Daughter of the Sun

Defender

Chapter Twenty-Five
DEFENDER


Skypaw woke the following morning to find a paw resting on her throat.

"I've got you, ThunderClan fleabag!" announced her captor.

"One move and you go to StarClan, furball," a second added somewhere above Skypaw's head.

Skypaw narrowed her eyes. "I'm not the enemy."

"But you're not a friend either." Frogpaw tipped her head to one side, eyes sparkling in play. "So what does that make you?"

"A visitor?" Skypaw suggested.

Frogpaw pondered this. Then she nodded and removed her paw. "You may live, then," she mewed, allowing Skypaw to get up. "For now."

"Grateful for it," Skypaw answered, shaking out her rumpled pelt.

"Isn't this so cool?" Marshpaw swept his tail from side to side. "We slept in our den with a cat from ThunderClan—our own prisoner! I bet no other Clan apprentice is going to believe us..."

"No, they won't," Skypaw answered, briefly rasping a tongue over her shoulder. "To start with, I'm not a prisoner but a guest in your camp. And the only other apprentices you'll find at Gatherings are two young ShadowClan apprentices, two young ThunderClan apprentices, and myself." Who may not even be an apprentice when the next Gathering comes around.

"You've been to Gatherings?" Marshpaw's eyes widened in immediate respect. "What are they like?"

"Crowded," Skypaw replied.

"Who are the other apprentices?" Frogpaw asked, flicking her tail with barely-contained excitement.

"From ShadowClan, there're Cedarpaw and Nightpaw," Skypaw mewed, recollecting the friendly young she-cats, by now a few moons into their training. "And from my Clan, Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw." She purred. "When both were still kits, they took down a huge monster that threatened to eat all of ThunderClan up."

Frogpaw's and Marshpaw's eyes widened. "Badgers?" Marshpaw breathed.

"Even more terrifying," Skypaw corrected. "A bear."

"A bear?" The two apprentices exchanged bemused glances.

"Picture a gigantic animal covered in shaggy brown fur as tall as the trees, with giant claws and teeth," Skypaw explained. "Jaggedpaw killed the bear, you know, and this was before he and his sister even became apprentices."

"Whoa..." Frogpaw's eyes were round with amazement.

"Are they going to be at the next Gathering?" asked Marshpaw. "I really want to meet them now."

"Probably," replied Skypaw. "There aren't many apprentices in training in ThunderClan at the moment, and Lionstar doesn't mind letting them come." Even when she'd been one of six apprentices in training in ThunderClan, Skypaw had only missed one Gathering, and that had been the one straight after her battle with Rowanstar.

"Reedstar says that we'll be going to the next Gathering if we train hard enough!" Frogpaw flexed her claws. "So far I've trained really well. Hollowflight told me that if I catch lots of fish, he'll take me to the next Gathering!"

"So? Grayeyes told me the same thing," Marshpaw growled. "He's the best mentor ever!"

"No, Hollowflight is!"

Leaving the apprentices to the fast-forming argument, Skypaw slipped out of the apprentices' den and into the dew-laced RiverClan camp. The sky was brighter today, the clouds only dove-gray, but the sleet had stopped and there was only a cool wind laced with frost that whipped about the air. Already there was movement in the clearing as Mallownose organized patrols to examine safe areas to hunt for fish.

"Skypaw!" Tangleheart had emerged from the warriors' den and trotted over to her. "I trust you slept well?"

"Well enough," Skypaw answered, with a dip of her head. "I appreciate your kindness in letting me use the apprentices' den for the night," she mewed formally. Even if my two temporary denmates haven't yet learned the difference between visitor and enemy.

Tangleheart purred. "They didn't give you too much trouble, did they?"

"Tangleheart." Their conversation was interrupted as Pikefang padded over. He shot an unfriendly glance at Skypaw and mewed, "Mallownose wants you to go on a hunting patrol."

Tangleheart nodded. "Who with?"

"Find someone." Pikefang glanced back at Skypaw and mewed, "As for you, ThunderClan apprentice, you're to come with me and Whitefur, and the other cats we've assembled for the patrol. According to Reedstar, you're going to prove most useful in our efforts to come."

"Oh, she will," Tangleheart assured Pikefang, with a pointed glance.

Pikefang snorted. "I don't know what you two discussed with Reedstar, but I don't care and I don't want to find out. All I know is that apparently, you have some good ideas about stopping that poison from coming back to RiverClan—and so long as that much gets accomplished, I can't ask for more."

Skypaw frowned. Reedstar has a large amount of confidence in my abilities if he thinks I have all the answers...but I'm not even sure where to begin, let alone how to end. She didn't say the words aloud, merely inclined her head to the RiverClan warrior.

"Are we leaving at once?"

"Yes." Pikefang's mew was firm. "If you want fish, you'll have to catch it yourself. You're not on holiday, ThunderClan cat."

Skypaw flicked the tip of her tail irritably. "I understand that clearly enough, Pikefang."

"Good. Then let's go. I want to be at the Thunderpath tunnel before the sun's moved across the sky a mouse-length."

Sure enough, only a few moments had passed before the RiverClan camp lay behind them, and Skypaw was padding alongside a large group of warriors. She was glad that Duckfeather was amongst them, though Smolderfur, Icewing, Whitefur, Mallownose and another she-cat, Troutstream, were also a part of the group, and didn't treat her quite as kindly. Pikefang walked beside the Clan deputy, discussing his and Whitefur's findings the former day in low, agitated murmurs.

"Duckfeather," Skypaw mewed quietly. The cream-coloured she-cat spared her a glance.

"How did you manage to stop the poison last time?"

Duckfeather gave a small sigh.

"It was the Twolegs' fault, of course," she mewed grimly, "as it always seems to be. We found on the other side of the Thunderpath, lying in the stream, was a huge amount of Twoleg waste. It was coming out of a pipe embedded in the ground—and the pipe was letting out disgusting, foul-smelling and foul-appearing sludge. It was a mixture of bright orange and black, and the waters frothed unnaturally where the sludge met the stream."

Duckfeather spat distastefully. "Whatever the Twolegs put through that pipe, it's death to us. We decided that since it was too dangerous to explore the depths of the pipe, as the very fumes were making our eyes water, we'd stop the pipe up and prevent any more of the bile to come through."

"Twolegs are mad, aren't they?" Smolderfur commented casually; he'd been listening to the conversation the whole time, Skypaw gathered.

Duckfeather snorted at him. "Clearly they are. Don't tell me you've only just discovered that." Smolderfur gave a small purr.

"What did you stop it with?" asked Skypaw.

"Branches, thorns, pebbles..." Duckfeather shrugged. "Anything that could hold fast and stall the pipe. We did that, made sure that not a single drop could get through into the stream, but it took a long time before the fish stopped carrying traces of the poison."

Skypaw frowned. "Would the Twolegs remove it?"

"They must've, to hear Whitefur and Pikefang say it," Smolderfur murmured, flattening his ears. "To let all the bile enter our stream again, more deadly than before."

"Willowshine said that the poison's as lethal as deathberries, if taken in the right amount," Icewing growled, lashing her tail. "And yet the Twolegs still make things like that. Don't you wonder sometimes what the point of some Twoleg ideas are?"

"All the time," Smolderfur agreed.

