"You heard her. She declared war, Lionstar—war." Ivypool's voice was taut with worry. "We knew that stealing prey from WindClan was going to come to this—now we've got this, and we have to pay the consequences. What's going to come is inevitable."
They were in the training hollow in the ruined forest, since the abandoned Twoleg nest appeared less than fitting to hold an urgent council. The hollow itself wasn't as damaged as the rest of the forest, though the sand was mingled with ash and the smell of cinders still lingered here.
Looking around at the assembled cats, Skypaw couldn't help but note that this was almost exactly like the council that had been when the threat of the bear had first arisen, save that in Bumblestripe's place was the Clan deputy. All the others—Cinderheart, Squirrelflight, Dovewing, Jayfeather, Aura, the Clan leader and Skypaw herself—were in attendance.
"What do you propose that I do, then?" Lionstar asked Ivypool wearily.
"Take an escort of warriors, speak with Sedgestar—" Ivypool was cut off when Jayfeather lifted his voice.
"Speaking with Sedgestar is going to be useless. You heard her." The blind medicine cat fixed a grim stare on his brother. "She's not going to listen to reason. You show your muzzle in their camp, she'll rip it off."
Cinderheart lashed her tail. "And the bad thing is that they actually have a right to rip them at all."
Lionstar glanced at his mate, and then mewed to the gathered cats, "What's done is done. That much can't be changed, at least. But we can decide what happens now." His amber eyes shadowed. "War is the last thing that our Clan needs. None of our warriors are fit to fight. It's the heart of leaf-bare, we have hungry mouths to feed—"
"—and that still doesn't justify the right of stealing." Dovewing's ears were flattened with guilt, and Skypaw pressed reassuringly against her mother.
Squirrelflight flicked her bony tail in frustration. "This is ridiculous," she rasped. "Just offer an apology to that cranky she-cat and let it be over with."
Jayfeather spat irritably at the frail elder. "Didn't you hear a word I said?" he growled. "Sedgestar isn't going to listen to any kind of reason that we offer. WindClan's too riled up to listen."
"They'll hurt a warrior," Squirrelflight growled, "but not a medicine cat. That's against the code."
Jayfeather flattened his ears further. "I'm not walking into WindClan to have my pelt ripped for the good of all ThunderClan, thanks. The code hasn't mattered to some WindClan warriors before." At his sudden silence, Skypaw guessed that he hadn't meant for the last part to slip out.
Cinderheart gave a frustrated sigh. "Your birth hardly has anything to do with this current situation, Jayfeather," she reprimanded.
"What is important is how we are going to face WindClan." Ivypool restlessly flicked her tail. "Or what we do now for lack of food. Do we keep stealing from WindClan? Keep angering them further? I bet they'll have doubled the patrols, and they'll be attacking any hunting patrol we send on sight."
Jayfeather hissed in frustration. "Wonderful. Just what I need—as well as mending Poppyfrost's leg, I now have to deal with skirmish claw wounds." He turned to glare fiercely at Lionstar. "There is a time and place for pride and honour, brother. We could always ask for help."
Lionstar's eyes were dark. "And what good would that do? Too late for that," he meowed bitterly. "The whole lake knows that we're a Clan full of thieves. Who'd help them? We can only help ourselves."
"Help ourselves to WindClan's rabbits, you mean," murmured Dovewing.
"And look how wonderfully that turned out," snapped Jayfeather.
Skypaw half-shook her head. "Arguing ourselves is going to get us nowhere," she pointed out to her Clanmates. "Only waste our breath, time and energy." At the mention of time, she felt the abilities stir within her—abilities she hadn't used since the day she'd uncovered the bodies of Birchfall and Flamefur from the burned hollow. "We should be focusing on trying to find food in our territory and making the abandoned Twoleg nest warmer as leaf-bare closes its grip around the forest."
"I wish for leaf-bare only to be over," Ivypool growled, half to herself. "I've forgotten what a warm day feels like."
At last, Lionstar turned to the only member of the council who hadn't spoken yet: "Aura. What do you suggest that we do?"
All eyes turned to the young tortoiseshell she-cat, who as always appeared unfazed at the amount of stares leveled at her. But Skypaw saw her clear pale amber eyes were troubled.
"The future's grim," she murmured. "It'll be a hard leaf-bare before newleaf comes."
"Ain't that the truth," Jayfeather grumbled.
Dovewing's eyes were pleading. "What do you suggest, Aura?"
Aura gave a small sigh. "Trust in yourselves," she mewed softly. "Food can be found in the right places—new life is already struggling to grow in leaf-bare, but if we focus, we can just scrape by, for a little while, until the war's concluded."
"And will it?" asked Lionstar hopefully.
Aura sighed, louder this time. This time, her eyes were definitely troubled. Looking straight at the Clan leader, she mewed, "It will; in the only way that a war can be resolved."
The gathered cats exchanged dark looks. "So we're going to battle again, then," Ivypool murmured quietly.
"Keep your claws sharp," Aura advised, "and trust in your abilities." She glanced meaningfully at Skypaw and added, "Trust in yourself, more than anything in this dark time. If you do that, no more lives need to be lost."
Skypaw flattened her ears. She knew perfectly well what Aura was saying beneath her cryptic words. Dovewing gave her daughter a worried frown, and the Clan leader and medicine cat glanced at each other.
"So what next?" asked Ivypool, in a small voice.
"Now," Dovewing mewed to her sister, "we prepare ourselves. There's a storm coming."
Jayfeather tipped his head to one side. "I thought our abilities were gone."
Dovewing frowned at the medicine cat. "I don't need my honed senses to hear it, Jayfeather," she murmured. "I can feel it on the wind, scorching my whiskers."
"Scorching our very souls," Aura added quietly. "Best we return to our Clan."
Skypaw closed her eyes and nodded. She could almost hear Mapleshade laughing.
The night chilled very suddenly and the Clan was whimpering in discomfort. Bundles of fur huddled together, desperate for warmth. Skypaw, instinctively knowing that there would be snowfall in the night and through the morning, called Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw to her. "No cat is to sleep on their own tonight," she explained as she let them snuggle into her sides. She felt them shivering against her and her heart twisted in pity for them. They were still so small and young, vulnerable to the unforgiving world around them.
Frostpaw's teeth were chattering and Jaggedpaw's nose was an unusual purple colour. "Are we going to die?" he mumbled.
Skypaw stared at them in surprise. "Who are you and what have you done with Jaggedpaw?" she admonished good-naturedly. "The kit version of yourself was a good deal braver than you were when you freed the stones and killed the bear."
Jaggedpaw drowsily lifted his head and gave a small purr of pride. "I am rather proud of that," he conceded quietly.
"You should be," murmured Frostpaw, already half asleep. "You're the best brother ever."
Jaggedpaw lowered his chin over his forepaws and tucked his tail over his nose. "I just want to go home," he mumbled at last. "Horrible out here. Cold, wet, mean."
Skypaw gave a small sigh. If only her wishes were just as simple. She rested her head on top of his, and whispered, "You are home, Jaggedpaw. Wherever the Clan is, you are home."
All around her, she heard the deep breathing of her Clan as they settled into slumber. Aura lay curled beside Ferndust, who lay in a tabby-furred huddle beside Stormbreeze, Whiteblaze, Dustfoot and Larkflight, keeping warm and snug in their huddle. Skypaw couldn't resist feeling a flash of frustration as she thought of that dratted tom's name, but it was replaced with a feeling of guilt. She hadn't meant to have snapped...it'd just come out that way. Still...he was a birdbrain. Why else would've Cherrypelt named him after a bird?
Speaking of which, her mentor lay with her mate just a little way away, curled up beside Runningleap, Amberheart and Dewclaw. Foxleap's bright russet pelt and Cherrypelt's tawny fur seemed to flicker like dull flames in the gloomy nighttime.
