The horrified exclamation was repeated by several others who stood in Lionstar's den. Squirrelflight's eyes were wide with horror, Cinderheart was plain shocked, Jayfeather's expression was grim, and Dovewing slowly shook her head, hardly daring to believe it. Bumblestripe was speechless.
Lionstar stared at Skypaw and meowed, "And you are certain that this creature is to come within a half moon?"
Skypaw nodded. "We have to be prepared for it."
"But how? How can we fight a...a...a whatever it is?" Cinderheart asked desperately.
"A bear," Aura meowed, calm as ever. "It is a bear."
"They sound much worse than the beavers," Dovewing hissed, trembling against her mate. Bumblestripe curled his tail tightly over her shivering flanks. Skypaw felt bad that she had frightened her mother, but she knew that she had to warn her Clan and she was in no mood to make it sound less frightening than it already was.
"Squirrelflight?" Lionstar meowed, turning to his aunt. "What say you to this? Do you think we have a chance at all against this...bear?"
There was a flash of respect in Lionstar's voice. Skypaw knew that Squirrelflight had seen countless wonders, faced countless dangers and had the most experience of dealing with danger than any other cat in the den. The she-cat was old, too old to face new dangers anymore, but her mind was clear and wisdom flashed in her fading green eyes.
"If what Skypaw describes it to be like is true," she rasped eventually, "then I don't think we can meet it head-on."
Lionstar flattened his ears. "Then how can we deal with it? It's coming. I trust Aura and I trust Skypaw."
"We don't doubt them anymore," Bumblestripe said formally. "They must be able to think of something we can do to fight the bear."
"Is it even coming here to fight?" asked Cinderheart.
"It's not coming to the lake to make friends," Dovewing said curtly.
Cinderheart bristled. "I wasn't implying that. What if it was just passing through? I mean, we thought all badgers were bad, but yet Midnight saved us several times over."
"This is different," frowned Lionstar. "We haven't been summoned to speak with this bear and the lake isn't in any more danger than it currently is." He turned back to Skypaw and meowed, "Is this the huge threat that is coming to face the lake? Is this the moment when we have to unite and fight it?"
Skypaw shook her head. "No. The danger is yet to come. This is an enemy that ThunderClan will have to deal with."
"We aren't even going to ask for help from the other Clans?" asked Squirrelflight in surprise.
"The Clans are tense with leaf-bare fast approaching," Lionstar reflected. "It wouldn't be the best thing to do to tell the other Clans about this creature."
"It will come to ThunderClan's territory alone," meowed Aura confidently. "So we will face it alone. This will prove our strength to the other Clans, as well as our own. It is a test of Skypaw's harmony with her power."
Jayfeather flicked one ear. "Has it developed yet?" he rasped.
"It is still developing," Skypaw replied, a little shyly. She felt embarrassed talking about it, for some reason. "But Aura says I'm ready to begin the next part of my training. I have to face the bear and there's an ability that I am to master. That I'm ready to master."
"What is this ability?" Jayfeather asked.
Skypaw glanced at Aura. "I...I don't really know how to explain it..."
Aura nodded. "I understand." She turned to Jayfeather and mewed, "The Quarter Time Tigermark is enhancing in strength within Skypaw as she grows. Before, she could only sense the thoughts of others, walk in their memories, and see into the future."
Jayfeather nodded. "I know all this."
"But now the Tigermark is growing stronger as Skypaw grows stronger. Skypaw, as you know, can now relive an event of the past if she finds herself in its place, sensitive to memories even ancient and long-buried, without having to look into the mind of another first. Her ability of memory-walking has been enhanced. So has her gift of insight. She has been given a second gift, you see; the power to manipulate Time to her advantage."
Lionstar's eyes were round. "How is this possible?"
"What do you mean?" Dovewing asked, her voice a hesitant mixture of pride and uncertainty.
"It means that when I have finished teaching Skypaw, she will know how to warp Time around her, use it to her advantage," Aura explained. "She will be able to control Time's movements—for a short amount of it, of course, as it is unwise to tamper with Time's delicate threads for long—and use it as a fighting ability."
Jayfeather looked amazed. "I didn't think it could be done."
"Nor did I," Aura admitted truthfully. "But Skypaw has been born into the role of a bearer of a Tigermark of Time. Time may give this gift to her temporarily, that she may deal with the bear threat, or may have blessed her with this gift permanently. For now it is not for me to know, but for me to act upon."
