The Darkest Hour, Page 1Erin Hunter
This book is for Vicky Holmes and Matt Haslum,
who helped find Fireheart’s destiny.
Special thanks to Cherith Baldry
Rain fell steadily, drumming on the hard black Thunderpath that…
Watery shafts of light sliced through the bare trees as…
As Fireheart bounded across to Bluestar’s den, Speckle tail spun…
Something was prodding Fireheart in the side. With a muffled…
All was darkness and cold. Fireheart had never been so…
Firestar jolted awake in terror. He was lying in the…
Twilight was thickening the shadows under the trees by the…
A raw, damp cold pushed its way through Firestar’s fur…
The snow had stopped by the time Firestar and Bramblepaw…
Firestar made his way thoughtfully back into the camp. Glancing…
Sorrelkit was curled up in a mossy nest near the…
Firestar emerged from the forest near Sunningrocks and paused to…
Firestar paused at the top of the hollow before leading…
The squall was soon over. Firestar led his cats home…
“Firestar,” meowed Graystripe. “I want to ask you something.”
Graystripe growled deep in his throat and gathered himself to…
“No.” Graystripe’s voice rasped in his throat.
“Quick—the stepping-stones!” Firestar hissed.
“Disappeared?” Firestar echoed in alarm. “What happened?”
Firestar leaped up the slope leading into WindClan territory from…
The sun had begun to set over the river, turning…
Firestar woke to see the den floor washed by the…
Dismay kept Firestar’s paws rooted to the ground as he…
Firestar stared, speechless with shock, as Scourge turned away and…
When Firestar emerged from his den the following morning, the…
After they said good-bye to Princess, Cloudtail went off to…
Firestar wondered if the rest of his Clan had noticed…
It was the time before dawn when the moon had…
The first faint streaks of dawn were showing as Firestar…
Firestar opened his eyes. He was lying on the grass…
The clearing fell silent. Blood glistened on the grass as…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY ERIN HUNTER
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
FIRESTAR—handsome ginger tom
WHITESTORM—big white tom
CINDERPELT—dark gray she-cat
(toms, and she-cats without kits)
DARKSTRIPE—sleek black-and-gray tabby tom
LONGTAIL—pale tabby tom, dark black stripes
MOUSEFUR—small dusky-brown she-cat
BRACKENFUR—golden-brown tabby tom
DUSTPELT—dark brown tabby tom
SANDSTORM—pale ginger she-cat
GRAYSTRIPE—long-haired gray tom
FROSTFUR—beautiful white she-cat, blue eyes
GOLDENFLOWER—pale ginger she-cat
CLOUDTAIL—long-haired white tom
(more than six moons old, in training to become warriors)
THORNPAW—golden-brown tabby tom
FERNPAW—pale gray with darker flecks, she-cat, pale green eyes
ASHPAW—pale gray with darker flecks, tom, dark blue eyes
BRAMBLEPAW—dark brown tabby tom, amber eyes
TAWNYPAW—tortoiseshell she-cat, green eyes
LOSTFACE—white she-cat, ginger splotches
(she-cats expecting or nursing kits)
WILLOWPELT—very pale gray she-cat, unusual blue eyes
(former warriors and queens, now retired)
ONE-EYE—pale gray she-cat, the oldest cat in ThunderClan, virtually blind and deaf
SMALLEAR—gray tom with very small ears, the oldest tom in ThunderClan
DAPPLETAIL—once-pretty tortoiseshell she-cat, lovely dappled coat
SPECKLETAIL—pale tabby, and the oldest nursery queen
TIGERSTAR—big dark brown tabby tom, unusually long front claws, formerly of ThunderClan
BLACKFOOT—large white tom, huge jet-black paws, formerly a rogue cat
RUNNINGNOSE—small gray-and-white tom
OAKFUR—small brown tom
LITTLECLOUD—very small tabby tom
BOULDER—skinny gray tom, formerly a rogue cat
RUSSETFUR—dark ginger she-cat, formerly a rogue cat
JAGGEDTOOTH—huge tabby tom, formerly a rogue cat
TALLPOPPY—long-legged light brown tabby she-cat
TALLSTAR—black-and-white tom, very long tail
DEADFOOT—black tom with a twisted paw
BARKFACE—short-tailed brown tom
MUDCLAW—mottled dark brown tom
WEBFOOT—dark gray tabby tom
ONEWHISKER—brown tabby tom
RUNNINGBROOK—light gray tabby she-cat
WHITETAIL—small white she-cat
LEOPARDSTAR—unusually spotted golden tabby she-cat
STONEFUR—gray tom, battle-scarred ears
