Daughter of the Sun

Hunter

Chapter Fourteen
HUNTER


"Hey, Skypaw, wake up!"

Skypaw's eyes flew open to see Dustpaw suddenly stick his head into the apprentices' cave. His eyes were blazing with excitement.

"What is it?" Skypaw asked as she groggily pushed herself to her paws. "Jaggedkit and Frostkit being made apprentices?"

"Better," Dustpaw mewed, his eyes shining. "They're not receiving their apprentice names till another moon, anyway. But it's our assessments today! And if me and my littermates pass...we'll be made into warriors!"

"Great, great..." Skypaw yawned. She rose to her paws and stretched her back. Straightening up again, she added drowsily, "So what does this have to do with me?"

"We're doing pair hunting," mewed Dustpaw imperiously, "and you're going to be partnered with one of the apprentices."

Skypaw was instantly awake, and she couldn't help but feel a touch excited herself as she hurried after Dustpaw from the apprentices' cave, and into the sunlit clearing.

Already there were a lot of cats gathered for the grand assessment. Skypaw couldn't help but feel a surge of pride as she looked over healed ThunderClan. Half a moon ago, the camp was full of sneezing, coughing cats, mourning and grieving for the loss of their beloveds. Now, two weeks on and nearing the end of leaf-fall, the Clan was strong once more. Jayfeather's herb stores were slowly being restocked, and everyone was fit and healthy. Only a few who had been affected with the sickness most severely, such as Spottedheart, were still recovering from the greencough outbreak, but the daughter of the Clan leader's strength was fast returning, and she hardly even coughed anymore. She'd be returning to her duties soon enough.

Lionstar stood in a circle with the four apprentices eagerly standing around him. Their mentors—Rosepetal, Ivypool, Berrynose and Poppyfrost—were standing beside them. Cherrypelt was also beside Lionstar, and when Skypaw drew near, her mentor glanced at her and then flicked her tail up in greeting. Skypaw, for a moment, wondered why that her mentor was here. Then she remembered that Cherrypelt was the apprentices' mother. Of course she would be here, then, to wish them luck.

"I wondered when you'd finally arrive, lazybones," Cherrypelt purred.

"Morning," Skypaw mewed shyly, feeling a twist of apprehension in her belly. She looked around at the other apprentices, and realized with shock that they were grown up now. They were no longer the young and playful apprentices she once had known and called denmates. Now they were all full grown, strong-minded, mature and wise. Larkpaw was even bigger than his mentor Rosepetal now.

"Where are our other partners?" Stormpaw mewed.

Ivypool flicked her tailtip against her apprentices' flank. "They're coming, don't worry, Stormpaw."

"Who else is coming?" asked Skypaw curiously.

"Foxleap, Thrushsong and Amberheart," replied Berrynose. "Let's hope that they can keep up with the apprentices. Well, Whitepaw, at least. He can out-hunt any cat in the Clan."

"Even better than Thrushsong?" his mate inquired lightly.

"Well, she'd better keep up with Whitepaw; she's his partner," Berrynose replied.

"I am?" The indicated she-cat now appeared, her soft brown-and-white speckled pelt groomed to perfection and shining over her slender, well-muscled body. Skypaw realized that she hadn't groomed yet and self-consciously began to wash her ruffled pelt.

"You heard Berrynose," Whitepaw told her. "You'll have to keep up with me, and do exactly what I say."

"Oh, StarClan," Thrushsong teased. "He's inherited his mentor's arrogance as well as his skills!"

Purrs of laughter rang around the gathered group, except for Whitepaw and Berrynose, who simply glowered at her. "Relax," Thrushsong purred, flicking Whitepaw's side with her fluffy tail. "I'm just teasing you. I'm sure that I'll be able to keep up with you, O Mighty Whitepaw."

"Sorry we're late," mewed Foxleap. The russet-coloured warrior and Amberheart appeared just behind Lionstar. He gazed around at his four kits fondly. "So...who are our partners?"

"Foxleap, you're with Stormpaw," Ivypool meowed, and the dark gray apprentice puffed out her chest with pride as her father went to stand beside her. "And Amberheart, you're with Dustpaw." She gestured to each apprentice in turn.

"Which means you're with me!" Larkpaw mewed to Skypaw, and when she turned to glance at the handsome mottled brown tom, his eyes were bright. "Of course...you could be with another cat, if you wanted..." he added, suddenly sheepish.

