This is book three of the Poisonous Perfection series. Enjoy!
Perfection. That's the only word I can think of to describe that. I gaze at the she-cat by my side once again, just to make sure she's really there. She is(just thought I'd let you know). I breathe in her scent, which is like fresh mountain air, spring water, and lilies all combined.
"Snowheart," I whisper, gazing into her navy eyes. "I love you."
"Blackfire get up! Snowheart's in trouble!"
"Snowheart!" I leap to my feet, then blush bright red. I'm about to stutter an excuse such as: "I was not dreaming about her, why would you think that?" when what she just said sinks in. "What? Where is she?"
"She's furious. Blackstorm just told her that Sageheart is dead," Pinecloud explains, her eyes wide with worry for our friend. "I think she's planning to single-handedly beat up Ivystar's entire group."
I groan and peer out of the cave at the dreary winter morning. "Great. Let's go get her." With that, the two of us begin scrambling down the side of the cliff. "Where are the others?" I ask.
"Ashsong and Whisperpelt took the 'paws out for training. Ashsong is determined they don't lose ground just because... well, SnowClan doesn't exist anymore."
I wince upon hearing the words; none of us are used to the fact that the Clan we grew up in is gone yet. Pinecloud's eyes soften. "I think Ashsong misses Weaselclaw. Weasel or no weasel, he was still her mate, and she still loves him."
"He was a rat," I retort. "And I hope he dies."
"Snowheart!" We both spot the body at the same time. Everything else fades into oblivion as I charge down the slope, my heart beating a mile a minute. She's lying so still. Is she even alive?
As I get closer, I see another cat standing over her. My first reaction is anger as I think it must be one of Ivystar's cats, but then I realize it's a she-cat, and completely unfamiliar. As we skid to a stop, she looks up, her eyes widening in fear as she correctly reads the anger in our faces.
"I- I didn't mean to. Honestly! It was just a reflex! Did I hurt her?"
Before Pinecloud or I can respond, Snowheart stirs. Pinecloud is instantly by her side, something I wish I was comfortable enough to do. Instead, I stand by and watch as she helps her to her feet.
"What happened?" Snowheart murmurs, glancing around with a dazed expression on her face. "Who are you?"
The she-cat blushes and stares at her paws. "I don't think we got off on a good paw. My name is Night. I'm a rogue... at least, a loner. Or not exactly. I... hung around with another group of cats for a while. About a week ago, our leader had a strange dream. A black tom told him to come here, in riddles, but we figured it out pretty quickly. I scouted ahead one night, to make sure this feather-brained scheme wasn't a trap, though how it could be I don't know. All I knew was that something didn't feel right. The next thing I knew, I stumbled upon this she-cat in the woods, ordering two toms to bury an old cat's body. I fled; somehow I knew-" She breaks off abruptly, as if just realizing she's spouted all this information out loud.
Snowheart is too keyed up by now to relent though. "This tom, was he black with fangs and bronze ripples in his fur?"
"I'm not sure. I never saw him, but his name was Viperface."
Pinecloud, Snowheart, and I exchange looks, our jaws gaping in identical expressions of shock.
As usual, Snowheart recovers her speech the fastest. "WHAT? WHERE IS HE?"
Grinning, Pinecloud flicks her tail towards the sky. "There, I'd presume. That's where StarClan is, isn't it? Don't think you can get to him there. Sorry dear." I can read the relief in her eyes though; she's as glad as me that our hard-headed friend is safe.
Sticking out her tongue, Snowheart turns back to Night, who is looking at us as if we all sprouted two heads. "Sorry. We have a lot to explain... But first, why did you leave your group?"
With a sigh, the black she-cat sat down, giving her silver-flecked pelt a quick lick. "Like I said, somehow I knew that this was wrong. And I knew that she-cat," she shuddered, "burying the cat, was evil."
"She is," I snarl angrily; the mere thought of Ivystar makes my blood boil. Night's eyes widen, taken aback by my response. "Well... she is," I stammer.
"Hey guys!" a voice calls from behind us. I turn to see Ashsong approaching, Aquapaw racing ahead, with Heatpaw and Summerpaw bringing up the rear, bragging around the prey that stuffs their mouths. Yes, I know, they can't officially be apprentices without a Clan, but who cares? I wasn't about to dampen Ashsong's attempt at raising her kits the SnowClan way, without any SnowClan. She really was a good mother, and we all pitched in. The apprentices were important, and besides, we were all clinging to the hope that our Clan could be rebuilt. Once Ivystar's head was on a stake of course.
"Who's that?" she asks as she gets nearer, her expression darkening. Night frowns.
"I'm Night," she says in a semi-friendly tone.
"This is our friend, Ashsong," Snowheart meows. "And that's Aquapaw, Summerpaw, and Heatpaw." Each of the younger cats mutter a half-hearted greeting, save Aquapaw.
"Hey!" she says exuberantly, her sea-colored eyes bright. "Night? That's a cool name. Not a Clan name though. Are you a loner? We can't be friends if you are."
I burst out laughing, not able to help it. Trust Aquapaw to liven and lighten things up. "Guys," I say. "We're supposed to be being hospitable."
"Right," Snowheart says, rolling her eyes. "Sorry, Blackfire. Obviously, you're the most polite one among us. Night, do you want to stay with us?"
A small smile of hope appears on her face. "Really? You want me to?"
"Sure," Pinecloud says.
"Yeah!" exclaims Summerpaw, getting over her shyness. "It'll be fun to meet someone new."
"The cats we stay with are boring!" adds Heatpaw helpfully. Ashsong cuffs her son around the ear, and he blinks back innocently. "What? It's true."
"Okay," Night says, hiding a grin. "I'll come with you."
We lead her up the side of the cliff. I expect her to keep slipping and sliding on the loose rocks and steep slope, but she doesn't, just doggedly climbs up, keeping pace with us. Snowheart notices too. "Were you a mountain cat before?"
"No," Night says with a touch of ruefulness. "But I've lived in a lot of places. I know how to get around."
"Ah, that explains it," Ashsong says, glancing at her own pads, which are hard and firm, like the rest of us.
"So, tell me more about this evil cat," Night mews, her green eyes curious, but wary. I can see it'll take a while for her to fully trust us, and we know almost nothing about her past, so it'll probably be vice versa too.
"Her name is Ivystar. She is, was, the leader of SnowClan, when it existed." Which was only a few days ago, I think. Pinecloud is clearly thinking the same thing, but she continues, "Now, she's got some kind of power called the White Ivy, and she can use it to do almost anything to cats, and build her own army of minions."
"StarClan knows what she plans to do with them," I say. "Just continue making clones?"
Snowheart shudders, as if she knows something we don't. Which is understandable, since she's actually experienced the White Ivy, and has a share in it. What if- I cut off the thought. No, it would never work. I'd never let her risk it. No matter what it comes to, it can't go that far. Ivystar isn't that powerful; we'll find a way to beat her.
"Guys!" Whisperpelt comes scrambling out of the den towards us. She stops short when she spots Night.
"Whisperpelt, this is Night," Snowheart says. Quickly she explains what the she-cat had told us, with the rest of us butting in at regular intervals. At the end of it, Whisperpelt still doesn't look sure, but she nods hesitantly, and steps aside from the entrance of our cave.
"Welcome to the team, Night," I say, flicking my tail to beckon her in. "I'm sure you won't let us down."
"Thanks Blackfire," she says, blinking warmly at me. "I hope not."
Snowheart elbows between us, a tad impatiently. Casting a glare at me over her shoulder, she calls, "Come on, we have work to do." A little surprised at her temper, I follow with a shrug.
"What work, exactly?" inquires Whisperpelt. Night glances about the inside of the cave with approving eyes; it's not huge, but it's spacy enough, with a narrow chamber that spaces out into a wider cavern, which is where our nests are.
"Uh... I was hoping you'd know that." She gives a sheepish grin; I try to ignore the way my heart pounds at her smile.
"Snowheart," Pinecloud says quietly. "You... you have part of the White Ivy too, don't you?" My heart sinks as I realize what she's getting at- the same thing I considered for an instant. Snowheart obviously realizes it too. Her eyes widen, and for a second I hope that she won't even think about it, but it's no use. She's much too heroic for that.
Nodding, she says, "Yes. I do. So... I could battle Ivystar."
"One on one?" asked Aquapaw, her eyes large.
"It's too risky," I say, trying to keep my voice steady. "We have no way of knowing if you'll survive it, or if your side of the White Ivy is more powerful than Ivystar's."
