Daughter of the Sun

Challenger

Chapter Seventeen
CHALLENGER


That night, Skypaw's dreams were tormented and dark.

She saw herself running, running through a black forest whose branches reached high, tangling in the ice-coloured sky. Long shadows fell over the forest floor, caked in a thick layer of sharp frost. Her fur was flattened in terror, and there was a strange emptiness inside of her, an emptiness that she hated, hated with every quivering hair on her pelt.

Despair dragged at her fur, and in terror she threw back her head and yowled.

"ThunderClan!" she shrieked. "ThunderClan!"

She skidded to a halt and spun around as that unmistakable sense of danger tugged at her. Her fur bristled; she felt the icy cold dig into her skin and into her paws, and she cried out as she felt something like tiny fangs digging into the undersides of her pads, so sharply that it drew blood. ThunderClan was nowhere to be seen, and she could hear a definite rumbling sounding nearby.

"Lionstar!" Skypaw called the name of her leader. A blast of icy wind slapped in the face in response. Frustrated and scared, she shook her head and cried other names. "Squirrelflight! Jayfeather! Aura! Where are you?"

They were nowhere. Skypaw took a step backward, wincing. The frost felt so painful underpaw; it pricked and rubbed at her pads until they were raw and bleeding and blistered, and she staggered awkwardly back in jagged, broken steps.

"Cinderheart! Moleclaw! Cherrypelt!"

They were gone. She was alone in the terrifying forest. Skypaw nearly shrieked her pain, almost unable to walk, her forepaws crumpling in on themselves. Skypaw heard something huge thundering towards her. The bear. It had to be the bear. She could see the gleaming redness in its bloodshot eyes and the harsh, rough breathing from its huge, shaggy body, felt the ground tremble beneath her useless paws. Skypaw gasped, trying to run, her fear giving her adrenalin, but she couldn't move. The icy frost was digging deeper into her paws. The ground was covered in flecks of crimson blood.

Desperately, Skypaw tried to use her abilities. But nothing...nothing happened, and with a sinking, dreaded feeling, she realized that she was absent of her power. It wasn't there...

How? How can it not be there?! The terrible thundering sound of the bear's approach grew solemnly louder. It's a part of me! It's a part of me! Skypaw felt her eyes widen and she cowered in a useless defense against the huge might of the bear as it bore down on her. Her forepaws were awkwardly twisting in on themselves and the pads were ripped, stinging and bleeding. It cannot have been an illusion! It must be real!

The frost grew so cold that Skypaw felt herself freeze to it...or maybe it was just her terror, paralyzing her to the spot. How could she run jaggedly away from the bear, who moved as fast as the wind in a storm? Then she saw it burst out before her, drool swinging from terrifying fangs. Without hesitation, it raced towards her, huge paws with the giant claws digging into the frost as though it were nothing. Skypaw stifled a terrified scream as they closed on her.

Her eyes flew open and she awoke with a scream. "No!"

Blindly in panic, she leapt to her feet, scrambling backwards in her haste to get away—from what, she didn't know. Something caught on the underside of her back paw and she fell, thrashing wildly, onto her side. Her paws wrestled with the air. "Leave me be!" she whimpered, her eyes stinging, her claws glinting.

She felt the ground tremble beneath her and she whirled around, her fur spiked and her eyes wide. Something brown was approaching her, eyes flashing. "Leave me alone!" Skypaw cried, springing backwards, cowering in terror. Fear raced through her blood, chilling her to the bone.

"Skypaw...?!"

"Don't touch me!" Skypaw yowled, lashing blindly out at the creature. It let out a cry and drew back as her claws slashed through its fur. "You'll never harm my Clan! Get away from me!"

"Skypaw, calm down! It's me!" But Skypaw barely heard it. The blood was pounding in her ears. She turned to run, but suddenly she was pressed up against the brambles. The barbs dug into her fur. She wildly tried to pull away but she couldn't, and she fell back, scrabbling, stifling a cry of fear, prepared to tear out her entire pelt if it meant fleeing.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw the thing approach and she hissed, though fear edged her voice and she flattened herself to the ground, sliding out her claws to their full extent, lashing and swiping wildly out at the creature again. Suddenly the brown thing lunged at her. Skypaw screamed as its paws pummelled her fur, pinning her down, pushing her head into the ground, her voice abruptly cut off as her jaws were clamped shut. Something warm and heavy firmly pressed against her body, its strength exceeding her own.

Stifling a whimper, which died in her throat anyway, Skypaw fell still, terrified.

"Skypaw." The voice was firm...and she began to recognize it...where had she heard it before? Why was it coming from above her? "Please. You're...you're mistaken. I'm not the bear. Just...just calm down, all right? You're scaring me."

Those three words, you're scaring me, suddenly made Skypaw confused. Why was it afraid of her?

Dust settled around her. She blinked a few times, her eyes growing accustomed to the darkness. She was in a den...more like a cave, laced with brambles here and there to make a sheltered place to rest. Bits of fern, moss and feathers were lying strewn over the ground. Something was breathing heavily just above her...and as it drew back its paws and very cautiously clambered off her, green eyes flashing nervousness and concern in the darkness, Skypaw looked up into its eyes...and recognized them.

"Lark...Larkflight?" she whispered hoarsely.

The eyes blinked, confirming, and relief trickled into the gaze. "I...you...are you all right?" he murmured, suddenly struggling for words.

A cat. He was a cat...he wasn't a bear, he wasn't something who was trying to kill her...Skypaw realized she was breathing quickly, her heart pounding in her throat and so loudly that she was sure Lionstar could hear it in his den. The blood rushed through her and set her senses alive and frenzied. Her fur was snagged on several brambles. Her claws were unsheathed, the sharp tips digging lightly into the earth.

Carefully she tried to control her breathing, tried to push away the sense of terror that she had felt. Skypaw slid her claws back in—but not before noticing a tuft of mottled brown fur on the ends of them. Her eyes flew wide with horror and she gasped. "Oh no! Larkflight! I...I didn't...I couldn't have...I...I thought you were..."

He was beside her at once—what was he doing? Then, most confusingly, he curled up against her, firmly pressing his body against hers, burrowing his muzzle into her cheek. "Shh," he soothed, his voice low and quiet and sure. "It's okay, Skypaw...it's okay."

The way he said it...the gentle, concerned way he said it...made Skypaw feel calmer. Very shakily, she sighed, forcing her trembling body to stiffen and become still. Larkflight drew away, now concerned.

"You didn't strike me badly," he told her, by means of comfort. "I got away just in time...but I thought you were going to kill me, to be honest..." There was a trace of wariness in his voice now, which made Skypaw feel sick inside. "Your eyes...they...they looked so unnatural...so unlike you."

Larkflight sounded scared and frightened now. "I've never seen you like that before, Skypaw, never. Not even in the battle with ShadowClan...great StarClan, that feels as though it's been seasons since it happened. And you...you scared me, because you were so scared..."

"I..." Skypaw's voice choked, and she whispered, "I'm so sorry, Larkflight..." She was trembling again. "Forgive me..."

"There is nothing to forgive," Larkflight said quietly, his ears flattened but his eyes wide with distress. "Here..." With a half-hearted attempt at humour, he leaned forward, slowly, carefully, surely, with a paw. "Let's try and untangle you."

Skypaw sat where she was, mutely as Owlkit, and let Larkflight quietly work to untangle the clumps of fur that were caught on the brambles. Within a few moments, he stepped away. Skypaw shakily pushed herself to her paws. She could still feel echoes of that nameless terror that had gripped her...what had it been? It couldn't have been a dream...no dream had been like that, never...

That emptiness...oh, StarClan, that emptiness...Skypaw stiffened. Was it still here? Then she relaxed slightly. No, the emptiness wasn't present. Her powers were still here. She could feel them pulsing in her alongside her heart. Shivering, she closed her eyes, trying to find that soothing presence of her abilities, something that she had never quite noticed before until the two weeks she had spent training to become harmonious with it.

