Prologue 2: Stoneheart
Most of us will never know/How dark this world can seem/When life becomes more nightmare than a dream.
--"The Edge" by Michael Card.
The gray tom blinked his yellow eyes. For a moment the forest had wavered in his view. The trees had faded away into something dark with twisted trees and thick undergrowth. A hazy smoke wreathed the bent trunks and eyes flashed at him with hate as groups of shadowed cats pushed through thick thorns. But that vision left as everything returned to normal. He looked around. He stood on the outside of the pine forest, on the edge of ShadowClan territory. The place where he felt most at peace.
The sky was black, speckled with the endless bright stars of Silverpelt. The trees were green and leaves waved in a slight wind. On the horizon the sun started to rise. A sliver of yellow crested the small hill below the lake. Unusually the horseplace wasn't at the edge of the Thunderpath. The lake rippled endlessly, forcing water away from the center even as it pulled it back. The island where the Clans met for the Gathering was a dark patch of stillness.
He turned to gaze at the three kits racing towards him. They ran over from behind the trees, hurrying from camp just to be with him. One was a smoky gray tom, another was a sliver-blue she-cat with a white belly, and the last was another she-cat but she was brown and had a silver belly. They gazed at him, barely taller than his lower leg. Their eyes shined happily. They almost reminded him of their mother.
"Ashkit, Bluekit, Wrenkit," he purred. He leaned down and licked their small heads.
"Teach me how to hunt, please?" Ashkit meowed, blinking his blue eyes.
"Me too, me too," the she-kits chirped, leaping into the air.
"How cute," a voice drawled.
Stoneheart froze. The fur along his spine rose and his heart started beating fast. He knew the voice. It was so familiar. It brought chills through his legs until they shook. His claws came out and sank into the hard ground. He reluctantly lifted his eyes from his children and looked into the forest.
She stood there beneath the bowing branches of a silver pine tipped with blue. Her ginger chest and belly stood out brightly against the rest of her shadowy body. Yellow eyes stared into his own with amusement. "So this is what you dream about, Brother?" she asked.
"Dream?" he mewed. He couldn't stop his voice from quavering, from sounding so much like a kit's. He looked down at his own, but they'd started to fade away, still staring at him in innocence. They soon disappeared altogether as if they'd never been.
"They're apprentices now. Remember?" Eveningbreeze meowed. She walked forward, out of the branches of the low pine. The needles shook in her passing, falling to the ground.
"And they don't love you either," she hissed, blinking softly at him. "They care nothing for you. You don't visit them enough to foster any feelings between you. I don't blame you. Such foolish things, kits," she spat. "If you give one attention, the rest might turn on him. Poor, poor Ashpaw. You think he's like you? Want to protect him from his mean older sisters?"
She'd reached him now. Her leering face thrust right into his own. He moaned and flinched away from her, leaning as far back as he could without moving from his spot. The dirt felt cold and hard, ungiving. He wanted it to swallow him so he'd be out of her chilling sight. It had been so long, too many seasons. If it was a dream, why had she come?
"You're dead," he whimpered. "You can't be here."
"Death cannot hold me," she growled softly. She reached forward and licked him on his ear. It stung and he lowered both. He could already feel it fraying, becoming like it was in the waking world. It was cut in half, the whole top tip missing. The rest was ragged and red, scarred by sharp claws seasons ago. His tail ached too, reminding him that it had been broken. And two of his front claws were suddenly missing.
"That's better," she purred, sitting back. "No need lying anymore to yourself. You aren't a perfect tom. So broken."
He continued to stare at her. His heart beat heavily in his chest, but it wasn't rapid. It seemed too slow for the terror and dread he felt at meeting her again.
"W-w-why are y-you h-h-h-here?" he swallowed.
"You p-p-p-oor stuttering tom," she mocked him. "I'm pleased I could get that back. It's been so long since I've heard your voice and your terror. You haven't been that way since Snaketail died. Am I right? When you thought Kinkstar would blame you for his death? That was a glorious time." She sighed in satisfaction.
