The young cats who set off on a quest many moons ago have returned with a chilling message: The Clans must move to a new home, or risk extermination.
But the dangers waiting for them beyond their borders are impossible to predict, and the cats have no idea where to go. What they need is a sign from StarClan. . . .
"Spottedleaf!" Leafpaw called into the forest. There was no reply. Desperation rose in her belly like bile. The wise medicine cat had guided her many times before in dreams; if ever Leafpaw had needed Spottedleaf's help, it was now.
"Spottedleaf, where are you?" she called again.
The trees, heavy with leaf, did not tremble in the breeze. No prey-sound whispered in the shadows. The silence tore at Leafpaw's heart like a claw.
Suddenly an unfamiliar yowl echoed in her ears, forcing its way into her dream. Leafpaw opened her eyes with a jolt. For a moment she couldn't think where she was. Her fur was ruffled by a cold draught and instead of a soft mossy nest there was strange, cold, shiny web beneath her paws. She stood up in panic and more shiny web grazed her ears. Wherever she was, it was a very small space, hardly taller than her. Taking a deep breath, Leafpaw forced herself to look around, and everything came rushing back to her.
She was trapped in a tiny den, with walls, floor and roof made entirely from cold hard web. There was just enough space to stand and stretch, but no more. It was packed among other dens, lining every wall of a small wooden Twoleg nest.
Leafpaw longed to see the stars, to breathe in the comforting presence of StarClan and know they were watching her, but when she looked up she saw nothing but the nest's steeply pitched roof. The only light came from a shaft of moonlight that streamed through a small hole in the wall at one end of the nest. Her den was on top of others; the one directly below was empty but beneath that she could just make out a bundle of dark fur. Another cat? Not a forest cat, since its scent was unfamiliar. The shape was so still, it must have been sleeping. If it was alive at all, Leafpaw thought grimly.
She listened again for the yowl, but the cat that had cried out was silent now and Leafpaw could only hear the soft mewling and shuffling of cats trapped in the other dens. She sniffed the air but recognized no scents. An acrid Twoleg stench filled the nest, tinged with fear. Leafpaw unsheathed her claws, feeling them catch on the shiny web.
StarClan, where are you? The thought fleetingly crossed her mind that she was already dead, but she thrust it away with a shudder that made her claws scrape against the floor of the den.
"I see you're awake at last," whispered a voice.
Leafpaw jumped and craned her neck to look over her shoulder. A heap of tabby fur stirred in the den beside hers and she smelled the unmistakeable Twoleg-tainted scent of a kittypet. There had been kindness in the she-cat's voice but Leafpaw felt too wretched to reply. Her mind flooded with bitter memories of how the Twolegs had trapped her while she was hunting with Sorreltail and brought her to this awful place. She had been separated from her Clan and locked in darkness. Overwhelmed by despair, she buried her nose in her paws and closed her eyes.
Another voice sounded from a den further along. It was too quiet to make out the words, but there was something familiar about it. Leafpaw lifted her muzzle to taste the air, but all she could smell was a sour tang that reminded her of the herbs Cinderpelt used for cleaning wounds. The voice spoke again, and Leafpaw strained her ears to listen.
"We must get out of here," the cat was mewing.
Another cat answered from the far side of the nest. "How? There's no way out."
"We can't just sit here waiting to die!" the first voice insisted. "There have been other cats here I can smell them, and their fear-scent. I don't know what happened to them but whatever it was must have scared their fur off. We've got to get out before we become nothing but stale fear-scent!"
"There's no way out, you mouse-brain," came a rough mew. "Shut up and let us sleep."
The words made Leafpaw feel sick with fear and sadness. She didn't want to die here, leaving nothing but a reek of fear! She flattened her ears and closed her eyes, clawing for the safety of sleep.
"Wake up!" A voice hissed in Leafpaw's ear, jolting her out of troubled dreams.
She lifted her head and looked around. Watery sunlight filtered in through the hole in the wall, though it did nothing to lift the chill from her fur. In the weak dawn light she could see the tabby she-cat in the den next to her more clearly. It was soft and well groomed, and Leafpaw was conscious of her own matted pelt as she stared at her. She was definitely a kittypet, plump and soft-muscled beneath her tabby pelt.
"Are you all right?" asked the kittypet, her eyes wide with worry. "You sounded as if you were in pain."
"I was dreaming," Leafpaw replied hoarsely. Her voice felt strange, as if she hadn't spoken for several days, and as she spoke memories of her nightmare came flooding back: images of water swollen rivers scarlet with blood and great birds swooping out of the sky with thorn-sharp claws. For a heartbeat, Leafpaw saw Feathertail hidden in darkness and then swathed in starlight, and without understanding why, her paws trembled.
Outside a Twoleg monster roared into wakefulness, bringing her back to the wooden nest and the den that pressed around her.
"You don't look well," the kittypet commented. "Try eating some breakfast. There's some in the corner of your cage."
Cage? Leafpaw wondered at the strange word. Is that what this den is called? The kittypet was nodding through the web that separated the two cages' toward a half-empty holder of stinking pellets.
Leafpaw looked at the Twoleg food in disgust. "I'm not eating that!"
"Then at least sit up and give yourself a wash," the kittypet urged. "You've been hunched up like a wounded mouse since the workfolk brought you here."
Leafpaw twitched her shoulders but didn't move.
"They didn't hurt you when they caught you did they?" the kittypet asked. There was concern in her voice.
"No," Leafpaw mumbled.
"Then get up and wash yourself," she went on more briskly. "You're no use to yourself or any cat moping around like that."
Leafpaw did not want to get up and wash herself. The web floor scratched against her paws, and blood oozed from beneath one of her claws. Her eyes stung with the filthy air that filtered into the nest, fouled by the monsters outside. And StarClan had sent no comfort to ease the desperate fear that gripped her heart.