"No, no, it's fine," Skypaw assured him, aware that his littermates were snickering. Larkpaw's ears flicked forward almost at once.

"Right; you've been told what happens," said Lionstar, and the apprentices and partners looked up towards their Clan leader. "Stormpaw, Dustpaw, Whitepaw and Larkpaw, you must prove to us that you know how to lead and how to instruct others to ambush pieces of prey. You must show us that you know how to cooperate."

The indicated apprentices nodded solemnly.

"Skypaw," Lionstar added, turning to her, "this is your first assessment, and will count towards the completion of your training. Because of this, your mentor will also be watching you, as Rosepetal will be watching Larkpaw. You must prove to us your abilities to comprehend instructions, to follow them through and your base hunting skills."

Skypaw nodded. "Yes, Lionstar." Another reason why Cherrypelt's here then, she thought, glancing up at her mentor.

"We return at sunhigh," Ivypool added. "We will come and find you when you have caught enough pieces of prey and proven your skills. If all goes well, you know the reward which awaits the four of you when you come back."

Excitement scorched through the pelts of the four apprentices, but Skypaw couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy. It'll be several more moons yet before I get my warrior's name! Then she shrugged. I guess I've still got more things to learn.

"Off you go, then," prompted Cherrypelt.

The apprentices exchanged excited glances before they turned and raced out from the camp. Their partners shook their heads in amusement at their enthusiasm before more calmly following them. Skypaw began to fall into step behind Amberheart when she heard a familiar voice call, "Wait!"

She turned around to see Bumblestripe suddenly dash across the clearing. He paused beside Skypaw and gave her a loving nuzzle.

"Good luck," he murmured.

Skypaw felt warmth flood through her. "Thanks, Father," she mewed. Bumblestripe blinked warmly at her before he turned and headed back towards where he had been sharing a meal with Dovewing and a few other ThunderClan warriors. Skypaw knew that he had been hurt she hadn't told him about her power, until she publicly expressed it to the whole of the Clan, and she was glad that he had forgiven her. She turned and pelted through the thorn tunnel and out into the forest beyond.

The others were gone already; the mentors had melted into the trees and Larkpaw leapt to his paws when he saw Skypaw approach him. "Come on!" he urged her. "What was the hold up?"

"Sorry," Skypaw apologized. "Father just wanted to wish me luck."

Larkpaw nodded in understanding. "Okay. But now let's get to hunting. Where should we go?"

"Hey, this is your assessment, remember?" Skypaw reminded him.

"Oh, yes—oops." Larkpaw self-consciously glanced over his shoulder as though aware that Rosepetal, somewhere in the shadowy depths of the leaf-fall forest, was watching him. He turned back to Skypaw and mewed, "Uh...let's try up towards the old Twoleg nest. Follow my lead!"

"Okay." Skypaw fell into step just behind Larkpaw as he led the way into the forest.

Soon they were running, bounding swiftly over the fallen leaves. As Skypaw ran, she sensed a quiet kind of joy in Larkpaw's movements, and when she glanced at him, she saw pure happiness flashing in his bright eyes, as though there was nothing he would rather have been doing this fine cool morning. "You seem in an awfully good mood," Skypaw commented, as they cleared a fallen branch.

"Oh! Uh...yes, I am," Larkpaw said quickly, and Skypaw was astounded to hear embarrassment in his voice as he replied. He looked quickly away, as though awkward. "Just...happy that I'm finally doing this today! And now! Er...I mean, getting my warrior name."

Skypaw chuckled at his clumsiness. "I would be too," she confided.

Larkpaw seemed both relieved and frustrated at these words, and Skypaw glanced at him, puzzled. "Is there something on your mind, Larkpaw?" she asked.

"My mind? No! Not at all! I mean...yes, there is. Prey. Yes! I'm thinking about what we could catch." The words came out in an almost incoherent ramble, and Skypaw found himself staring at him. Larkpaw's ears flattened to his head as though he were ashamed.

"Larkpaw...?" Skypaw prompted curiously, slowing her pawsteps. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Larkpaw skidded to a halt just in front of her, and calmly and nervously he exhaled. "Yes, I'm fine. I just hope that I don't mess this up," he replied quickly.