Skypaw was feeling slightly amazed at herself—and very self-conscious as all the other cats in the room stared at her as though she were some immortal being.
After a moment, Lionstar asked quietly, "How much time do you need to train Skypaw?"
"I must begin immediately," Aura replied.
Skypaw glanced at her younger mentor and mewed uncertainly, "What about Cherrypelt? My warrior training? Won't I need to sharpen up on my abilities more than ever?"
"You will not neglect your warrior training, I assure you," Aura promised. "Cherrypelt will train with us. She will train you in the fighting arts and at the same time, I will teach you how to use Time in the heat of battle. We will mentor you, for a short time, together."
Skypaw nodded, feeling sudden excitement churn in the pits of her belly. "I look forward to it."
"Is there anything else that we need to know, before we begin preparations?" Cinderheart asked sharply.
"Yes," said Aura, turning back swiftly to the gray she-cat. "We must always, always be aware of what is happening around us. Times are changing, Cinderheart, and not necessarily for the better." She turned back to Lionstar and meowed, "When the time comes, I ask that I have your trust."
Lionstar blinked once. "You have it already, young one."
"You do not understand. The bear cannot be fought with direct confrontation. To do so will mean immediate death."
"Then how can we fight it?" Bumblestripe growled.
"I presume that you remember the nursery stories of what happened in the old forest, when the dog pack threatened ThunderClan's very survival?" Aura asked.
Skypaw found herself nodding. She had heard the story many times over.
"What are you getting at?" Jayfeather meowed.
"The dogs couldn't be fought directly, could they?" Aura pressed. "Nor can the bear. The dogs were lured to their deaths into the gorge."
Squirrelflight nodded. "Firestar made a plan. There were runners—they led the dogs through the forest and up to the gorge."
"But there isn't a gorge here," frowned Dovewing. "We can't lead the bear into a gorge if it doesn't exist. The rivers would be too shallow for such a huge creature."
"We don't lead the bear to a gorge," said Aura. "But we make the most of our surroundings." Her eyes were bright with excitement. "I know of how we will deal with the bear. But to do so, we will all have to begin at once, and you will all have to trust me."
Lionstar's ears flicked forward. "What did you have in mind?"
The conversation that followed lasted for many hours.
That evening Lionstar announced the threat, the danger, to the entire Clan. They were shocked, and asked Skypaw and Aura many questions. They responded to the best of their ability. Lionstar then proceeded to inform them of the new rules that were to follow. No apprentice was to go out alone from now on. As Skypaw was now the only apprentice, and she certainly wasn't going to go out alone anywhere, she took the message to heart. All patrols had to have at least three warriors. The north borders were to be patrolled the most, and where construction for what was called The Bear Trap was to begin. Lionstar informed the Clan that he needed eight strong warriors to work on The Bear Trap—four in the day, four in the night—over the next two weeks, and under the supervision of Cinderheart and Bumblestripe, who had agreed to oversee the layout of the trap.
Flamefur and Yellownose promptly offered their services. Berrynose offered a moment later. Patchwhisker, Dewclaw and Moleclaw volunteered a heartbeat after, nearly overtalking Foxleap and Hazeltail in their enthusiasm. Skypaw felt pride flicker through her as she heard the eight cats promise to work on The Bear Trap. She felt humbled that the Clan had placed their faith in her and Aura to protect them.
Lionstar then proceeded to explain that Toadstep, Amberheart, Ferndust, Runningleap and Stormbreeze were to speak with Dovewing and Squirrelflight, and receive certain instructions. The five looked thrilled with this. Cherrypelt was to speak immediately with Jayfeather, Aura and Skypaw. He instructed Ivypool to arrange patrols, and told Hollythorn strictly that the kits were now under her care and that they were not permitted at any time to leave the camp. If they were heading to make dirt then they had to be continually supervised, as the forest was certainly not the place for any kit, no matter how old they were. Frostkit and Jaggedkit looked mutinous at this. Hollythorn simply nodded and promised Lionblaze that they would go nowhere without her knowledge. However, Lionstar continued, because our only apprentice is going under intensive training for the next half-moon, Frostkit and Jaggedkit, the oldest kits in the den, were permitted to begin apprentice tasks, and the two kits brightened considerably with this. They looked very proud at bearing such responsibility.
