Skypaw opened her eyes the next morning to find that she wasn't in her den.
After a moment, the terrifying ordeal of last night returned to her. Sudden fear for her trapped Clanmates propelled her to her paws—but her body refused to work the way it normally should, and her head spun with tiredness. It was as though she had never slept.
"Steady on," a voice mewed nearby, and a dappled tail rested lightly on Skypaw's shoulder. "You've drained yourself again."
Skypaw sighed. "Like with the bear?"
"Yes, like with the bear. It was adrenalin that kept you going last night—not any more, though." Aura softly sighed. "Be quiet. Your Clanmates are exhausted, too. Let them rest for a few hours longer before they see what has become of their home."
Skypaw felt ice settle in her stomach. "What...what do you...?"
"Look for yourself," Aura murmured quietly.
And Skypaw did.
She walked to the entrance of the Twoleg nest and stopped with horror, staring out at the forest that she used to know.
"StarClan save us," Skypaw whispered hoarsely, shakily. "What has become of our home?"
Aura was beside her, pressing her body against Skypaw's for comfort. Her golden eyes were shadowed with sadness.
"I'm sorry I did not foresee this earlier," she murmured. "The Dark Forest is gaining strength, Skypaw. We both were misled last night. They shielded our powers from us and so we could not see the approaching fire."
Skypaw barely heard her. She only saw the devastation. More than half the forest was completely destroyed—the trees blackened, tall and straight and nearly completely barren of branches. Most had been simply burned away. The ground was charred. The snow had melted and the earth had been burned, scarred and scorched, destroying what new growth might have been lying beneath the surface and awaiting the coming of newleaf. Even now in the predawn, when the sky was a dull, cinder gray, clouds of ash rose in a steady, ceaseless swirl up into the sky.
The forest had died.
"Great StarClan," whispered Skypaw, her voice shaking. Her eyes stung. "Our home is gone."
She sat down, completely caught in her despair. "It's leaf-bare, Aura—the middle of it! Prey is scarce enough as it is, and now there is no food for my Clan. I should have foreseen this fire much earlier...just like I saw the bear! But the Nightmares..." She shivered violently. The dream of the Dark Forest was etched into her mind. She could not forget it easily.
"Mapleshade is twisted and cruel," Aura mewed quietly. "I am glad I escaped from SunClan when I did." She turned to Skypaw and said firmly, "Don't let her manipulate you, Skypaw. You have the power to manipulate Time—don't let an ancient, long-dead phantom bend you to her will."
"But she has the means to," Skypaw murmured, flicking her tailtip with agitation.
"The Dark Forest has the means to do a lot of things, Skypaw," Aura sighed. "And it is our task to make sure that they do not succeed in their endeavours." She looked out over the scorched forest and added, "And we will come through this, Skypaw. You have despaired over many things, over the bear, over the sickness. This is a trial—now we will find ways of overcoming this devastation."
"But the bear, we could fight," Skypaw argued, feeling anger rise in her. "The bear and the sickness, I was forewarned about. The fire, I was not! Owlkit simply had a dream that in the wake of my training, I didn't pay enough heed to. This fire is my fault!"
"It is not your fault," Aura said firmly, placing a paw on Skypaw's. "If anything, the fault is mine—but this is the result, and we must deal with the consequences. We are ThunderClan. We are the destroyers of a bear, the most terrifying creature that the Clans have ever encountered. This is not the first time that the forest has burned, and this is not the first time ThunderClan will recover from it. Remember, Skypaw—we are the Clan of Destiny. We are not weak. Hardships strengthen us. We will find a way to survive until newleaf dawns, the prey returns and the trees regain their life."
Skypaw was silent. She didn't know what to say. She felt very cold and empty inside.
Maybe I'm not the right cat for this task, she thought mutely. Maybe the Four were wrong. I know I should have seen this fire coming. I know I should have had the strength to protect more of my Clanmates.
The thought that Lionstar was still trapped in the hollow...that her grandfather was, and the deputy, and Lionstar's mate, and brave, young Flamefur who had saved her life...restlessly she swept her tail over the ground.
"I have to find them," she murmured.
Aura nodded. "But don't go alone," she said.
"I don't know who to ask," Skypaw muttered. "Everyone is so caught in their grief..."
"Not everyone must go," Aura insisted. "They must remain here. There is nothing left of the camp. The hollow is charred and the dens are destroyed. It is leaf-bare and the abandoned Twoleg nest is the Clan's only home now, until they gather the strength and materials to rebuild. And to have the entire Clan move would only exhaust everyone. Squirrelflight can hardly breathe. Jayfeather has no supplies. The older warriors are exhausted and the apprentices, kits and queen are too shocked to move."
"So who has the strength to come with me, then?" asked Skypaw quietly.