Skypaw purred as she approached him, flicking him in a friendly way. "Oh, come on, Larkpaw. You'll be fine. You beat whitecough, remember? You'll be able to beat this, too. You might even earn your warrior name Larkflight."

Larkpaw suddenly nodded. "Yes. That's the warrior name I want. Not the one that my littermates gave me."

"Larkbeak does sound funny, though," Skypaw purred. "Come on! I can almost smell the mice at the Twoleg nest now."

"Right! Hunting." Larkpaw swiftly leapt to his paws and bounded into the forest. Skypaw shook her head slightly as she raced after him. This wasn't the first time he'd acted all jumpy around her, she recollected, but today seemed particularly bad. Obviously something was troubling him. Maybe it was just nerves.

A little while later, exchanging friendly conversation along the way, Larkpaw and Skypaw reached the Twoleg nest. Larkpaw paused at the base of the rotted fence and tasted the air. "We're alone," he said. "But I can smell something." He frowned, his nose twitching. "Mouse...? No, vole. I'm pretty sure there's a vole just in the garden."

"There is," Skypaw affirmed as a flash of insight came to her. She could see the little creature nibbling on a tiny shoot of... "Oh no, it's eating Jayfeather's catmint!"

Larkpaw's eyes grew round. "Uh-oh. Jayfeather won't be happy."

"Nor are we! Come on, let's catch it before it can eat Jayfeather's other herbs!" Skypaw slipped through a rotted hole in the fence, Larkpaw squeezing in just behind her. When they emerged into the herb garden, they spotted the vole immediately. It was sitting in the soft earth—and sure enough, nibbling on a juicy, tiny green sprig of catmint that, despite the cooling weather, had burst from the ground in an attempt at life.

"Little piece of fox-dung," growled Larkpaw, lashing his tail. "Okay...you go to that side..." He gestured said side with a sweep of his tail. "...so it can't get past you if it tries to run. I'll stalk it from behind."

Skypaw nodded and slipped away to the side. Larkpaw headed slowly towards the vole, dropping down into a stealthy crouch, every sense alert and tense, focused entirely on the thieving rodent.

When Skypaw reached a suitable place to hide, she settled down into a tense hunting crouch and stared intensely at the vole. It was chewing on the catmint faster and faster as though enjoying the taste, completely forgetting to look behind it or even around it. Jayfeather's going to be furious, she thought, as she noticed a few other broken and nibbled stalks of new shoots of catmint. I bet he'll personally want that vole for himself.

She waited as Larkpaw crept closer and closer towards it, keeping his pawsteps light and slow, sifting expertly through the fallen leaves with practiced ease. When a blackbird distantly let out an alarm call far across the forest and the vole sat up, Larkpaw froze immediately, holding the position, until Skypaw almost believed that he had become one with the earth beneath him. Then the vole returned to its chewing, and Larkpaw returned to his stalking.

Suddenly Skypaw's vision darkened as she felt the ground sway beneath her. She felt herself lose balance...or had she? Some part of her still told her that she was standing up, that she hadn't moved at all.

But just as suddenly everything around her had reformed...but changed. Skypaw stared around her in amazement as suddenly the fallen leaves turned green and returned to the tree branches, the grass became soft and luscious beneath her paws, the fences looked far less rotten and much more whole, and Jayfeather's garden was overflowing with herbs and catmint.

What the...? Skypaw stared around her in astonishment. Where am I? What happened?

But she quickly realized that everything didn't seem quite...as genuine as it should. The colours were too bright in some places, too dark in other places. Everything seemed to move slowly, and when it did, the faintest traces of its instant previous movements followed it, like a kind of visual echo.

Then she became aware that there was a little blackbird pulling at a worm beneath a series of dark green pine trees on the far side of the Twoleg nest. Skypaw stared in shock at it. Its movements were so slow and graceful and those strange visual echoes followed it, blurs of colour against its environment. She realized that it was being hunted. There were two shapes watching it intently from the pines. One of them was a very pale silver-and-white tabby with piercing blue eyes which were trained impatiently on the blackbird. The other was a dappled tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat who looked full-grown, but very young...much younger than what she looked like now...

What in the name of StarClan...? Skypaw wondered. Is that...Ivypool? And Blossomfall?

