It was the stench of decay that opened Skypaw's eyes.
She was already frightened, even when she had fallen asleep. Somehow she had expected to find herself in this dreadful place again. Skypaw slowly lifted her head, feeling herself shiver beneath her soft gray fur.
When she glanced at her pelt, she felt a little of her terror leave her. Her power was here, still flowing in her veins—her fur was patterned with familiar luminous cyan stripes.
She pushed herself to her paws and warily examined her surroundings.
This place, she told herself. The Dark Forest. Why have I come back here?
She could remember the very first time she had awoken here. She had been scared and hopelessly naïve, and perhaps it was only good luck that the meeting Dark Forest cats hadn't discovered her.
Armed with the knowledge of who they had been speaking about, who they had been determined to find, Skypaw sensed that she had come here for a reason. She felt scared but she swallowed her fear, letting it fester in her stomach rather than cloud her mind. Concentration was what she needed more than ever at this current time.
The dead ferns rustled nearby and Skypaw glanced quickly over her shoulder, her fur instinctively bushing out. Distantly she heard the soft padding of paws on the wet, slimy ground. An eerie sound echoed from within the depths of the maze of bone-white leafless trees, the branches knotted together to form a complex ceiling, blotting out the stars.
A soft growl issued from the depths of the ferns. Skypaw relaxed just a little as a deep, dark and familiar scent filled her scent glands. She had smelt it several times before—fox. But this one...her guard was up again almost instantly. This one smelled different.
She saw the eyes glowing within the curling ferns, and Skypaw caught her breath. They burned bright as flame and were coloured bloody scarlet.
The snarl grew louder and Skypaw leapt backwards just as the creature jumped from the bushes. She whirled around, spinning on paw; without really thinking she called Time Manipulation to cloak and protect her from the beast. The world shivered, turning into a familiar gray haze, and into it Skypaw escaped, fleeing into the night-black woodland that stretched forever beyond her.
She let Time Manipulation break, but she heard the steady thuds echoing behind her as the creature prepared to give chase. A rumbling snarl resounded in Skypaw's ears. She felt her fear start to dwindle, adrenalin pulsing through her blood and driving her forward instead.
She sped through the forest wordlessly, not daring to cry for help. But no matter how fast she ran, the creature was closing in.
Skypaw saw a tree loom ahead and she sped towards it, picking up speed for a jump. Pushing herself upwards, she extended her claws but scrabbled in vain at the tree trunk. Terror gripped her for one horrible, freezing moment when she found no grip. The tree trunks were stripped of bark and the bodies of the eerie skeletal trees were barren and smooth as river stones.
The creature was beneath her and Skypaw felt its icy breath on her flanks as she felt herself fall.
Instantly but barely in time, she called on Manipulation to protect her once again. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her head that she could barely think. Skypaw flipped in the grayish air, staring into the dark maw of the black, gold-eyed fox as it loomed beneath her. She flinched visibly when she saw its huge teeth.
She was breathless from her run—the Manipulation died as she thudded on its head, but it was enough for her to slam its jaws shut on the musty air instead of around her body. The creature snarled beneath her, jerking violently under her paws, but Skypaw, nimble as a squirrel, had already leapt from its head and onto its back, then onto the ground again. She shoved off so hard from its back that it staggered, and it let out a huff of air as it fought to find her and regain balance for the pursuit.
What is this thing? Skypaw demanded in her mind, calling on all her knowledge of insight to try and find some answer to this animal. When none came to mind, she felt a flash of fear make her fur stand on end. What is it? Please!
She turned around. The creature was pacing near her. It surely could not be any kind of fox. Foxes were red...this creature's fur was cobalt in colour, like dark cinders. Its eyes glittered as brightly as twin fires.
Fire...Skypaw felt open terror scorch through her blood. Please don't let this thing be my next trial!
The creature paced restlessly near her, hissing and snarling in a very un-fox-like way. Skypaw watched it, feeling her fur bristle, and she fell into a defensive position as she faced it. She was nearly full-grown now, but curiously she felt very small beneath the gaze of the beast.
What is this? She felt her heartbeat increase, drumming relentlessly in her ears. Why am I so scared?
She backed up nervously as it approached her. She could feel its stinging breath on her cheeks, in her eyes. It felt like the bite of a snake.
Then a single, icy voice rang through the dark gloom.
It was as though a spell was breaking. All of Skypaw's fear vanished in the space of a heartbeat, which rapidly began to slow. The creature's eyes lost their immediate fire and it straightened, looking in a puzzled manner towards where the voice had come from. Then, with a sulky snarl, it turned and padded away, slipping silently into a clump of dead bracken and vanishing entirely from view.
Skypaw heard pawsteps thud nearby and she glanced towards who had spoken. She already knew who the speaker was before she emerged into the clearing.
