The first thing that Skypaw was aware of when she stirred was the energy that continued to flow through her veins. She blinked open her eyes, no longer feeling sick, just drained of energy. She pushed herself groggily to her paws and shook her head slightly, clearing out what she felt were cobwebs having gathered between her ears.
"Skypaw?" A surprised mew suddenly rang around the room, and Skypaw glanced towards the sound. Spottedheart was wearily lifting her head, her eyes glazed and confused.
"What are you doing? I thought...I thought you were dead." The tortoiseshell sounded disbelieving. "Or maybe...I just heard Jayfeather wrong."
Jayfeather thought I was dead? Skypaw wondered. "Oh...it must've seemed that way," she muttered. "But..."
She hesitated. How could she explain herself? Technically, she did die. She had been given a new life by Branchpaw. Ferndust is never going to believe it...and nor would the rest of the Clan.
But Skypaw realized that the time was now, the time was right, for the Clan to know about her power and her destiny. She looked around the den. "Where are the others?" she wondered aloud. "Graykit, and Frostkit and Jaggedkit..."
"Skypaw...a lot of cats didn't make it," murmured Spottedheart. Her voice was hoarse. "The bodies have been rested outside. In fact, Jayfeather just left the den with Leafpool. Four cats just died this night. Well...three, now that you're alive."
I know...Skypaw had seen all the cats who had died, but who had sacrificed themselves for the good of the Clan. They would be honoured in StarClan for all of their spiritual lives. "Bramblestar died."
Spottedheart lowered her head with grief. "I know. He was...a good warrior. A fine leader, as mighty as Firestar." Then she frowned and mewed, "But how do you know? You were still unconscious when he died."
Before Skypaw could continue, the brambles rustled and Jayfeather and Aura returned into the den. Both stopped in surprise at seeing Skypaw standing (well, in Jayfeather's case, sensing) and very much alive.
Then, Jayfeather meowed in a voice full of shock, "How can this be?"
"We felt the life leave your body, Skypaw." Aura sounded just as surprised; coming from a future Guardian, who was meant to know all, it made the matter just that more unusual.
"Well...I did die. Of a sort." Skypaw uncomfortably flicked her ears back, but decided she'd best come clean, even with Spottedheart watching. "I went to StarClan, and I was Healed."
Recognition flashed across Aura's expression and a look of bemusement fell over Jayfeather's and Spottedheart's.
"Healed?" questioned Jayfeather.
"Now I understand," purred Aura, raising her tail. "You were stripped of your old, diseased life, and replenished with a new one."
"But I don't understand," Spottedheart meowed. "What is Healing?"
"It is when StarClan pulls a spirit up to their world and restores their strength, energy, and mends their injuries, whatever they may have obtained," Aura explained. "Jayfeather, you once were Healed, when you were just a kit."
Jayfeather flicked his ears forward in shock. "When I fell into the hollow..."
"Every cat thought you had died," Aura finished. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Yes. How could I forget? Spottedleaf gave me some water to drink."
"Star-water; one of the Healing powers that StarClan may give to mortal cats," Aura analyzed. "To mend the most immediate of your injuries. Of course, it is draining, to pull a spirit from the body moments before the body should die, which is why StarClan does not do this to all cats; only to cats who are significant."
Spottedheart frowned. "Some of this...makes sense," she said slowly. "I mean, Jayfeather, you were one of the Three. So you couldn't die before you could complete your destiny. StarClan wanted to protect you, right?"
Jayfeather shrugged. "I guess that's the excuse."
"But..." Spottedheart glanced questioningly at Skypaw. "Why did StarClan want to save you in the same way that they saved Jayfeather? Is it because your mother is Dovewing?"
"No," Skypaw replied. She glanced at Jayfeather and Aura and admitted, "I...I think I'm ready, to tell the Clan."
Jayfeather looked uncertain for a moment, and then dipped his head in submission. "If you think you're ready, Skypaw. But my advice is to wait for me and Lionblaze to return from the Moonpool. It will be easier to speak to the Clan when Lionblaze has...or, well, hopefully has...his nine lives."
Aura nodded. "You should leave at once, Jayfeather. The Gathering is tomorrow, and we must have a night of grieving for the lost ones. I will look after the Clan until you and Lionblaze return."
Skypaw felt a shimmer of pride run through her as she heard the clear, authoritative way that Aura spoke, the confident tone in her voice. She knew without even looking at the sickly she-cat that Spottedheart had blinked her respect to Aura, and the apprentice guessed that most of ThunderClan had similar feelings to the formerly rogue kit. She had worked so tirelessly throughout the whole epidemic, saving cats that should have died, guiding Skypaw on her path, that it was no surprise that the Clan had now fully welcomed her.
"If that's what you think is best..."
"I do. And you needn't fear; Bramblestar, Sedgestar, Rowanstar and Reedstar all were able to access the Moonpool to receive their nine lives. Lionblaze will also be able to receive his. The connection may be damaged, but not enough to prevent new lives being gifted to worthy leaders."
Jayfeather was comforted by this fact. He turned and slipped quietly from the den, leaving Spottedheart, Skypaw and Aura alone.
For a moment, there was silence.
Then Skypaw, remembering what she had wanted to ask earlier, mewed, "Where are the kits? Are they all right?" Anxiety thrummed in her belly as she even considered the possibility that...
"They're fine," Aura assured her. "I took them back to the leaders' den. They were mending very well, barely coughing or sneezing, their eyes bright and clear. They will definitely recover."
"Dustpaw, Whitepaw, Stormpaw and Larkpaw are all as strong as they used to be."
"What about the warriors? The ones who were ill but who survived?"
Aura purred, brushing her tail against Skypaw's fur. "Why don't you see for yourself?"
When Skypaw emerged into the clearing, the stench of death was the first thing that hit her. Then, it also hit her that the stench of death was nowhere near as strong as it should have been. Only three bodies lay stretched out peacefully in the centre of the clearing; Leafpool, Icecloud, and Bramblestar. Cats both sick and well crowded around their dead Clanmates, gently grooming their still fur, their eyes glazed with grief.