Why were they so young, so small, as though they were apprentices again? Why was she even seeing this? Skypaw frowned, trying to make sense of what was going on. But then she saw Ivypool's flanks rock from side to side as she prepared to pounce. At that instant, Blossomfall erupted from hiding, leaping at the blackbird. It let out a startled shriek—the sound was faint and echoing in Skypaw's ears, as though she were hearing it from the other end of a very long stone tunnel. Blossomfall struggled with the blackbird for a moment while Ivypool looked on motionlessly. Then at last, Blossomfall subdued the blackbird with a quick bite to the neck.

Skypaw watched as a few specks of rain began to fall from a cloudy sky above, at the same moment the younger versions of Ivypool and Blossomfall straightened. She stared as suddenly two toms she had never seen in her life, one a handsome golden-brown tabby, and the other a dark brown tabby tom with sharp green eyes, appeared from the pines. The brown tabby tom was carrying a large squirrel, which he dropped as he neared Ivypool and Blossomfall. "Nicely caught," he mewed to Blossomfall.

I don't recognize his voice at all, Skypaw thought. Nor do I recognize his features...

The golden-brown tabby tom shrugged. "Whatever Firestar says, I don't see the point of hunting in pairs," he meowed. "Blossompaw would have caught it if Ivypaw were somewhere else catching her own prey."

What? Firestar? Blossompaw? Ivypaw? Skypaw stared in shock as realization hit her. This...this is the past! Ivypool and Blossomfall are just apprentices, and Firestar's still Clan leader...and that golden tom. He's not Lionstar...who is he and his companion?

"Seems like a waste of warriors," the golden-brown tabby added. He glanced up at the sky and the rain steadily grew heavier. Water droplets made their way through the pines and splashed onto his nose, making him sneeze. "Come on," he meowed, shaking his head to clear the droplets. "I think we've seen enough. Let's get back to camp before the downpour starts."

Blossomfall—no, Blossompaw—lashed her tail indignantly. "But I've only caught one bird!"

She sounds so young, thought Skypaw. It felt really strange to see her as an indignant young apprentice. I wonder...are they having an assessment, or is this just a hunting patrol? As Blossompaw argued, the rain began to fall harder.

"We've seen enough," the golden-brown tabby tom repeated. With a swish of his tail, he gestured towards the squirrel, and he mewed to Ivypaw, "You may as well carry your own catch."

Ivypaw looked undeniably smug as she picked up her squirrel proudly, which looked a lot more impressive than Blossompaw's bird. Blossompaw shot her a dirty look as the two apprentices fell into step behind the two strange warriors as they began to head into the trees.

Suddenly her vision dissolved into darkness, and Skypaw opened her eyes in time to suddenly hear Larkpaw give a huff of satisfaction. She looked up sharply to see him straightening, holding the limp body of the vole in his jaws.

Everything was back to how it had been...it was leaf-fall, and the Twoleg nest was looking decayed as it usually did, Jayfeather's herb garden sadly empty of catmint and filled only with shrivelled remainders of a few strands of tansy and chervil and other plants. Skypaw blinked a few times, still marveling at what she had just seen. What in the name of StarClan happened...?

"There," Larkpaw mewed around the vole. "Now you won't be eating any more of the catmint in the garden." He turned to Skypaw and padded over to her. Concern suddenly danced in his eyes. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly, dropping the vole. "You look spooked."

Skypaw gave herself a slight shake. "Never mind," she replied. "I'll...I'll speak to Jayfeather or Aura when I get back to the camp. Just...saw something a bit weird."

Larkpaw looked very anxious. "You could tell me about it, you know. What you saw. I might...be able to help, in some way."

"No," Skypaw said firmly, standing up. "We've got an assessment to complete. Whatever just happened can wait until we return to the hollow. Nice catch, by the way," she added, noticing the vole more clearly at his paws. It was a bit scrawny, as pieces of leaf-fall prey would at this time, but plumper than most. "I'm sure the kits would really appreciate that," she added.

Larkpaw looked proud. "They're really cute, aren't they?" he mewed off-pawedly, as he picked up the vole again. "I hope that one day Lionstar will let me mentor one of them. You think he would?"

"Maybe," Skypaw replied quietly. Clawkit, Ravenkit, Owlkit and Graykit were all growing up very fast. They were two moons old now and all of them were bright, spirited and healthy, having recovered completely from their bout of sickness, and were all close friends of Frostkit and Jaggedkit. The six kits had grown closer to each other since the deaths of Mapleleaf and Snowfoot.