Cherrypelt was completely bemused as she approached Aura and Skypaw, but her confusion quickly changed to shock and then determination as Skypaw rapidly explained to her mentor of what she had to do to face the bear.
"I'm with you," Cherrypelt promised. "We'll begin at once tomorrow."
"All manners of fighting," Aura mewed. "Treetop in particular. We need fast runners on the ground, but Skypaw's skills need to be enhanced to just as sharp perfection."
Skypaw nodded. "I'll train really hard. You'll see!"
"I know you will," Cherrypelt told her.
The training and new regime began the very next morning. Skypaw jerked awake at sunrise to see the camp was already blazing with activity. Hunting patrols and border patrols were out and the day-workers of The Bear Trap with Cinderheart had already departed to begin construction. Good luck, Skypaw thought after them as they slipped through the gorse tunnel and into the forest beyond.
She looked up at the call of her name to see Aura swiftly bound over to her. She had never seen the five-moon-old kit move so swiftly. She dropped a plump shrew at Skypaw's paws. "Eat," she instructed crisply. "You need all your strength, Skypaw."
The apprentice quickly gulped down the shrew and hurried to the gorse tunnel, where Aura and Cherrypelt were already waiting.
As she turned to depart, she heard someone yowl, "Good luck, Skypaw!"
She glanced over her shoulder. Ferndust's eyes were bright and warm.
"I won't fail!" Skypaw promised her friend. Then she turned and bounded after her mentors into the dappled forest.
They headed to the deserted training hollow, barely breathless, though Skypaw's heart hammered in her chest. This was it. This was the day she would begin her training, how to warp Time to her advantage, to her need.
Aura turned to Skypaw.
"You are strong," she began. "You know many techniques of fighting. You know how the day turns to night, how the moon rises and sets and the stars govern our lives. But never before, not even in the history of the Clans, has a cat been so blessed by Time to be permitted to wield its mantle."
Skypaw shivered in apprehension.
"Therefore, I cannot teach you."
She stared at Aura, her surprise equaled by her mentor.
"What are you saying?"
Aura blinked once. "What I just said. It is not in my power to teach you how to warp Time because I do not know how."
"So how do I learn, then?" Skypaw demanded.
"From them," responded Aura, and her eyes grew unusually luminous. "I will teach you how to speak with the Four."
Skypaw felt amazement pass through her. She swallowed nervously and said, "I...I'm going to speak with the Four? With Change, and...and Fate, and Destiny? Even Time?"
"How?" Cherrypelt asked in bewilderment. "Do you know how to?"
"Oh, my, yes," Aura replied quietly. "As the new Guardian, it is my duty to hear the Four, to understand what the future holds, to understand the turnings of fate and destiny. StarClan, after all, communes with Fate and Destiny and Change all the time." She turned back to Skypaw and mewed, "This may take a lot of time, or a little amount, or barely any time at all. Or perhaps they will speak to you at once. But it is time for you to meet them."
"How?" Skypaw breathed.
Aura's eyes shone. "The only way that it is possible with four such beings of tremendous power. Through dreams."
She turned to Cherrypelt and mewed, "We must make her exhausted, Cherrypelt, so tired that she cannot head back to the camp. We must make her rest here, in the grounds of her struggle, the fruits of her labours. That will be her offering to the Four—her devotion. If her devotion is strong enough, then I am certain that they will come to her as she rests from her weariness."
Cherrypelt looked puzzled, but she dipped her head to Aura, bowing to her wisdom. She turned to Skypaw.
"I'm nervous," her apprentice admitted openly.
"Don't be," Cherrypelt encouraged her. "Imagine this as the most vigorous training session that you will ever have. You remember the battle that you took part in, three moons ago?" Skypaw nodded, and her mentor went on. "You fought very well then. Now is the time for you to fight now."
Skypaw nodded. "I'm ready."
Aura stepped back, and Cherrypelt and Skypaw began.
For many hours, they fought. They climbed up and down the trees and ambushed one another from above. They practiced every single maneuver that they had learned, and Cherrypelt taught her apprentice new ones, difficult ones, ones that would drain a half-grown apprentice like herself. Skypaw's strengthening muscles served her well as she faced and fought, delivering blow after blow to her mentor.