But it was the first time that she would be speaking with her face to face.
"I must admit," purred Mapleshade, in a voice that made Skypaw's fur keep standing on end, "that it was very amusing, seeing it frighten you so. You looked very small and kitlike...very vulnerable...when facing it."
Skypaw drew herself up a little more, swallowing back her fear. "What are you getting at?"
Mapleshade sighed and shook her head. "Now you sound all grown-up again; what a pity," she mewed, as she stepped in to full view and circled around Skypaw so she was the one standing in the creature's place. She looked wraith-like against the trees and foliage, and yet surprisingly solid up close. Her eyes still blazed with green hatred and icy demeanor. "But that is to be expected from a daughter of the Four, I presume."
Skypaw flattened her ears. "Time is at my command, old cat. You can't hurt me."
Mapleshade's eyes narrowed. "Then you are more stupid than I thought," she spat. "Wise, I suppose, but also stupid. Rather like Aura."
Skypaw said nothing.
"Did you feel strong when you looked into the creature's eyes?" Mapleshade inquired, in an eerily conversational tone of voice. "That all of your power coursed in your body?"
Skypaw hesitated. She knows full well I didn't. "What are you saying?"
"What you faced upon waking in my lovely forest," Mapleshade said coolly, "was a Nightmare."
Skypaw frowned. "You mean, like the dreams?"
Mapleshade spat. "Stupid kit! Dreams are what all cats have, what all living things seem to have. But they are merely memories or foolish desires that echo in the darkest pits of our little minds. Visions are glimpses into the future, and what a weakening and weaning StarClan used to send down to your medicine cats. But Nightmares are what all cats have—and yet they are more misunderstood than dreams are." She leaned forward. "Than bears are."
Skypaw stepped back even as a sudden suspicion grabbed hold of her. "Are you telling me that you sent the bear?"
"Me?" Mapleshade's ears flicked forward, and she let out a bout of rusty laughter. "Oh, goodness, no. In the afterlife I still have my restrictions. But as StarClan crumbles we, the Dark Forest, are gaining power, gaining strength." She flicked her tail to where the creature, the Nightmare, had disappeared. "What you faced is merely a glimpse of the power that we now have the ability to contain. Nightmares are creatures of phantom who stalk your minds. They are alterers of perception and reality, and even when one simply looks at them, they are afraid. They are afraid of nightmares. Who isn't, when all you feel within them is fear?"
She went on as Skypaw remained silent. "They are weak while in this place. They are so much more effective in the real world—but you had a taste of what they can do. You felt scared simply looking at it, even when you had seen something far more terrifying, far more endangering to your life and soul. As a result, it couldn't sap all of your power. You could still use your so-called 'Time Manipulation' to protect yourself from the Nightmare, as you used it to protect yourself from the bear."
The bear...the dream...the vision of Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw...
Or maybe not...
Skypaw felt the truth dawn on her as she remembered the dreadful dark, tormenting dream she had had before facing the bear. How helpless she had felt. How scared...how alone...and without her powers.
"A Nightmare," she murmured. She glared at Mapleshade and felt her anger rise—the same unquestionable anger she had felt facing Rowanstar by the shore, the same anger that thrummed in her blood when she and Hookclaw met on the Island. "You sent a Nightmare to torment me on the eve of the bear's arrival to the lake!"
Mapleshade hissed. "And it tormented you, made you afraid. Made you weak, helpless, alone and without power!" She stalked forward. "The Nightmares' powers will know no bounds when we release them into the waking world. They are the agents of destruction, the enemies of the Four, haunters of mortalkind and poisoners of dreams. They will drain the Tigermarks from the chosen and use it to restore the lives of the dead, use it to return us to the living world!"
Skypaw stepped back slowly. "You're mad," she said quietly.
Mapleshade laughed. "Mad? I am their queen, and the Nightmares follow my word alone."
The stench of smoke suddenly stung the air, though Mapleshade seemed unbothered by it.
"Aura was a fool to choose to protect ThunderClan from the wrath of the Dark Forest, which has become darker and stronger than ever before!" Mapleshade snarled. "She will pay for the troubles that befell her father, that befell all of SunClan!"
Skypaw, her eyes watering from the smoke, lifted her eyes and demanded harshly, "And why did you want her, Mapleshade? Why were you so determined to find Aura? Why was Sol so determined to find his daughter he held no love for, who he was willing to use because of her Tigermarks of the Four?"
Mapleshade cackled. "We are walking paths that even Tigerstar feared to tread, delving into mysteries and ancient legends even the Ancients have forgotten. Our second coming to the lake will truly determine whether the Clans live or die. Consider our first coming merely the breath of wind before the storm."
A crackling sound was heard in Skypaw's ears, and the stench of smoke grew stronger.