Soon the RiverClan patrol arrived at the place where Skypaw had discovered Splashkit and Mudkit. They were careful to walk only on the shore—Duckfeather's eyes were round with horror as she stared in dismay at the murky waters.

"Great StarClan," she whispered, starting to shake. Skypaw pressed reassuringly against Duckfeather's side and the RiverClan she-cat leaned back, grateful for the support.

Smolderfur could only stare. It was his first experience of the poisoning. "This was what RiverClan once went through?" he murmured. Icewing grimly nodded, curled her tail around his, and led him on.

"This was what Mudkit and Splashkit almost went into," Skypaw added quietly. "Thank StarClan Mudkit had more sense in him than Splashkit. He kept telling her not to."

Duckfeather nodded. "Mudkit always was the practical thinker." Her voice was very small.

A few moments later, they stood outside the Thunderpath tunnel, where the water had turned inky black, and all the plants that grew around the stream had withered and died. Skypaw nearly gagged at the smell that flowed freely from the water. It smelled worse than carrion.

"Breathe gently," Whitefur warned, sparing a narrowed-eye glance at the rest of the patrol. "And be careful where you put your paws. It gets worse from here." He led the way beneath the Thunderpath with Mallownose and Pikefang close behind.

Skypaw trailed on after Smolderfur, and though she knew that the tunnel wouldn't fall in on them—it was remarkably solid, and her insight informed her otherwise—she was still very uneasy going beneath the river of death where the monsters prowled. Halfway through, the tunnel suddenly began to rumble and shake, and a roar grew louder and louder until it deafened the RiverClan cats' ears. Skypaw flattened her ears in an effort to blot out the sound—and then the roar had passed and peace returned to the tunnel.

"Forgotten how noisy they were," Duckfeather muttered, her side pressed against the tunnel wall as she walked as far away from the poisonous water as she could.

They came out on the other side, and what Skypaw saw made her eyes widen and her mouth half-open in amazement. Duckfeather appeared at her side and gave a sickened hiss. "Great StarClan, I hate Twolegs."

The river wound on and on into the horizon, but it pooled into a small closed-in clearing lined with tall, dead rushes and strangely-coloured grass. The water was black as night and had a strange reflective substance covering its top, all the colours of the rainbow. Twoleg rubbish lined the banks, all in shades of brown and dull red and yellow. The liquid trickled out in a small, steady stream from the mouth of a pipe jutting out of a raised earth bank overlooking the pool—and as Duckfeather had described, where the Twoleg bile touched the water (or what was left of water) it frothed unnaturally and swirled strangely.

"This isn't like last time." Mallownose's mew was short.

"It's worse." Pikefang's words were grim.

"The Twolegs removed the blockage we put in the pipe." Whitefur lashed his tail, curling his lip in disgust. "Like they wanted to put their vile waste into our streams and poison us and our food." Skypaw felt pain prickling through the pale tom's pelt and suddenly remembered that he and his brother Grayeyes had lost their sister to the poison.

"Can we block the pipe again?" asked Troutstream.

"Impossible." Skypaw spoke up—an image filled her head of the Twolegs returning to the pipe and removing it all over again. "The Twolegs will just take it down like before."

RiverClan eyes stared at her. "How do you know?" Troutstream growled.

Because I have a Tigermark, you mouse-brains. "Because I do," she answered carefully. "It only makes logical sense that they would do so again, if they've done it the first time."

"Oh, great." Duckfeather lashed her tail. "So we're doomed to have the poison flowing into our home? Killing our kits and maiming our warriors?" She was trembling again, from anger and grief.

"There must be another way," Icewing insisted.

"But what if there isn't?" Pikefang glanced at Mallownose. "What then? Should we move to another place in RiverClan territory where the poison doesn't reach?"

"That'd be useless as well," Skypaw mewed, feeling her fur prickle uncomfortably. It occurred to her exactly how easily she'd been able to speak back in the ThunderClan camp, where everyone knew that she had a gift of Time, where everyone was accustomed to Aura's wisdom and Skypaw's growing understanding of insight. "It'd just delay the poison. It'd infect all the marshes within a generation."

Mallownose narrowed his eyes. "And you know this how?"

"ThunderClan lies, most like," muttered Troutstream.

"Or maybe it's the truth," snapped Duckfeather. "Don't forget that ThunderClan has Aura with them, the cat with the knowledge of StarClan. Has it perhaps occurred to her that Aura has told Skypaw about the consequences of the poison?"

"Aura is a kit," Mallownose sniffed. "Like she'd have all the answers."

She does, Skypaw thought angrily, sinking her claws into the putrid soil. "The water flows into all parts of the marshland," she tried to reason as calmly as she could. "The poison is in the water—doesn't it just make sense that the poison will infect all RiverClan territory within a few seasons?"

"That does make a bit of sense," Smolderfur mewed.

Mallownose gave a low growl. "Then, apprentice, what do you suggest that we do to rid the poison from the marshland?" he inquired coldly. "Given that you seem to know more about the situation than anyother cat here, despite nearly all of them having had experience of the poisoning before." He shot a glance at Duckfeather. "Some with more of an experience of the poisoning than others."

Duckfeather flattened her ears but said nothing.

Skypaw hesitated. I had a feeling they'd be asking this sooner or later...She tried to call on her insight, but she was getting very nervous under the unfriendly eyes of the RiverClan cats. It was difficult to concentrate.

"I..." She swallowed, and lifted her chin. Stall them, stall them. "I'll need to look around." She quickly added, "Aura suggested doing so before we tried to come up with a plausible solution."

Whitefur twitched an ear. "Go ahead, then," he said coolly. He exaggeratedly stepped back. "Don't let us stop you, O Wise One." Snickers rang around the group, and Duckfeather and Skypaw shot the patrol a heated glare.

"Oh, very mature, Whitefur," Duckfeather growled. Skypaw didn't bother with a reply as she stalked away from the patrol and began to cautiously make her way down the bank.

The discussion about the poison continued behind Skypaw as she made her way around the banks, careful not to step into the poison. Her wounds were starting to itch uncomfortably but she swallowed back the infuriating feeling. The smell scoured her scent glands and made her gag, and her whiskers seemed to shrivel right before her eyes.

Just step carefully. Skypaw warily leapt from one bank to the other as a tendril of foul black sludge wound its way between the dead grass. Really carefully, and I'll be fine.

She wasn't entirely sure why she was making her way to the pipe, but it seemed like a good place to start. Skypaw crossed over a second polluted brook so she stood on the opposite sides of the bank the patrol was still on. Her power informed her of the incredulous whispers they were muttering to themselves. "What's she doing?" "Wants to get herself killed, probably." "Best let the ThunderClan apprentice get on with it—not my business if she wants to go to StarClan."

Apprentice...For a strange reason, Skypaw was starting to itch uncontrollably at the meremention of the name, and the scornful and imperious way that the RiverClan warriors were saying it in particular.

They think they're better than me. Skypaw lashed her tail. Reedstar and Tangleheart know better; a shame that neither are with the patrol.

She arrived at the pipe. The smell here was so bad that Skypaw could practically see it flowing out from the pipe's mouth. The death-laced fluid trickled out in a continuous stream, faintly coppery where the bleak light caught it as it fell towards the poisonous gathering. Unnatural warmth was coming out from the sides of the pipe, perhaps inspired by the foul scent or the poison itself. Skypaw shivered at the mere thought of what the Twolegs were doing to make such a vile liquid.

