The cold taste of the water was on her tongue. It tasted a bit muddy. A warning sounded in her head just as the water rose to her paws and started to go higher.
A burst of color went through her head. A picture painted in her mind.
She saw a cat on the bank of a stream near the WindClan border. A few stars were coming out in the darkening sky. The setting sun sent blood-red streaks on the lake water. She watched the cat on the bank as it drank the stream water. The cat seemed oblivious to the large branch hurdling down the side of the stream. It had been secure farther up, but the swelling water had knocked the branch loose from its hold and now it was coming downstream. It hit the cat along the bank.
She watched the cat slip into the stream. The branch pushed the cat under the water. The cat did not struggle. It had been knocked unconscious. The other cats, standing nearby the she-cat who'd been previously drinking, cried out in shock. Two of them attempted to jump into the water after the drowning cat, but their companions held them back.
"Hurry," a golden tom meowed. "Follow the branch."
They raced down the stream bank, following the branch. The she-cat in the water bobbed up only two more times, her ginger and brown pelt obvious in the white-blue water. Then the cat went under and was not seen again.
"Let's go to the lake," Thornclaw meowed subdued. "Her body will be there."
The rest of the evening patrol nodded and stopped watching the water. They ran to the lake as fast as they could.
Suddenly Sunstorm felt brought back to herself with a jerk. She stared up the stream and watched the branch as it collided into her head. Then she knew nothing.
There was the soft sound of breathing and a warm tongue brushed over her fur. She imagined she was a kit again, in the den with her mother. It was cozy. The smell of the soft night was in her nose.
"Wake up, Sunstorm," the voice meowed.
That wasn't her mother.
Sunstorm's eyes snapped open. A small gray and white she-cat with the glint of stars in her fur was wrapped around Sunstorm. Sunstorm flinched and stood up. Her legs gave out from under her. That was when she noticed the other cats. There were nine of them. Each glowed with the stars. Each were cats Sunstorm knew she'd met before, but not at this time. They were cats she'd not yet spoken to. The cats that were supposed to give her nine lives when she became leader of ThunderClan after Bramblestar. She wasn't supposed to be seeing them yet. Brambleclaw wasn't even leader yet. This was too soon!
"What am I doing here?" Sunstorm demanded, her eyes on each of the nine cats.
A few shared glances. Finally one got up the courage to reply. "You died, Sunstorm."
Sunstorm stared at him. Died? She glanced down. Her light ginger and brown tabby fur glimmered silver.
"No," she shook her head as she lifted a paw. The stars flowed with it, leaving an afterglow in the area it passed through. "Get it off!"
She flicked her paw as she would to get water off of it. But the stars did not leave. They were a part of her.
"I'm not dead," Sunstorm insisted.
"You are," a few other cats nodded.
"I wasn't supposed to die!" she stared at them all, denying that they were there. She wasn't supposed to be dead. She was still on the evening patrol, still protecting her Clan, and most of all, still living. She couldn't be in StarClan. There was still so much to do. What about her vision?
"I'm supposed to be leader!" Sunstorm meowed, looking at the nine cats. "You're supposed to be at my ceremony."
They all nodded as if they knew. Well of course, they were StarClan after all, Sunstorm reasoned. They knew these things.
"Why am I here?" Sunstorm demanded.
"You drowned," Hazeltail replied.
The vision of the branch filled Sunstorm's mind. She went through the scene. Then it hit her. Why hadn't she known this would happen. Why had the warning come too late?
"I'm not supposed to be dead," Sunstorm meowed once more, shaking her head.
"No," Bluestar agreed. She was among the other seven cats that surrounded Sunstorm in a ring. Sunstorm turned her attention to the previous ThunderClan leader.
"Then why am I? Why didn't you do anything? Why wasn't I warned?" Sunstorm hissed, suddenly angry. Why hadn't she been warned!
"We can't do everything," Bluestar meowed. "We didn't see this coming until the moment the branch came for you. We warned you in the time we could."
"It wasn't enough," Sunstorm answered coldly.
She'd had a life ahead of her. A wonderful mate and a whole Clan behind her. She would have returned ThunderClan to greatness. She couldn't be dead yet. What were Fawnfur and Morningsong going to do without her?
"Don't be angry," Hazeltail meowed, comforting.
"How can I not?" Sunstorm yowled, standing up, her head thrown back as she yelled out all her anger. She shouldn't have been there. She wasn't supposed to be dead! How could StarClan let this happen to her!