"When SunClan rises," Mapleshade caterwauled, "even you, with all your power, will not be able to stand against us, Skypaw! Aura has failed, and so have you!"
A high-pitched wail split the night, jolting Skypaw's eyes open—and the first thing that she saw was the thick, murky air that wrapped around her and stung her eyes.
She sat bolt upright as the rushing, crackling sound grew louder, becoming a deafening roar. The air became thicker, and orange lights glowed between the walls of her den. Skypaw realized what was happening instantly.
"Skypaw!" cried the voice again.
Skypaw coughed—the smoke, stinging her throat and her lungs, fortunately couldn't impair sound, and she choked out in response, "Larkflight! Over here!"
"Skypaw!" Larkflight raced into the den. "Come on! We've got to get out!"
There was abrupt rustling nearby and Skypaw whipped around. She relaxed a little when she saw that it was only a stunned Jaggedpaw and Frostpaw as they fought to get to their paws.
"What's happening?" Frostpaw whimpered. "Why is the air all yucky?"
"The forest is ablaze!" Larkflight turned to the apprentices and cried, "We have to get out of the camp! Please, help me rouse the others!"
"Of course!" Yet a bolt of fear shot through Skypaw. She could see the fire now, dancing in her eyes—she watched, dazed, as it devoured the camp, sweeping through the trees like a bird sheathed in fire, the cats within devoured alive. She could hear their frightened wailing, and taste the cinders raining down from the choked and blackened sky. They stung and burned her tongue, singeing her whiskers and scorching her fur.
She saw in her insight as three warriors fled into the night, but a fallen branch blazing with flame fall across the exit from the hollow, forcing the other desperate Clan cats to fall back, wailing their terror.
She saw four warriors—Dewclaw, Rosepetal, Spottedheart and Patchwhisker—rush forward and in vain attempt to move the burning branch. They wailed as the fire burned away their fur and ate at their flesh, but still they pushed against the branch, desperate only to flee.
She saw, cowering in the elders' den, too frail to flee, Squirrelflight, Birchfall and Briarlight hugging each other close, closing their eyes, murmuring a soft prayer for StarClan to accept them swiftly.
She saw several warriors trapped within their own den, crying out as it burned around them, screaming their agony as the fire licked at their pelts.
She saw Hollythorn and Moleclaw hide within the smoldering nursery, whispering in terrified voices to the kits that everything was going to be all right. They held each other close, Ravenkit hugging Owlkit to her side, Graykit and Clawkit sealing shut their eyes and hugging Moleclaw's soft brown fur.
She saw Jayfeather, eyes wide with brazen terror and memory, stumble from his den. He choked in the smoke, and his blind blue eyes watered. He continued to choke out a name as he sensed the fire closing in around him. Half Moon...
Get out! Skypaw's eyes flew open. I will never allow that to happen! Never!
"We have to get the cats out of the camp, now," she said to Larkflight. "But we have to get the elders and the kits out first."
Larkflight nodded. "I'll take care of the elders. You and Jaggedpaw, take care of the kits. Frostpaw, wake all the cats in the Clan—the warriors, the medicine cat, and get Lionstar and Cinderheart out of their den!"
A deafening rumble sounded overhead. At first, Skypaw thought it was thunder, but there was a rush of cinders and falling bark blazing with fire. She realized that the trees above the hollow were beginning to shower raining debris.
She could see it all too clearly—the burning branch that would fall and crush the thorn barrier, trapping the Clan within the hollow to burn their way to StarClan.
I will not let that fall while we are still inside!
"Let's go!" she yowled, and she, Larkflight and the apprentices shot from the cave.
They entered the clearing to see a sight that made the apprentices wail with terror, but Skypaw harden her resolve. At the top of the hollow was sweeping woodland aflame, and the fire was steadily leaping from branch to branch, making its way downhill, soon to seal and burn away the rest of the forest. Beyond the thorn barrier and into the forest the trees were unmarked, eerily calm and peaceful in contrast to the wild fires that raged just up the hill.
Already Skypaw saw that a few cats were awake. They were stumbling blindly into the smoky fog, yowling with fear at the sight of fire.
"Get the elders out!" Skypaw yowled to them. "Out!"
"I'll rouse the others!" Frostpaw bounded away, already wailing for her mentor.
"Seednose!" Larkflight howled. "Go and get Jayfeather out—"
"No need!" Jayfeather stumbled from his den, coughing; Aura stood rigidly beside him, her eyes betraying her ever-sense of calm, though concern glimmered in the bright golden depths. "Aura will guide me!"
Aura! Skypaw began to make her way over to her, but the half-grown she-cat jerked her head up and yowled, "The kits, Skypaw! Save the kits!"
