There was a tom. A long-haired, tortoiseshell tom, and he walked purposefully across the grass, his tailtip flicking. His movements were unhurried and his golden eyes thoughtful.
He appeared over the top of the rise that overlooked the lake. It looked so peaceful far below. Too peaceful. He was to change that. The tom drew in a deep breath, satisfaction flooding through every part of his body.
I have returned. Let vengeance begin.
"Skypaw! Skypaw, wake up!"
Skypaw's eyes flew open as she heard Fernpaw's excited mewing sound outside. Groggily the she-cat lifted her head to see Fernpaw suddenly dart into the apprentices' den, her bright eyes flaming with excitement.
"Huh...? What..." Skypaw was still shaking the sleep out of her ears as she unsteadily rose.
Shock flooded through Skypaw, and in a flash she was on her paws. "What? Already?" How much time had passed since she had left the nursery? Her mind whirled as she tried to recollect...and then amazement shot through her. Great StarClan! It's been a moon!
"Come on!" Fernpaw excitedly ducked out of the apprentices' den. To Skypaw's embarrassment, she saw every single nest, other than her own, empty.
I've got to stop oversleeping. Quickly Skypaw shouldered her way through the brambles, appearing just behind Fernpaw, to feel the excitement scorching the clearing.
Stormpaw, Whitepaw and Dustpaw were scratching their claws on the rotted beech tree while Larkpaw crouched nearby, distracting restless Frostkit and Jaggedkit by letting the kits play with his tail. Skypaw saw him wince every time their tiny little claws pricked through his tail fur. Bramblestar stood near the elders' den, where Leafpool and Squirrelflight were watching with intense interest on their silver-flecked faces.
"Is Jayfeather already inside?" Skypaw asked quickly. Where's Aura?
"Of course!" Fernpaw replied.
"Skypaw!" Skypaw whirled around as she heard her father call her name, and a moment later Bumblestripe appeared, quickly trotting over to where his daughter uncertainly stood. "You slept late again. Cherrypelt was wondering if you were ill."
"Yes, Father. Sorry." Nervously Skypaw dipped her head and flattened her ears in what she hoped had been a submissive way.
The stern look in Bumblestripe's eyes softened slightly. "Are you all right?" he mewed more gently, running his tail along Skypaw's spine. "You seem anxious."
"No, I'm fine," Skypaw assured her father. "Where's Aura?"
Bumblestripe's gaze hardened.
"In the nursery," he growled, with a lash of his tail that ruffled Skypaw's fur the wrong way.
She quickly shook it back into place. "Is she helping Jayfeather?"
"I'll say," Bumblestripe meowed. "You know, I've never trusted her. Not since she came into ThunderClan half a moon ago."
I know, thought Skypaw reluctantly. You wanted her gone, like Blossomfall.
But some cats had come around, in the two weeks that had passed since the slightly-disastrous Gathering. Lilyflower, for one, had come to accept Aura as a kit of the Clan, and Larkpaw and Rosepetal, who had both had doubts of the kit, now were comfortable speaking with Aura, who turned out to ThunderClan to be quiet, unobtrusive and polite to all who spoke with her. She, Skypaw and Fernpaw were all close friends. Skypaw felt a strange sense of fondness for the little tortoiseshell kit.
"Can't you at least give her a chance?" she mewed softly to her father.
Bumblestripe narrowed his eyes. "It's not normal, Skypaw, for any cat to wield that level of wisdom, for one so young," he mewed. "It's completely unnerving to all who are around her."
"Yes, she does seem a bit...mature for her age, but she's done nothing wrong, and she needs to stay," Skypaw reasoned. If only I could tell you, she thought, a little sadly. But Jayfeather believes that we must keep my power hidden until the time is right. Of course, Aura would know when the time was, or at least have a possibility for that, but sometimes Skypaw wished that the time would hurry up and present itself to her.
"Skypaw?" Dovewing suddenly appeared beside Skypaw, warmth gleaming in her amber eyes. "How are you?" Affectionately, she rasped a tongue over Skypaw's ear.
