The atmosphere returning to the ThunderClan camp couldn't have been more different than the feeling of going up to the north border. No cat played or frolicked in the leaves. No one climbed up in the trees and chased their mentor through the branches. Aura's unusual presence had done more than unnerved the group of cats.
For Skypaw, it was the start of something. Aura's coming meant something. She was yet to discover what it was, however.
But whenever she glanced at Aura, who looked so small, so fragile, and yet so powerful and so strong-minded, Skypaw realized that Aura's appearance in the Clans wasn't just a coincidence. Somehow, though she was yet to find out, Aura was going to play a part in the preservation of the Clans.
And she knows. Skypaw stifled a small shiver. She knows of my power, of my destiny.
Gradually, the patrol found the familiar, well-worn track that led through the forest and into the camp. Aura pricked her ears, and her eyes seemed to glimmer with calm excitement. "Good. I am glad we are almost there," she meowed.
How did she know? The question flashed in Skypaw's mind.
Lionblaze glanced back at Aura, as though he were unsure, uncertain. His gaze shadowed.
Skypaw was curious at why he was staring at Aura with such hostility.
She remembered her ability. Why not use it now? she wondered. Lionblaze didn't know about her power. Not yet, anyway. She flashed her gaze up and looked into his mind.
What she saw lasted for only a moment, but it was enough. Of a mysterious cat, a very handsome, longhaired tortoiseshell tom, walking calmly amongst ThunderClan, watched curiously and fearfully by the warriors, the queens, and the apprentices.
Suddenly Skypaw realized that she shouldn't be here. She hastily withdrew from Lionblaze's mind, but the damage was done. The golden warrior frowned darkly at Skypaw, and sheepishly she glanced down at her paws. She knew she was going to have to tell a lot to Lionblaze.
It wasn't long before they trotted through the thorn tunnel and entered the camp. Skypaw was feeling apprehensive, wondering how the Clan was going to react seeing Aura. Almost uncertainly, she looked back at the tiny kit. Was she afraid?
Far from it. Aura looked with sedate calm around the hollow, meeting the eyes of the astonished cats who were the first to see her.
Skypaw began to hear the whispers.
"Who is she?"
"A kit? What's a kit doing here?"
"Is it from another Clan?"
"Doesn't smell like any Clan I know."
"Where's her mother? She must be so afraid."
Skypaw looked towards the nursery to see Mapleleaf nervously nudging Frostkit and Jaggedkit into the den. She slipped in after them.
"Skypaw, Aura, come with me," Lionblaze growled, his dark golden gaze flashing over the kit and Skypaw. She winced as she met his gaze. He didn't look happy at all. Then Lionblaze looked back over his shoulder. "Toadstep, go and inform Bramblestar and Squirrelflight of our guests." The black-and-white warrior swiftly broke away from the patrol and bounded towards Highledge. "Fernpaw, Amberheart, please do not follow us. Feel free to speak to our Clanmates, but make sure I am not disturbed."
"Lionblaze? What's going on?" Skypaw glanced around quickly as she suddenly saw her mother push impatiently past Yellownose and Patchwhisker and bound lightly across the clearing, coming to a halt at Lionblaze's side. "Who's this?" she asked, her gaze falling over Aura.
"It'll all be explained in time," Lionblaze said. He glared at Skypaw. "And your daughter also has something that she needs to tell us."
Dovewing looked confused. "What? What do you mean?"
"Here's not exactly the best place..."
"The medicine den," said Aura, almost dreamily, and flicked her tail towards Jayfeather's den, even though Skypaw knew she hadn't seen it before in real life. "In there should be quiet enough." She turned to Skypaw's mother. "Do not worry. I will explain all in good time, Dovewing."
Dovewing looked a little surprised at the fact that Aura spoke with such maturity and that she knew her name. Quizzically she glanced at Lionblaze. He shrugged, and then padded swiftly towards the medicine den, with his three companions striding after him.
Skypaw glanced over her shoulder. Amberheart and Fernpaw were excitedly telling the gathered Clan what had happened. She saw Cherrypelt amongst them, and watched as her mentor glanced with some alarm up towards her. Reassuringly, Skypaw nodded. Bumblestripe quickly pushed his way to the front and began to speak to Amberheart low and urgently.
I'll have to tell everyone about my power and calm them down when I come out, Skypaw thought.
When Lionblaze shouldered his way through the brambles to his brother's den, Skypaw heard Jayfeather meow, "Yes, I'm coming, I'm—Lionblaze? What are you doing here? What are all of them doing here? And who's this?"
"We need to speak. Now," growled Lionblaze.
Jayfeather narrowed his eyes, and almost immediately sought out Skypaw. Awkwardly she nodded, and guessed that the medicine cat had a suspicion.