"Skypaw..." Larkflight's concerned voice brought her back. Skypaw's eyes opened and she lifted her head to look into his agitated face. "Are you okay?"

Skypaw slowly breathed out. "I...I'm okay now, thank you."

She felt her voice break, but she swallowed and murmured, "I...I don't know what came over me...I couldn't even recognize you, Larkflight...I thought...I thought..."

"I know what you thought," said Larkflight, gently. "But you're safe now. You'll always be safe in ThunderClan."

"They...they haven't gone, then?"

"They never were." Larkflight lightly pressed his nose against Skypaw's cheek. "See? I'm still here, aren't I?"

Skypaw purred softly, and she pushed her body against his, suddenly desperate for his soothing warmth. Larkflight willingly returned it, to her relief. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For waking me from my...nightmare."

Yes. That was what it had been, Skypaw realized. Just a nightmare.

"It...it must've been some nightmare," mused Larkflight softly. He stepped back, eyes glittering with concern, but it was softening, into an expression of relief and genuine friendliness. "Do you know what it was about?"

Skypaw slowly shook her head. "Not...really. It was a nightmare, though. There was a lot of frost, though," she added. Half a heartbeat later, she wondered why she had said that at all.

"Frost?" echoed Larkflight, perplexed. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Skypaw blinked once, and then shrugged. "I'm...not sure." She sat down and tucked her tail tightly around and over her paws. "But the frost was oddly sharp." She lifted one forepaw and turned it over. The pad was whole and unblemished in any way. "The frost cut my paws and made them bleed. I couldn't walk."

Larkflight was concerned again. He sat down opposite her. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"I am now," Skypaw assured him, slowly exhaling as she put her forepaw down. "It's all right. You don't need to be worried for me." She was quickly remembering what was happening around her, who she was, what she contained and what was going to happen in a few short hours, and her composure just as quickly returned to her. "It was just a nightmare."

There was a pause, in which Larkflight said nothing. Then, Skypaw mewed, brooding now, "But it was a very odd nightmare. I was calling and calling for ThunderClan but they wouldn't answer. I was running through the forest...it looked eerie and empty and caked in this thick layer of sharp frost. My pawsteps grew really broken and jagged when I tried to move, and I couldn't run. Then the bear leapt at me and..." She shivered. "I woke up and I thought I was still in danger. I mistook you for an enemy. I made an error." Sheepishly she bowed her head.

But Larkflight was thoughtful.

After a moment, he commented, "Skypaw...what did you describe your running to be?"

Skypaw blinked, surprised at the question. But an odd feeling of sureness—and one she knew well now—settled in her heart and she found herself responding, "Jagged. Broken."

"Jagged...frost..." Larkflight's eyes widened. "Skypaw, I think the dream..."

She quickly understood his thoughts, and shock kicked her in the belly. "Frostkit and Jaggedkit?"

Larkflight nodded. "Even though they should be 'paws by now..."

"They pretty much are. They take their duties so seriously, even though all they've done is clean out dens and bring food to the elders." Skypaw flicked her ears forward. "But I think you're right, Larkflight. The nightmare...but what could it possibly have anything to do with them?"

Larkflight shrugged. "I'm not a medicine cat."

"I don't think Jayfeather would know the answer."

"Maybe Aura might..."

"Yes. Maybe."

There was another pause, in which Skypaw nervously exhaled and mewed quietly, "But we'll find out today, anyway." It was early predawn outside; the air brought the faintest trace of the sun's warmth and soon the Clan would be stirring.

"Yes," said Larkflight quietly. "We will."

There was another long silence, and then Larkflight mewed conversationally, but slightly sheepishly as well, "I was awake when I heard you yowling in the apprentices' den. I came to you at a run...I thought you were being attacked or something..."

Skypaw glanced at Larkflight. Suddenly she remembered what Ferndust had told her...great StarClan, she had told her that after Larkflight's warrior ceremony...a moon ago. Larkflight had been a warrior for a moon now, and...

Skypaw stared at the mottled brown warrior, and realized just how much he had changed since the last time she had really looked at him, since the last time he had stood in the apprentices' cave, from when she had seen him in her rekindled memory of early kithood. He was full-grown now, his mottled fur sleek over his shoulders, his whiskers long and even, legs slim and strong, body toned with strength and agility gained over the six moons of training he had received from his mentor. There was a sense of maturity and wisdom in his eyes that she had not seen in the same apprentice who had welcomed her into the apprentices' cave for the first time.

Larkflight had grown up, she realized fully for the first time.

And she remembered that Ferndust had told him that Larkflight...liked her?

Shyly she looked away, self-conscious. She shouldn't be thinking of that kind of thing now. Nearby Larkflight shuffled his paws, and she guessed that he had perhaps been thinking something equally as sensitive.

After a moment, she heard him mew, "Skypaw?"

"Yes?"

"..."

Skypaw looked back at him. "What is it?"

Larkflight flicked his tailtip, on the verge of speech, and Skypaw softly purred to herself. She knew his humility very well by now, and he was always a little quiet and short of speech around her nowadays, so she was used to it. But eventually the young warrior said, "I...I don't know what to make of you anymore."

The words were so unexpected that Skypaw was completely taken off guard, and she flicked her ears forward, startled. Larkflight looked up, read her expression in barely a heartbeat, and stammered quickly, "It wasn't meant like that! It's just...it's just...I...you're great, Skypaw, you've always been great! I've known you since you were a kit and for moons as an apprentice but..." Abruptly, he trailed off.

And Skypaw suddenly understood. She opened her mouth to speak but Larkflight, just as suddenly, went on.

"It's what's happened over the past two weeks, Skypaw! When you first walked out of the camp, two weeks ago, with Cherrypelt and Aura, ready to begin that special training to fight the bear, you were the same Skypaw. I watched you leave the camp and I was proud of you."

Larkflight was probably going hot under his fur, but he went on nonetheless; quicker, though, as though hurrying to get it over with. "And we were all excited, and ready and eager, even, to start constructing The Bear Trap and prepare ourselves for the leaf-bare and the bear. But...when you came back that night, you...you..."

"I had changed," Skypaw murmured.

Larkflight nodded, very slowly, and his voice became uncertain and awkward. "And then...it didn't pass. You didn't go back to your old self. You came back each night after that...different, and I didn't know how to treat you. I didn't know what to say to you...I could see in your eyes that you had seen things, seen things far beyond my understanding...and then you came and spoke to the Clan last night and...it wasn't you, Skypaw. It felt..."

He hesitated, struggling for words. "It felt as though Aura was speaking to us. You know? You can understand, right? Her...her..."

"Wisdom," Skypaw offered quietly.

Larkflight fell moodily silent, and Skypaw mewed, "You didn't see me as Skypaw anymore, did you? You saw some other cat standing in my place, speaking through me. Yesterday you saw a Clanmate who had aged many moons in the matter of a few sunrises."

Larkflight lowered his eyes, as though ashamed.

Skypaw felt hurt...not at what Larkflight had said. He wasn't being hurtful...but she was hurt at the torn way he felt. His pain was hers, and she felt responsible. She rose to her paws and approached him. Then, very tenderly, she pressed her muzzle against her cheek.

"I am Skypaw," she murmured to him as she drew away, and his eyes turned to meet hers. "See? I am still me. Yes, I have changed...but we all change, in the end, don't we?"

She let out a small purr. "Do you remember the way we were kits, Larkflight?" The memory of the leaf-bare quiz appeared in her mind. "You and I and your sister and brothers, we grew up together. I was Skypaw then, with a different name. Then I became an apprentice. I was Skypaw then, too. Now we're about to do something that's never happened before in the history of the Clans. I am still Skypaw. But I...I have grown up, two moons early. Not in body, but in mind."

Larkflight shyly looked away.

"I'm sorry," he mewed, sounding embarrassed.

Skypaw drew back. "For what?"

Larkflight shrugged.

"I didn't quite realize..." His voice trailed off.

Skypaw gazed at him, waiting until he lifted his eyes again, before she replied, "Nor did I."