Gradually Skypaw became aware that Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw were lost in their dreams. She tucked her tail a little tighter around them—she was now large enough and they small enough to just fit against her side—but before she slipped into her own sleep, she could hear a murmured conversation going on within the sheltered corner of the nest where Jayfeather had made his nest.
"You're wheezing, Briarlight. Have you eaten your herbs?"
"I ate them this morning, you old furball. Stop fussing over me."
"Old? I'm hardly older than you! My littermates and I were still apprentices when you were born."
"Well then, you don't need to fuss about me eating herbs like some creaky old elder, do you? All cats get a bit wheezy when it gets cold very quickly." Briarlight's voice sharpened in sudden concern. "How's Squirrelflight?"
Skypaw heard Jayfeather sigh. "This cold is doing no good to her joints—especially how much she's worn them out holding the post of deputy for as long as she did. I wish I had more comfrey root, or daisy...either would do, but neither flourish in leaf-bare."
"Squirrelflight's a lot comfier thanks to your healing efforts alone, Jayfeather."
"Hmph. I should be doing more."
"You're doing enough. That's what matters, and even she understands that. I understand that as well."
"So are you trying to tell me you didn't eat your herbs?"
Briarlight must've rolled her eyes in the brief pause. "I'll let you figure that out for yourself, mouse-brain."
Skypaw slid into sleep after that.
When she woke up, the first thing that she realized was that she was being smothered. Suddenly filled with panic, she thrust her head straight up through the soft, cold layer of snow that had buried her and the two younger apprentices during the night, throwing stray flakes off her whiskers with a startled gasp. Blinking frost out of her eyes, she saw that most of her Clanmates had been subject to a similar fate. Even as she watched, Aura calmly detached herself from Ferndust's side, pushed herself through the snow and shook the flakes off her dappled fur. Sparing a glance at the sky, Skypaw saw that it was a stony gray, and tiny white flakes were swirling down from the heavy clouds.
Shivering, Skypaw nuzzled her way back through the cool snow and stirred Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw. The two apprentices surfaced a moment later, gasping for air and exclaiming in bewilderment at the strange fluffy white stuff that surrounded them. Skypaw suddenly recollected that this would be the young apprentices' first experience of snow.
As for her, Skypaw had seen it before. She had been born in leaf-bare's height, without littermates, only being offered the warmth of her mother's fur. She knew the story behind her birth—none had expected her to survive, but instead, to everybody's surprise, she had flourished in the icy weather, growing fit and strong to become the young apprentice that she was to the current day.
Perhaps the Four were watching over me all the way back then, she thought to herself. A new idea suddenly occurred to her. Or perhaps it was some kind of trial. If I made it through leaf-bare's snows, I'd be worthy of my destiny. Was that why Rock visited me all those moons ago in the tunnels?
She started at this thought. She'd hardly given a thought to Rock ever since she'd learned about her destiny.
Hard to believe that in a few short moons, I've grown up. Skypaw looked a little sadly at herself. She was nearly full-grown, her body toned and lean from endless hours of battle practice and running through the forest on patrols, her claws sharp from the two fiercest battles of her life.
And there'll be another before leaf-bare is over. Skypaw shuddered at the mere memory of two nights ago, at Sedgestar's ominous declaration. One that I know I'm going to have to fight in. They need me. They need my abilities and powers of Time.
"I'm hungry," Frostpaw muttered, stifling a sneeze.
Skypaw glanced at the young blue-gray apprentice, shivering beneath her fluffy pelt. "Find your mentors," she murmured. "Get them to take you for a run through the forest. Perhaps we'll be fortunate, find some prey in our own territory today." Even as she spoke, Skypaw's words were hollow. She already knew that they'd find next to nothing.
Even so, Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw had hope. They scrambled over the snow, still delighting in the new experience of it, towards the bundles where their mentors lay—Amberheart with her brother and friends, and Spottedheart with her family, Cinderheart, Lionstar, Patchwhisker and Thrushsong.
Kits...Skypaw suddenly worried for the young four-and-a-half moon old kits, and she looked towards where Hollythorn lay against what was left of a section of the Twoleg nest wall, with Moleclaw beside her, and in between the queen's little ones. Even as she watched, she saw Moleclaw sleepily lift his head, blink awake at the sight of snow all around him, and then leap to his paws. He shook the frost from his fur and then urgently nuzzled Hollythorn and stirred each of the kits he had readily come to accept like his own. Four little bundles scrambled out of the snow and blinked curiously at the transformed world around them even as Hollythorn murmured something and drowsily opened her eyes.
"Moleclaw, I'm cold!" Ravenkit mewled in obvious discontent.
Clawkit was curiously batting at the snow. "This is weird," he announced.
Owlkit appeared at her older brother's side and nuzzled it with her tiny nose. She jumped backwards, perhaps startled by the chill, and exchanged a puzzled glance with Clawkit. Then, as though on some unspoken command, they leapt into the white, frosty, powdery substance and began to play, Clawkit squeaking with laughter. Ravenkit and Graykit, not willing to be left out on the fun, leapt onto their littermates and hurled lumps of ice at one another, shrieking and mewling with amusement as they did so.
Hollythorn mrrowed with laughter. "Even in the freezing cold, they never find a bad side of the situation," she purred to Moleclaw. He nodded, looking slightly rueful, and sat down beside her. Together, like mates, they watched the kits tumble and play.
But Skypaw could see the worry gleaming in her eyes and guessed that the queen was frightened for her kits' health. When was the last time they had eaten? Not since last night...and the tough bit of blackbird that Blossomfall had managed to uncover deep in the shell of the forest had hardly been enough to feed four hungry, growing kits...
I have to hunt. Skypaw darted across the powdery snow towards where Cherrypelt was starting to stir, blinking frost out of her eyes and looking about her with a slightly bemused expression.
When she saw her apprentice approaching her, Cherrypelt sat up and shook the last bit of frost out from her ears. "Skypaw!" she greeted, rising to her paws and dislodging the large huddle of cats behind her. They woke with startled yips, though the ginger she-cat was superbly indifferent. "Did you sleep well?"
Skypaw nodded. "No dreams." She was glad of it. "But the kits are hungry. I'm going to go hunting."
Cherrypelt frowned. "With a war kindled between us and WindClan, not alone, you're not," she mewed sternly. "Ask Ivypool to have a patrol sent with you."
Skypaw wasn't in a disagreeable mood. Accompanied by her mentor, they trotted to where the golden tabby tom was stretching out the last of his aches. Patchwhisker was already shaking the snow from his fur, and Cinderheart was shivering, trying to rub feeling back into her paws. Spottedheart was speaking with Jaggedpaw while her tail swept rhythmically over Thrushsong's speckled flanks. The soon-to-be queen was still resting.
Lionstar glanced up at Skypaw and Cherrypelt and dipped his head formally to them. "Good morning—although it's far from good," he added wryly, glancing up at the heavy snow-filled clouds above. The flurry was growing thicker, but fortunately, with lack of wind, the snow spiraled peacefully downwards. "What can I help you with?"
"Morning, Lionstar," mewed Cherrypelt. "Skypaw would like to go hunting for Hollythorn's kits."
"Ivypool's arranging a patrol right now," said Lionstar, nodding towards where his deputy was standing with a large group of snow-flecked warriors. "We have to find as much food as we possibly can, wherever we can." He glanced suddenly at Skypaw. "Your insight...could it help us here?"
Skypaw frowned. She searched through her mind, reached out with her awareness, flicking through all of ThunderClan's territory...suddenly... "Lionstar, I think there's a family of shrews, a burrow under the new ice in the ThunderClan camp, where the nursery used to be."
"Shrews?" Lionstar's ears flicked forward. "Excellent. Get that to Ivypool right away. Anything else?"