"Very well, as long as this doesn't take too long," he muttered, settling into a crouch and tucking his forelegs beneath him. He turned his attention to Aura. "Well, kit? Who are you, and why do you come to ThunderClan?"
Aura gave a soft mrrow. "Do you really need to ask that, Jayfeather?"
For a moment, the medicine cat looked surprised. But he composed himself quickly and growled, "Of course. It's not every day the patrol picks up a stray kit and brings it home."
"No, fortunately," Aura agreed, seating herself sedately in front of him. "But I'm afraid that I do not have much time. Soon Bramblestar will be coming to speak with me, and it is important, very important, that the Three knows."
Dovewing sat down near Skypaw and curled her tail protectively around her daughter's shoulders. "Knows what?"
Aura turned to Skypaw. "Of your young one's destiny, Dovewing."
"Destiny?" Dovewing glanced down at Skypaw in astonishment. "What about your destiny, Skypaw?"
Jayfeather gave an irritable sigh. "I thought we were going to keep your power a secret?" he growled at Skypaw.
"I couldn't help it!" Skypaw flashed back at the medicine cat. "She just knew!"
"She seems to know an awful lot," growled Lionblaze, sitting down beside Jayfeather and frowning sternly at Aura. "How do you know so much?" His gaze flashed up to Skypaw. "And why didn't you tell us?"
"She told me," interjected Jayfeather, "and we intended to keep it secret until the right time."
Anger made Lionblaze's fur bristle. "I thought we all agreed there were to be no more secrets between us," he snapped.
Jayfeather's tail lashed. "It was a personal matter between me and Skypaw."
"But I'm her mother," protested Dovewing, angrily, glaring at the medicine cat. "Why didn't you tell me, the moment you found out that she has a power?" She spun around and stared angrily at Skypaw. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was going to, Mother, I swear!" Skypaw said quickly, flattening her ears. "But it wasn't—"
"The right time," said Aura calmly. Suddenly silence fell over the den, and the hostility faded. She made sure that she held their attention fully, before she continued. "Now is the right time. You have had time to understand and appreciate your power, Skypaw. Now it is time for the Three, and the Clan, to know."
Skypaw felt nervous, but she nodded and looked around at the Three. Dovewing just looked unhappy that she hadn't been informed earlier. Lionblaze was angry, his tail lashing. Jayfeather didn't even have his blind eyes turned to Skypaw, but was regarding Aura with interest.
She took a deep breath, and shakily explained to her mother and Lionblaze about her dream, when she entered the tunnels deep underground and spoke with Rock, and where she first learned about her destiny, and her power.
"As my power develops, I'll be able to see into the future," she mewed to the gathered cats, even though two already knew. "And I can look into memories and sense cats' thoughts, like Jayfeather can."
Lionblaze looked startled. "That's a very strong ability."
"Very powerful," Dovewing agreed. "But what is this threat that Rock speaks of?"
Skypaw hesitated. She wondered if she should tell them about her visit in the Dark Forest, and the deathly conversation she overheard—and the potential danger that the Three were now in. But here, Aura suddenly rose to her paws, and in a solemn voice, she began to speak.
"The Dark Forest was defeated," she said. "But not destroyed."
The Three tensed, suddenly nervous. "But we fulfilled the prophecy," breathed Lionblaze. "We saved the Clans."
"You saved the Clans from Tigerstar's destiny," Aura responded. "But there is another rising preparing in the Dark Forest, and it will be so much more terrible than the first."
"You mean...the Dark Forest is rising again?" Dovewing whispered in horror.
Jayfeather frowned; suddenly, with the speed of a striking snake, Aura whirled around and spat at him, "My memories are my own, healer of wounds. I will not have you walk in them!"
Taken aback, Jayfeather didn't reply. Skypaw was shocked as well. Aura's anger seemed to have shadowed the medicine den.
Then Aura relaxed, and the strange heavy feeling lifted. She went on more calmly. "But this time, an ancient enemy rises to fight alongside the Dark Forest. The Clans must all unite to protect themselves once more, not only from the dead, but from the living."
Lionblaze was perplexed. "The dead and the living? What Clan would try to destroy us? What Clan is there?"
"And what does it mean, the Clans must all unite?" Dovewing frowned. "You speak as if there is another."
"There is," said Aura quietly. "I do not speak of my own. My Clan you must fear, and prepare yourselves against."
"Your Clan?" Jayfeather sounded confused. "Which Clan did you say you were from, again?"
Aura did not respond to this question. "Countless seasons ago," Aura mewed, "When the Clans still lived in the old forest, Firestar was sent on a journey, where no cat had ever journeyed before. He did not go alone. Sandstorm travelled with him. Together, the pair faced many obstacles, and when they arrived at their destination—where the river began—they found themselves facing an impossible task. They were to rebuild an entire Clan from nothing to everything."
"An entire Clan?" Skypaw gasped.
