had had not one, but nine new lives placed within him. He'd know what it was like.
"Your diseased life, the one where you suffered with greencough, has left you now," Firestar said.
"So...I'm not sick anymore?"
"No. You are healthy and whole once more, and ready to serve your Clanmates." Firestar looked proud. "And all of StarClan congratulates you, Skypaw."
"You successfully foretold the coming of the greencough," Hollyleaf explained, and she waved her tail. "Though we grieve for the losses of ThunderClan warriors, we are proud that you have managed to save countless lives. All the cats that you saw in your vision would have died if you had not acted."
"But...but what about the cats who died?" Skypaw asked miserably. "I...I should have foretold it sooner."
"It could not have been done," sighed Firestar. "There would only have been fewer sprigs of catmint. Aura also knew this, which was why she decided to train you in the forest on that particular day to look into the future and see what was to come. That was when there would be enough catmint to save much of the Clan."
"Never before has greencough attacked the Clans at such a large scale," Branchpaw mewed. "Many cats have died from it. ThunderClan suffered particularly badly, because they are the largest Clan at the lake. All the Clans, however, have suffered. The ThunderClan cats who have died, and you blame their deaths upon, are now safe in StarClan, reunited with old friends and family. They have all made a promise to protect the Clan with their lives, to sacrifice their own if necessary, and their small sacrifice has saved the entire of their Clan."
Suddenly, Skypaw saw the mist around them part, and her eyes widened as she saw many cats walking towards her.
Cats whose pelts shimmered with frosted starlight.
Cats that she recognized and knew.
There were seven of them. Skypaw looked over each and every one of them as they drew near, their tails raised, their eyes bright, purring with joy. Icecloud's bright white pelt shone all the brighter. Mapleleaf's orange, shimmering fur glowed in the strange light of StarClan. Snowfoot's tail was raised high, his ears pricked forward. Whitewing walked beside Lilyflower, once again youthful and strong as she had been in her younger days. Her eyes were clear. Leafpool, her tabby and white fur shining, and her eyes glowing with love, stood proudly beside...
Skypaw felt grief flood her, and she bowed her head to him. "I'm sorry," she whispered hoarsely.
"There is no need," Bramblestar meowed, and Skypaw looked up. His voice was younger, no longer hoarse with age. His fur was no longer matted with scars, and was sleek and well-groomed. His muscles rippled beneath his pelt, lean and supple as they had been when he was younger. His voice was as warm as his golden eyes. "It was my time, anyway. Even if I survived the greencough, I would not have lingered for much longer upon the world anyway. I was old, Skypaw, very old; one of the last cats at the lake who remembered the old forest, who remembered Bluestar. I am glad that I am here now, with my mother and my sister and all my old friends. I am glad that I have come to StarClan as an honourable leader—and I know in my heart that Lionblaze will make a wonderful leader."
Of course. Lionblaze was ThunderClan's leader now!
"Our sacrifices were necessary for the Clan's survival," Leafpool meowed, "and I am glad that I died with the knowledge that my sons, after all this time, have forgiven me."
"And that Seednose survived with my death," Lilyflower added.
"Birchfall'll just have to survive without me for a little while," commented Whitewing, with a purr. "But we'll be reunited one day in StarClan. In the meantime, I've walked with my mother ever since I died." Then she grew anxious. "But...I have not found my father."
"We will keep searching," Snowfoot assured her. Skypaw remembered in a flash that he was Whitewing's brother. He turned to Skypaw. "Can you do one thing for me before you go back, Skypaw? Tell Hollythorn that I'll always love her, and that I'm so proud of our kits. The only thing I regret is not being around for them in the future when they grow. But I'll be watching them...to the best of StarClan's abilities, anyway. I have high hopes for all their futures."
Skypaw nodded. "I'll tell her, don't worry."
"Do the same for me, to Moleclaw...please?" Mapleleaf begged. "I wasn't strong enough to linger for my kits. But they can at least remember my love, and know that I will be watching over them, the best that I can. I'll watch Frostkit and Jaggedkit become warriors. Watch out for them..."
Skypaw felt sorrow clench her. "Yes, I will, I promise."
Icecloud flicked her tail. "I'm glad that I'm with Ferncloud and Dustpelt again," she purred, "and all my siblings. Hollykit, Larchkit, Shrewpaw and Spiderleg. We're a family again. Foxleap will be welcomed when, eventually, he comes to us. We'll be a whole family once more."
"And please..." Leafpool's eyes were round. "Tell Jayfeather that I'm so proud of him. He couldn't have been a better medicine cat. And Lionblaze, I'm just as proud. He will make a strong, powerful leader, even without his blessing."
"Now it is time for you to return," Branchpaw mewed. "But know that you are strong, Skypaw, strong to bear the Tigermark of Time. You will become a fine warrior, and know that we will always be watching over you."
He stepped back. "All of us."
Skypaw looked from him, into the green eyes of Firestar, to Hollyleaf and Yellowfang, then to all her old Clanmates, Bramblestar, Icecloud, Mapleleaf, Lilyflower, Leafpool, Snowfoot and Whitewing.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Everything grew bright and she felt herself fall, spinning back into the world of the living; stronger, Healed, and ready to protect her Clan. All the Clans. Ready to embrace her destiny.