I can tell she's not listening. "This could be the way to beat her for good," Snowheart exclaims. Then her eyes darken. "But we have to figure out how, exactly, I can control my power, to attack her."
Everyone falls silent. I bite my lip from screaming out loud, "Are you CRAZY?! Snowheart, you're worth a thousand Ivystars. We can't let you die. There has to be another way." Instead, I stare at my paws, trying to avoid her sapphire-colored gaze. Hopefully, we'll never figure out how to kill Ivystar using the White Ivy.
Suddenly, Snowheart's head shoots up. "I've got it!"
"Are you sure this will work?" Night asks. The darkness covers us like a blanket as we head down the side of the mountain and into the woods, alert for any SnowClan patrols. Or, you know, former SnowClan cats wandering around. I don't know how Ivystar manages her group now; it's probably different from our Clan life, which wasn't so Clan-like either, and wasn't at all like what I was used to when Birchstar was leader. Still, it was the closest we had, and now it's gone.
"It has to," Snowheart says, obviously trying to muster more confidence. "I don't know where else to go."
Pinecloud flicks her ears in agreement. "But you've never been there before. How do you know the way?"
"I- I can't really explain it. It's like... it's been imprinted into my mind, like I did it a long time ago, in another life or something," Snowheart says. "I don't understand it myself, but I know that that's the closest place where we can access StarClan." Her gaze darkens, as if she's recalling something unpleasant, and I guess she's hiding something. A pit of unease churns in my stomach.
"Well, that's reassuring," Whisperpelt sighs. I can see my own worry reflected in her olive eyes.
Blackstorm glances up at the inky sky, her gaze solemn. "I just don't know Snowheart. We're risking our lives for all this? Why can't we just leave the territory and settle somewhere else?" There's no trace of the she-cat's usual sarcasm, just an honest suggestion.
Snowheart meets her former mentor's eyes with all the courage and calmness I love about her. "I'm not asking you guys to do this with me. This doesn't have to involve all of you. In fact, it would probably be better if you left now, before things got too dangerous. I don't want any of you to get hurt. But... I have to do this. I know I do. It's my destiny to save SnowClan. Honeywind and Beepelt," she chokes up for an instant as she says her parent's names, "would have wanted me to. They'll help me."
"You're crazy," I say sharply.
She gives a swift gasp. "I know it sounds impossible, but I'm-"
"As if any of us could ever leave you alone to face this," I interrupt. "We're all in this together. No way are we leaving you to blunder around shooting blue fire at everyone. You would be arrested, and what would happen then?"
A purr rumbles in her throat, and she steps closer to me, brushing her pelt against mine. "Thanks." I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
"Guys?" It's Pinecloud, her voice hesitant and wary.
"Yeah?" I ask.
"Snowheart, you said we were looking for a large pile of rocks?"
I push past her, and gape in shock. In front of us, strewn across dusty ground, lie several shattered fragments of stone. It looks like a giant explosion rocked the entire place. I gulp to think of what could be so powerful as to break whole boulders like glass. There is no sign of any entrance to the tunnel we're looking for.
"Great," I say sarcastically. "This is just what we needed." I wonder if I'm doing a good job of hiding my glee.
"No..." Snowheart moans. "They can't be gone. StarClan is stronger then that. Everyone, split up and look for any sign of a large blue..." She trails off, her eyes widening in horror. Then, she slumps to the ground. "I'm so stupid."
Pinecloud exchanges glances with the rest of us. "Well, I'd hate to agree, but-"
"It was me," Snowheart says. "I had the StarStone. But I delivered it right into Ivystar's paws... Guys, it's not here anymore. I transferred it, when I brought that blue stone to her. That was the StarStone. Oh great. Our only hope of figuring out how to beat Ivystar is in the middle of her lair. This is just perfect."
"How can the StarStone be the same as your... whatever it is. White Ivy stone," I wonder. She shrugs helplessly.
"The only cats we can ask, StarClan, are inaccessible right now."
Night looks extremely confused, though we explained our situation to her as best as we could. "So, we can't just go in and get it?"
Snowheart looks at her like she sprouted another head. "No, we most certainly cannot, unless you have a death wish. We need a plan. It's going to be us against Ivystar's entire crew, and believe me, that's huge. It must have gotten even bigger by now."
"Let me get this straight," Blackstorm interjects. "We're devising a dangerous plan so we can get something that will allow us to make another dangerous plan?"
"Exactly," she says.
"Great!" Heatpaw says. "Let's do it!"
This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy.
That's the chant that spins around in my mind as I creep down the side of the cliff. Down below, I can see the overhang that shelters what was once the SnowClan camp, and beyond that, further down the slope, the pine forest, stretching away in snow-covered bliss. How I long to be out on a normal hunting patrol there, living out my old life. Instead of this.
Then I glance at my friends beside me, and grit my jaw. I'll just have to stick this through, for them. For Snowheart. For SnowClan.
"Okay," the pale gray-silver-and-white she-cat says, turning to face us. "Ashsong and Summerpaw are fast, so they'll cause the distraction." She flicks her tail over to a large pile of rocks, teetering dangerously. The only thing stopping them from pouring down the mountain is a tiny wedge of rock that Pinecloud and I pre-arranged the night before. "Make sure Ivystar sees you two pulling it out before running, and don't get caught, but don't lose them. Got it?" The mother and daughter nod their heads. Snowheart continues. "Then, I'll lead the rest of you guys in there. We need disguises, but we don't have mud up here, so just smear your pelt with dust and grit. It may not fool them, but it'll confuse them a bit."
"One thing," Aquapaw says. "How on earth do we get the stone out of there? I mean, from what you said, it's huge."
A strange glint enters Snowheart's eyes. "Don't worry about that. Just... If I say to get back, get back right that instant. Okay?"
The apprentice nods hesitantly. "I guess."
"Good. Everyone ready?" Snowheart asks. We all nod. She gives us a brisk salute. "Let's go." I try to catch her gaze one last time before we head down the cliff, knowing I might never see her again, but she's already turned around, marching off to the battle. Sighing, I follow her, admiration mingling with irritation in my heart. Mark my words, that's one strong cat.
Ashsong and Summerpaw take their positions behind the pile of rocks, and give us a nod as we progress down the cliffside. Looking down at my old home, my heart stirs with longing. SnowClan was just about the only thing I'd ever loved and clung to in life. And now, seeing it like this, overrun with loners and rogues, ruled by an evil she-cat whom we all hated, it tore at some little piece of me. I grind my jaw and narrow my eyes. We will succeed. I'll worry about the cost later.
Our group crouches behind a large rock that juts up over the overhang. Snowheart smears grit and dust onto her pelt, and indicates that we should do the same. I pick the chalkiest stuff I can find to put on my fur; it stands out starkly against the ebony color. Beside me, Night's fur is almost identical. She laughs when she sees me. "You look ridiculous. Here." She leans forward and licks a tuft of grit-coated fur on my shoulder down. Snowheart's eyes practically shoot blue sparks.
"Stop talking," she hisses vehemently. I can't help feeling surprised at how angry she is. Surely Night wasn't overheard? "You'll give us all away."
"Relax Snowheart," I tell her. Her gaze is so daggerish I fall silent. What is with her?
Turning back up the mountain, Pinecloud flicks her tail. Seconds later, a low rumbling shakes the ground under our paws. I shove Night out of the way just as a flurry of rocks cascade down the place where she'd been standing. "Thanks," she pants. Snowheart says nothing.
Down below, I hear Ivystar and her follower's exclamations. Our mission has started.
"Wait," Snowheart whispers, as if she can sense the way my legs itch to go streaking down the cliffside and launch myself on top of Ivystar. I'd definitely be struck dead by a bolt of green energy before I even touched the earth again. "Not yet..."
In the camp, Ivystar is screaming instructions. "Beetlefur, Casper, Ironfoot, Torntail, and Reebo, come with me right now!" I don't recognize some of the names, but there's no doubting that Ivystar's army is even stronger with the rogues and loners; all the tom's muscles ripple under glossy pelts as they pound past us, not even pausing to glance our direction, intent only on Ashsong and Summerpaw, who are luring them further away. Night gives a little gasp as one tom streaks past, a dark gray one with one blue eye and one green eye. That's all I catch of him before he passes by in a blur.
"Come on," Snowheart says.
"Wait!" Whisperpelt's mew is desperate. "We're still heavily outnumbered, and Ivystar does have captains and leaders within her rank, who could take charge."