"That's impossible!" growled Lionblaze.
"To them, it was daunting, but it was necessary. Once, five Clans lived in the old forest, but when Twolegs destroyed their territory, the fifth Clan was sent by the other four Clans into exile. This Clan was called SkyClan."
"SkyClan?" Skypaw interrupted yet again, this time out of astonishment. I never knew that a Clan was called the same as me! Dovewing, Jayfeather and Lionblaze all looked just as surprised.
Aura didn't seem irritated. Perhaps she had expected their frequent outbursts. "SkyClan's descendants had become kittypets, rogues and loners long ago. But there was one cat, an aged, elderly tom, who was the last cat alive to contain the knowledge and memory of SkyClan. His name was Sky, and he was Firestar's and Sandstorm's only chance to rebuild SkyClan.
"Over time, Firestar gathered together rogues, loners, and kittypets who possessed SkyClan's skills of jumping and climbing, gave them warrior names, and trained them into fighters. Together, as a Clan, they faced the rats, their ultimate enemy, slaying their mindful leader and freeing the gorge. When SkyClan finally received an official leader, Leafstar, Firestar and Sandstorm knew it was their time to leave."
Aura paused for breath.
"Though generations have passed since Firestar left the gorge, SkyClan prospers and thrives. StarClan walks the skies above them, and they know of SkyClan's existence. Now is the time when SkyClan must be reunited once more with the Clans, and take their place in Clan knowledge."
Dovewing suddenly frowned, as though remembering something.
"I...I think I might have..." She broke off.
"Might have what?" asked Lionblaze quickly.
Might have heard of SkyClan before? Skypaw guessed. But is having trouble recalling the memory? But perhaps...I can sense her memory, and bring it to the front of her mind...
She stretched her senses forward. She found herself feeling Dovewing's uncertainty as she struggled to remember. And then...
Cats yowled all around Skypaw. Startled, she turned around to see only a gloomy darkness. The shrieks and caterwauls of cats seemed to echo around her. In a flash, Skypaw realized that they were in the tunnels. But these aren't the same particular tunnels which I first entered, to see Rock...
She suddenly felt a cold shiver run up her body, and saw Dovewing—countless seasons younger—suddenly race past Skypaw without a second glance. "Hollyleaf, no!" she cried. "Wait! Wait for me!"
Skypaw began to race behind her mother, to suddenly see her stop. Beyond her, a black she-cat crouched, hissing menacingly at a tortoiseshell tom who crouched, trapped in a small tunnel, warily eyeing Hollyleaf.
Skypaw was astonished. So this is Hollyleaf? She had never once seen Jayfeather's and Lionblaze's sister, but had heard of her many times in tales. How for many seasons she disappeared, and suddenly returned to the Clans, when she led a lost Dovewing and Ivypool out from the tunnels.
Her pelt was nightblack, and her eyes a fiery green, and they blazed with indescribable rage as she stared at the tortoiseshell.
Hollyleaf arched her back and snarled, "Leave the Clans alone. You have hurt us enough."
"Never!" the tortoiseshell tom spat, his tail lashing. "Not until I've destroyed everything the Clans stand for." Then his voice softened into a deathly snarl. "Many seasons ago, I knew another of your Clans, far away in a gorge. They scorned me, too; they told me I wasn't good enough to be one of their precious warriors! So I vowed to prove to all of you that the warrior code means nothing. In the end, you will all kill each other for reasons that aren't worth so much a mousetail."
Skypaw drew back out of Dovewing's memory, returning in a flash to the present. No time had passed, but Skypaw knew.
"That tortoiseshell tom, in the tunnels..." she mewed slowly. "Who was he?"
Dovewing glanced at Skypaw in surprise. "Did you...?"
"Yes," said Skypaw, a little impatiently. There were more things at stake here than goggling over her realized ability. "Who was that tomcat the black she-cat faced in the tunnels?"
Dovewing finally recollected the memory. "Hollyleaf. She was the black she-cat, and she was fighting Sol. He's the tortoiseshell tom who you must have seen."
Jayfeather looked surprised. "Sol was in SkyClan?"
"He must have been," mewed Lionblaze, clearly as stunned.
"Yes...Sol was in SkyClan once," said Aura softly, and all attention was once again drawn back to the unusually wise she-kit. "I remember well. He was the old SkyClan leader Leafstar's apprentice. But he thieved her kits, and Leafstar fought him, and exiled him."
"He stole her kits?" Dovewing looked mortified.
"He sounds little better than that rat-heart Brokenstar," hissed Skypaw, lashing her tail. She had heard many times about the dark ShadowClan leader Brokenstar, the cruel son of a medicine cat and a ShadowClan leader.
"Then he came to the lake...that's how he knew so much about the Clans," Jayfeather reasoned at last. "But..." He glanced questioningly at Aura. "How did he know that the sun would vanish?"