"Where to next?" Skypaw mewed to Larkpaw, returning to the present.

"Uh..." Larkpaw frowned. "How about we try the shore?"

"Good idea," Skypaw nodded.

Larkpaw dug a small hole in the ground, put his vole inside it, and kicked earth over it, ready to come back to it later so they could travel faster. As Skypaw raced after Larkpaw again, she found herself puzzling more and more over the strange occurrence that she had seen.

It had something to do with the Tigermark, Skypaw thought, frowning. Something to do with my power. The question is, why? Why did I see a memory? And why didn't Aura tell me about this if she knew I was going to start doing it?

When it was nearly sunhigh the assessment ended. Skypaw and Larkpaw had just straightened up from tracking and killing a young thrush when the bracken rustled and Rosepetal and Cherrypelt emerged. They were carrying the vole from the Twoleg nest, and the mouse the two apprentices had previously found by the shore.

"You both did well," Cherrypelt meowed to them, dropping the piece of prey she was carrying and looking critically over her son and apprentice. "You hunted well together and you've caught a fair amount of prey in leaf-fall."

Larkpaw self-consciously lowered his eyes. He was proud nonetheless, as was Skypaw.

"Let's head back to the hollow," Rosepetal suggested, "and see if Lionstar thinks you ready to become a warrior, Larkpaw."

The mottled tabby tom's eyes brightened with excitement, and he quickly fell into step beside his mentor. Skypaw began to follow him when she heard Cherrypelt meow softly, "A moment, Skypaw."

Skypaw stopped and glanced over her shoulder. The conclusion had already formed in her mind. "You heard me in the Twoleg nest, didn't you?"

"Yes," Cherrypelt affirmed, her eyes grim. "What happened?"

She fell into step beside Skypaw. The two were a little bit behind Rosepetal and Larkpaw but still in sight, and Skypaw lowered her voice so she could speak more privately with her mentor.

"I'm still trying to figure that out for myself," Skypaw replied quietly, uncertainly. "I'm really confused as to what happened. I mean, it wasn't something I had ever experienced before."

"Did you receive a vision of the future?" Cherrypelt asked.

Skypaw shook her head. "This is what confuses me, Cherrypelt. I had a vision of the past."

"The past?" Cherrypelt looked as puzzled as Skypaw felt. "What did you see?"

"Well, I was in the forest, at the Twoleg nest...and I saw Ivypool and Blossomfall together, and they were hunting a blackbird. Everything was green, as though it were greenleaf, or very early leaf-fall—well, greener than it is now, at least. Ivypool and Blossomfall were apprentices. They were younger-looking, and the two cats who appeared after Blossomfall killed the blackbird called them by their apprentice names."

"Other cats?" Cherrypelt inquired. "Describe them to me."

"Well, one of them was a golden-brown tabby tom. But he was a darker gold than Lionstar, and he was a bit smaller and slimmer than Lionstar, too. He had several scars, though, and he looked and sounded different. The other was a dark brown tabby tom with very sharp green eyes."

Cherrypelt looked startled. "I suspect that you just might have seen Thornclaw and Dustpelt, those two toms who came to speak with Ivypool and Blossomfall."

Thornclaw and Dustpelt? But they've been long dead...

"It really must have been a vision of the past, then," Skypaw concluded uncertainly. "But I don't understand the point of it. All I saw was them hunting. There was nothing referring to the far future, nothing referring to even me, or the Dark Forest, or anything."

Cherrypelt shrugged. "I guess you will just have to speak with Jayfeather or Aura. They might have some idea."

"Yeah...maybe." Skypaw was still feeling spooked at what she had seen. The ghosts of the past still flickered before her eyes. Not once had she met Thornclaw or Dustpelt; both had died long before she was born, though many in the Clan remembered them. Thornclaw once had been tempted into the Dark Forest, though he had never become a Dark Forest warrior, and he had fought whole-heartedly with ThunderClan, not against them. Dustpelt had been a very short-tempered tabby, according to the senior warriors who had known him, but who had mentored many apprentices in his time with ThunderClan, fathered many kits, and who had loved his mate Ferncloud with all of his heart.

"So, the apprentices all passed?" Skypaw mewed.

Cherrypelt nodded. "So I heard. But Stormpaw and Whitepaw did something quite astounding, so I hear. They bumped into each other, but both were tracing a pheasant."

