"Is this enough moss?"
Skypaw paused, waiting tensely for her mentor's response. Cherrypelt inspected the pile of small green sprigs, feeling their softness and sponginess, before stepping back and nodding her approval to her apprentice. "That'll be enough for a couple of nests, at the most; I'll bring some more over for you."
Cherrypelt flicked her tail. "It's nothing. You've worked very hard for the Clan over the past few days. I've never seen a cat so willing to help out with the elders. The other five apprentices would rather complain for half the day than put mouse bile on the elders' ticks for two moments."
Skypaw blushed with pride, her soft gray fur prickling. "Thank you," she replied, more quietly. "I...it just feels right, to help other cats when they can no longer help themselves."
Cherrypelt chuckled. "Remember that when I'm going old and gray in the elder's den, will you? Go on, be off with you; I'll bring some more moss to the den in a moment."
Quickly Skypaw gathered up the moss, tucking it under her chin as well as holding it carefully in her mouth, the way that her mentor had shown her. Then she walked quickly towards the elders' den, sidestepping the large, rotting beech as she did so, hoping she wouldn't pick up splinters.
As she slipped beneath the trailing tendrils of honeysuckle, she heard an aged voice rasp, "Who is it?"
"It's just me," Skypaw replied a little awkwardly around the moss in her mouth. She pricked her ears she recognized the more youthful voice, and as her eyes adjusted to the considerably-darker den, she saw all four of the elders slumbering peacefully in their nests.
"Moss?" A pair of faded eyes fixed themselves on Skypaw's bundle. "Ah, good. Plain bracken alone is just too cold to sleep on."
"I've only got enough for two nests at the moment," mewed Skypaw apologetically as she set the moss bundles down on the ground at her paws, and wondered where to begin. "Cherrypelt's coming with some more. I can do your nest first if you're too uncomfortable, Leafpool."
"Just pass me the moss when Cherrypelt comes; I may be old but I still know how to make a proper nest," replied Leafpool. "And I think Birchfall and Whitewing need fresh moss more than me and Briarlight."
"Did someone say my name?" Briarlight opened one sleepy eye, and her ears pricked as she recognized Skypaw. "Well, if it isn't the newest Clan apprentice," she purred, pushing herself up. Her forelegs were still as strong as they had been when she was still Jayfeather's helper, though her body was growing older. "How are you enjoying Clan life from the perspective of a learner, young one?"
"Okay, I guess," Skypaw replied modestly as she moved over to where her grandfather lay amidst his own nest. She began to paw away the stiff bracken from around his slumbering tabby form. "Cherrypelt took me out the moment I became an apprentice and showed me the forest."
"Really?" Briarlight seemed honestly interested as she dragged herself over and gave Birchfall a firm nudge. "Wake up, lazybones, Skypaw's changing your bedding! Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes! What did you see? What did you think?"
Skypaw waited until Birchfall stopped grumbling, stiffly removing himself from his nest, and allowed her to remove all of the flattened bedding and pushing it to the back of the den near the entrance, before she replied. "Cherrypelt took me everywhere, to the abandoned Twoleg nest so I could look at Jayfeather's herb garden, and to the old Thunderpath, and even up to the ShadowClan border!"
"And what did you think of smelling ShadowClan for the first time?" purred Briarlight teasingly.
Skypaw purred back. "Horrible! It smelt disgusting. I'm glad I don't smell like that."
As she worked setting fresher moss in place for Birchfall (who was watching critically but silently in the corner of the den) Skypaw couldn't help but look at Briarlight. The tabby she-cat was still young, but had chosen to move to the elders' den the moment she felt that she was no longer needed by Jayfeather in the medicine den—and to give Leafpool some company. How can any cat be so happy and cheerful, talking about their old experiences and memories, when they're still young enough to do those things herself and never once experiencing it to the fullest? she found herself wondering. Briarlight had lost the use of her legs after a beech tree had toppled into the hollow, killing an elder named Longtail and pinning Briarlight beneath it, shattering the lower part of her backbone. She had only been an apprentice at the time. She had never made it to becoming a full warrior.
"There, Birchfall; it's all done," mewed Skypaw. "If there's anything uncomfortable in it, let me know."
"I'll be the judge of that, thank you very much," rasped Birchfall, coming back to his nest and circling around inside it a few times before sitting down with a soft sigh of content. "Ah...I'll be sleeping well tonight. All I need now is a bite to eat."