"About what?"

"About many things."

Larkflight caught on; his eyes grew bright and warm, and though his tailtip kept twitching with obvious discomfort, he mewed, "You...you do realize how much you mean to me, don't you? As a friend, of course," he added, very quickly.

Skypaw purred. "Of course I know this. You're a good friend, Larkflight."

"Th-thanks. You're a good friend, too."

"And I also know how much I mean to you," Skypaw added, as she rose to her four paws.

Larkflight looked both stunned and joyful. "You do?"

"Yes." Skypaw looked sympathetically at her Clanmate. "But please...whatever it is that you have to say...save it. We will have time, I promise, but for now...now, we must ready ourselves, for the fight."

Larkflight looked momentarily downcast, but he recovered himself, seeing the sense in her words. He rose to his paws. "I'm with you," he promised somberly.

Skypaw's voice was warm. "I know."


When the dawn came, Skypaw emerged into the camp to find that the whole clearing was a mass of anticipation. A variety of cats, some bleary-eyed, others restlessly pacing, and a few looking just plain terrified, were waiting in the clearing. Lionstar was already awake, and she saw that he was already speaking to Jayfeather, Dovewing and Aura at the foot of Highledge. She hurried over to them.

They glanced at her and nodded their greetings.

"We're ready," said Lionstar, "when you are."

Skypaw nodded. "Yes."

"Where is the bear now?" Aura asked.

Skypaw glanced in surprise at her would-be mentor, but perhaps sensing her confusion, Aura mewed, "The best way to learn is by doing, Skypaw. You know how; now all that remains is to practice. Do not look to me for aid; you have been greatly blessed with Time, more so than I."

Skypaw nodded meekly in submission. She cast her senses out, grasped Time, and searched the future. She was starting to grow a little more consistent in finding out what was to happen in the times to come, and she only had to concentrate and focus for a few moments before a shaky image played itself before her eyes. The bear was climbing a steep slope. At the top it paused, breathing heavily, and gazed down upon a broad lake; half of its shore and surrounding hills were covered by a mixture of forest, and the other half was windy, open, marshy and damp.

"It's here," she said, startled at her certainty. "We must be there to meet it."

Dovewing looked anxious. "Are you sure you're ready for this, Skypaw?"

"Yes, Mother. I am."

Jayfeather flicked his tailtip once. "She should be."

Skypaw, for the first time, noticed that his blue eyes were troubled. "What is it?"

Jayfeather scowled.

"I've felt it leave me, over the past two weeks," he said. "It must have been something to do with your training now...but..."

Lionstar's eyes widened in shock. "You can't sense others' thoughts anymore?"

"Or walk in dreams." Jayfeather flattened his ears. "But I guess that I should have expected this day to come."

Dovewing frowned. "What does that mean?"

"It means that Skypaw's abilities in Time have grown so much that the echoes of Jayfeather's powers have now completely faded," said Aura, sympathetically. "One day, Dovewing, Lionstar, the echoes of your powers will fade as well, and you will become just as mortal as the next cat here."

Skypaw glanced uncertainly at her mother. What would she say to this?

But to her complete surprise, Dovewing let out a relieved purr.

"I will be glad of it when the time comes," she said. "Being one of the Three is not as easy as it seems to others, and I will look forward to the time when I can just be...just be normal again."

Lionstar nodded. "I think my power must have left me long ago. My body isn't quite as willing to go into battle nowadays. It must be age or something catching up to me, or my body finally accepting that I am no longer invulnerable."

Part of Skypaw was perplexed at their calm and ready acceptance, but another part of her also understood. Though she relished her powers, how she had met the Four, and been gifted with such trust and ability, it was wearisome to think of how many depended on her. She was only an apprentice after all, and beyond her lay a life of service, not just to the lands of living, but also to the lands of dead and the very balance of mortality.

Divided, we fall. United, we stand, and we remain. And that means all the Clans must come again. Darkness, air, water, sky and branch must all come together to survive. Forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun, the sky paths will be opened, and walked by the sky borne moon, to bring back the lost to the glow of the stars. The skies will be torn, and the star's light ripped from the earth. This is how it must be, for the sake of the Clans to survive.

"How do we begin?" Dovewing asked.

Skypaw stepped back. "I will lead the selected warriors to The Bear Trap," she told her. "You must stay here, and protect the Clan, in case The Bear Trap will not work as it is meant to, and the bear is led to the camp."

Lionstar looked grim at this prospect, but nodded. "Of course. Take who you need; we trust you, Skypaw."

Skypaw tried not to feel a prick of discomfort at this; what if she failed?

No! As a tiger of Time she must not think of doubt. She must think with certainty. She forced her doubt away and strode forward into the centre of the clearing, Aura padding alongside her.

Skypaw's gaze drifted to the nursery as she heard the brambles rustle at the entrance. Moleclaw was just emerging, having seen her, and he watched her with solemn, vaguely frightened eyes. But he came up to her and checked, "We are going?"

Skypaw nodded. Moleclaw would be one of the activators of The Bear Trap.

The brambles rustled again and suddenly Frostkit and Jaggedkit tumbled out from the nursery after their father. Skypaw paused, staring at the kits. She could hardly believe that they had grown up so quickly.

"Please, let us come too!" Frostkit insisted.

"We can help!" Jaggedkit added firmly.

Moleclaw shook his head. "You cannot come with me, little ones," he told his son and daughter regretfully. "Stay here and help protect the hollow."

"We're not your little ones anymore!" Frostkit said ferociously, lashing her tail. Her eyes flared with anger. "We are six moons old. We should have been made apprentices a quarter moon ago. Let us help!"

"In my eyes, you are apprentices, regardless of name," Moleclaw told her. "That is why you need to stay here and protect your younger denmates."

As though on cue, four littler kits suddenly emerged from the nursery, blinking wide eyes. Skypaw's attention drifted to them. How old were they now? Three moons...great StarClan, they grow too fast. Her attention, in particular, drifted to Owlkit. She had not uttered a single sound in all her life, though she was growing up fast and becoming beautiful and strong. Though she couldn't speak, there was a longing and ferocity in her eyes that told Skypaw that if she could, Owlkit would. What intrigued Skypaw was the fact that her littermates always seemed to understand her perfectly. Sibling instinct? Maybe...

"Will you tell us about the bear?" squeaked Clawkit excitedly.

"I won't let any old bear scare me!" Graykit declared, lashing his tail.

"Or me!" Ravenkit added.

"Hush, little ones, and stay here," Moleclaw told them, a firm note audible in his voice. He turned away from his own kits and fell into step alongside Skypaw.

But Skypaw couldn't help but remember the conversation between her and Larkflight that morning, about her dream...about the kits, in particular, how Larkflight thought that they had played some part in her nightmare...

Larkflight!

Skypaw glanced around as though she had called the name aloud and had heard her own name being called as a result. There he was; standing just outside the warriors' den alongside a mass of other warriors, close to his brothers' sides. Dustfoot and Whiteblaze looked somber; their sister was involved in the facing of the bear, and the three pressed against each other for companionship.

They caught gazes, and Skypaw gave them a single nod. Dustfoot returned the gesture; Whiteblaze had a new light of respect in his gaze; Larkflight's eyes filled with hope and he wished her luck.

Then Skypaw turned to the front. Standing before her was the small army of cats, who were preparing to face the bear. At her side was Moleclaw; gathered before her were Flamefur, Yellownose, Hazeltail and Berrynose. Patchwhisker, Dewclaw and Foxleap stood quietly nearby.

Cinderheart and Bumblestripe materialized out of nowhere. They were staying behind to guard the camp with their mates.

"Remember what you have to do, and do it well," said Cinderheart, speaking more to the warriors than to Skypaw and Aura. Then she turned her gaze to Skypaw and added, "Good luck. I hope that you don't need it."

"I'll leave it to Fate," Skypaw replied.

Cinderheart frowned. "Then let's hope that Fate is kind," she mewed as she moved away.

