The moon hung low and heavy over Highstones, hovering so closely above a sharp spire of rock that Icestar half wondered if it would burst and shower the earth below in a shimmering cloud of moondust.
Icestar shook her head, dispelling such kit-like fantasies. This was no time for daydreaming. It would soon be moonhigh, and there was quite a distance yet to travel before they reached Highstones. A few paces behind her, Whitefoot was helping Shortwhisker to navigate the tufts of grass speckling the windswept moors of WindClan territory. The old medicine cat was breathing heavily, but he moved quickly enough to make good time. Icestar wasn't worried about making it back to ThunderClan before sunrise. Shortwhisker wouldn't slow her down on the way back.
"Is everything all right?" she asked graciously, pausing to allow Shortwhisker some time to catch up. Whitefoot was being gently attentive, nudging him on when he slowed, pointing out dangerous footing, and supporting his shoulder when he stumbled. Icestar had never noticed before that there was any special friendship between the two cats, but it might explain Whitefoot's stubbornness and aversion to change. If there was any warrior who displayed the same iron adherence to tradition as the ancient medicine cat, it was Whitefoot. And Icestar loathed her for it. Why live in the past when the future was so much more exciting, held so much more promise? For StarClan's sake, these elderly fools couldn't even imagine the brilliance of the future she had in store for them. Not that it mattered, as neither of them was bound to catch a glimpse of it, except from the endless hunting lands high above them.
"Just my old bones slowing us down," grumbled Shortwhisker, and Icestar gave a sympathetic mewl.
"Don't worry, Shortwhisker. We've got plenty of time. And lucky for us, it seems like WindClan won't even show up to slow us down."
The heather swaying on either side of them was suspiciously empty. Icestar scented no patrols approaching from far away. It might be just their luck that the patrols had simply negelected this patch of territory on this particular night, but Icestar was not so sure. Guststar's mind was going quickly, and Swiftfoot was little more than a glorified caretaker for the ailing leader. No one was leading WindClan now. No cat was ordering patrols or making sure borders were marked. The Clan was falling apart, and Icestar was delighted.
When they finally reached Hightstones, Shortwhisker flopped to the dust outside the entrance to the tunnel leading to the Moonstone. Whitefoot gave his pelt a few concerned licks, and then looked to Icestar for instructions. It wouldn't be uncommon for Icestar to invite the old warrior into the tunnel with her, as protection from anything that might creep up while she communed with StarClan, but Icestar's pelt prickled at the thought of Whitefoot standing over her while her mind wandered elsewhere.
"Stay here with Shortwhisker," Icestar ordered. "See that he has everything he needs. I won't be long."
Whitefoot nodded and bent down to murmur something in Shortwhisker's ear. Icestar did not stay to learn what it was. She dipped her head into the tunnel trance, pausing as her eyes adjusted quickly to the shadows, and then slipped into the tunnel. Her paws padded noiselessly on the cool stone and her whiskers twitched constantly, telling her how wide the stone walls stretched in front of her, where the turns in the tunnel were, and how far ahead the shadows extended. When she caught a glimpse of silvery light ahead, she broke into a run. The Moonstone appeared suddenly, massive and white as snow, as pure as her pelt. She approached it cautiously, still filled with awe even though it was not her first meeting with the mysterious object. When she remembered her nine lives ceremony, pain pricked at her paw pads, but she shook it off without a second thought.
Some quiet seconds pass while Icestar waited with her head lying on the edge of the Moonstone. The light streaming through the gap in the stones overhead seemed to move with exaggerated slowness across the stone in front of her, creeping towards its zenith, when the entire chamber would be lit with glittering white light. While she waited, Icestar pondered.
The plan was nearly reaching completion. As though placing apprentices in their places before sending them off on a hunting competition, Icestar imagined lifting cats by the scruffs of their necks and dropping them in allotted places throughout the four territories. Eelshadow in the RiverClan camp (with Floodstar floating down the river, away from them forever). Raggedpelt in the ShadowClan camp, enjoying the undying loyalty of all his warriors. Redwhisker standing over the WindClan moors, with the scrawny rabbit-eaters quivering at her feet, bereaved of their aging leader and useless deputy. And herself, of course, on the Great Rock at Fourtrees, towering over them all, her pelt shining as brightly as the Moonstone.
