The blackbird stiffened and abruptly jerked its head up from the ground, its tiny berry-bright eyes urgently scanning its surroundings. Halfway towards it, concealed against the shaky echoes of the underbrush, Skypaw froze. Just beyond, from the opposite side of the blackbird, her pair hunter, Blossomfall, stiffened as well, miming Skypaw's every movement.
Skypaw waited a few heartbeats for the blackbird to lower its head again. Then she resumed her stealthy approach, one slow pawstep at a time. The mending cuts on her belly twinged a little with each movement, but hardly enough to impair her stalk.
The eldest apprentice of ThunderClan—perhaps the entire lake—slowly exhaled and concentrated. She was almost in pouncing distance.
Well, I probably could have pounced it from the other side of the forest, she reasoned. But I'm going to hunt fairly. I won't use my powers. Not today—not in my final assessment.
To this day, Skypaw knew that she had been in training for nearly six and a half moons—and in those six and a half moons of her life, she had grown in mind, body and soul. Hunting was easier now than it had been at the very beginning, when every kill made gave a thrill of exhilaration racing up her backbone. Fighting in a battle was no longer something to fear, but an accepted part of Clan life. That, and all the trials that she had encountered and faced.
They're just memories now—memories to look back on, to remember, to use in the times that are to come. Skypaw tensed, beginning to gather energy into her hind legs and preparing for the spring. Just beyond, Blossomfall was doing the same. Then the tortoiseshell-and-white she-cat leapt, clearing the space between her and the bird in a single bound. The blackbird, startled, began to take flight, whisking over Blossomfall's head—but Skypaw bounded forward and reached up with her claws, catching the bird as it flew straight at her. She pinned it to the ground and ended its life with a quick bite.
"Well done," her aunt mewed as Skypaw lifted her head. The gray apprentice briefly bowed her head, accepting the praise.
"How many is that now?" asked Blossomfall.
"Five, I think." Skypaw thought back to her earlier kills—a pair of mice chewing on an unearthed beechnut, a squirrel fossicking amidst a pile of charred, half-thawed twigs, and a young robin with a bright red breast. The blackbird was now her fifth. She gave a small purr of satisfaction as she absently plucked at its dark feathers with the tips of her claws.
"I think we should stop now," Skypaw mewed to her partner. She spared a glance at the sky. "It's nearly sunhigh. We should really be getting back to the camp."
Blossomfall gave a single nod. She picked up the blackbird and fell into step alongside Skypaw as they disappeared into the woods to uncover their previous kills.
"You did very well today," Blossomfall commented around the blackbird. "More than I would've thought possible for any apprentice in leaf-bare—even if newleaf is slowly on its way." Each dawn seemed just a little brighter, the days just a little warmer.
"What can I say?" Skypaw replied with a shrug. "I flourish in leaf-bare, more so than any other cat." Why else would she have been born in the heart of the hardest season? She twitched an ear as she heard a thrush chirrup a distant chorus. "But the prey is returning. I hope Lionstar is sending out more patrols." She paused as a familiar twinge surged in her blood. "Well, Seednose and Runningleap are hunting down by the lakeside, and Whiteblaze, Mousewhisker, Amberheart and Frostpaw are somewhere around Triumph Rock."
Blossomfall slowly shook her head. "You and your insight is just mindboggling."
"It takes time to grow accustomed to," Skypaw mewed apologetically. She paused at the roots of a tall cedar to dig up the robin. "Probably why I wasn't instantly given these powers when I was born."
She heard the soft crunch of paws through snow nearby, but didn't need to look up to know that it was Cherrypelt. "You did well," mewed the ginger she-cat, and glanced at Blossomfall. "Both of you. This will feed half the Clan!"
"Some of us will be going to bed with full stomachs for once," Blossomfall mewed, sounding satisfied.
Cherrypelt's tailtip flicked against Skypaw's shoulder. "Look at you," she purred with motherly affection. "All grown up. I daresay that we'll have a new warrior before the Gathering."
Warrior...the name didn't inspire a reluctance anymore. Now it inspired something else, and a feeling that made Skypaw purr and flick her tail with barely-withheld excitement.
She was going to be a warrior.
And that feeling was nothing but good.
As she entered the ThunderClan camp, Skypaw saw her friends were waiting for her. Ferndust, Larkflight and Aura were waiting by the repaired thorn barrier, and they called a greeting as they made their way towards her.
"So? How'd it go?" Ferndust's eyes were shining.
Skypaw purred. "I've passed. I'm going to be a warrior."
Larkflight slammed a forepaw into the ground. "Called it!"
"Oh, please, even if you didn't have insight you'd have been right," Ferndust admonished, with a roll of her eyes. She looked around Larkflight and added, "And let me guess, Aura—you weren't surprised in the slightest?"