"Skypaw!" The apprentice turned at the sound of her name to see Bumblestripe and Dovewing suddenly pound across the clearing towards her, their eyes bright with relief. "Oh, thank goodness you're safe!" Dovewing purred, as she covered her daughter's face with licks and pressed her smooth pale gray body against Skypaw's.
"We heard you were so sick, and Jayfeather wouldn't let us see you..." Bumblestripe's eyes were round with anxiety and he curled his tail with Skypaw's. "We were terrified you wouldn't last the night."
"She didn't," Aura mewed quietly beside Skypaw. "But StarClan chose to spare her in ways most fortunate."
Bumblestripe and Dovewing glanced quizzically at the small tortoiseshell kit. "What are you saying?" Bumblestripe demanded.
"Your daughter's old life has been stripped away from her and replenished with a new life, a life of strength and wellness," Aura said simply, "in a similar way that a leader is given a new life."
The parents' eyes grew wide with wonder. "Is this true?" Bumblestripe asked, turning to Skypaw. "You went to StarClan?"
Skypaw self-consciously lowered her gaze. "Yes, Father. They...they Healed me."
"But why?" Bumblestripe murmured. "Why were you so fortunate to be spared, compared to the losses of so many other Clan cats? Surely StarClan should have Healed the others?"
"Does it matter, Bumblestripe?" Dovewing threw her mate an anxious glance. "Our daughter is safe with us now. She's alive and she's well; not a trace of sickness on her fur!"
"It's okay, Mother," Skypaw said to her. "I'm going to tell the Clan, when Lionblaze and Jayfeather return from the Moonpool."
Bumblestripe glanced at his daughter. "Tell the Clan what?"
"When Lionblaze and Jayfeather return from the Moonpool," Skypaw repeated firmly.
Bumblestripe lashed his tail. "I'm your father, Skypaw," he said firmly. "Whatever it is that you're going to tell the Clan, you should have told me the moment you found out."
"I know, but you'll understand why I kept it secret from you soon," Skypaw promised. She leaned forward and touched his muzzle with her own. "And I'm glad that neither of you fell ill," she added quietly. "I don't know what I would have done if you had died to this sickness."
Bumblestripe gave a rusty purr. "It'll take more than a bit of sickness to stop the son of Graystripe!" he declared, puffing out his chest. Dovewing smiled slightly and gave him a friendly shove.
"Do you know where I could find Ferndust?" Skypaw mewed.
"She's with the apprentices," Dovewing responded, flicking her tail towards where the group of apprentices was huddled just outside their cave, and Skypaw saw the familiar gray tabby pelt of Ferndust amongst them. "Why?"
"I need to make sure she's okay. She's my friend."
Skypaw and Aura were about to move towards them when a flash of movement caught their eye. Jayfeather was leading Lionblaze across the clearing. The golden tabby's head was raised high, and though his eyes were sad, they also shimmered with a subtle excitement. Most of the Clan was watching them go, both apprehensively and excitedly. They knew that when Lionblaze returned, if the ceremony went well, he would never again be called his warrior name.
Skypaw saw the brambles to the nursery suddenly rustle, and a sleek silver she-cat suddenly emerged into the clearing. Stiffly she ran towards her mate. Lionblaze glanced towards her; his ears flicked forward, and he relaxed against Cinderheart, their tails intertwining. Cinderheart briefly pressed her muzzle against Lionblaze's cheek and murmured something in his ear, before she turned and headed back towards the nursery. Lionblaze watched her go for a moment, before he turned and slipped after Jayfeather through the thorn tunnel.
Fretful murmurs began to ring around the clearing, and suddenly Aura left Skypaw's side. "They need me," was all she murmured, before she headed towards the fallen bodies, waving her tail commandingly. Skypaw watched as the murmuring died down, and their gazes trained upon the small kit. She turned her eyes to the dark sky above, which Skypaw realized was only just paling with predawn, and said, "We cannot hold a full night of vigil for those who died from the sickness. But we will honour them here, and now, until the sun breaks high and clear over the hollow. I can assure you that we will survive."
Silence rang after her words, and Aura bowed her head. "Many of your loved ones have succumbed to the sickness. Your hearts and minds are heavy and clouded with grief. We will say farewell to Icecloud, Leafpool and Bramblestar, all three honourable warriors."
Foxleap looked blankly at his sister's body. Squirrelflight was pressed hard against Birchfall, her thin shoulders trembling, and it struck Skypaw when she realized how much she had lost that one night. Her sister and her mate were both in StarClan, both having departed without being able to even say goodbye to her...
Then the rest of the Clan began to move in closely around their dead Clanmates. Grooming their pelts and whispering prayers to StarClan. Skypaw slowly approached the apprentices, whose gazes were lowered as they softly murmured their farewells.
Ferndust looked up as Skypaw approached and mewed, "Wow. I...I never realized how many could have died from this outbreak."
"But think of how many will recover," Skypaw murmured in response.
"Yes..." Ferndust turned her gaze towards where Runningleap and Hollythorn lay curled together upon the soft grass, staring blankly up at the sky, probably remembering Mapleleaf. "But I'm so sorry for Squirrelflight and Hollythorn. They both lost a sister and a mate to this greencough."
"Time will heal their broken hearts," Skypaw mewed softly.
She suddenly felt a tail flick her flank, and Skypaw glanced up at Larkpaw, whose eyes were warm but bright with puzzlement. "You don't smell sick anymore, Skypaw," he commented.
"I'm all better now," Skypaw replied, touching her nose briefly to Larkpaw's ear in greeting. He shivered a little under her touch.
"Isn't it amazing, though?" Stormpaw murmured absently from her place between her brothers. "I mean, Lionblaze, one of the Three...he's been a deputy for just two moons and now he's Clan leader."
"He's an honourable cat," Whitepaw said. "He deserves the title of leadership."