"The younger. Some will remain behind to guard the Clan. But a few will go with you, Skypaw, and they won't blame you for this."
Despite the gravity of the situation, Skypaw was glad to be walking alongside her friends and Clanmates again.
Aura had roused these cats and they had, as she had predicted, agreed to go with Skypaw at once. They harboured no resentment or anger to the apprentice. Larkflight and Ferndust had argued, naturally, that if it were not for Skypaw's insight, then more would have died.
"Some are meant to sacrifice themselves for the good of the Clan," Toadstep quietly reminded Skypaw as they moved through the dead forest. "And when they do, StarClan will honour their coming."
This did nothing to help consolidate Skypaw's guilt.
In the end a group of seven cats were moving through the forest—Larkflight and Ferndust, Skypaw's two closest friends, Toadstep, a loyal and steadfast senior warrior, Yellownose, who was insisting on finding his brother, Patchwhisker, determined on finding his parents, and Dovewing, StarClan-bent not to let Skypaw go alone, also desperate to find her littermate.
"Great StarClan," murmured Ferndust, eyes wide. "Look at our home..."
"What are we going to do for food?" murmured Patchwhisker, with an uneasy flick of his black-and-white tail.
"We'll think of something," Yellownose replied tetchily. "But I'm more concerned finding my Clanmates rather than thinking of survival myself."
Patchwhisker narrowed his eyes but Skypaw snapped at the pair of them, "The two of you, just shut up! Why waste your strength bickering when we should be using it to find our missing Clanmates?"
Both looked affronted at being told off by one of the youngest cats in the Clan. "You would speak to me in that way, apprentice?" hissed Patchwhisker, lashing his tail.
"But she has a point," Dovewing told the boisterous tom irritably. "Shut up, and that is an order coming from your senior."
Patchwhisker's eyes blazed, and he muttered darkly, "It's only because she's your kit."
"And because she has a point," Ferndust interjected. "Just calm down. We're all hungry and stressed and frightened for our Clanmates." There was a tremor in her voice as she spoke, but her eyes were unusually clear and calm. "I know that we'll be fine, and our Clanmates will be fine."
She shot a sideways glance at Skypaw for affirmation, but the apprentice shook her head slightly. Her powers were tired. She couldn't use them, not until they regenerated and she had the strength, and the will, to look into the future. She was terrified of what they were going to see.
Somewhere in the woods, a lone blackbird trilled a melody. Skypaw felt her stomach growl. She was hungry and tired, but she didn't bother with the blackbird. It was in the trees and there was no undergrowth to hide in. No cat, despite hunger, was in the mood to hunt.
At last the hollow came into view. Skypaw closed her eyes, afraid what she was going to see, and walked faster.
She heard the swiftly-drawn breaths of shock from her Clanmates. "Oh, no...no..." Toadstep moaned.
"Our home...!" Dovewing wailed.
Skypaw opened her eyes.
The destruction was worse, far worse, than she had thought.
Everything was gone. The clearing was charred. The dens were no more than twisted blackened brambles. The branches that had crushed the nursery and the thorn barrier were blackened logs that crumbled away into black powder at the slightest touch. What looked to have been a small burned tree had fallen over the edge of the hollow, completely covering Highledge. The rotted beech had been burned nearly completely away, leaving only a few dark, foul-smelling lumps of rotted wood as a skeleton.
Skypaw swallowed against the choking smell of ash and smoke. "It's bad," she mewed, trying to control her rising tears. "It's really bad. But we're ThunderClan." Hollowly she repeated Aura's words, trying to inspire hope. "We'll come back. We'll rebuild. We won't be driven from our home simply by a mere fire."
"A mere fire," hissed Patchwhisker, "that has obliterated the forest. That has completely consumed our home."
"Flamefur!" howled Yellownose. "Flamefur!"
The patrol heard only echoes.
"He might be unconscious," said Dovewing, her amber eyes faintly hopeful. "And we won't accomplish anything by standing here mourning over the loss of our camp." There was grief in her words, but she still pushed on. She braced herself and leapt, springing onto the log. She let out a muffled yowl of surprise as her paws skidded from under her, sending a cloud of black cinders into the air, and she dug her claws into the charred wood. Then she pulled herself over, and Skypaw heard her land on the other side.
One by one, the patrol followed suit. They landed on the scorched earth. The devastation was much worse now that they were in the remains of their camp. For a moment, horror simply rooted them to the spot. Then Yellownose broke away.
"Flamefur!" he shrieked.
"I'll go after him," Toadstep offered quietly. "Skypaw, you and Larkflight check the dens. Patchwhisker, Ferndust, Dovewing...just look around."
He was the eldest of the group, and they followed his word without question. With small, subdued nods, they went about their assigned duties with heavy hearts.