There was a surprising amount of desperation in her voice that took Skypaw momentarily by surprise—but she nodded wordlessly and bounded towards the nursery with Jaggedpaw awkwardly running along beside her.
Behind her, she heard Aura's plaintive wail sound throughout the camp.
"Fire! Get out!"
Bursting into the nursery, Skypaw saw that Hollythorn was already awake, but her tabby fur was bushed out and her eyes were wide with terror. She was cradling her kits tightly into her belly and whimpering her deceased mate's name.
"Come on, Hollythorn!" Jaggedpaw meowed. "Let's get the kits out of here!"
"The camp's coming down—we have to get out!" Skypaw added.
"I can't...I can't!" Hollythorn closed her eyes. "Fire...please, StarClan, not fire! Don't let it be fire!"
"It's all dark and foggy," mewled Graykit. "What's fire?"
"Fire," said Skypaw quietly, "is something bright and something to fear." She bent low and told the kits gently and swiftly, "Listen very closely, all four of you. We're going to go into the forest tonight. The camp is no longer safe for you."
The kits' eyes widened—but none more so than Owlkit's. They became luminous pools of gold, and fear crossed her face.
"Your dream," whispered Ravenkit in astonishment. "Is it true?"
"Dream? What dream?" inquired Hollythorn sharply.
There was an ominous splintering sound above them, and cinders suddenly rained into the nursery. Skypaw gagged at the foul odour that followed, and Hollythorn instinctively threw herself over her kits to protect them.
But the apprentice abruptly saw what was going to happen if they didn't move.
They only had heartbeats. "Move!" she snapped at Hollythorn, and the command jolted the queen out of her blind terror, forcing her to her paws. But she was too stunned to move on her own.
Jaggedpaw hurried forward to guide his former foster mother, leading her towards the entrance of the nursery. Skypaw saw the terror that had crossed his face, but he was doing his best to force it away and do his sworn duty to his Clan. For a moment, Skypaw felt proud of him.
It lasted for only a heartbeat when suddenly an especially loud crack filled the air. Within the nursery, it suddenly became stiflingly hot.
Skypaw acted without thinking. Holding the kits close to her, she called on Time Manipulation to protect them, as once it had protected Jaggedpaw from the rolling and falling rocks. She felt the power bleed out from around her, holding the air still, holding Time to her command, feeling the cyan stripes fall over her fur.
The kits gazed at her in some kind of confused wonder, but before they could speak, Skypaw was ushering them forward through the gray, still haze. She could feel her strength steadily depleting and knew she could not keep this up forever.
Upon reaching Hollythorn and Jaggedpaw, Skypaw allowed her Manipulation to spread to them, so they, too, were caught in the slowed effects of time. But she could feel the air become stifling around them. Even as Hollythorn began to gasp with her disbelief, Skypaw could hear the brambles snapping and breaking as the burning branch began to fall through the roof.
They climbed out of the nursery only just in time. Skypaw fell forward, her strength spent and dizziness raging through her head, just as the branch crashed through the nursery, completely destroying it. Embers flew up from the wreckage and the fires quickly devoured the woven foliage. Cinders flew everywhere.
Skypaw straightened, gasping. She saw the kits were terrified and wailing. Hollythorn was screaming, struggling to breathe, stunned at her near-death experience and sobbing that Skypaw had saved them. Jaggedpaw simply stared at the nursery that used to be his home, too shocked to even say a word.
It was gone. The nursery was gone. Destroyed.
But they were not out of danger yet.
The fire was rapidly closing in. Everyone was awake now. Skypaw pushed herself to her paws, hastily encouraging the kits to do the same. Cats fled through the blazing encampment. Lionstar stood atop Highledge, and his clear voice rang through the disarray.
"Evacuate! Get out of the camp! Fall back to the abandoned Twoleg nest!"
"Is everyone okay?" Jaggedpaw pushed himself unsteadily to his paws, his eyes frantically scanning the kits.
All four of them were there. "They're shaken," said Skypaw breathlessly, "but they're fine."
"Hollythorn! Jaggedpaw!" A frightened yowl rang clearly around the camp, coming from Moleclaw. He bounded swiftly over the fallen, rotting beech and towards where the stunned queen and his son lay. "Are you all right? What happened?" he demanded, panicked, holding Hollythorn close to his already badly smokestained pelt. "I saw the branch fall on the nursery and I thought..."
"I'm fine," choked Hollythorn. "But Skypaw..."
"Moleclaw," mewed Skypaw as steadily as she could, though her voice was trembling and she still felt dizzy. "You and Jaggedpaw, get the kits and Hollythorn out of the camp. Lead them to the Twoleg nest."
Moleclaw nodded. "You can count on me, Skypaw."
"Clawkit's too scared to walk!" Graykit wailed.