"I..." Skypaw's head was starting to ache, but a sudden new discovery gave her a flash of adrenalin. "A rabbit's crossed the stream into ThunderClan territory near the WindClan border, only a little way down from the Moonpool. If a fast patrol gets there, we might be able to catch it. It'd feed a lot of warriors. Perhaps even half the Clan, sparingly."
Lionstar's eyes were lit up with excitement. "This is a good day for ThunderClan. Maybe StarClan is finally taking some pity on us." He frowned for a moment, thinking quickly. Then he ordered, "Skypaw, I want you to lead that hunting patrol, up to the WindClan border. I don't want that rabbit missed. Let Ivypool know. Cherrypelt, I'd like you to go with your apprentice. It only seems fitting."
He paused. "But make sure Ivypool gives you a good amount of warriors in that patrol. I don't all too trust what WindClan might be up to, especially after what we've done and what we're doing so close to the border."
Barely an hour later, Skypaw was racing through the woods with six cats streaming in her wake, and they were running as though a whole horde of badgers were on their tails.
Cherrypelt kept pace with her, her long legs allowing her to match the apprentice stride for stride. Her eyes were lit up with the familiar excitement of a newly-named apprentice out of the hollow for her first time.
Behind her raced Mousewhisker, Blossomfall, Dustfoot, Amberheart and Frostpaw. Dustfoot was still muttering over the ridiculous notion that they were sending seven cats after one rabbit—but Blossomfall answered tartly that if they ran into a WindClan patrol on the borders, which was a high probability, then they needed a large patrol to ensure that nobody was badly injured.
"I thought warriors even of opposing Clans didn't hurt each other unless there's no good reason," Frostpaw mewed to her mentor, sounding puzzled and a little afraid.
"When Clans are at war, reason is out of the question," Amberheart answered grimly. "I hope you've been practicing your battle moves, young Frostpaw. It may come to battle." Frostpaw's pale face paled further. "But I'll always be at your side. Even so, it may not even come to that. We're not going to steal anything from anyone today."
"But we're hunting rabbit," Frostpaw mewed, sounding confused.
"On our side of the border," Mousewhisker answered, and shot a glance at Skypaw. "So our eldest apprentice believes."
Skypaw spared him a glance. "It's there," she told him. She could see it the closer they got to the border—the rabbit was currently sniffing underneath a half-frozen holly bush for roots and bits of bark that had escaped the hard leaf-bare frost. "It's looking for food. The snows have driven a few rabbits into ThunderClan territory, as the frost has killed the grass."
Frostpaw looked vaguely hopeful. "Can we get something to eat soon, then?"
"Hopefully," answered Amberheart.
They leapt a frozen stream and raced further into the woods. Skypaw couldn't help noticing the tall, dead-looking tree trunks, scoured black by the fire when it had raged in a terrifying inferno through the forest—but coated with a slippery skin of gleaming ice, it didn't look quite as dead as it did before. It even looked a little natural, like how a tree was meant to look in leaf-bare's height. The smell of ash and cinders were completely obliterated, and the snow made everything feel fresh and new all over again.
Soon they reached the border. The snowfall had eased a little, allowing for greater visibility. They paused at the edge of the tree line, and if the cats peered hard enough, they could just make out the rolling hills beyond, sheathed in a thick blanket of silvery white. "We'll be able to see WindClan cats coming from way off," murmured Dustfoot, in open satisfaction.
"So no fighting?" mewed Frostpaw hopefully.
"Let's keep that hope up," Amberheart answered. "It's been such a good morning so far. I hope Hazeltail's patrol uncovers that family of shrews Skypaw mentioned."
Blossomfall looked curiously at Skypaw. "How do you do it?" she wondered.
Skypaw shrugged bashfully, sparing a brief glance at her aunt. "It just comes," she mumbled. Straightening, she turned her nose towards the north. "Let's follow the stream, but keep quiet. WindClan might not be around now, but they'll come if they hear a large group of noisy Clan cats making their way along the border."
Cherrypelt nodded. "Stay quiet as you can," she murmured, "and let's hope we can get this hunt over and done with, with a prize and all our fur at the end of it."
In single file, the ThunderClan patrol made their way up the snow-coated bank of the stream. Skypaw kept every sense alert, reaching out continually with her insight. Aura had told her that by now, she was old and strong enough to begin commanding it at will, though for short periods at a time, and at drain of her mental strength. She wanted to confidently pinpoint the rabbit's location, but have enough mental stamina to ensure sharpness in battle if WindClan discovered them and wanted to pick a fight.
But so far, we haven't crossed the border, she told herself reassuringly. We aren't breaking the code—not today, thank goodness. So long as we don't kill the rabbit on WindClan soil, we give them no reason to hurt us.
After a few long moments had passed, when the Clan cats were struggling not to shake beneath their fluffed-out pelts, Dustfoot sidled near her and murmured, "Any sign of it?"
Skypaw shook her head, trying to ignore the fact that her paws and ear tips were numb and her nose was aching from the stinging cold. They ploughed through the snow for a little while longer, until suddenly...
"There!" Skypaw froze. Just beyond, a dark shape was stirring. Thank goodness. My mental energies were starting to run uncomfortably low. "Get into position," she breathed. "We'll be having fresh-kill to bring back to the Twoleg nest."
Mousewhisker's eyes brightened, Cherrypelt's pelt bristled with excitement, Blossomfall licked her lips, Dustfoot lashed his tail and Amberheart and Frostpaw exchanged a pleased glance. Then all seriousness returned, and dropping into stealthy crouches, they split up and went wide. Amberheart led her apprentice through the trees, their pale gray pelts nearly invisible against the snow. Blossomfall followed at a slight distance, her tortoiseshell-and-white fur bristled and her eyes gleaming. Belly hair brushing the snow, Skypaw, Cherrypelt, Dustfoot and Mousewhisker crept up towards the distant shape huddled in the ice.
At last, they were near enough to begin to stalk in earnest. "Look!" whispered Dustfoot, eyes brightening even more. His tail lashed with enthusiasm. "I can see more than one! There must be a whole family of them up there!"
Cherrypelt's ears flicked forward. "Really?" Her stomach growled, as though in anticipation of the meal soon to come. "This is tremendous luck!" She glanced at Skypaw. "Did you see this? A whole family of rabbits to feed the Clan?"
Skypaw frowned. "N-no," she mumbled, in complete confusion.
Cherrypelt blinked, puzzled. "No?"
"No. I swear, I didn't know..."
"Odd," Mousewhisker murmured, but no more was said on the subject.
They drew nearer and the snow fell thicker, restricting their vision even more. Stifling a frustrated spit, Dustfoot paused to wipe his muzzle and blink tiny flakes out of his eyes. Mousewhisker hissed irritably at the younger warrior to shut up. Glaring mutinously at him, Dustfoot obliged. Skypaw had to work hard to stop her teeth chattering.
Almost there...Skypaw eased another pawstep in the snow...
Suddenly, at pouncing distance, the density of the falling snow abruptly lessened. The blurred shapes came into sharp focus—and Skypaw's heart slipped into her stomach. Cherrypelt stiffened in shock. Dustfoot swore under his breath.
They hadn't been seeing rabbits up ahead—but a whole patrol of WindClan warriors, crouched over the rabbit's dead body and licking the blood from their claws.
They glanced over their shoulders, and then hissed and fell into a defensive position, spotting the four ThunderClan cats crouched barely three bound-lengths in between them. Skypaw's eyes were round with horror. They must've only just arrived...I was so focused on finding the rabbit...I didn't even bother to check around me!
"Look who decided to show up," one of the WindClan cats sneered—Ashclaw, Skypaw suddenly realized.