"Again?" laughed Leafpool. "You already ate a whole squirrel this morning. Don't tell me you're still hungering for something else; you'll give yourself indigestion."
"Best to fatten oneself up before leaf-bare," replied Birchfall. "And keep your voice down, or you'll wake Whitewing."
All pairs of eyes in the den turned to where the elderly white she-cat slept. Whitewing was only a moon or two older than Leafpool but she seemed to have aged much faster and much more greatly than any other cat in the Clan. Her face had flecks of gray in it and her blue eyes, once sharp, inquisitive and full of love, were now dull chips of faded cyan. Her body was scrawny, as though she hadn't been eating well, and she slept deeply.
"Shall I change her bedding now?" whispered Skypaw nervously.
"Perhaps save it for later," Leafpool suggested. "You can change Briarlight's now. She was saying she felt a root in it earlier. Kept poking into her belly."
At that moment, the honeysuckle rustled once more and Cherrypelt appeared, more moss clamped in her jaws. She dropped it beside what was left of Skypaw's pile and mewed, "There are three more nests to be cleaned out, Skypaw; no dawdling! I want to take you out for battle training this afternoon."
Excitement shot through Skypaw. "Really?"
"Rosepetal and Larkpaw are already at the training hollow. I said that if my apprentice hurried up and did her job quickly then we could meet them and train with them," said Cherrypelt. "So get to it, if you want to see an experienced apprentice in action." The ginger she-cat slipped out of the den.
First battle-training practice! Skypaw felt her excitement grow, until she recollected what she still had to do. Impatiently she brushed her feelings aside and forced herself to concentrate on her task. She collected some moss and headed over to refresh Briarlight's bedding.
Briarlight must have sensed how excited Skypaw was feeling because she suddenly mewed, "I used to feel so impatient whenever Thornclaw told me to clean out the elders' den, though back when I was apprentice there was only Mousefur, Longtail and Purdy to worry about."
"You knew them?" Skypaw slowed in her work, turning around with interest. She had heard of the three elders before—how Mousefur had been nothing but stubborn and loyal to her Clan until the very end, how Longtail had lost his sight after a rabbit scratched his eyes and moved to the elders' den for the remainder of his life, and how Purdy hadn't even been with the Clans for most of his life, finally being persuaded to accompany Brambleclaw's patrol back when they had gone to find the mysterious loner, Sol—but she had never met them. Not long after Mousefur's death, Purdy had died peacefully in his sleep, but not before getting to know most of the newer ThunderClan elders first—now also gone to StarClan.
Briarlight nodded. "I knew them as well as any ThunderClan cat. Mousefur used to be as irritable as a fox in labour, but after Longtail's death she kind of hushed up, didn't speak as much or as often, didn't really get her sharp tongue back. Purdy looked after her for us, bless him," she added fondly. "Devoted to old Mousefur right until her death with the Dark Forest."
A hush settled over the elders' den. Skypaw paused completely in her work to see Briarlight's gaze shadow.
"You saw the battle, didn't you?" Skypaw mewed.
Briarlight nodded. "I wasn't allowed to fight. I wouldn't have fought very well anyway, fighting against dead spectral cats. Jayfeather instructed me to stay in the medicine den and help him keep the herbs safe, but I could hear everything that happened outside, and the wails of grief when I heard ThunderClan cats die."
She sighed, troubled. "So many fell, in all the Clans. But we must have suffered the most. We lost Ferncloud, Hollyleaf and Mousefur and...and especially Firestar."
Leafpool looked upset. "My father died fighting Tigerstar. His destiny had been fulfilled at last." She looked wretched, and immediately Briarlight pulled herself over to the old warrior's side and stroked her fading tabby pelt comfortingly.
"I heard that Firestar was a noble cat," Skypaw admitted.
"More noble of a cat than you could hope to meet, despite his past as a kittypet," Birchfall agreed. "Any cat who is descended from Firestar should be proud."
Skypaw paused, letting her gaze flicker around the den. "Nearly all of us are," she murmured.
Briarlight snorted, her whiskers twitching. "My father was Firestar's best friend. In a way, I am related to Firestar; just not by blood, and I knew him as a leader, something that most of the young warriors these days can't really claim."