Aura gave a small, sad purr of agreement. "A blessing, yet a curse of being a future Guardian," she mewed, but her pale golden eyes were shining. "But I can still feel the same joy and warmth and pride." She turned to Skypaw. "You have done well."
Skypaw dipped her head. "Without your help, I would have been nothing."
"Don't be stupid." Larkflight butted his head against Skypaw's shoulder. "You'd always have been something to us, even if it were just a normal warrior."
Skypaw twitched an ear. "If there ever was a Clan."
"It's thanks to you that we've survived until newleaf," Ferndust pointed out. Her whiskers twitched. "You should've been made a warrior a long time ago, for your heart if for nothing else!"
"If that were true," Skypaw admitted, letting her gaze wander the camp and resting upon all her Clanmates, "then every kit would have been born a warrior."
She caught a glimpse of Lionstar, standing atop Highledge. There was a satisfied gleam in his amber eyes as he watched the Clan's oldest apprentice return through the thorn barrier, with Cherrypelt and Blossomfall in tow. Skypaw heard the thorns rustle behind her and felt their fur brush lightly against hers. "Groom yourself," Cherrypelt purred as she passed, and whisked the tip of her tail across Skypaw's cheek. "Before your mother notices the state of your pelt." Then she and Blossomfall continued on to Highledge, where Lionstar was already clambering down the rockfall to greet them.
Skypaw frowned and let her gaze wander the clearing for a moment. Then she caught sight of Dovewing—she and Bumblestripe were lying curled up beside Poppyfrost, sharing a piece of fresh-kill with one another. For a moment, Skypaw felt a twinge of sadness—the violent cold, lack of medicine and the loss of her son had left the red tabby warrior crippled and her leg beyond repair, so Poppyfrost had retired to the elders while Skypaw was away. But the red tabby hadn't been too upset at the thought of joining Briarlight and Squirrelflight in the newly-made elders' den. "The cold got to me a little bit more each day," she had conceded, "and I look forward to many long moons of rest."
Said Aura, during the ceremony Berrynose had abruptly risen to his paws and requested to join the elders' den as well. But a curious thing had happened; the cream tom was still a warrior to this day not because Lionstar had refused, but because his mate had.
"You're going to have to be the warrior for both of us now," Poppyfrost had told him. "And StarClan help me if you try and enter the elders' den after this! I'll chase you out myself, crippled and all!"
Skypaw, though she had looked back into one of her friends' memories, still wished she'd seen that moment, which was still warm and amusing in the minds of all ThunderClan.
"Come on," Larkflight mewed, leading the way over to the fresh-kill pile. "You can at least eat a little before the ceremony."
"I think we'll have plenty of time," Aura said, and briefly turned her gaze towards the ThunderClan leader. "I don't think Lionstar plans to hold the ceremony until twilight, when all the warriors have returned and rested from their various patrols."
Skypaw selected a shrew from the pile that Runningleap had caught near the shore. "Any other particular reason?" she mumbled around it.
Aura gave a small purr. "Because Jayfeather told him so."
"Jayfeather?" echoed Ferndust, selecting a mouse for herself. "What does he have to do with anything?"
"He wants you to sleep before the ceremony." Aura pulled out a sparrow. Setting it on the ground a little distance away, she mewed, "He's received one last dream, a final message from StarClan. They request your presence, Skypaw."
Skypaw felt shock flood through her body. "They want to hold a ceremony of their own, don't they?"
Aura shrugged. "In a way." She plucked at the sparrow's feathers with her small claws. "But I'll let you find out what they wish for you themselves."
They ate quietly after that, watching as a border patrol returned to the camp. Moleclaw detached himself from the crowd and almost immediately bounded over to the nursery with a pair of freshly-killed mice in his jaws. Hollythorn, who was resting outside watching her kits tumbling and playing in a spot of leaf-bare sun, rose to meet him. They touched noses and exchanged a few words. Then Moleclaw took Hollythorn's place while she slipped into the dark of the nursery with one of the tom's mice in her jaws.
"How's Thrushsong?" Skypaw mused aloud, chewing slowly on a mouthful of shrew.
"She's doing well," answered Larkflight, spitting out a stray feather from his wren. "She's finally starting to eat again—and StarClan forbid if she starts trying to fast now!" He shook his head and muttered something about she-cats—which earned him a pointed glare from the three others in the vicinity.
"What?" he protested, flattening his dark ears. "She-cats are mad sometimes!"
Ferndust flicked the tip of her tail. "Define mad," she suggested.
Skypaw rolled her eyes. "I thought we were over this?"
"Yes! Yes, we are!" Larkflight hastily agreed. "Let's...let's not go back there again, shall we?"
"Birdbrain," Skypaw mewed fondly.
"Stubborn one," he retorted playfully. "And don't you have an appointment with the crotchety medicine cat?"