"Hungry?" another mocked—Wingfeather, Ashclaw's sister. The pale she-cat gave the rabbit near her forefoot a tempting nudge. "Such a pity—" She spat the word like a piece of carrion. "—that this now belongs to WindClan."
Cherrypelt snarled, spitting through her teeth. "You killed that. On ThunderClan land."
"One rabbit is hardly going to make up for all the rabbits that you stole from ourterritory," snarled Wingfeather, lashing her tail. She took a pace forward, claws unsheathed and glinting over the snow. "The rest, I'm afraid, will have to be made up...with your blood."
Skypaw's mind whirled. Standing before her were seven WindClan cats—Ashclaw, Wingfeather, and three others; a large ginger tom with big white paws called Weaselfur, a wiry dark tabby tom with glinting amber eyes named Leaftail and, to Skypaw's dismay, Chasefire, one of the newest WindClan warriors, Hawkflight, Chasefire's former mentor, and...and Boundwind.
Skypaw stared at the blue-gray tom, and he stared back at her.
After a moment, Weaselfur lifted his voice and growled, "Stings, doesn't it, ThunderClan furballs, to have rabbits stolen right under your noses?"
"At least we were around to actually see you commit the crime." Mousewhisker paced forward, his tail lashing and his claws unsheathed. "That can't be forgiven."
"And your former pickings can, can they?" Hawkflight's voice was bitter with sarcasm. Suddenly her bright green eyes hardened, and they turned stony and black with rage. She bounded forward a few paces and snarled, "We're taking this rabbit back to our territory, and you're going to watch us take it, without ripping our fur."
"Oh?" Dustfoot growled. "And what makes you say that?"
"We say that, and that's exactly what's going to happen," Chasefire spat in response, with more malice than Skypaw had ever heard come from her. It gave Skypaw shudders down her back—the last she'd seen of Chasefire, she'd been a contented new-named warrior, discussing how prey was running. Now...now Chasefire was something else. A warrior, a voice in Skypaw's mind whispered. A true warrior, loyal and faithful to her Clan.
It was then Skypaw knew that whatever friendships she'd built up with the WindClan warriors in the Gatherings didn't matter here, at all. Now, they hadn't even existed. These cats were her enemies—they were stealing prey on their land, and despite the guilt that squirmed in her gut at having done the exact same thing not too long ago, a fury was building up inside her, sharpening her claws, heating her gaze; a fury that she was well acquainted with. These cats were stealing prey from her territory, her land—and they were going to have to pay.
"Enough." The WindClan cats glanced over their shoulders at the simple spoken word to see Blossomfall, flanked by Amberheart and a nervous Frostpaw, emerge from the trees. The tortoiseshell she-cat's eyes were glinting with anger. "Leave the rabbit and slink back to your hills, WindClan fleabags."
Ashclaw spat. "We still outnumber you ThunderClan mange-pelts." She nodded scornfully at Frostpaw and sneered, "The little furball there couldn't claw at tree bark if she tried."
Frostpaw's eyes widened at the insult, and then narrowed just as quickly. "Tough words from a WindClan rabbit-muncher," she shot back, with a surprising amount of fortitude and fire. Skypaw felt pride flash inside of her at the apprentice's courage.
"Hawkflight," Wingfeather meowed smoothly, "get reinforcements." Her voice hardened all that suddenly. "We're going to teach these furballs never to mess with WindClan ever again."
Skypaw suddenly had the terrifying vision of the lithe brown she-cat sprinting across the snow-coated moorland, back towards the border—and behind her streamed a vast army of WindClan cats, almost every warrior in the camp, determined to get revenge on the ThunderClan thieves who had stolen their prey from their lands. Sedgestar herself headed the reinforcement patrol.
"You're making a grave mistake," snarled Mousewhisker, even as Hawkflight detached herself from the patrol, leapt the stream and set off running back across WindClan territory, fast as the bird she was named after. "You have no idea what you're dealing with, WindClan furballs."
Leaftail curled his lip. "Nor do you."
Chasefire lashed her tail eagerly. "This is going to be fun!" she declared.
"And here," drawled Weaselfur, "I thought today was going to be boring."
"Cherrypelt," Skypaw whispered urgently under her breath, trying to control the frantic beating of her heart—she was starting to feel the same way she had felt all the way back to when she had been but a younger apprentice, just over a moon old, facing ShadowClan for the first time. "Hawkflight is going to return with a huge number of reinforcements—I have to find reinforcements."
"How?" whispered Cherrypelt urgently. "They're on the other side of ThunderClan territory—you'll never reach them in time!"
Wait...time! Time! Skypaw's eyes widened, and a flush of hope set her fur on end. That's the key!
"I know I can do it," Skypaw whispered quickly to her mentor. "Don't forget who I am." She thought that Boundwind shot her a confused glance—was he listening? But suddenly she didn't care. Let him listen. Let him learn. "I'll be back, I swear it."
Cherrypelt frowned and nodded. "Go, Skypaw," she whispered. "Run. Run fast, tiger."
Skypaw nodded. She pulled sharply away from her mentor, even though it tore at her heart to leave the ThunderClan patrol to their fate. The snow whirled under her paws, the edge of the trees looming before her. But even before she had reached it, she heard Leaftail yowl, "Don't let her get away!"
Skypaw knew she was being pursued—and she ran for her life, even as behind her she heard the WindClan cats give the order to attack.
She ran fast through the forest—everything was a whirl around her. Only a few heartbeats must've passed, and she was desperately trying to get over her blind panic, call on Time Manipulation. But all too suddenly, she could hear the sound of her pursuer's paws, thudding rhythmically on the ground behind her.
Tree, her numb mind instructed her. Climb a tree, use the branches...
Skypaw twisted suddenly, but her pursuer was just far enough behind her to be able to twist and turn, imitating her every movement without penalty. Breathing heavily, Skypaw saw the trunk of a tree loom before her. Taking a deep breath, she pushed off from the ground, stretching out towards it, to grasp the slippery bark with her claws.
Even as she crashed against it, dug her claws into its sides, she knew that it'd be futile. The ice was too thick on the scalded bark. She dropped down, that panic overtaking her all over again—but before she could run any further, the world went flying as something large and heavy slammed into her.
Skypaw gasped as she was thrown across the ground and landed heavily on her side, knocking the breath from her body. Her pursuer stumbled from the impact, halting a little near her. But she whirled around and met Skypaw's frightened blue gaze—there was a glint of fierce amber eyes, and Skypaw realized that it was Chasefire.
"Don't do this," the ThunderClan apprentice choked.
Chasefire curled her lip. "I do this for WindClan, rabbit thief."
Then the WindClan warrior leapt. But Skypaw, instinct rapidly taking over, twisted out of the way of Chasefire's claws. They dug into the snow. Skypaw leapt to her paws, her muscles sliding effortlessly beneath her pelt—the intensive training in preparation for the bear attack had done wonders to her physical stature and warrior's reflexes. Chasefire sensed this almost immediately, and her resolve hardened just that much more.
With a hiss, the WindClan warrior leapt. Skypaw jumped backwards, avoiding the brunt of the lunge, and yielding against the secondary. Then she struck back with a fierce counter of her own that sent Chasefire reeling and spitting with pain. Blood welled from a deep cut on her cheek, and when Skypaw glanced down at her claws, she saw that they were tipped with a few hairs and a bead of blood.
"ThunderClan fleabag," Chasefire scowled, and lunged once more.
Skypaw ducked and countered, attacking as mercilessly as Chasefire. Their friendship was long forgotten—here, they were rivals, fighting for the rights of a single piece of fresh-kill that could determine the futures of many of their Clanmates. Skypaw was willing to shed blood for this. Desperate times called for desperate measures—and, she told herself, surely this couldn't be harder than fighting the bear, right?