Skypaw let her mind wander for a moment, thinking...Brightheart's and Cloudtail's kits, Amberheart, Snowfoot and Dewclaw, were Firestar's kin, as Cloudtail was the former ThunderClan leader's nephew. Hollythorn was now expecting Snowfoot's kits; and however many there were, they would also be of Firestar's bloodline. Cinderheart's and Lionblaze's kits, Thrushsong, Patchwhisker and Spottedheart, were Firestar's kin, as Lionblaze was his grandson.
So would Runningleap, and the two queens, Mapleleaf and Hollythorn, Skypaw realized. Not long after Bramblestar had become leader of ThunderClan, he and Squirrelflight became mates, and Runningleap and the two queens were the result of their restored relationship. Finally, Bramblestar had kits to call his own. And that also means Frostkit and Jaggedkit are Firestar's kin...my kin, too...
"Hey," mewed Leafpool gently, "I think Cherrypelt's waiting."
"Oh!" Guiltily, Skypaw set her mind back to her task, but felt the former medicine cat's paw rest lightly over her own, stopping her. She looked up into Leafpool's clear amber gaze.
"Briarlight and I can finish up here," Leafpool offered. "You go and learn how to fight."
Leafpool nodded earnestly. "Go on, you, and leave these elders in peace. Come back later with some decent fresh-kill for us if you want to hear a story."
"I will!" Quickly, Skypaw turned and bounded out from the elder's den, pausing to say farewell to the elders. Birchfall simply nodded his head, grunting his thanks. Briarlight cheerfully mewed to Skypaw to return again soon, regardless if she was bearing fresh-kill or not.
As Skypaw entered the hollow, she let her gaze wander, searching out where Cherrypelt could have gone.
She saw Dewclaw, Seednose, Lilyflower and Patchwhisker all sharing fresh-kill beneath Highledge. Nearby, Mapleleaf and Hollythorn were enjoying the sun and were watching Frostkit and Jaggedkit tumble across the soft grass in play. Their playful mewls rang around the clearing. Bramblestar and Squirrelflight were enjoying a moment of rare peace atop Highledge, and watching their grandchildren tussle together, their eyes half-narrowed with amusement.
Nearby, Flamefur and Yellownose were working to play an extra coating of brambles over the nursery. Skypaw heard Flamefur curse loudly as he stepped on a barb and came away, blood dribbling from a cut on his paw.
"That'll teach you to be so clumsy," mewed Yellownose teasingly.
Flamefur glared at his brother. "Shut up," he snapped.
Yellownose purred, his whiskers twitching. "You sound as grumpy as Jayfeather."
"Coming from the cat who's named after the grouchiest medicine cat in existence," remarked Flamefur, kinking his tail in amusement.
Skypaw stifled a soft mrrow of laughter as she watched Flamefur and Yellownose. She had heard the story of their naming several times over. Not long after the Dark Forest's great battle had ended, Berrynose and Poppyfrost had announced that they were having kits again, and in an even shorter time they had two sons. Skypaw had learned from Cherrypelt personally that Flamefur and Yellownose had been named in honour of two old ShadowClan medicine cats, Flametail and Yellowfang.
Two apprentices, Fernpaw and Stormpaw, lay just beside the rotted beech, sharing tongues beneath the warm midday sun. As Skypaw caught her eye, Stormpaw looked up. "Cherrypelt's waiting for you," the stormy-silver she-cat meowed helpfully. "She's by the fresh-kill pile, if you're looking for her."
Skypaw nodded her thanks and bounded lightly across the hollow towards where, sure enough, Skypaw could see Cherrypelt waiting for her.
"That didn't take long," Cherrypelt commented as Skypaw came up to her.
"Well, I'm done," Skypaw said. It was partially true; the elders had released her, so that meant that her duty to them was done for the day, right?
Cherrypelt's whiskers twitched but she said nothing, simply waving her tail commandingly to Skypaw in the gesture to follow as she led the way through the thorn barrier and out into the forest.
"Are you sure you're not too sore?" asked Larkpaw.
"I'm fine," Skypaw assured him, even though the scratch on her shoulder still stung from where his claws had come through during practice and made a small cut. To reassure him, she rasped her tongue over the wound. "See? I can't taste blood. It's not bleeding. I'm fine, Larkpaw."
"Sorry again," the mottled brown-and-black tom mewed apologetically. "I didn't mean for you to get hurt. It just kind of..."
"Happened?" guessed his sister, Stormpaw.