She soon exhausted herself. Her voice grew hoarse. When she looked back three cats had left. A few others looked annoyed, two looked sympathetic, and the others were sorrowful.
"Go," Bluestar meowed, waving her tail to the other cats. "She needs some time alone to accept this. Hazeltail will show her around."
They quickly left, leaving Sunstorm with her new guide. Bluestar was the last to be seen as they all scattered in to the darkness, glowing streaks in the grass.
Hazeltail crept closer to Sunstorm. The ginger-brown she-cat flinched away.
"The sooner you accept it, the easier it will be."
"I won't accept it," Sunstorm answered her voice harsh.
"In time you will," Hazeltail replied. "There have been many cats that haven't at first. In the end they realize how much more they have here."
It was as if she were speaking from experience. She had died abruptly in an attack two leaf-falls ago.
"I had more in my Clan," Sunstorm hissed, pushing the thought out of her head.
Hazeltail looked away. "Follow me," she meowed, not looking at the angry she-cat. "I have some things to show you. I can even show you ThunderClan."
Sunstorm's ears pricked. See her Clan again? She quickly nodded.
Hazeltail gave a small smile more of pity than of joy she'd been accepted. With that she led the way. Sunstorm quickly noticed how the place she'd waken up in was a small dark hollow. The soft grass beneath their feet and the leaves above rustled with an unfelt breeze. Sunstorm realized she could hear mouse squeaks from the bushes around the ring of trees. She felt her mouth water.
"You can hunt," Hazeltail meowed, fully smiling now. "That is one advantage to being dead. There is always food."
"I'm not dead," Sunstorm muttered darkly. Dead cats didn't feel hunger. She quickly caught a mouse. It tasted like the juiciest thing she'd ever eaten. One was enough for her. She followed Hazeltail with a livelier step. They left the ring of trees and Sunstorm saw something she'd never seen before.
There were cats everywhere. Laying on rocks in bright patches of sunlight, groups of cats from all Clans laughing together as they shared stories, kits as they tussled in joy and young bodies that would last forever, and apprentices with their new mentors as they mock battled. Sunstorm could hardly take it in. And those were just the cats.
The landscape was immense. Sunstorm realized she was on a small hill. She could see a large area of wide, open land like in WindClan, small and large pockets of forests like in ShadowClan and ThunderClan. There was also a lake and many streams coming off of it, weaving around forests, boulders, and grassy land. This was StarClan. A mixture of all Clans. And it looked as if there was no end. The horizon went on forever.
"This is the sky," Hazeltail explained. "The area by the lake is ours as it is the Clans'. The horizons are the skies of other lands. We can travel across them if we need to, but it is hard. It is hard to come back if we go far. Only a few cats are able to find their way. Feathertail can cross here and into the skies of the Tribe of Endless Hunting. Do you see the mountains?"
Sunstorm quickly looked where she pointed. Large jagged mountains reach far into the sky that really wasn't a sky. Sunstorm realized she didn't even see the sun and yet its light was everywhere. She also didn't see any clouds or the moon. The sky was just light blue everywhere. Finally she turned her attention back to the mountains. They were far, but they didn't look like they'd be hard to get to. She said so to Hazeltail.
"They don't look that way, I know," the small gray and white she-cat grinned, "But once you start, you'll be surprised at how lost you get."
"So how did StarClan follow the Clans here from the forest?" Sunstorm asked.
"The Clan's faith in us helped StarClan follow them," Hazeltail meowed quietly. "If they didn't believe in us anymore, we'd have no connection to them and we'd lose our way and they'd lose their way to us."
That made Sunstorm sad, because far into the future she'd seen the Clans falling away from StarClan and giving up the warrior code. She'd seen them go back to a state that Fawnfur had told her the Clans came from. A state that could make them no longer be called Clans. But that was so far in the future it hadn't bothered Sunstorm at the time.
"You see the divide?" Hazeltail was asking.
Sunstorm looked up and just over a forest, she thought she could see a long black scar in the ground. It stretched from horizon to horizon, but wasn't very wide.
"Yes," Sunstorm meowed.
"A new StarClan is forming over there," Hazeltail explained looking back at Sunstorm.
"A new one?" Sunstorm was shocked.