Skypaw pricked her ears, listening desperately for the sound of a cough, a rustle of a pelt, anything that heralded a Clan member might still be alive. Her fur rippled on her shoulders. She was aware that she was barely containing wild, broken sobs.
She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder.
"I think you did admirably last night," said a gentle voice in her ear.
"Don't say that," Skypaw hissed, looking away. "Just don't."
"But I do." Larkflight's green eyes were pools of sorrow. "Without you, more would have died. I know this even without having your gift."
"They're not gifts. They're curses." Skypaw spat the words venomously. "And I don't want to be their champion if it means feeling this guilt. It's clawing me over and over again, Larkflight—don't even attempt to try and understand my pain."
"I'm not saying I do understand it." Larkflight buried his muzzle against her cheek. "But I'm saying that I'm going to be here for you no matter what, Skypaw."
His words seemed to lessen the pain a little. Skypaw glanced up into his eyes. She saw that he was earnest, and that comforted her even further. For a moment, their pelts brushed. Then Skypaw broke away, calmer, more focused. Wordlessly she headed towards the medicine den and in silence Larkflight followed her.
It was only ruin now. Ruin, ash, dust...all of Jayfeather's herbs were gone.
Seeing this filled Skypaw with new terror. How could they possibly survive a leaf-bare without any medicine?
"StarClan..." she whispered suddenly. "Poppyfrost..."
"Her leg's broken." Larkflight's tail bristled. "Fox dung. Jayfeather has nothing to help her..."
"We could ask the other Clans," Skypaw mused quietly.
"And what would they do?" Larkflight questioned grimly. "Supplies are scarce enough in leaf-bare's stinging cold. They wouldn't want to waste their precious herbs for an enemy warrior." He curled his tail around Skypaw's shoulders. "We might have to go further upstream where there's a chance some of the herbs escaped the frost and the fire. We'll find a way to help Poppyfrost. Don't worry—her sister broke her leg and—"
He broke off, and the two exchanged a shocked glance.
"We've got to find her," Skypaw whispered. "She's the only other who can possibly help her sister!"
They backtracked out of the den and were about to head towards the nursery and what was left of the apprentices' den when they suddenly heard a broken yowl of grief resound around the clearing.
"Oh, StarClan," whispered Larkflight. "Please don't...please don't let that..."
They ran forward—and stopped in their horror when they saw Toadstep and Yellownose crouched beside a burned, charred body lying lifelessly on the ground.
"Oh, no..." Skypaw's pawsteps slowed until she could only stare. Her heart was beating very strangely in her throat.
Larkflight's mew was taut. "It's Birchfall."
Skypaw felt herself begin to shake. Her grandfather...
"It looked as though he suffocated," murmured Yellownose. His eyes were very round and his fur was spiked as though he were cold. Breathing unevenly, he stepped backwards. Toadstep curled his tail firmly around the shaken younger warrior, his bright eyes half-closed.
Skypaw heard pawsteps nearby and knew that Ferndust and Dovewing had come over. Dovewing stiffened when she saw Birchfall, and threw back her head in a stinging yowl of despair. Skypaw flattened her ears against the sound—it was the most terrible noise she had ever heard. She moved to her mother and pressed her body against hers.
Ferndust ran her tabby tail soothingly over Dovewing's back. "Take heart in knowing that he hunts in StarClan now," she murmured gently to the older warrior. "He'll never know the feeling of a wet nest again."
Skypaw was quiet with shock. Slowly she drew away from her mother and walked forward to crouch beside her fallen kin and press her muzzle into his charred fur. Guilt raged through her.
This is all my fault...
Skypaw leapt up in alarm—there was fire everywhere! It had returned—where were the others!? Smoke spun high in the sky. Ashes fell like raindrops...
She calmed a little. Everything had visual echoes...everything moved just slightly too eerily and too slowly for it to be real—well, real as though it were happening in full again. She cautiously looked around—and felt a brief thrill of amazement and surprise race through her when she realized what was happening.
Just like at the Twoleg nest and in the nursery...I'm reliving a memory.
She watched as a strange, ghostly image of herself was pulled from the blazing elders' den by Lionstar—she'd know his bright golden tabby fur anywhere, even though it was almost indistinguishable so heavily covered with soot and smoke. Skypaw instinctively stepped back, even though it was only a memory, as she saw herself land on the ground.
"Run!" Lionstar's voice was faintly echoing, but it resonated with the authority that it had borne since he had accepted the mantle of leadership.
Skypaw looked on as he turned and slipped back into the elders' den and her past-self fled, but she didn't turn around to follow her. She watched instead as the elders' den began to roar with a voice of its own, and a shriek ring up inside—a wordless shriek of senseless terror. At that moment, Flamefur appeared—his dark ginger pelt almost shining like the fire itself—and he dragged Birchfall out of the flaming honeysuckle by the scruff. He pulled the elder free of the burning den and turned back to yowl desperately, "Get her out of there!"