"Nothing just 'happens' with you, Larkpaw," purred his brother, Whitepaw. The handsome, broad-shouldered white tom with the small black patches that dotted through his shiny pelt like dark pawprints, gave Larkpaw a playful headbutt. "You need to be gentler around our newest apprentice."
Skypaw scowled at him. "I'm not a kit anymore. I've been an apprentice for four days now."
"And to us, who have been training for three moons, that's nothing," said Stormpaw dismissively. She glanced towards where Fernpaw sat sedately in her nest at the back of the den. "And Fernpaw's been training for longer than all of us."
Fernpaw let out a small purr. "I'll be a warrior before any of you," she remarked. "And a good thing, too. I'll need to become twice as good a warrior to make sure Branchpaw is remembered."
Skypaw felt a small twinge of sympathy to the sleek-furred silver tabby apprentice. Her brother, Branchpaw, had died from a bad bout of whitecough that hadn't responded to Jayfeather's herbs at the beginning of newleaf, not long after he had been prenticed to Hazeltail. Skypaw had been very young at the time, only being a couple of moons old, but she remembered the cries of grief all too clearly.
"Hey," mewed Stormpaw suddenly, glancing at Skypaw. "Have you ever thought about what your warrior name could be?"
Skypaw shrugged. "Haven't really given it much thought, no," she admitted. "I mean, I've only just become an apprentice and all."
"Still, we can always hope what Bramblestar will call us when we become warriors!" mewed Larkpaw excitedly. "I hope he calls me Larkflight. Do you think he will? A lark is a kind of bird, after all."
"So? There are lots of parts of a bird he could easily name you after. Beak, for example," offered Whitepaw.
"Larkbeak? That could work," agreed Stormpaw, much to the snickering of Fernpaw, Whitepaw and Dustpaw.
Larkpaw fluffed out his fur indignantly. "Larkbeak's a stupid name. Larkflight sounds much better."
"I want to be called Whitestorm," mewed Whitepaw. "After that old ThunderClan warrior."
"Don't be stupid," frowned Dustpaw scathingly. "Bramblestar would never call you after Whitestorm. It'd be too confusing in StarClan; plus, Bramblestar's one of the few cats left in ThunderClan and around the lake who remembers Whitestorm."
"I'm called after him anyway," argued Whitepaw, his white fur with black pawprint-markings fluffing up irritably. "So Cherrypelt told me, when she and Foxleap were naming us. Why won't I be called completely after him?"
"I just said, it'd be too confusing in StarClan," argued Dustpaw.
Skypaw tipped her head slightly to one side. Like many other Clan cats born after the quelling of the Dark Forest uprising, Dustpaw, Whitepaw, Fernpaw, and Stormpaw were named in memory of old ThunderClan warriors; Dustpaw after Dustpelt, Whitepaw after Whitestorm, Fernpaw after Ferncloud, and Stormpaw after Sandstorm. Skypaw often wondered if she, like so many other ThunderClan warriors, had been named in memory of someone, though she hadn't heard of a warrior in ThunderClan being called Sky.
"Well, I'd like to be called Dustfang," Dustpaw said thoughtfully. "Poppyfrost always tells me that I have a bite like a snake." He frowned slightly. "She always seems a bit quiet after she says that, though."
"Her sister was killed by a snake many seasons ago," Stormpaw reminded her brother. "Remember Honeyfern? She was originally going to be Berrynose's mate, but she died saving Briarlight from the snake."
Silence settled around the apprentices' cave as an awkward pause held. Honeyfern had given up her life for Briarlight, who back then had been a completely vulnerable kit, only to watch from StarClan as the beech tree toppled into the camp, crushing Briarlight's legs and permanently taking her life as a warrior away from her. Yet Briarlight still continued to fight, long after she knew she would never again walk until the day she joined StarClan.
"I think I'd like to be called Fernsong," commented Fernpaw absently. "What do you think?"
"Fernsong," Skypaw repeated thoughtfully. A good name, she decided.
"That's a pretty name," Dustpaw agreed. "Though I don't think it sounds quite as ferocious as Dustfang." He bared his fangs as though to prove his point, and his littermates chuckled in amusement.
"I think I'd like to be called Stormclaw," meowed Stormpaw. She unsheathed her long white claws and twisted sharply around on the spot, falling into the basic defense crouch with her sharp green eyes flashing in the dim light of the cave. "All the Clans will fear me!"