Aura looked steadily at Jayfeather.
"Sol is a cat who had been gifted with great foresight and knowledge," she meowed. "Such as Rock, the Guardian of the tunnels, Skypaw, when her power develops, and me. But Sol was not born with his gift. He developed it and used it to scare the Clans. It died as Sol swore vengeance to the Clans who had spurned him so." She flicked her tail in a somewhat certain way. "I was born with my power fully developed, you see, because my destiny is to guide the Clans against the new threat, while the warrior who will fight develops her strength. Where I get my knowledge is something that I am not allowed to tell you at this current time."
"And why aren't you? What's restricting you?" Lionblaze demanded.
Aura looked steadily back at the golden warrior.
"Because you are all not ready to comprehend. Not yet," she replied calmly. Her strange, pale, all-knowing gaze travelled to each cat in turn. "But you are ready to know the danger. SkyClan is alone, a Clan who has grown in strength, but who will not be enough to stand against the tides of the Dark Forest. They have no experience of such evil. Tread carefully, cats of destiny. The dark spirits desire your deaths, as they do the deaths of all those who betrayed them."
Lionblaze unsheathed his claws. "Let them come," he growled.
"But in particular," breathed Aura, turning her gaze to Skypaw, "you must tread carefully. You, Skypaw, have been destined to defend the lake. But you will ultimately destroy the Dark Forest in the end."
Skypaw was taken aback. "M-me?"
Aura inclined her head slightly to Skypaw. "You."
"That, I will explain to you in time," mewed Aura. "It will be too much for you to understand now. But fear not; I know all. I know of your ability and your gift. I will assist you as much as I can." She turned to Jayfeather. "StarClan darkens. The light of the stars is fading, as the strength of the Dark Forest, and the two rogue Clans who have promised their assistance to the Place of No Stars, grows. The connection to mortality is nearly completely severed."
Jayfeather nodded solemnly. "I noticed."
"Beware. If the connection is completely broken, then all ties of the past will disappear. So will the Ancients."
Fear suddenly flashed in Jayfeather's eyes. "No...they can't! What of Rock?"
"Rock's time in the tunnels has neared its end," said Aura. "Soon he will fade into nothingness, his duty done, and the Ancients will too fade. They will exist no more, for they have been forgotten."
Lionblaze looked startled. "Rock...he's going to die?"
"He's already dead," Skypaw found herself saying slowly. "But soon he will be destroyed, should the connection be broken."
She paused, aware that the Three were staring at her in amazement, and was confused. She glanced helplessly at Aura, who nodded wisely and simply mewed, "Your insight is awakening from its dormant sleep at last. You find that you suddenly...know things, yes?"
Skypaw frowned for a moment, and then nodded. That time in the Dark Forest, when she had suddenly known where the Dark warriors were meeting, speaking so crucially of their plans, had been all but forgotten, until now.
"And my dreams...?"
"You dreamed of my coming," said Aura calmly. "Your insight, as it strengthens, will come to you. You must learn to trust your dreams, because they will always tell the future; whether they will come soon or later is to be discovered. When you have grown, then your insight will be with you, always, as it is with me."
Pawsteps sounded outside the medicine den, and Aura mewed, "It seems that Bramblestar's patience has finally thinned. I will go and speak to him, and see if I may have a place here in the Clan."
"Of course you will," said Jayfeather quickly, rising to his paws. "You're too vital to ThunderClan—and to Skypaw—for you to leave now. I will speak to Bramblestar as well. He won't argue with one of the Three."
"I'll come too," Skypaw offered.
"No," said Lionblaze firmly. "You're going to come with me and Dovewing, and explain to the Clan about your potential."
Jayfeather and Aura slipped out of the medicine den. For a moment, they exchanged words with Bramblestar, who stood just outside, before the three cats padded away, probably heading back to the leader's den atop Highledge. When they were out of earshot (at least for Skypaw and Lionblaze), Skypaw glanced at the golden tabby warrior with a scowl. "Why are you so angry about me keeping this matter from you?" she asked irritably.
"Because the last time that we kept secrets in ThunderClan, dangerous secrets, it exhausted and near destroyed us," Lionblaze responded, his eyes narrowing. "There can be no more secrets, especially not now, with the Dark Forest rising again."
"Will you tell the Clan about the Dark Forest?" asked Skypaw.
Lionblaze hesitated, frowning.
"They may panic," Dovewing mewed, rising to her paws and approaching her former mentor. "It's been many seasons since we last fought them, and we have just begun to settle back into peace. Perhaps it is best, until Skypaw begins to understand her power more, that we keep this just between the Three, and Aura."
"Please?" asked Skypaw softly. "It might cause trouble for the other Clans if they found out about the Dark Forest again, and about me. They weren't exactly overjoyed when you and Jayfeather and Mother told them about your destinies."