Bumblestripe glanced at his daughter, then went up to her and entwined his tail with hers. Skypaw leaned against him, grateful for his support. "Stay safe," he murmured to her, before he too disappeared.

Lastly, Cherrypelt approached her apprentice, and gave Skypaw one long look, filled with thoughtfulness and awe. Then she said, "I know that you won't fail us, Skypaw. I know that you won't allow it. But I am proud that you are my apprentice, and I hope that should the time come for combat, then you will not forget what I have taught you."

Skypaw purred. "Thank you, Cherrypelt. I won't let you down."

Cherrypelt briefly touched muzzles with her apprentice. "Look after Stormbreeze for me." She went and whispered something in her mate's ear, and he gave her a friendly flick with his tail. The ginger she-cat stepped back.

Skypaw turned to Aura. "The camp will be safe, right?"

"As safe as I can make it," Aura promised. "But I have been weighing the odds of success for quite a long time now, and I must say the odds are tipping in your favour. Destiny is smiling on you today, Skypaw; She will not allow you to fail, I don't think."

"I'm not sure whether to feel comforted or offended by that statement."

"Then feel neither emotion. Do it in the name of StarClan if you can't do it in the name of the Four."


Skypaw, her heart pounding in her chest, led the way up towards The Bear Trap, where the creature would be approaching. They had to move quickly; they raced over the frost-coated forest, wincing at the icy rawness that stung at their pads.

But the cats felt no cold, only fear and warmth; they pressed against each other for kinship. Runningleap, the fastest cat, raced on ahead; he alone seemed to be the least fearless, even though he would be the one facing the bear up close as one of the runners; though then again, no cat could beat Runningleap in speed and agility. At her side were the cats who Skypaw, so long ago, had accompanied to the north borders in a patrol, the patrol that had first found Aura and brought her back to the camp; Ferndust, Amberheart and Toadstep. Lionstar was absent and he remained in the camp, but Skypaw could almost picture the memories as reality again, though the forest had changed hugely since that day and leaf-bare had settled into the world.

"You nervous?" murmured Amberheart.

Skypaw nodded. "You?"

"Yeah..." Amberheart lowered her eyes. "I shouldn't be, should I?"

"It is fine to feel fear, but don't let it distract you. You know what you have to do."

"Yes. I do."

Stormbreeze ran determinedly alongside Ferndust. "I won't let the bear frighten me, no matter what it looks like," she mewed, though Skypaw could see anticipation glimmering in the young warrior's eyes.

It is a truly frightening creature, Skypaw thought, wishing that she could give the warriors of ThunderClan some kind of visual forewarning before they faced it; the sight of it alone might drive them into hysteria.

They ran on until at last they came to a halt at the place. Skypaw stopped the large group of cats, breathless from the run. She checked the bear's location, and her Tigermark informed her that they were only a few short moments before everything had to fall into place, before the bear arrived and found them.

Skypaw spun around. "Trappers, go and get into position."

They melted into the skeletal forest like spirits. A moment later Skypaw heard the sound of claws on bark as they pulled themselves into the trees, the rustle of branches as they slipped into bushes massed of brittle twigs; readying themselves for the greatest feat in ThunderClan history.

Skypaw turned to the cats—the runners, who would face the bear and lead it to the Trap. Stormbreeze, Ferndust, Amberheart, Runningleap and Toadstep looked back at her with expressionless gazes.

"We must get into positions," Skypaw told them. Seeing their hesitation, she added, "Have faith. If we succeed at this, the other Clans will look at ThunderClan with a new level of respect. If we succeed, then our own Clan is safe."

"Skypaw..." Toadstep flicked his tail. "I've lived for many long seasons, but not once have I been tasked to face something like this. Do you honestly think that we can succeed against a creature that you describe to be something out of a nightmare?"

Skypaw turned to the black-and-white warrior, appreciating his outright honesty. "Of course," she said. "This is not the first time that ThunderClan has been faced with impossible trials. Firestar and Sandstorm, on their journey long ago, when they went to find the forgotten Clan, SkyClan; they had to rebuild it from nothing, and now the fifth Clan thrives far away thanks to their courage and determination. Brambleclaw and Squirrelflight; they joined with four other cats from the Clans and journeyed far away to search for Midnight—who was a badger, of all creatures—and then they led the Clans to a new home, journeying through territories that never before had been trodden by Clan cats."

She could see that her words were starting to have effect on the warriors, and heartened herself, she continued. "When the badgers attacked ThunderClan, nearly destroying them, they—we—fought back. We defended ourselves against them, and we succeeded—with the deaths of two, the lives of many were preserved. When sickness overwhelmed the Clans, many times, we fought back and we survived. Because that was what we were born to do, what we are meant to do; survive and live, to overcome all the challenges that we are meant to face as one."

We are Fate. We are Change. We are Destiny. We are Time. We are One.

It was then she heard a distant rumble, a muted footstep, a deep, throaty gasp of breath. Skypaw jerked her attention over the heads of the warriors. The bear was approaching, and suddenly they all whirled around, their momentary courage seemingly forgotten as reality slammed full-force back into them.

"Get into positions," Skypaw told them crisply, feeling her fur rising along her spine.

A breeze rattled the branches, blowing into Skypaw's face; a dreadful scent filled her scent glands and it was all she could do not to gag at the foul smell. She couldn't describe it, other than the fact that it was truly awful. "Go. Go now!" she choked.

The warriors were away at the command, hurrying into their places, climbing up into the trees, leaving Skypaw alone in the frost-coated clearing.

She waited until the smell grew so overpowering that she could hardly breathe. She heard snorting and growling, and husky intakes of air nearby. Then, when she sensed that it was almost on top of her, she turned around—only to feel the bottom of her stomach drop out.

It was the bear. The creature from her visions, from her nightmares.

So caught up in its terrifying appearance was Skypaw that she almost forgot what she was meant to do, her two weeks of intensive training in all skills for nothing. It was every bit as she had seen in her vision. Huge body covered with a massive shaggy pelt which no claws would ever pierce. Reddish bloodshot eyes in an enormous head, glaring straight at her. Foam and drool swung from its lips and enormous maw, where gigantic teeth protruded from its gums, teeth that could slash a cat into tiny pieces within seconds. Frightfully long claws were on each of its feet.

The bear rose onto its hind legs, towering as high as the trees, and let out a bellowing, earth-shaking roar that made Skypaw flatten her ears to her head in terror.

But as the sound jolted her senses, it jolted her out of her momentary terror; she remembered who she was, what she had to do. The bear dropped down onto its forepaws again and snarled a hoarse, guttural growl that made the ground tremble beneath Skypaw's paws. She flicked her ears forward, forcing her breathing to slow, forcing herself to calm and reflecting what she had to do. A single thought flooded through her mind.

For ThunderClan.

The bear roared and Skypaw yowled a wordless shriek, amazed at how frightening her own voice sounded. She charged; the bear looked perplexed for an instant, perhaps trying to figure out why something as small as she was even attempting to face something as huge and as reckless as itself.

But Skypaw, certainty now filling every tiny hair on her body, brought forward Time Manipulation. She felt the change spawn around her and the world slowed down. Closing her eyes, relishing the feel of the manipulation, she saw the bear's movements slow right down until it barely seemed to be moving at all. Its huge head was swinging ever so gradually through the frozen air.

Skypaw pushed herself off the ground, feeling herself swim gracefully through the air. Frozen currents of Time shifted gently around her. She lashed out at the bear's face, and as her claws touched flesh, she pushed down hard and tore, through the surprisingly thick skin.

But suddenly, unexpectedly, Time broke, and Skypaw felt the world abruptly speed up around her. There was an earthshaking roar in her ears and then Skypaw was falling, crumpling, stunned, onto the ground, feeling surprisingly drained. Rising to her feet, she saw the huge shadow of the bear above her, its jaws parted, roaring yet again. Skypaw's ears flattened when she saw exactly how large the bear's mouth exactly was. It could swallow me whole!

