Chapter 1: Lakefrost
So to all of you who have survived/A visit to the edge,/I trust that you will understand this pledge.
--"The Edge" by Micheal Card
"I can't believe those clouds came back," Mallowstalk muttered, looking up with a grimace.
Instead of the purple and orange sky of evening, gray clouds hovered, dropping lower with every heartbeat. Valleys and hills formed in the mist while dark blue lines started falling. The air got a bit colder and a small breeze whipped through the camp, shaking the bushes and leaves from the trees with a hissing sound. The rain was coming.
Most cats were inside the dens at this point, not willing to face the storm, but the four young ShadowClan warriors used this to their advantage. They could talk secretly now without any of their Clanmates hearing. They lay next to the camp wall, a thin section of bushes between the warriors' den and elders' den. They could already hear snores from the latter where Oakfur deeply slept. Pointed leaves leaned over the, curling the four cats into a niche of soft shadows. On occasion they would peer out and watch for other cats Honeybee snuggled against Lakefrost's side and he gave his sister a smile. He was glad she'd come back. He'd had to go to a twolegplace twice just to get her. The golden she-cat had run away about a quarter moon ago after she lost a battle. No one in the Clan knew why she'd disappeared, but they were glad she was back.
The two siblings returned yesterday, walking into camp at nightfall. Orangestripe seemed the most pleased and raced for Honeybee, covering her with licks and throwing all dignity to the wind as he purred and babbled on about missing her and wanting to go hunting with her. Lakefrost could see that Honeybee was pleased with his attention.
Then Fallingstar had come. The leader approached her daughter and asked Honeybee to enter the Large Stump. The two remained inside for a long time. Lakefrost wasn't sure what they talked about, but when Honeybee came back, she looked more relaxed. And that morning she'd been allowed to lead a border patrol. Perhaps Fallingstar was trying to make it up to her daughter and show Honeybee that her Clan needed her and did trust her with tasks.
Honeybee also seemed to be trying. She didn't talk excessively to Orangestripe anymore, distracting him or teasing the other toms. She tried to hunt and pay attention, not wandering off or snoozing in a sunbeam. She seemed to put her whole heart into her warrior duties, grateful to come back to the Clan and not be rejected. No one else realized she'd been a kittypet for a few days. Ashpaw and Fallingstar had both kept their promises.
"There might not be a Gathering this moon," Mallowstalk continued, looking back down and meeting their eyes.
"It's only in two days," Badgerface meowed. He blinked between them and Lakefrost wondered if he was hearing everything they said. The whole Clan had recently discovered the dark brown tabby tom was deaf and that his hearing came and went at odd moments. Like in a middle of a battle.
"But we haven't stopped anything," Lakefrost sighed. "We failed StarClan."
"It was doomed from the start," Mallowstalk grumbled. "We couldn't work with a cat from another Clan and be expected to find four other traitors."
"Fawnfur isn't a traitor," Lakefrost snapped at her, his eyes narrowing.
"I didn't call her one," she retorted. "I was just calling those cats working for the Dark Forest the traitors."
"Just watch what you say about her," he growled back. "She's gotten us this far."
"Watch what you say about Fawnfur or someone might think you have feelings for her," Mallowstalk returned.
Lakefrost shut his mouth and turned away, glaring at a nearby leaf. He knew Mallowstalk was right, but it had still been rude for her to say. He did care about Fawnfur. But not as a love interest as most of the cats thought. She was his friend and she needed his help because for a long time no one believed ThunderClan was in danger. Most cats still didn't know. Only Lakefrost had his siblings knew and they had been contacted by StarClan to save the Clans from the Dark Forest.
"So is there anything else we can do to stop them in time?" he asked, looking back at his tom and two she-cats.
"We don't even know how they're getting here," Mallowstalk meowed. "They haven't before."
"The balanced changed," Honeybee meowed quietly. "Remember at the Moonpool? They said that."
Lakefrost tried to remember what the starry ancestors had told him and the others, but that had been a quarter moon ago. Since that day, too many things had occurred. There had been trespassing, two border battles, and Honeybee disappearing. It was hard to remember what StarClan had said. He'd been in awe of them and he might not have been listening. He lowered his ears, suddenly ashamed of himself.
"Didn't they say the Dark Forest was using something to contact the living?" Honeybee continued. She blinked her yellow eyes at them, gazing around the circle. "What if we closed that instead of speaking with the traitors?"
"And how are we supposed to get to the Dark Forest?" Mallowstalk stared at her sister. "It's not like they have a Moonpool that we visit and join them."
"It was just a suggestion," Honeybee mewed. She tucked her paws closer to her chest and looked down.
"And a good one," Lakefrost told her, glaring at Mallowstalk. "You are probably right that they're using something to communicate with the Clans. Maybe we should talk to Fawnfur and see what she knows."
Mallowstalk looked like she had something to say about that as well, but the ginger she-cat never got the chance. A wild shriek wailed around the camp. The nursery shook. Lakefrost stared at Batwing stumbled out of the thorns. The dark gray she-cat with large ears stepped out, her eyes scanning the camp, darting about like hummingbirds. Her black tail thrashed and became fluffy as her fur stood on end.
"My kits!" she yowled. "My kits are gone!
At her cry, the warriors' den moved. Cats poured from the narrow entrance to enter the clearing. They circled around the distraught queen, asking her questions. Fallingstar bounded from her den in the Large Stump and demanded quiet. The Clan listened to her and grew still.
"What happened?" demanded the brown and gray tabby leader. "When did this happen?"
"I just woke up and they were gone. There's a hole at the back of the nursery. Oh, please don't let a fox get them!"