Lionblaze let out a soft growl, lashing his tail.
"Very well," he agreed reluctantly. "But what about Amberheart, and Fernpaw, and Toadstep? They know! Aura practically told them straight out about Skypaw's destiny."
Dovewing frowned thoughtfully.
"We could tell them," said Skypaw, "as long as they promise to keep it to themselves, just for now. Otherwise they might begin asking around, and then the entire Clan will soon know. Then they'll grow uncertain."
Dovewing nodded. "That sounds best. I'll go and bring them here." She slipped like a mouse out from the medicine den.
In the space of her absence, Skypaw and Lionblaze didn't speak. They simply stood where they were, waiting, the air thick with tension between them. Then Skypaw heard Dovewing return, with the three cats just behind them.
"Skypaw?" Amberheart was the first to speak, slipping into the empty medicine den and staring in puzzlement at Skypaw. "What's going on?"
"There had better be some answers, because the Clan wants to know," Toadstep added.
Fernpaw flicked her tail nervously. "When Aura was in the forest, she said to us that you had 'dormant abilities' that were going to be awakened. What did she mean?"
Lionblaze stifled a soft sigh. "You had better all sit down. Skypaw has a lot of explaining to do."
Toadstep looked puzzled as he, Amberheart and Fernpaw obligingly sat down. "I have to admit, this has been the most interesting patrol I've ever led."
Skypaw curled her tail a little nervously around her forepaws, wondering how much she should tell them, even where to begin. Then she felt her mother sit down beside her, and her tail curled around Skypaw's shoulders.
"Just tell them all that they need to know," said Dovewing gently.
Skypaw looked at the patrol. "You have to promise not to speak of what I'm about to tell you to any other cat. At least, not for now."
Amberheart frowned quizzically. "Why not?"
"Don't ask 'why', mouse-brain," said Lionblaze irritably to her. "Just do as she says."
Toadstep narrowed his eyes. "Depends on what she says."
Fernpaw, however, turned to her mentor.
"Please, Toadstep," she urged, pleading. "Skypaw's only been an apprentice for a week and she seems to have been carrying a great burden, concerning her destiny. It must be hard for her to shed some of that weight onto us. Can you just do as she asks, and not tell any other cat, until Skypaw feels ready to admit to the whole Clan what she's going to admit to us now?"
Skypaw felt a flash of warmth to her loyal friend.
Toadstep hesitated, and then sighed, giving Skypaw a curt nod. "Very well."
"I won't tell," Amberheart added.
Feeling somewhat more relieved, Skypaw straightened up, and nervously began to tell her three Clanmates about her destiny.
The Clan was muttering anxiously from where they were gathered in the centre of the hollow. Cats prowled to and from one another, trying to get any scrap of information. Snowfoot and Moleclaw crouched just outside the nursery, where Hollythorn and Mapleleaf rested within. The protesting mewls of Jaggedkit and Frostkit echoing from amongst the knotted brambles were the only thing Skypaw could really clearly hear from where she sat beside Dovewing, just outside the medicine den.
Her paws trembled. What if Jayfeather couldn't persuade Bramblestar to let Aura stay? What would happen to ThunderClan then?
Skypaw glanced at Dovewing. "What are they saying in there?"
Dovewing pricked her ears obligingly. Then she said, "You can relax, Skypaw."
"He's going to let Aura stay?" Skypaw mewed hopefully.
"He seems to be angling towards that," said Dovewing. "He's going to speak to the Clan first, before he makes his final decision."
Skypaw flattened her ears in despair. "They'll want Aura gone."
"I think they're more intrigued than hostile to Aura at this moment," Dovewing mewed. "She is only two moons old, and she wields the knowledge of StarClan, after all."
Skypaw frowned. "No. She holds more knowledge than StarClan."
Dovewing paused, considering this, and then meowed, "Yes, I suppose so." She looked with pride at her daughter. "And one day, you will, too."
Skypaw let out a soft sigh. "To be honest, Mother, I don't know what's going to happen to me."
Before Dovewing could respond, Skypaw suddenly heard pawsteps thud nearby and glanced up into the eyes of her mentor.
"What's going on?" Cherrypelt demanded, with narrowed eyes. "I let you go on one patrol without me and you return almost immediately with a kit who appears to bear more knowledge than StarClan itself?"
Skypaw shrugged. "I don't know how she gets her knowledge," she mewed, which was completely true. Cherrypelt narrowed her eyes but said nothing. She glanced up at Dovewing instead.
"Where's this kit now?" she asked.
Dovewing flicked her tail up towards the rockfall. "In Bramblestar's den." She pricked her ears. "And you'll find out if Aura's going to stay here or not, Skypaw, immediately. They're just coming out."