"Don't worry about it," Snowheart says grimly, setting her jaw. "Leave the rest up to me."
Night flicks her tail. "Are you sure about this?"
"Yes!" Snowheart hisses at her. "Now come on. We don't have time to waste." We race down the side of the cliff, and leap off the overhang. I land with my legs braced, and pounce on the first cat I see, who happens to be Weaselclaw. The brown tom's eyes flare with recognition, but a second later any sense of comradeship we might have developed, serving on the Council together, vanishes as he reaches a claw for my throat.
Screeching, I block his blow and kick out with my hind legs. He goes flying, but two more strange toms that I don't recognize take his place. I'm backed up against the den where Snowheart and the other she-cat's used to sleep, which isn't good because it's the thorniest, prickliest part of the camp. Wincing as thorns tear at my fur, almost as hurtful as the claws ripping at my shoulders, I lash out at a ginger tom, then headbutt another cat. To my surprise, though it shouldn't be I guess, there aren't any she-cats around. Surely some came with these toms? What did Ivystar do with them? I don't even want to know.
"Guys," Snowheart calls from outside the leader's den. "Get out of the way!"
I just have time to scramble halfway out of the thorn barrier before her eyes go completely blank. No pupils. Just eerily glowing blue. Slowly, from behind her, a large rock rises into the air. We watch, awestruck. Snowheart's controlling it, I know she is, but I have no idea how. How did she even get this power in the first place? And... how dangerous is it?
The rock and Snowheart are advancing out of the camp. Ivystar's "warriors" scatter, yelping with fright as she floats past. Her paws don't even touch the ground; she's suspended in a pulsing cloud of cobalt/sky-colored energy. I gulp as she floats past. Nothing can touch her now. Slowly, Snowheart and the rock progress up the cliff.
"Come on!" Whisperpelt calls, jolting me back to reality. "They won't dare follow us!"
"I'm not so sure-" I begin, but I break off as everyone else starts running. The other cats make no move to chase them, so I bound out of the camp too, racing up the cliffside.
We've been running for about three minutes when I see Pinecloud has stopped up ahead. The camp is out of sight, but we're still not out of danger. Ivystar and her patrol is still somewhere out on the mountain, chasing Ashsong and Summerpaw. I shudder to think what would happen if she caught either them or Snowheart. "Where is she?" Pinecloud says, breathless with fear and exhertion.
"I don't know," I say. Night, Whisperpelt, Heatpaw, and Aquapaw stop beside us. Suddenly, Blackstorm appears, eyes wide.
"Guys," she says, a grim look settling ono her face. "You might want to see this."
I lope after her, dreading what made sturdy, sarcasstic Blackstorm this worried. When I see her, I skid to a stop, gapsing. "Snowheart!"
She's lying on her side, the blue rock on the ground nearby. She looks frail and spent, her pale coat almost translucent. A trickle of blood seeps from a gash near her ear, and her breathing is heavy and rattling in her chest. "What... happened?" Pinecloud says.
"No," moans Whisperpelt. "This wasn't supposed to happen. She was supposed to control it."
I push past them, bounding to Snowheart's side and crouching over her. "Snowheart? Answer me! Are you okay?"
Aquapaw frowns. "I've never seen you this unnerved Blackfire."
Opening my mouth to retort hotly, I break off as Snowheart moves against me. Relief floods me, making my knees weak, not that I'd ever admit it. "You're okay," I breathe. She smiles faintly, licking a paw and wiping some grit and blood off her face.
"I must be a mess."
"You've never looked better," I promise. Taking a step back, I help her off the ground. She wobbles unsteadily, but she's as annoyingly stubborn as ever.
"Where are Ashsong and Summerpaw? We need to help them!"
"You're in no position to be helping anyone," says Pinecloud firmly. "We'll help you back to the cave." Together, we escort her back to our home. Suddenly, I hear the crash of rocks sliding down the mountain from somewhere nearby. We all freeze. Avalanche.
There's no time to lose. "Whisperpelt, keep Snowheart here. The rest of you, come with me!" With that, I race off, hoping we're not too late to save the other's lives.
It isn't hard to find the others. A few feet further up the mountan, a bright, sickly green glow begins to taint the air, practically pulsating with energy. My fur sticks up with static the further I press into the aura, but I square my jaw and plod on determinedly. "Summerpaw! Ashsong! Where are you?"
A weak cry leads me onwards. Up ahead, I make out a small shape, hunched over with grief, and on the floor beside her... "No!"
Pinecloud hurtles past me like a rocket, falling on her knees in front of Ashsong. The she-cat's dark gray fur is singed, but it looks like she died on impact, her eyes still wide from shock. A trickle of blood dribbles out of her mouth. Summerpaw looks stricken, tears rolling down her cheeks and wetting her honey-colored fur as she shudders with sobs. Anger courses like a fire through me. Raising my head, I look around for Ivystar. She's standing several tail-lengths away, surrounded by the rest of her patrol. Her eyes are back to normal, but her fur is on end still from the power she just used, and she's trembling slightly. Interesting. So it does cost her something to expend the White Ivy. I store that information away, in case we end up needing it.
"She can't be dead," Aquapaw says softly. Heatpaw just stares at his mother's body, speechless.
My heart twists in pity for them, but there's no time for ceremonies now. We're all in danger. Except... Snowheart's not with us, thank StarClan. And she's the one Ivystar really wants. Not to say she wouldn't kill us anyway, just for the fun of it, but she's not completely stupid. There are goals and motives behind her every action, and if I read hers correctly at the moment, I'd think she'd be more likely to hold us hostage and make Snowheart come to her, rather then burn us to ashes on the spot. Of course, she could kill us and expect Snowheart to come in revenge... I push away the stream of thoughts, raise my chin, and face her down.
"How dare you kill her." My voice is surprisingly calm, considering chills are running through my body and I feel like I'm about to throw up.
Ivystar cocks her head patiently. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Was she a friend of yours? My bad."
"You are bad," Pinecloud spits. Weak, but you can't blame her. Her best friend just died, and we're all pretty shaken up. Besides, no one ever won a war by insulting the opposite side to death(that I've heard of).
Ivystar takes another step forward. Suddenly, she bares her fangs in a deafening roar, her green eyes ablaze with what looks like fire. Heatpaw, Summerpaw, Aquapaw, Night, and Pinecloud are all driven back, yowling and clutching at rocks. Summerpaw claws for Ashsong's body, but Ivystar twitches her whiskers and she goes flying into a boulder, where she lies motionless.
Before I can move to help them, a thick coil of green energy wraps around me, immobilizing me. The expanse of color fills my vision, till all I can see in it is Ivystar's face, her pointed fangs bared like a snake's. "Come to me, Blackfire. If I can't have you, I'll take you away from Snowheart. And she won't get you back. But," she adds, a sickening cruelty etched on her face, "She'll try. And that will be the death of her."
I try to cry out, but the White Ivy power seems to have stilled everything about me, save a wrenching pain, burning me up, eating me alive. The, the green energy rears up like a massive monster, gains momentum, dives down, and swallows me whole.
"Uh..." I groan groggily, blinking my eyes as I try to figure out where I am. There's something familiar about this place. I freeze. No. It can't be.
But it is. I'm in Ivystar's den. And just in front of me, her slanted eyes fixed on my pelt like lasers, is Ivystar.
"Blackfire," she coos silkily, taking a step in my direction. I stumble backwards, into the ruined, crumbled remains of one of the walls. What happened to this place? Then I remember Snowheart bringing the blue StarStone out of here, and how she described summoning the White Ivy here. "So glad you decided to finally wake up."
"Wouldn't want to disappoint you," I hiss through clenched teeth, hoping she doesn't see how much pain I'm in. I don't think I can walk without help, let alone fight her off.
She purrs amusedly, as if I've just said something hilarious. Which I have, I guess, because I'd want to disappoint her every time. Ha ha.
I lean back carefully on the wall, which alleviates some of the pain coursing through my body. Able to face her now, I say, "Why have you brought me here?" While I wait, I glance past her. It's night outside; a jolt runs through me. How long have I been gone? The others will be really worried now, there's no use denying it. I wish I could say they wouldn't care, wouldn't miss me. Wouldn't come here looking for me. But of course they will, if for no other reason then the warrior code. And that must be what Ivystar intended all along. They'll be walking right into her trap. And it'll be my fault.