Moleclaw wordlessly bent down and grasped Clawkit's scruff, lifting the small brown tabby clear off the ground. "Come on!" he meowed around a mouthful of the tomkit's fur.
Skypaw had faith that he would lead his family to safety. She narrowly avoided a falling piece of bark bright with fire, and gasping from her near miss, Skypaw nearly missed hearing her name being called across the clearing.
"Skypaw! Thank StarClan you're all right!"
"Cherrypelt!" Skypaw looked up, running towards her mentor.
"Are you hurt?" Cherrypelt's eyes flashed with anxiety and fear.
"I'm fine," Skypaw mewed shakily. "Is everyone out of the camp?"
"Some of us are, yes," Cherrypelt replied anxiously. "But the smoke is choking everyone. We have to help them—especially the older warriors. They can't handle it! And the elders are too frail to move!"
No, Skypaw told herself. They aren't. We just...we just have to persevere! I won't let them die!
"They just need some extra paws," Skypaw mewed rapidly. "Especially Briarlight. We don't have much time, a fiery branch is going to crush the thorn barrier and any cat still trapped inside the camp is going to die!"
She realized that she was panicking—and it was from her fear and shame. How come she had not been able to predict this?
Suddenly there was an almighty crash from nearby and a shrill shriek of "Help!"
Skypaw whirled around, alarm searing through her fur. Two of her Clanmates were trapped beneath a fallen, smoldering branch. Several fleeing warriors whirled around, yowling their names and retracing their steps.
"Help the elders!" Skypaw told her mentor. "I'll help my Clanmates!"
Cherrypelt hesitated, then nodded and bounded away. Skypaw raced towards where Dustfoot and Poppyfrost struggled wildly beneath the fallen branch. Ferndust, Whiteblaze and Yellownose were already struggling with it.
"My leg!" wailed Poppyfrost. "It hurts! Help me!"
"Hold still!" puffed Ferndust, coughing as she huskily drew breath and threw her weight against the branch. Beside her, Yellownose shoved his paws against the branch in a wild attempt to move it, and then recoiled with a howl of pain. Whiteblaze was looking panicked, desperate to free his trapped brother.
"Use your bodies, not your paws!" Skypaw gasped at them. She pushed her weight against it, wincing as she felt heat race through her fur and scorch her skin, but she dug her claws into the ground and continued to shove. "Heave!"
They heaved—the branch gradually lifted up and Dustfoot was able to scramble out, gasping his thanks. Whiteblaze let out a soft yowl of relief, on the verge of breaking away from the branch. But Poppyfrost could barely move, and Skypaw realized that her leg was broken.
She grasped the former queen's scruff and heaved but Poppyfrost was heavy and Skypaw strained in vain. Then Ferndust seized Poppyfrost's scruff as well and together, they hauled her out beneath the branch. Yellownose and Whiteblaze hastily dropped it and it lurched dangerously, embers pricking and igniting small sections of the tree bark.
Poppyfrost was wailing. Her back leg was bent in an awkward direction.
"Get her out of here!" Ferndust told Skypaw. "We'll see if there are any others trapped!" Her eyes suddenly flashed anxiety. "Are the kits out of the camp?"
"They're out," Skypaw replied. She nudged the shocked she-cat gently to her three remaining paws, letting Poppyfrost lean heavily against her. "Good luck, Ferndust!"
Ferndust nodded, cleared the smoldering branch and vanished into the camp that was rapidly becoming as ablaze as the forest flames that raged above.
Skypaw hastily led Poppyfrost through the camp.
"Where are my kits?" she whispered. "Where's Moleclaw? Cherrypelt? Are they safe?"
"They're fine," Skypaw assured her.
"He's out of the camp, and he's worrying for you," Skypaw responded swiftly. She could catch glimpses of him now, fleeing into the forest, letting a burned and limping Thrushsong lean against him, guiding her through the woods as his Clanmates hurried around him. "He's doing his duty, helping his Clanmates."
They were nearly at the thorn barrier when there was a sudden, loud crack! Skypaw looked up and felt her body go rigid in horror. The large sorrel that grew at the top of the hollow was leaning precariously over the edge of the quarry, raining rocks and earth to the camp below. Its branches budded fiery leaves.
A terrified yowl sounded nearby. "The tree's going to fall!"
"It won't," Skypaw called to Runningleap. The lean dark gray tom was staring up at the sorrel. "Come and help me with Poppyfrost! Please!"
The smoke was growing thicker. Poppyfrost, numb from the pain, was starting to cough, her chest heaving. Runningleap bounded swiftly over—he was larger than Skypaw and took Poppyfrost completely from the young apprentice.
Skypaw whirled around. Who else was still trapped in the camp? They had only a few moments left!