Skypaw nodded and swallowed the last of her shrew. "Well, wish me luck," she said as she rose to her paws and gave a quick stretch. "I'm not really sure what to expect from them this time, to be honest."
"You're not?" Ferndust assumed a puzzled expression. "I thought you could call on your insight at will now."
"Yes, I can...but I can also choose not to use it if I want to." Skypaw gave a small, relieved sigh. "And I think that's a gift in itself. The worst part of carrying a power is you work every single day of your life never to let it control you. That was a curse that the Three carried, and which they understood—and why they're grateful that their powers have gone."
Larkflight slowly nodded. "I'll take your word for it."
"Don't sleep for too long!" Ferndust mewed. "You might want to spend a last few moments as a ThunderClan apprentice awake, you know!"
Skypaw nodded and padded away—there was a small twinge of sadness lingering in her heart, coming of the knowledge that soon she would no longer be Skypaw, but someone else. Skywing, perhaps, after her mother? Skyclaw, for her skills in battle? Skynose, for her hunting abilities? Even what her old denmates had decided for her two season-lengths ago, Skyheart?
Too noble, she'd called it. But as she passed Lionstar, speaking with Cherrypelt and Blossomfall, he glanced at her and his golden eyes were warm with pride. But is that all he sees me as now?
The repaired medicine den loomed before Skypaw's eyes. She paused for a moment, admiring the skilled weaving work of Seednose and Hazeltail, before she slipped through the entrance and entered the main den.
Jayfeather was crouched by the pool, sitting very still and gazing at its depths. He hardly seemed to notice that Skypaw was there until she discreetly nudged against one of the new nests. The rustle abruptly jolted the small gray tabby, and his brilliant blue eyes whipped to face her.
He relaxed a heartbeat later. "Oh. Greetings."
"Same to you," Skypaw returned. It occurred to her then that she hadn't been in his medicine den...not since she'd been sick, and nearly died from, greencough. That had been many moons ago, and for some reason, it felt quite strange to be back in here. For a moment she lingered, unsure what to say; eventually she padded forward and mewed quietly, "Aura said you wanted to see me."
Jayfeather nodded. "Last night, I..." He sighed. "I had a dream."
Unexpected laughter bubbled up in Skypaw. "What did you dream about? Chasing butterflies, and you stubbed your toe?"
Jayfeather's ears flicked forward—and quite unexpectedly, he let out a small mrrow of laughter. "I'd forgotten that."
"It's been a long time." Skypaw sat down. "But seriously, what did you need me for?"
Jayfeather traced a meaningless design on the ground with his paw. "I was visited by a member of StarClan," he mewed. His ear twitched. "Firestar, in particular. Beside him were Yellowfang and Hollyleaf."
Something clicked. "Those are the same cats who approached you all those moons ago..."
"...and they approached me again." Jayfeather looked up. "All they told me was, 'It is time'." He frowned. "But I don't understand what that means, for once. All I know is that it has something to do with you."
Skypaw frowned. "Those were the same words they told you long ago."
Jayfeather nodded. "I let you go to your hunting assessment this morning," he mewed. "This is your last dawn as an apprentice—I didn't need your insight to know you'd pass the assessment." Skypaw waited for him to make a comment about her being a daughter of Dovewing, or her powers, but instead Jayfeather reasoned, "You're gifted, Skypaw, as a warrior should be."
The simple, truthful words warmed Skypaw's heart more than any other had that day.
"But I explained to Lionstar the dream," the medicine cat went on. "He agreed that we should wait until twilight, to give you a chance to rest and try to find your way into StarClan one more time. Perhaps they have another message for you."
"Perhaps," Skypaw agreed.
There was a long, awkward pause. But suddenly Skypaw asked, "Why at twilight in particular?"
Jayfeather gave a small sigh. "That's when the sun sets, Skypaw—and when the moon rises."
Skypaw frowned. "That's a cryptic message, isn't it?"
Jayfeather, for the second time in a few moments, gave a mrrow. He gestured to a nest with the tip of his tail and instructed simply, "Sleep. I'll wake you when it is time."
Skypaw nodded. She curled up in the nest and made herself comfortable—but before she could close her eyes, she detected something that she had never detected from the grouchy medicine cat before. Her curiosity aroused, she lifted her head.
Jayfeather paused and turned towards her. "What?"
"You're tired," Skypaw repeated quietly. Not just physically...but spiritually.
Jayfeather seemed to sense the meaning beneath her words. He gave a small nod.
"I am tired, Skypaw," he admitted. "I am tired."
Skypaw tilted her head. "You've given thoughts to an apprentice." It wasn't a question.
Jayfeather paused for a long moment. Then he mewed slowly, "I have been ThunderClan's only medicine cat for four moons. I am growing older, and a half moon tells me that soon I will have an apprentice of my own."