Lionstar appeared barely a second later, Briarlight hanging from his jaws, and Cinderheart and Ivypool flanking them. Cinderheart hurried to help support Briarlight but suddenly they heard a cracking sound and an ominous rush of searing air, just as the group of warriors saw the last few shapes before them slip out through the smoldering gorse tunnel.
"Squirrelflight's out of the camp!" Flamefur informed. "Let's get out of—"
A loud, menacing splintering noise interrupted him. Flamefur and his Clanmates looked up—the fiery sorrel branch was preparing to give way. Burning pieces of twig and bark began to rain down on the thorn barrier. Skypaw saw his eyes widen in terror. He grabbed Birchfall's scruff and began to furiously haul the elder towards the exit, but he had barely taken a few pawsteps when the sorrel branch gave way and began to fall.
Skypaw followed Flamefur's gaze and thought she saw a pair of blue eyes gazing in disbelief back at the camp—her own. Then the outside world was lost in an explosion of red and black as the sorrel branch crashed on top of the thorn barrier. Smoke rushed up and heat rolled over all the cats; they yowled in fear and staggered backwards. The force of the branch slamming onto the ground was so strong that Flamefur was knocked clean off his paws.
Skypaw winced as the smoke came falling as well—it seemed to obscure the entire camp in a choking fog. Menacing glows of red in all directions were the only thing that the cats could see, besides themselves and the faint outlines of their companions. Flamefur picked himself up and gasped, "We've got to get out of here!"
"There's no...there's no way!" Ivypool broke away and coughed heavily. Then she rasped, "We're trapped here..."
"Highledge," Flamefur realized. "We can take shelter in there!"
Beneath him, Birchfall shuddered and gasped. He was choking. Flamefur whirled back to seize his scruff, but suddenly teeth snagged his tail and jerked him backwards.
"He's dead, Flamefur!" Lionstar yowled. "He's dead!" The elder was still. "We can't take him or you will be as well—!" He sounded torn as he stared at his fallen Clanmate, but there was a firm resolution in his eyes. Flamefur opened his mouth to argue but a rush of burning, scalding heat pummelled their pelts, and the glows around them became much brighter and much more sinister. "Hurry! We don't have much time!" Lionstar was wheezing badly and Flamefur could barely breathe, let alone speak, but wearily he stumbled after his leader and the others, his heart wrenching and tearing at the mere fact that he had failed to save Birchfall.
Skypaw jerked out of the memory as the cats vanished into the smoke, almost immediately to feel her legs give beneath her. She swayed, but suddenly there was Ferndust supporting her, her green eyes sparkling with worry.
"What happened?" she asked urgently. "Skypaw? Skypaw!"
"I'm all right," Skypaw murmured as she fought to stand on her own. She was aware that everyone was staring at her, and she briskly shook her head to clear the dizziness. She felt exhaustion crash over her, but she managed to rasp, "Highledge...they're in Highledge..."
Toadstep stared at her. "How do you know that?"
"I'd trust her," Larkflight mewed, sudden memory coming into his eyes. "She has this other gift...she can look into memories by touching something related to it...she did it once during our hunting assessments, went back generations and generations ago to when Ivypool and Blossomfall were still apprentices!"
Skypaw was finally able to stand on her own, though the weariness didn't subside. "They're in Highledge," she told them more resolutely. "Birchfall suffocated and they had to leave him to save themselves."
The patrol turned their gaze towards Highledge. Fallen rubble and charred branches obscured the entrance to it, and suddenly struck with urgency, they raced forward on winged paws, calling the names of their Clanmates.
"Do you think they're still even alive?" whispered Patchwhisker.
"They've got to be!" Yellownose's eyes were frantic as he began to scrabble up the badly-scorched rockfall to the blocked entrance. "Flamefur? Flamefur, can you hear me? Can anyone hear me?"
"Ivypool!" cried Dovewing, as she began to scrabble at the rubble. "Ivypool!"
"We're not going to get anywhere just by calling their names," meowed Toadstep. He impatiently pushed past Yellownose and threw his weight against one of the charred branches. "Help me move some of this debris!"
Ferndust quickly joined him. Yellownose and Dovewing looked as though they were on the verge of attacking the branch and tearing it into cinder-stained bark strips. Without the need of further encouragement, they threw themselves against it. After a few tense moments passed, the first branch rolled down from Highledge and crashed against where the fallen beech used to be.
"Patchwhisker, Skypaw, Larkflight, start moving the debris outside of camp," Toadstep commanded. "We can at least start clearing up at the same time working to free our Clanmates."