But even as a bearer of a Tigermark of Time, Skypaw had underestimated the wily WindClan warrior's speed and agility. One moment, Chasefire was in front of her—the next, behind her, and pummeling her flanks. A sweeping kick left Skypaw staggering and breathless. With a hiss, Chasefire sped forwards, preparing to knock Skypaw off her feet.
Warrior instincts kicking in, Skypaw sprang to the side and lashed out with her claws, catching Chasefire's shoulder. The WindClan cat cursed as her fur was torn, but Skypaw hadn't scratched hard enough to make more than a few shallow cuts. "You'll have to do better than that!" Chasefire spat, lashing out with glinting claws.
"I will!" Skypaw dodged the blow and attempted a counter, which Chasefire parried with surprising effortlessness.
"Are all ThunderClan cats this tiresome?" Chasefire hissed, flattening her ears. "Even Nettlekit has a fiercer scratch than you!"
Skypaw flattened her ears and lashed her tail once. "So does Clawkit," she snarled in response, which was true—the young tabby kit was a fierce little fighter, and had inherited his father's warrior spirit.
"Arrogant ThunderClan thief," Chasefire growled. She lashed her tail as the two she-cats began to circle. "I never really liked you," the WindClan warrior suddenly hissed. "You were always a bit too secretive for your own good."
"You did show it rather blatantly," Skypaw answered. The strange fury was pulsing in her blood once again. "You could see it just as clearly in your mentor's eyes."
Chasefire lashed her tail. "Typical ThunderClan," she sneered. "Thinking that every Clan cat that they meet is their friend."
Skypaw lashed her tail. "Better friends than enemies."
"Your friend Boundwind is currently clawing the mousetails out of your Clanmates," Chasefire spat. "If he really was your friend, would he really do such a thing? Hurt one of dear Skypaw's Clanmates?"
"He never referred to me as such," growled Skypaw.
Chasefire snorted. "It's only a matter of time before he does. You should see the way he looks at you. He says that you're just friends—but that's what they always say. Stupid tom never had any brains—never had loyalty to Furzefur, just wanted a kit or two to continue the family line."
Skypaw hissed. "It'll never be like that," she snarled. "My heart is ThunderClan."
"Really?" Chasefire paced forward. "Then why don't you go right back to him and tell him that to his face?"
"I'm sick of proving myself to everyone around me." Skypaw bunched her muscles, preparing to spring at the WindClan warrior. "And besides," she added, as a sudden, glorious truth descended up on her, a truth that she'd for so long been trying to deny, "...my heart's already taken."
With that, she leapt upon Chasefire.
With a shrill screech, the WindClan warrior drew back her claws, preparing to rake them through Skypaw's fur; quick as a blink she twisted, shifting her weight to the side and throwing the both of them into the snow. With grappling paws they wrestled for a moment, until at last they freed themselves and leapt to their feet. But Chasefire was faster; even as Skypaw whipped around to face her opponent, Chasefire was already lunging, and her weight crashed down on the smaller ThunderClan apprentice. With a yelp, Skypaw was bowled over into the snow, but to her dismay, there was Chasefire, looming right over her and pinning her into the snow on her back.
"For every rabbit you take, thief," spat Chasefire, "Nettlekit and Silverkit starve, slowly and painfully. They bawl for food even as blood is shed over the only decent piece of fresh-kill we've discovered for a whole quarter moon." She drove her claws through Skypaw's stomach fur and the apprentice cried out as she felt the skin break and blood well from the wounds. "Your kits can go to StarClan," the WindClan warrior hissed. "But I'm not letting Boundwind's little ones starve so ThunderClan, unworthy, prey-stealing ThunderClan's litter of kits lives to newleaf. And every cut I'm going to lay into you now—" Her words were punctuated with a second blow, and Skypaw cried out a second time as her underside burned with pain. "—is for them!"
Her claws came up wet with crimson. Even as Skypaw struggled, they were driven down a third time through her fur, and she couldn't restrain the agonized yowl that tore through her trembling body. "Maybe your StarClan ancestors can judge you better than I," Chasefire growled, as she leveled her claws at Skypaw's face.
But even as the claws came down, even as Skypaw felt her blood welling dizzying fast from her wounds on her stomach and chest—she felt the power surge within her, stirring and strong. She closed her eyes and felt her fur tingle with that mysterious, wonderful energy that she had moons ago been gifted by the Four.
Skypaw, gritting her teeth, even as her underbelly screamed in pain, twisted free of Chasefire's frozen grasp. The claws narrowly missed raking her face, even in frozen Time—and when it broke, they drove only through the snow. Chasefire yowled in total bewilderment, staring at the space where she had been so certain the ThunderClan apprentice had been a moment ago.
"I'm over here," Skypaw snarled, sounding frightening and more than mortal even to her own ears. Even as the WindClan warrior whirled around in amazement, the apprentice was lunging. She slammed against Chasefire, bowling her into the snow.
But a strange energy was roaring inside of Skypaw now, wild and untamed and free. It was the same energy that her mysterious battle furies fed from, and it blazed as wild as fire. Suddenly her pain was forgotten—the WindClan warrior lashed out in a fierce counter. Time broke loose seemingly on its own accord. Effortlessly Skypaw ducked beneath the blow and struck Chasefire across the face. She yelped and stared as Skypaw seemingly vanished right before her eyes and moved at impossible speeds. So strong was the blow that Skypaw sent Chasefire sprawling over the snow.
With a wild hiss, Skypaw jumped onto the WindClan warrior and delivered a fierce strike across the head. She growled in bloody satisfaction as she felt Chasefire's ear skin rip under her claws, leaving painful red welts on the warrior's ear. Chasefire yowled in pain and twisted free, but before she could regain her footing, Time Manipulation broke forth. Skypaw was on her enemy and had sent her crashing to the snow before Chasefire had even put her four paws on the snowy ground.
Savagely, Skypaw struck out with her claws, ripping fur from Chasefire's shoulder. The WindClan warrior tried to fight back. Again and again, Time Manipulation broke free in short, wild bursts. She didn't even need to think to control it now—it jumped out on its own accord, whenever Chasefire moved to attack.
The fight was short and brutal—Skypaw held no mercy for Chasefire, who suddenly was sent sprawling onto the snow with a whimper, blood welling from scratches found everywhere on her body. Tufts of fur lay strewn everywhere and beads of dark blood speckled the snow. The WindClan warrior rolled onto her soft underbelly to protect it and hissed defiantly and shakily at Skypaw...only to have it die in her throat. Her eyes widened in a mixture of fear and amazement.
Skypaw felt Time's energies thrumming through her body and burning in her soul. She knew without even the need to check for herself that the great cyan stripes of the tiger had patterned her body, glowing like the sun.
"Wh-what are you?" Chasefire choked, her eyes wide with unconcealed terror. "What are you?!"
Skypaw stared blackly at the WindClan warrior for only a moment before she answered in a voice very much unlike her own: "I am a daughter of the sky."
Then she drew her paw back and struck Chasefire hard across the head. The WindClan warrior gasped, then relaxed and slumped into the snow. Skypaw stepped back, feeling the energy subside a little, her stripes fading and melting back into her pelt. Chasefire lay senseless and unconscious on the snowy ground.
Let her Clanmates find her, she thought—then the world spun and a terrible aching pain clawed fiercely at her underside. So great was the agony that she wobbled a little, gasping, nearly slumping onto her side. She'd never experienced pain like this...every claw wound that Chasefire had left on her stomach burned like fire.
Then, just beyond, she heard pounding paws drumming over the snow, and she glanced up to see the patrol that had gone to the hollow bounding through the woods towards her, calling her name—Skypaw was only faintly surprised to see that Larkflight was at its head. She dimly remembered that he had been one of the cats selected to go hunting in the hollow that morning. Behind him were several others.