He paused suddenly, reflecting on his words. Then, his eyes unreadable, he turned away. Skypaw rested her head and closed her eyes.
She woke in a dream—but she had always woken here in a dream. Skypaw lifted her head, gazing into her star-flecked surroundings. The first time she had come here, she'd been breathless, awed, amazed, even unbelieving.
Strange. Now she wasn't even excited.
She rose to her paws. The sky above was a deep twilight blue—the same colour as my eyes, Skypaw thought to herself, intrigued. Beneath the sky rolled hills of starlight and great forests twisted and carved by silver streams.
A gentle pale mist rolled before her eyes, and from the mist strode three familiar spirits. Skypaw dipped her head to them.
"No need for formalities now, young Skypaw." The apprentice lifted her head to meet the shining green eyes of Firestar. "Your paws have trodden upon one path—and about to step upon another."
"You have trained hard," Hollyleaf meowed, a gentle purr rumbling in her throat. "You have accomplished great feats, and done great deeds—deeds that will be remembered in the Clans for generations to come."
"You have awoken your powers and learned to wield them at your calling," rasped Yellowfang, but her orange eyes were warm. "You have grown into your fur at last, young fluff."
Skypaw didn't need to look back over her shoulder to know that she wore her stripes.
"Come," Firestar purred. "They are waiting for you."
To Skypaw's vague surprise, the three StarClan warriors did not lead her to the spiritual representation of ThunderClan's hollow, or to the borders of each of the four Clan territories, as they had done the first time. Instead, they walked along a different path—a path that Skypaw sensed was ancient, rarely trodden. High above, clouds were drifting across the stars in the sky.
"Jayfeather said that you wished for me to come here again," Skypaw mewed to them. "But I fail to understand why you have called me, on the day of my ceremony."
Hollyleaf glanced at her. "That will be learned," she promised. "You have done well, Skypaw. You are more than ready to meet them."
Yellowfang shot the black she-cat a look. "More than ready to meet them again."
It all made sense with that one word. "You're taking me to meet the Four."
Firestar nodded. "Ancient as the ancestors of the Tribe, beyond the knowing of Rock, they have come to StarClan again to see you once more," he mewed. "A feat that for so long we thought impossible, and a grace that no other spirit has had."
Skypaw frowned. "Why not?"
"It was not ours to know," Hollyleaf mewed. "But you to."
"You are their daughter as much as you are Dovewing's and Bumblestripe's," Yellowfang went on, twitching one grizzled ear. "They find you worthy, just as they found Aura worthy."
"Remember," added Firestar, his eyes twinkling, "that the reasons behind the Four's decisions are unfathomable, impossible to try and understand—all we can conclude to is that they are as unpredictable as Change. For reasons of their own, they have chosen to reveal themselves to you."
Hollyleaf flicked her tailtip. "It is best not to try and question it."
Skypaw bowed her head. "Then I won't." She lifted her gaze a moment later. The fields of StarClan still rolled before and around her in all directions. "Is this a path to the Realm of the Four?"
Yellowfang lashed her tail once. "We are not going there. As we said, the Four have come to us—and they are waiting for you."
Skypaw glanced at herself. "As a tiger?"
"No, Skypaw." Firestar stopped and stared at her fiercely. "There is no tiger anymore—no tiger but you. Don't you understand? You are the Tiger—and the Four guard the Clans...in a much different way."
Hollyleaf tilted her slanted muzzle towards a rising crest, visible against the twilit sky. "We are here."
Skypaw followed her ancestor's line of sight, until it rested upon a tall hill, seeming to overlook all of StarClan. Growing upon the hill was nothing but four great oaks. The ghost of Fourtrees from the elder territory, Skypaw knew at once. They were taking her to Fourtrees.
Wordlessly the group of cats wound their way up the slope, following a pebbly trail. Then they passed between the two great trunks of two of the four great oaks. Skypaw found herself standing in a calm, sheltered clearing, the grass dark green—and in the centre of the clearing was a great stone, three tail-lengths high, and shining like the stars.
No...it was shining like the moon.
Four cats sat around it, and they turned gleaming eyes to the entrance to the sacred grotto. As one they rose to their paws and lifted their tails high.
"Greetings, champion," said one of the cats—a huge tom with a pelt the colour of autumn leaves and broad paws white as frost.
A second, a wiry brown she-cat with a shining yellow gaze, gave a single nod. "We have been waiting for moons to see you," she mewed.
"It is an honour to speak with you at last," added a great gray tom with long, dappled fur.
A she-cat almost identical to Hollyleaf suddenly twitched her whiskers. "Or is this time not the first?"
Skypaw looked between them and to the great stone that stood in the middle of Fourtrees. Her powers awakened, she knew without need of an introduction. "You are the four," she mewed softly, "but not the four who I was expecting to see."