Stoneheart's face twitched and he glared at her. Anger rushed through him.
"No, no," she tsked at him, waving her tail. "I saw that! Don't you look at me that way. You know better. I thought we'd trained you."
Terror washed out the fierce rage. He swallowed again. Finally his heart beat faster and he lowered his head. The gray tabby tom crouched in front of her, huddling away.
"You do remember after all," she purred. "But don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you."
He didn't lift his eyes. He knew better all right. Just with her gone from the Clan he'd let himself start to relax, to not be so worried. He'd tried to forget his past and the torture his sisters made him suffer through. He didn't want to remember. But now he had to if he wanted to survive. When dealing with Eveningbreeze it was better to show only the reactions she wanted him to. If she wanted him to scream, he would; if she wanted him to beg her forgiveness, he would; if she wanted him to ask for more, he would. When he agreed to her demands, the sooner she stopped toying with him, got bored of him. He had to be less of a target to her.
"No, I won't at all," she was saying. She rose to her feet and paced away. He watched her paws move against the ground, quickly stepping as she turned around and started again. "Where is she? She should have been here by now! Idiot sister."
"Don't call me that," came the whining voice. "It took me a while to remember what we were doing. You didn't have to shove me."
Stoneheart couldn't stop himself. He lifted his eyes and stared as a light tabby she-cat walked along the edge of the lake, coming toward them. On the horizon, the sun still didn't move. The sky above was still a beautiful night. They were just in his dream after all. Time meant nothing there.
Fernstripe came to them. Her step was light, her ears up. When he saw her, he was confused for a moment. The bitter look as if she'd swallowed mousebile, which had always on her pointed face, was now gone. She seemed more relaxed, not so resentful or strained. She seemed gentle somehow. And she'd spoken back to Eveningbreeze. This wasn't the sister he knew. She'd been a spiteful she-cat always agreeing or fawning for their sister. Obedient to every word even if she made some comment about it.
When Stoneheart glanced at Eveningbreeze there was a difference in her he hadn't noticed. Her eyes looked gloomy as if forcing sadness away from her mind. She looked gaunt as if she hadn't eaten in a long time and there were scars on her body. In addition to some red dripping down her tail from a recent fight. Old scars that she hadn't in life scattered across her pelt. Four dots lined her neck as if someone had tried to tear it out. She looked older somehow as if she'd been through more than her time as a warrior by the lake.
"Admiring these?" his sister asked, catching his eye.
He looked down, but not before seeing her tail tip touch one scar. Drying blood smeared across her chest.
"Don't worry. You can get some to match," Eveningbreeze laughed. "It's the least we could do for you. You betrayed us after all."
"You told the Clan about us. Gave us up to that Darkfire and his friends," Fernstripe hissed. She sat next to his side, glaring down at him as he hunched over. "And you killed me."
"You don't remember?" she growled. "You ran away from me, you scum. If you hadn't, I wouldn't have followed you. That tunnel wouldn't have collapsed and pulled me under the ground. It's because of you I have to live in the Dark Forest!"
Stoneheart growled back, raising his gray tabby head to glare at you. "Y-y-you didn't-t-t have to p-pull my claws out either!" he snapped. "You d-deserve everyt-t-thing you got!"
Fernstripe's ears went back and she blinked. She gazed over at Eveningbreeze in confusion.
"Brother's got bite now," the dark gray she-cat meowed, laughing. "We have to teach him to behave."
Fernstripe nodded. "I agree. And I want to do it. It's my revenge after all."
Stoneheart's eyes widened and his breath caught in his chest. Mouse-brain! he spat at himself. He'd just given them more reason to give him pain. It would be more fun for them now.
"Now hold still," Fernstripe purred.
Her claws came out slowly so he could watch. Then she placed her paw on top of his own and she leaned down. He gasped and tried to stifle the sound. He hadn't realized even dreaming he could feel pain.
"Did you say something?" Eveningbreeze meowed, leaning closer until her ear was by his face.