She sat beside the pipe for a moment, trying to figure out why instinct had brought her to it at all. Was the Tigermark trying to tell her something? Skypaw flattened her ears, mulling over her abilities. Time Manipulation would hardly be needed here, nor would a prophetic dream. What else could she do? There was nobody's memory to walk in here...

Wait a moment. Memory!

I can access memory through touch!

Skypaw raised a paw and gingerly rested it on the pipe. At first she cringed at the warmth that seared through her paw. Great StarClan, this feels horrid.

Then the world around her was lost, shivered, and reformed.

It wasn't leaf-bare anymore. In stark contrast, it seemed to be the height of greenleaf. The water wasn't black, but a mixture of black and strangely-bright orange. The pipe was spitting out poison in a consistent stream, and the grass around the edges of the bank was wiltered and dying.

Cats leapt from bank to bank, carrying branches and stones in their mouth. A bright silver tom, covered with dark gray stripes dappling his body in a spiraling pattern, was standing at the mouth of the pipe, accepting branches and stones delivered by his Clanmates, and shoving them with all his strength into the pipe's mouth.

"Come on!" he yowled—his voice was unfamiliar to Skypaw's ears, yet she recognized him immediately. This was Shellclaw, Duckfeather's beloved mate. "We're almost there!" Suddenly his astonishing amber eyes flared with alarm and he yowled, "Duckfeather! Don't try and take that over the water!"

Following his line of sight, Skypaw caught sight of Duckfeather, struggling with a large tendril of bramble. Her stomach was grossly swollen and she was breathing hard.

A dark brown tabby tom dropped the collection of river stones he'd been carrying in his mouth and raced to Duckfeather's side. He took the bramble strand from her and growled, "Stay on this side of the bank. You hardly have the strength to stand, let alone jump with brambles in your mouth!"

Duckfeather bristled with indignation. "But I want to help!"

"Yes, we all know that, hence why you slipped out from the nursery and followed the patrol," the tom, Hollowflight, mewed with a roll of his eyes. "Just stay on this side of the water, for StarClan's sake." Grasping the brambles tightly, he jumped a brook with the brambles trailing in his wake. Duckfeather hissed irritably after him and stalked towards the dropped stones.

"You can help me with floating this branch onto the other side, Duckfeather!" The speaker was Icewing, who was dragging a fallen willow branch across the grass, huffing a little with the effort.

"Are we almost there?" Mallownose, gripping a collection of rushes in his jaws, staggered over to Shellclaw's side.

Shellclaw, puffing a little, spared the Clan deputy a nod. "We're almost there. Only a bit more is needed to stop up the pipe."

"That willow branch Icewing found should help—and these, for plugging." Mallownose dropped the rushes.

"Thank you." Shellclaw seized the rushes and haphazardly threaded them into the spaces.

A monster roared by on the nearby Thunderpath. Hollowflight, startled, dropped the bramble strand, which rolled down the bank and into the water. "Mouse-brain!" Duckfeather yowled across the pool at him.

Hollowflight lashed his tail. "You'd drop a bramble if a monster roared at you!"

"I wouldn't have!" Duckfeather called back. "Would I, Shellclaw?"

"No, you wouldn't," Shellclaw agreed, sparing a nod at his mate. "Even if Duckfeather's that close to kitting, she's still sure of her paws and her surroundings!"

"Great StarClan!" Hollowflight shook his head. "You two are like littermates—completely inseparable, no matter the situation."

"We're divided by a line of poison, Hollowflight," Duckfeather pointed out, with a disdainful swish of her tail. "I'd say that we're on opposite sides, for now."

"Not for long, though," Shellclaw mewed lightly as he dropped back from the pipe. "The pipe's blocked!"

The eyes of the RiverClan patrol widened, and a jubilant yowl burst from their throats. "Will it stay?" Mallownose demanded.

"Oh, it'll stay," purred Shellclaw, padding along the shore. "We'll use the willow branch to mark our victory here, seeing as we have no need of using it anymore to block the pipe." He seized the base of the willow branch that had made its way across the water and pulled it up the bank, wiping off the excess water on the grass along the way. Then, beside the pipe, he jammed the end into the ground and hauled the branch upward until it stood straight like a small tree.

Duckfeather purred with pride. "May it stand as a mark of triumph for the generations to come!"

Shellclaw's whiskers twitched. "I can just imagine taking our kits up here and showing them the great feat we accomplished today," he mewed, eyes shining at the very thought of being a father.

Hollowflight coughed. "There are more of us here, you know," he reminded.

"Yes, but Shellclaw actually blocked the pipe," Duckfeather shot at him. "All we did was bring the blockage material to him. He was the one who did the feat!"

"But he couldn't have done it without the material," Mallownose reminded, with a flick of his tail. "In any case," he meowed, raising his voice so all the patrol could hear him, "we need to report our success to Reedstar. He'll be pleased to hear that the poison won't trouble RiverClan anymore!"

The image suddenly shivered, morphing and changing, and Skypaw instinctively knew that she had entered the memory of a more recent time. Indeed, this memory only seemed a few days old. There was frost blanketing the banks and covering the still pool of water with a thin sheet of ice. The blockage could still be seen, as well as the willow branch, though it had long lost its leaves and drooped, a half-rotted stick embedded in the soft ground.

The Thunderpath rumbled and a large monster with an exposed back suddenly rolled off its track and onto the grass. It paused just a little way above the pipe. When the monster fell silent, two Twolegs wearing brightly-coloured orange pelts, lightly lined with shiny silver, climbed out of the monster's belly. They approached the bank and climbed a little way down the slope, enough to look at the pipe. They yowled something to one another, sounding irritated about something. Then they climbed back up the bank and returned to their monster.

They rummaged about in the back of the monster for a few moments. Then they returned to the pipe, this time wearing a kind of protective pelt around their paws. They climbed back down the bank, right to the very bottom. They started to roughly pull out the pipe blockage, throwing it carelessly over their shoulders so it thumped onto the ice and cracked it. When they did, black-coloured sludge abruptly spilled out from the pipe in a huge rush and thumped back into the water. The ice swiftly melted from the unnatural heat from the poison, and the formerly clear water began to froth and churn as a dark stain wormed its way throughout the pool.

Emitting satisfied yowls, the Twolegs began to scramble up the bank. One of the Twoleg's boots caught the willow branch, kicking it off the bank and into the poisoned pool. It floated there for a few moments, and then sank beneath the surface as the Twolegs returned to their monster and rumbled away.

But the memory wasn't quite over yet.

A few hours after the monster had gone, a few young Twoleg kits suddenly appeared above the pipe. They looked at the water and yowled sadly to one another. They sounded dismayed, unhappy that the pipe had been unblocked. They disappeared, but a few hours later they returned—to Skypaw's fascination, they were carrying plants in their hands.

They climbed down the bank, getting as close as they dared to the poisoned stream. They dug holes in the dirt with their paws and put the plants in. They set the earth all around the plants again, protecting the fragile roots. Being careful not to kick at the plants, the kits climbed back up the bank. They paused, looking back at the small row of plants lining up on the bank, overlooking the poisoned water. Then the kits hurried away.