There was another menacing rumble that sounded all around the camp. Skypaw looked towards the thorn barrier in time to see Runningleap lead a shaking Poppyfrost though it into the night beyond. The flames were starting to lick the trees just outside, and it wouldn't be long before the camp was enclosed in a ring of fire.
The thought raged through Skypaw's mind. She sprinted full-pelt towards the low-growing honeysuckle, in time to hear panicked voices echo from within.
"Keep breathing, Birchfall!" It was Ivypool. "It's all right, we'll get you out of the smoke. You don't have to worry about a thing!"
Skypaw burst into the den. The elders were still in there, fretfully trying to move. Cherrypelt and Ferndust were encouraging a very frail Squirrelflight onto her paws, and Ivypool and Cinderheart were beside Birchfall, desperately trying to rouse him. But the old tom was wheezing badly. He'd fallen unconscious from the smoke.
Cherrypelt looked up as Skypaw entered. "Help Briarlight!" she told her apprentice.
"I can help myself," Briarlight responded. She dipped her head to cough, but she was already dragging herself forward.
"Birchfall!" Cinderheart yowled, shoving urgently against the frail tom. "Birchfall, come on!"
"There's no time—we'll have to drag him!" Ivypool leaned across her former mentor and seized Birchfall's scruff in her strong jaws. She began to move him but the old tom groaned senselessly in her grip, and began to wheeze harder than before.
Skypaw heard a rush of flames nearby. Energy fizzed in her paws and crackled through her fur like lightning. Suddenly one corner of the den glowed bright orange and heat parted through the fog as a corner of the den began to burn.
"StarClan save us!" Squirrelflight yowled.
Skypaw felt the energy grow. She hurried forward, and through the gloom, her Clanmates saw her gray pelt suddenly become dappled with slender cyan stripes.
When she was facing the flames, Skypaw felt fear shoot through her, heat wash over her muzzle and scorch her nose Then, forcing away her terror, she closed her eyes and unleashed Time Manipulation around her.
The fires around her began to slow until they almost stood still, moving so slowly it was as though it were in a dream.
Skypaw concentrated and broadened how far Time Manipulation went. She made it envelop the entire interior of the elders' den. Caught in slowed currents of Time, the cats lost their fear, to be replaced with wonderment and awe.
But only a few heartbeats passed before Skypaw gasped at them, "Go! I can't hold the flames for long!"
Behind her she finally heard movement as the cats were jolted from their wordless stupor. Ferndust called her name but Cherrypelt ushered the young warrior out. Squirrelflight staggered between them. Ivypool strained harder with Birchfall, but the elderly tom couldn't move. Cinderheart flanked Briarlight but the crippled she-cat was starting to fail, the suffocating smoke beginning to overwhelm her.
Skypaw groaned as she felt her energy begin to simmer away. The stripes on her back faltered, losing their bright colouring. Fire was so difficult to hold still! Why? Why could Time not hold it as effectively as it could hold so many other things?
She felt herself sinking lower to the ground, her legs beginning to buckle beneath her. The fire was steadily growing faster. The heat became more intense. Skypaw was vaguely aware that it was starting to surround her. The hot touch of embers brushed against her pelt. Her vision began to sway.
Suddenly she heard her name shrieked by a voice nearby. She felt teeth bite down on her tailtip and drag her backwards, with astonishing force and strength. Time broke around her—Skypaw fell backwards, barely conscious and her vision spinning, her strength sapped and drained. There was a loud rush of hot air as she fell backwards. The fires raged and roared.
"Hurry! Get up!"
Skypaw recognized Flamefur's shrill mew. She fought to stand—her physical energy was starting to recover, but she realized dimly that she was drained of her powers. She was exhausted...
Flamefur grasped her scruff and dragged her further backwards as embers flew and peppered the earth around her. Skypaw winced, flattening her ears and closing her eyes against a bright flare as one of the elders' nests caught fire. Adrenalin pulsed through her body at that, and she scrambled to find her paws, no longer needing Flamefur's assistance.
She turned around to thank him, but suddenly adrenalin pulsed through her body and darkness momentarily overtook her vision. A large, fiery branch was leaning precariously over the camp, and in particular, over the thorn barrier...
"I'll help you with Birchfall," Flamefur yowled to Ivypool. "Lionstar's on his way, he'll help get Briarlight out of here. Skypaw, you need to get out of the hollow!"
"No...I need to..."
"You need to run!" Flamefur's eyes were bright as stars, burning with intensity and certainty. "Help Squirrelflight—the old warrior's collapsed and she isn't going anywhere!"
Skypaw tried to gasp some kind of excuse to stay. She wanted to help—she saw the flames growing larger and larger, hotter and hotter, as they swiftly devoured the honeysuckle. But her power wasn't returning, and while she was here, she would merely be a hindrance rather than a help. Yet she felt a strange sense of foreboding grip her when she turned to leave.