Almost as soon as Skypaw mewed these words, shadows flickered on Highledge, and Bramblestar emerged. Squirrelflight was beside him, and just behind them were Jayfeather and Aura. They lightly bounded down the rockfall, and for a moment, Skypaw was afraid that Jayfeather would slip and tumble the rest of the way. But with practiced ease Jayfeather leapt down the fallen stones and onto the grassy ground beneath, and the talk of the Clan died almost at once.
Then Jayfeather and Squirrelflight fell back and allowed Bramblestar and Aura to walk, quite alone, out into the centre of the clearing and near the rotted beech.
In a clear voice, Bramblestar called out, "ThunderClan, we all know of the visitor who has come to the hollow this afternoon."
Dark muttering went up around the gathered cats, but Aura looked completely unfazed. She seemed to have expected everything, was never surprised, never uncomfortable, and her unnerving calm seemed to silence the mutterings on its own, without Bramblestar's aid. For an odd reason, Skypaw felt a small flicker of pride towards Aura.
"I have spoken with her," continued Bramblestar. "Aura does appear to have great knowledge. She knows everything about our past."
"How?" yowled Patchwhisker.
"Yes, how?" called Runningleap.
"Silence!" Berrynose snapped at the younger warriors. "Then perhaps you'll find out."
Bramblestar flashed a grateful glance at Berrynose, his former apprentice, and then continued. "Aura believes that her place is with ThunderClan. She left her family on her own accord, and wishes to stay in this Clan."
Surprise went up around the hollow.
"Running away from home, are we?" purred Mousewhisker.
"ThunderClan may have taken in loners and strays in the past, but we don't make it a regular thing," growled Yellownose, his fur fluffing up.
"She doesn't deserve to stay in ThunderClan," said Lilyflower. "I mean, what has she ever done for us?"
More caterwauling drowned out Lilyflower's words, until with a thunderous yowl, Lionblaze silenced them.
"Let Bramblestar speak!" the golden tabby meowed.
Silence fell quickly over the Clan once more. Skypaw glanced at Aura. The kit still looked completely unworried, even slightly amused, her very pale golden gaze flashing over each Clan cat.
Bramblestar spoke again, his aged voice carrying clearly around the hollow. "What hasn't Aura done for us?" he inquired. "So far, she has not caused trouble."
"But she has caused unrest, and that's bad enough," mewed Blossomfall, eyeing Aura disdainfully.
Bramblestar narrowed his eyes as he looked more closely at Blossomfall. "Explain," he simply said.
Blossomfall took a few pawsteps forward, so that all the Clan could see her clearly. "Have all of you forgotten?" she yowled, her voice ringing out more impressively than Bramblestar's voice, and her gaze swept almost scathingly around at her Clanmates. "My brother and sister and I were only mere kits at the time, but we heard the stories over and over. What about the last visitor to the Clans who seemed to know an unusually large amount about us?"
Alarm suddenly flared in Hazeltail's eyes.
"You're not...talking about Sol, are you?"
A shocked tension swept swiftly around the Clan. Beside her Dovewing tensed, and nearby, Jayfeather narrowed his blind blue gaze. Skypaw felt a tremor of anxiety flood through her, and looked at Aura—only to feel her anxiety increase when she saw fear flash for a moment in the young kit's gaze.
Squirrelflight called for order. "You would accuse a small kit of being a monster like Sol?" she demanded angrily of Blossomfall.
"But it's possible." Skypaw felt dismay sear through her when she saw Bumblestripe suddenly step forward, brushing flanks with his sister, his gaze never wavering from Squirrelflight. "Sol knew that the sun would vanish, and he nearly destroyed ShadowClan. He caused nothing but trouble with his presence." His eyes narrowed. "I remember when he returned to the Clans, all those seasons after the sun vanished. He turned WindClan against us. I didn't trust him for a single mousetail, and I don't trust Aura."
He shot a suspicious glance at the small tortoiseshell-and-white kit, who stared back at him, her eyes completely expressionless, but her sense of calm gone.
Father, no! Please, no! Skypaw wanted to cry aloud. Despair flowed through Dovewing's fur as well, and she stared at her mate in horror. You can't do this! Aura has to stay in ThunderClan! We could all die if she didn't!
"That is true," said Bramblestar slowly, glancing down at Aura, with a slight frown across his face. "You do know about Sol's legacy here at the lake, don't you?"
Stiffly, Aura nodded. "Yes. Who doesn't?"
"All the more reason that she should leave," said Lilyflower, eyeing Aura with obvious dislike. "Her place is wherever she came from, not with us. It's leaf-fall. There'll be too many mouths to feed in ThunderClan come leaf-bare if she decides to stay."
"And another set of paws for hunting in the four moons passing," said Fernpaw suddenly.