Before she had even noticed, the moonlight had filled the cavern and Icestar had floated gently into a peaceful sleep. Her dreams came quickly and easily, like the swift flow of an icy stream winding its way through her thoughts. She let them carry her for a while, enjoying pleasant visions of green meadows and sun-lit oak forests, of bees buzzing around a flowering bush and a squirrel twirling an acorn in its paws. Gradually, the speed of the visions increased, until what had been a gently flowing stream seemed somehow to have become an angry, raging river that swept Icestar along its path without her control, tossing her from bank to bank, threatening to drag her under. Just when she feared she was going to drown, and she could practically feel icy water filling her lungs, the dream journey ended abruptly, and Icestar found herself standing in a dark forest.
The Place of No Stars. Icestar looked up, and confirmed her guess. The sky, where it peeked between the tops of tall, scraggly pine trees, was as black as Eelshadow's glistening pelt. StarClan did not come here, and Icestar knew she was alone. The Moonstone had failed her. Her ancestors did not want to speak to her tonight, though she needed desperately to speak to them. It was no use. This was a clear sign of their continued silence. Whether or not they disapproved of her actions, of the kit-stealing, the lying, the killing, the conniving, Icestar didn't know. It wasn't as if she was doing it all for personal gain, as she believed Eelshadow probably was. No, she was doing all of this for the good of the Clan alone. She may have started life as a useless kittypet, but Icestar was determined to leave her Clan the strongest it had ever been, stronger than any other Clan in the forest. It wasn't just Icestar that would take her place as the rightful ruler of all four Clans in the forest, but the entirety of ThunderClan as well. They were stronger and smarter than the others. Bigger and faster than RiverClan, taller and braver than WindClan, wiser and gentler than ShadowClan. What all the other Clans lacked, ThunderClan had, and so it was that Icestar would place them where they had always belonged: above the others. The best.
The metallic smell of blood hit the roof of her mouth before Icestar caught a glimpse of the black cat creeping out of the shadows. The small creature was a she-cat with cold yellow eyes, and she smelled strongly of new-spilled blood, as though she had just torn open the belly of a fresh piece of prey. Hunger stirred in Icestar's empty stomach, filled only with weak herbs meant to stave off cramps. It seemed their strange magic had no effect here. She was ravenous.
Wondering if the black she-cat might share her prey, even in this desolate place, Icestar moved quietly through the bushes towards her. When she was almost on top of the cat, it finally turned and started, leaping away from Icestar and bristling.
"Who in the name of everything dead are you?" snapped the black cat, looking truly terrified of Icestar crouched between gray-hued ferns.
"Icestar, leader of ThunderClan," she answered, seeing no reason to keep her identity a secret from the black cat. After all, the Place of No Stars wasn't real. Nothing could harm her here except the mental agony of her failures, and she had suffered through plenty enough of that in the real world already.
"Well, what did you do to get stuck in here, Icestar, leader of ThunderClan?" meowed the she-cat incredulously. The longer Icestar looked at her, the more apparent it became that the black cat had not just sat down to eat. She was gaunt and thin-furred, and her eyes had the hollow look of starvation. The blood smell was coming from the pads of her feet, which Icestar could tell were matted with fresh red blood.
"I'm not stuck here. I'm just dreaming."
A sudden change came over the starving creature. Its eyes grew wide and hungry, and it gathered itself up to its full height, stretching its pelt over the stripes of its ribs. It left off whatever it was doing, scraping at the leafy ground or poking its nose around in the bushes, and began to circle Icestar menacingly. She could see the wiry muscles roll under its skin and the tendons clench and release in its thin legs. The cat was tiny and weak, but still powerful.
"Dreaming," it hissed. Icestar felt the gentle tug of fear in the pit of her empty stomach. Yes, she was dreaming, but as she knew full well, pain could still be felt just as acutely in dreams.
"Who are you, and what you doing here?" she demanded, trying to distract the creature from whatever sinister goal had suddenly come into its mind.
"My name is Dreamstalker," said the cat. "I've lived here for a very, very long time. You know there's no escaping the Place of No Stars. Not that I haven't tried."