"I can't think of a better cat," agreed Dustpaw. His ears flicked forward. "Hey...maybe we could ask him if he could give us our desired warrior names."
Stormpaw looked eager. "I could be Stormclaw after all!" she mewed excitedly, unsheathing her claws and burrowing them into the ground.
"I'll be Larkflight," Larkpaw added.
"Or Larkbeak," Dustpaw teased, and he and Whitepaw snickered.
"I will not!" Larkpaw replied hotly.
"Hey...I just realized..." Whitepaw glanced up at his former denmate. "You never were called Fernsong."
Ferndust shrugged. "Bramblestar, I suspect, had his reasons for naming me what I am now," she mewed. "Perhaps he named me because he was thinking of Ferncloud and Dustpelt. I have been named in both their honour."
"You know, I think Ferndust suits you better than Fernsong," Dustpaw mewed. "And I think that Dustfang suits me just right!" He bared his fangs, and Stormpaw pointedly rolled her eyes.
"Come on, guys," murmured Ferndust, rising to her paws. She stifled a small, lingering cough, and then mewed, "Let's go and say goodbye to our Clanmates. I'm sure they're watching over us from StarClan."
"Ferndust...wait a moment." Skypaw flicked her tail over Ferndust's legs, halting the young tabby warrior in her tracks. She glanced back at Skypaw, puzzled, and let the other four apprentices pass as they headed towards their parents Cherrypelt and Foxleap, crouched beside Icecloud and gently nosing her fluffy white fur. When they were gone, Skypaw turned to Ferndust.
"I went to StarClan in the night."
"You did?" Ferndust looked astonished. "Jayfeather was really concerned. I heard that you had given your own share of catmint to the kits and he thought you were going to die because of it."
"I was Healed," Skypaw mewed. "By Branchpaw."
Ferndust expression was one of sheer amazement. "Branchpaw?" she whispered softly.
"He's alive and well in StarClan," Skypaw assured her. "He was the one who Healed me, actually. He was very proud of you, Ferndust. He's watching over you whenever he possibly can, with pride."
Ferndust was quiet for a moment, before she purred.
"Thank you for telling me this," she said. "It soothes me to think that Branchpaw is above, watching over us, along with so many of our other ancestors." She turned her eyes to the three fallen Clanmates and added, "And...more recent additions to StarClan. I'll miss them, all of them. Even Lilyflower, if a bit arrogant at times, was a good Clanmate, a brave and loyal warrior."
Skypaw gently pushed her nose against Ferndust's fur. She smelt a faint tang of greencough still clinging to it, though the smell of catmint was stronger, and she knew that Ferndust was recovering well. "Let's go and say goodbye," she murmured. Ferndust nodded, and the two friends approached their fallen Clanmates, ready to say farewell to their old friends.
When the dawn came, Squirrelflight and Birchfall stared at the task that lay before them. Briarlight, optimistic as always, suggested that the close friends of each of the fallen Clanmates help the elders with the burial. Foxleap volunteered almost at once, and Cherrypelt, his mate, helped him without hesitation. Hollythorn silently rose and approached the bodies, even though Mapleleaf and Snowfoot already had been buried several days ago, though Skypaw guessed she wanted to return to the burial mounds. Blossomfall seemed to think similarly as she slipped away from Bumblestripe's side to shoulder the weight of Bramblestar's body with Birchfall. Skypaw felt her heart twist as she saw her beloved ThunderClan leader, dead, cold and unmoving, his long tabby tail lightly scoring the dust as he was solemnly carried from the camp.
"Goodbye," she heard Berrynose murmur softly, bowing his head as Bramblestar passed him. "I'll miss you."
Skypaw remembered that Bramblestar had been his mentor, all those seasons ago when he was an apprentice. Hazeltail and Mousewhisker dipped their heads in similar respectful gestures. Flamefur and Yellownose suddenly began to murmur their old leader's name in a steady, quiet chant.
Lionblaze's and Cinderheart's kits joined them.
Skypaw and the other apprentices were next to join in their gesture of farewell. The older warriors quickly joined in, until soon Bramblestar's name was being whispered around the hollow, many voices high and low mingling to become one steady sound. The kits had crept out from their place in the leader's den and stood on the edge of Highledge, watching the deceased leave. Skypaw could even hear their small voices ringing alongside the Clan's.
Then Bramblestar was gone, and Skypaw knew that no cat would ever see him again. She lowered her eyes, her throat closed up. Silence rang in the clearing for a few moments.
Then Berrynose cleared his throat slightly and said, "We need food." He turned to his left and instructed, "Toadstep, can you lead a hunting patrol towards the WindClan border? Take whoever is fit enough with you."
Toadstep gave a short nod of confirmation.
"I'll go," Ivypool offered.
"So will I," Stormpaw mewed, racing to her mentor's side.
"Me and my apprentice will go with you," Rosepetal mewed to her brother. Larkpaw appeared at her side.
"Let's go." Toadstep led the way out of camp, the four warriors and apprentices following just behind.
"I'll lead a second hunting patrol," Berrynose continued. "Bumblestripe, Dovewing, Moleclaw and Whitepaw, you can come with me."
The four indicated cats approached him.
"Those still recovering from greencough, go back into your dens," said Aura, her voice ringing clearly around the hollow. "I'll come and tend to you the best that I can."
"I'll lead a border patrol," Mousewhisker offered. "We still need to act strong in front of the other Clans. Who'll come with me?"
"Let's head out," Seednose mewed.
"I'll go with you," Hazeltail assured her brother. "Yellownose, Flamefur, up for a run around the ShadowClan border?"
The two young warriors raced to her side at once. The hollow, Skypaw felt, seemed to have been brought back to life. Aura was being treated with such courtesy and respect. She promised that she'd get some young warriors to clear the nests, and said that the kits really should be getting back into their proper den by now.
"Ferndust! Skypaw! Dustpaw! Come and help start clearing up," Aura mewed.