Ivystar seems to sense that I've pieced together what she plans, because she doesn't bother answering the question. Instead, she trots to the edge of her den and peers out at the camp. I strain to see what she sees, and can't hold back a gasp. The camp is flooded with cats. Overflowing. They're everywhere, pouring out of the dens, sleeping out in the open, even draped on nooks and crannies in the cliffs nearby. It's an invasion. A sickening feeling starts in my gut. We have no hope of defeating all these cats. And even if we do, what will we do with them? SnowClan's territory isn't enough to support this many predators. Ivystar's group will starve, but that means our Clanmates, useless and dumb as they are, will die with her. And we'll be the only ones left. Could that be our mission? To wait till the others die, and then start SnowClan anew? I shudder at the thought. That can't be it. StarClan wouldn't want that.
All this thinking has got my head spinning again, and I sink slowly to the floor. Ivystar turns to me, but her eyes are faraway. She appears to be thinking about something else, and, shockingly, it seems to frighten and unnerve her. "Stay here. Or not. I don't really care, since this den is fully guarded. I have business to attend to." Is it just me, or is her voice a little less steady than normal? Very strange.
Shaking my head, I sink down into the crumbly, dead grass lining the bottom of the den, not even bothering to check where the leader disappears to before falling headlong into the clutches of sleep.
Thunk. I drag open my eyelids to find myself staring into a pair of lifeless, glassy orb-like eyes. Just then, I'm pretty sure my heart stops beating, until I realize it's a squirrel. Then, my mouth floods with water and I spring to my feet. Weaselclaw is standing there, apparently having just delivered the prey. He watches me carefully, as if judging if I'll try to claw his throat out. If I tried, I'm sure several dozen other cats would have me pinned in no time.
Instead, I play it cool, remembering that we used to be pretty good friends as apprentices. "Thanks," I say, bending down to sniff the squirrel. It smells clean, no poison or anything, so I take a huge bite. The meat is stringy and tough, but I'm too hungry to care.
"You're in a mess now," he says, by way of welcome.
"Tell me something I don't know," I snort around a mouthful of flesh.
His tail twitches. "So they all survived, huh? Pinecloud, Ashsong, Whisperpelt, Snowheart, Blackstorm... I thought they were goners for sure, but they managed to evade Ivystar so far." Weaselclaw raises his head. "And you joined them."
"Not Ashsong," I say, polishing off the last shreds of fresh-kill. When I look up, I'm shocked to see that his eyes have bugged out and that his jaw is gaping like the opening of a cave. "You okay?"
His voice comes out in a stammering croak. "A- Ashsong's dead? What about our- her kits?"
"They're fine." I force back any sympathy for him. He abandoned her, and his children, for a snake like Ivystar. Ashsong didn't deserve to die, but he deserves to lose her, after all he put her through, the cad.
Weaselclaw seems deflated all of a sudden. "I never meant for all of this to happen."
"Well, it did. Is there a reason you're still here?" I snap.
He winces, then turns and limps slowly out of the den, and not just because of the injuries I gave him when we fought previously. He really looks heartbroken. Shaking my head, I sit down heavily. My heart is torn and conflicted. Weaselclaw seemed to care about Ashsong still. I know they were head over heels for each other as apprentices. But what cat could forsake their family completely, for another she-cat, and claim to still love their old mate? It just isn't right. I would never do that to-
Snowheart. Like she'd ever be my mate. Like we'll ever even make it out of this alive.
I never dreamed I could really fall for any cat. And half the time I doubt I really have. I think of Snowheart as a close friend. But then she comes near me, and I catch a whiff of her flowery scent, the way the swirled pattern on her coat catches the moonlight, and the deep sapphire of her eyes and... I just melt.
I don't think she even realizes it(Admittedly, I'm not good at showing it), and I'm positive that she doesn't feel the same way. It's just... if I have to die, I'd like to die knowing that I've truly loved one cat in my life. If only she could have known. Maybe if things had been different, if I'd been a little bolder... But dreams don't get you anywhere.
Peering out the entrance of the den, I see it's turning to dawn outside. The sun is rising slowly over the mountainside. I think we have the most beautiful winter sunrise in the world. The light sparkles with a thousand colors on the freshly fallen snow, causing it to glitter and twinkle. The sheer slate-colored mountains look both immense and puny against the vast sky, which is streaked with deep rose, vibrant orange, blood red, and dreamy violet. It's enough to convince almost anyone that things will be all right. Except I know better.
What now? I wonder, gazing about. In response, I spot Ivystar heading towards me. Uh oh.
"Oh look, our guest is up," Ivystar purrs, standing on the edge of the den as she rakes me disdainfully with her gaze. There was a time when I thought Ivystar had actually liked me(in a shallow way of course). Back then, I found it annoying, but now I would give anything to have that bartering chip. Although, I got the message we were over when she left me to die on the edge of a cliff. That kind of sends a message, however small, that she doesn't really care for my, you know, life.
"I'm up," I say steadily. "What's it to you?"
She purrs deviously. "I have a plan you might be interested in." The end of her plumy tail twitches. "But I'm not going to spill. You might try to stop me."
"It's a possibility," I agree, licking one paw and watching her out of the corner of my eye. One of her ears flicking is the only sign that I'm getting to her with my calmness, but with Ivystar, it's like a blaring alarm. Perfect.
The leader gives her silky fur a smoothing down with her foot and narrows her green eyes, brighter and eerier now with the White Ivy. "Let me put it this way Blackfire. You can either fight on my side, or die a captive."
"I'd rather eat my own eyes out then fight for you," I say.
Ivystar doesn't bat an eyelash. "Suit yourself. But you've just sealed your fate. Apart from Snowheart, yours will be the most painful death any cat will ever experience."
I can't stop a shudder of fright, not for myself, but for Snowheart. What could Ivystar do to her that was so bad? And worse, would she make me watch? That alone, I was sure, would be enough to kill me.
As if reading my thoughts, Ivystar purrs, "And maybe I'd even invite you to watch the show when I do annihilate Snowheart. Imagine the poor thing, bent over, contorted with pain, begging you to make it stop, tears filling her eyes." A malicious grin slips across her face as I stare at her, stunned. "But you'll be powerless to do anything. All you can do is look on as your beloved dies a slow, painful death. And then you'll be next."
I can't let her get to me, I remind myself, but it's no use. My knees are shaking, and my ears ring with imagined cries of the one cat I'm sure I love. Before I can recover, Ivystar is gone.
"You think I won't try to stop you?" I hiss in a low voice, my claws coming out and retracting over and over again. "Just try me."
Now all I have to do is figure out how to get out of here, go help them, defeat an entire army with a handful of cats, control the White Ivy before Ivystar kills me with it... Simple. No problem.
With a groan, I slump onto the floor. This is impossible.
I blink open my eyes, shocked to find myself surrounded by a hazy blue. Out of the swirling mass of color steps a gorgeous she-cat. Snowheart.
"You're here!" I choke out. She shakes her head.
"No. This is a dream. I'm using my power to communicate with you."
"Whoa. So you have like, the power of StarClan," I say, gazing her with wonder(that is only related to the White Ivy, not the way her eyes glow like jewels).
She blushes modestly. "Not really. It isn't even me, it's the White Ivy. Anyway, I really need to talk to you. In person." A shadow passes over her face for a second, like she's seeing something horrible in the future. I can't be sure, but I think she blinks back tears quickly as she looks up at me. It sends a thrill of fear through me. "It's important. I can't have it..."
I take a step toward her, but there still seems to be endless dimensions of blue between us, separating us like an unsurpassable void. A void I feel in my heart. "How can we? I'm imprisoned."
"Are you okay? How are they treating you?"
"I'm fine," I respond, touched by her concern.
"Good. We're busting you out," she says, a dangerous glint in her eyes. It scares me.
"Snowheart, if you dare risk your life for me, I'll kill you," I say, glaring at her.
Her whiskers twitch infuriatingly. "Ooooh, I'm so scared. You can't stop me Blackfire. We're getting you out of there. Here. Whatever. One more thing," she adds.
"What?" I whisper, leaning forward.
With a jolt, I sit up. Looking towards the exit of the den, I see bursts of bright green and blue lighting up the dark sky like fireworks. Springing to my paws, I race outside. With a groan, I say, "She shouldn't have."
But, like I know she would, she has. And I have to save her before it's too late.
She doesn't seem to hear me. Her eyes are closed, and she's hovering in midair, surrounded by a cloud of blue. With a jolt of fear, I remember what happened to her last time she used her powers. When this is done, even if Ivystar doesn't kill her, she won't have strength to get out of here.