She danced out of the way of a crushing paw blow, landing a safe distance away from the bear. It was facing her, red eyes blazing like flame in its fury. Skypaw breathed hard, her lungs aching and her mind reeling. She had trained to use Manipulation but she hadn't quite used it like this before, in such ferocious combat.

The dizziness soon passed as a wave of adrenalin shot through Skypaw. The bear lunged again. She froze Time around her again, enough for her to dance quickly out of the way of a blow that otherwise would have torn her body in two; those claws looked awfully sharp. As Time resumed, the bear spun around; it definitely had a perplexed expression in its eyes now. Skypaw felt her cyan stripes fade away. She flattened her ears and hissed tauntingly at the bear, feeling a trickle of courage finally work its way beneath her disbelief and terror.

The courage was short-lived. The bear rose up onto its hind paws. Skypaw was once again struck exactly how huge this creature was.

And she felt the bottom, again, drop out from her stomach.

Gasping, suddenly terrified, she scrambled backwards, wincing involuntarily as the icy frost dug into her paws, cracking the pads. She had almost forgotten how cold it was; and it also stirred up some nostalgic memories of being born in similar weather. The bear dropped heavily down onto its forepaws again, but Skypaw knew that she was tiring quickly; this bear may have been scratched in the muzzle but it was nothing compared to the bulk of its body. Its face was lined with thick, shaggy fur; the only unarmoured parts of its body were its eyes and nose, and the small amount of exposed skin surrounding.

Near impossible to hit...for an ordinary warrior.

"Warriors!" Skypaw called.

She heard the branches and bushes rustle nearby as they charged, every one of them. The bear spun around, slightly startled, but its disbelief quickly gave way to sheer rage as it prepared to face its smaller opponents. Skypaw watched as each ThunderClan warrior took up positions around the bear and prepared to fight. But she also saw the blatant terror in each of their eyes. They hadn't been expecting such a monstrosity before, and they were undeniably shocked and afraid.

But desperation gave way to determination.

Determination gave way to perseverance in what they believed was right.

It was this that Skypaw yowled a rallying cry, and the cats, though they were visibly trembling in the wake of such a vast creature, yowled the cry as well.

"For ThunderClan!"

The bear responded with a bellowing roar of its own, a roar so thunderous and loud that several shocked flocks of birds took flight from the trees and up into the bleak, pale sky above. Stormbreeze cowered, whimpering; Ferndust hissed, but her ears were flat and her eyes dilated; Toadstep lashed his tail, but uncertainty edged his every movement; Runningleap fidgeted on the spot, looking as though he wanted to run all the way back to the hollow; Amberheart quietly whispered for StarClan to preserve them.

Then the bear charged. A sweeping paw thrust was extended towards Stormbreeze, and Skypaw felt her breath catch in her throat as she saw the huge claws slash through the air.

But suddenly Stormbreeze dropped so low onto her belly that the claws passed harmlessly over her head. Her momentary paralytic terror had faded and determination hardened her gaze. Angrily the bear grunted.

As Skypaw charged again, her energy restored, Amberheart let out a deafening caterwaul, attracting the bear's attention. The bear swung its head around and Amberheart quickly sprang to one side, forcing the bear to turn further, exposing one side of its head completely to Skypaw. Taking a deep breath, Skypaw leapt, and as she did so, called on Time Manipulation.

Time slowed down and Skypaw, concentrating with all her might, lashed out with claws extended. Her claws found marks around and below the bear's eye, some scratches going deep enough to draw blood. But then Time broke and she swerved abruptly to the side, dropping into a crouch and bounding away as the bear whirled around, shrieking with rage, and huge teeth closed inches from her retreating tail. Skypaw felt breathless again, though she noted not as much as before.

Inwardly she cursed; Time didn't hold long enough for her to aim properly; or maybe her fear and dizziness was starting to affect her judgement and accuracy. Skypaw whirled around, momentarily fearing for the warriors.

But Amberheart had swerved to one side, and Ferndust had taken her place. With skilled movements, and an apparent fearlessness completely outmatched by sheer determination and willpower, she wove even amongst the bear's legs and safely leapt to the side as the bear spun around, claws slicing the air—fortunately not into Ferndust. Massive jaws clamped shut on the cold frosty air, though the bite was close, and the shock was enough to make Ferndust stagger, breathless. The bear lunged, but then drew back as a very dark gray, almost black tomcat shot past with the speed of lightning shot beneath its slightly-impaired vision, further confusing and frustrating it.

The bear clumsily began to lumber after Runningleap but the tom was fast, as his name acutely suggested. But the speed of the bear, being such a huge creature, evidently startled the tom. Runningleap took one look over his shoulder, saw the bear a few short inches from his tail and panicked, swerving abruptly and trying to make for a tree.

Then Toadstep was there, leaping clean over Runningleap's back as he passed beneath him, spitting in the bear's face as he passed by its maw. The bear whirled around, jaws closing worryingly close to the tom's flank, but Toadstep seemed unnerved by it; either that, or it was just stony resolve. He ran close to the bear but away from its claws, forcing the bear to spin around, huge paws fighting for grip on the frost-encrusted ground.

Ferndust ran alongside her old mentor, and as Toadstep fell back, she took over, taking long, confident strides, starting to match him in his determination. The bear, starting to grow slightly breathless and dizzy from running in circles, turned to face her. Ferndust prepared to leap out of the way—and gasped as her paw suddenly snagged on a root, half-concealed beneath a thick layer of frost. She stumbled, crying out as her foot twisted beneath her. With a savage snarl, the bear prepared to close its jaws on Ferndust's back.

But Skypaw was running. A bolt of adrenalin coursed through her; she had to get this right, for Ferndust's sake. There was no room for mistake now. She leapt, calling on Time Manipulation, straining to reach the bear as the currents became solid-ish and gray. Her claws were extended to their fullest length. The bear was still leaning forward, but everything seemed to have frozen in place.

Skypaw concentrated, fear for Ferndust giving her strength. The bear's huge face loomed in front of her. She slashed with her claws, and couldn't resist a gasp of satisfaction as she felt her claws finally tear through the repulsively soft eye of the creature. A gush of blood exploded from the tips of her claws.

Skypaw let Manipulation break and she landed, winded, her head reeling; but the blow had been enough. The bear let out a shriek of pure agony and drew its head back, one massive, clumsy paw pressed and rubbing uncomfortably against its face. Her dizziness clearing rapidly, Skypaw gave Ferndust a hard shove on the flank; the silver tabby had crouched wordlessly throughout the whole affair, mainly out of the shock of nearly being bitten clean in two, though she recovered her senses at Skypaw's touch. The two she-cats quickly sprinted into momentary safety as the bear, howling, staggered blindly backwards, shaking its huge head and sniffling and snorting in its pain.

"We can't keep this up for much longer!" Amberheart gasped. "My muscles are screaming!"

"The bear's half-blinded!" Skypaw called to her Clanmate. "We have a fighting chance! Remember your training!"

"Of course I remember my training!" Toadstep retorted. "Cloudtail showed me a few of Brightheart's tricks when I was his apprentice!"

Skypaw glanced at the black-and-white tom and saw, to her amazement and joy, that fear was gone from Toadstep's expression; what remained were focus, tactful thought, memory and sheer willpower. She recognized that expression; it was one that the warriors of ShadowClan and ThunderClan alike had worn when they had fought together, in a battle that felt like a lifetime ago, down by the shore.

Toadstep had been with her, Skypaw vaguely remembered.

As she caught her breath, summoning strength for another attack, she watched as the warriors, heartened by her victory against the bear, now faced and lunged, feinted and taunted the injured monster, using the new blind side to their advantage. Skypaw knew their intentions; they worked to make the bear into a blind rage, so angry that it would follow them without hesitation, straight into the Trap.