Skypaw, embarrassed, shied away from her. "I'm fine, Mother," she mewed in response, rubbing her eartip indignantly with one paw.
Dovewing chuckled, turning her gaze to her mate's. "Have things been quiet here?"
Bumblestripe nodded. "Quiet enough. Hollythorn's kitting well, so says Jayfeather. Wherewere you before?"
"Out," said Dovewing simply. "I had to have a private word with Lionblaze. You know. Three stuff."
Bumblestripe let out a small purr and affectionately pressed his muzzle into Dovewing's cheek. "I still can hardly believe that you were born with such a destiny," he mewed softly. "But I couldn't think of a better cat to wield the power you have."
Dovewing purred in response, but her gaze flashed down to Skypaw. Almost pleadingly, Skypaw jerked her head at her father. Please, can I tell him?
Not yet, Dovewing said firmly, as though she had sensed Skypaw's thoughts. Then she drew away from Bumblestripe and flicked his flank with her tail. "I think you'd better go and make sure Flamefur and Yellownose aren't getting up to anything. Those two have a knack for mischief that never shook off since they were kits."
Bumblestripe let out a soft chuckle before he turned and padded away. Within the nursery, a pain-filled yowl suddenly erupted from amongst the brambles, and Snowfoot, who Skypaw realized was pacing nervously outside, stopped abruptly and peered anxiously amidst the brambles.
"Jayfeather!" he cried. "Is Hollythorn—?"
"Fine," the irritable voice of the medicine cat snapped, interrupting Snowfoot mid-sentence. "Stop fretting like an overprotective weasel and let me do my job!"
Rumbles of amusement came from the surrounding cats. Dewclaw gently shouldered his way through the gathered crowd and curled his tail around Snowfoot's shoulders. "Why don't we go for a walk?" the gray tom suggested. "Just a short one through the forest. It'll look lovely, splashed in golden and brown. It might give you some ideas for your kits' names."
Reluctantly, Snowfoot let himself be led away from the nursery.
Skypaw glanced at her mother. "How are things going in there?"
Dovewing pricked her ears obligingly and listened for a moment. "Hollythorn hasn't given birth just yet, but she's very close to," she mewed. "Aura's saying to soothe Hollythorn that she'll soon have four healthy kits to keep at her side."
Four, thought Skypaw, but paused. Why am I not surprised?
Her insight. Perhaps it was subtly telling her that Hollythorn was giving birth to four kits. Skypaw had barely thought about her power of late; Cherrypelt had been training her intensely out in the forest, sharpening every battle move to perfection before moving onto the next, making sure she knew all the techniques for hunting, and that she brought back at least two pieces of prey for the fresh-kill pile every time they went out.
Where was her mentor? Skypaw glanced towards where the warriors were gathered in various places in the clearing, listening excitedly for the sound of a shrill, tiny mew. She quickly found her, sitting beside Poppyfrost and Foxleap and exchanging soft words with them. Their eyes were bright, as they all had experienced this kind of exhilaration before.
I wonder what the kits' names will be, Skypaw thought. Perhaps they'll be StarClan-honoured names, like Flamefur's and Yellownose's.
Her mind flashed back to two weeks ago where Jayfeather had lifted his head and said solemnly to the Clans that they were on their own; that StarClan could not help them, and that only mortal cats could make a difference to whatever threat was approaching the lake.
Whenever Skypaw had asked Aura about this danger, she had simply shadowed her gaze and murmured, "Now is not the time, but it is soon to come."
Skypaw suddenly had a strong feeling that the time was coming fast. That it was nearly here.
Suddenly, the shrill mewl of a kit echoed from the nursery.
"A kit!" yowled Thrushsong in joy. Her call was echoed excitedly throughout the Clan, and keen eyes flashed towards the nursery. Beside her, Patchwhisker and Runningleap exchanged thrilled glances.