"Blackfire!" a voice hisses from right next to me. I turn to find myself looking at Night. "Come on. We don't have much time. Follow me."
"I have to stay and help her!" I say fiercely.
Her ears flatten. "There's nothing you can do, and if you put yourself at risk, you make this whole mission pointless. Now come on!"
I dig in my claws and shake my head stubbornly.
"Oh for crying out loud." Blackstorm climbs up beside me. The two she-cats exchange a look. The next thing I know, they both have their teeth in my scruff and are dragging me away, like a hapeless kit. Except I'm not a kit.
"Let me go!" I yowl, kicking and clawing. A few of Ivystar's cats raise their heads, staring in disbelief at the grown tom being dragged away in disgrace. My face goes red, but I don't stop fighting. At least they're too shocked and sleepy to attack us.
"What do you hope to do?" Blackstorm hisses unsympathetically. "You'll probably just get caught between them and get yourself killed."
I twist my head to see what's going on. Ivystar is panting and reeling back from a blow, but she recovers with amazing speed, sending a jet of green energy towards Snowheart. Snowheart doesn't budge though. Her eyes are completely orbs of blue, with no pupil whatsoever. Sparks of blue-green shoot into the air, producing screams when they touch some nearby cat's fur.
"This is a headlock," I say. "Neither one's going to win or lose, till they both drop dead."
"Unless..." Blackstorm tiltes her head to the side. Then she bounds forward. "Snowheart! You can do it! Remember Sageheart! Think of Ashsong! Ivystar must pay!"
The change is instantaneous. The blue overcomes the green like it's swallowing it whole, and Ivystar is thrown backwards, along with several other cats. Snowheart drops to the ground, coughing up blood. Blackstorm shrieks most uncharacteristically, and I race forward to her side. Whisperpelt takes the other flank, and we hoist her up.
"Stop them-" Beetlefur's shout is punctuated by a gurgle as Pinecloud slices his throat open with razor sharp claws.
Before I can stare at her in disbelief, she screams, "Go!"
Supporting Snowheart between us, we make a beeline out of the camp, and no one tries to stop us. For now. Because I know Ivystar. And she'll have her revenge. We can count on it.
I sit on the edge of the rocks, gazing up at the moonlit sky. Every bone in my body aches, but I can't get to sleep. Nervous anticipation is keeping me up, which is the reason I volunteered to keep guard tonight. That, and any more time seeing Snowheart sprawled on the floor unconcious and I would scream.
"Blackfire?" A soft voice I'd know anywhere sounds from behind me. I turn and there she is, looking almost see-through in the silvery light, like she's so fragile a wisp of wind could blow right through her.
"Snowheart," I say, taking her in.
She smiles and sits down beside me, a few inches apart. "I hope you forgive me for disobeying your orders."
I shrug. "No, but we're working on it." Glancing towards her, I add, "You're alive. That's all that matters now."
"Of course I'm alive," she says matter-of-factly, but there's a tremor in her voice. Almost indistinguishably, she whispers, "It's not my time to die yet."
For a moment I just stare at her. "What?"
A lone tear slips down her cheek; without thinking, I lick it away. "I talked to StarClan Blackfire. Ivystar and I are linked by the White Ivy. We each have half of it. It's keeping us alive now, slowly consuming more and more of us. Which means... If I kill her, I die too. I'll destroy myself. I have to. It's the only way to get the White Ivy back where it belongs, and get rid of her for good."
"No," I whisper. "No, that can't be true."
"It is," she says miserably. "I'm sorry Blackfire. I wouldn't mind it so much if... if death didn't mean losing you." Without warning, my precious, strong, sweet Snowheart buried her face in my shoulder and began to sob.
I didn't know what to say, so I just stroked her with my tail till her sobs quieted. When she lifted her face, it was streaked with tears. "Blackfire..."
"Snowheart," I say, gazing into those soulful blue eyes. "I love you. I could never lose you. We can't let this happen."
Her jaw drops, and she shakes her head slowly. "I love you too. But there's no other way. We could never let our Clan suffer because of this. I have to go. It's the only way."
I close my eyes. I'd always dreamed of this moment, and now Snowheart has just told me she loved me. Why did it have to be like this? Why couldn't we have a happy ever after?
But we can't. I have to accept that. I have to be strong.
"Okay," I say quietly. "I'll let you go."
"Thank you. I think." She gets up, not looking at me. "I'll go tomorrow. Don't you dare tell the others. They don't need to know till it's too late, or they'll try to stop me. Promise?"
"Promise," I sigh. She smiles gently, nods, and goes back to sleep. I feel horrible, but it's for her own good. Let her go? As if.
"She's going to kill herself? What are we doing here?! I need to talk to that cat." Pinecloud punches a wall.
"Not exactly," I roll my eyes. "And we would be out of here by now if you guys hadn't taken an hour to rant about how stupid she is."
"Right," Aquapaw says, with surprising briskness for an apprentice. "Let's go."
We turn and head down the cliffside. Ahead, I can make out a pale shape: Snowheart, headed towards the SnowClan camp. My heart pounds in my chest, and not just with fear. Somehow, I know this is the final battle. Whether we like it or not, we're going to have to face down Ivystar and her gang today. And one side will have to win. If we lose, we'll be obliterated. Solution: Don't lose.
Even if we win, we'll have a task cut out for us. We'll have to sort out the remaining cats, deal with all their problems, reappoint a deputy and leader, make new warriors, remark the borders, get rid of unruly rogues, explain why their leader is dead... I shake my head. I have to focus on the battle now. The rest we'll worry about later.
"Okay," Heatpaw says. "Don't call me a downer or anything. But I really have no idea how we, being such a small group of cats, have a chance of defeating that giant group down there."
He has a point.
"Leave it to Snowheart," Pinecloud says. "She can take care of all of them, but she won't kill all of them. Just keep them back. We'll keep any fiesty ones from touching her while she fights Ivystar."
"What if she isn't strong enough?" Whisperpelt says softly. "What if she can't defeat Ivystar on her own, without... you know."
"Not a possibility," Pinecloud says hotly, but we all know it is. All we can do is hope that it won't happen.
Suddenly, Summerpaw looks up. The empty look she's had in her eyes ever since her mother died in front of her vanishes temporarily, replaced by urgency. "She's reached the camp. Hurry guys!"
We break into a run, paws pounding the uneven slope, straight towards what could very well be the end of us.
Summerpaw, the fastest, reaches the camp first, skidding over the overhang and landing on her paws in the midst of a bunch of stunned cats. I follow. Snowheart is standing facing Ivystar, but when she hears us she turns and pales visibly. Ivystar looks positively delighted at this development.
"Blackfire! How could you?" Snowheart screams.
I'm stung, but I try not to show it. "It's to save your life, Snowheart."
"Aw, tough break sis," Ivystar says. It surprises me to hear her say that; I guess I'd almost forgotten they were sisters. "Now all your friends will watch you die."
Snowheart narrows her eyes, and I can tell she's dying to tell her sister that if she dies, so will Ivystar, but she's too smart for that.
"There has to be some way to stop this," Whisperpelt says under her breath.
"There is. Only you know how, Blackfire."
I freeze, glancing about. No one else seems to have heard the quiet voice, or felt the rush of freezing cold air. Which can only mean one thing: it was a StarClan cat. But who? The voice sounded faintly familiar for some reason, like I had known the cat once upon a time. I rack my brains for who it could be, but come up empty-pawed.
But I have to figure out who she is. Because Snowheart's life depends on it.
Sniffing the air, I make out a vaguely leafy tang to the iciness. Kind of like... mint. Mint. My eyes pop open. Of course! "Spiritsky," I whisper.
"Yes. I knew you'd figure it out. There is a prophecy Blackfire. You are part of it. Within the purest snow, lies a traitor and a taint. Black fire burns brightest when doused with frozen flakes. Ivy must rise, yet fall at will. Together two enemies conquer the stone they both hold within snow. Yet battle must reign, again and again'."
"Black fire," I say aloud in a soft voice.
Whisperpelt glances at me. "What was that?"
"Nothing," I mumble. The prophecy sounded clear enough. Battle. That was pretty clear. But what about the tie between the White Ivy? And what could I do to stop it? I reach out for Spiritsky, but her presence is gone. I shudder, wondering how she died. Ivystar no doubt. Her "disappearance" was obviously a trap.
"What now?" Thornfur says from near Ivystar. She glares at him, and the long furs on her pelt start to float in the air, a faint green pulsing from her. Snowheart responds by doing the same. Slowly, we watch as both cats' pupils are swallowed up, and their paws lift from the ground.