Bite it, bite it, he told himself. But his jaws remained firmly clamped shut. He knew then he wasn't worth anything. He didn't even deserve to have the admiration of any cat. He was too intimidated by his sisters to ever fight back. He was a coward. She leaned away and gazed at him. "By the time she's done with you, not even StarClan will want to see you."
Eveningbreeze grinned at him. Her teeth seemed stained. Stained by blood or by ill care, it didn't matter. She frightened him.
Fernstripe lifted her paw off of his own and looked at it. He glanced down and wished he hadn't. Droplets of blood ran down the white surface. His paw started to throb.
"You know, Stoneheart," Fernstripe meowed. "I want you to do something for me."
Eveningbreeze nudged him when he didn't reply.
"W-w-what?" he meowed. His voice was hoarse. His legs shook and he wanted just to hide, not be boxed in like this, unable to go anywhere.
"I want you to hold this for me," she told him.
She picked up his tail in her mouth and passed it to him. He just held the tip, contorted over so he could reach it and sit without pain.
"Good," she nodded. "Now bite down."
He stared at her.
"Do it, or you won't have a tail when you wake up!"
His eyes widened. He slowly forced his teeth down while Eveningbreeze laughed even more, pleased by her sister. As Stoneheart felt a sharp jolt rush up from his tail, he winced. He started wondering why he was doing these things. She would get him to hurt himself without lifting a paw if she wanted to. And he wouldn't do anything about it. Just obey. He'd tried defying a few times in the past. The very last got Fernstripe killed, but she'd only come back to him. To visit him in his dream and torture him there where there wasn't any chance for rescue. He whimpered as his teeth broke the skin. Warm blood filled his mouth and started leaking from the corners.
"Silly Stoneheart," Fernstripe blinked. "I didn't say to hurt yourself. I only said bite down. Oh, well. you must love the pain. So I'll help you out."
She moved forward, an easy smile on her face. Eveningbreeze just sat back, her eyes half closed.
Stoneheart let go of his tail and struck out. His larger paw hit her face and she recoiled, staring at him. His heart pounded and alternative waves of cold terror and warm elation crashed through him. He didn't want her near him and if only for that reason would he act without thinking.
Eveningbreeze sat up, her eyes open now and a frown on her face. He stared between them.
"Shame on you brother," Eveningbreeze meowed. "We weren't going to kill you. Oh, no. But now I think we will. Won't that worry the Clan, seeing your dead body in the warriors' den with them? I wonder what they will think happened."
He shook all over. They started moving closer. Paws pushing hard against the dirt, he turned away. He knocked into Fernstripe. She fell back down, her claws digging deep into his shoulder as he fled. He didn't care where he went as long as it was away from them. He couldn't see. His eyes watered from pain and from terror. His breath was harsh. He wasn't sure if he ran to the forest or to the lake. His paws stumbled across stones and he couldn't keep his balance.
"Why?" he yowled. "This is m-my d-dream! Why does it have to torture me?" Why couldn't he get away from them? Why couldn't he just grow wings and soar above their heads and escape their evil claws? It was unfair. Like it always had been. Like when his parents never stopped them, when the Clan ignored their abuse. He'd thought he'd finally escaped from them. But like Eveningbreeze had said, not even death could hold them. Perhaps there was no safety anywhere.
"Oh, StarClan," he wheezed. "Help me."
Soft grass replaced the stones and he thrust himself forward, picking up speed. He could still hear them behind. They stumbled over the loose stones, but their steps became silent as they reached the grass. A dark shape loomed in front of him. The gray tabby tom halted, opening his eyes wide and shaking clear the tears. It was only a tree. A wide tree blocked his path. He turned around, hoping to dodge away from it. On one side a fallen log rested at an angle to the oak and the other side sloped upward in a steep hill. There was only one way back, but they'd caught up to him.
The sisters stood shoulder to shoulder. Teeth bared, they approached step for step.
"I'll take his tail," Fernstripe meowed.