But exhaustion soon caught up with her. The sun rose into the sky. Her fur felt heavy. She felt her muscles begin to grow sore, and her movements wearisome. Cherrypelt was looking tired, too, but not nearly as tired as Skypaw. All through this time, Aura said nothing regarding the spar. She was very slowly pacing around the clearing, whispering words to herself in a strange melody, but which Skypaw did not hear as she struggled to keep standing, still defending herself. She was being bowled over more and more, and her breaths were growing harsh and laboured.
Even when Skypaw knew she could not go on, she pushed herself. She pushed herself until every inch of her ached; when her movements grew clumsy and wide, when she began to stagger about like a blind badger woken from its sleep. Cherrypelt was growing concerned, but Skypaw, without words, urged her mentor to keep going. She pleaded with her eyes.
This is for ThunderClan, Skypaw told herself, as she felt a bead of sweat roll off the end of her nose.
She forced her battered, weary body up into a tired leap, barely clearing Cherrypelt's back. She landed clumsily, stumbling, turning to face Cherrypelt yet again even when her entire body was screaming at her to stop. Her breaths were coming in frequent gasps, and her eyelids dragged at her eyes. Every part of her ached so...so much...
ThunderClan, she told herself. Cherrypelt leapt, Skypaw failed to defend herself, and she was flung onto her back, unable to push her heavier mentor off her. ThunderClan. Cherrypelt stepped back and Skypaw struggled to her paws. ThunderClan. She was told to climb the tree behind her. She turned. She unsheathed her claws and leapt at the trunk. Her movements were laced with fatigue and she had no strength, none at all, to pull herself up. The bark slipped beneath her claws. She slithered down to the earth and onto her side, her head resting against a soft, moss-covered root, her legs sprawled beneath her.
She was too tired to move.
"Sleep," Aura told Skypaw, her voice already sounding distant, "and may they accept your devotion into their hearts. Dream well, apprentice."
"Will she be all right?" Cherrypelt mewed anxiously.
"She will be fine..." Aura's voice sounded very muffled now.
Skypaw's eyes slid shut.
When she opened her eyes, feeling strangely at peace, she realized that she was most certainly not in the training hollow. She didn't even feel tired. On the contrary she felt very light and strong. She slowly rolled onto her paws and stood up, gave her body a quick stretch, and looked curiously around her.
She seemed to be standing on complete nothingness. Darkness swirled around her. Bright, silver mists curled at her paws. The darkness was cloudy, almost like clean smoke, tinged with blue and white. Nothing shone with starshine, but there was no scent, no surroundings; she was not back in the Dark Forest.
Where in the name of StarClan am I?
Skypaw took a few pawsteps forward. Everything felt very mysterious underpaw; soft and hard at the same time. Firm yet slippery. Lukewarm yet cold, damp yet dry. It felt unusually good and comfortable to walk on, and as she placed her weight on each paw, the ground briefly lit up in a sort of grayish light.
She considered speaking.
"Hello?" she yowled.
Her voice was rapidly swallowed up by her environment. Skypaw became aware that before her, everything was lightening, becoming a soft, glowing wall of bright grayish light. Beams of the strange light shone out like sunbeams. Skypaw shivered. There was something about this place, something that she couldn't describe.
That was when she heard a voice; thundering, gentle, melodic, both male and female, it rang all around her everywhere at once. Most of it, however, seemed to come from the bright gray expanse before her eyes.
"Your devotion to the code pleases us."
Skypaw slowly looked around. Oddly enough, she didn't feel afraid.
"Would you be the Four?" she asked softly, aware that she could pick out more than one somewhat distinct voice in that single united sound.
"We are Fate. We are Change. We are Destiny. We are Time. We are One."
"So I really am speaking to you?" Skypaw breathed. "This isn't...this isn't some strange dream of longing?"
"No. You dream of us, but not out of longing. You walk now in our nameless Realm, a place which has been forgotten to mortals for many generations. Not even those, blessed with our Marks, have ever ventured here."
"So why am I different, then?" Skypaw murmured.
"You are different because you are. Change has favoured you."
"I thought I was favoured by Time."
"You are blessed by Time. You may speak with us. It's a nice Change, don't you think?"
"I...I guess so," Skypaw conceded.
She looked around. "But where are you, if you speak to me?"