MUDFUR—long-haired light brown tom
BLACKCLAW—smoky black tom
HEAVYSTEP—thickset tabby tom
SHADEPELT—very dark gray she-cat
MISTYFOOT—dark gray she-cat, blue eyes
LOUDBELLY—dark brown tom
SCOURGE—small black tom with one white paw
ONE—massive black-and-white tom
CATS OUTSIDE CLANS
BARLEY—black-and-white tom that lives on a farm close to the forest
RAVENPAW—sleek black cat that lives on the farm with Barley
PRINCESS—light brown tabby, distinctive white chest and paws, a kittypet
SMUDGE—plump, friendly black-and-white kittypet that lives in a house at the edge of the forest
Rain fell steadily, drumming on the hard black Thunderpath that led between unending rows of stone Twoleg nests. From time to time a monster snarled past, its eyes glaring, and a single Twoleg scurried along, huddled into its shiny pelt.
Two cats slipped silently around the corner, keeping close to the walls where the shadows were deepest. A skinny gray tom with a ragged ear and bright, watchful eyes went first, every hair on his body slicked dark with the wet.
Behind him prowled a huge tabby with massive shoulders and muscles that slid smoothly under his rain-soaked pelt. His amber eyes glowed in the harsh light, and his gaze shifted back and forth as if he expected an attack.
He paused where the dark entrance to a Twoleg nest offered a little shelter and growled, “How much farther? This place stinks.”
The gray tom glanced back. “Not far now.”
“It had better not be.” Grimacing, the dark brown tabby padded on, ears twitching irritably to flick away the raindrops. Harsh yellow light angled across him, and he flinched as a monster roared around the corner, throwing up a wave of filthy water that reeked of Twoleg rubbish. The cat let out a snarl as the water slopped around his paws and the spray drizzled down on his fur.
Everything about the Twolegplace disgusted him: the hard surface under his paws, the stench of monsters and the Twolegs they carried in their bellies, the unfamiliar noises, and most of all, the way that he could not survive here without a guide. The tabby was not used to depending on another cat for anything. In the forest he knew every tree, every stream, every rabbit hole. He was considered the strongest and most dangerous warrior in all the Clans. Now his sharpened skills and senses were useless. He felt as if he were deaf, blind, and lame, reduced to following his companion like a kit trailing helplessly after its mother.
But it would be worth it. The tabby’s whiskers twitched in anticipation. He had already launched a plan that would turn his most hated enemies into helpless prey in their own territory. When the dogs attacked, no cat would suspect that they had been lured and guided every step of the way. And then, if things went according to plan, this expedition into Twolegplace would give him all he had ever wanted.
The gray cat led the way along the path and across an open space reeking of Twoleg monsters, where a swirl of color from unnatural orange lights floated on the puddles. He stopped by the entrance to a narrow alley and opened his jaws to draw in the scent of the air.
The tabby halted and did the same, disgustedly swiping his tongue over his lips at the stink of rotting Twoleg food. “Is this the place?” he asked.
“This is it,” the gray warrior replied tensely. “Now—remember what I told you. The cat we’re going to meet holds command over many cats. We must treat him with respect.”
“Boulder, have you forgotten who I am?” The tabby took a step forward so that he towered over his companion.
The skinny gray cat’s ears flattened. “No, Tigerstar, I haven’t forgotten. But you’re not Clan leader here.”
Tigerstar grunted. “Let’s get on with it,” he growled.
Boulder turned into the alley. He stopped short after just a few paces when a huge shape loomed up in front of them.
“Who goes there?” A broad-shouldered black and white cat stepped out of the shadows. Strong muscles were outlined under fur plastered to his body by the rain. “Identify yourselves. We don’t like strangers here.”