"Then the paws are mine," Eveningbreeze growled. "He won't run then."
He shivered, backing up against the tree. A small, low twig dug into his hind end, pressing painfully into his pelt. He was trapped and there was no way out of this one. He closed his eyes, preparing for the worst. He had no energy left in him. He could do nothing but accept his fate.
A hollow sound made him open his eyes. A cat had leapt onto the fallen log. She stood there, a sliver-blue she-cat. Soon on her other side appeared a ginger tom and with him a white tom with black paws. On the hill other cats approached. They all had one thing in common. Flecks of stars glinted in their fur. It shone so bright that he had to squint his eyes to see.
Eveningbreeze looked startled. She stared up the hill then at the cats on the log.
"StarClan," she hissed. "How dare you come here."
"How dare you step paw here, Clanless One," the silver-blue she-cat retorted.
"This is StarClans territory," the ginger tom meowed. "The Dark Forest has no place here."
Now that Stoneheart looked. He could see his sisters looked more like shadows than actual cats. Their pelt colors were faded and smudged. They seemed to cling to things rather than stand out. And they had no shadow of their own. Though the moon was bright overhead, almost full, it didn't make them any more clearer.
"Leave now," the white tom with black paws ordered.
"You can't order us," Eveningbeeze yowled. "You aren't our leaders anymore!"
"Really, I think we should leave," Fernstripe whispered, crouching down. "We're outnumbered."
Eveningbreeze started laughing. She stood straight and faced the StarClan leaders.
"They can't do anything to us, you coward," the dark gray she-cat meowed, narrowing her eyes at all the cats. "If they try anything, it will just give more power to the Dark Forest."
"Not if we use our claws, Fox-heart," growled a brindled tom. He flashed them at her and she shut her mouth, glaring at him.
"We will leave now," she grimace at them, "But only because this isn't worth it. Our true fight is only days away. And we all know you won't do anything then." She laughed again, her eyes flashing and darting side-to-side. "Not if you want to keep the 'balance'. There is no way you can stop the Clans from being destroyed. You can't even stop the Dark Forest. You gave us this power. Come on, Fernstripe." She jerked her head and turned around, walking leisurely away.
Fernstripe leaped upright and sped after her sister, slinking along by her side. Suddenly they just faded away, disappearing as if the night had swallowed them.
Stoneheart blinked and turned to face the cats who'd saved him. Their faces softened, relaxing from their snarls once the cats from the Dark Forest were gone. Two jumped off of the log to face him. The silver-blue she-cat sniffed him.
"He's wounded." One of her ears flicked.
"I can get Spottedleaf," the fiery ginger tom meowed.
"Let Harestar," she told him.
The brindled tom glared at them but quickly stalked away through the forest. Stoneheart didn't watch him leave. He looked at the three leaders around him. One looked familiar. He stared at the ginger.
"Yes, I'm Firestar," the tom smiled. "My companions are Bluestar and Blackstar." He waved his tail to each. Blackstar, the white tom with black paws stood on the log, gazing down at them.
"What was Eveningbreeze talking about?" Stoneheart asked, looking between them. "What does she mean about the fight?"
The leaders glanced at each other and then at the other cats surrounding them. He could tell they weren't going to speak. For some reason it was a secret what Eveningbreeze had uttered. A dangerous one.
"You really won't abandon us will you?" he pleaded. They couldn't. Eveningbreeze couldn't be right about the "Dark Forest" destroying the Clans. StarClan just wouldn't let that happen.
Bluestar sighed and looked away. Even Firestar, though a guilty look passed his face, didn't say a word. The other cats gazed down at them as if daring them to speak.
"Hear this," Blackstar meowed, standing up on the log. Stoneheart gazed up at the leader. He could barely remember this tom. He'd been a kit when Kinkstar replaced the elderly ShadowClan leader.
The tom continued when all eyes were on him. A blank look crossed his face but his voice did not waver. "When all is lost and the darkness overcomes the moon, the stars will still be in the sky for you."