Skypaw nodded. "Let's go." So the day's duties had begun, and she was feeling like a normal apprentice. It felt good working alongside her two friends and denmates.
The sun rose high and the camp was full of activity. Skypaw worked as hard as she could, bringing fresh moss to the camp, Ferndust shaping them into nests, and Dustpaw clearing out the old bedding that still reeked of sickness and illness. They shifted their duties many times so it was fairer. The kits tumbled down from Highledge as the cats who had buried their fallen Clanmates now returned, and while Owlkit, Graykit, Ravenkit and Clawkit greeted their mother, Frostkit and Jaggedkit hung back, their eyes lowered.
Poor mites, thought Skypaw sympathetically. But Mapleleaf watches over them in StarClan. She always will.
Then she watched as Hollythorn suddenly approached the two kits, flicked her tail over their backs in a kindly manner, and mewed something soft in their ears. She beckoned her four kits over and muttered something to all of them. Suddenly their ears pricked and their bodies tensed with excitement. Then they charged towards the medicine den.
Skypaw felt her Tigermark inform her that the kits had been told to help their denmate Aura out, and she felt relieved that Hollythorn had given them something to keep them preoccupied and to help with the rebuilding of ThunderClan. Thrushsong and Patchwhisker, though still weak from the greencough, decided to come out from the elders' den where they had been resting, and basked in the warm pool of sunlight that had formed outside their temporary resting place. Cinderheart was almost completely recovered from her bout of greencough, and went to join her kits.
"Aura said that we should help you!"
Skypaw glanced around to see Ravenkit and Owlkit standing right behind her. The black kit's chest was puffed out, and her eyes were bright. "Do you need help sorting the good moss from the bad moss?" Ravenkit mewled.
"Yes, that would be kind of you." Skypaw moved aside, letting Ravenkit and Owlkit take her place. "You need to feel each tuft of moss. If it feels hard, or has something pointy or uncomfortable inside of it, then you need to put it in this pile." She gestured to said pile with her tail. "If it's nice and soft and springy, you put it in the one beside you, Owlkit."
The mute kit glanced around at the mention of her name. She looked at the pile of soft green moss that was directly beside her and gave a single nod of confirmation. She set to work. Ravenkit eagerly, and much less quietly, began her task.
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder to see Aura pad out from the medicine den, carrying a small, ragged bundle of catmint in her jaws. Frostkit and Clawkit padded out after her, each with the last of the catmint in their little mouths, and hurried towards the apprentices' cave. Jaggedkit and Graykit weren't anywhere to be seen, and Skypaw guessed they were in the medicine den, perhaps tidying up or something.
Time passed. Skypaw shifted duties to clearing out the old dens, Ferndust to sort the moss and Dustpaw to fetch. The hunting patrols returned with enough food to feed the hungry cats in the hollow. Then barely a moment after Berrynose's hunting patrol had returned and the Clan cats had settled down to eat, the tunnel rustled again. Jayfeather and Lionblaze strode into the camp.
"They're back!" called Yellownose excitedly.
Almost at once every cat dropped what he or she were doing and gathered excitedly in the clearing. Skypaw quickly dropped her bundle of stale moss and ferns and hurried towards the quickly gathering group of ThunderClan cats.
"Did it work?" murmured Seednose eagerly.
"Is Lionblaze Lionstar now?" mewed Flamefur questioningly.
"Lionstar!" Cinderheart called happily, her eyes shining with love and pride.
"Lionstar! Lionstar!" The yowl was carried around the entire Clan until every single cat was calling it. Jayfeather paused briefly and exchanged a few words with Aura, who gave a single nod. Skypaw slipped through the gathered cats to join them.
"Are you ready?" Jayfeather asked quietly.
Skypaw nodded. "It's time."
Lionblaze climbed swiftly up onto Highledge and looked out over his Clan. Skypaw gazed up at him with admiration. He looked so brave and powerful, his deep golden coat ruffling in the breeze, his fire-coloured eyes half-closed, an unusual brightness shimmering in the depths. The wind tugged at the ragged fur around his throat, displaying the newly healed scars on his throat.
Then he raised his voice and called, "Silence!"
It descended on the hollow and a heavy silence fell. Every cat turned his or her head up to the stone ledge to listen to the words of their newest leader.
"I have been to the Moonpool," Lionblaze said solemnly, "and I have received my nine lives."
"Lionstar! Lionstar!" yowled the Clan proudly, Skypaw included. Jayfeather called his brother's name and there was no mistaking the joy in his voice.
"To be honest," Lionstar mewed, "I never once expected that I would become the successor of Bramblestar. He was an honourable cat, a wonderful ThunderClan leader. I, grandson of Firestar, promise you that I will try my very best to be the strong ThunderClan leader which we have had for many, many generations!"
"Of course you will be, Lionstar!" Poppyfrost called. "You're one of the Three; you are the invulnerable warrior!"
"All the other Clans will fear us!" Patchwhisker added.
Lionstar stood motionless for a moment, before he meowed solemnly, "No. I am not that cat."
Confused murmurs rang around the Clan. "What do you mean?" asked Hazeltail.
"You still believe that I have my power of invulnerability in battle," Lionstar mewed. "No. I do not have it. This, I found out when I went to StarClan to receive my nine lives. Dovewing, Jayfeather and I have all been losing the strength of our powers in the passing seasons that have followed since the Dark Forest."
"But why? How?" Berrynose demanded.
"You're meant to always have it!" Flamefur called.
"Our destinies are completed," Lionstar replied simply. "We have no further need of such power by the lake." He was silent for a moment, before he said, "However, I learned, moons ago, that there is another cat born with a destiny that involves the future of the Clans. That she, just like us, had been born with power."
Excited and confused whispers rang around the Clan, and Skypaw felt her heart pound all the harder in her chest. She slowly rose to her paws and stepped between Jayfeather and Aura, and walked to the front of ThunderClan. Shocked mews and astonished gasps rang almost at once around the Clan as she revealed herself—all except for the Three, and for three others. Ferndust, Amberheart and Toadstep exchanged knowing glances.