Frostkit and Jaggedkit looked up quickly from where they had pinned Larkpaw to the ground. "We'll have some new playmates soon!" squeaked Frostkit with excitement, beginning to dash towards the nursery.
Instantly a long tail swept her off her paws and Frostkit tumbled into a tom's side. She looked up into the eyes of her father, Moleclaw. "Not yet," said the brown warrior gently. "Jayfeather may not have finished."
There are three more kits to come, Skypaw thought, watching Frostkit quickly wriggle her way free of Moleclaw's tail and dart back to where Jaggedkit was trying to grab hold of Larkpaw's fur and drag him back down again.
Skypaw felt a small twinge of sympathy as she looked at Jaggedkit and his feet. They were more twisted and crippled than ever; it was a wonder that he could even walk on them. But he never seemed to feel any pain, and Jayfeather constantly told Mapleleaf, who fretted often for her son, that though Jaggedkit's paws would never grow properly, and that he would be crippled for the rest of his life, he would not be at a great disadvantage—he would simply have to adapt some fighting moves to go well with his twisted claws, and strengthen the muscles around his feet so he could run and fight as well as any warrior.
"Snowfoot will be pleased," purred Amberheart. Her own eyes were bright; Skypaw recollected that Snowfoot was her brother, and therefore his kits were going to be her kin.
Distantly, they're my kin too, thought Skypaw. Her grandmother was Whitewing, Cloudtail's and Brightheart's daughter, and Amberheart and her brothers were Brightheart's second litter of kits.
"Jayfeather!" yowled Seednose, her tailtip whisking to and fro with eagerness. "What is the kit?"
It wasn't Jayfeather who appeared in the doorway to respond, but (to everyone's surprise) Aura. The kit's eyes were warm and were blazing with joy.
"A she-kit!" she cried. "Strong and full of life!"
Contented and happy purrs rang around ThunderClan. Skypaw instinctively sought out the cats who still were mistrustful of Aura; Blossomfall, who regarded the kit with intense dislike, and Bumblestripe, who looked up from speaking with Flamefur, his eyes narrowed.
Aura vanished back into the nursery a moment later.
"Skypaw!" Skypaw turned around as Fernpaw rejoined her, tail swishing with excitement. "Isn't it wonderful? A she-kit, born to the Clan!"
Skypaw purred. "There'll be three more coming."
Fernpaw's eyes grew round. "How do you—?" Then she recollected herself and simply purred happily. "How wonderful! Hollythorn and Snowfoot are going to be so thrilled!"
"Frostkit and Jaggedkit are going to be thrilled they've got new playmates," Skypaw chuckled. "I think they've been a bit lonely since I left the nursery."
Dovewing looked quizzically at Skypaw. "Is your insight strong enough to tell you who the next three kits will be?"
Skypaw frowned. She had never tried to use her insight before; it just kind of came. Aura had advised her attempting to grasp her gift. "It will come to you when it is ready," she simply said, and that unspeakable wisdom in her eyes backed up her words.
She shook her head, deciding not to risk going against Aura's advice.
A moment later, another mewl came from within the nursery, and Aura reappeared in the doorway. "A tom!" she announced.
Gradually the Clan were informed by Aura, over a couple more moment-long pauses, that there was another tom and she-kit in the Clan. At that moment the hunting patrol that had set out earlier now returned, their jaws heavy with fresh-kill, as did Snowfoot and Dewclaw from their short walk. Instantly Snowfoot bounded across the clearing to where his sister stood and mewed nervously, "How's she going?"
"All finished," Aura replied before Amberheart, gazing proudly at Snowfoot. "You're officially a father, Snowfoot. You have two sons and two daughters."
Snowfoot was thrilled. "F-four kits?" He nearly knocked young Aura over in his eagerness to get into the nursery, and purrs of laughter rang around the Clan, as well as relief that the kits had been born so well.
Aura sedately walked out of the nursery, her task done. "Now we must leave the new family in peace," she mewed softly.