Skypaw stopped dead still. "A pheasant?" she repeated in amazement.

Cherrypelt nodded. "Quite incredible, isn't it? It must have been a gift from StarClan. So Stormpaw and Whitepaw, and their partners Foxleap and Thrushsong, all agreed to try and bring the pheasant down together like their own hunting patrol. I didn't see the event myself, but they apparently hunted amazingly well. They all brought down the pheasant together. Foxleap knew a certain tactic he learned when he visited the mountains all those seasons ago with Jayfeather, Dovewing and Squirrelflight. Something that he claimed the prey-hunters in the Tribe of Rushing Water knew and used to bring down eagles."

"He remembered after all these seasons passed since we last visited them?" Skypaw mewed, surprised. She remembered Dovewing telling her nursery stories about the mountains when she was still a young kit curled at her belly, about how the Tribe cats fought and killed prey that would attack them back.

"He must have. The pheasant's probably back in the hollow by now. And Dustpaw did quite well, too, so I heard from Poppyfrost. He managed to trace, chase and kill a rabbit all the way up to the WindClan border. I'm proud of all of my children."

"So all of the apprentices did well," Skypaw mewed.

"I'm certain that Lionstar will make them all warriors," Cherrypelt purred. "And if he doesn't, he has me and Foxleap to deal with."

When they returned to the hollow, Skypaw saw that they were the last ones left to arrive. Stormpaw and Whitepaw were standing proudly over the body of an enormous bird that was as big as she was, if not bigger. Berrynose and Ivypool had their chests puffed out proudly, and Foxleap padded over and greeted Cherrypelt the moment she entered through the thorn tunnel behind Skypaw.

"Did you see what they got?" Ferndust mewed excitedly, bounding over to Skypaw the moment the silver tabby laid eyes on her. "Stormpaw and Whitepaw caught a pheasant. A real pheasant! Not even Squirrelflight said she managed to catch one in all her years, and she's been to the mountains four times!"

"There aren't pheasants in the mountains," Skypaw pointed out.

"But there are eagles," Ferndust countered. She gazed in admiration at Whitepaw. "He's so clever. Whitepaw was the one who delivered the killing blow to the pheasant, even when Foxleap, Stormpaw and Amberheart struggled to hold it down!"

Skypaw glanced at him. "You like him?"

"He's a good friend," Ferndust mewed modestly. She glanced teasingly at Skypaw. "And I'm not the only admirer in ThunderClan!"

"What do you mean?" Skypaw asked, honestly puzzled.

"Skypaw," said Ferndust solemnly, "you may have been born with insight, but you can be really blind sometimes. Everyone has noticed that Larkpaw is really, really fond of you!"

Skypaw stared at her in disbelief."What? No...I mean, what makes you say that?"

"He stares at you all moony-eyed," Ferndust purred. "He's had eyes for you the moment that you stepped into the apprentices' cave and stole his heart. Of course...I won't spoil too much." Teasingly she gave Skypaw a nudge. "I'll let you figure that out for yourself."

Skypaw stared incredulously after her friend as she walked away. What an accusation! What a...well, maybe it wasn't so stupid after all. What about all the times he'd been awkward around her, overly concerned for her? She had always assumed that it was just because Larkpaw was always that way around his Clanmates—but now that she thought about it, he always did it the most around her. She half-glanced at Larkpaw, who threw her the quickest of glances and looked away again.

Does he really like me? Skypaw wondered.

"I know what happened."

Skypaw jumped and spun around at the voice, but relaxed when she only saw Aura standing beside her. "You should really give me a warning or something before you suddenly materialize beside me," she said firmly to her.

Aura gave a mrrow of laughter. "Yes, I probably should. My apologies. But returning to the situation, I know what happened at the Twoleg nest."

"I'd expect you to, Aura. I've known you long enough to know that you know a lot of things." Skypaw frowned. "What in the name of StarClan happened? I seemed to...well, I seemed to go back into a memory, or something."

"A memory is an adequate way to describe what you saw," Aura mewed thoughtfully. "But I didn't even expect you to have this much sensitivity to your Tigermark."

"What do you mean?"

"You are beginning to develop another power," Aura said. "You are growing in strength with your blessing, Skypaw. You truly were born to be blessed with a Tigermark. It seems that Time looks most favourably upon you, and has enhanced your abilities to walk in the memories of others. You are beginning to learn to walk in the memories of certain events that have happened long ago. You are literally turning back Time to your advantage."