"Casper," Ivystar hisses. "Wipe out the others." Then her spirit disappears under the heavy mantel of green.
The dark gray tom with different-colored eyes that I saw before steps forward. Near me, I feel Night tense, her eyes locking with his. "Who is he?" I whisper.
"He was- is, my brother," she says quietly. "And now he's my enemy."
Before I can murmur a word of sympathy, Casper yells, "Charge!" And we're suddenly battling for our lives.
The good news is, not all of Ivystar's cats attack us. Some are lying stunned on the floor after getting hit by one of Ivystar or Snowheart's bullets. Others look plain scared. A few are running helter-skelter away from the camp, skittering further down the slope and into the woods. The bad news is, we're badly outnumbered even by the ones that do attack.
"Back to back!" yowls Blackstorm. I nod and squeeze closer to Pinecloud, lashing out with my claws with lightning speed.
A brown tom claws open a gash on my shoulder, screeching in rage. I clamp my jaws on his neck and fling him aside, but two more cats take his place. I can tell my friends are tiring too; their breathing is labored and their blood stains the floor underneath us, making it slippery. I try not to be sick.
Turning, I see that Aquapaw has been driven out of the circle. She's fighting like a shark surrounded by a million pihrannas, but she doesn't stand a chance. And there's no way I can get to her to help. With a sickening feeling, I watch as a large, heavy-muscled tom comes up behind her. His jaws open for the killing bite on her exposed throat. Then-
"No!" A blur of brown tabby fur shoots through the air and hits the tom square in the chest. He goes down with an earsplitting crash. It's Weaselclaw, ripping and tearing for all he's worth. I watch in disbelief as he affixes his jaws onto the tom's neck.
"Traitor!" The larger cat slashes at Weaselclaw's neck, but the light is dimming in his eyes. In a matter of seconds, his head falls back, limp, and he lies still.
Aquapaw stares at Weaselclaw like she's seeing him for the first time. "Father."
"Aquapaw." He's lying in a pool of his own blood, dark red and horrifying. Tears cloud the apprentice's large blue eyes as she crouches beside him and laps at the deep gash in his fur. "It's no use, daughter." Even from a distance, I can see how much each word costs him. "At least... tell Heatpaw and Summerpaw... sorry. Ashsong, I'm coming home. I never should've left you." And just like that, he's gone.
Aquapaw throws back her head with a wail, then turns on the first enemy cat she sees and ravages him. I feel as if a sword just cut through me, watching my friend die. At least he made the right choice in the end. Ashsong would've loved him all the more for it. She never truly gave up on him. I hope they're happy together in StarClan.
I hope they don't suffer like I might, if I lose Snowheart.
"That was... beautiful," Pinecloud says softly. All this while hanging on by razor-sharp claws to a tom's throat and kicking out at another one, hitting him straight on the head. With a start, I dive back into the fight. Suprisingly, we're not doing that bad. Snowheart is taking care of most of the cats, and a lot of them are gone by now. I guess that's where Ivystar failed: she never put together a good, loyal army, just cats that followed her out of fear. And maybe a little admiration.
But that's not enough.
Suddenly, a pelt, oddly blazing hot, yet still soft, brushes with mine. I turn in surprise. "Snowheart?"
"Yeah," she pants. Her face is streaked with grime, but a glow of fiery light still flickers in her eyes. "Ivystar's taking a breather, so I figured I might as well too. The truth is, I don't know how much longer I can keep up this fight. I'm ex- The powers are nearly exhausted, and..."
I gaze at her, wishing more then ever that I could take this burden off her shoulders. No matter what she says, it's obvious she's half-dead with the strain of fighting with the full force of the White Ivy. And yet... I shudder to think of what might happen if she gives up. Of what that would mean. She can't die. We have to find a way of stopping it, of saving her.
Spiritsky said I had the answer. But I don't. I can't do this.
Heatpaw emerges out of the fight near us. His dark red coat glistens with slick blood; I'm not sure whose it is, but I really hope it's not his. I couldn't stand it if one of Ashsong's kits died. They have no parents, and they need each other.
"Are you okay?" I ask the tom.
His eyes are wide. "No. It's Aquapaw. She's- She's really hurt."
Snowheart gasps, but just then we hear Ivystar roar, "Get back here coward! Or can't you fight any more? Just admit defeat then, Snowheart. It's over!"
"Never!" In a softer tone, Snowheart says, "Blackfire, go see to Aquapaw. Keep her safe." Then she's gone, propelled into the air by a fiery-hot burst of energy that blasts my fur and heats my skin.
I turn to Heatpaw, stifling the urge to leap after Snowheart and make her stay away from Ivystar, make her be safe. "Take me to Aquapaw."
He nods urgently and turns, weaving his way through the few remaining fighting cats. I knock a few toms out of the way as we progress, including Beetlefur; the raving lunatic was still clawing about to please Ivystar. Pathetic. I can't believe she ever thought I'd turn into one of her minions. As if.
When I see Aquapaw, my stomach flips over. She's lying on her side, her blue-gray fur streaked with blood, and more is bubbling out of a deep gash in her throat. Standing over her is Casper. Nearby, Night whirls and legs out a gasp. "How could you?"
"I- I didn't mean to," he stammers, his different-colored eyes huge with fear. Desperately, he licks the apprentice's blood off his paws, as if getting rid of the evidence will make this less of a crime. "Not to her." There's true pain in his eyes as he stares at Aquapaw, her breathing slowing. But I don't care.
Shoving him out of the way, I crouch beside Aquapaw. "Spiritksky," I whisper, not caring if I look insane. "If you still watch over your Clan, we could really use your help now. Please tell me what herbs I need."
My head shoots up, and I gaze about frantically. At first, all I see is the thorn bushes of what used to be the she-cat's den. Then I make out a few bright red berries on the black branches, berries I'm sure were never there before. "Thank you."
I pick several off the bushes, grind them up, and place them in Aquapaw's mouth. "Swallow," I say softly.
"Here," Heatpaw hands Night a large leaf, which the black she-cat wraps around his sister's wound.
"There," she says. "That should stop the bleeding." She looks up at Casper with a heartbroken expression on her face. Her brother just shakes his head, still looking stunned.
Just then, Aquapaw gives a weak cough, and opens her eyes. My knees go weak with relief. "She'll be okay." Which is more then I can say for Snowheart.
Leaving Heatpaw to care for his sister, and Night and Casper to figure things out, I turn and charge back into the fray, directly towards where Snowheart and Ivystar are battling. I have to help Snowheart. Somehow, in some way. If Spiritsky was right, I'm our side's last hope. Because if Snowheart dies, a part of me will die with her.
Snowheart is standing back, head down, sweat and blood running down her coat. She looks terrible, but Ivystar looks even worse. This puzzles me, as I thought they had equal sides of the White Ivy. But the silver she-cat is on her side, gasping for breath, her green eyes distant.
"Snowheart," I whisper, not stopping to analyze Ivystar's behavior. "You need to get out of here. We'll... We'll figure something out another time."
Her eyes meet mine, and I know what she's going to say before she says it. "I could never do that Blackfire. SnowClan is my Clan. I'll fight for it till my dying breath."
"But if you die, that won't get us anywhere. Besides, the White Ivy will die with you, and the warrior code-" I freeze at the look in her face. "No. You can't."
The smile she gives me is endearingly sad. "There's no other choice."
"They can't take you," I say grimly, determination welling inside me. "Spiritsky said there was a way to save you. A way I could save you."
She touches her muzzle briefly to mine. "There's no time for that. I'm sorry."
Mouth gaping, I watch her race back towards Ivystar. "No! Wait!" I charge after her, without another thought. This can't be happening.
"Spiritsky," I say under my breath. "I need your help. Please..."
At first, no answer. Then, "Love conquers all."
I stop in my tracks. "What? What's that supposed to mean?" All is silent, or as silent as the middle of a battle can be. I become aware of a swirling wind around my paws. It coils around my body, higher and higher. The world fades, and blackness covers my vision. I only have time to cry out one last time before I lose conciousness.
"What's going on?" I moan, scrambling to my feet. I'm surrounded by a woods that looks foreign, yet has a hint of familiarity, as if I saw it in the dream of a dream. Before I can figure out why I feel like I've been here before, I hear a voice call my name. Turning, I see Snowheart hurrying towards me, her navy eyes wide. Near us, another cat gets to her paws. Ivystar.
"Where are we?" Snowheart asks incredulously.