Skypaw padded over to join the young kit. "What do they look like?"
Aura blinked, looking up at Skypaw. "The firstborn is a small black she-kit with a white tailtip and splash upon her chest," she mewed softly. "The second is a small dark brown tabby, who I know will bear blue eyes. The third is a soft tawny-gold she-cat, with a white chest and underbelly, but she will be silent. And the lastborn is a gray tabby tom, whose ridge of dark fur will stand out as his fur lengthens."
"Do you know what their names will be?"
"Yes. Hollythorn and Snowfoot will name them what I imagined their names to be, the moment I rested eyes upon them," purred Skypaw. "Their firstborn will be called Ravenkit."
Skypaw stopped in surprise. "After Ravenpaw?"
"Yes, after Ravenpaw, the loner of Barley's farm," said Aura serenely. "Ravenkit bears quite the likeness to young Ravenpaw. Soon, in six moons, we will not be able to tell the two apart, should you mention their names."
Skypaw let out a soft chuckle. "What are her brothers' and sister's names?"
"The second, the dark tabby, will be called Clawkit."
"That's an unusual name."
"Hollythorn decided on that name a long time ago, should she bear any sons," said Aura softly. "She believes it will give Clawkit self-strength in battle, so he will be as fearless as Lionblaze." Her eyes darkened. "But long ago in the old forest lived a warrior named Clawface. He was a warrior of Brokenstar. He was one of the most infamous."
"Why? What did he do?"
"He did the unspeakable. He murdered ThunderClan's medicine cat."
Skypaw's eyes widened in horror.
"And that medicine cat was Spottedleaf," murmured Aura sadly.
Spottedleaf? The young medicine cat who was in love with Firestar, before Sandstorm? Who was destroyed by Mapleshade?
"The third kit," continued Aura, "will not receive her name immediately. But she will be called Owlkit."
Skypaw glanced at Aura. "You said that she will be silent."
Aura bowed her head solemnly. "Young Owlkit has been born with no voice."
Skypaw was horrified. "I didn't even know that could happen to a cat."
Aura lifted her eyes. "But Owlkit, though mute, will prove to be a fine warrior who fights beyond the claw."
"But how can she even become a warrior, if she has no voice?"
Skypaw hadn't even realized they were heading towards the small space of grass behind the warriors' den until she finally looked around. She and Aura were alone, nestled in the small secluded area between thorny bramble and stone wall.
"She will learn to communicate in other ways," said Aura. "And the fourth, the lastborn, will be called Graykit."
"In honour of Graystripe?"
Skypaw sighed. She had heard of the ancient gray warrior who had been Firestar's close friend since they first met in the forest, Firestar not yet Firestar, but a kit called Rusty. He had been in love with Silverstream, a RiverClan she-cat. He had been deputy of ThunderClan. He had been captured by Twolegs and found a new mate, Millie. He had returned to the Clans after moons of journey, and he had fought as fiercely as any warrior had against the Dark Forest, survived, and retired shortly after the battle. I only wish that I could have known my grandfather...
"Do not be sad for Graystripe's loss," purred Aura, as though sensing Skypaw's sudden dejection. "He hunts forever alongside Silverstream in StarClan. His spirit found its way there, do not worry. He is reunited with his daughter once more."
Aura's eyes continued to shine like two suns. "And I am happy for the kits to have such wonderful and caring parents. I know that Snowfoot and Hollythorn will care for the kits with ferocious love."
Then Skypaw saw the light in Aura's eyes dim. "Something that my own parents never gave me."
In an instant, Skypaw knew that the time had come to learn of Aura's parentage. She crouched down in front of Aura so she could look directly and straight into her eyes.
"Where did you come from, Aura?" mewed Skypaw.
Aura let out a small mrrow. "You have finally understood that now is the time for me to reveal my past to you," she said. "And the dangers of the Clan I had come from." Her gaze hardened. "But this is a secret you must carry alone, Skypaw. You must tell no other cat."