"Where are we, in your mortal world? We are everywhere, and we are nowhere. We are a part of the world itself. You breathe us in, you know of our doings, you blame us for mishaps and beg us to slow. You warp your lives around us, as we warp our lives around you. It is the same in this nameless Realm. We do not need a body as you do to exist. We exist already, in the very fabrics of existence and creation. Without us, existence is nothing."
Skypaw nodded. "But it's a bit confusing. I don't know where to turn, or who to speak to. I mean, it would be a bit easier—for me, at least—if I could at least speak to somethingrather than everything."
"We understand this desire, Skypaw. We will present ourselves in a unified form to you, in the form that you accept the most readily."
"What do you mean, the most readily?"
"We could become any creature, Skypaw. We could become humans—or Twolegs, as you prefer to call them. We could become mice, timid and shy. We could become mighty dogs. We could even become bears. We could become anything. However, for the sake of the Clans that we have enjoyed protecting over these many decades and countless seasons, we will come to you in the form that you know and owns your soul, and that it may be easier for you to comprehend."
There was a pause, and then Skypaw watched as something took shape within the strange, glowing brightness. Then the shape, four-legged, calmly strode out of the grayness, and Skypaw felt her eyes widen in her head.
The Four came to her, in the form of one huge cat. No...it couldn't be any cat, she realized, not any cat that she knew. It was built like a cat, but different. Huge, glowing stripes patterned and dappled its mighty body, and its eyes glowed with an unnatural light which was undeniably beautiful. The Four came to Skypaw in the form of a shimmering, iridescent tiger.
"Let us commune in ease," said the Four.
Skypaw, awestruck, lowered her head.
"You are brave, Skypaw, to have come this far," the Four said. "You are worthy to bear the Tigermark of Time."
Skypaw felt a strange feeling pass through her. As she opened her eyes, she became aware that she wasn't coloured a plain dusky gray anymore. Beautiful, shimmering stripes of glowing, bright cyan patterned her pelt.
"What?" she whispered huskily as she felt the mysterious feeling pass through her again. "How...? How can this be?"
The tiger might have smiled to her. "We give only Quarters to our champions, for when they are grown, and when their powers are ready, they are but a Quarter of the tiger that the Marks are named after. Each stripe upon your body represents your strength, your desire, your devotion to us and, most importantly, to your Clan. You have many stripes; we are pleased, and this is why we choose to give you a second gift. It is a gift for you to keep, for gifts are meant to be given, and not returned."
Skypaw looked up quickly at the Four, shocked and pleased at the same time.
"You...you mean...? I'll be able to...?"
"You are worthy of this power, Skypaw. You are meant to be a tiger, and you serve your Clan with a fiery devotion." The tiger's voice was warm with fondness and caring, and Skypaw felt herself shivering under the gentle voices alone, and nervously she dipped her head to the Four again.
"I feel as though I am hardly worthy," she murmured. "The Three..."
"The Three did their part. Now it is time for you to do yours. You must face many enemies, Skypaw, before the time of peril has passed and your duty is complete. It is the time of changing; when one Guardian descends, and the other is released after a thousand seasons of service. It is the time of changing; when the Clans must learn to break away from their devoted chains of ancestry, and learn to care for themselves. It is the time of changing; when these cats will be mortal forevermore, when the immortal threats have passed. It is the time of changing; our guarding and watchfulness of the Clans is coming to a close, after many seasons of protecting. We must now choose others to guard, and the Clans must fend for themselves."
Skypaw listened, and she knew it would be wise to obey. She slowly exhaled, still amazed, dazzled and awed at all that was going around her. She was speaking to the Four, and she was being given a gift. A great gift.
"The danger rises," said the Four. "Many trials lie before you yet, Skypaw, in preparation for the mighty task that awaits. Sol, the Mistaken, is rising, building an army. We gave him a Tigermark and he accepted it too readily into his heart. Now he seeks to drive the Clans into destruction. Dead and living will once more collide. You know this, Skypaw, but for now, you are not ready."
"I know I'm not ready. But these trials...they're making me ready, aren't they?"
"Yes, Skypaw. The sickness was a test of your devotion. The bear will be a test of your endurance. And all the dangers that are to come, that will threaten the four Clans as much as they will threaten your own, will test you to the extreme. You are our Warrior amongst Warriors."