Icestar glanced again at the cat's bloody paws, and felt a chill begin to creep down her spine and a pounding headache settle place between her ears. She didn't usually feel threatened by the cats she encountered on her visits to StarClan, but this was different. This time, the fear came from memory.
"We've met before," she murmured, and turned in a slow circle to keep her eyes on the black cat's willowy form, weaving in and out of the ferns as she circled Icestar warily. At this revelation, Dreamstalker paused and cocked her head, her eyes dancing in the way that Icestar remembered. "At the edge of the meadow. You followed me out of here."
The black cat was silent for a long moment, and then she shrugged. "I don't have a good memory for faces. Besides, when you spend forever in a place like this, it's easy to lose track of time. I don't remember you."
"The Guardian chased you back. He said you didn't belong in StarClan. What did you do? Why are you here?" pressed Icestar. It seemed a good idea to keep the cat talking, at least until Icestar could formulate a plan to escape from the Place of No Stars.
The black cat's lip curled as Icestar spoke the name of the giant warrior who guarded the boundary with StarClan. "Guardian," she spat, her yellow eyes flashing. "Now that's a face I can never forget. And a stench too." Her pink nose wrinkled. Icestar tried to mask her confusion with an icy glare, and repeated her question.
"Why are you here?"
Dreamstalker shivered, and sat down. The playful light that Icestar remembered from their long ago meeting on the edge of StarClan's verdant green had come and gone quickly from her eyes. However it was possible, it seemed that time had begun to weigh on the poor creature.
"I hardly remember," she muttered, and cast her eyes off into the shadows, as if staring after her past as it faded further into the gray distance. "Murder, probably."
Icestar shifted uncomfortably on her haunches. Murder? Was that enough to banish her to the Place of No Stars forever? StarClan had known about her choice to let Cinderstar die when they granted her nine lives. It wasn't as if she had been so pure to begin with, and she hadn't tried too hard to keep her paws clean since then. The long list of crimes she had committed stared her in the face, but she blinked it away. No matter. She was a leader, she had her lives. StarClan couldn't very well take them away, and she would use them as she saw fit, as they had given her the right to do when they permitted her to change her name.
"Who did you kill?" she persisted. So she was determined not to worry about her future, but that didn't mean she wasn't still curious about the path that might have led Dreamstalker to this StarClan-forsaken place.
"Well…" the black cat trailed off and began to draw circles in the dust with her blood-stained forepaw. Her eyes had become clouded, and for the first time Icestar realized with a horror-stricken jolt that the she-cat closely resembled the black wraith that had chased her through her nightmare in which she, Stonepelt and Sparrowtail had been trapped in the belly of a giant snake. She heard the death creature's words echo in her pounding skull.
What do you dream of, Heart of Ice? the black cat had asked, and she had answered, Dying.
"It was an accident." Dreamstalker seemed prepared to give up her secrets now, but Icestar was less sure she wanted to hear them. Could these two be the same cat? The name made more sense now. Dreamstalker. Had this pitiful creature been chasing her through dreams for so long? Icestar wished she had a better idea of what the creature wanted, what she was looking for. Not simply a way out, she thought, a free pass to the green meadow. There must be more. A sickening feeling of apprehension grew thick and hot in Icestar's throat, and she began to look around, searching desperately for anything resembling an escape route. As she well knew, there was nothing but black forest in every direction. There was no escaping the Place of No Stars except at StarClan's will, and Icestar was beginning to wonder if her warrior ancestors were simply ignoring her.
"Well, mostly." Dreamstalker flicked her tail, and the fog seemed to lift from her eyes. She rose to her feet and began to circle, stepping lightly, almost gaily, while she told her bone-chilling tale.
"I had kits, you see. Two little kits: Berry and Cloud. Such stupid names," she spat. "They were so tiny." Then she smiled sadly, but her fangs poked out under her lip and gave the smile an eerie cruelty. "When winter began, and it was so, so cold, I had to choose. Myself or the kits. I couldn't feed us all. So I chose." She shrugged. "It was only at the very end of the winter that Bitterstar found me and took me in, and by then I had already done it. Too late, too late." She shook her head, her expression grim but her eyes full of a devious light.