All eyes in the clearing turned to where the light gray tabby she-cat crouched. She rose confidently and meowed, "Besides, we'd be no better than fox-hearted rogues if we turned out such a young kit into the wilderness, so close to the harshness of leaf-bare, with foxes and badges and hawks and goodness knows what else prowling the outskirts of the worlds beyond. And if Aura stays, she'll become a member of ThunderClan. She'll become an apprentice in the middle of leaf-bare when we need food most, and all her knowledge will give ThunderClan strength."
"She's right!" Dustpaw suddenly spoke up. "Aura could know about the other Clans, too!"
"She'd know everything about them; their fighting styles, and their techniques, and the way that they think in battle..." Eagerness glimmered in Whitepaw's eyes as he pictured himself already fighting in a future conflict between two Clans.
Now positive murmurs began to ring around some parts of the Clan, but some—like Lilyflower, Blossomfall and Bumblestripe—continued to regard Aura with some caution. Squirrelflight looked thoughtful.
"And if we turn her away," commented Icecloud thoughtfully, turning to Ivypool, who sat beside her, "then the other Clans might capture her, and then they'd learn about Aura's potential—and then she'd tell them all about ThunderClan's secrets, too!"
"All the more reason why she should stay," Ivypool meowed.
Skypaw dug her claws into the earth. Don't say that. Aura shouldn't just stay here because she's an infinite knowledge source. She's only two moons old. But she was still having trouble believing that. The way that Aura thought, acted and spoke suggested that she was much, much older.
Then Bramblestar let out a thunderous yowl, summoning silence from the Clan once more.
"I will leave the decision of Aura's fate in the paws of the cats who wield fate the best," Bramblestar meowed. He stepped back. "Dovewing? What is your opinion on this?"
Skypaw glanced at her mother. Dovewing drew herself up, and she spoke without hesitation.
"She should stay. She has much to offer the Clan."
Thank you. Skypaw silently breathed out in relief. She glanced at her father across the clearing, and saw that he was looking astonished. His was mouth half-open at the fact his mate was contradicting him.
"Lionblaze?" Bramblestar looked back to where the great golden warrior stood a short distance away from where Dovewing and Skypaw sat.
Lionblaze narrowed his eyes. "The memory of Sol is a painful one," he conceded. "And whenever I look at Aura, now that Blossomfall has kindly reminded us of him, I can almost see Sol over again."
Shock flooded through Skypaw. Surely Lionblaze wouldn't decree for Aura to be sent away from the Clan? Even after he knew of her importance to the future? Her importance to me?
"However," Lionblaze continued, and Skypaw felt a twinge of hope, "Aura is nothing like Sol was. I believe what Dovewing says; she has a lot to offer the Clan. She knows of the past, and she knows of the future. She can use her abilities to protect ThunderClan as long as she stands alongside us. It will be good to have another kit becoming a 'paw, in the hardness of leaf-bare."
Relief crashed down over Skypaw.
"And Jayfeather?" Bramblestar looked back towards the medicine cat.
"You already know my response, Bramblestar," said Jayfeather, almost irritably. "Aura needs to stay with us. With the connection to StarClan damaged, her omens for the future will help protect ThunderClan, when our starry ancestors will not be able to reach us."
Surprise flooded through the Clan.
"You're having trouble hearing StarClan, Jayfeather?" Dewclaw meowed in astonishment.
"Is that even possible?" asked Thrushsong.
"It's a miracle I can hear them at all," growled Jayfeather. "Kestrelflight and Dewtuft both can't access StarClan at all. Nor can Willowshine."
The Clan looked shocked, and agitation ran thick, as frightened yowls began to ring around the gathered cats, but in a moment, Bramblestar had called for silence, and he growled, "Regardless what is happening to StarClan, and regardless what has happened here in the past, we must come back to this present matter. And I have made my decision. Aura will stay in ThunderClan."
"What?" Blossomfall's startled yowl was lost as the Clan cried out, most in excitement and in agreement with their leader's words, others in obvious dislike and protest.
"And," continued Bramblestar, his voice clearly heard over the din of sound, "she will accompany us to the Gathering in a few days' time."
Now the entire Clan was protesting; shocked caterwauls rang around the hollow. Skypaw glanced at Jayfeather to see that he, too, looked surprised. Clearly, Bramblestar had not discussed the matter of Aura's attendance at a Gathering with the medicine cat.
Lionblaze rose to his paws.
"Silence!" he roared.
And silence fell, almost at once. The Clan looked in shock at Lionblaze.
"Bramblestar has not finished," he growled. "And he has spoken. Remember the code; a Clan leader's word is law!"
Bramblestar glanced at Lionblaze. "Thank you," he muttered quietly, before he lifted his voice and addressed the entire Clan once more. "I know that you are startled and confused at my decision to take Aura to a Gathering. But the Clans must know of her arrival, as we would for any Clan member."
"But why does she have to come with us?" asked Seednose.