It was working. The bear's roars grew shrill with wordless fury. It swiped and lashed and lunged but it couldn't strike the nimble, light-footed cats whose training in the two weeks of warning gave them great advantage. One by one, the other warriors began to lose their fear. Amberheart was even bold enough to race right underneath the bear, and emerge at the other end, making the bear spin around in complete confusion. Runningleap overtook her, running so quickly around the bear that it almost slipped in its angry turn.

Frost whirled up from the paws of the beast, and Skypaw became aware of how much her own ached. The frost, she finally noticed for the first time, was starting to affect the movement of the other warriors. They moved fast as the wind when confronted directly with a very large, angry bear; but to one side, they crouched, wincing, licking furiously at their paws, which were swelling and cracked from the frost.

Skypaw knew that they had to end this.

With a sharp, commanding yowl, she ordered the warriors to fall back and head for the trees. As they retreated, she ran forward. The bear faced her with a furious roar and lunged. If Skypaw hadn't had Time on her side, she most certainly would have been killed. But she called Time Manipulation on at the last moment, and foresight granting her the favour of a good route around, she dodged the attack with ease, flipped around in her escape, and slashed her claws savagely over the bear's still-adjacent lips. Flesh tore beneath her. As she dropped back down onto the biting frost, turned tail and fled after the warriors, the bear snarled its stinging pain.

Then it gave chase.

Skypaw didn't dare look behind her; she was frightened of how fast an enraged bear like that could run. But she rapidly started to feel the ground shake and tremble violently beneath her. She heard its grunting breaths grow louder and louder. The trees shot past her.

Now running for her life, Skypaw's eyes searched frantically for The Bear Trap. Where was it? Had she run in the wrong direction?

Then she heard a yowl of, "Skypaw! Climb!" Skypaw glanced sideways in time to suddenly see Runningleap explode from the shelter of a nearby tree, leaping lightly onto the ground and overtaking her in a flourish, throwing an insult at the bear as he passed it. It stumbled and whirled around, let out a furious bellow, and abruptly turned to lumber with frightful speed behind the lithe warrior.

Breathlessly Skypaw turned towards the nearest tree, hooked her claws into the bark and scrabbled up with surprising speed. Her muscles were screaming with protest when she finally crept onto a branch, completely exhausted. Skypaw was grateful for all the extra hours of battle training that she had had with Cherrypelt and Aura. It had strengthened her body to above average for her age in the past half moon. She rapidly began to catch her breath.

She watched as far below, Runningleap spun around and began to race back the way he had come. The bear, with speed that almost knocked Skypaw breathless all over again, raced behind him.

Fear shot through Skypaw, as an image of the bear catching Runningleap and ripping him apart suddenly flooded every corner of her mind. Whether it was what might come if she didn't help him, or if it was just a frightened figment of her imagination, she didn't want to find out. Her weariness vanishing in an instant, she began to run behind him; not on the ground, but over the branches like a squirrel.

A good, jutting branch nearby was able to be leapt to from her current vantage point. Skypaw wasn't Thrushsong, who moved with envious grace through the trees, but she could climb well enough. Just ahead, she suddenly heard a furious roar. As she drew even closer, she caught the frantic scratching of claws. Runningleap was hauling himself into a tree.

But the bear wasn't giving up yet. It paced below, snarling furiously; then it crouched and leapt; Skypaw stared as its massive claws suddenly dug into the bark. The tree shook violently beneath its weight. Runningleap was unable to stifle a terrified yowl as the birch he was climbing trembled as though it were being buffeted in a thunderstorm.

"Runningleap!" Skypaw yowled breathlessly as she sprang clumsily to another branch, almost slipping in her desperation to get to the young warrior. "Climb! As high as you can!"

Runningleap obeyed in an instant; he scrambled swiftly up the side of the tree as though he were a squirrel. But it was shaking more and more violently. The tree was starting to groan; it wasn't holding the bear's huge weight.

Skypaw saw a drop loom before her. Knowing that it was now or never, she pushed herself off, plummeting down towards the ground. Her breath caught in her throat, though certainty assured her that as long as she landed and rolled to absorb the impact, then she would be all right.

She landed and rolled clumsily, and straightened so fast that she staggered. But her legs only throbbed a little bit; they wouldn't make her struggle. The frosty earth was biting at her pads harder than ever and she hissed at the cutting chill.

She knew The Bear Trap wasn't too far from here. She heard pounding pawsteps nearby and without turning around, Skypaw knew they were Ferndust and Amberheart. "We have to lead the bear away to the Trap!" Skypaw yowled to them. Unfortunately she attracted the bear's attention. It swept a burning gaze towards her, and it roared in its rage upon recognition.

"Toadstep and Stormbreeze have gone to alert the cats to prepare themselves," Amberheart mewed breathlessly. Her ears flattened but her golden eyes flashed defiance as the bear turned abruptly, its attention diverted momentarily from Runningleap, preparing to spring on top of them.

"Run!" cried Skypaw, and she and Amberheart darted away just as the bear exploded from the side of the tree, its huge paws thudding on the ground.

Skypaw realized in an instant that it was up to hear to lead the bear to the Trap; Amberheart was on the wrong side, and the bear's furious glare was focused upon her. She caterwauled nonetheless, turned and fled, sprinting over the frosty earth, forgetting the pain in her paws as the bear pursued her.

The flight through the forest seemed to take forever and no time at all. Wild and breathless, fearing the bear was an inch or two away from her, Skypaw cast Time Manipulation around her while she ran. It drained her energy further, but allowed her to gain a little from the bear's slavering maw.

Then, when pains were in her chest and she could barely run any more, she burst out onto the clearing. There were stifled shrieks of terror echoing in the treetops around her as they saw the bear for the first time.

Hope giving her a flash of adrenalin, Skypaw whirled around to face the creature, which was almost on top of her as she had suspected. The bear swiped with a powerful paw, giant claws glinting in the icy sunlight. Skypaw ducked sharply and rolled, her muscles screaming. Aware that many lives were relying on her, she straightened, trembling, and concentrated on the task that still lay at paw.

"The Trap!" she gasped.

Claws scratched in the tree tops. As the bear prepared to lunge again, Skypaw looked up in time to see Foxleap, Flamefur and Patchwhisker swing themselves up into the topmost branches, where the first part of the Trap had already been set.

With a furious caterwaul, Patchwhisker shoved at the first part of the tangled, barb-laced branches, balanced precariously on a fork-shaped split between a large sorrel's limbs; Flamefur slashed at the other end and Foxleap pushed down hard in the centre. There was the sound of snapping twigs, and then the bramble-encased branches tumbled down from the trees. The bear spun up in surprise, then roared with confusion and shock. It fought to scramble away as the branches collided with its skull, the sharp bramble heads digging into its fur. It pulled away in wild fury, shaking its head, but the branches that had been particularly well-entangled in brambles and sharp briars clung to its shaggy, knotted fur like catchweed.

It wasn't the main part of the Trap, but it was the vital distraction needed for the bear's runners to get up to safety. Skypaw whirled around and clawed her way up the nearest tree, her claws scrabbling furiously in the bark.

She crawled up to crouch breathlessly at Hazeltail's side. The she-cat's eyes were wide with fear and amazement.

"You had to fight that?" she gasped.

The bear, infuriated, now had the sense to start clawing at the branches, snapping them with frightening ease. It tossed them here and there, scattering the clearing.

"We have to keep it preoccupied! I have to get to the fall!" Skypaw told Hazeltail breathlessly.

The warrior nodded. "Don't worry. Yellownose, Berrynose, Dewclaw and Moleclaw are already preparing the second distraction."

Amberheart and Runningleap appeared out of nowhere, paws thudding on the frost-laced ground. The bear spun towards them, growling its delight, but both by now had shaken their fear of the creature. They focused entirely on the next stage of the Trap. They leapt over the splintered bramble branches with ease, wove beneath the bear's paws to anger it further, and shot across the clearing. Skypaw cast her gaze upwards. The four toms Hazeltail had listed earlier crouched in the next tree's branches, the second lot of bramble branches ready and waiting.

"Now! Do it now!" Skypaw yowled.