"What would you want to be called, Skypaw?" asked Larkpaw.
Skypaw hesitated. "Um...I'm not sure, actually."
"Shall we give you a name, then?" offered Dustpaw.
Skypaw frowned. "Bramblestar will give me my name, not you guys. You'll only just be warriors by the time I take my warrior name."
"With three more moons of experience," said Stormpaw solemnly.
"And besides, these aren't going to be our official names, remember?" prompted Whitepaw. "They're just what we hope to have our names be." He looked thoughtfully at Skypaw for a moment before mewing, "Skyheart. I think that would suit you."
"Skyheart," repeated Skypaw curiously. "I wouldn't mind being called that. It sounds noble. Maybe a bit too noble."
"Skyheart sounds so pretty," mewed Stormpaw. "It sounds like pure loyalty."
"We are all purely loyal to ThunderClan," Fernpaw mewed firmly. "Names have nothing to do with it. Millie and Daisy proved that when they lived with the Clan."
"Brook, too," added Dustpaw. "I remember Cherrypelt telling us when we were kits about the Tribe, and about Stormfur and Brook."
"It sounded so romantic," purred Stormpaw, remembrance flashing in her leaf-coloured gaze. "A RiverClan warrior and a Tribe hunter, coming together out of love, willing to leave all that they loved behind them just to be together. They stayed with ThunderClan for moons and moons."
"That's because Leopardstar kicked them out first," sniffed Whitepaw.
"Not after Hawkfrost manipulated Mothwing into saying a false sign in front of everyone at a Gathering," Fernpaw argued.
Whitepaw nodded. "True," he agreed.
"I think names do matter, though," said Larkpaw. "Names are what you're called for the rest of your life, and in StarClan. We want our warrior names to be real and true to ourselves."
"Like Larkbeak," teased Dustpaw.
Gradually the talk died away as each apprentice went to his or her separate nest, and after bidding each other goodnight, fell asleep. Skypaw lay down in her own mossy nest, and closed her eyes, and let her tiredness catch up with her. Sleep came to claim her like a comforting dark wing passing over her senses.
Almost at once a cool breeze ruffled Skypaw's pelt. The she-cat shivered, wondering if some brambles had been dislodged in the apprentices' den and an icy nighttime wind was breaking through. But the coolness didn't disappear. Skypaw became aware that the ground seemed grassy beneath her, her soft tangle of ferns, moss and bracken that formed her nest prickly and uneven. Frowning slightly, she opened her eyes, and almost immediately sat up in complete and utter shock.
She wasn't in her nest anymore. She wasn't sure where she was. All around her loomed tall, dead trees, their bark as pale as bone. A thick white mist hung over the ground, curling around the bodies of the tall, skeletal trees, whose roots bulged out from the damp and slimy earth. Skypaw shivered as she felt another icy wind prickle the back of her neck, her fur fluffing up instinctively from the chill.
Where am I?
Nothing shone with starlight. The sky above her was knotted with dead branches, forming a thick canopy that made Skypaw feel trapped. She couldn't see the moon or the stars. There was only a faint silvery light that seemed to come from nowhere, extending every shadow, making it sprawl and spread over the strange, musty-smelling forest she was standing within. A forest that seemed to be dead and dark, with no life whatsoever within. Skypaw could smell nothing but decay and rot.
A sudden feeling that she was not alone washed over Skypaw. Quickly she looked around, as though expecting to hear the crunch of bracken beneath a paw, or the soft growl of a fox muttering from the black curls of fern. But there was nothing but an eerie silence, a silence that pressed on Skypaw's ears, that made her nerves taut with anxiety.
She began to walk. She didn't know where the exit to this strange, dark woodland was, but she wanted to leave this place, however she got here.
I must be dreaming, Skypaw thought as she slipped into the slimy foliage. Wet leaves pressed against her pelt, and cold droplets of moisture forced their way beneath her coat. How else could I have come here?
The trees seemed to leer over her as she moved through the forest. Every new clearing and hollow and glade that Skypaw entered seemed to look the same as the previous. The ground, however, was changing beneath Skypaw's feet; the grass was growing wetter, almost oilier, a strange and uncomfortable feeling of slickness clinging to the undersides of Skypaw's feet.