"She's only a kit," meowed Rosepetal, frowning at Aura, who looked levelly back at her with unblinking eyes. "I mean, she's only two moons old. Kits are meant to stay behind. Only apprentices and older can attend."
"She doesn't exactly have the mind of a kit, does she?" Toadstep challenged, narrowing his eyes at his sister. "She wields more knowledge than StarClan itself. She deserves to go to the Gathering."
Nearby, Seednose nodded. "That's true," she conceded.
"What will the other Clans think of us?" Snowfoot yowled. "They'll think we're going soft, if we're starting to bring kits to Gatherings. Is this going to happen every moon?"
"Snowfoot, listen to yourself," said Amberheart, turning to her brother. "We have forgotten that this kit must have travelled quite far to even get here, to ThunderClan. And her arrival means something. It isn't just chance that she turns up in this Clan as leaf-bare draws near. Her great knowledge will strengthen us against the frosts."
For a moment she flicked her golden gaze from Snowfoot and to Skypaw, and the apprentice was glad that the young warrior was keeping to her word. She, like the others, had been surprised at finding out about her ability and her gift. But they had promised to keep it secret until due time.
"It is decided," said Bramblestar. "Aura will have a place in ThunderClan and she will come with us to the Gathering in several days."
He seemed prepared to draw the meeting to a close, but suddenly Squirrelflight stepped forward.
"May I speak?"
All eyes turned to the deputy of the Clan who had, for countless seasons, served her Clan faithfully, despite what she had done to Bramblestar and everyone before. Now Squirrelflight stood before ThunderClan, looking absolutely certain on what she was about to say.
"Bramblestar," said Squirrelflight, turning to her leader and gazing at him with warmth in her eyes. "I wish to retire from my post as deputy, and take my place at my sister's side in the elders' den."
A sympathetic murmur rang around the Clan. Skypaw knew that Squirrelflight really should have gone and joined the elders a long time ago. White hairs flecked her muzzle and there was an aged gleam in her gaze. It seemed that her once-tireless muscles had finally stiffened, and that her ceaseless energy had at last ceased.
Bramblestar looked sadly at his deputy. "You are certain?"
"Yes." No voice could have sounded surer.
Bramblestar inclined his head to his mate. "Then I grant your wish, Squirrelflight. You may join the elders, and you may step down from your post as deputy. You have served both me and ThunderClan well. May you have many moons of rest and comfortable nests."
Squirrelflight's gaze brightened. "I don't suppose you'll ever consider coming to join me?" she inquired sarcastically.
An amused purr rang around the Clan.
"Sadly, I don't think I'd be permitted," Bramblestar replied, with a small purr of his own. "And I still have to choose a new deputy, of course."
Squirrelflight respectfully stepped back.
The Clan now waited, tense and excited, for Bramblestar to name the new deputy of ThunderClan. Of course, there didn't seem to be any doubt who would next be chosen, and their suspicions were proved correct.
Bramblestar lifted his gaze to the sky.
"If you can hear me, StarClan, I say these words to you, so you may hear me and approve my choice," he said. He paused, and then looked down. "Lionblaze will be the new deputy of ThunderClan."
Satisfied purrs rumbled through ThunderClan, and warm eyes flitted to Lionblaze. He looked surprised for a moment, as though he had not expected the title at all. Then he quietly strode forward and meowed solemnly to ThunderClan, "I am honoured, and I thank you, Bramblestar. I will do my best to serve ThunderClan, for it has always been my home. It is the Clan who I will die to protect."
Intensity fired his voice. "I don't need an ancient prophecy to give me limitless strength and fearlessness in battle. All I need is to be fighting at the sides of such noble and spirited warriors. I will work until the last hair falls from my body and my last drop of blood has been spilled to protect ThunderClan from every danger that dares face us as your deputy."
A cheer went up around ThunderClan. Jayfeather looked with pride at his brother. From the shadows of the elders' den, Skypaw could see Leafpool watching her son with indescribable joy and love upon her silver-flecked face. Cinderheart gazed at her mate with adoration and gave a contented, satisfied rumble.
Skypaw glanced at Aura. The small kit didn't seem at all surprised, but she was pleased for Lionblaze nonetheless.
Everything is changing, Skypaw realized, in that small instant. Aura is coming to stay permanently in the Clan. My power has now been spread into the awareness of others, and a Gathering is coming in a few days. Aura will go, and Lionblaze is now deputy. Squirrelflight has now stepped down.
She shivered. The Dark Forest...they are coming. Shadows are returning to the lake. The Three cannot protect them in the same way they did the first time. That task falls to me.
She met Aura's gaze. Slowly, the kit nodded.
That task falls to both of us.
Skypaw flattened her fur, unwilling to let her mother or Jayfeather know that she was afraid.
I only hope I will be strong enough to carry the weight of my destiny.