She sprinted across the tree's knotted branches but already Berrynose had given the command. He shoved his weight against one corner of the stacked branches. Dewclaw and Moleclaw pushed at the other end. Dewclaw let out a hiss of pain as the sharp briars snagged at his paws, cutting them and making them bleed. Yellownose gave the final shove, and snarled as tufts of his fur were torn out, caught on the cruel thorns. Then the branches splintered, tumbled and fell.

"Get out of the way!" Skypaw yowled to Amberheart and Runningleap.

They heard her cry and, forewarned, split like water around rock. The bear spun around in confusion, only to be buffeted by the next series of branches—and these ones, Skypaw saw, worked to great extent. Some of the long tendrils of bramble had disentangled themselves enough from the branches to form long, clingy strips, and as the branches buffeted the dazed bear's head yet again, the thorns dug into its fur and clung there determinedly. The bear let out a thundering roar, trying to shake the branches away, but they clung tight and refused to budge.

"Quickly! While it's distracted!" Skypaw gasped to the warriors near her. Foxleap led the way; he leapt to the next tree branch, clinging with his claws, determination glittering in his eyes. Hazeltail, Flamefur and Patchwhisker were quick to follow. Skypaw began to weave her way after them, but she realized that something was wrong.

She glanced down at the ground. Amberheart had let out a shriek of pain and fallen forward; a snaking tendril of thorns had ensnared her forefoot, wrenching it sharply backwards as she tried to flee from the frustrated bear.

"No!" Skypaw cried, turning back.

Runningleap spun around to help his Clanmate, but at that moment the bear whipped around, roughly snapping a branch and slicing through the sharp brambles with its even sharper claws. Its one remaining eye focused hungrily on the defenseless Amberheart. Her eyes widened in fright.

Suddenly Toadstep and Ferndust appeared, running side-by-side like mentor and apprentice all over again. As Ferndust seized Amberheart's scruff and heaved the she-cat backward, Toadstep deftly hacked at the thorn tendril until it came loose, freeing Amberheart's forepaw. But the bear lumbered towards them even as Amberheart struggled to get her footing.

Then Skypaw saw Runningleap shoot over the earth. He made an impressive leap, caught on one of the heavier, trailing bramble-encased branches—where one of the briar tendrils was currently caught up and snagged deeply into the bear's fur—and digging in his claws, held on the best he could.

But the bear's strength was astounding and knew no bounds. The next moment, Runningleap was being dragged over the ground, clutching the branch for dear life.

However, the bear felt the drag and turned around. While its attention was momentarily diverted, Amberheart managed to make it to the safety of a tree's branches. Toadstep and Ferndust, breathless, turned to face the bear, ready to aid their Clanmate.

"Skypaw!"

Skypaw whirled at the sound of her name. Stormbreeze was clawing her way furiously up into the branches of the nearest birch and shrieking, "Hurry! We need your help!"

"The bear has to be kept distracted!" Skypaw cried back. The distractions weren't nearly as long as I anticipated!

Then Stormbreeze's eyes hardened.

"I'll keep it distracted," she growled. "Ferndust and Toadstep will as well."

"No! You could get hurt!" Skypaw cried.

"Like StarClan we will!" Stormbreeze unexpectedly turned and raced back down the tree. She squarely landed on the ground. There was a new fire burning in her eyes as she raced towards the bear.

Skypaw glanced over her shoulder. Amberheart, recovering quickly, was starting to move through the tree branches. She felt a small flurry of hope rise within her when she saw that one more bramble-branch distraction had been set up; one more distraction that could possibly, just possibly, give the warriors enough time to commence the fall.

Good luck!

Skypaw spun and hurried through the trees, finally pushing off from a jutting branch and landing on the ground. Her paws landed on a steady slope and Skypaw looked up. She saw with relief that all the warriors were already working furiously to commence the last part of the Trap; the fall.

It had taken a countless amount of time and effort to finally complete it, but it was ready, and Skypaw sensed it was lethal. Large, heavy boulders, gathered and carefully stacked over the past two weeks, would be released after a fallen log was dislodged and shoved down the slope, causing an avalanche of stones to cascade down the steep bank, hopefully crushing and killing the bear. The heavy log had been precariously balanced on the edge of the bank and fastened with strong vines by its rotting ends to the frail, whippy branches of aspens that stood like sentinels at the top of the slope. Patchwhisker and Berrynose had climbed the aspens and they crept along the whippy branches, claws unsheathed, ready to slice at the vines.

Skypaw caught up to Moleclaw. The warrior pressed himself against the beginning of the stones, shoving his weight against it, causing the log to creak and shudder against its bindings. Weight had to be pressed up on the log before it could be released, so all the stones would fall as a mighty, relentless force down the slope.

It had to be timed perfectly. The bear could not be given the chance to escape.

"Push harder!" Dewclaw growled, as he scrambled upon the stones, loosening them further with sweeps of his claws. "Yellownose, Flamefur, loosen the ground bindings!"

The young warriors hastened to comply. Patchwhisker and Hazeltail joined Moleclaw and Skypaw in pushing the heavy rocks.

But a few heartbeats later, even as one of the vines gave way and the pile shuddered slightly, Skypaw realized that it wasn't going to work. Some inner sense, her foresight, told her that two stones had become trapped against one another and refused to budge. They were caught, and only something small and crooked would be able to unsettle the stones and cause the desired avalanche.

No! It can't be true! Skypaw abruptly abandoned Moleclaw's side and scrambled over the rocks, desperate to see if this was true. Her foresight guided her to the location. There was stiff, reluctant movement as she treaded the boulders. They wouldn't budge. The avalanche was trapped on itself.

This is all going wrong...

Skypaw closed her eyes, and an image flashed before her. It was the current time; she watched as Toadstep, Ferndust and Stormbreeze faced the bear, keeping it preoccupied, its attention focused entirely on them. Amberheart loosed the bramble-branches, and they crashed upon the bear's shoulders, making it whirl around in anger, cracking them beneath its feet, snarling as sharp barbs burrowed into the undersides of its paws. Stormbreeze let out a furious caterwaul, pushed herself off the ground, and snagged her claws into the bear's shaggy backside. As it roared and whirled around, Stormbreeze hauled herself onto the bear's shoulders, hissing fury, claws glinting in the sun. She reached its shaggy ear and hacked furiously at it, clawing away tufts of fur and eventually getting down to its skin.

But they're tiring fast! They can't keep this up for long!

As Skypaw watched, Ferndust stumbled, tiredness overwhelming her. Toadstep skidded to a halt and fell back to help his former apprentice. Runningleap descended from the tree branches, landing just beside Stormbreeze on the bear's back, who snarled and furiously began to shake itself. Stormbreeze let out a yowl as she was roughly thrown from the bear's head. She crashed onto the earth and lay still, whimpering and breathless. Runningleap was also thrown, though he landed more or less on his feet. He let out a gasp of horror and ran to Stormbreeze's side.

The bear was gaining the advantage in the battle.

Skypaw jerked out of her vision in time to hear Berrynose yowl, "Skypaw, get out of the way!"

The last vine was severed, but Skypaw didn't move. The log creaked under her weight, and the stones shifted...but it didn't happen.

Patchwhisker hissed in dismay. "What's going on? Why isn't it going?"

"It should be working!" Dewclaw snarled, leaping back onto the pile of boulders.

"Push harder!" gasped Moleclaw. "Push harder, for StarClan's sake!"

"I'm pushing!" Hazeltail snapped back.

"Something's wrong!" cried Yellownose.

Skypaw tried in vain to claw at the trapped stones, but to no avail. "It won't budge!" she cried, and the despair in her voice made the other warriors freeze, suddenly scared.

"What are we to do, then?" Flamefur whispered.

Skypaw was breathing hard. This wasn't making any sense...

Suddenly she became aware of the steady, pattering footsteps of tiny paws. Skypaw spun around; shock gripped her senses when she saw the most unlikely cats race out from the shelter of the frost-covered forest, sprinting with ease over the ground, springing onto the log.