They put plants near the water? Skypaw was confused. What good would that do?

Her Tigermark filled her in with the memory's answer. Plants can help heal the water. They keep it clean. The kits didn't want to see the water polluted, so they put plants beside it in an attempt to try and clean the pond.

A heavy frost that night later killed the plants, but the idea had settled in Skypaw's mind. She withdrew from the memory, returning to the present. Her head was buzzing, but only a few seconds had passed.

Is that the answer? Skypaw wondered, her heart beating three times faster in her chest. We can't stop the poison from coming...but we can make sure that the poison never leaves this pool, reduce the poison and prevent it from ever reaching the RiverClan camp.

She glanced down at the blackened pool. But we'd need a lot of plants...

Or...

Skypaw remembered the yarrow that she'd eaten, how it'd cured her of the poison. Willowshine had told her that yarrow was one of the best cures for poison that she knew. If a few sprigs of yarrow can cure a cat of poison, then perhaps a whole group of yarrow could help control the poison from its source!

"Skypaw!" Duckfeather's yowl echoed across the pool. "What are you doing? Get away from the pipe!"

Skypaw turned back towards the RiverClan patrol. "Yarrow!" she yowled to them. "We can use yarrow to remove the poison from the pool!"

"What?" Mallownose frowned. "Don't be ridiculous. The poison is strong enough to kill full-grown warriors—what makes you think plants will stop the poison when Clan warriors have failed?"

"The Twolegs want this pipe to stay," Skypaw insisted. "I think they're going to keep coming back and removing whatever blockage you put in the pipe. When they removed it, all the poison came back. It had gathered up in the pipe and become worse than before."

"So Twolegs did remove the blockage?" Pikefang hissed in anger. "Clearly they want to see us dead!"

"Not all Twolegs are bad," Skypaw told him, and remembered the Twoleg kits who had tried to heal the poisoned water. "Some don't like whatever other Twolegs are doing here. But plants can help keep water clean—and since yarrow is a plant used for poison, it can be used here as well!"

Icewing frowned. "And you know this how?"

Skypaw hesitated. What should she say? Could she get away with using Aura as an excuse again?

"Does it matter?" Duckfeather fixed Pikefang with a firm glare. "Our first attempt at stopping the poison failed. If we block it again, we only delay it coming back." She glanced at Skypaw. "I'm willing to give Skypaw's method a try, even if you aren't. To honour Shellclaw's memory."

Mallownose stared at the former queen in disbelief. "You would rather trust a ThunderClan cat's idea—our enemy!—than your own Clanmates?"

"Where do your loyalties lie?" growled Troutstream.

Duckfeather bristled in anger. "They lie with RiverClan," she hissed. "How dare you challenge my loyalty, you fish-brain? I agree with Skypaw's idea not because she's from ThunderClan—if anything, I'd disagree because of that reason alone!—but because Skypaw's idea makes sense!"

Mallownose frowned. "Using plants to control such a deadly poison..."

"Yarrow can save a cat from eating deathberries," growled Duckfeather, "and deathberries are the most toxic herb that any cat knows."

"Why don't we ask Willowshine for her counsel?" Smolderfur suggested suddenly. "She'd know more about the potency of yarrow than any other."

There was a thoughtful pause. "That's sensible," Icewing conceded.

Pikefang snorted. "I can't believe that we're even considering the ThunderClan cat's idea."

"If you don't want to listen to what I have to say, why did Reedstar permit me to stay?" Skypaw snapped at him, her patience spent. "If you don't want my help, I should have made my way back to ThunderClan long ago, where they do need me. Reedstar trusts my judgement, and you would be wise to do the same."

Smolderfur shot her a glance. "Well phrased," he commented.

Mallownose huffed. "Fine," he growled. "We'll return to the RiverClan camp and discussthis idea with Reedstar and Willowshine. If they agree that we should try it, then we'll try it. No more questions asked." He fixed Skypaw with a suspicious glare. "If, however, the idea is too stupid or too useless, then I'll have to ask you to stay out of RiverClan's business in future. We don't need or want your help, ThunderClan cat."

"You might not," Skypaw told him coolly, as she made her way back around the poison pool. "But Reedstar does—and according to the code, a Clan leader's word is law."

"Since when has ThunderClan been following the code?" jeered Troutstream.

Skypaw merely fixed the pale gray tabby she-cat with an unblinking stare. "Since we had the courage to face our mistakes."


"You know," meowed Willowshine thoughtfully, "it could work."

Mallownose's eyes rounded almost immediately. "Wh-what?" Clearly, he hadn't been expecting the answer to support Skypaw's idea, and the ThunderClan apprentice smirked beneath her whiskers.

"If plants such as yarrow, snakeroot and tansy are planted by the source of the poison, it may help reduce the amount that's currently making its way through RiverClan territory and towards the lake," Willowshine explained, her eyes thoughtful. She spared Skypaw a glance. "That was an ingenious idea, young one."

"Yes, it was," Reedstar commented, his eyes thoughtful. He turned back to Willowshine. "Could it work, though? We need to be sure—herbs don't exactly flourish in this season."

Willowshine narrowed her eyes. "It certainly sounds a good deal more effective than simply blocking up all the poison again like last time. I'd rather not repeat the whole poisoning process again." She twitched her tailtip. "This would've been my third time, otherwise."

"Third time?" Skypaw echoed.

"When I was a kit," Willowshine mewed, "shortly after the Clans had settled by the lake after the Great Journey, poison struck RiverClan, poison also coming from Twolegs."

"I remember it," Reedstar nodded. "This was back when Leopardstar still ruled and Hawkfrost was still alive."

Hawkfrost...The name was a thunderbolt to Skypaw's senses. Mapleshade...the Dark Forest...the kits and apprentices, they're still in danger...I just know it!

"It might be safe to say that I have more experience of treating poisons than any other current Clan medicine cat at the lake," Willowshine shrugged. "Perhaps it was why I was able to save many of my Clanmates from joining StarClan." Her eyes shadowed. "Even so, the poison was much worse than the first time I encountered it. Many lives were lost the second time."

"It wasn't your fault," Reedstar told her firmly. "You did your best—and it was all your Clanmates could ask of you."

Willowshine shrugged, lifting her head high. "I'm willing to try out your method, Skypaw," she mewed. "If you are kin of Firestar, then you are kin of Leafpool—and I am still grateful for her assistance all those moons ago back in the time of the first poisoning. She saved the lives of many cats."

Skypaw dipped her head, warmed by the praise. "Thank you."

"Herbs flourish in RiverClan territory more than they do in any other Clan," Willowshine mewed, turning to her Clanmates. "I know that snakeroot is flourishing well, and tansy is in moderate supply. We can spare some yarrow as well. Mallownose, I would like to accompany you to the poison pool, to assist and supervise in the planting of these herbs."

Mallownose saw fault with that at once. "No, Willowshine. It's far too dangerous. You're our medicine cat. If we lose you—"

"I am not helpless!" Willowshine snapped. "Remember that I trained for a brief time as a warrior before I chose the path of healing—and I can stand and walk fine enough, thank you."

Reedstar gave a small nod. "Very well. Do you want to depart for the pool immediately?"

"I would, thank you, Reedstar. The sooner that this poison is treated, the better."