Ivystar's face registers shock as she studies our surroundings. "Oh... It can't be! How?"
I frown and look around again. Why is there something so homely about that tall oak tree, as if I knew it from somewhere...?
"I feel like I've been here before," Snowheart whispers, and I nod in agreement. Ivystar looks perplexed.
"Hello?" she calls. "Aurora? StarClan?"
I jump. "We're in StarClan?"
The confusion vanishes on her face, replaced by a classic look of disdain. "Of course not. We're not anywhere different. We're in a different time."
Snowheart blanches from next to me. "A different time?" My heart echoes her words with its pounding. Who brought us here? And why? Was it Spiritsky, or something more sinister? As I look around, I realize why everything seems so familiar. It's our territory. Our home. Only much, much younger. As far as I can tell, we're in the pine forest just beneath the mountain where our camp is. Some trees are smaller, others more healthy and less gnarled, but I can recognize all of them.
Beside me, I feel Snowheart tensing, her coat rippling over her taut frame. "I hear something..." she says.
The hair on the back of my neck stands up, as if being elevated by an invisible force. An aura of static forms around me before I even turn to see what causes it. When I do, I freeze.
Ivystar's jaw falls open. "It can't be..."
Snowheart seems to recognize the apparition moving towards us too. Her eyes bug out, and she starts trembling, pressing close against me for support. I'm too afraid to relish the feel of her small frame against mine.
The cat coming towards us is no normal StarClan cat. Her eyes are deep, hollow, bottomless pits inside her skinny head. She's abnormally large, and a deadness seems to cling to her fur, repulsing my nose and making me want to gag. Slowly, she turns to Ivystar. "I told you there would be complications."
The leader's mouth moves, but no sound comes out. It's Snowheart who speaks, and when she does, I don't recognize the name. "Aurora."
"What's left of her," the cat says, sitting down. She closes her eyes. "StarClan... Peace... I was such a fool."
Clearing her throat hoarsely, Ivystar says, "I don't know what you're talking about. You're supposed to be dead."
Letting out a raucous, blood-chilling laugh, Aurora mews, "Death! As if they would bestow such an honor on me! Such kindness they could never grant. They don't know the blessing of it." A single tear slips down her bony cheek, falling down onto the blackened leaves under her paws. "I tried so hard, and you, you ruined it all."
"Me?" Ivystar snaps. "You agreed to our deal."
I stare confusedly between the two she-cats. I have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, but I sense a storm brewing. Snowheart senses it too. Her eyes flame blue, and she moves closer to me, as if she wants to defend me. Mildly irritated by the thought, I push past her, determined to stand my ground, even if it gets me fried. Unfortunately, that looks like what's about to happen.
Though I get the feeling I should just keep my mouth shut, I can't. "What's going on?"
Aurora turns to me, and a shiver runs through me as I stare into her deadened eyes. Was this really once a cat?
But I know she was. Because I can feel her hurt. She's been stripped of almost everything else, but the one emotion remains, bitter and sorrowful. Despite my fear, I can feel my heartstrings being pulled. I don't know the exact story, but it looks like she's lost everything. And no cat deserves that.
Did Ivystar cause this?
Seeming to read my thoughts, Aurora says, "Yes, in part. I was the bearer of the full White Ivy before these two sisters,"- she jerks her head at Snowheart and Ivystar disdainfully- "came, claiming they had special ties with the stone. Which wasn't a lie, actually, but anyway. You see, StarClan entrusted me with the power of the White Ivy, to keep and protect. In order to do it, I had to make the ultimate sacrifice, and give up everything that made me me. I didn't think anyone could take the power from me as my White Ivy form. But you two are special. Between you, and another Vessel I believe, you managed to bear the full load. And you'll pay for that gravely."
Apparently without fear, Ivystar says, "How will you make us pay? You're just a shell of a cat."
Aurora's eyes start glowing. "Oh really, Ivystar? You know nothing about me. And for that, you all will die."
The next few seconds happen so fast, I barely have time to think. A blinding light covers all of us, and the next thing I know, the forest and mountain have vanished, and I'm suspended in what appears to be a neverending panorama of green and blue energy.
Fighting back a wave of panic - the last thing I need is for Snowheart to hear me screaming like a little kit - I glance around. "W- Where are we?" My voice comes out a squeak.
Snowheart links her tail with mine, and I'm too shocked to even blush. I just pull her closer. Nearby, Ivystar staggers to her feet, her eyes disfocused. Aurora is standing - or hovering would be more appropriate - over us all. She seems to have grown in size even more. The blue-green light sheds through her thin, almost translucently dull body, lighting her up as if she too is a Vessel.
With a tremendous amount of bravery, Snowheart raises her chin. "What have you brought us here for?"
A cruel sneer twists itself upon Aurora's face, highlighting how little of her old self there really is left. Now, all that's there is a hollow shell full of poisonous bitterness. "I think I made it obvious, little holder of the White Ivy. You and your sister must die. It's the only way to make things right."
I'm not sure how I manage to find my voice, but the next thing I know, I'm screaming, "You can't do that! That isn't right! Is this really what you want? To destroy others the way you've been destroyed?" Not that I have any qualms about getting rid of Ivystar, but even the mention of Snowheart's dying...
"Ah, Blackfire - that's your name, isn't it? - you know so little. Once you've been like this for so long, you're past caring about things like that. I just want to be allowed to die in peace."
I feel Snowheart tense behind me. Her voice whispers softly, "She's nuts, Blackfire, but I almost get what she's talking about. Just... just let me go. Ivystar will die too. It's the only way to make everything right."
"No!" I hiss. "Spiritsky said there was another way. That I could save you." I gaze intently into her deep blue eyes, sparkling in the light. "As long as there's hope, there's no way I'm giving you up."
She opens her mouth, but doesn't say anything. Before I have a chance to lose my courage, I whirl towards Aurora. "You can't have her."
Obviously amused by this, she tilts her head to the side. "And you're going to stop me, I presume?"
I hold her deadly gaze, which would be a lot easier to do if my stupid legs would stop shaking. "Yes."
Through all this, Ivystar has remained silent. She looks lost in thought, as if her mind is elsewhere. I figure she'd rather let us crash and burn while she thinks up a way to save her own skin. Great. So it's all on me.
Flicking her tail back and forth in an almost lazy manner, Aurora mews, "I'm sorry Blackfire, but the price must be paid. To end both Ivystar's reign of terror and my own displeasure, Snowheart and Ivystar must die. It's the only way to get rid of the White Ivy."
"No." I take a step forward. "Take me instead."
Two things happen at once. First, Aurora's grin intensifies ghoulishly. The light flickers across her face and making her look like some sort of specter. "Okay."
The second is Snowheart's scream. "Blackfire! No!"
As if she never spoke, Aurora continues, "But you don't have the White Ivy. What would killing you accomplish?"
I whirl on Snowheart. The look on her face is determined. "No."
"You have to! Snowheart, think of all your friends. They don't want you to die. And neither do I. Please. You have to let me do this."
Ivystar's sneering voice cuts into our conversation. "How about this? You both die, and I get off scott-free."
Unbelievably, I'm tempted to take the offer. Wouldn't it be better to die with Snowheart than live wihout her?
As if reading my mind, Snowheart mews, "As if!" She turns back to me, her eyes shimmering with tears. "Blackfire, I'm sorry, but this is my destiny. You've just been pulled into it because of me."
"Because I want to help you," I say, too distraught to filter my words. "Because I lo-"
"That's it!" Aurora yells. "I've had enough of this. It's time for the ultimate showdown." She waves a paw, and the energy around us starts concentrating. The force of it makes my chest hurt; I close my eyes, gasping for breath. Snowheart and Ivystar fare better, probably because of their connection with the White Ivy. However, black spots start dancing in front of my vision, and I think, Is this how I'll die, without even being a hero?
The next thing I know, a blue orb surrounds me and Snowheart. It's obviously costing her; I can see the strain etched on her face, though she tries to hide it. "Stop it, Aurora!" she yells. "Let him go! This isn't his fight!"
I get to my paws. It's easier to breathe inside the orb, though my chest still hurts, and there's no way I'm letting Snowheart kill herself to keep it up. "Let it go Snowheart. I'm not worth it."
She closes her eyes as if to block out my words. Despair settles into my bones. Vaguely, I wonder what's going on in the real world. How are our friends holding up? What do they think is happening to us?
"Blackfire," Snowheart says through gritted teeth. "The prophecy. Ivy must rise yet fall at will."