"Oh?" Wind flicked one ear disdainfully. "And who were you expecting to see, daughter of mine?"
Skypaw frowned at her words. "Daughter?"
Thunder purred. "Perhaps if we speak together?" he suggested to his companions.
They drew breath, and when they spoke, Skypaw knew.
"We are Fate. We are Change. We are Destiny. We are Time. We are One."
Thunder broke away. "Do you know who we are now, Skypaw?"
Skypaw, lost for words, bowed her head low.
"We are like you," Shadow purred, twitching the tip of her tail. "We are like the Three—and the fourth, indeed." She shrugged. "Why else would we have changed the prophecy when the darkness was growing stronger?"
"Do you not see the resemblances?" added River, swishing his long tail. "How we impacted upon your life?"
"Your claws mark the three Clans," meowed Wind, flicking an ear. "And your claws mark me. You and I are mother and daughter—my heir, my champion, the one to succeed and wield the Quarter once I carried."
"We were the bearers of Tigermarks once, all those seasons ago," Thunder said, his golden eyes warm. "We were all champions—and these influences, we left behind and passed on, down to our descendants one by one."
"There are four Clans for a reason." Shadow stepped forward. "There are four seasons, Fourtrees, four borders to any territory. With four, there is reason, there is logic, and there is truth. These qualities were what the Four first gifted to us, all those seasons ago, when the Clans were young and yet to form."
"And Sky?" Skypaw asked, as her Tigermark twinged and informed her of the fifth ancient founder. "What role did Sky play in this?"
Thunder's whiskers twitched. "Sky is all around you," he mewed. "Sky is within you. Sky is the fifth, and for good reason. He was the wisest of all of us—and in death, the Four still speak to him."
"He is an anomaly," River stated. "Rather like you, little one."
Skypaw looked between the four ancient Clan leaders...the Clan founders, and the bearers of Tigermarks...and she mewed softly, "Why ThunderClan? Why me? Why, out of all the generations that passed before my time, was I chosen?"
Wind flicked her tail. "Long before you were born, an omen passed from Yellowfang to the mortal world." She spared a glance at the ancient medicine cat.
"After the sharp-eyed jay and the roaring lion, peace will come on dove's gentle wing," Yellowfang mewed obligingly. She turned her orange stare to Skypaw. "The omen of the stars—passed from mother to daughter."
Skypaw frowned and turned back to Wind. "You said that I was a daughter of yours."
"And you are," Wind replied. "I am Time. My descendants are Time—and though you are of a separate branch in your family tree, we still are kin, Skypaw. You bear the Tigermark I once carried—and you carry it well."
"I am Fate," mewed Shadow, her green eyes glittering. "Hollyleaf is a fine echo of me, but she failed to carry my Tigermark. She was scared of what the shadows held—and shadows lie in the hearts of all my descendants."
"I was not the right cat," Hollyleaf conceded. "But Dovewing was."
"Dovewing is my daughter—not by kin, but by Mark," Shadow agreed. "And since you are Dovewing's daughter, so you are mine, Skypaw."
"I am Change," River purred, "for what is as unpredictable as the river I praise, and my descendants praise? ThunderClan blood flows in RiverClan veins, however faintly, and we are kin by heart, daughter of mine."
"I am Destiny," Thunder concluded, "and after me lies all those whose destinies are marked by the stars. Fire burns bright and deadly—even the tiger fears it—and what could be better than the fire and the tiger, marked by stars, in the fur? The fire's blood and the tiger's soul flows into all cats—but where it flares brightest, so shall a destiny be born."
Skypaw frowned. "Blood? What does blood have to do with fire and tiger?"
Thunder gave a grim chuckle. "Do you not know the name Scourge?"
"Of course." Skypaw could see the small black tom in her mind. "I have seen him once before—and I hope never to see him again."
"You and he are more alike than you wish to know," murmured Thunder.
Skypaw stiffened at the revelation. "He...he is kin to me?" she whispered.
"Kin to the fire, bane of the tiger." Thunder nodded once to Firestar. "Scourge is the half-brother of ThunderClan's former leader."
Skypaw's eyes widened—even Firestar stood speechless.
"Wh-what?" Slowly the fiery-ginger tom shook his head. "No, no...that can't be right. That can't be possible! Scourge was not even a Clan cat!"
Thunder gazed somberly at Firestar. "In the very beginning, nor were you."
"Before there is peace, blood will spill blood..." Yellowfang slowly shook her head. "By all things ancient, how many times has that omen repeated itself..."
"It was fulfilled even before it existed," Hollyleaf realized, sounding shocked.
Skypaw suddenly frowned. "Before there is peace, blood will spill blood...peace will come on dove's gentle wing..." She looked up suddenly. "These omens are of the stars—they're infinite. They're going to repeat themselves."