Mallownose still wore a narrowed expression, but he said nothing.

"Both of you may go." Reedstar gestured to the front of his den. As Mallownose and Willowshine padded out from the den, Skypaw made to follow them, but Reedstar called, "Hold a moment. I wish to share some words with you."

Skypaw nodded and resumed her place before the RiverClan leader. "What about?"

Reedstar twitched an ear. "You came up with the idea of using plants to stop the poison?"

Skypaw shook her head. "I entered a memory—Twoleg kits had the idea of putting plants beside the water to try and make it healthy again."

Reedstar's eyes widened in surprise. "Twoleg kits gave you the idea?"

"Don't sound so surprised, Reedstar—Twoleg kits love the lake as much as RiverClan do."

Reedstar was silent for a few moments. "You do realize that it's thanks to Twolegs that the poison is there at all."

"The kits might not be responsible for it," Skypaw argued. "We don't know everything about Twoleg habits—including Twoleg opinions on poison. Not all of them might want poison to go into the lake. Maybe they know of our presence and want us to stay."

Reedstar snorted. "That's a far cry."

"It's a cry nonetheless, and one that I'm willing to take."

"You're willing to take, but what about the rest of my Clan?" Reedstar rose to his paws and paced to and fro. "Plants save lives, that fact is apparent—but surely not even the strongest herbs used to fight against poison will be able to stop it from infecting our marshlands, our home." He glanced at Skypaw. "Besides, it doesn't even affect your territory."

Skypaw struggled to rein in her impatience. "No, it doesn't," she admitted truthfully, "but we all share the lake—and what happens to it affects all of us." She lowered her voice. "Particularly in the times that are to come. RiverClan must remain strong, for the other Clans to remain strong."

Reedstar's eyes shadowed. "Yes...that much is true."

He gave a small sigh. "I can't believe that I'm saying this, but...I trust you and your idea on this matter, Skypaw. Even if you are of another Clan, I'm willing and ready to believe you."

"I understand how hard this must be for you, Reedstar."

The black tom snorted. "Not as hard as some other Clan leaders," he remarked, with a flick of his tail. "I'm part ThunderClan, remember? My grandmother was Bluestar. Even though I am a RiverClan cat at heart, and I always will be, my ancestors are ThunderClan as much as they are RiverClan, and on that fact alone, I have a small twinge of loyalty towards them—particularly to two old ThunderClan warriors who once saved my life, both of which you are directly descended from." He looked thoughtfully at Skypaw. "You have always been a rather good neighbour. Better than WindClan and ShadowClan, at any rate."

His gray eyes sparkled with amusement. "But don't tell Mallownose I said that."

"Don't you trust your deputy?" Skypaw inquired.

"I trust any of my Clanmates with my lives," Reedstar corrected. "But Mallownose has always been a little fanatical about Clans and loyalty." He lowered his voice. "He was more shocked than other Clan cats to learn that some of his own Clanmates and denmates were Dark Forest recruits."

Minnowtail, Troutstream, Hollowflight, Icewing, Beetlewhisker... "I probably would have been too, if I had been alive then," Skypaw admitted softly.

"Be grateful you didn't," murmured Reedstar. "To face a nightmare twice is sometimes as terrible as facing it for the first."

Skypaw rose to her paws. "Reedstar," she mewed, "do you want me to assist Willowshine in planting the herbs?"

Reedstar frowned. "No, Skypaw. I want you to stay here and protect the camp."

Skypaw's ears flicked forward in surprise.

"I'm sending away most of my warriors," Reedstar reasoned. "I want this poison business to be dealt with as quickly as I was alerted of it. You've done RiverClan a great service, but now I must ask you to do one more. I will go and assist Mallownose and the warriors in the planting and dealing with the poison—I will leave only a few warriors behind to guard the kits and apprentices. I do not want them to be near such a vile substance, particularly after what happened to you."

Skypaw's cuts still itched a little, and she restrained the urge to scratch at them. Besides, Reedstar's words sent an uneasy shiver down her back.

"Reedstar, if Mapleshade is going to come to RiverClan, I can't defend the kits alone—and Rushtail is hardly in any state to fight. Splashkit and Mudkit have only just been weaned."

Reedstar frowned. "Who do you want to stay behind, then?"

"Hollowflight, Icewing and Troutstream..." Skypaw frowned. "And Grayeyes. He should be with his apprentice."

Reedstar stood up, suddenly most alarmed. "Nearly all of the warriors who trained in the Dark Forest long ago, as well as both mentors of the two apprentices," he mewed. "You sound as if you think Mapleshade is going to come while the camp is at its weakest."

"I have a feeling that she will," answered Skypaw quietly. What better time for a Dark Forest warrior to attack while all the Clan's warriors were away dealing with another threat? "But I'm not prepared to take any chances."

"Should the apprentices come with Mallownose's patrol, then?" Reedstar sounded concerned.

"It still leaves the kits," Skypaw reasoned, her mind drifting back to Splashkit and Mudkit and how vulnerable they were. "And the apprentices would be in significant danger if they were so close to the poison. In a way, I think they're safer with me." Even as she spoke, she felt an icy chill of uncertainty descend into the pits of her stomach. I'm putting myself as the sole guardian of four young RiverClan cats. What if I fail?

Reedstar frowned, remaining silent for a long moment. Then he nodded.

"Very well, Skypaw. I'll have the warriors you asked for to remain—I can see the sense of them remaining behind while the Dark Forest threat is high, as those are the cats who know the way they fight better than any other. The apprentices will remain in their dens and the kits closely watched over by Rushtail. And Skypaw...you'll wait for her."

Skypaw nodded, even as she felt the fur rise and prickle along her spine at the mere thought of seeing Mapleshade once more.

But I have something that Mapleshade does not. I have the blessing of a Tigermark of Time. I am stronger than the Three. She will not have her vengeance upon RiverClan, not today, or any other. Not while there's still breath in my body.


The RiverClan camp was quite peaceful when the late afternoon came. Though the air was cold and a light layer of frost still covered the ground, the sky was a bright gray and bleary. Somewhere in the willows beyond, a thrush was warbling.

Skypaw sat quietly in the centre of the clearing, every sense on high alert, waiting anxiously for any signs of danger.

Pacing restlessly at the front of the camp was Troutstream, who was lashing her tail and spitting in irritation. "I should be helping my Clanmates," she muttered. "Not staying here guarding...guarding kits!"

Icewing, who sat nearby, flashed her a narrowed-eye stare. "And guarding kits isn't important?" she inquired coolly. "Troutstream, they're Rushtail's little ones—the future of our Clan!"

"We don't have a future if the poison comes and kills us all again," Troutstream answered, flicking her tail across the other's chin.

Frogpaw and Marshpaw, on the other paw, were rather pleased to be told to stay behind in the RiverClan camp. They were sitting beneath a maple's leaning branches, chewing absently on a minnow between them.

"Finally we get a day off," Marshpaw was mewing, as he swiped a tongue around his muzzle. "I thought Grayeyes would never let me have a break!"

"I'd rather be learning how to fight!" Frogpaw sprang to her paws and dug her claws into the soft soil. "I'll fight off any fox that dares to come even a whisker-length into RiverClan territory!"

