“Are you a Sylph? I don’t know anything! Let me go! I don’t want to die here!”
Blood and claws whirl around me, fur flying in a frenzy as I run by, trying to escape the cat who’s running behind me. I think it’s a Sylph, but I can’t see well enough. It’s too dark. The Sylphs have blotted out the moon.
I can just make out my Clanmates’ struggles; Birchflight howls in pain as a Sylph slashes his throat, and Mosspaw and Blackpaw are huddled together, trying to last out the attacks of a young Sylph who keeps attacking them through the wind. I want to stop and help them, but I can’t; if I do, I’ll die.
Suddenly claws grip me from behind, and I panic, choking as my enemy grabs my throat. I lash out with my back paws, trying desperately to free myself of this grip, but all I can feel behind me is air. The Sylphs can touch us all they want, but we can’t touch them unless they want to let us, which will never happen.
I can still hear my Clanmates fighting around me; they’re struggling to breathe as they, too, are slowly overwhelmed, slowly crushed by the Sylphs. We can’t last much longer. We’re outmatched and outnumbered by opponents who are far more skilled than we are.
My vision starts to black out, and the whole world becomes narrower as I cough and choke, a cruel joke as the pressure around my neck only gets tighter. It’s so dark; it’s too dark. Couldn’t they uncover the moon for just a moment while I die? Couldn’t they just let me go so I could run away and live in peace?
It’s not fair… it’s not fair…!
I awaken with a jolt.
Sure enough, it’s still dark out. That little nap hasn’t changed a thing.
I stand up so that I can pace, gasping for breath. That was one of the most realistic nightmares I’ve had to date; I can still feel that imaginary Sylph’s cold paws clutching at my neck, trying to strangle me to death. It was chillingly realistic – just like the actual battle was.
I take a few deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m living in the present, that the Great Sylph War has already ended. Somehow, we managed to last until daylight and lure the Sylphs into a great fire. We killed them all. The Sylphs are gone. None of them are left; none of them will ever bother us again.
I can hardly breathe.
I curl up inside my makeshift nest again, wishing – not for the first time – that I could be back with my Clanmates in the camp, but I know that’s impossible. They’d never let me stay with them at night, and I know it wouldn’t work out, anyways. I’d either get bored and have to get up and leave, which would disturb any of the cats around me, or I’d actually manage to fall asleep somehow, which would just disturb them even more.
So I sleep here, outside of the camp, alone, every single night, no matter how dark, no matter how cold.
I am Nightpaw. This is my life.
I sigh and rest my head on my paws. It’s so hard, living like this; even after the Sylphs are all gone, when everything should be peaceful again, when I need the company of other cats the most, I’m turned out of the camp because no one can stand to share a den with me. It’s just not fair, but…
I guess I should be used to it by now. It’s been six moons, after all. But I can’t. I just can’t seem to let it go.
I get back up and walk around a little to stretch my legs. It is pretty out here, now that the rain has washed away all the blood and the little animals have all returned. I can hear the crickets chirping merrily out in some distant reach of the silver forest. The air is calm and crisp, and I can actually see beyond my own whiskers. The only wind is a faint breeze stirring the treetops. Everything is calm.
But for all this, I still cannot bring myself to let it go.
I don't want to fall asleep again, so I stay awake until dawn. When I can see the first whiskers of sunlight peering through the trees, I haul myself out of my horrible makeshift den and stretch, wincing as my exhausted body protests. But I have to make it to camp soon, so I can come back out with the dawn patrol.
I weave my way through the forest, relishing the relative quiet and serenity of the early morning. This is the only time that I actually like being alone.
I nod to the guards as I enter the camp, pushing my way through the bramble barrier and into the clearing beyond. Immediately the sounds hit my ears. Cats are stretching, waking up, sharpening their claws, grooming, talking to each other, laughing - and some are still snoring. All of them are experiencing a perfectly normal morning. I envy them, just a little bit. "Normal" is something I haven't had in many moons.
I force myself to ignore the biting sadness and turn my paws in the direction of the Clan's deputy, Sunpelt. He nods to me in a brief acknowledgement and then addresses all the cats gathered before him.
"Longlegs, you lead a patrol along the hillside border. Take Sharpclaws, Blackfur, and Swiftpaw with you." The named cats nod in unison and head towards the camp entrance.
"Now then..." Sunpelt shifts his weight a little bit, subtly expressing unease that only I could notice. "Ashshadow, you'll lead today's patrol along the ruined border. Take Graycloud, Fernleaf, Spottedear, and" - he doesn't look at me - "Nightpaw. Be very careful so you don't stray over the border."
"Yes, Sunpelt," Ashshadow meows, a little stiffly, as Sunpelt turns away to attend to his other duties. But my breath hitched involuntarily when he called my name.
I haven't been back to the ruined border since the end of the Great Sylph War. Just the thought of it was always enough to send my heart racing and my fur prickling. And now my deputy has instructed me to go there and patrol, as though nothing ever happened.
"Sunfur, wait," I gasp hoarsely. His ears flick and he turns to look at me over his shoulder, his expression questioning. "I don't think I can do this."
His eyes narrow, and he turns around and walks towards me. "Nightpaw, if you don't try to confront that place, you'll never be able to heal."
"But-" I protest, my thoughts scrambled and frantic. "I'm not ready-"
"And when are you going to be ready?" Sunfur demands, starting to get angry. "Tomorrow? Next moon? No, you've been putting this off for far too long already. I don't want to hear any more excuses." And he turns and stalks away, putting a definitive end to the conversation.
I flinch, my ears flattening and my face burning with shame. I know he's right. I'll have to confront my fears eventually.
I just don't know how "eventually" turned into "now".
Fernleaf, gentle cat that she is, comes over to me and nudges my side gently. "You can do it," she encourages me quietly. "I'll try to help you as best as I can. If you feel too scared, you can stay here. I won't let Sunfur blame you." Her soft blue eyes are calm and sincere, reassuring me that everything will turn out okay.
"No... I want to try," I tell her, but my voice wavers. "I want... I want to at least try."
"Okay." She licks the top of my head like I'm a kit, but for some reason this slight condescension from her never bothered me. "Just let me know if there's anything I can do to help, okay?"
I nod and take a deep breath. "Okay. Let's do this."
She and I walk side-by-side to join the others, and one by one we push our way out of the camp and into the wild.