"Why not? I'm sure that Lionblaze, Dovewing and Jayfeather would understand."
"No, they wouldn't, particularly not Lionblaze," murmured Aura. She looked anxious as she quietly sat down in front of Skypaw. "If any cat in ThunderClan knew, they would have me cast out. Indeed, if any cat in the Clans knew..." Her voice drifted off.
Skypaw didn't speak.
Then Aura looked up. Her gaze was solemn. In a very soft voice, she mewed, "I didn't come from SkyClan. I came from a Clan who had taken residence nearby. You've heard of my Clan before. That Clan is called SunClan."
SunClan. Horror flashed through Skypaw as she found herself in the Dark Forest once again, overhearing the shadowy warriors and spirits speaking softly about the mysterious Clan, one which Skypaw had never heard of. It was called SunClan. Aura is from that Clan, preparing to attack the other Clans. Preparing to destroy SkyClan.
"I know you went to the Dark Forest," continued Aura quietly. "I knew you hadn't told anyone, so I knew that I could trust you."
"Aura," mewed Skypaw softly. "The Dark Forest warriors said that there was another cat, who couldn't come. Who was searching for his daughter."
Aura nodded. "Yes. I know."
She let out a shaky sigh. "I am his daughter," she said at last. "The one that he has been searching for, anxiously, fearfully, frightened that I will betray SunClan and its secrets. But he has darkness in his heart. The same darkness which once clouded the sun.
"My father is Sol."
Total shock flooded through Skypaw. She wasn't sure what to think, what to believe. Then, in a flash, the dream she had had that very morning resurfaced. The dream of the long-haired tortoiseshell tom striding to the hill, looking out over the Clans, and promising vengeance.
Sol. The cat who had foretold the vanishing of the sun.
Sol. The cat who had torn the Clans apart.
Sol. Who once had been a member of SkyClan.
Sol. Aura's father.
The cat who was looking so desperately for his daughter. The cat who Aura had foretold to bear darkness in his heart. Darkness, and a lust for vengeance, against all the Clans who had cast him aside. His darkest hatred lay in SkyClan, where he believed that Leafstar hadn't given him a chance to prove himself. Where he had thieved her kits, on the pretence that he was going to find them, and recover them.
Skypaw blinked, surprised at herself. Some of the things that she had suddenly thought, she had never been told, had not known until Aura had uttered those four words that it had taken so much courage and strength to utter at all.
Her mind cleared and she looked at Aura.
"You...?" breathed Skypaw.
Aura lowered her head.
"When I was born," she murmured softly, "Sol already had dark intentions for the Clans. He instantly knew the moment Thornberry kitted me that I bore unsurpassable wisdom; I had been born with a full Tigermark."
Skypaw frowned. "The what?"
"The Tigermark is a blessing," said Aura quietly. "It is blessed only to a very few cats. My father, Sol, was once blessed with a Quarter of the Tigermark; this small essence of power allowed him to look into the skies and foretell the sun to vanish. And that blessing, he misused, so it was stripped from him by those who first bestowed it to him; Fate, Destiny, Change and Time. Rarely before has the Tigermark been fully and completely blessed to a mortal cat."
She lifted her eyes. "I was that one, blessed with a full Tigermark. To possess unmatched insight into the future. To know of everything that is to come. My Tigermark has given me incredible power. I can rewind Destiny, repair what was Changed, and break Fate's grip. I let my power grow, one day I'll even be able to alter Time.
"My father knew that with the power of the Tigermark would bring complete victory to his Dark Forest allies and total annihilation to the six Clans. He intended to keep me in SunClan forever and use my great power to constantly lead SunClan into victory. Sol wanted me to learn to focus my power so I could look into the future, to see every tiny and minute detail, even so I could warn the warriors before they headed into battle about the blows that would be dealt to them, and what they would have to do to avoid total injury."
Skypaw shivered with fear. "They'd be unstoppable."