I stare at her uncomprehendingly. She sighs heavily. "Toms. Don't go anywhere." Her voice trembles slightly. "I- I love you, Blackfire." She touches her nose to mine, sending a bolt of electricity down my spine.
"Wait!" I cry.
The next thing I know, she's gone out of the orb, making her way towards Ivystar. The two sisters aren't fighting, for once, just talking intently. Though I prick my ears and listen closely, I can't hear anything through the hazy walls of the protective orb Snowheart made around me. Snowheart and Ivystar have turned toward Aurora. Ivystar looks cross, and Snowheart looks determined. Too late, I realize what's happening.
Through the glow of the orb, I see Aurora reel back a paw, her eyes glowing dangerously as the power of the White Ivy compresses around Ivystar and Snowheart, making them perfect targets. Red blurs my vision. This can't be happening. Spiritsky said I could stop it.
Without thinking, I race forward. When I touch the orb, a fiery burning sensation spreads through my limbs, making me want to cry out. Ignoring the pain, I gather all my strength and break through the orb, out into the field of energy.
The effect is instantaneous. My legs turn to jelly, and pain radiates through my body. It's all I can do to stagger a few steps through the thickly condensed energy. I collapse heavily against Snowheart, which isn't exactly how I had planned my rescue, but oh well.
Her eyes widen in shock. "Blackfire, what are you doing?"
"Too bad, so sad. Looks like you'll all die!" Aurora's mad cackle fills the air.
I just have time to dive in front of Snowheart before there's a blinding flash of white, tinged blue and green around the edges. Screams of agony fill the air, and then everything goes black.
Am I dead?
Every single part of me aches with unspeakable pain(though if I were to speak it, my words would go something along the lines of, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"). When I open my eyes - which takes the effort it would normally cost me to move a mountain - black spots dance before my vision for a solid minute. As they finally clear away, I make out several familiar faces staring down at me, concern lighting their eyes. It's night outside, a clear winter sky with a sprinkling of stars looking down at me. The cool bite of the air helps clear my head.
Whisperpelt is the one who responds, her olive eyes sympathetic. "She's..."
I stagger to my feet, almost screaming at the burst of fire that erupts in my brain, dizzying me with its intensity. Night looks on with concern in her eyes; I notice that Casper is standing next to her. He looks calm and peaceful, like he knows he's made the right decision. I'm glad he's made his sister happy, but at this point, only one cat occupies my thoughts. And she's lying in the middle of the camp, limp, pale, and ever so still.
"No, no, no, no..." I'm hardly aware of anything else as I crouch down beside Snowheart. Her eyes are closed; nearby, Ivystar lays in a similar pose.
Aquapaw stifles a sob from nearby. I'm thankful that she looks better now; the berries must have worked. But if Spiritsky wanted to help so much, why couldn't she tell me how to save Snowheart? A tear rolls down my cheek, going unchecked. I don't care about things like appearing macho at a time like this.
"But I did tell you, Blackfire. And you did save her."
With a gasp, my head shoots up. The ghostly form of our old medicine cat is standing in front of me, her blue eyes warm and sympathetic. Pinecloud gasps and whispers, "Spiritsky. So it's true. You really died, all those moons ago."
For a second, a flicker of pain appears on her serene face. "Yes. Ivystar killed me. That isn't the point now, though. The point is, Blackfire, you did save Snowheart."
I glance at Snowheart's body. "No, I didn't! She's gone!"
"That's what you think." She steps forward and touches her nose to Snowheart's body. I hold my breath, waiting. Nothing happens. The light in Spiritsky's eyes dies a little. A frown creases her brow. "That's odd... Perhaps it's not enough..."
"Why isn't it enough?" cries Blackstorm. I'm shocked to hear the real fear in her voice. I didn't know the cranky old she-cat actually cared for her old apprentice. But then again, it's impossible not to fall in love with Snowheart. I learned that the hard way.
"Perhaps I can help." Another StarClan warrior emerges, a brown tabby she-cat with a glossy coat and a spring in her step. Disbelief fills me. No way. It can't be.
"Sageheart?" I stammer.
Her gaze fills with kindness and sorrow as she looks me over. "Blackfire... You really do care for her, don't you? I couldn't stay on earth to help you, but perhaps I can help you with this." She walks over to Snowheart's prostrate body and touches her nose to the she-cat's fur. Spiritsky does the same. I wait impatiently, hope swelling in my chest till it hurts.
A shiver ripples through Snowheart, filling it with blue light. I leap backwards, but something's different. This isn't the White Ivy. It's the cold chill of StarClan. I gape in awe as Snowheart opens her eyes; for a second they burn the brightest blue, and she speaks in an odd voice, "A sacrifice, a sacrifice... that you were willing to make. Beware, beware, the earth will shake. The one who has no heart shows... life can grow where nothing goes."
She lets out a choked sound, and her head falls backward. I dive underneath her, pillowing her fall. Her eyes meet mine. For a long moment, I can't breathe; I'm paralyzed by her. Then, "You're alive."
"Of course, silly. I wouldn't die on you," she purrs.
At that moment, I know I don't care what anyone else sees or thinks. All I can see is Snowheart, the way the moonlight catches the silver and dark gray swirls in her milky fur, the way her eyes refract light like the facets of a sapphire, and I feel the words rising in my throat before I can stop them. "I love you."
They hang in the air between us like bittersweet notes. I know there's no going back now. I've laid it all down. If she doesn't feel the same way...
"Blackfire!" she screeches, pummeling me with her paws and making us both topple over backwards. I start in surprise, staring up at her, when I see the smile on her face. "I can't believe it took you that long to say it!"
I grin helplessly. "Well, you know I'm a little slow. Besides, you can't just assume everyone's in love with you." (No doubt she sees right through that big fat lie).
"Yes, yes I can." She gets to her paws, and so do I. The others are staring at each other with bemused smiles. I probably look like an idiot with my face split in half by a grin, but I don't care.
For the first time, I take in the rest of the SnowClan camp. It's honestly not as bad as I thought it would be, given all I'd just witnessed. I guessed Ivystar and Snowheart were the real key factors in determining the fate of SnowClan. But that's still rocky...
"Is she dead?" I gesture to Ivystar.
Pinecloud frowns. "Not that I'm complaining, but how come Ivystar died and Snowheart didn't? Was it because of you guys?" She nods towards Spiritsky and Sageheart, who were about to leave.
"No," Spiritsky says softly. "It was Blackfire. Love is a force more powerful than any other. Even more powerful than the warrior code and the White Ivy."
Looping her tail through mine, Snowheart murmurs for my ears only, "So true." Spiritsky and Sageheart nod at us, then vanish in a burst of stardust.
"What now?" asks Heatpaw.
Good question. I look around at the others. "Where did all of Ivystar's followers go?"
Relief is clear on Blackstorm's face. "Most of them just left, thank StarClan. Beetlefur, Thornfur, and a couple of other fox-hearts tried to grovel and beg mercy, but I chased them off. It was kind of sad, to be honest."
"Phew. So... who's left?"
Night speaks up. "A few of my rogue friends. Or... former rogues. They'd like to join SnowClan, if it's all right. They were kind of under orders to join Ivystar and..."
"We get it. Besides, we'll need all the cats we can get. It'll take a lot of teamwork and effort to put SnowClan back together," I say.
A mischevious smile appears on Snowheart's face. "And we need someone to lead us."
I blink at her, then grin back. "Exactly."
"You." We say the word at the same time, laugh, and then start yelling our heads off.
"YOU WERE THE ONE WHO SAVED MY LIFE!"
"YOU SAVED THE ENTIRE CLAN!"
"Guys, both of you stop it," Pinecloud laughs. "We'll settle this the democratic way."
"You look stunningly handsome."
"I hate you."
"They'll love you."
"I hate you."
"I'll bet they're tripping over each other to get a glimpse of their new leader."
"I hate you."
Snowheart bats her eyelashes. "Do you mean that?"
An overwhelming purr rumbles in my throat. "No." I touch my nose to hers and step out onto the ledge. The StarStone was reformed and delivered by StarClan; it now resides at the very top of the cliff, instead of underground. Everything feels right again. Even this.
I step out of the leader's den, Snowheart by my side. When they see me, the newly-remade SnowClan erupts into cheers. "Blackstar! Blackstar! Blackstar!"
I smile. Yes, I could give a long speech about how Ivystar's reign of terror is finally over, and how the White Ivy is gone, and how love conquers all. But why bother?
This, this is true perfection.
Sequel Series: Devastating Desire