Wind gave a small sigh. "Daughter of mine, you are the daughter of Dovewing—of the dove prophesized to bring peace."
"From mother to daughter..." Skypaw's eyes widened with sudden understanding. "There are going to be more," she mewed softly. "I am not the only one. I may be the tiger in the fire...but I am a tiger, a daughter of the dove. Then there must be...must be a daughter of the jay...a daughter of the lion..."
River shook his head. "There will never be a daughter of the jay—none will possess the jay's sharp eyes, and the jay shall never make the same mistake that formed him."
"But there is a daughter of the lion." Skypaw looked urgently at the Four. "There are two..."
"Kin to the fire, bane of the tiger," repeated Hollyleaf wonderingly. Her brow furrowed. "Thrushsong and Flamefur..."
"Flamefur is named in honour and memory of Flametail," mewed Shadow calmly. "And Flametail is Tigerstar's grandson—just as Flamefur's kits will be grandchildren of Lionstar, grandchild of Firestar."
Skypaw frowned. "So one of Flamefur's kits...is going to be a second wielder of a Quarter Tigermark?"
Thunder nodded. "You will discover in time—and Time is your calling, is it not?"
"But a third..." Skypaw frowned. "Will there be a third? Will there be a new Three?"
"Not quite," mewed Wind. "But there will be balance. Just as the Three had two warriors, one who will roar and one who will bring peace, there was one to guide and watch with bright eyes."
"Aura?" Skypaw guessed.
"She is a daughter of the sun," Thunder frowned. "The rays that bleed around the shadow, just as once they did, long ago. As well as that, she is the next Guardian. She guides and guards, but she does not fight. She is not to become a warrior or a medicine cat—she is not a part of your destiny."
Skypaw recoiled in surprise. "I thought she was..."
"Has she ever said or even suggested that the fulfillment of your destiny involved the both of you?" Shadow challenged. "Aura's purpose was to teach you how to use your gifts—to ensure that the Clans had a fighting chance against rising SunClan. Her destiny is to guide and guard—nothing more."
Skypaw frowned. "But then who?"
"Jayfeather mentioned that he was to have an apprentice?" Thunder prodded lightly. "And she will be a daughter of us—a daughter who bears another Tigermark that differs to yours and to the second warrior's."
"Mother to daughter, father to son." Hollyleaf's eyes widened. "I've just realized...Crowfeather. He had a destiny. He was one of the four to visit Midnight, to bring the Clans to the lake! And his sons..."
"...Jayfeather and Lionblaze." It struck Skypaw like a kick to the belly. "Was that why you failed in your destiny, Hollyleaf?"
"There cannot be a mother to son, or father to daughter," said Thunder gently. "As you know, the Four have made errors."
"Perhaps," Hollyleaf mewed slowly, "it was because I believed for so long that I was Squirrelflight's kit—mother to daughter. It would have worked. She had the same destiny as Crowfeather, in a way..." With solemn green eyes she looked at the Four. "That was why they must have made the mistake."
"But Breezepelt is Crowfeather's son," Skypaw argued. "Wouldn't that mean he has a destiny?"
"He does," mewed Shadow grimly. "Just as Firestar and Scourge are brothers—one was the sun, the other the shadow. It has been repeated with Crowfeather's sons. Lionstar is the sun. Breezepelt is the shadow. Beware, Skypaw—storm clouds gather on a dark breeze." The words had a ring of an old omen.
Skypaw breathed out slowly. "I know. The Dark Forest is rising."
"A shadow is to pass once more over the sun," Firestar growled. "Just as Sol promised all those seasons ago. A dark dawn is coming."
"Listen, Skypaw." Thunder's voice was low and urgent. "There are three. The leader, the deputy and the whisperer. Sol, Breezepelt and Redwillow. So long as those three live and breathe, the united realms of dead and the Clan of the living will grow stronger."
Skypaw frowned. "Redwillow...he mentioned once or twice, crossing 'sky paths'."
"Forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun, the sky paths will be opened, and walked by the sky borne moon, to bring back the lost to the glow of the stars," Yellowfang recited aloud. She narrowed her eyes at Skypaw. "Does that sound familiar, perhaps?"
"Let her remember all of the prophecy," interrupted Hollyleaf. "And then, perhaps, some things can be made clear to her."
Skypaw closed her eyes—she had never forgotten her prophecy, not since the day that it was first told to her. "Divided, we fall. United, we stand, and we remain. That means all the Clans must come again. Darkness, air, water, sky and branch must all come together to survive. Forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun, the sky paths will be opened, and walked by the sky borne moon, to bring back the lost to the glow of the stars. The skies will be torn, and the star's light ripped from the earth. This is how it must be, for the sake of the Clans to survive."
When Skypaw opened her eyes, she felt a ripple pass through her fur.
"All the Clans," she murmured. "They are already coming, aren't they?"