"Skypaw!" Larkflight yowled upon seeing her—and then he slid to a halt and simply gaped as he tried to process the scene that lay before him. "Great StarClan...Skypaw, what happened? What's happening? Are you all right? We heard your yowl all the way from the hollow!"
It was as if the argument between them had never occurred.
"Larkflight," Skypaw murmured, pausing at the sound of her voice. It was just a weary rasp.
"Skypaw, you're hurt!" Ferndust appeared just behind the mottled brown-and-black tom, and raced up to Skypaw's side. Larkflight, as though realizing this for the first time, hurried to join her.
"Great StarClan!" cursed a second voice, belonging to Berrynose. "Isn't that...Chasefire, from WindClan?"
"WindClan's attacking," Skypaw murmured wearily. Great StarClan, she was tired. "Provoked a patrol...Hawkflight went to get reinforcements...outnumbered...they need help!"
"Where?" demanded Hazeltail, eyes round and frightened for her brother.
"Is Frostpaw okay?" Jaggedpaw squeaked from where he crouched behind his mentor. Spottedheart curled her tail around his shivering flanks.
"By the stream, only a little way from here," Skypaw rasped. "Just head to the stream...you'll hear the sounds of fighting. Sedgestar...she's on her way, with most of WindClan's warriors. Need to tell Lionstar!" Fear for her Clanmates was starting to give her strength. Her sentences were less broken and breathless. Soon Skypaw could haul herself back onto her paws, though her legs shook and her head swam a little. "He has to get the rest of ThunderClan's warriors and get over here as fast as he can!"
Was it possible that Aura might have already informed him and he was already pounding through the forest and on his way? Skypaw closed her eyes and stretched out with her insight—it proved surprisingly easy to locate him. Indeed, he was already racing through the forest, a large number of ThunderClan warriors running behind him. Aura had already told him, and Skypaw's heart warmed with gratitude to the young tortoiseshell she-cat and her great gift of foresight.
"He's on his way," she said to the stunned patrol. "Aura. But ThunderClan needs assistance, now." A chilling certainty crept into her heart—Hawkflight was racing fast across the hillside, and behind her streamed WindClan with their hearts twisted and set on vengeance. "Sedgestar is on her way."
Berrynose's eyes shadowed. "We'll go and help the ThunderClan warriors."
"But what about you?" Ferndust mewed anxiously. "You're badly hurt!"
Skypaw shook her head and pulled away from the tabby. "Time will help me. I'm the only one who can bring Lionstar and ThunderClan to the patrol before Sedgestar." The energy was surging beneath her fur, slowly growing greater than the pain. Now it was a test, a trial, of her own mettle, her own strength, her own determination. "If she gets to the patrol before we do then it's over."
Larkflight's green eyes were clouded with anxiety—that, and a spark of guilt. He was sorry. Skypaw's own insides squirmed with a bit of guilt of her own. But they could apologize later. "Go with them," she insisted. "I'll be fine."
Larkflight stared at her hard. "Do you swear it?" he demanded, his voice low and urgent.
"Yes, I swear it." Skypaw stepped back. "I did all right with the bear, didn't I?" Seeing him linger, she gestured violently towards the edge of the trees, towards the WindClan border. "Go! Your brother needs you!" She could see Dustfoot now, struggling in the thick blood-flecked snow against a furious Ashclaw.
Ferndust nodded and dipped her head to Skypaw. "Run well, and fast," she murmured. "We're all counting on you now."
Larkflight's gaze lingered only for a moment. He looked more torn than Skypaw had ever seen him. But at Ferndust's touch, he jumped into battle mode. Like the wind, the hunting patrol swept through the trees—Jaggedpaw ran surprisingly quickly alongside Spottedheart despite his twisted forepaws—and then they were gone.
Skypaw drew a deep breath, releasing the energy that had slowly been building up within her. Her stripes flared, the world slowed and Time stood still. Enfolded within her cocoon of manipulated Time, the apprentice turned and ran through the charred forest, not as a ThunderClan cat, but as a tiger of the Four.
She finally could hear him and the approaching ThunderClan patrol, running like the wind. Many times, Skypaw had had to stop, her energies fast being exhausted, and each time she had let her concentration waver, the pain had threatened to return and overwhelm her. She knew that if she succeeded in letting her wounds conquer her, then WindClan would conquer ThunderClan and all would be lost.
"Lionstar!" she gasped, breathless, but her voice carried through the trees. "Lionstar, over here!"
"Skypaw?" she heard the Clan leader call out. Then she saw him racing towards her with ThunderClan streaming behind him. "Skypaw!" Lionstar meowed in puzzlement, as he slid to a halt before her. "What's happening? Aura's told me that WindClan's attacking..."
Skypaw drew a deep, calming breath. "I need to get you to the border."
"'Get us' to the border?" repeated Ivypool, frowning. "What do you mean?"
"I can get you there, get you to ThunderClan in time, before Sedgestar and her Clan does," Skypaw gasped. Her wounds were starting to aggravate her. She needed to release Time again, and soon. "The Clan needs you, Lionstar."
"Skypaw!" Dovewing's horrified yowl echoed through the crowd of warriors, and suddenly Skypaw's mother was at her side, nuzzling her urgently. "You're hurt! We need to get you to Jayfeather right away!"
"Who?" growled Bumblestripe, shouldering his way to his mate's and daughter's side.
Skypaw impatiently shook her head, dismissing the injury. "She's not a problem anymore—please, Mother, Father, step back!" Lashing her tail with impatience, Skypaw turned back to face Lionstar and the rest of ThunderClan. "You all know that I have been blessed with a Tigermark of Time," she told them as quickly as she could, in a strangely clear voice that carried through the forest. "You all know that I have a destiny. This is but a part of it—my gifts grow stronger by the day. Many of you will remember how I could fight the bear unlike the rest of you. When cyan stripes adorned my fur and Time slowed to do my bidding."
"That's impossible," scoffed Foxleap. "No cat could do that!"
"She did," mewed Stormbreeze coolly. "I saw her. It's how she could claw the bear's face." The storm-gray she-cat glanced at Skypaw. "Are you saying that you can somehow use that...that power of time-slowing...on all of us?"
Skypaw nodded breathlessly. I think. I hope. "I can."
"And what will it do?" asked Bumblestripe warily, eyeing his daughter uncertainly.
Skypaw drew a deep breath and felt the energy stir within her—around her she heard the disbelieving gasps of amazement and awe from her Clanmates. The pain of her stomach lessened until it was virtually nonexistent—Bumblestripe's eyes widened with amazement. Skypaw could see the bright cyan of her stripes reflected there.
"Give you passage," she answered quietly.
"So I hadn't been imagining things back in the elders' den..." Cinderheart's voice was soft with amazement.
"What is that?" asked Ivypool sharply.
"You don't need to know what it is," Skypaw mewed. She drew a deep breath, and unleashed Time Manipulation. Around her the world attained a faint grayish sheen, and the air became heavy around her. She expanded its range, until she managed to enclose every ThunderClan warrior in a silvery cocoon of trapped Time. Bewildered, they stared around them in a mixture of fear and disbelief—a mixture of emotion that she was starting to grow weary of. "But know that we are a Clan of Destiny, but that of Time just as much."
Lionstar looked about him, wearing nothing but an amazed expression upon his face. Then he looked down at Skypaw and whispered, "This...? This is the power that you can wield?"
Skypaw nodded. "But I can't make it last for long. We must run, now!" Her voice was shrill with fear for her Clanmates. Sedgestar was almost at the border.
Lionstar frowned and nodded. "Right. Lead the way, Skypaw."
His words thrummed in her mind. Lead the way. And even though Skypaw was injured and exhausted, her energy fast draining, and though she was still an apprentice of ThunderClan—those words gave her energy and strength and hope. She felt her energy grow. The Clan believed in her—trusted her. Had hope for her to help them.