"Run!" Flamefur urged. "Hurry, Skypaw! Your Clan needs you!"
She was about to protest further when she felt teeth meet her scruff, and the next thing she knew. she had been pulled straight out of the elders' den. Her dragger dropped her on the ground, and Skypaw, through watering eyes, saw the hazy gold outline of Lionstar tell her to run before slipping into the elders' den.
Skypaw fought to recover from the exhaustion, and pushed herself shakily to her paws. Fear overtaking her, she blindly ran from the elders' den. The smoke stung her throat, began to cloud her mind and senses. The heat was overwhelming, and Skypaw was tempted to collapse and let it smother her.
She saw Squirrelflight struggling up ahead, Ferndust and Cherrypelt beside the frail elder. Cherrypelt was close to dragging the failing elderly she-cat, and Ferndust was guiding them through the smoke to the best of her ability.
"Skypaw!" Ferndust called, relief clear in her voice as she whipped around at the sound of approaching pawsteps. "Come on! We have to get out of here!"
There was a menacing crack and embers spiraled through the air. Skypaw looked up. The large sorrel branch was starting to lean, beginning to snap through its foundations as the greedy flames weakened its connections to the main trunk.
The flames were leaping high as Skypaw led them through the smoke. Her insight was starting to fail her from her exhaustion but she persevered, leading them towards the thorn barrier.
"Through," Skypaw choked.
They ushered Squirrelflight through but the she-cat's pawsteps were growing jagged and uneven. Her breathing was harsher than ever. Skypaw, fear shooting through every inch of her body, gave Squirrelflight a heavy shove as she heard another loud splintering sound echo just above them.
Then it finally split, and began to fall.
Skypaw raced through the thorn barrier with Ferndust just ahead of her. They burst out of the camp, Cherrypelt steadying a terrified Squirrelflight. Just before the tree branch crashed down, Skypaw glanced back at the camp.
It was ablaze. But that wasn't what struck Skypaw with horror.
It was Flamefur. He was dragging a senseless Birchfall from the blazing elders' den, with Lionstar and Cinderheart and Ivypool just behind them with Briarlight.
And Skypaw only saw the unconcealed horror in his eyes as he watched the fiery branch crash down over the thorn barrier, sealing him and his Clanmates inside the burning hollow with a wall of dancing fire.
Rooted to the spot in her horror, Skypaw could only stare. She lost her fear, lost her terror...it was only replaced by a terrible, sinking feeling that gripped and scorched every inch of her fur.
Everything around her moved slowly without the use of Manipulation. Skypaw could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. Every breath she took was difficult and seemed to fill her body with weariness.
She heard her name being called. She turned numbly towards its source to see Cherrypelt, her mentor, desperately yowling her name.
Around them, the forest was burning. Now the race for survival had begun.
Skypaw turned away from the burning hollow, bounding after her Clanmates. For a moment, she puzzled why every movement was just so difficult.
It was only when she was running from the leaping flames that she realized that she was suffocating.
Numbly she stumbled through the forest, coughing as she fought for a mouthful of clean air. Cherrypelt flanked her as the apprentice felt her legs buckle under her, threatening collapse. They ran through the forest, urging Squirrelflight to run. It had only been a few moons since she had retired but the former deputy of ThunderClan had grown very frail very quickly.
"Birchfall," she was mumbling. "Birchfall! Where's Birchfall...?"
"He's fine," Ferndust shakily assured her. "He'll be fine. Lionstar's looking after him."
Gradually the heat of the flames began to die, and they reached the abandoned Twoleg nest. Skypaw could start to breathe clearly again. Her strength was spent and she was stumbling, close to falling over if it were not for her mentor, and she saw her Clan within the nest. Behind them there was an ominous orange glow, promising the flames would soon reach them.
A shrill mew of relief rang up around the Clan and Skypaw saw her mother racing towards her.
"Oh, thank goodness you're safe!" Dovewing mewed as she hugged her daughter close. The dove-gray warrior was trembling. "I thought that you had died in the fire! Thank StarClan that you're all right!"
Skypaw, too exhausted to talk, leaned against her mother.
"She needs rest," she heard Cherrypelt say nearby. "I'll go and fetch Jayfeather. She breathed in a lot of smoke."
Skypaw felt herself being led inside the old Twoleg nest. There were panicked pawsteps nearby and a slur of voices becoming one plaintive wail.
"Here," Dovewing mewed. "Lie down here."
Skypaw obeyed, and Dovewing settled beside her, numbly cleaning Skypaw's ash-covered pelt. Skypaw tried to steady her frantic heartbeat and her rasping breaths. Every movement was such an effort now.
"Where's Lionstar?" Skypaw heard Hazeltail suddenly ask. "Was he with you?"