Skypaw felt unusually strong, unusually fresh. She could feel a beautiful coolness flooding through her body, strengthening every corner of her, tingling through her blood. She felt the air shift around her, and Skypaw felt as though every single hair upon her hide was now trembling, was now glowing that beautiful blueness of her stripes.
"You bear now the gift of Time. When danger threatens, Time will be with you, for you to command, to warp to your advantage and ability. Manipulation. We know you will use this gift wisely, only when you truly need it. Do not use it at any other time."
Skypaw nodded. She wouldn't dare use it just for herself.
"When your power is complete, when the trials of your moons of learning are over, Skypaw, then we will speak again," said the Four. "For now, take our blessing, use it, protect your Clan. Our Guardian will help you learn to wield the gift."
Skypaw nodded. "I will...and thank you."
The tiger bowed its head to Skypaw. As it did so, she noticed a beautiful marking upon the tiger's broad forehead. A diamond-shaped star rested between its eyes upon its forehead. Small, perfectly round spots circled down gracefully across its forehead, dotting to around just below its eyes, as perfect as full moons, and they shimmered all colours.
Skypaw watched as the tiger stepped back into the gray light. The voices subsided, and she felt the world close around her. She had never before, in her life, seen anything more beautiful.
As Skypaw stirred, awestruck by all she had seen, she felt strangely refreshed, as though she had not worked herself into exhaustion after all. She sat up, stunned by all that she had seen, the wonders she had discovered. Aura and Cherrypelt stood beside her at once.
"You spoke to them," Aura said, and her voice was a warm purr of pride.
Skypaw nodded, still dazed by the whole experience.
"It was...incredible," she whispered. "Nothing could compare to the Four."
Cherrypelt looked concernedly at Skypaw. "Are you all right? You aren't feeling ill, are you? You look so pale..."
"Just...a little overwhelmed," Skypaw mused. "I don't think I could barely comprehend, that's all. But I'll believe it completely, with a bit of time."
Time. Time! Of course!
She rose to her paws, and Cherrypelt and Aura stepped back. Skypaw felt energy flooding through, energy completely unlike anything she had felt before. She slowly walked into the centre of the clearing. The power was growing within her. Skypaw felt stronger, wiser, and everything was whirling. She could feel...she felt incredible.
Time was at her side.
She felt a shiver run through her body. Suddenly, as Skypaw opened her eyes, hardly aware she had closed them, everything slowed around her. Everything just became...unmoving mist, like water had enclosed the world, water that was only made of air. Skypaw stared around her in astonishment. She was wrapped in a strange cocoon of this power. Time had become still. There was no other explanation.
This is amazing...
Then Time resumed. The grayness vanished, and everything became normally spaced again. The energy refused to simmer, however. Skypaw stepped back, wondering how to make it happen again.
Everything moved so fast, and yet so slow. Still dazed at what she had seen, Skypaw barely noticed as she felt the power expel through her. But she felt it tremble through her paws and felt her body shake with the effort. Then, smoothly, gracefully, indescribably beautifully, Time stopped around her, and once again the soft, silvery air, not solid, not liquid and yet not a mist, clung to her, wrapped around her like a mighty cloak.
Skypaw softly breathed out. It expanded, being everywhere and nowhere at once. She moved forward, and as she reached the other side of the clearing, time sped up...broke around her. She spun around as Cherrypelt let out a shocked gasp.
"I can't control it," she whispered apologetically.
"It's not that...Skypaw, your fur!"
Skypaw glanced at her pelt in time to see those beautiful stripes, shimmering a dark cyan tinted jay, suddenly vanish as though it were mist, rapidly disappearing until it never existed at all. But she knew—whether because of her strengthening wisdom and insight or because of what she had seen a few moments before—that for a few heartbeats, she had been patterned like a tiger.
"It is the truth," Aura meowed, as she strode forward. "You are the tiger of Time now, Skypaw. You bear the Mark of it, and you bear the stripes of it."
"It's all moving too fast," murmured Skypaw.
Aura purred, her tailtip flicking. "That is why you must learn to slow it down, to manipulate it to your advantage. Time is yours now to control, Skypaw, and all that remains is to learn how to use it."
And so she trained.
Skypaw trained from dawn to dusk. She learned how to better her fighting skills. More importantly, she began to learn to control Time.