"Skypaw," Lionstar announced, "has a power, and a destiny."
"And what is this power?" called Cherrypelt. Skypaw glanced anxiously at her mentor to see her giving her a cautious, narrowed-eye stare, and she guessed that Cherrypelt wasn't exactly pleased she had kept her power a secret from her mentor. "What is her destiny?"
Lionstar didn't respond. He looked down to Skypaw and said, "Speak."
Skypaw nodded. She felt nervous; this was the first time she had spoken in front of her entire Clan. She knew they'd have a lot of questions for her, and that she'd do her best to answer them.
"It's true," she said, finding to her faint surprise that her voice came out clearly and confidently. "I was born with a destiny and a power. I have the power to see into the future, and my power grows with me. My destiny is to protect the Clans."
She knew that her father, in particular, was watching her in a mixture of disbelief and pride.
"Some of you found out about who I was," she continued. "I only discovered my destiny and my power of insight the day I became an apprentice. For the first two and a half moons of my training I kept it secret, and sought regular council with the Three, and with Aura."
"Is that why she came to the Clans, then?" demanded Blossomfall, cautiously staring at Aura. "Does it have something to do with you?"
"Yes," Skypaw said. "But it has everything to do with the very future of the lake."
Aura stepped forward. Her head was raised, and all eyes were suddenly trained on the small tortoiseshell kit. For a moment, she was quiet, and then she began. "There are totems of power in this world, totems of power from the Four, who are the mythic guardians of both mortal and immortal realms. They are commonly known as Fate, Destiny, Change and Time. When times of peril come, they choose a champion, or many champions, and bless them with a Quarter of their total power. These totems of power are called Tigermarks.
"The Three—Dovewing, Jayfeather and Lionstar—were each born with a Quarter Tigermark to call their own. But Tigermarks, to champions, are not meant to stay forever on the body of a mortal cat, or else the Quarter will be lost to the definite power of the Four. When the Three's destiny was complete, the Tigermarks were removed. Essences of their total power remained, but the echoes are fading, and the Three that stand before you are heroes, but no longer bearing the power of the Tigermarks."
"We've lost our powers?" Dovewing sounded shocked. "But...but I can still hear and see things far away."
"You cannot hear nor see as far as before, Dovewing," Aura responded calmly. "But the Tigermarks are symbols of ability. When the Three became Four, and the Quarters were made whole, then their destinies were completed. Long ago, the warrior Firestar was born with a Tigermark. The Four thought he had completed his destiny when he defeated Scourge and protected the old forest. They removed this Tigermark from him. But when they realized that the Three had to become Four, and the Quarters made whole, they returned to Firestar the Tigermark they had taken from him."
She was silent for a moment as she drew breath. Skypaw was aware of the tension that had gathered in the Clan as they learned of the Four for the first time.
"Some of you, from the Dark Forest battle, may remember the Ancients, mythical spirits who once lived at this lakeside a very, very long time ago. For countless years, a cat known as Rock lived underground in the tunnels. He was a Guardian, a cat who was born with all four Quarter Tigermarks, and who would watch over the territory he had been born in for the turns of time. But the time is turning, and it is time for a new Guardian to descend to those sacred tunnels and to protect the territories that lie above."
Aura closed her eyes. "My name is Aura. I have been born with the four Quarter Tigermarks—and when it is my time, I will descend to those tunnels. I am to become the new Guardian."
Astonished whispers rang around the Clan at these words.
"Aura came to the Clans because she is my mentor," Skypaw mewed, as silence fell. "She has been training me in the ways of foresight. It was thanks to her training that I predicted the greencough epidemic—"
"Wait a moment," Foxleap interrupted. "You knew this was going to happen?"
"I saw the aftermath of it, which was a week from when I had the vision—"
"Why couldn't you have warned us earlier?" yowled Seednose, her fur bristling. "You could have saved many lives, Skypaw! You could've saved my sister!"
Skypaw's eyes widened. "You don't understand—"
"I understand well enough!" Seednose cried. "You stood and you watched as my sister died from the greencough! That our very leader died from the epidemic!"
"No, I didn't!" Skypaw desperately tried to explain. Suddenly Lionstar let out a thunderous yowl, and the rising tension in the Clan grew as quiet fell.
"Silence!" called the new ThunderClan leader. "Let Skypaw speak!"
"Seednose, Foxleap," said Skypaw quickly, aware she'd have to speak swiftly. "It's not true that I just stood and watched as your littermates died. The vision which I received showed that...that so many of you had died." She let her gaze sweep the Clan. "Whole families had been destroyed. Kits and apprentices, and so many warriors. Jayfeather himself was dying. The sickness had ravaged ThunderClan in particular because of our sheer size. This was what would have been, if I hadn't informed Jayfeather to bring his catmint in from the abandoned Twoleg nest. All of it."
"It's true," Jayfeather added. "I looked into her memory—this ability I still possess, for now—and I saw what she had seen of the vision. Skypaw didn't condemn the seven cats to die. With the lives of seven, she saved an entire Clan. There never was enough catmint to have saved every single cat; the sickness was too sudden and severe."
A heavy silence fell after his words.
"And as for standing around," Jayfeather continued irritably, "Skypaw worked harder than any other cat to help her crumbling Clan. She worked until the point of exhaustion. That was when she fell, and where she almost died in the night that had passed."
"That night I was Healed by StarClan," Skypaw explained quietly. "I saw my deceased Clanmates, and Clanmates who came before. I saw all of the cats who had died to the sickness and they were glad they had sacrificed themselves for the good of the Clan. Isn't that what all warriors promise to do when they are made them? They will protect and defend their Clan, even at the cost of their lives?"
"When they died, they ensured ThunderClan's survival," Aura meowed. "The catmint was then in amount to heal the sick cats, whereas before, there were just too many."