"You killed them." The cold had taken hold of Icestar's limbs. It held her, freezing her paws to the earth, preventing her from leaping forward and clawing out the creature's eyes. "Your own kits. You killed them."
"Kill or be killed," hissed Dreamstalker. "You understand that."
"No! A mother's love for her kits-"
Dreamstalker cut her off with a sharp shake of her head. "What of it? What is it for, except survival? And what is survival? What was I supposed to do, die of starvation myself, so that they would live for a few moons more, and then die all the same?"
"You could have given them up. A Clan would have taken them in." She could not help but think of herself, though the memory burned almost as strongly as the ice spearing through her veins. Ice and fire, she thought wryly. They burn as one.
"Not then. Not most Clans. Most Clans would have killed a rogue's kits. They very nearly would have killed me, if Bitterstar hadn't recognized my potential." Dreamstalker drew herself up. "He saw my scars, and he heard my story, and he made me his deputy." Then her sharp face fell again. "Until…"
"More?" Icestar growled, incredulously. What worse crime could the she-cat could have committed beyond murdering her own kits to save herself.
The white fangs poked out again, and Dreamstalker smiled. "Well, once you've tasted a thing, it keeps coming back to haunt you. Like Twoleg food, or pigeon."
Frost seemed to cling to Icestar's whiskers. She wanted to turn away, to tune out the black cat's lilting words, but she was paralyzed with cold. She could not even feel her paws, yet she could feel acutely the drumming of her heart in her chest, thunderous with fear and dismay.
"Bitterstar would have made me step down. He wanted kits so badly, and he wouldn't have let me shove them off on another queen. That wasn't his way. They needed their own mother, he would say to me when I tried to argue. They need you. But it was going to ruin everything." Dreamstalker met Icestar's gaze with frank yellow eyes, unclouded, rich and glowing. "Everything I had worked for. I know you. You understand. I've watched you."
Without explanation, Dreamstalker darted into the brush. She was gone for a long moment before she reappeared and beckoned urgently to Icestar. "Follow me, there's something I want to show you." She disappeared again. Icestar shook herself, and the cold seemed to shatter as she lunged after the black she-cat, leaping through the ferns in hot pursuit. She chased Dreamstalker under the faint shadows of the pine trees along some unmarked path. No smells wafted through the air to tell her where they were heading. The air itself tasted stale and bland, as though no breeze had ever stirred it. The earth was flat beneath her paws, without a hint of other pawprints or animal tracks. The Place of No Stars was the loneliest place imaginable. It was no wonder Dreamstalker had lost her mind.
They stopped suddenly at the edge of a clear pool that emerged abruptly from the trees. The surface of the water was eerily still, without any reflection of the nonexistent moon or stars. It was impossible to see how deep the water went, but Icestar got the feeling it was depthless. She shied away from the shore, terrified of getting her paws wet. Dreamstalker paced back and forth in front of the still water for a moment before sitting down and leaning close to the water. Her breath did not even ripple the surface. It remained as smooth as glass, independent of the outside world. It was wrong, and Icestar wished she had the courage to run away now, before Dreamstalker got any more ideas.
"I'll show you," whispered the she-cat. She bent even closer to the pool, and then touched her nose, just once, to the water. It did not stir, but a grayish light began to swirl over the surface, like mist roiling under the water. Icestar stayed as still as she could, staring anxiously at the water. Were they going to drown? If there was a type of death that she truly feared, it was drowning. "Just look. Closer." Dreamstalker beckoned her closer, and Icestar stepped forward once, twice, as slowly as a hunting heron.
"There!" Dreamstalker pointed with the tip of her tail, and Icestar watched as shapes began to coalesce in the watery mist. The longer she stared, the larger and clearer they became, until it was as if the creatures were right up in front of her face, and the rest of the world has disappeared.
A silvery gray tom was seated on the ThunderClan highrock, with a small black she-cat by his side. Bitterstar, Icestar somehow knew, and Dreamstalker. She wondered how long ago this had been, whether a few seasons or a hundred. She had never heard of a leader named Bitterstar, but then perhaps his memory was not a pleasant one for the Clan.