Hollowflight spared a glance at his apprentice. "You won't be fighting any foxes until you can successfully catch your first carp," he told her sternly. "You need to have sharp reflexes and strong paws before you can start learning how to fight the larger predators. Understand? Not before."

"Yes, Hollowflight," Frogpaw mewed meekly. For a few moments she sat very still, and then she glanced at Skypaw. "Have you fought any foxes, ThunderClan apprentice?" she asked.

Skypaw twitched an ear. That odd frustration that simmered beneath her pelt at the word apprentice had returned. Am I not proud to be a ThunderClan apprentice anymore? She set these thoughts aside and answered, "I've never faced a fox, no. But I have fought in several battles."

"With WindClan?" asked Marshpaw, looking up from his minnow. "Grayeyes told me that ThunderClan and WindClan are warring."

Skypaw only just managed to restrain a glance at her underbelly. The muscles were sore and aching from the impact of both Chasefire's claws and the poison, but they were mending well. "I fought once with WindClan, yes," she answered carefully, trying hard not to think about Boundwind. "But also with ShadowClan."

Frogpaw's eyes widened. "That's right!" she mewed excitedly, pacing over. "Mother told us the nursery story—that this mad ShadowClan leader tried to kill ThunderClan's deputy and steal a kit with the wisdom of the stars!" Her eyes rounded. "Were you in that battle?"

"I was," Skypaw replied, though she winced as she remembered the painful memory of being thrown across the shore, Hookclaw looming over her, and Rowanstar tearing Lionstar's throat. "But I wasn't as strong or as skilled in fighting as I am now. I was only a moon or so into my training then." And since, five moons had passed. Time seemed to fly faster than ever now that she had greater control over it.

"Look," she added, nudging aside a tuft of fur on her shoulder to display a series of knotted pink slashes that had never quite healed. "These are some scars I got from my first battle." She'd forgotten about them before now, but memory informed her that the maker of the scars was Olivenose. Frogpaw and Marshpaw were fascinated.

"Did it hurt?" Marshpaw asked anxiously.

"It did then," Skypaw admitted ruefully. "But I think the scars I gave my enemy hurt more."

Frogpaw's claws came out and the small gray she-cat dropped into a ferocious crouch. "If I ever get attacked by another Clan fleabag, I'll give them so many scars you won't be able to see their fur!"

Skypaw twitched an ear. "Hopefully, that cat won't be me."

She spared a glance at the nursery. Splashkit and Mudkit were sleeping peacefully inside, curled up against Rushtail's belly. The queen was awake and looking anxiously out amidst the reeds that formed the den walls—perhaps waiting for her mate or sister to return? Don't worry, Skypaw thought resolutely to herself. I'm not going to let Mapleshade anywhere near those kits...

A flash of gray at the corner of her eye made Skypaw glance around, but she relaxed when she saw it was only Grayeyes. "Are you two bothering our guest?" he inquired.

Marshpaw quickly shook his head. "No," Frogpaw replied.

"Well, if you have nothing better to do, you'd best finish off that minnow." Grayeyes nodded towards the small half-eaten body at the edge of the clearing. "It's disrespectful to waste prey. That minnow died so we may live."

"S-sorry," Marshpaw stammered, even as Frogpaw protested, "But it tastes funny!"

Grayeyes frowned. "All prey in the fresh-kill pile has been tested for poison—that minnow is safe to eat," he mewed. "Petalfur caught it fresh that morning. Do you want her to find out that you never finished eating what she caught for the Clan?"

Frogpaw hesitated. "N-no," she admitted.

Grayeyes sat down. "Off you go, then."

The two apprentices made their way back across the clearing and crouched back down beside the dead fish. After a moment, Grayeyes murmured, "I overheard a bit of the conversation about the battle, you know."

Skypaw spared the silver-eyed warrior a glance. "Should I have told them?"

"It's all right," Grayeyes conceded, with a twitch of his tail. "So long as you don't get them too excited about the thought of battle. They'll discover soon enough that it isn't as glorious as they believe it is."

"Hopefully I won't be staying much longer in the RiverClan camp." Skypaw closed her eyes, letting her insight stretch forth. "The hollow has almost been rebuilt. The last of the dens are being constructed this morning. We'll be back home before the Gathering comes around again, even before a few more sunrises have passed."

Grayeyes let out a small purr. "Good to hear." He paused. "So long as you don't keep stealing WindClan rabbits."

Skypaw frowned at him. "The prey is slowly returning to ThunderClan territory. We're hunting near the border less and less."

Grayeyes didn't trust himself to speak, and he had no comment.

After a few more moments had passed, Grayeyes mewed, "Reedstar seems to trust you, as though you're one of our Clanmates." He glanced at her. "Any particular reason?"

Skypaw plucked at the ground with her claws. "I did save the kits," she murmured. "Guess that was reason enough."

"Funny," Grayeyes mused. "I would've imagined that it would've taken a bit more for him to be persuaded to let you stay in our camp and eat our fresh-kill. And I would've imagined that Lionstar would've been most unwilling to send his Clan's eldest apprentice on her own to help another Clan." He twitched his tailtip. "And Tangleheart seems to trust you an awful lot, for a cat who belongs to another Clan."

"That's between us," Skypaw answered tightly.

Grayeyes nodded. "So long as Reedstar welcomes you to our camp, then I will. But I must know, does it have anything to do with Reedstar's origin?" He said the question carefully, neutrally.

Skypaw drew a deep breath. "No," she answered, as calmly as she could.

"All right, then."

They found themselves gazing at the trees that gently enclosed the RiverClan camp. "Do you ever climb?" Skypaw found herself asking.

"Sometimes," Grayeyes replied. "Mostly we swim."

"Not just to hunt." Skypaw pricked at the ground again. "But to...you know, just practice climbing techniques." Her gaze rested on the tree where the apprentices crouched beneath. "That one there, the maple, has some good tree boughs for climbing."

"The apprentices enjoy testing their skills on it," Grayeyes admitted. "Sometimes I come to find mine, only to find he's halfway up the tree clinging desperately to a branch, because his sister's dared him to..."

"Mm." Skypaw looked at Frogpaw. "She certainly has...a commanding personality."

"A good trait for a warrior—if it's used in moderation," Grayeyes agreed.

Skypaw was about to ask if the young RiverClan she-cat been like that as a kit as well, but at that moment she felt a familiar twinge in her blood. It set her on her paws in the blink of an eye, every hair quivering on her pelt. A breeze was rustling the tree branches, and the shadows were growing longer.

But it was unmistakable. The sudden presence of danger was well-known to Skypaw.

"What is it?" Grayeyes was on his paws at once, every sense alert.

Skypaw didn't answer. Her attention was focused on the maple. She suddenly wanted the apprentices to get away from there. The shade seemed...darker somehow.

Shock made her fur stand on end. Maple. Shade.

That couldn't be a coincidence.

"Get away from there!" she shrieked at the apprentices, already sprinting across the clearing as fast as her paws could take her—but even as she ran, a pair of fiery amber eyes appeared out from the darkness, and with a hiss of triumph, the Dark Forest warrior leapt at the nearest apprentice—Frogpaw.

But attracted by Skypaw's shriek, the intruder hesitated.

It was enough for Skypaw to leap clean over the startled apprentice's head and slam into the ghostly warrior, sending her flying into the maple's trunk.