Skypaw stared at her. "But...but I haven't even been able to control my ability and my gift yet," she argued. "I mean, I can't look as easily into the future as I can look back in the past...can I?"

She remembered the strange colours, the way she'd only vaguely heard the sounds and the voices, the way that visual echoes followed the slightest movement of what she had seen. It hadn't been clear at all...but it had been enough for Skypaw to see and to learn, despite it being something pretty much pointless.

"What I can tell you, Skypaw," mewed Aura quietly, "is that by the time you complete your training, you will be able to grasp your power with greater accuracy. You will be able to use it like a weapon with your claws and fangs, and your wisdom will have increased with your ability of walking in memories."

Skypaw looked away. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to get a grip on my power, Aura," she murmured despairingly.

"You will, Skypaw," Aura soothed. "You have been born to wield this mantle. I am certain in this; I do not even need to look into the future to know that you will become a great warrior, skilled in both mortal and immortal forces alike."

At that moment, a thunderous yowl echoed around the clearing.

"Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey join here beneath Highledge for a Clan meeting!"

Skypaw heard the apprentices gasp with delight and excitement. Cherrypelt trotted over and scolded them, and then began to furiously wash their pelts. Dustpaw ducked away from his mother's tongue and growled, "Mother, let me be, I can do it myself!"

"You look as though you've tumbled down a rise that's covered with bramble bushes!" Cherrypelt retorted. "Why didn't you give me a chance to clear the dust from your pelt, Dustpaw?"

"I'm named after a cat who did have dust in his pelt, aren't I?" Dustpaw retorted, and purrs of laughter rang around the gathered cats.

"Let them be," Foxleap told his frantic mate. "They look lovely."

Cherrypelt reluctantly nodded and stepped back. Skypaw watched as the four mentors of the apprentices, Rosepetal, Berrynose, Poppyfrost and Ivypool, each led their apprentice into the centre of the clearing. Already ThunderClan had gathered outside and formed a large half-circle around the shadow of Highledge. The eight cats stood alone in the centre of the clearing, and quickly Skypaw slipped into the crowd to find a good spot beside Ferndust and Patchwhisker, where she could see the ceremony taking place.

"But I want to see!" wailed a high-pitched kit's mew from somewhere near the nursery.

"This is for warriors and apprentices only," Hollythorn chided the kit. "Come along now; you can go and speak to them when the ceremony's over."

"Mother, I want to—"

"You heard me, Clawkit. Inside."

Skypaw chuckled as the kit's protesting mews died away, and turned her attention back to the front. Looking up at Lionstar, she saw that he was slightly nervous. I'm not surprised, she thought. These four apprentices will be the first in his new reign of leadership to be named warriors. This day would be remembered by the new Clan leader for the rest of his life.

"Cats of ThunderClan," Lionstar began. "We are gathered here beneath the leaf-fall sun to welcome four new warriors to ThunderClan."

Agreeing meows rang up around the gathered cats, and the four apprentices puffed out their chests with pride.

"Mentors," said Lionstar, as he turned to gaze at his Clanmates below him, "Do you believe that your apprentices are ready to become warriors?"

"They have trained hard," Ivypool responded.

"They are worthy," Rosepetal added.

"StarClan will be glad to welcome them as warriors," Berrynose meowed.

"There are no cats more deserving," Poppyfrost purred.

Lionstar nodded once and turned his eyes to the stars. "I, Lionstar, leader of ThunderClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down upon these four apprentices. They have trained hard in the ways of your noble code, and I commend them to you as warriors in their turn." He turned and bounded lightly down from Highledge until he came to a halt before the four apprentices. The mentors dipped their heads and took a step back, finding places amongst the crowd, so that Stormpaw, Larkpaw, Whitepaw and Dustpaw were quite alone in the centre of the clearing.

"Larkpaw, Whitepaw, Dustpaw and Stormpaw," Lionstar went on, "Do you promise to uphold the warrior code and all that the Clan stands for, even at the cost of your life?"

In unison, the four apprentices meowed solemnly, "I do."

Lionstar seemed satisfied. He turned his eyes to one of the apprentices and mewed his name.

"Dustpaw."

Dustpaw proudly stepped forward.