Another pause. Then Lionstar said, "We have honoured their memories. They walk in StarClan. Skypaw has seen them with her own eyes, and they have Healed her, that she may return to fulfill her destiny. Clan life must move on. Bramblestar is dead. I am leader. And...that means that I must now choose my deputy."
A tense and excited silence suddenly hung over the Clan. Each cat who had mentored at least one apprentice in their experienced lives threw each other nervous and excited glances. Berrynose flicked his stump of a tail thoughtfully, as though considering being deputy himself.
"I have grown up alongside a group of fine warriors and devoted cats," Lionstar meowed. "I could not have asked for a Clan that has been a family to me and to my brother. I have known many of you since the day you were born, and watched the ones who came before me in admiration. Now is the time when I decide who will succeed me."
He turned his head up to the stars. "I say these words before StarClan and the spirit of Bramblestar, that they may hear and approve of my choice."
He paused. Skypaw found herself leaning forward. Who's going to be the new deputy of ThunderClan!? she thought frantically.
But at the last moment, she realized...there could only be one warrior who was brave enough, strong enough and loyal enough to become a great deputy, who possessed rare-gotten wisdom and who had survived the Dark Forest attack—and what was more, thrived from it, from the knowledge that she so stealthily and cunningly had obtained, after moons and moons of observation as a spy.
A warrior who had proved her worth a thousand times over.
"Ivypool," Lionstar declared, "will be the new deputy of ThunderClan."
All eyes turned to the white tabby who rose to her paws, bemused and stunned and delighted all at once. Her blue eyes were round; she didn't seem to know what to say.
But her apprentice and sister did.
They yowled her name with joy and pride. Stormpaw puffed out her chest as though to say, "I'm the apprentice of the deputy now!" Dovewing looked ready to burst with happiness as she wove around her sister, curling her tail with Ivypool's own. The Clan called out the name of their new deputy just as proudly and as happily.
Then, at last, when silence fell, Ivypool stepped forward, having found her voice, and murmured, "I...I don't know what to say, except...thank you, Lionstar." She bowed her head to the majestic golden warrior. "I made some bad choices in the past, but I promise you that I won't ever again. I'll always put my Clan first."
"You already did," Aura meowed, as she rose to her paws and approached the white tabby she-cat. "Even when you were seduced into the Dark Forest by promises of greatness and glory, you were determined to put those skills for your Clan and your Clan alone. You proved your loyalty to us when the battle came. Even before, when you were sent as a spy, and after hearing the truth for the first time of the Dark Forest's real intentions, you did not let your devotion to your Clanmates waver, not by the foul and twisted promises they made, and not by your eagerness to learn, to train and to listen. Not once did you desire for power, and received wisdom that few could hope to receive in its wake. This wisdom of the darkness has given you strength that very few can hope to receive. You have the courage of a lion and the heart of a warrior."
Aura bowed her head. "You are the deputy of ThunderClan through and through, Ivypool. The blood of Firestar runs in your veins, and with this blood, you are given nobility and certainty and faith, as will all of Firestar's descendants."
Then she threw back her head and called, "Ivypool! Ivypool!"
The rest of ThunderClan took up the chant, Dovewing, Stormpaw and Aura being the loudest of all.
But Skypaw did not cheer, because at that moment her vision melted into darkness. She heard a satisfied and all-too-familiar whisper hiss in her ears, So, a betrayer of us is now a deputy of the Clan which endangers us most...how interesting. Fate certainly chooses to play games.
A second voice joined the first. It will be amusing to see how Lionstar and Ivypool fare in the times that are to come. The cats who we want dead the most, now with such powerful positions in the Clan...it could not have played out any more beautifully.
Skypaw shivered as she heard Mapleshade and Breezepelt, wondering if they would feel her, that they would sense her, as they had tried to pull her into the Dark Forest as she was pulled into StarClan. They knew that she had a Tigermark. And she had known that Lionstar, Jayfeather and Dovewing, and the cats who had betrayed the Dark Forest for their own Clans in the end, were in much graver danger than any other.
Aura! Skypaw wailed in the darkness of her own mind. Please...help me! I must protect them! I cannot let them fall!
Then her vision returned. Skypaw blinked open her eyes to see Aura gazing at her, one paw placed on hers and wise, clear golden eyes fixed upon her own.
"You will," she said, "because Time is always changing—and so will the fates of the ones marked for death."
Lionstar halted at the edge of the shore. "You ready?"
He was nervous, of course. His wounds had closed and shiny scars were all that remained of his injury from his fight over a moon ago. Skypaw knew that he was fully healed, but he was nervous about going into the clearing and revealing himself as ThunderClan's leader for the first time.
"Don't worry," Dovewing purred, as she brushed against the pelt of her former mentor. "You'll be fine. You've always been a natural leader. You certainly bossed me around a lot."
Lionstar's whiskers twitched. "That was different. I was your mentor. I had a right to be bossy!"
He scented the air. "WindClan, RiverClan and ShadowClan are here. We must be the last to arrive."
"There don't seem to be many warriors," Ivypool noted, from her place just behind Lionstar. "The other Clans must've been struck hard by the illness, too."
"Well, we're not going to wait on the shore any longer to find out, are we?" Lionstar inquired. He waved his tail and was the first to stride into the foliage, with the rest of the Clan streaming behind him.
"Ready?" Cherrypelt murmured.
Skypaw nodded. "Yeah, I'm ready."
"We don't know if Rowanstar is going to be here tonight," Cherrypelt mewed. "But stay close to me, just in case. The other Clans might be touchy after such a severe bout of greencough."
Skypaw breathed out slowly. "If Rowanstar is here, then I don't care. I won't let him see that I'm afraid. He deserved what he got by the shore."
Cherrypelt flicked her apprentice with her tailtip. "You're right about that. Come on." She and Skypaw slipped into the ferns behind their Clanmates, and emerged into the clearing on the Island.
Almost at once, Skypaw knew that something was wrong.