The apprentices gasped in fright and Skypaw heard them scrambling backwards, away from the tree, taking shelter behind Grayeyes who had come bounding after the ThunderClan cat's wake. She stood her ground and dug her claws into the soil, assuming a battle stance, but her heart was racing in her throat and fear was threatening to overwhelm her.

Mapleshade recovered and rose to her paws, gazing defiantly back at her challenger.

"I should have known you'd interfere," she snarled, brittle hatred behind every word. Her long claws slid out and the tortoiseshell's spectral fur stood on end. "Throw a thorn into my pelt."

Skypaw flicked her ears backwards—the other RiverClan warriors had come racing across the clearing, but slid to a shocked halt at the sight of the Dark Forest she-cat. Unveiled horror flowed freely from their pelts, scorching the air. "M-Mapleshade!" Hollowflight gasped, terror and disbelief shivering from the ends of his fur.

Mapleshade's whiskers twitched and she spared a brief glance at her former trainees. "Hollowflight," she purred silkily, yet as poisonously as a snake. "How lovely it is to meet again."

"Mapleshade..." Grayeyes whispered. After a moment, he realized, "The Dark Forest. You're from the Dark Forest."

"Oh, give the tom a fish," Mapleshade spat sarcastically. "Where did you think I was from, you fool?" She stalked out from the shadow of the maple tree, and the bleak light caught on her see-through body. But her eyes gleamed with just as much malice as Skypaw remembered them to hold. "But this is an opportunity that is most fortunate in my turn."

"How?" Skypaw growled, trying to sound braver than she felt. Her mind was whirling, and she could hardly breathe, let alone focus and unleash her powers. "You're outnumbered. You won't have RiverClan's young ones."

Mapleshade sneered. "Outnumbered?" she repeated, hissing. "Outnumbered?" She spared a glance at the former Dark Forest apprentices, who were staring back at her with total amazement and dread flashing in their eyes. "Like those gutless worms would lift a claw against me now!" She turned back to Skypaw and sneered, "Like you could, Skypaw."

Skypaw's heart pounded in her throat, but she kept her voice calm and clear. "I'm not afraid of you, Mapleshade."

Mapleshade's lip curled. "Oh? When were you never afraid of me, Skypaw? Was it after we first met, muzzle to muzzle, in the Dark Forest and you first had an experience of my Nightmares? Was it even back to those early days when you first found me, eavesdropped on a conversation between my Dark Forest allies?" She lashed her tail. "Or was it even before then—when I haunted your dreams as a kit?"

Sudden anger, familiar anger, flashed through Skypaw—and for a moment, her fear wavered. "You weren't responsible for my dreams."

"You called them nightmares," growled Mapleshade. "And I am the queen of them!"

"You may be the queen of nightmares, but I am the queen of dreams." As she spoke, Skypaw could feel that curious sensation filling every pore of her body, the feeling of her fear diminishing as her battle fury grew. "It was dreams that first told me that I was not like the others. It was dreams that first warned me of the sickness that ravaged my Clan and the bear coming to the lake. It was dreams that guided me to the Realm of the Four—and it was a dream that guided me to Aura."

Mapleshade stiffened at the mention of the name. "She has no power over nightmare," she spat. "That fool daughter chose the wrong side in this war. We are stronger than we ever were—no one can stand against us now!"

The fury grew, white-hot, burning like flame in Skypaw's blood. Her mind cleared, her eyes brightened, and Skypaw felt her fur tingle.

"The shadow that passed over the sun," Skypaw hissed. "A promise Sol made to the Clans long ago, generations ago. A dark dawn is coming, but there is a herald. The shadow will not pass over us again. The darkened sun has risen—but there is a daughter to stand against him."

"Aura cannot even fight," Mapleshade sneered. "All she can do is know."

"And she knows that so long as I live and I breathe, then there is hope," Skypaw answered—and it was at that moment that the world seemed to slow around her. A great energy passed through her body from her muzzle to her tailtip. Her mind was clear and focused, and the tiger that owned her soul had opened its eyes. "I am Skypaw, the warrior, the protector, and the daughter of the sky—it was what I was named for, and what I was destined to do. I dance in fire and dwell in dreams, and should any stand against me, then I will roar and show them the fury of the Four."

Mapleshade stared warily at Skypaw, but growled, "The Four is nothing. You are nothing. Aura is nothing to us!"

"You are wrong, Mapleshade. Aura is the guardian, the keeper. She is the herald of the dawn, for none else but a daughter of the sun."

Mapleshade hissed. "She is no daughter of SunClan, or of Sol. She has chosen her fate."

"And Fate has chosen its bearer's daughter." Skypaw gazed blackly at Mapleshade. "You scare me no more. You will haunt no more dreams, wield no more Nightmares. The Clans will survive. The Dark Forest will fall. SunClan will perish...and so will you."

Mapleshade's face twisted into a bitter sneer. "Not before you, delusional heretic!" With a twisted scream, she leapt.

The tiger roared.

Time stood still.

Skypaw rolled out of the way of Mapleshade's claws, and as Time broke, the tortoiseshell warrior's talons drove into the soil instead of fur. With a startled hiss, Mapleshade whipped around to meet Skypaw's gleaming eyes.

"You are more akin to the Tigermark than I thought," Mapleshade commented; the Dark Forest warrior sounding honestly surprised.

Skypaw lashed her tail. "Don't tell me now you've just figured that out."

Mapleshade's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps, perhaps not. It matters little to me what the Four decide to do with you." She stalked forward. "Though I fail to understand why you fight for these pitiful RiverClan fleabags. They're not even of your Clan!" Her fur stood on end. "You sicken me with your divided loyalties!"

Skypaw bristled with rage. "Disloyalty?" Strange laughter bubbled up inside her throat, a laughter bitter and scornful as the words that had scalded her tongue during her argument with Larkflight. "Disloyalty? At least I didn't fall in love with another Clan cat!"

Mapleshade's eyes widened, and then the tortoiseshell yowled in sheer rage. "Your very grandfather mated with a RiverClan she-cat!" she shrieked, her expression wild.

"And you were responsible for Silverstream's death," Skypaw snarled back, the Tigermark giving all the ancient answers. "You took her away from Crookedstar, and yet you still failed to break him—and you aren't going to break me."

"We'll see about that!" Mapleshade rushed forward, and Skypaw twisted out of the way. She raked her claws through the air, but Mapleshade was too fast, diving out of the way and springing back onto her paws.

Without slowing down for a moment, the tortoiseshell leapt onto Skypaw's back. Instantly, long hours of training with Cherrypelt kicking into place, Skypaw ducked and rolled, knocking Mapleshade from her shoulders. It was enough for the Dark Forest warrior to loosen her grip on the ThunderClan apprentice. She pulled herself back onto her paws. Her stripes were blazing bright cyan against her dusky gray fur, echoing the battle fury that thrummed in her soul.

Mapleshade lashed out, nearly catching Skypaw in the face. The apprentice ducked and countered, delivering a winding blow against the older she-cat. Mapleshade hissed and staggered, but kept on her paws. She curled back her lips in a sneer as she lunged again.

Skypaw ducked out of the way of the paw slash, but suddenly instinct informed her of a counter that was coming low. She lashed out with Manipulation, freezing Time long enough for her to roll out of the way of the counter. As it resumed around her, Mapleshade's eyes darkened and she emitted a frustrated yowl.