It grew easier, as though she were meant to slip into Time's paws (presuming Time would have paws should it choose to form itself again). Skypaw began to understand Time in a way that even Aura could not. She began to shape it, sculpt it, to her advantage. She began to draw it, to form barriers, learned to wrap it around herself so she could increase her speed. She learned to expel it, to slow others down.
Her power grew in the two weeks that passed. Though Frostkit and Jaggedkit should have been made apprentices after one week of learning of the bear's approach, no cat had time to mentor two frisky kits as well as prepare for the coming bear. They all had duties to do. The kits were sullen about this, but fortunately they understood the sincerity of it and went about the delay in good grace and mounting excitement.
Skypaw felt as though she were growing up in the days that flooded past. She barely knew who she had been anymore. She was growing stronger; the sessions with Cherrypelt were giving her strength and stamina unlike anything that she had ever experienced before. She was growing wiser. Though she focused entirely on mastering Time Manipulation, she sensed that as her gift of Manipulation grew stronger, her other gift and enhanced ability were strengthening as well.
Often, though, she couldn't resist the waves of fatigue that devoured her each time she staggered into the apprentices' den. Soon, with training, Skypaw learned that she could even manipulate time in her sleep. She could make Time slow around her enough for her to gather her rest and energy without oversleeping, and each morning, she stirred fully awake and alert, with a fresher, clearer mind of the things to come.
The Bear Trap was coming along very well. Skypaw could hardly wait to see it put into action, but the bear was approaching. Her dreams began to grow darker. She began to see through the eyes of the bear. It was approaching the lake slowly but steadily. Within a week...within five days...within two days, it would be here.
At last, on the eve of the bear's arrival, everything was done, everything. The Bear Trap was completed. The fresh-kill pile was well-stocked. The north borders well guarded. The training that the chosen cats had received was completed, and every single cat in ThunderClan was ready. The environment around them had changed, too. Leaf-bare had come at last, and within a quarter moon there would be another Gathering. Frost lay heavily over the ground in the mornings now, and the air had a constant chill to it. The branches of the trees were empty.
ThunderClan was tense, ready, waiting. They waited until Aura, Cherrypelt and Skypaw finally returned to the camp. Then they gazed at Skypaw in amazement, because the she-cat was not the same apprentice who had first left the camp to train two weeks ago. In her place walked a she-cat with the mind of a much older and wiser cat.
Something had happened to Skypaw, they knew, something incredible. They knew that she was ready.
Lionstar and Ivypool stood at the foot of Highledge, waiting solemnly for their approach. At their sides were Dovewing, Bumblestripe and Cinderheart.
"Is everything completed?" Skypaw asked.
"It is," Lionstar responded. "The Trap is set. All that remains now is to face the bear, and to defend the forest." He gazed more carefully at Skypaw and he meowed in surprise, "You've changed."
Skypaw nodded. "I have."
She knew she had. It was impossible not to, in these changing times. But she had deeper understanding. She had a greater power now. She was a cat of much older and wiser thoughts, and she knew it. Aura knew it. Even Cherrypelt. The other cats gazed at her in a mixture of unease and awe. Jayfeather observed from the mouth of his den, but Skypaw could feel his surprise.
She turned to her Clan, raising her head high. She felt as though she had grown up.
"Are we ready to face the bear when the dawn comes?" she asked. "Are the warriors ready to face it?"
"We are," Runningleap meowed, speaking for his fellow chosen.
"Are the trappers prepared?"
The eight cats who had spent half a moon building the trap nodded. Cinderheart spoke for them, just behind Skypaw. "The Trap is ready when you are, Skypaw. But what are you going to do? Do you really think we can pull this off? Nothing like this has ever been accomplished before..."
"Not in the history of the Clans," murmured Bumblestripe.
Skypaw turned back to her father. "No," she agreed. "Nothing like this has happened before in the Clans."
She turned to the rest of ThunderClan and said, "Times are changing. Nothing will ever be the same again, and the dangers that are to come will be real. They will be frightening. You must know your place in the Clan, know those who you love. You will be tested to the limits as the seasons pass."
"What kind of limits?" asked Yellownose cautiously.
"It is not for you to know," Aura meowed. "But it is for her to understand."
She turned to Skypaw. "We are all ready," she said. "Now we wait for the dawn to come, and for you to test your strengths for real."