"All save one." River's eyes narrowed. "SkyClan—the fifth Clan who have made their own destiny."
"They must return to the four if they are to survive," Thunder nodded.
So that is the first half made clear. "Forgotten and drowned in blood, but united beneath the glow of the sun..." Skypaw frowned. "The Forgotten realm—I've heard little about it, but I remember—and BloodClan are united beneath the whisperer, beneath the glow of the sun. They owe allegiance to SunClan."
Shadow's eyes shone. "And because they are walked by Redwillow, the whisperer..."
"...then the sky paths have been opened." Skypaw looked between the Four. "But the 'sky borne moon'?"
Thunder merely gave her a small smile. "Behind us," he mewed, "stands the Moonstone. It is cold and forgotten to the memories of all but the dead. The pool lies cold and tainted—but the stone is strong. Time may smooth the stone, but time will never wear it away."
Again, it struck Skypaw.
"I am the time that smoothes the stone," she whispered. She bowed her head. "I am the sky borne moon."
"And you will bring back the lost to the glow of the stars," Thunder promised. "But to reach the lost, you must find them."
He walked forward, and his eyes were warm. "Go now, young one. Twilight is nearing—the time when the sun dies, and the moon rises."
Skypaw looked at the StarClan cats gathered around her—at Fourtrees, tall and strong; at the shining Moonstone, three tail-lengths high and gleaming like the stars; at the world of StarClan that lay beyond. "Will I ever be able to return here?" she asked softly.
Firestar's eyes were shadowed. "No. This may be the last." His green eyes brightened. "But know what you are, Skypaw."
Skypaw nodded. "I am the tiger, kin to the fire, daughter of Dovewing, bearer of Time."
"Remember the omens." Yellowfang's eyes were narrowed. "It defines the future as much as insight does."
Skypaw dipped her head. "I will."
"And stay strong." Hollyleaf's eyes shone with memory. "Stay strong as my brothers—you are stronger than I ever was."
"But I will always remember you," Skypaw promised. "And so long as Jayfeather and Lionstar breathe, so will they."
Thunder bowed his head. "Go well, daughter of the sky—Tiger of the Four."
As his muzzle rested upon Skypaw's forehead, everything was lost in a bright flash of white.
Silverpelt could be seen, and the sky coloured an azure blue, when Lionstar finally raised his voice.
"Let all cats old enough to catch their own prey join here beneath Highledge for a Clan meeting!"
From the dens came shadows, countless shadows. The ThunderClan walked side by side and took their place beneath Highledge. Their eyes were bright with barely-restrained excitement. They could sense that this ceremony was going to be one to remember. From the shadows of the nursery, many pairs of bright eyes peeped out between the twisted brambles. Then they emerged, scrambling to find a place in the crowd, eager to witness what one day, they would experience of their own.
Skypaw could hear them, and for a moment she was shy. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and suddenly she felt most unwilling to leave the apprentices' cave, where she had quietly been grooming herself to perfection.
This may be the last time I am ever in here. The cave was as familiar to her as the warmth of her mother's fur.
Then Skypaw heard pawsteps treading the light frost just outside. Cherrypelt appeared, her amber eyes gleaming with pride. "Are you ready?" she asked.
And just like that, all the fear, the anxiety, the apprehension left her. Skypaw raised her chin. Her pelt was groomed to sleekness, and her lean, strong muscles slid evenly under her pelt. "Yes," she murmured. "I'm ready."
Cherrypelt nodded. "Then let's go."
Skypaw spared one final glance at the apprentices' cave—at the nest that she would never sleep in again, tucked beside Frostpaw's and Jaggedpaw's—and then she turned forward, forward to her future. She emerged into the twilight and fell into easy step alongside her mentor.
In the young moonshine and starlight, Skypaw seemed to be a different cat than everyone recalled her to be. She was a long-legged she-cat, her fur thick but silky. If someone looked carefully enough, they'd be able to spot the ragged lines of scar tissue that covered the underside of her belly and the claw marks on her shoulder from a battle that felt ancient. Her eyes were clear pools of dark blue, twilight blue, but beneath the surface lurked a great and wonderous wisdom that very few cats could understand, let alone wield.
Skypaw passed by her Clanmates. She saw Dovewing and Bumblestripe seated at the front, their eyes shining with pride. Larkflight and Ferndust stood near them, and though they did not speak, their thoughts of good luck flowed into Skypaw's mind like spoken words. Seated beside Jayfeather was Aura, and the young she-cat watched with the excitement to match any Clan apprentice's witnessing a true warrior ceremony. Beside Hollythorn were the grandchildren of noble Bramblestar—Ravenkit, Owlkit, Clawkit and Graykit. Moleclaw, their self-anointed foster father, stood beside them.
Just outside the nursery between their mother's legs, two tiny newborn kits were watching. The grandchildren of Lionstar, kin of the flame and bane of the tiger.