I am needed!
Within her the energy grew, until she was racing through the forest with Lionstar and nearly all of ThunderClan pounding behind her, racing through the warp in time, their paws drumming in perfect harmony to that of the young carrier of the Quarter Tigermark. They raced as one behind the daughter of the sky.
Skypaw could feel it starting to slip around her. She was growing tired, and that emptiness was creeping up inside of her, the same way she had felt in the wake of the bear attack. But adrenalin was giving wings to her paws—she flew through the forest like a bird. The world was beautiful in its tones of silver and gray, where the snowflakes were frozen in place from falling from the sky.
"This is incredible," she heard Bumblestripe whisper behind her, and Skypaw felt a small tingle of pride shoot through her at the knowledge she'd impressed her father.
Then, distantly, warped like echoes, Skypaw could hear the battle. ThunderClan ran through the last of the trees and burst out onto the snowy cleared space between the trees and the frozen stream. Beyond, Skypaw could see the thrashing cats, twisting and fighting, yet caught in the time lapse, seemingly frozen in place. She saw their glinting claws and gleaming eyes.
With a soft gasp, Skypaw retracted the Time Manipulation, letting Time break around her. She nearly sank forward onto her stomach form the sheer effort of standing, as pain threatened to swamp her yet again. Stifling a frightened cry, Dovewing hurried to stand protectively beside her daughter.
But Skypaw suddenly felt fear flood through her—just beyond, beginning to leap the stream, was the lithe tabby form of Sedgestar, her eyes glittering with rage. She threw back her head and yowled, "WindClan, attack!"
Behind her streamed countless warriors. The ThunderClan cats' ears flattened and they yelped with dismay.
But Lionstar began to plough his way through the snow at an astonishing speed. Then he threw back his mighty golden head and roared, "ThunderClan!" The cats already caught up in the fight whirled in amazement towards him—they hadn't been expecting him to get to the scene so quickly. "Attack!" he cried.
That one command set Skypaw's senses on fire—she remembered the sheer rush and exhilaration of fighting in battle, the satisfaction of seeing her enemy cringe before her from a wound she had given him in the name of her Clan. She felt the stripes flare over her dusky gray fur, felt the pain slip away, felt energy shoot through her body. She raced forward alongside her mother and her Clan, releasing a fearsome battle cry of her own.
And just like it had done with Chasefire, Time leapt forth.
To other cats, she moved at impossible speeds—Skypaw raced over the snowy ground and slammed against Wingfeather, who fell away from an exhausted Berrynose with a howl of pain and bewilderment—her claws had been that close to clawing out a tuft of his creamy fur. Skypaw stood over the WindClan cat. The snow resumed its flurrying about her, and the murk made her cyan markings stand out all the clearer. Wingfeather stared at her in terror, then scrambled to her paws and fled.
She saw Larkflight fighting side by side with Dustfoot, matching and mirroring his brother's every movement. Together they held their own against Weaselfur and Heathertail, attacking with lightning fast strikes and bites. Skypaw drew a deep breath and prepared to go and help them—but suddenly a pained yowl attracted her attention.
She whirled around at the noise. To her horror she saw Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw desperately writhing in the snow. Over them loomed the huge, menacing form of Thistletail. Gone was the young, friendly tom that Skypaw knew in the Gatherings—in his place was a fierce warrior committed to ripping fur. His lips were curled and his teeth gleamed in the dull daylight.
Frostpaw was already bleeding, blood welling from a deep series of claw marks on her flank. Jaggedpaw stood protectively near her, but Thistletail merely laughed at the sight of the young black-and-white apprentice's twisted paws. "The only thing you hurt with those is ThunderClan's legacy—but I forget. It's become...tainted...over the past few weeks, hasn't it?"
Jaggedpaw hissed and lashed out furiously. Thistletail jumped back and mrrowed with cold laughter. "You'll have to do better than that, little cripple!"
"How dare you," Skypaw growled beneath her breath. She felt Time Manipulation surge around her in a relentless aura, and she flew over the ground, racing through frozen time at Thistletail, whose mouth was still agape with his latest taunt. She let it break around her as she slammed into Thistletail's side, sending him sprawling into the snow.
Skypaw whirled to face Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw, who were staring at her pelt in bewilderment. "Find your mentors," she instructed, before they could ask. "Find them. Help them!" Not about to argue with their senior, the two apprentices struggled to their paws and bounded across the snow.
Skypaw turned her attention back to Thistletail, who was shaking snow out of his eyes. With a fierce hiss, Skypaw lunged at him. She raked her claws through his fur as he yelped in surprise—then he steadied himself and prepared to deliver savage attacks of his own. But he hesitated when he saw Skypaw standing before him, clad in gleaming cyan stripes, for the first time.
"S-Skypaw?" he murmured uncertainly, his ears flattened.
"Thistletail," Skypaw answered coolly, with a lash of her tail. "Attacking young apprentices for amusement? There's no honour in fighting something that can't actually fight back." Her claws sank silently into the snow before her. "Not as well as a trained warrior, at least."
"What in the name of StarClan are you?" Thistletail backed up warily.
Skypaw stalked forward. "I am a tiger," she snarled, her voice as cold and as terrible as it had been when she had faced Chasefire in the forest. "And so long as I breathe, ThunderClan will not be hurt. Not by ShadowClan. Not by sickness. Not by bears. Not by fire—and not by WindClan warrior fleabags."
Each time she said her trials, her stripes flared, marks of what had made her strong, what had made her a force to be reckoned with. Skypaw couldn't resist the tiniest purr of satisfaction. She had come so far from being the timid young apprentice whose only concern was being the very best ThunderClan had to offer.
Thistletail narrowed his eyes, and with a loud hiss to mask his confusion, he sprang at Skypaw. Time lashed out. She ducked and avoided the blow with ease. He crashed into the snow, and as he lifted his head he shook the snowflakes from his eyes and growled, "What did you do?"
"What I was born to do," Skypaw answered quietly, and leapt. Fast as a snake, Thistletail slid beneath her. Her paws thumped on the snow. She whirled around as Thistletail's paws came whirling around to deliver the counter. Time stood still and she rolled to safety in the world's brief lapse of silver. Thistletail had hardly come to realize that again, he had failed to deliver what he thought was an inevitable strike, when Skypaw called on Time Manipulation a third time and raced back at the WindClan warrior. She drove her claws deep through his shoulder and sent him flying with a powerful kick.
Time didn't draw back immediately, and Skypaw took this brief opportunity to look around and see what the rest of ThunderClan was doing. She saw Seednose and Whiteblaze fighting side by side, fending off an enraged Earthstorm. Gorsebriar, hissing, prepared to leap on a winded Mousewhisker, who was already bleeding from a torn ear and had several clumps of fur missing. Lionstar fought against Sedgestar—the two Clan leaders fought with terrifying speed and skill, even from what Skypaw saw of them frozen in Time standing still. Dovewing and Bumblestripe were clawing savagely at a startled Leaftail. Stormbreeze and Whiteblaze raced across the snow to help their brothers who still struggled against Weaselfur and WindClan's deputy.
Suddenly Time broke around her. Thistletail was on his paws and lunging. Skypaw didn't even need to call on Manipulation to aid her—on her own, she twisted out of the way of his claws, and as she rolled, kicked out with her hind paws. She struck Thistletail hard in the chest and sent him sprawling ungainly in the snow, gasping for breath.
"Run," Skypaw hissed. "Or so help me, I will send you to StarClan."
Thistletail scrambled to his paws and fled without a second glance, back across the border to the safety of WindClan territory. Skypaw gave a soft sigh of satisfaction. Her claws were aching by this time.
Then she heard pounding paws behind her and Skypaw whirled around to confront the blazing green eyes of Hawkflight. The lithe brown tabby was already springing at her with claws extended.