Aura's eyes were glistening with sadness. "But I knew that my heart would not allow it. I was gifted with enhanced age of the mind so I could comprehend my powers of insight and wisdom, something which Sol did not quite realize with me. So one night, when I knew that the moon and the stars would be out and the forever-watching eyes of the Dark Forest would not be able to see down into this world quite as clearly, I slipped away. I vanished. I ran night and day, racing far from the skies, running towards the lake. I ran away when I was but a moon old, and though I was small, and frightened, I found my way to the lake."
"How did you even survive the journey?" breathed Skypaw.
"The Ancients," said Aura simply. "They materialized when I tried to sink into sleep, on the night I fled from SunClan, terrified that the dark-spirited warriors would come for me. Though their power was greatly diminished, they journeyed with me, and protected me as much as their spiritual strength allowed them to. When I came to the lake, they murmured in my ear, 'Find the one who can fight. Find the one who will save us.' And I knew who they were talking about."
"Me?" Skypaw murmured.
Aura nodded. "When you were a kit, you ventured into the tunnels and found Rock. He told you of your destiny. You were ready to comprehend. Your mind was developed enough for you to grasp the concept that you were going to be the new protector of the Clans."
"He never told me that you were going to come to the Clans," Skypaw mewed. "He never told me that Sol was going to return, this time with a great and terrible army, intending to destroy the six Clans utterly."
Aura's gaze cleared, and she gazed at Skypaw calmly.
Skypaw stared back, for a moment, uncertain.
Then the realization struck her so suddenly, so obviously, she was amazed that she had not seen it before.
"Rock was born with a Tigermark."
Aura nodded. "Thousands of seasons ago, Rock was blessed by the Four, who guide and keep the future secure and stable. He was a cat born with the full Tigermark, and his power was unprecedented. He saw far into the future. He saw far into the past. And he secured the present. When his time as a mortal spirit was over, he took his place down in the tunnels, where the whispers of the Four ring more clearly in the ancient tunnels that have now been scoured by all of the Four."
"Aura...who are the Four?"
"Fate, Destiny, Change, and Time." Aura's eyes shone. "And they have more to do with the Clans than anything else that could possibly exist. They were the ones who first cast down the prophecy, and who whispered it into Skywatcher's ears. Speaking through the ancient cat, they told Firestar of the prophecy that would determine the fate of the Clans they watched and protected, as they protect all things.
"The Three—Jayfeather, Lionblaze and Dovewing—all bear a Quarter of the blessing of the Tigermark. Jayfeather bears the power of Time. He can walk in the past and protect the present, crossing boundaries where no mortal cat has crossed before. Lionblaze possesses the blessing of Change. His unmatched strength in battle defines the outcome of the fight, even if the odds truly exceed the Clan he fights for. And Dovewing wields the Quarter of Fate. She looked into the shadows and warned the Clans constantly of all dangers. She changed the Fates of so many cats, protecting countless.
"And you know that there was a Fourth cat. Rock knew this. Bearing a full Tigermark, he knew of the Three, and he knew why the Four had sent down their Quarter blessings to mortals." Aura looked steadily into Skypaw's eyes. "Originally my father was the cat who bore the Quarter blessing of Destiny. The Four thought that he was the correct mortal to help and protect the Three. They were wrong; when Sol foretold of the shadow falling over the sun, they knew at once that Sol was not the right cat. The darkening of the sun was a sign; a sign that Sol intended to use his Tigermark blessing for his own intentions, to exact his revenge on the Clans. When the Four realized this, they stripped Sol of his Quarter power. No more could he tamper with Destiny.
"They realized their mistake, and so they turned to the cat who already knew of the prophecy. The cat who was fierce and noble from his whiskers to tail, who had fought over and over again for acceptance amongst his Clan, and who had earned it."
Skypaw understood instantly. "They gave the Quarter blessing of Destiny to Firestar."