Fallingstar nodded. She looked at the Clan, making sure everyone was with them before issuing orders. She found her deputy. "Tigerheart, take some warriors to the ThunderClan border. Brownfeather to the RiverClan. Acornpelt, guard the camp with Badgerface."
"I want to look for my kits," Acornpelt growled. The brown tom with dark splotches had a fierce look in his eyes. He wouldn't stay back even for Fallingstar. The leader seemed to know. She gazed at him a while and then nodded.
"Stoneheart stay with Badgerface. Everyone else, start from the nursery and work outward."
Lakefrost stood up, his sisters rising to their feet as well. Badgerface remained where he was.
"Sorry brother," the gray tabby meowed. He rubbed his head against Badgerface.
"No, I know Fallingstar doesn't want to risk me," the dark brown tabby sighed. "She wants her best warriors out of camp."
He stopped and looked at his brother as a majority of the warriors joined either Brownfeather or Tigerheart and left the camp. They were going to the borders, hoping to find the kits there or stop them before they got there. Fallingstar took a group out to track the kits directly from the nursery.
"What do you mean?" Lakefrost asked.
"There isn't any need to protect the camp," his brother answered quietly. "The kits are more important. I can't hear, so I'm a liability. Stoneheart is injured so Fallingstar isn't sending him out."
"We don't have all day for this," Mallowstalk interrupted. Her claws dug into the dirt and she stared between her brothers.
"Go," Badgerface meowed, turning away.
Lakefrost bowed his head and turned away. The three started for the camp entrance. They watched Stoneheart limp for the nursery. His tail was swathed in cobwebs and the side of his face was a fierce red. When the Clan woke up that morning, Stoneheart had been bleeding as if in a fight and was sent to the medicine cats. There he was told he looked like he was healing, but they wanted to keep the wounds clean. The gray cat wouldn't tell anyone where he'd gotten the injuries from and it was a mystery. The siblings left the camp and circled around to the back of the nursery where the hole was. It was just large enough for a kit to get through. It didn't look like a fox had stolen them. It seemed they'd gotten out on their own and went exploring. When Batwing found them again, Pinekit and Chestnutkit were in trouble. Lakefrost hoped the kits hadn't gotten far from camp.
Through the hole they could hear Stoneheart sniffing around and searching in the moss. Lakefrost peered in and saw him sit down and look into the distance as if thinking. Sudden anger smoldered in his yellow eyes, but fear crinkled the corners. Lakefrost was surprised. The dark gray tabby tom hadn't shown much interest in his kin so why did he care about these kits? They weren't even his own.
From the forest he heard Dappleflower call out. "I found a scent!"
Lakefrost would have raced in that direction, but Mallowstalk flung her tail in front of him, and stopped him. She glanced at him and then leaned down, her nose twitching delicately.
"We have to go," he meowed, ears flicking.
"I won't be able to get a scent with all of them covering it up," she answered without looking at him. She raised her head and opened her mouth, breathing deeply. Her chest rose and fell as she searched the gusting air. The breeze tugged at their fur, first blowing it one way and then the other as the air around them got colder. The clouds above continued to lower.
"It is that way," she finally meowed.
He showed his teeth briefly and started off where Dappleflower had been. Despite being angry, he didn't say a word. By now the rest of the Clan was gone. They were on the kit's trail. Only Honeybee and Mallowstalk were with him now. The kits might be found before they even caught up to the patrol. The three followed the familiar scents of Dappleflower, Fallingstar, and two apprentices. The trail led them around the heady scents of pine and was almost consumed.
It seemed odd that the farther they got, the more the kit's scent faded away. There was too many other smells around them: prey that had crossed their path and the ground that was taking on a damp scent although the rain hadn't yet touched. Lakefrost could imagine that his Clanmates were having difficulties. He knew they'd slowed down. He could catch glimpses of them moving beyond the jagged bark and low branches. He picked up his pace so they could join the patrol.
His sisters trotted beside him, not saying a word. Honeybee had a frown on her face, looking serious and Mallowstalk continued to glance around as if distracted. They came to a thick patch of garlic and it washed out most of the smell. Two bushes of thin, but long as cat tails leaves, blocked their path. Little white, five pointed flowers poked out on long stems and beneath the bushes, bulbs were just revealed. A sharp spicy smell filled the area. Cat fur caught on the leaves where the patrol had pushed through.
No wonder they were going slowly, Lakefrost thought. They'd probably lost the scent and were searching for it. He glanced back at his sisters and sighed.
"I don't know if we'll find the kits now."
"You give up too easily," Mallowstalk told him. She shouldered him aside and stepped through the two garlic bushes. She sniffed around the ground and brushed her face against a low needled branch.The green spikes poked into her fur, but she ignored them and moved to the next. Finally she looked at them.
"They kits smell like garlic now, mostly, but I think we can follow them."
"Then go," Lakefrost encouraged.
She nodded and quickly started away, trying to follow an odd trail. Lakefrost hurried behind, Honeybee anxiously keeping pace. They continued that way, leaving Fallingstar and her patrol behind. They didn't have time to find the others if they could reach the kits first. They hurried between the pines and the very few bushes. They came to boulders. Jagged and gray and full of cracks, the boulders were long and a half-head taller than the cats. Mallowstalk circled in confusion.
"It's here. They have to be here," she muttered. "The trail leads here."
"Pinekit! Chestnutkit!" Lakefrost yowled. He turned around, looking for any tail.
"Maybe they climbed a tree," Honeybee suggested and started looking upward. She scanned the trees while Lakefrost sniffed around the bushes. Mallowstalk stayed by the boulders. She peered between two boulders where the gray sides met. It was a fair sized gap. Lakefrost saw her leaning in and came closer. He looked over her shoulder. In the ground was a wide dark hole. The kits had found the underground.