Time froze, completely and utterly on its own. Skypaw had been blindly panicked, too much so to concentrate. But suddenly Hawkflight was moving through the silver, frozen air at a snail's pace. Skypaw twisted out of the way of the lunge. Time resumed and the brown she-cat's face was introduced to the churned snow beneath them.
Skypaw stood over her, lashing her tail. "I dare you," she growled, in that same cold and terrible voice. The fury that pulsed in her soul was creeping into her every action, just like it had done when she faced Rowanstar. Hawkflight pushed herself back upright. She already had a few angry-looking cuts to her muzzle and foreleg, and she was missing a patch of fur on her flank. But her eyes were angrier and colder than the rest of her put together.
"Skypaw, was it?" she hissed, but Skypaw caught a trace of fear flicker in her eyes. She still wore her stripes. "Abomination."
"No," Skypaw spat, dodging a clumsy lash. "Chosen."
She heard pawsteps pounding behind her and Skypaw realized she was trapped between two WindClan warriors. With a hiss, she called on Time and spun around to face her latest attacker—
—only to stare into Boundwind's eyes.
Skypaw gasped—Time shattered around her, betraying her. She crouched, suddenly feeling very much like a frightened apprentice again and staring into the eyes of Hookclaw, who loomed over her, jagged claws preparing to send her to StarClan. The blow came a moment later—slamming across her head so hard that stars crossed her vision and she fell senselessly to the snow.
Coughing, she struggled to open her eyes—her head was pounding with a rather astonishing ache. Boundwind stood near her head, Hawkflight her flanks. By the way that Boundwind was slowly lowering his forepaw, Skypaw knew that he had been the one to deliver the crippling blow.
"I'm sorry, Skypaw." There was a strange note to Boundwind's voice, slightly distorted, as though he were trying to keep something down while speaking. His voice sounded hard but his eyes were sad. "But we're enemies now. I must treat you as such. You threatened my sister."
Skypaw tried to summon the energy to rise—but her body was starting to fail her. It was too bruised and battered to move without pain, and her head was throbbing badly. She was threatening to waver in and out of consciousness. If I'm not dead first, she reminded herself, as she stared in fear at the two WindClan cats who loomed over her.
Suddenly a shadow passed over her vision, followed by an enraged howl. Suddenly Boundwind was knocked off his paws and Hawkflight was sent flying with a strong kick. A huge mottled black-and-brown shape stood protectively in front of Skypaw's line of sight and snarled in a frightening voice, "Nobody hurts my friend!"
Larkflight, Skypaw thought, surprised. She managed to lift her head, though the world was turning an unusual shade of yellow, and the edges of her vision flickered and spun. Boundwind scrambled to his paws a little further away, ears flat, eyes narrowed, already unleashing a hiss.
"Get away from her, you mange-pelt," Larkflight growled.
Boundwind didn't trust himself to speak. Instead he leapt at Larkflight. The mottled warrior twisted, lightning-fast, and countered brutally. Boundwind howled as his fur ripped beneath Larkflight's claws. Then Larkflight hissed with pain as Boundwind's claws clawed near his neck and left gouges on his shoulder.
Come on, come on! Skypaw willed herself to stand. She knew Hawkflight was going to recover at any moment, and if she did then Larkflight was outmatched. He needed her. She gritted her teeth as the world spun, and forced herself to climb back onto her paws. She stumbled almost immediately, sliding back down a little. Nearby she could hear the continued hisses and spits as Larkflight and Boundwind fought each other in the snow.
Hawkflight was on her paws and shaking snowflakes from her ears. Then she heard Boundwind's hisses and was racing back towards him a moment later. Her gaze hardened when it fell on Larkflight, and a long, low hiss escaped her.
Oh, no you don't! Skypaw, one final time, sent Time Manipulation holding the world still around her. Hawkflight seemed to freeze mid-run. Summoning all the strength that she had left, Skypaw ran at the WindClan she-cat and slammed against her. Time broke; with a yelp, the she-cat staggered, nearly losing her footing. For a moment, Skypaw considered how she was going to attack Hawkflight when her underbelly was aching so much she was feeling nauseous, and her head was ringing painfully.
Then she heard the words she had been dreaming to hear.
Hawkflight stiffened and her ears went back almost immediately. "Retreat?" she seemed to mutter, disbelieving. But Boundwind pulled away from Larkflight almost immediately and set off running towards the border. With a hiss of frustration, Hawkflight tore away from ThunderClan territory, joining her Clanmates as they fled back into the heart of their own land.
Lionstar stood just by the stream on his side of it, staring right across to Sedgestar. She had leapt across the border but had turned back to glare at him with a fierce glint in her eyes. "Watch your tail, Lionstar," she hissed. "This is far from over."
Like birds on a branch, cats flanked Lionstar, lining up on the bank to defiantly face the WindClan leader. "And know this," Lionstar growled, lashing his tail. "We will be ready to face you should you dare set foot in our territory again."
"Arrogant fools," Sedgestar spat. "All of you, fools! Should you dare set foot in WindClan territory at any time, be it for peaceful or thieving reasons, my warriors will show you no mercy. They will send you to StarClan and you can beg for forgiveness from your ancestors."
"ThunderClan never begs," snarled Patchwhisker, lashing his tail.
"Then you can all die," Sedgestar hissed. "I'll be amazed if any of you ever show your faces at a Gathering again!"
"Funny, coming from a leader whose Clan has currently deserted her," Ivypool meowed, almost conversationally. Sedgestar stood alone, defying ThunderClan in the safety of her territory.
Sedgestar narrowed her eyes, and then turned and vanished into the snowfall.
Skypaw had hardly been aware that slowly she had been slumping forward throughout the length of the brittle parting shots between the enemy Clans. But she realized it only when she saw the snow only a mouse-length from her face. She heard a voice she recognized call her name, and then a shadow passed over her vision. Warmth flooded through Skypaw as a large body pressed against hers, supporting her.
"Skypaw, are you okay?" Larkflight's green eyes shone with worry, and his muzzle pressed urgently all over her pelt. "Skypaw, can you hear me? Skypaw, can you say something? Don't you dare die on us now!"
"Forgiven me, have you?" Skypaw murmured wearily.
"Forgiven you?" Larkflight blinked in confusion. "What's there to forgive? I was a mouse-brain, not you, Skypaw!"
"Yes, you were," Skypaw mewed thoughtlessly. Larkflight looked baffled for a moment, as though he hadn't expected her to agree with him.
Skypaw mrrowed with laughter. "Birdbrain," she mumbled.
"Stubborn one," Larkflight answered, but fondly. He curled his tail around Skypaw's shivering flanks. "I was right about one thing, at least, wasn't I?"
"I suppose so," Skypaw conceded quietly. She looked after where Boundwind had fled, her heart aching a little...but not much. Not that much. She was just sad that they had had to fight in the way that they did. Friendships with cats in other Clans...they're so easy to break. She closed her eyes. The code takes precedence in any warrior's heart, I suppose. So long as that remains, then the Clans can live on.
"Come on," Larkflight encouraged, helping Skypaw rise. "Let's get you back to Jayfeather. You look pretty messed up." His eyes widened, incredulous, and he exclaimed, "Great StarClan, what did Chasefire do to you?"
"Where is she?" Skypaw frowned, suddenly remembering about the tabby warrior.
Larkflight snorted. "I don't care—and neither should you. She'll find her way back to WindClan soon enough, or we'll drag her there." He closed his eyes and murmured, "I'm sorry, Skypaw, for what happened before, I really am. I just...I was scared."
"We all were," Skypaw answered. She leaned against Larkflight as he helped her walk through the thick snow, back into ThunderClan territory. "But I'm not scared anymore."
Larkflight gave a small purr. "Nor am I," he said quietly. "Nor am I."