Skypaw took her place. Cherrypelt sat down beside her, and a heavy silence seemed to descend in the clearing.
"Cats of ThunderClan," Lionstar began, and his voice echoed around the great stone walls of the hollow. "We are gathered here to perform one of our most memorable ceremonies."
His golden eyes swept downwards. "The naming of a new warrior."
Excited whispers rang around the Clan at this, and Skypaw lifted her chin.
"This apprentice," continued Lionstar, "for six and a half moons has trained to become the warrior that stands in her place today. That will stand in her place today, for she is nothing else."
The Clan murmured soft agreement, and Skypaw's paws tingled with apprehension.
There was a light clattering of pebbles as Lionstar descended from Highledge. He climbed down to the ground, bounding down the rockfall, until he stood before Skypaw. She met his gaze squarely—she was as tall as him now, and she could hardly believe that the moons had flown past so quickly. It felt only like yesterday when she had been a kit, gazing up at her kin in the time when he still carried a warrior name, and thinking that he was a true grandson of Firestar.
"Cherrypelt," the ThunderClan warrior mewed. "Do you believe that your apprentice is prepared to take on the responsibilities, duties and commitments that all warriors are expected to uphold until their joining of StarClan?"
Cherrypelt didn't even hesitate. "I believe that she is more than ready."
Lionstar didn't say it, but Skypaw felt the exact same thought pass through his mind. For a moment, the golden tabby was silent. Then he turned to a particular she-cat in the crowd.
"Aura, do you believe that your apprentice is ready to begin the pursuit of her destiny?"
Surprised and wondering titters rang through ThunderClan, and many shot Aura a glance. Such a mention, such a question, had never before been asked in a warrior's ceremony.
Though perhaps there never had been need of it, or knowledge of it.
Skypaw turned towards Aura, the wise she-cat, the daughter of Sol. The young tortoiseshell rose gracefully to her paws and took a few paces forward—and her clear, calm voice rang throughout the hollow.
"She has been trialed, and she has persevered and prevailed. She knows the way of the claw and the fabrics of Time, the heart of the hunt and the fury of the tiger. She has heard the whispers of the Four, walked in realms alive and dead, and learned the value of honour." Aura's eyes were shining like twin stars. "She is ready, Lionstar."
Her gaze met Skypaw's, and wordlessly, without really thinking, the apprentice dipped her head low.
"Very well." As Skypaw lifted her head and faced her leader, Lionstar lifted his eyes to Silverpelt. Then he began the ceremony in earnest.
"I, Lionstar, leader of ThunderClan, call upon my warrior ancestors to look down on this apprentice." Lionstar's golden gaze flicked low and met Skypaw's blue. "She has trained hard to understand the ways of your noble code, and I commend her to you as a warrior in her turn."
He paused for a moment, and then he went on.
"Skypaw, do you promise to uphold the warrior code and defend all that this Clan stands for, even with your life?"
I did once. Skypaw dipped her head. And I am prepared to do so again. "I do," she said—and suddenly, excitement burned in her soul. This was the moment that she had been dreaming about since she had been a kit—that all kits dreamed about. The earning of their true name.
"Then by the powers of StarClan, I give you your warrior name."
The powers of StarClan...Skypaw's eyes widened. The sky borne moon.
StarClan planned my warrior name long ago.
"Skypaw." Lionstar's eyes were bright. "From this moment, you will be known as Skymoon."
The name thrummed in the ears of all the ThunderClan cats. But it pulsed the loudest in the oldest apprentice's, now the youngest warrior.
Lionstar rested his muzzle upon her head. "StarClan honours your valour and wisdom, and we welcome you as a full warrior of ThunderClan."
As his words died into silence, Skymoon felt his muzzle leave her brow—and as the moon rose, like embers rising into fire, gleaming cyan stripes materialized and glowed like the stars upon her dusky gray fur. Awed whispers rang around the Clan as they laid eye upon the tiger's pelt.
Skymoon bowed her head and rasped her tongue once over her leader's tawny tabby fur. Then Lionstar stepped back, his eyes filled with quiet amazement.
"You truly are a warrior," he murmured, his voice low enough only for her to hear.
Skymoon turned around to meet the eyes of her Clanmates. For a moment, there was only silence—then it was broken as Dovewing lifted her voice.
Bumblestripe joined in. "Skymoon!"
Ferndust and Larkflight lifted their voices. "Skymoon!"
Suddenly the voice of ThunderClan thrummed through the hollow, the voice of every ThunderClan cat rising into a single cheer, yowling one name.
Aura gave a single small purr, and her gaze met the young warrior's. "The moon to rival the sun," the tortoiseshell seemed to say. "There is no other name more fitting for the times that are to come."
High above in their fields of starlight, the ancestors of the Clans agreed.
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