"Yes," Hazeltail nodded. "It's Raven's Clan. Coonie, Macky, and Brackenkit are the only cats now, but others will join them eventually. A few cats from our StarClan can visit them by crossing the divide in the early morning and in the afternoon. They can't come to us."
That interested Sunstorm. There was so much about StarClan she hadn't known. Or even supposed.
"I'll show you more later," Hazeltail promised. "Now we have to see your Clan."
Sunstorm eagerly followed her over to the lake. A few cats saw them and called out greetings. Only a few knew Sunstorm and she knew them. Others she'd never seen before. They had to be from the past, she supposed. The far past. There were so many cats there in StarClan and Sunstorm was sure this wasn't all of them. She asked Hazeltail where they all slept.
"A few live together," Hazeltail answered as they walked. "Others sleep alone. It's whatever suites them. Thunder, Shadow, Wind, and River, sleep all the time now. They don't often get up. The older cats tend to sleep a lot. They aren't remembered as much and they're tired of doing the same things again and again. They just aren't needed. Usually it's the kits or the recent dead that are the most active."
Sunstorm was going to ask her more when she noticed they'd reached the lake. Sunstorm was surprised when she looked into the water and didn't see the bottom or the clear sky reflected. Instead she saw forest. Sunstorm gasped and pulled away.
"What is this?" she hissed, scared. It was as if she could fall through the water and be back in the world she'd been abruptly pulled from.
"A place to watch," Hazeltail replied. "You can look into the water and see all of the lake area or one Clan or one particular cat. Many of us can look in and see many things. There's another, smaller pond over the Moonpool. That is the place for prophesies and talking to cats. This is only a place to observe."
"Where's the other pond?" Sunstorm asked quickly. If she could just get there, maybe she could go back to ThunderClan.
"A hidden place," Hazeltail answered, wise to Sunstorm's thoughts. "You might go one day. Usually it's for the leaders and medicine cats. The rest of us only go on occasion for big prophesies."
Sunstorm was disappointed.
"Now, look into the water and think of your Clan," Hazeltail instructed.
Sunstorm found it easier to close her eyes as she thought about the clan. She was surprised that the first thing her mind came to was the way the quarry used to be.
She was just coming out of the nursery. She was small again. The smell of milk and her mother was around her. She left the den to see a brown tabby with silver markings. It was Fallingpaw. Sunstorm felt a rush of joy go through her. When she was young, she loved to see the apprentice. The apprentice was important. Sunkit's dreams were filled with the she-cat and what she'd become.
Fallingpaw saw Sunkit and grew tense. Sunstorm hadn't understood for the longest time that she and her sisters bothered the older she-cat. Their identical looks and way they spoke unnerved the apprentice. Especially how they seemed to know everything about her. Sunstorm, though, only thought highly of the she-cat. Her sisters had followed Sunstorm and her opinions throughout everything, even when Fallingpaw had hurt another Clan member.
That was the way Sunstorm remembered ThunderClan. The quarry and the cats she admired. When she opened her eyes and looked into the lake that wasn't what she saw. She couldn't bring back the past.
Instead what met her eyes was her own dead body. The face was broken and the fur and the skin hanging off. Sunstorm's eyes widened and she stared breathlessly into her own open staring eyes. She shook, stunned and scared.
"We have suffered a tragedy," a weak voice meowed. "One of our young warriors has died. Sunstorm was on the border patrol this evening and she was knocked into the stream by a branch."
Sunstorm looked away from her broken body and saw Firestar on the High Ledge. The old tom was hunched over. The silver on his muzzle and his eyes that barely saw confessed his pain and his age. He looked over his Clan. Sunstorm could see them as well. Though it was night in the Clan, she could see them clearly. They all looked depressed.
"The stream had risen because of the sudden warm weather and the heavy snows we had this leaf-bare melted too quickly," Firestar explained. "Sunstorm drowned. She joined StarClan this night. We will hold vigil for her through the night and bury her in the morning."
Sunstorm felt herself choke. She really was dead. This proved it. There was her body. There was her Clan starting to hold vigil. She couldn't deny it any longer. She wasn't going back. She closed her eyes on the scene, refusing to see anymore.
Hazeltail pressed herself against Sunstorm. They didn't say a thing but sat by the lake for a long time. Sunstorm sat vigil for herself, only listening to the soft lap, lap of the waves from the lake. Her fur glittered with star light and she could now feel the gentle breeze that moved the grass and the leaves.