Larkflight and Skypaw nodded and headed around to the other end of the felled branch. Skypaw's nose curled at the foul stench that came off it, but it barely penetrated through her whirling thoughts. Were the others really still in Highledge? They would've suffocated, surely; the debris had blocked off the entire entranceway!
"Are you certain that they're in Highledge?" Larkflight whispered. He grasped the log and threw his weight backwards at the same time Patchwhisker shoved forward with all his might.
Skypaw nodded, grabbing at the branch and helping the two toms move it. "They are," she murmured around it. She knew that they were—but she dreaded at finding them, for fear of finding them dead.
For well over an hour the ThunderClan cats worked—desperately, wordlessly, only hoping and praying with all their might to StarClan that their Clanmates were safe. Dovewing and Yellownose were on the verge of tears, and Skypaw felt her own concern and terror slowly rise at seeing her mother so frightened.
Toadstep was the only one who still had a calm, resolute head. Though there was fear crawling beneath his pelt, he did a remarkable job keeping it concealed, calmly giving out instructions and orders. Skypaw felt a flash of admiration for him and his ability to have a clear head in a time of crisis.
Eventually enough of the fallen stones were cleared and branches thrown from Highledge to make small opening into the den. Instantly Yellownose converged of it, wildly clawing his way through, shrieking his brother's name. Toadstep leapt forward, seized him by his scruff and dragged him backwards.
"No! Let me go!" Yellownose was on the verge of attacking his Clanmate. His claws were out and glinting in the dull light.
"If you do that you'll crush yourself!" Toadstep snapped, giving him a rough shake before releasing him. "Be sensible! The opening's fragile and you've probably dislodged more stones than made the entrance bigger!"
"Is there anyone inside?" Ferndust leaned near the hole and called into it, but recoiled as a small gray cloud whirled out from the hole. "Great StarClan, it's full of ash!"
"ThunderClan!" Toadstep yowled. "Can you hear me?"
Skypaw, Larkflight and Patchwhisker abandoned the branch that they were dragging towards the crushed barrier and raced back to Highledge.
"Lionstar!" shouted Toadstep. "Ivypool! Cinderheart! Anyone!"
Suddenly a feeble voice croaked from within. "Thank...thank StarClan..."
"They're alive!" Relief and joy laced Toadstep's words, and yowls rang up throughout the patrol. "Come on—we've only got to clear a few more of these rocks..."
"We need to clear out the ash!" Ferndust told him. "They need fresh air, immediately!"
Skypaw could hear movement within. "You found us!" wheezed a voice, and Skypaw felt a leap in her heart when she realized that it was Lionstar. "We thought we were going to die in here!"
"Never," growled Dovewing.
With renewed vigour the patrol worked, clawing away at the stones. Suddenly they felt a small tremor run through the pile, and a small sections of rocks gave in, clattering against each other before tumbling away, revealing a widened entrance into the leader's den, at the same time a silver cloud went sweeping out of it. The cats stepped backwards and closed their eyes and covered their mouths with their tails as the ash whirled up, but the moment that it had subsided, they crowded around the entrance. Skypaw saw that gathered all beneath them was a silky pile of cinders.
But at the very back of the cavern, Skypaw could see the faint outlines of several cats. They were lying slumped, but here and there a thin flank, slicked with silvery ash, was rising and falling. Lionstar was the only one on his feet.
"Come out of there, Lionstar," urged Toadstep. "We'll get the others out."
Lionstar shook his head and turned to gently grasp the scruff of his mate. Cinderheart seemed to be asleep or unconscious. He lifted her and carried her across the den. The patrol drew back, allowing him to emerge into the fresh air. Skypaw stared in dismay at her leader—his golden fluffy pelt was almost completely obscured beneath a layer of sickly silver ash. Cinderheart was even grayer than before, and she barely stirred as she was lowered onto Highledge.
"Look after her," Lionstar rasped, drawing in deep lungfuls of air. "I have to go back for the others..."
"No, Lionstar, let us—" Patchwhisker began.
"Ash will take forever to clean off," Lionstar cut across his son. "I'm already covered in it. You will be as well—you have to go to running water to have it cleaned off, and that's all the way down at the lake. You'll be needed to take the others to wherever it is that you've made camp." Wearily he glanced down at Cinderheart. Ferndust and Larkflight were trying to rouse her.
"We don't mind, Lionstar," said Skypaw.
Lionstar's gaze lingered on her for a moment. "At least," Skypaw continued, "I don't mind. We have a lot of cats to look after the others. I'll help you carry the others out."
Lionstar hesitated, and then he wordlessly disappeared back into the den. As Toadstep began to give orders to move Cinderheart to the abandoned Twoleg nest, Skypaw followed her leader into the Highledge cave.