Aura nodded. "Firestar always had been the cat destined to affect the future of the Clans. Goosefeather of ThunderClan knew this. He had the Four muttering in his ears. He was their Messenger, the one who passed on their prophecies to cats blessed with the Tigermark. And Bluestar, as her Clan crumbled around her, was born with the Tigermark within her, the Quarter Tigermark of Fate. She changed the Fate of her Clan by becoming deputy, and then leader, saving the Clan from the bloody claws of Thistleclaw, who would have destroyed ThunderClan and cast the old cats all into the shadows of the Dark Forest.
"Goosefeather foretold that a fire would blaze through the forest, and he was right. First it was Bluestar, who sacrificed everything for ThunderClan, and who became the Clan's guardian in death. Then it was Firestar, born with a Quarter Tigermark, who became the new fire.
"The Four blessed Firestar with a Quarter Tigermark of Destiny. He used this as they had dreamed him to use it, to protect the Clans. And when his task was done—when he had defeated Scourge and the Clans were safe again—they took away the Quarter Tigermark, blessing Firestar with a peaceful life, thinking that he was complete at last, and that he would use the nine blessings of StarClan to guide his Clan from then on.
"They were wrong. They knew the Three was coming, and Firestar knew that the Three was to come. The Four gave the Quarter Tigermarks to the three who had been born; Lionblaze, Jayfeather, and Hollyleaf."
Skypaw widened her eyes in surprise. "Hollyleaf got a Tigermark?"
"She was, once, a cat of the Three," said Aura. "She had the Quarter Tigermark of Fate. But the Four were mistaken. Hollyleaf had devoted her life to the warrior code, built everything up around it. While she believed so strongly in the code, she was a noble warrior, worthy of being one of the Three. But if something shattered her beliefs—"
"—then she would be weak, no longer strong enough to hold the Fate of the Clans in her paws," Skypaw finished off, her eyes wide, her power-fledged awareness guiding her tongue and banishing the innocence in her mind. "And the code broke around Hollyleaf."
Aura nodded, not seeming surprised that Skypaw already knew. "Hollyleaf was ruined, fragile, and the Four knew they had, once again, made a mistake, as they had done with Sol. They stripped Hollyleaf of the Tigermark, and decided to wait; wait until Hollyleaf fled into the tunnels, intent on leaving her old life behind forever. Then they placed the Tigermark upon Dovewing, and they knew as soon as they touched her and blessed her with Fate's power that they had made the right decision this time."
Everything seemed to be slowly, steadily, falling into place.
"They watched the battle with the Dark Forest. They watched as the connection to mortal cats and to StarClan was nearly severed as hundreds of starlit warriors streamed back into the world of the living at once to fight for those they protected and loved. The Ancients rose from their eternal slumber and fought alongside StarClan and the mortals against the Dark Forest. The connection was badly damaged. Rock and Midnight whispered the full prophecy to Dovewing, and then faded, never to be seen again by the cats in their waking hours. The Four, satisfied, drew their Quarter Tigermarks away from the Three.
"But the Three still bear traces of their powers. They do not possess all of it. Jayfeather cannot look as clearly into my memories, and can no longer walk in dreams. He, like the other medicine cats, cannot contact StarClan, but former possession of his Quarter Tigermark allows him to very faintly commune with them. Lionblaze is a talented warrior; his strength and stamina is unmatched, but he does not possess unlimited, and he is as mortal as any cat who enters the fray. And Dovewing, her senses are still acute, but they are slowly growing fainter. She cannot hear or see as far. Eventually, perhaps only a few season-lengths on, her senses will be as normal as any cat's."
Aura let out a soft sigh.
"The Four knew that danger was coming to the Clans again. They knew they would have to send their blessings back into the mortal world of cats. They knew that this time, there could only be two. One would be her mentor; the other would be the protector, the warrior, the one unburdened.
"I am the one who they chose to place the full Tigermark on. Sol knew this—he, unlike any of their other chosen, knew of the Four—and watched as I bore the wisdom whispered to me forever by them. He sensed my power and I sensed his darkness, and so I fled. I fled to the place where I was truly needed. I came to you, Skypaw, daughter of Dovewing, possessor of a Tigermark."