A strange smell curled into Skypaw's mouth and she gagged at the foul, ghastly stench. It smelt almost like...
Skypaw slowly looked down, and a strangled cry of horror escaped her throat.
Blood. The grassy ground was covered in blood.
This is no ordinary dream, Skypaw realized with a shiver of fear and disgust. Where is the life? Where is the light? Where are the prey trails, and the fresh smells of the forest?
And why was the ground covered in blood?
Suddenly, Skypaw became aware that there were cats beyond.
She frowned and pricked her ears, but she could hear nothing. Were they approaching her? No. They were sitting and talking. Talking about...something to do with blood, and the sun.
An odd combination. Skypaw felt that she should discover what they were speaking about.
As she softly prowled through the dark, musty woods, instinct urging her to be silent, Skypaw wondered vaguely how she had suddenly and curiously known that there did seem to be life in the forest after all. She didn't even know where she was, or why she was here, why she had chosen to dream about such a dark and grim place.
Gradually she could make out voices just up ahead. Skypaw pricked her ears and strained to listen. I'll have to get closer. She spotted a thick clump of ferns and crept swiftly towards them, even though she knew that those slimy green tendrils would feel horrible. Even so, she pushed herself slowly through them, keeping her belly off the ground and her movements slow and steady, just like the way Cherrypelt had shown her during hunting practice.
"It has been many seasons."
A strange voice, sharp and hard, made Skypaw pause where she was. The voice came clearly from nearby.
"Do you believe that we are ready?" the same voice asked.
Skypaw hesitated for a moment. Very slowly and cautiously, she pushed her head through the slimy dead ferns, until her eyes could look just above the rim of rotted foliage.
She stifled a gasp.
She was overlooking a small gully where a grassy clearing smeared with blood lay outlined against the trees and the mist. A strange, silent river that glittered with slickness ran past it between two crumbling banks. There were three silhouettes of cats crouched down on the grass, though their forms were faint and barely recognizable against the ground. Yet the malice in their eyes was evident to Skypaw even from where she crouched.
There was a tom. His fur was dark gray, mottled unevenly with white around his face, shoulders and haunches. His fur stuck up all over the place and his eyes were glinting and shrewd, coloured burning gold.
A ragged, skinny she-cat, who looked so transparent that she was close to becoming invisible, huddled opposite him, her pelt patched tortoiseshell and white with a narrow, scarred face and a long, fluffy white tail. Her whiskers were short and straggled. Her eyes were piercing amber.
Between them stood a ragged pale gray tabby whose pelt was torn and matted in many places and just as uneven as the gray-and-white tom's. Commandingly, with faded eyes, the strange tom looked around at his two companions before rasping, "Why do you say such words, Thistleclaw? You know that we are ready to strike again, at any time."
Thistleclaw? A shiver of terror raced up Skypaw's spine. I know where I must be. This must be the Dark Forest! How did I come here?
The gray and white tom looked up sharply, glaring at the cat. "The first time, we thought we were ready, but we were wrong."
The tortoiseshell she-cat let out a hoarse cackle. "Oh, we were worse than wrong, Thistleclaw," she hissed. "We were fools. Our apprentices weren't loyal to us, turning on us and deciding that their precious warrior code was all that mattered to them in the very end."
"Their betrayal to us led to the deaths of our leaders," growled the strange silver tabby, and his tail lashed in fury. "Tigerstar is gone. Hawkfrost is gone. Brokenstar is gone. Who is there left to lead us?"
The gray and white tom, Thistleclaw, turned to the silver tabby. "You, of course, Silverhawk. You are the elder spirit here, and all decisions in the future fall to you."
"And it would be best if you remembered that," hissed Silverhawk. He turned contemptuously to the tortoiseshell she-cat. "It seems that my apprentice has dedicated his body and soul to the Dark Forest, Mapleshade. I don't believe you can say the same for any of yours."
The tortoiseshell she-cat, Mapleshade, narrowed her burning amber eyes, and her fluffy tail lashed. "The apprentices I were given to train were weak," she spat. "First Crookedstar, easy to entice into my power when I made him slip on the stepping stones and break his jaw in the old forest, when he was shunned and disliked by all of his Clan, and cast aside by his very mother. Then the Clan apprentices." She spat furiously. "Ivypool was the worst. It's thanks to her that Hawkfrost got killed!"
Her claws slid out. "When we return and take our vengeance, then I will make sure the traitor dies by my paws."