Lionstar lifted his voice after a moment's consideration. "From this moment, your name will be Dustfoot."

He dipped his head to the newly-named warrior and said, "StarClan honours your determination and skill, and we welcome you as a full warrior to ThunderClan." The golden warrior rested his chin on Dustfoot's head, and he licked his shoulder in return and stepped back.

"Whitepaw," said Lionstar, and the indicated apprentice strode forward, eyes glinting with satisfaction.

"From this moment, you will be known as Whiteblaze. StarClan honours your strength and loyalty, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ThunderClan." Lionstar rested his chin upon Whiteblaze's forehead, and the warrior licked his shoulder and stepped back, as his brother had done.

"Stormpaw," Lionstar said, turning to the sleek gray she-cat. "From this moment, you will be known as Stormbreeze. StarClan honours your wit and your ferocity, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ThunderClan."

Stormbreeze looked pleased at her new name. When she, too, had licked her leader's shoulder and stepped back, Lionstar turned lastly to Larkpaw, who almost apprehensively surveyed Lionstar.

"Larkpaw," began Lionstar solemnly. "From this moment, you will be known as—"

"Larkbeak!" called Whiteblaze, and mrrows of laughter rang around the Clan.

Larkpaw glared at his brother, lashing his tail in frustration. Lionstar purred his amusement for a moment, before he called for silence.

"No, his name will not be Larkbeak," he said. "Larkpaw, your name will be Larkflight."

Larkflight's eyes widened in joy, and he proudly bowed his head to his leader.

"StarClan honours your humour and your devotion," Lionstar continued, still sounding light-hearted and amused. "And we welcome you as a full warrior to ThunderClan."

He rested his chin upon Larkflight's head, and the overjoyed young warrior licked his shoulder and stepped back, puffing out his chest as he did so. The calls of the Clan went up into the air.

"Dustfoot! Whiteblaze! Stormbreeze! Larkflight!"

"May StarClan watch over us all," Lionstar concluded. "As Clan tradition, the four new warriors may stand vigil tonight, and do so in silence. We have watched you grow from kit to adult, and may the wisdom you have obtained from your mentors linger with you long into the afterlife."

The four new warriors humbly bowed their heads. Lionstar turned and bounded back up the stones to Highledge as the Clan converged on the new warriors to congratulate them—and for Larkflight to whack Whiteblaze over the head.

Skypaw was proud that her friends were now warriors. Soon, hopefully in a few moons, she would be with them.

I'm also now the only apprentice in the Clan, she thought suddenly, and she couldn't help but feel a touch morose. Just like for two moons after they left, I was the only kit in the nursery. But...but at least I wasn't alone...

Her mother had been there, and then one moon later Mapleleaf had moved in, one moon pregnant with her unborn kits. Skypaw let out a small sigh. She'd have the apprentices' cave all to herself now. She'd miss her friends, that was for sure.

"Skypaw." Skypaw looked up at the sound of her name to see her mentor approaching her, pride in her eyes. "I didn't get a chance to say this earlier, but you did a very good hunting assessment. Seems like what I've taught you have stayed preserved in your memory."

Sheepishly Skypaw dipped her head, remembering that in her early days as an apprentice she had been absent-minded and forgetful. Then she had met Aura...and many answers had come clear.

"We'll do some battle training tomorrow," said Cherrypelt. "Treetop fighting or ground skirmishes—your call."

"Ground skirmish, I think," Skypaw mewed.

Cherrypelt nodded. "Go and congratulate your friends," she recommended as she turned and headed towards her sons and daughter, pride for them already lighting her gaze.

Skypaw remained where she was for a moment, however. She found herself simply gazing at ThunderClan, listening to the happy, contented rumbling of purrs, mews and offers of congratulations that rang around her Clanmates and the excited chirrups of the new warriors as they declared how much they liked their new names—and Larkflight proudly boasting that yes, he had been named what he had wanted to be called.

ThunderClan has healed, Skypaw realized. We are more than ready to face the trials that are to come, whatever they may be.

She closed her eyes and turned her face up to the sky. She swore that she could almost hear the proud whispers of her deceased Clanmates ringing in her mind.

Thank you for your sacrifices, she thought, her heart reaching out to the seven who had given their lives that ThunderClan may continue on. I promise with every muscle in my body and hair on my pelt that I will not let your lost lives be in vain. This, Bramblestar, I swear.



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