There were barely any cats from the Clans here; at least, not as many as the first time she had come, when it was practically too crowded to move. She found that she could pick out certain cats amongst the others, particularly the ones that she had seen in the fight from ShadowClan, both in reality and in her vision. Grasspaw and Lakepaw crouched together near Gingerfleck and Shadowcloud, their ears flattened against their heads. Skypaw spotted Dewtuft, ShadowClan's medicine cat, speaking urgently with Willowshine and Kestrelflight from RiverClan and WindClan, at the foot of the Great Oak, and quickly Jayfeather wove his way through the knot of cats to join them. Duckfeather looked unusually dejected as she huddled beside her RiverClan friends.
Skypaw padded across the soft grass, looking around. "It's so quiet," she murmured.
"You can still share tongues," Dovewing mewed as she padded by. "But...just be on your guard. It's been a hard and sudden outbreak."
"Can you see Rowanstar?" Skypaw mewed.
Dovewing paused and flicked her ears forward towards the knot of leaders who crouched at the foot of the Great Oak. "No," she said, sounding honestly surprised. "Maybe he's been weakened by the greencough."
"So he's not here?" Cherrypelt mewed.
Dovewing shook her head and slipped away into the crowd.
Skypaw slowly began to move around the clearing, overhearing faint conversations. Her Tigermark discreetly informed her of the cats who she passed by, who threw her hostile glares through narrowed eyes. Ashclaw, Rabbitfur, Boundwind and Leaftail mewed softly to one another in one corner of the clearing. A pair of RiverClan warriors, Rushtail and Smolderfur, strode abruptly in front of Skypaw, smelling strongly of fish and faintly of illness. Gingerfleck hissed sharply at Hazeltail as she passed, and the small gray-and-white she-cat jumped, spun around, and flattened her ears at the ShadowClan she-cat.
"Remember the truce," Berrynose warned, as he guided his sister away. He threw an insolent glance at Gingerfleck nonetheless, making her raise her haunches.
Dustpaw and Whitepaw somewhat timidly approached a large knot of WindClan apprentices, but they were unwelcoming. Skypaw heard Chasepaw and Lightpaw hiss angrily at Whitepaw to "Get lost, ThunderClan fleabags".
"Who are you calling a fleabag, rabbit-breath?" Dustpaw spat angrily.
Heathertail and Rosepetal materialized out of nowhere from opposite directions. "Remember the truce," the WindClan deputy warned, as she flicked her long brown tail between the two pairs of quarrelling apprentices. Rosepetal said the same to the ThunderClan apprentices. The two she-cats glanced up and connected gazes for a moment. Their fur bristled slightly before they led their Clan's apprentices away from each other.
"We're so hostile now," murmured Skypaw sadly.
"Don't worry," Cherrypelt assured her. "It's happened before, in leaf-bare mostly, when there is little prey to go around. We'll all come around when the Gathering begins."
She pressed her flanks against Skypaw's and muttered, "But even so...best be cautious."
Skypaw nodded, padding close to Cherrypelt's side as they went to find their places in the Gathering. As they sat down between Moleclaw and Yellownose, Skypaw looked up towards the Great Oak to see the Clan leaders scrambling up the tree trunk.
She flicked her ears forward with surprise as she mewed, "Wait a moment...what's Tigerheart doing up there?"
"Maybe Rowanstar's just too weak to come," Yellownose guessed.
"But then where's Pinenose?"
Moleclaw frowned. "Good point."
By now, other puzzled whispers were ringing around the Clans. Then Sedgestar lifted her voice and called out clearly into the night, "Let the Gathering begin!"
There was the sound of rumble of paws and rustling pelts as the Clan cats all gathered and took their places beneath the Great Oak, turning their gazes obediently up to the tree. Skypaw frowned as she saw a very familiar ShadowClan cat sitting on the roots of the Great Oak, between Ivypool and Heathertail.
"Why is Hookclaw in the deputy's position?" Skypaw whispered.
Cherrypelt suddenly stiffened. "It...it cannot be..." she whispered huskily.
"It just may be," growled a WindClan warrior just behind, and Skypaw glanced around to see Boundwind. The blue-gray tom blinked in recognition of Skypaw. "Nice to see you again," he whispered.
"You too," Skypaw breathed, and she turned back to the front.
Sedgestar waited for total silence, before she solemnly began.
"All four Clans have been revealed to have suffered greatly from this burst of greencough," Sedgestar meowed somberly. "Many Clan cats have died from it."
Cats from the four Clans lowered their heads in grief.
"As you may have noticed," Sedgestar went on, "many warriors and apprentices are absent from this Gathering. Some still recover from the greencough outbreak that began well over a week ago." She lowered her eyes. "WindClan, in turn, has suffered from the greencough. To it, we lost Sunstrike, Swallowtail, Longfur and Leafpaw."
The Clans murmured their sympathy, but Skypaw was shocked. She could remember Longfur from the first Gathering she had attended. He had been a calm and friendly tom, and apparently a good friend of Squirrelflight. She glanced back at Boundwind and murmured, "I'm sorry...I didn't realize..."
"It's all right." Boundwind looked unhappy, but accepted her sympathies. "He's hunting all the rabbits he could dream of now."
No wonder why the WindClan apprentices had been so hostile and angry. Skypaw glanced towards them again. Their heads were bowed; she could understand what it felt like to lose a denmate. Well, Branchpaw hadn't been a denmate anymore when he died, and she had been quite young when he passed, but nonetheless his death inspired much sadness in all the Clan, and in her heart.
"But we are recovering well," Sedgestar went on. "The greencough is finally loosening its grip on the lake." She turned towards Reedstar and mewed, "How fares your Clan?"
Reedstar sighed. "We, too, have lost cats, and I a life, to this greencough outbreak," the black tom meowed quietly. "But we take comfort in knowing that Robinwing, Grasspelt, Mossyfoot and Minnowtail hunt with StarClan now. We too are recovering our strength swiftly; the plentiful fish in the lake and our well-watered supplies of catmint have helped us to heal quicker."