"You are unworthy of bearing such power!" she shrieked.

Skypaw glared at the former ThunderClan warrior. "So are you," she growled.

Mapleshade's eyes gleamed malevolently. "We'll see how far your powers stretch, apprentice."

Moving with surprising speed, she attacked from the side. Skypaw ducked out of the way and lashed back, catching Mapleshade hard in the head. The tortoiseshell fell back with a stunned cry, and instantly Skypaw led the offense, striking fast and hard in the quick, neat paw slashes Cherrypelt had taught her from the very beginning. Soon the older she-cat was panting a little, breathing heavily from the onslaught.

But as Skypaw raised her paw to deliver a second stunning blow, Mapleshade momentarily disappeared from view—and a blinding pain seared the length of Skypaw's body. She fell away with a strangled gasp of agony as blood welled from the reopened cuts on her stomach.

Mapleshade loomed before her eyes and lunged for the killing bite.

Not like this. Skypaw twisted away and rolled, gritting her teeth against the aches that exploded in her every movement. She struggled to stand and parry the powerful sweeping blows that Mapleshade delivered.

Suddenly Mapleshade vanished again—but this time, Skypaw's insight warned her of what was to come. She ducked low, avoiding the blow that otherwise would have cleaved a gaping wound in her neck, and as Mapleshade was momentarily left off-balance, Skypaw pushed off from the ground with all her might, slamming her body weight against the tortoiseshell's mottled, spectral fur. Both were thrown to the ground, but the wounds were tearing and Skypaw was starting to choke on her breath.

Adrenalin pulsed through her blood, giving her strength to stand, but Skypaw knew she was weakening fast. I must end this fight, and soon...

Mapleshade rose with a triumphant sneer on her face. "You fight like a kit!"

"You fight like an elder," Skypaw retorted, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. The world was starting to spin and fray at the edges of her vision, but a fear of death and failure kept her on her paws, kept the centre of her vision clear and the fore of her mind focused on the fight.

Suddenly the tortoiseshell lunged. Skypaw leaned back, but hissed with the effort of the movement. Her limbs were growing heavier and the energies pulsing in her pelt were starting to waver. Terror was starting to guide Skypaw's actions now, keeping her reflexes working as well as they could. She stepped back, defending against Mapleshade's blows; sharp, neat and compact in the ThunderClan style.

For a moment, Skypaw was thrown back to a memory of sparring with Cherrypelt. Short, precise moves, agile twists and powerful swipes, the art of fighting in small spaces as all ThunderClan cats were trained to do.

Mapleshade lunged again for the killing blow—only an instinctive Time flare saved Skypaw, giving her those few precious heartbeats to escape Mapleshade's range and send the tortoiseshell clamping her jaws on open air. But Skypaw was tiring fast, and both she-cats knew it. It was growing harder and harder to duck out of the way of Mapleshade's blows. The ache was gripping her stomach so hard that the young apprentice felt inclined to retch.

"You fool," Mapleshade growled, as Skypaw cringed where she stood, aches racing up and down her body. "What made you think, for one second, that you could defeat me? I am countless seasons old, and in my death, all I have done is fight!" She slowly stalked forward, her tail sweeping from side to side. "Even when I still lived in ThunderClan," she spat, "I was one of their most powerful warriors!"

Skypaw took a pace back, falling into the defensive stance.

Mapleshade laughed. "When I'm finished with you," she spat, "I'll make sure that I leave a bloody trail of vengeance to stain the waters of the lake. All those who betrayed the Dark Forest will die first. Then they'll die again, to make sure they never see the shine of the stars." Her eyes glittered. "Starting with the Three, and your mother."

No...Skypaw lifted her head, terror gripping her harder than the pain. I can't let you...I can't let you do this!

Many lives are relying on me...the lives of my Clanmates...the lives of my family...

I cannot fail. I will not fail.

The energy began to strengthen.

I am not an apprentice.

The stripes glowed, and the pain began to diminish.

I am a tiger. Time began to flicker in her thoughts, her movements. I am a tiger of the Four! I am a warrior! Skypaw lifted her head, the pain forgotten. I am a warrior!

The killing blow came swinging through the air, and Time halted to a standstill. The world became silver and thick, and Mapleshade seemed to freeze, her eyes still wearing an expression of sheer triumph and hatred. Skypaw lunged, her claws extended. She crashed into Mapleshade and carved a wound from shoulder to flank. Time broke and Mapleshade's yowl of pain echoed around the RiverClan camp.

Skypaw sent the Dark Forest warrior sprawling on the ground. Even before Mapleshade could fight back, Skypaw was on top of her, pressing her to the ground and planting her paw firmly on her throat.

Mapleshade spat and struggled. Skypaw hissed, pressing her claws deeper into Mapleshade's neck.

After a moment, the tortoiseshell gazed at her with fierce amber eyes.

"Go on, then," she goaded, still sneering. "End it. Go on. I dare you to." Her eyes glittered.

Skypaw curled back her lip. "Why should I give you that mercy?"

"Mercy?" Mapleshade flattened her ragged ears. "You know nothing of mercy."

"And nor do you." Skypaw pushed her muzzle close to Mapleshade's cheek. "When I let you go, you are going to go back to the Dark Forest. You will tell Thistleclaw and Silverhawk, Breezepelt and Redwillow, Scourge and Sol—you will tell them that while I live and I breathe, while the stars shine and while hope burns in the heart of every Clan cat, you will never, never have the lake. You will tell them that what has been wronged in the past will be made right. You will tell them that we will stand against them as we did long ago—and you will tell them that if they dare tread in the territory of ThunderClan, threaten a single hair on my Clanmates' pelts, then I will rip out their black hearts with my very claws!"

Mapleshade's eyes were round, and the she-cat had no words.

"And if you ever threaten the lives of the young again," snarled Skypaw, "then I will find my way into the Dark Forest. I will find you, and I will destroy you myself."

Even to Skypaw's own ears, the words sounded more than mortal.

She released Mapleshade, who struggled to her paws and scrambled a safe distance away from her, her eyes still wide and her body tensed. Skypaw watched her but said no more.

For a moment, both cats remained still.

Then Skypaw felt the RiverClan warriors closing ranks behind her; Hollowflight, Troutstream, Grayeyes and Icewing. They stared at Mapleshade with no more fear, no more horror present in themselves, but a new understanding, a courage that they had failed to discover in themselves until then.

"Get out of here, traitor," Icewing growled.

"Traitor..." Mapleshade's voice was a low, vindictive hiss as she fixed the pure white she-cat with a deathly stare. "You and all the others who so willingly accepted our help...you'll learn how traitors are punished in the Dark Forest."

"And you'll learn the meaning of true loyalty." Hollowflight's claws were extended. "Something that you never understood—and never will."

Mapleshade's eyes gleamed. "This is not over."

"I know." Skypaw's stripes still glowed bright against her dusky fur. "And it won't be, until the Dark Forest is destroyed for good."

The tortoiseshell lingered only for a little longer. Then she turned and slipped back into the shadows of the maple at the edge of the clearing—and just as suddenly as she arrived, she vanished, returning to the Place of No Stars with barely a whisper in her wake.

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