“Greetings, Bone,” the gray warrior meowed steadily. “Remember me?”
The black-and-white cat narrowed his eyes and was silent for a few moments. “So you’ve come back, have you, Boulder?” he meowed at last. “You told us you were going to find a better life in the forest. What are you doing here?”
He took a step forward, but Boulder held his ground, unsheathing his claws against the uneven ground. “We want to see Scourge.”
Bone let out a snort, half contempt, half laughter. “I can’t imagine that Scourge will want to see you. And who’s this with you? I don’t recognize him.”
“My name is Tigerstar. I’ve come from the forest to speak with your leader.”
Bone’s green eyes flicked from Tigerstar to Boulder and back again. “What do you want with him?” he demanded.
Tigerstar’s amber gaze burned like the Twoleg lights reflected on the shining wet stones around them. “I’ll discuss that with your leader, not his border patrol.”
Bone bristled and extended his claws, but Boulder quickly slipped between him and Tigerstar. “Scourge needs to hear this,” he insisted. “It could be to every cat’s advantage.”
For a few heartbeats Bone hesitated, and then he stepped back, allowing Boulder and Tigerstar to pass. His hostile glare scorched their fur, but he said nothing.
Now Tigerstar took the lead, treading cautiously as the light faded behind then. On either side, skinny cats were slinking behind piles of rubbish, eyes gleaming as they followed the progress of the two intruders. Tigerstar’s muscles tensed. If this meeting went wrong, he might have to fight his way out.
A wall blocked the end of the alley. Tigerstar stared around, looking for the leader of these cats of Twolegplace. He was expecting an even more massive creature than the broad-shouldered Bone, and at first his gaze swept over the small black cat crouching in a shadowy doorway.
Boulder gave him a nudge and jerked his head in the black cat’s direction. “There’s Scourge.”
“That’s Scourge?” Tigerstar’s exclamation rang with disbelief above the falling rain. “He’s no bigger than an apprentice!”
“Shh!” Panic flared in Boulder’s eyes. “This may not be a Clan as we know it, but these cats would kill if their leader ordered them to.”
“It seems I have visitors.” The black cat’s voice had a brittle, high-pitched sound, like the splintering of ice. “I wasn’t expecting to see you again, Boulder. I heard you’d gone to live in the forest.”
“Yes, Scourge, I have,” Boulder replied.
“So what are you doing here?” Scourge’s voice held the faintest suggestion of a snarl. “Have you changed your mind and come crawling back? Do you expect me to welcome you?”
“No, Scourge.” Boulder held the black cat’s ice-blue gaze. “It’s a good life in the forest. There is plenty of fresh-kill, no Twolegs-”
“You haven’t come to extol the virtues of forest life,” Scourge interrupted him with a flick of his tail. “Squirrels live in trees, not cats.” His eyes narrowed, glinting with a pale fire. “So what do you want?”
Tigerstar stepped forward, shouldering the gray warrior aside. “I am Tigerstar, the leader of ShadowClan,” he growled. “And I have a proposition for you.”
Watery shafts of light sliced through the bare trees as Fireheart carried his leader to her final resting place. With his teeth clenched firmly in her scruff, he retraced the route the dog pack had taken as the brave warriors of ThunderClan lured them to the gorge and their destruction. His whole body felt numb, and his head spun with the terrible realization that Bluestar was dead.
Without his leader, the forest itself seemed different, even stranger to Fireheart than the day he had first ventured into it as a kittypet. No thing was real; he felt as if the trees and rocks could dissolve like mist within a moment. A vast, unnatural silence covered everything. With the rational part of his mind Fireheart realized that all the prey had been scared away by the rampaging dog pack, but in the grip of his grief it seemed that even the forest was stunned into mourning for Bluestar.
The scene at the gorge repl
ayed over and over in his head. He saw again the slavering jaws of the dog who led the pack, and felt its sharp teeth meet in his scruff. He remembered how Bluestar had appeared out of nowhere, flinging herself at the dog, driving it—and herself—over the edge of the gorge and into the river. He flinched again at the icy shock of the water as he leaped in to rescue his drowning leader, and their hopeless struggles until two RiverClan warriors, Mistyfoot and Stonefur, came to help then.