"I have grave news," Bitterstar said, and for the first time Icestar noticed that he looked very like Stonepelt, only paler, and with lighter-colored eyes. She shivered, and tried to look away, but the image held her gaze as stiffly as the mysterious ice held her paws. "There is a fox loose in our territory," announced the leader, and though Icestar could not see them, she heard the groans of despair from gathered warriors. She watched Dreamstalker, and saw the she-cats eyes flash once, just a hint of a spark. Her stomach grew heavy, and her whiskers quivered. No. She did not want to see this. She did not want to know.
"I do not want to share this news with you. I do not want it to be true. I-" The leader's voice actually broke as he spoke, and he blinked in confusion at his Clanmates. Grief layered his every word, an unspeakable grief that Icestar knew only too well from the pain of her nine lives ceremony. How could a cat not feel such grief? She looked again at Dreamstalker, and saw the same expression mirrored on her face as on her mate's, but an emptiness in her eyes that only a cat like Icestar could recognize. The emotion there was only a hastily kindled fire, burning for as long as needed before it was swallowed again by cold. The she-cat felt no remorse, no distress. Killed or be killed, her eyes said, while her mate wrestled with his pain on the stone beside her.
"The fox has killed two of our Clanmates." Gasps echoed through the clearing. Cats seemed to be looking around, suddenly anxious, trying to see which of their friends had disappeared without their notice. "Two kits." Now the gasps became wails of fear and anger.
"We'll kill it! We'll kill it!" Someone called, but Bitterstar silenced them with a sweep of his tail.
"Sootnose's kits are dead. We found them by the border with the Twolegplace early this morning, after they escaped camp during the night. I would ask that we all observe a moment of silence for Icekit and Firekit-"
With a heave of breath, Icestar roused herself abruptly from the dream, only to feel a heavy weight hanging on her shoulders and a sharp pain at the base of her neck. Yowling with fear and anger, she rolled onto her side and kicked at the thing gripping her scruff in its jaws. Her claws met resistance and she put all of her weight behind the kick, tearing into exposed skin. Shrieking, the cat let go of her and pulled away, only to return with swiping claws, aiming for Icestar's face. Spitting with rage, Icestar threw herself at her attacker, only noticing at the last second that it was Dreamstalker, flailing her already bloodied paws at Icestar's muzzle. She aimed jabs and nips at the she-cat until Dreamstalker began to turn away, and then grasped her hind leg firmly in her jaws and whipped her head back and forth until she heard the bone snap loudly. Dreamstalker howled and flopped onto the earth, scrabbling uselessly with her right hind leg in an attempt to flee.
"Were you trying to kill me?" Icestar demanded breathlessly, watching indifferently as the she-cat tried to lift herself with her forepaws and then dropped heavily back to the ground. Her fur was dirtied and blood was dripping from a deep gash in her belly.
"No," she moaned, flattening her ears against her head. "I just wanted… I just wanted to see them. Just to see." Her voice was suddenly thin and pathetic, nothing like her old snappy tones. She looked thoroughly beaten, but Icestar didn't trust her, and crouched close to the cat with a paw ready to press down on her throat if she tried to move again.
"What was that? Was I dreaming? How can I be dreaming when I'm already inside a dream?" Icestar demanded.
"It's called the Pool of Knowing," Dreamstalker said, her voice muffled by the mud. "It's the only way to look past the Place of No Stars, to see things that have happened, or are happening, and sometimes that haven't happened yet."
"It can tell you the future?" Icestar said, a hunger churning her stomach. Maybe it was just Shortwhisker's useless herbs.
"Not really. I don't know. Not to me, anyway. It only shows me one thing."
"Why did you attack me?" Icestar asked.
The misery in Dreamstalker's eyes was profound. She appeared to ignore Icestar's question, shifting her good hind leg and then dropping it again. "I can't see it anymore." She turned away, but not before Icestar caught another glimpse of that same white fog over her eyes, like blindness. "I can only see through another cat's eyes, now."
"I was punished. For trying to escape. They took the Pool away from me. It was all I had. They took it from me." Spirit returned to her voice for a just a second as she spat a curse on StarClan. "They stole it from me."
"Why did you show me the Pool?" asked Icestar. "Why did I see your past, and not my own?"
Dreamstalker's eyes narrowed as she glared at Icestar out of the corner of her vision. "It is your past. Don't you get it? You're thicker than I ever was."