Aura looked steadily at Skypaw. "Each of the Four had given up approximately half of their natural energies and sent it into the lifeblood of the cats they had chosen. A quarter of their natural energies, hence the name. The Four drew back their Quarters they placed on the chosen and waited for their new champions to arrive.
"But if one of the Four exhausts their energies any more than by half, then they could fade, and the effect on the world they maintain the balance of could be disastrous." Aura's eyes grew solemn. "They needed a new Guardian; a possessor of all four Quarters, to create the full blessing. To do so, they needed to strip the Tigermark from the previous Guardian."
"Rock..." Skypaw breathed.
Aura nodded. "Rock knew of your coming. But that was all his insight allowed him to see. He knew that his Tigermark had been removed and that his time in the tunnels was complete. His time as Guardian of the Clans was over." Her eyes shone. "They placed the full blessing upon me, and when I opened my eyes and ventured out of the den the first time, I knew at once that I was different. All of Rock's wisdom, knowledge, memories and calm maturity flooded into my body until my mind was a wise, aged elder in a matter of days. Sol recognized me to be a possessor of the full blessing and knew that with my ability, victory would be certain with the Dark Forest, and the new, restored BloodClan and SunClan allegiance."
Her gaze hardened. "Should I have remained in SunClan with my father, I knew that my power would have been channeled into giving as much strength into the dark warriors. I could have shattered Time. I could have brought back Change." Her eyes grew round with terror. "My powers were so great that I could have reversed what had happened in the Dark Forest battles. That cats could have died instead of lived. That the Three perished. That Tigerstar never died. My powers could have brought him back."
Skypaw swallowed, forcing down her rising fear. "Throughout my kithood..."
"You dreamed of what could have been in the Dark Forest," said Aura. "Your insight was beginning to awaken then, along with your ability to walk in memories. You bear the Quarter Tigermark of Time, Skypaw. And I am the new Guardian."
Skypaw felt fear crawl through her fur. I don't think I'm ready for this kind of destiny. I'm terrified; Rock is soon going to fade completely away into nothing, and all the hopes of the Clan rest on me and Aura.
"Aura," she whispered nervously, "am I to do this alone?"
Aura nodded. "To bear all four Quarters of the Tigermark wearies you in body," she mewed. "I will never tread the path of a warrior. I was not meant for that path. Bearing but a Quarter, you are unburdened and it gives you strength. As your insight grows as powerful as my own, you will learn to wield it, to match it to your abilities as a warrior. I can foresee dangers coming swiftly to the lake, but the danger that the Four have chosen you to face and defeat is yet to come."
She rested her tail solemnly upon Skypaw's shoulder, and the apprentice looked deeply into the eyes of the small kit who possessed the mind of the eldest of elders, who was to become the new Guardian of the Clans. "My task, my destiny, is to teach you to wield your gift and ability, Skypaw. And what is yours?"
It is like back in the tunnels. When I am speaking to Rock. Skypaw felt a flash of surprise tingle down her spine. This feeling...it is because I am speaking to a Guardian. It must be.
"My destiny is to protect the Clans," she murmured, her tongue forming words that did not once flutter through her mind. "My destiny is to prevent Time from being repeated and unwound. And my destiny is to stop other destinies from coming true."
Her voice strengthened. "My destiny...it is to defeat Sol."
Aura nodded. "You are wise, Skypaw. Rock was true when he spoke of you. My father, the once-wielder of the Tigermark of Destiny, intends to wipe out the Clans with BloodClan, SunClan and the Dark Forest united as one. Your task is to stop him."
Distantly, Skypaw heard the soft mewling of a kit issue from the nursery. And the gentle rumbling of the kits' proud, contented parents echoed across the hollow.
"It should not be as difficult as other destinies," Aura said, and she let out a soft purr, her eyes filled with warmth. "Because you, unlike my father, truly have something to fight for."