The stench of ash struck her in the muzzle like a stinging blow. She gave a startled gasp, and another when she felt what she was walking in. "Hurry," said a voice from just up ahead. "The ash has gotten to the others." His voice was grim and tired, and he stood over the rest of his Clanmates.
Coughing, Skypaw drew near. "Are they alive?" Her heart hammered at her throat at the mere thought that they weren't. They had to be alive!
Lionstar was silent. Then he said, "You carry Briarlight."
"But what about—?"
"You carry Briarlight," Lionstar repeated, more firmly. "I'll take Ivypool."
Skypaw glanced down at the crippled elder. She grasped her scruff—she was surprisingly light in her jaws, and the apprentice wondered how much she had been eating throughout the hard leaf-bare. Briarlight gave no response as Skypaw dragged her through the cave towards the cleared entranceway, where several concerned faces were peering in. Just as Skypaw heaved Briarlight out into open air and out of the cinder-strewn den, the elder suddenly shuddered violently and rasped a mouthful of air.
"She's alive!" Toadstep's voice was etched with relief.
Skypaw gently laid her on the ground. Briarlight leaned over to one side and coughed violently, drawing desperate, deep lungfuls of air. "Easy," Skypaw warned as Briarlight gasped. "You'll get your breath back, don't worry."
Briarlight began to cease in her desperate breathing and had the strength to glance up at her would-be saviour. "You...you found us," she murmured. Her voice was faint, but a soft purr was rumbling at the back of her throat.
"Yes, we did," Skypaw told her, forcing a small purr of her own. "We're taking you to the abandoned Twoleg nest where the rest of ThunderClan is gathered." She looked up at the patrol. "Toadstep, can you look after her?"
Toadstep wordlessly nodded. Gently grasping his former denmate's scruff, he carried her carefully down the rockfall and into the scorched camp clearing.
Then a wail rose up behind Skypaw and she whipped around to see Lionstar emerge with Ivypool. Dovewing had cried out, and she raced towards her sister, taking her from Lionstar before he had even fully climbed out. Dovewing gently rested her littermate on Highledge, nudging her, eyes frantic.
"Is she alive?" Skypaw hurried to her mother's side.
"She can't be dead!" Dovewing's voice was hysterical.
"She has ash in her lungs," Lionstar reported. He gently placed two paws on his deputy's side, and then after a moment, pushed down hard. A small spasm went through Ivypool's body, but Lionstar leaned back and pushed again, and again, until Ivypool abruptly started to respond, coughing and writhing beneath him.
"Ivypool!" Dovewing cried in joy.
"Look after her," Lionstar ordered, stepping back. Dovewing didn't need to be told twice. As Ivypool blinked open her eyes and was made aware of her surroundings, Dovewing helped her sister shakily to her paws and down the rockfall towards the camp entrance.
"Where's Flamefur?" demanded Yellownose, who had remained silent throughout the whole affair of rescuing the others. His tail lashed in agitation.
Lionstar looked at the younger warrior for a moment, and then he wordlessly turned and disappeared back into his den. Skypaw sensed that she wasn't to follow, and with the two other warriors, she waited.
Their leader emerged a moment later with a limp, smokestained ginger tom being carried by his scruff. Yellownose gave a cry and hurried towards his brother. Lionstar gently rested Flamefur on the ground.
"Flamefur!" cried Yellownose, pawing at his brother's pelt. "Flamefur, wake up!"
Skypaw glanced at Lionstar, wondering if he was going to do that lung-clearing thing that he had done for Ivypool. But the ThunderClan leader was silent, and his eyes were heavy and sad. He was looking at the ground, not moving.
"Flamefur!" Yellownose yowled, more frantically.
Skypaw silently approached the lifeless warrior. She stared in dismay at his body. Streaks of fur had been scorched away by the cruel flames. His body was covered in ash, so much of it that he was almost unrecognizable. His eyes were closed.
Gingerly, Skypaw whispered his name. It stirred no response.
Then, slowly, she lifted a paw and placed it over his heart. There was no pulse.
And the ground was swept away beneath Skypaw's feet.
Once again, she had been thrown back into the raging fire that had destroyed ThunderClan's camp, but she was picking up from where she'd left off—she watched as the mighty flames rose up in a ceaseless wall around the camp. The heat and the roaring pummelled at her fur and ears. Flamefur was racing alongside his Clanmates towards Highledge.
Suddenly there was another ominous crack and Ivypool shrieked, "Watch out!" A blazing branch was falling and crashed close nearby. A rush of flames swelled up and even as Flamefur leapt away, he gave a shriek of pain and fell to his side; the side that faced the flare was scorched. Ivypool, who was mostly uninjured, leapt to her feet and helped Flamefur to his, but despite the pain the young warrior was in, he gasped resolutely, "I can...I can handle myself...!"