"Where's Birchfall and Briarlight?" demanded Blossomfall, her voice sharp with fear and anxiety for her crippled sister.
"Was Flamefur with you?" Yellownose's voice was raised in terror.
"The elders were hardly able to move," Skypaw heard Cherrypelt rasp to the anxious audience. "Ivypool and Cinderheart stayed behind to help Flamefur and Lionstar get Birchfall and Briarlight out of the camp. We barely made it out...a fiery branch landed behind us and crushed the thorn barrier..."
Terrified yowls echoed around the camp, mingled with those of grief.
"Peace!" Ferndust called. "Please! We don't know that they've died...they can find shelter in Highledge! They're all strong warriors, and Briarlight's the most stubborn cat I know! They won't let fire send them to StarClan!"
Silence reigned, and then Rosepetal murmured, "What are we going to do? We don't have a deputy or a Clan leader...Jayfeather has no herbs...and our home. Our home has been destroyed..."
"Where are we going to live with no home?" whimpered Mousewhisker.
"Has StarClan forsaken us?" rasped Dewclaw.
"They can't have abandoned us," murmured Amberheart, wrapping her tail soothingly around her brother's flanks. "They just can't have." Her words were hollow.
"We're all tired and injured," Thrushsong said to her Clan. "I think we all just need to rest." Exhaustion laced her words.
"How can I rest knowing my brother is still in the forest?" demanded Yellownose, almost angrily at the she-cat.
Thrushsong fired up instantly. "And you think I am not worried!?" she hissed. "My father, mother and Clanmates are in the hollow!" A strange blind terror suddenly flared in her eyes, though Skypaw didn't know what it was for. Her parents, perhaps, or was she really scared that much for her Clanmates?
"We're all worried!" Toadstep yowled over the clamour. When silence fell, he sighed and added, "The best thing we can do now is wait."
"Wait for what?" whimpered Jaggedpaw.
"Wait for the fire to die down," Spottedheart soothed him quietly.
"But the fire will just eat all the forest," Frostpaw mewed. "And then where will we go?"
"Wait for the fire to reach the abandoned Twoleg nest?" demanded Moleclaw, from where he lay beside Hollythorn, and soothing her terrified kits. "We have to move on, get into ShadowClan territory. The fire can't cross the stream or the clearing!"
"I'd rather die than go and beg ShadowClan to help us!" spat Dewclaw.
"Then you wait here and burn your way into StarClan," Moleclaw snapped back.
"The shore," Spottedheart suggested. "We can go to the shore."
"And swim?" Patchwhisker retorted. "I'd rather go to ShadowClan than get wet like a RiverClan cat!"
"Enough!" roared Jayfeather; his voice was surprisingly loud over the warriors' frantic voices.
When silence descended for a second time, he said to them more quietly, "We wait in the nest. As long as we stay here, then the fire won't hurt us anymore."
"How do you know?" snapped Moleclaw.
"Has StarClan sent you a sign at last?" Toadstep asked hopefully.
"Wait," Aura stated, her clear voice ringing throughout and silencing the restless Clan. "Water will crush the fire. They will be quelled in moments now—we will be safe."
For a moment there was silence, and no cat dared to speak again. Uncertainty hovered thick as smoke over the Clan.
Skypaw, who was starting to recover, opened her eyes, aware that she had seen the entire meeting unfold through her closed eyelids. At least her insight was recovering, though tiredness still tugged at her limbs and her head. She wanted to close her eyes and sleep like Thrushsong had suggested.
Then, her senses became aware of a dull, thrumming sound rippling through the air above them. She looked up in increasing fear as it grew louder and louder. Skypaw frowned. What was that sound?
"What is that?" Dovewing muttered to herself, flattening her ears.
The sound grew incredibly loud, impossibly loud, and the lifeless-looking trees around them began to sway in an unusual wind. For a moment, panic gripped the Clan—but Aura was calm and her eyes clear as ever, her gaze fixed upon some point in the sky. Following her gaze, Skypaw saw, to her surprise, some strange creature fly overhead. It seemed to have four wings that revolved around its head instead of flapping on either side of its body, and it carried a large, tree-stump-shaped kind of container beneath its belly that her insight informed her was full of water.
"What in StarClan is that?" hissed Seednose in astonishment.
"It will quell the flames," answered Aura calmly.
And sure enough, the strange creature flew over the blazing forest. The stump-shaped container was upended and a huge amount of water cascaded over the forest, quelling the angry red colour that was rising into the air and silencing the greedy flames.
The creature moved away but moments later it returned and repeated the action of putting out the fire.
Skypaw didn't see it finish its task of quenching the flames with enough water to fill a river. Her weariness finally caught up to her and she slipped into a dreamless exhausted sleep, cradled against her mother's belly as though she were a frightened kit, scared from a nightmare.