"I'm pleased to hear it," Lionstar said.
Reedstar glanced at the golden tom and meowed, "Wherever is Bramblestar?"
Lionstar flattened his ears. "He died."
The Clans whispered in sadness; they had all respected Bramblestar.
"So, are you ThunderClan's newest leader?" meowed Sedgestar. "Or have you not yet received your nine lives?"
"I am Lionstar now," Lionstar assured her. "My deputy is Ivypool."
The Clans called out her name and she looked proud from her new post on the roots of the Great Oak. Heathertail leaned forward and whispered congratulations in the white tabby's ear, but she threw a strange glance at Lionstar as she moved away, almost like anger and sorrow mixed together. Skypaw watched curiously. What in StarClan happened between them?
"We have suffered particularly hard," Lionstar went on somberly. "Three of our warriors, two of our elders, and one of our queens died from greencough."
"Who were they?" asked Reedstar.
"Lilyflower, Snowfoot, Icecloud, Mapleleaf, Leafpool and Whitewing."
Sedgestar lowered her eyes. "I am sorry for your losses, Lionstar."
"Likewise," the golden tabby tom meowed. "They hunt in StarClan now. Fortunately we are regaining our strength, with much thanks to the tireless efforts of Jayfeather and Aura."
Reedstar stiffened in surprise. "The kit helped the medicine cat?"
"Her knowledge of herbs was put to good use," Lionstar replied carefully. "We have been very fortunate. Not one of our kits or apprentices died to the greencough, and we are quickly growing stronger again, beginning with a new warrior, Ferndust!" The silver tabby puffed out her chest with pride and the Clans yowled her name. Then Lionstar turned to Tigerheart and mewed, "And you? How fares ShadowClan?"
A strange silence had fallen over the clearing as Tigerheart rose to his paws and meowed, "We have also suffered. Scorchfur, Starlingwing, Pinenose and Rowanstar have died."
An anxious murmuring filled the clearing.
"The deputy and the Clan leader?" Lionstar inquired sharply. "I thought that Rowanstar had many lives. He said that, at least, after he attempted my death."
"Rowanstar had three lives," Tigerheart replied. "However, he was old, and the sickness consumed all three of them. He died before Pinenose, but by then she was too sick to make the journey to the Moonpool, and died hours after."
"So ShadowClan is leaderless," said Reedstar quietly.
"No." Tigerheart's voice was clear as he spoke next. "I am ShadowClan's leader, and I have been to the Moonpool to receive my nine lives."
Shock flooded through the Clans as they realized that he could only hope to take one name from StarClan. That he had been to and returned from the stars with not one, but nine lives. And yet...there could not be another Tigerstar. It was impossible, and it was dreaded. No cat would be able to look at the new leader of ShadowClan without thinking of the terrible and infamous old one.
"I sense your fear," the ShadowClan leader meowed sharply, "and I can understand it completely. The Tigerstar of old ShadowClan and formerly ThunderClan was a menace and rightfully destroyed. His name is feared and spurned by all the Clans, including myself." He raised his chin and went on. "That is why I refused to take the name Tigerstar in my initiation. I am Tigerheart, leader of ShadowClan, and that is the name that I will go by until I step down or until I give my last life in service to ShadowClan."
Now blank surprise flickered through the Clans. Skypaw could only stare. So Tigerheart...wasn't called Tigerstar?
Lionstar turned to the dark tabby who stood on the branch opposite him and bowed his golden head. "You made a noble choice in denying the feared name," he meowed.
"StarClan accepted me to be ShadowClan's new leader," said Tigerheart, "as did my own Clan. They viewed me as a leader because of my strengths, because of my loyalty, and because they believed I was truly the right leader. I wished to succeed my father because I thought I was the tom who was right for the task. Now, only time will tell if I can truly live up to the name of my father and to Blackstar."
Lionstar frowned. "Your leader wasn't ThunderClan's favourite cat when he died. Forgive me if I don't believe your father was a good cat."
"I can understand why you hate Rowanstar," Tigerheart assured him. "I can't blame you. Personally, I'd hate any cat who'd try very hard to murder me. Undeniably he went a little mad in the last few moons of his life. I believe my father was growing desperate for ShadowClan to be as powerful and as feared as it once was before the rise of Tigerstar. He was one of the very last ShadowClan cats who remembered what ShadowClan was like before Tigerstar came to us and darkened our heritage. I would like to apologize to ThunderClan on behalf of ShadowClan for the trouble that we have caused you in the past moons."
Lionstar stiffened and flattened his ears. "You, Tigerheart, fought and attacked one of my younger warriors in the battle, as ruthlessly as a tyrant."
Tigerheart frowned. "The code states that a Clan leader's word is law. The deputy ordered me to attack, from the command of my leader, and also my father. It was not my place to deny Pinenose."
Lionstar hesitated. Then he meowed, "I won't accept your apology, but nor will I continue my grudge against ShadowClan—unless you try to invade our territory again, for the sake of finding a kit who knows her place is with ThunderClan," he added dangerously.
Tigerheart was motionless, before he twitched one ear and mewed evenly, "My father was delusioned by Aura. She will stay with your Clan, if you truly have accepted an outsider's kit."
Lionstar narrowed his eyes but said nothing to this.
"Continuing with my news of ShadowClan," Tigerheart went on, "my new deputy is Hookclaw."
Skypaw flattened her ears and barely stifled a hiss as she saw the gray tabby warrior puff out his chest. She could clearly see his curved claws digging into the bark of the root he was sitting on and she remembered with a slight shiver the pain of them driving into her flesh. He had almost killed her, and now he was a deputy of ShadowClan.
Lionstar is right to dislike them, she thought, lashing her tail. I don't think I'll ever forgive Hookclaw.
The stone-coloured warrior turned and seemed to find her almost immediately. His eyes glinted cruelly as he surveyed her. Skypaw felt a cool feeling of uncertainty and fear sink into the depths of her gut as she realized Hookclaw hadn't yet finished with her, either.