Silverhawk slowly nodded, as though in agreement. "Yes, Mapleshade, you are quite right, quite right indeed. All the traitors to the Dark Forest are to be tortured and then killed first, before we begin to rally our forces once more. But we will have to be careful."
He paused. "Ah, it seems that our guests have arrived at last."
Beyond the bank, Skypaw heard bracken and brambles rustle, and she felt her breath catch in her throat in her terror, as she watched several more cats suddenly slink into the clearing. There were four of them.
The group was headed by a sleek black-and-silver striped tom whose eyes glittered malevolently in the halflight. Beside the striped tabby stalked a lithe black-furred, amber-eyed warrior. Near them strode a once-handsome brown-and-ginger tomcat with dappled markings over his shadow-striped pelt, his green eyes flashing with confidence. Between him and the slender black warrior walked a very small tom whose eyes were disquieting, ice-blue. He had one white forefoot and, unnervingly, a collar of dog fangs slung at his throat.
Silverhawk nodded to the four newcomers. "Darkstripe. You had no trouble finding these strays, I hope?"
"Not at all," the silver tabby tom replied with a silky purr.
"Breezepelt." Mapleshade flattened her ears. "I remember you. Have you come to permanently join us yet? Or are you still scrounging a living with those other strays and loners you discovered?"
"I am yet to join the Forest; I am much more useful to you alive at this present time," the sleek black tom replied coolly, seating himself beside Thistleclaw. "My respect has gone up much more with the rabble of strays that now call themselves Clan."
"Redwillow?" inquired Thistleclaw coldly, turning his eyes to the mottled brown-and-ginger tom. "How about you?"
Redwillow shook his head slightly. "I walked for many seasons in the Forgotten alongside the rogues and the loners and the strays, influencing them, persuading them. It won't be long before we have a rebuilt army, if only I knew the sky paths from the Forgotten to the Dark Forest."
Silverhawk nodded, looking satisfied. "Good. You did well, Redwillow, with your task." He turned to the newcomer, the small black tom with the white paw and blue eyes, who regarded him icily. "You have found the one we have been waiting for. Greetings, Scourge."
Scourge inclined his head slightly to Silverhawk and did not speak.
"Now that we are all here," Silverhawk continued, looking around at the suddenly much larger gathering of cats, "We can talk about the matter at hand. Redwillow, how fares SunClan?"
Redwillow purred, sounding satisfied. "Very well. I have prowled in the dreams of the loners there. They have promised their allegiance to the Dark Forest, and to you, Silverhawk. When I have learned the sky paths then I will begin to bring them here for training while they sleep."
"The sky paths are a long way to travel," commented Mapleshade, her voice dry of concern. "Are you sure that you, little warrior, are up to such a mighty task?"
Redwillow bristled. "Of course I am! I coped well for the past many seasons, didn't I?"
"I suppose." Insolently Mapleshade drew a tongue over her paw and cleaned her muzzle. "Though perhaps I could have done better."
"We need you here," growled Thistleclaw. "Besides, you desire to be the first to kill the traitors, don't you?"
"There's only one cat whose claws I want to tear the throat out of first," growled Mapleshade darkly, bristling. "Ivypool. She will be the first to die at my claws."
Silverhawk twitched his ear. He turned to Breezepelt, who was seated beside him. "And you, Breezepelt? What news do you have for us of SunClan?"
"There are new rogues coming to join us every day," said Breezepelt. "Our reputation is growing—and fortunately not to the accursed ears of those in SkyClan. Kittypets are even being tempted to coming to join SunClan."
Mocking laughter rang up around the gathered Dark Forest warriors.
"And what do you do when the kittypets come?" hissed Mapleshade, her fur bristling on her scrawny backbone.
Breezepelt casually lifted one paw and let the claws slide out. "Their blood has stained my claws many times over," he purred. "It has been an amusing thing to witness, those soft, plump kittypets first experiencing real pain, the truth of the real cats of this world."
"You must be starved of entertainment if you're taking to killing mere kittypets," smirked Darkstripe.
Breezepelt narrowed his eyes. "Coming from the warrior who failed to take down one."
Darkstripe's eyes narrowed in fury.
"Firestar." For the first time, Scourge spoke, and Skypaw felt an icy shiver race down her back. Scourge's voice was unnaturally high-pitched and as cool as the colour of his eyes, shrewd and calculating. "Yes, that is a name which I remember well."