"But your kits. You killed them. I'm not that Icekit. I'm a…" she swallowed, and then forced out the words, "I'm a kittypet." The words burned as they dropped off her tongue.
"Born a warrior, always a warrior. That's what my mother told me as a kit. I never knew why she left ShadowClan for the life of a rogue. Perhaps she thought my brothers and I would be better off in Twoleg nests, not that the stupid creatures ever took us in as she had planned. She left us on their doorstep, and then they tried to drown us. I was the only one who got out, and I was on my own ever since. But born a warrior, always a warrior, my mother told me. So I trained. I fought. I fought rogues and warriors. I killed my own kits to survive, and only then did they recognize my strength. Bitterstar took me in, and I knew that I could show him. I could show him just how strong a rogue could be. Nothing was going to get in my way, including kits. I would have been a bad mother anyway." She looked away.
"You killed your first two kits to survive leafbare, and then you killed Icekit and Firekit, just so you wouldn't have to give up being deputy?" Icestar couldn't mask her astonishment. "And how does this include me? I'm not your Icekit, if that's what you're thinking. I know who my mother is. A kittypet. Just some stupid kittypet. I wasn't born a warrior, I'm not like you."
"True, you're weaker," Dreamstalker hissed, and Icestar bristled, raising her paw to strike. The black she-cat wriggled quickly out of the way, and Icestar let her go, trying to breathe deeply and master her anger. "And you're not my Icekit. You're not a warrior. But this is your past as much as it is mine. It just isn't past yet."
Her words hung ominously in the air between them, until Icestar finally spoke. "It's my future?"
Dreamstalker raised herself on her front feet, letting her wounded hind leg remain splayed out in the mud. She cocked her head and watched Icestar for a long, quiet moment, before meowing softly, "Don't try to tell me you wouldn't do whatever it takes to see ThunderClan become the most powerful force in the forest."
Icestar was silent.
"And what do you think it will take, Icestar? What will you sacrifice? You saw what I did to hold on to my power."
"What happened, in the end?" Icestar murmured, ignoring her question. "What happened to you. How did you die? Not of old age, I'm assuming."
Dreamstalker's muzzle quirked in a sardonic smile. "No. It was Bitterstar who killed me, in the end. He was on his last life, the reckless mousebrain, and I had him in my claws. I didn't think I needed to lie anymore. I thought it was all over, that I had won. So I told him. About my mother, Berry and Cloud, and Icekit and Firekit. Other things too. I told him everything. It felt good to tell the truth, and to see him break right there in front of me when he learned just how deeply he had been deceived. You know the feeling, I think." She smiled.
Icestar knew the feeling, and it sickened her. "And then he killed you."
"And then he killed me. You know, I've spent a long time here with only myself for company, only my thoughts for conversation, and I still don't regret telling him. The look on his face was worth every season spent in this place."
Icestar backed away. She backed into the ferns, scrambled backwards until Dreamstalker's cloudy eyes had disappeared in the blackness, and then she turned and ran. She ran until her legs gave out beneath her, and then she lay on the frigid earth, letting the cold creep deep under her fur and into her bones. She relished it, let it consume her, and dove desperately into an icy sleep.
When she awoke, the Moonstone was dark, and Icestar was freezing. She could not move her paws. Her whiskers had frost crystals on their tips, even though it was the middle of greenleaf. Panic flared in her chest, and it was all Icestar could do to squeeze out a frightened yowl. Yet the instant the sound left her chest, she felt a surge of determination. The cry was so pathetic that she wanted to cringe in disgust with herself. Gritting her teeth, Icestar rose to her feet. The cold burned in her muscles as she stretched, and she let it. After all, Frostfire had said it was a part of her, so let it stay. Let it burn.
She turned as Whitefoot came scrambling down the dark tunnel. The old she-cat looked worried. Her whiskers twitched anxiously.
"Icestar? Is everything all right?"
Icestar's tail twitched. She gazed thoughtfully at Whitefoot, flexing her claws as the cold continued to prickle under her fur.
"Just a bad dream," Icestar purred, and smiled, taking a slow step forward. Whitefoot began to smile too, and then stopped.