"We're nearly at Highledge!" Lionstar yowled.
"Just leave me!" Briarlight coughed in Cinderheart's grip. "I'm a dead cat anyway..."
"We are not leaving you!" Cinderheart hissed furiously.
"You'll go faster without me! There's no time!"
"We're not going to leave you, Briarlight!" Lionstar's voice was hard and tinged with grief. Does he regret leaving Birchfall to be devoured by the fire?
They began to scramble up the rockfall, but Flamefur was weakening. He kept slipping, and he was breathing badly, rasping and gasping for every lungful of air. Briarlight was being dragged up the rockfall but Cinderheart could barely breathe and her strength was starting to fail her. Ivypool raced to help her move the crippled elder.
"Flamefur! Come on!" Lionstar yowled from atop Highledge.
Flamefur, wheezing badly, glanced upwards. Skypaw followed his gaze. There was a loud cracking sound unlike anything that they had heard before. A young tree was starting to fall over the edge of the hollow, but pebbles and stones were rattling and raining in a large cascade around its loosening, burning roots. They saw a large crack split the face of rock where the tree had been growing against, and suddenly both Flamefur and Skypaw knew what was going to happen.
"Get inside!" Flamefur shrieked. Adrenalin was coursing through his body. There was only a few heartbeats before it gave way. He raced towards Briarlight and with strength formerly unknown to him, he seized her and pushed as hard as he could. She landed on top of Highledge with a gasp, stirring feebly. Lionstar grabbed her scruff and began to haul her inside, but suddenly there was another cascade of rocks, and the burning young tree toppled over, bringing with it a small stony avalanche.
Wordlessly Flamefur shoved against Ivypool and Cinderheart with all his remaining strength, throwing them into the den. The first stones fell and bruised him but he ran forward. His legs were weak from the wounds he had received, and he didn't run as fast as he would have liked, or could. The larger stones crashed down behind him, throwing him completely off his paws. At the same time a choking cloud of gray swept into the den as the tree was crushed by the stones, suffocating the flames, and sending a huge cloud of cinders into the den. Flamefur, unable to move, was engulfed in its swelling tide. The last thing that he heard was his Clanmates, crying his name in horror. Then he knew nothing more.
Skypaw emerged from the memory, dazed and horrified by what she had seen. She was aware that the others were staring at her, stunned, half-hopeful. "What is it?" whispered Yellownose, and his voice was trembling. "What...what did you see?"
Skypaw was silent, slowly breathing in and out. Then, she looked up at Lionstar. He slowly nodded. Something unspoken passed between all the gathered cats, and Yellownose threw back his head and wailed a terrible, terrible cry of pure, wretched grief.
The rain from the cloudy skies above fell harder.
They returned to the abandoned Twoleg nest late that evening. The Clan waited anxiously for their return, and while they felt relief that some of their Clanmates were alive, they felt sorrow for the two who had not survived.
The bodies of Birchfall and Flamefur were rested in the centre of the abandoned Twoleg nest as a soft rumble of thunder echoed above them. Rain poured down through the roof spaces in the nest. Hollythorn and her kits were huddled in a dry corner, with Moleclaw standing protectively near them. The kits were very quiet, curled closely into their mother's soft dappled belly fur.
Aura was with Jayfeather. They spoke in low voices as they treated the survivors to the best of their ability. Poppyfrost's leg had been set straight with a splint and a few blades of grass that had survived the fire, but it was still giving her immense discomfort, and it was difficult keeping her still when she saw her son being placed beside Birchfall. Her mate and surviving son pressed against her soothingly. The family was left to grieve.
Ivypool had recovered enough to get back on her feet and start assigning duties, much to the rest of the Clan's relief. It felt good to have something to do. Lionstar and Skypaw returned to the nest from a quick wash in the lake to find the Clan busy working and preparing Birchfall and Flamefur for their vigil.
Almost as soon as they had returned, Spottedheart came hurrying out from the Twoleg nest and nearly bumped into Lionstar. "Father!" she cried in a mixture of joy and relief, and threw herself purposefully against him. Lionstar gently curled his tail around her shoulders, and then he drew back.
"You sound anxious."
"Yes..." Spottedheart was hesitating, and then she mewed, "Lionstar, Thrushsong's gone missing."
"What?" Lionstar's voice sharpened with terror.
"It was after the survivors returned..." Spottedheart's tail lashed with agitation. "She said that she was going to go and try and find some water. But she hasn't returned when she said she would..."
"I'll find her," said Skypaw instantly.
Lionstar glanced at her. "Skypaw, I—"
"Your Clan needs you," Skypaw told him. "I know that Thrushsong's your daughter, but I think I know where to find her." She was starting to recover from her exhaustion. "And I think Aura knows as well. You'll need to speak with her to discuss the next plan."