"Hurry! Get to the crevasse!"

Moleclaw's voice became shrill with disbelief and fear. "Frostkit, Jaggedkit, what are you doing out here!?" he shrieked as he raced around the side of the stones.

Skypaw was too stunned to do anything but watch. It was at that moment that she began to realize something. Her dream wasn't just a nightmare...it was a message. She had seen what was the future. She had seen what was going to happen. What was meant to happen.

Frostkit and Jaggedkit had come, and suddenly she knew that they would succeed.

"We're helping you, Father!" Frostkit yowled in response. Her voice had become hard, and her eyes flashed with a maturity that Skypaw had not seen before in the young blue-gray she-cat. "Big warriors can't free the stones—but I know my brother will!"

Skypaw spun around in surprise. Jaggedkit, his twisted paws seemingly giving him no trouble at all, scrambled up to the crevasse where she crouched.

"How can he succeed when we have failed?" snarled Dewclaw, racing towards Frostkit. "Get back to camp at once!"

Frostkit spun around and met his glare unflinchingly. "Because Jaggedkit isn't like the rest of you!"

Skypaw watched as Jaggedkit halted before the crevasse. His eyes glowed with grief and pride.

"This is for Mapleleaf!" he yowled, thrusting one twisted forefoot into the crevasse. With a mighty tug, he shifted the stones within. Freeing them.

In a flash, Skypaw felt the stones tremble ominously beneath her.

She let out a warning yowl as the log gave way. She snatched Jaggedkit up by the scruff of his neck but by then it was almost too late. The stones were rolling fast. The apprentice, summoning the last of her energy, wrapped Time Manipulation around herself and around Jaggedkit. As Time froze around her, Skypaw raced down from the stones, which were suddenly stationary beneath her, carrying her former denmate by his scruff over the rocks and the logs. She pushed her weight against Frostkit so that the she-kit was knocked off from the log just as Skypaw felt Time resume around them. But by then, she, Frostkit and Jaggedkit were safely out of the way of the avalanche.

She set Jaggedkit down on the ground and yowled for the cats to get out of the way. They were already doing so, and Skypaw watched the log rolled down the slope, her heart pounding rapidly in her chest. A satisfying heavy rumble accompanied it. The boulders cascaded down the slope, chasing the rolling log.

At the foot of the clearing, Ferndust yowled a warning to the warriors. They abandoned their fight with the bear and heaved themselves up the nearest trees.

The bear whirled around, finally sensing danger. It roared with surprise, but by then it was too late for it to run.

The log slammed against it first, and there was a sickening crunch as one of its legs broke.

Then the stones fell on the bear. Its cry of pain was abruptly cut short as the boulders slammed into its formerly invincible body, crashing upon it, crushing its body beneath the heavy rocks. There was another awful crack as a rock smashed on its head.

When the earth stopped trembling, the bear was motionless, its broken leg grotesquely twisted, its skull mutilated, one good eye blank and staring unseeingly at the sky.


"Frostkit, your courage and ferocity is beyond your years. Until the day that you receive your warrior name, you will be known as Frostpaw."

Lionstar somberly pressed his muzzle upon newly-named Frostpaw's head. She stepped back, her eyes shining with indescribable happiness.

Then she looked around the Clan, wondering who was to become her new mentor. Lionstar, with a small purr, beckoned her mentor with a simple flick of his tail. She strode forward, gazing at her father with pride, and her new apprentice with excitement.

"Spottedheart," Lionstar meowed, "you are a warrior of steadfast determination, courage and skill. You did not fight against the bear, but you are ready for your first apprentice. Train Frostpaw well into a warrior the Clan will be proud of."

The daughter of the Clan leader nodded, her eyes glowing. She bent her head and gently touched her nose to Frostpaw's. Then the newly-bound pair stepped back. Jaggedkit stood alone in the clearing.

The warriors gazed upon him no longer in doubt; they knew of his stubbornness, and his determination; it rivaled his sister's, if not exceeded it. No cat thought of his twisted paws anymore. They had been a key, a way of opening the stones to defeat the bear. He had been the one to kill it, and his story would be whispered from elder to kit forever in the Clan long after he had joined Silverpelt.

"Jaggedkit," said Lionstar, gazing warmly upon the small black-and-white tom, "you have always been at a disadvantage to your sister, and to all the other cats of the Clan, but it is thanks to this disadvantage that the Clan continues to live." He bowed his head. "We all are indebted to you."

Jaggedkit was winded with amazement. He turned around and watched as the whole Clan imitated their leader, movement for movement.

The young tom turned back to Lionstar, who continued with his ceremony. "Until the day that you receive your warrior name, you will be known as Jaggedpaw." His eyes sought out Jaggedpaw's new mentor, and she walked forward on her own accord. Skypaw purred to herself. Aura must have forewarned her that she was to receive her own apprentice, and Amberheart was already prepared, her gray pelt groomed to perfection.

"Amberheart," Lionstar mewed, addressing the excited young warrior, "you have the courage of Brightheart shining through you already. You fought against the bear, and you are more than ready to receive your first apprentice."

Amberheart shyly bowed her head, then went to touch Jaggedpaw's nose, accepting him as her apprentice. Jaggedpaw's eyes glowed.

Skypaw was proud of her denmates. At last, she wouldn't be sleeping in the apprentices' cave alone anymore. She turned to Aura, who sat contentedly beside her.

"You knew that they'd be the ones to kill the bear in the end, wouldn't you?" she asked her.

Aura purred. "Of course I did! I was the one who...well, who gave them the little helpful nudge."

"You knew I had the dream?"

"What do you think?"

Skypaw sighed and rolled her eyes. "You know way too much for your own good, Aura."

"Sadly, yes," Aura shrugged. "But I am content." She turned solemnly to Skypaw and mewed, "You, and the warriors who faced the bear, achieved a great thing today. Something truly incredible. ThunderClan is safe, thanks to you."

Skypaw shyly dipped her head. "It feels good to use my powers to aid my Clan."

Aura turned serious. "How are you feeling, Skypaw?"

"Drained," Skypaw replied, and slumped. "Just...completely and utterly drained."

Aura nodded. "I thought as much. You used your newly-gained Manipulation ability so much today that it has exhausted you. In time, it will grow easier, I promise. All that remains now is for your body to grow, for you to finish your training."

Skypaw sighed. "I feel as though it will never be completed."

"It will," Aura assured her. "You have come very far in a half moon alone." She gently pressed against Skypaw's side and added, "And for however short a time it may be, I can promise you that for a few weeks, ThunderClan will have peace, thanks to this victory."

Skypaw liked the sound of this.

She looked past Aura. Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw were being swamped by all the young warriors in the Clan. Cherrypelt curled her tail around Foxleap's and watched the younger generation proudly. Frostpaw's and Jaggedpaw's former denmates were gathered all around them, asking them eagerly for a recount of their heroic adventure. Hollythorn was proud, pressed beside Moleclaw who watched his kits with happiness gleaming in his eyes.

Then Skypaw saw Briarlight drag herself over the ground towards the apprentices. Jaggedpaw suddenly broke away from the group and hurried to greet the crippled elder, who pushed her muzzle fondly against Jaggedpaw's cheek. "I'm so proud of you!" she whispered, her emotions shining in her eyes. "You have triumphed, Jaggedpaw! Triumphed in a way I could have never believed possible until today!"

"You have been my inspiration, Briarlight, from the moment that I opened my eyes," Jaggedpaw told her earnestly. "You have taught me something immensely valuable; to never give up, even when times are tough."

Briarlight dipped her head. "But it was you who followed it through. I can't be more proud of you, and I know that in StarClan, Mapleleaf will feel the same."

Jaggedpaw purred and warmly pressed his muzzle against Briarlight's cheek. "I know."

Yes, Skypaw told herself, the bear was dead. ThunderClan was safe. They had done it; the bear was defeated, and the danger was over. She had completed her second trial set by the Four.

For a short time, life could go back to normal.

For a short time, there would be peace.



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