"The name you should remember indeed, dear friend," Silverhawk nodded. "Was he not the one who killed you?"
Scourge dreamily nodded. "Oh, yes. He was quite a warrior. Even I will admit this. I...miscalculated his strength and his stubbornness to keep fighting. I took one of his lives. I regret not taking all of them, as I stole away all of the cat you call Tigerstar's." The blueness in his gaze intensified. "Of course, he was a grudge who I was determined to keep. Nothing would dissuade me from our eventual confrontation."
Darkstripe narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.
"We all have our own grudges against Firestar," growled Thistleclaw, his tail lashing. "If Bluestar were never to have brought him into the Clan, then things could have been different. The Dark Forest could have risen, and taken over the old forest, long ago. We could have even stopped it being destroyed. We could have even begun to destroy the Twolegs themselves, should our power have grown great enough, and claim endless territories. Twolegplace could be as much a territory to the forest as the trees and the marshes and the hills." He turned purposefully to Scourge. "BloodClan could have lived forever."
"BloodClan lives forever," Scourge hissed. "We are the Dark Forest of the gorge. We haunt the nightmares and the dreams of those SkyClan fools as they sleep."
He looked carefully at Silverhawk. "You know our agreement, Clan warrior. For the promise of the aid of SunClan and BloodClan in the new battle, the Dark Forest and the Forgotten will be ours to call our own."
Silverhawk nodded carefully. "You can have the entire skies if you desire it, Scourge."
Breezepelt frowned. "But there is another matter we must speak of."
"And what is that?" rasped Mapleshade.
Breezepelt scowled. "The Three, of course. Those star-ridden fools who were the ultimate cause of our failure."
Thistleclaw harshly laughed. "Oh, they were powerful, all right. The warrior, Dovewing, foretold all of our attacks, making us lose the element of surprise. Jayfeather, the blind medicine cat, united StarClan before we could destroy them, and brought the Ancients to aid the Clans. Lionblaze slew Shredtail before we could claim ShadowClan for our own, and before Blackstar could be slain, and punished for his disloyalty to Tigerstar."
"They are little more than mere obstacles now," growled Redwillow, lashing his tail. "StarClan's connection with the living is nearly severed completely. When it is, even Jayfeather will not be able to access them, and nor will the Ancients arise to protect the Clans again."
"Thus with StarClan so vulnerable, we destroy them." Silverhawk's voice oozed with delight at the very thought. "Those starry fools will be the first of infinite to die to the Dark Forest's second rising."
"The Three, as will the traitors, will be dealt with," purred Mapleshade. "You need fear not, Breezepelt."
"I don't fear them." Breezepelt's claws slid back out. "I wish to be the one to end their lives, one by one, Mapleshade."
Mapleshade's eyes narrowed gleefully. "Oh, yes? And why, tell me again, is that?"
"Because my father is a traitor to the Clans." Breezepelt's voice was ice-cold, full of menace and hate. "Because he broke the useless codes by spawning the Three. That my half-brothers should never have been born because of Crowfeather's idiocy, and so they will die. Their births are forbidden and their lives will be forfeit. Vengeance will be the sweetest taste of all things to taste in this world."
Silverhawk and Thistleclaw nodded approvingly. "Spoken like a true warrior, Breezepelt," Mapleshade purred.
Darkstripe glanced at Scourge again. "Where is our leader?"
Scourge narrowed his eyes. "He does not wish to come to the Dark Forest tonight. He is too busy in his search."
Worry suddenly flashed in Thistleclaw's eyes. "He's still looking for his daughter?"
"She hasn't turned to SkyClan, do not worry," growled Breezepelt, lashing his tail. "And being so young, I doubt she'd get far anyway. Soon we'll find her and safely return her to SunClan."
"You'd best get her back there soon," snarled Silverhawk. "If she dies, there will be disastrous consequences for not only SunClan, but for all the Dark Forest."
"Rest assured, we are searching day and night," Redwillow said earnestly. "She won't get far, wherever she's gone."
Skypaw felt the shadows closing in around her. Gradually, the Dark Forest faded from sight, disappearing into melting blackness, and she awoke in her nest, realizing that she was paralyzed with fear. The scent of decay, blood and death still clung to her fur, damp with the slime of the shadowy wood where evil is eternal.