Lionstar hesitated. Then he nodded. "Make sure she's okay," he mewed concernedly, before he turned and accompanied Spottedheart back into the abandoned Twoleg nest. Skypaw watched him go for a moment, before she turned and sprinted back down towards the lake.
She wasn't sure why Thrushsong would want to go there. Perhaps the shore was a good place to think. It was the only place in the forest that had escaped the terrible fire, where the vegetation ended and the water began. She wasn't sure why Thrushsong would want to leave the makeshift camp at all. Didn't she realize that her parents were alive and well, and that she was needed in the camp—needed more than ever to provide for many hungry mouths?
She came to the shore; as her insight had predicted, there was Thrushsong, sitting close to the waterline watching the small waves pummeling the pebbles beneath her paws. She didn't seem bothered by the rainfall that drummed around her. As Skypaw drew near her, she noticed the young, beautiful warrior's face was damp with more than rain.
"Thrushsong?" she asked quietly, as she drew near.
Thrushsong glanced up. Her eyes were wet, and she murmured in a wavering voice, "I wondered if they'd send warriors to find me."
"Of course we would," said Skypaw gently, sitting down beside her. "We worry for all our Clanmates."
Thrushsong drew a shuddering breath. "I just want to be alone."
"Your Clan needs you."
"I know!" Thrushsong's voice sharpened. "I know they need me! But can't you see that I need to be alone?" Her eyes were trained on the rocky shore beneath her paws.
Skypaw frowned slightly. "There's something more to this..."
"Great job, Skypaw." Thrushsong's voice was uncharacteristically bitter. "Give a prize to the cat who can read minds..."
"But...but I'm not reading your mind..." Skypaw looked away. "See? I can only read minds when I can see into the eyes. I can only look into memories if I touch them." She moved her tail away, curling it over her own paws. "Please. Lionstar's worried for you. Your brother and sister...why? Why are you out here alone?"
For a moment, Thrushsong was silent.
Then she murmured, "It's Flamefur."
Skypaw glanced at her in puzzlement. "But...I don't..."
"We're not kin," Thrushsong snapped. "Clearly we're not. Until a few moons ago we weren't even friends."
"So what is this about, then?"
Thrushsong was breathing quickly, her eyes staring at nothing—and suddenly, Skypaw knew.
"It's because I'm carrying his kits."
I can't believe that we're doing this. But we have no other choice.
Skypaw looked across the border into WindClan; the stream that leapt over the pebbles, rolling and carving its way down through the hill towards the lake.
Beside her was Seednose. She tasted the air. "It's clear," she murmured.
"Then we have no time to lose," Dewclaw growled. "Skypaw. Do you think anyone's out there?"
Skypaw drew air into her scent glands. The smell was windblown and grassy, carrying the faintest traces of rabbit. She closed her eyes. "No. The WindClan patrol is just returning. If we're fast, I don't think they'll detect us."
"We can roll in the grass over there to help disguise our scent," suggested Seednose, quietly and apprehensively.
"Rain's coming soon. It'll help wash our scent away." Skypaw gave a shivering sigh. "Look. I know that we don't want to do this. Since when has ThunderClan stolen from another Clan? But there's no prey at all in our territory. Everyone's starving, and now we have two queens and litters of kits to feed."
"I wish we could just ask for help," murmured Seednose.
"Don't get any ideas," Dewclaw growled at her. "They'll know we're weak. They think that we're strong enough to do anything after we killed that bear." He flexed his claws. "So let's prove it to them. ThunderClan cats will do anything to survive."
Skypaw flicked her tail. "All right. Follow me. We'll bring some food back to our Clanmates."
She checked around her once more. There were no WindClan cats in the area. Then she leapt across the stream, clearing it in a single bound. As she fell silently on the far shore, she heard the two soft thuds as her companions landed beside her.
"All right." Skypaw dropped down and rolled in the soft, cold grass until her dusky gray fur was thoroughly covered in grass smears and seeds. As she sat up, she saw Dewclaw and Seednose hurriedly doing the same. "Let's go."
"ThunderClan has never had to do this before," said Dewclaw thoughtfully, flicking his tail. "We really are suffering on hard times."
"We have to put our honour aside for a few hours," Seednose murmured. "Lionstar even understands this." She gave a small sigh. "Our ancestors may be frowning on us, but we have to survive. There must be four Clans."
Skypaw sighed. Though she was unwilling, she focused her mind on the task that lay ahead of her. Quietly, mutely, she fell into step behind the two older warriors as on cautious, silent paws—the paws of thieves—they moved deeper into WindClan territory as a bellowing gale shook the silver cloud-splattered skies above them.