As Angelstar admired her five young kits, something dawned on her. Age. These would be her last kits, she realised, with a slight twinge of horror. These were her Clan's future - and hers.
Bluekit mewed pitifully.
Only Birchkit seemed well, prancing around her mother's den, not caring about her siblings' condition.
Angelstar knew the symptoms. She knew the end only too well. She had lost one of her lives to greencough. And now she was about to lose four of her children the same way.
It was horrific.
"Bluepaw!" she yelled, needing the help of the only cat who could help. Icetail was collecting herbs, Angelstar had heard her conversation with Bluepaw. "Bluepaw!"
The white youngster bounded into Angelstar's den, crinkling her nose at the smell of sickness. Bluepaw can smell it, Angelstar thought, And I can't. She always had had incredible hearing - probably to make up for her deafness - but even Angelstar knew that as well as her kits, her condition was deteriorating.
"Please tell me there's hope," Grassclan's leader begged the apprentice. "Tell me they'll live, and they'll be okay."
Bluepaw shook. "Icetail told me to always be truthful, Angelstar, and I'm sorry, but the truth calls. I don't think they'll make it."
Angelstar closed her eyes in regret. "I know. Just hope... now it's gone."
Bluepaw's whiskers twitched and her eyes darted back and forth, not wanting to see her leader hit rock bottom. But she already had, and that was why Angelstar didn't pardon her.
"Icetail should give you your name soon, I think you deserve it, Bluepaw."
Bluepaw, surprised by the praise Angelstar had flattered her with, eyed her suspiciously. Something in Angelstar's voice sounded final.
"You can't give up," Bluepaw almost begged. "For the sake of your Clan... and Birchkit will live."
Angelstar shook her head, not bothering to hide how truly weak she was. "It's not my choice. It's my time. I'm getting old. And weak. Surely you can smell it, not just the sickness here?" She flicked her tail towards the four doomed bundles shaking as if cold, even though it was the warmest weather they had seen this year. "I can't smell anymore. All the skills I learnt as an apprentice, they're all gone. I'm as good as a kittypet."
Bluepaw was left speechless as she hurriedly shook her head to erase her leader's words from not just memory, but from ever having been said. "Please, Angelstar, no."
"It's not immediate, child. I will die, but I still have a few moons left in me. Now leave me in peace, the task of choosing a deputy must fall to me."
Bluepaw shuffled her feet and scuffed the ground, not wanting to leave now she was allowed to. "Who will you choose, Angelstar?"
Angelstar's eyes shown at Bluespaw's less obvious eagerness. "I'll sleep on it."
Bluepaw dipped her head reluctantly. "Shall I inform Icetail of this exchange?"
Angelstar thought for a moment, then realised how shockingly like her brother, Cloudpaw, that response had seemed. Eventually, she shook her head. "It comes Icetail's time too, and my revelation will only remind her of that. The last thing she needs, with the loss of these kits. Keep this between us."
Bluepaw dipped her head again, wondering how it would be possible to keep it all a secret from her mentor. She backed out of Angelstar's den and turned to almost run into Nightpelt.
"Blackthorn's dead!" she exclaimed. "Greencough, Bluepaw, and Cinderheart's suffering, too!"
Angelstar heard the news from her den. She would lose four of her kits and her mate to one disease in what looked like less than a quarter moon by the way her kits were worsening. And it seemed Cinderheart would be next.
It was a wonder that she ever fell asleep.
She didn't realise she was sleeping until Tigerstar appeared in front of her, with Crowstar beside him. The sight of the previous Grassclan leaders - much less her brother and mother - left her breathless.
"Tigerstar! Crowstar!" she exclaimed, shock clear in her voice but she didn't try to disguise it. "Why?"
"It's time, Angelstar." Tigerstar's voice was rough but not hoarse like it had been before his death.
"Am I... dead?" Despite just talking about it, her voice shook.
"It will almost be time for you to join us, darling." Her voice was not the voice of a leader, but of a mother.
"I haven't already?" Angelstar gasped, wondering why she felt so young.
"You can't die without a deputy, can you?" Tigerstar asked.
Angelstar knew how it ended and nodded. "You know who I have to choose for it to be right. Please... help me."
There was something in the weakness of Angelstar's voice that made Tigerstar nod, though he regretted it.
"We will help you without doing so." As always, even before he had died, Tigerstar was talking in riddles that usually only Angelstar could understand - and this was no exception.
"You told Bluepaw she should earn her name soon - but why? Age, or skill?"
The answer suddenly dawned on Angelstar as she realised everything had happened for this one thing to finally take growth. She nodded her understanding before freezing.
"Wait... how close am I?" She had to know.
"One final deed," a new voice said from behind her and she turned around to see Grassstar. She took in her breath from seeing her, not from what she had said. "I look forward to your interpretation." Her eyes shown. "However accurate."
Angelstar gulped and made the mistake of blinking - just once, quickly - but by the time she opened her eyes, she was back in her den.
She looked down at her belly where five kits lay, curled up. She intook her breath as she realised three kits were stiff and... dead.
As she stood up slowly, Heatherkit raised her head, her eyes bleary and weary of her surroundings. She was right next to Birchkit who, despite everything, bounded to her paws and stared up at her mother.
"Where ya going, ma?" she asked, bounding to pad at Angelstar's heals as she left her den. Heatherkit stumbled after both her mother and sister, unsteady on her legs.
"I have business to attend to," came Angelstar's reply and, not being able to hold in the grief that was the deaths of Blackthorn, Greenkit, Bluekit, and Snowkit, and the fact that this was the last time she would be able to do so, she rubbed her muzzle into both Birchkit and Heatherkit's sides.
She bounded onto a stone that was smaller than her usual point, but the most she could manage. She had felt young in StarClan, but the trip had exhausted her as well as having brought her back to reality.
"All cats gather!" Angelstar called, too tired to recite the full calling that her cats were used to.
Confused, sleepy faces left their dens into the light of dawn. Everyone looked drowsy and were eyeing their leader with both annoyance and pity. They knew she was getting old. She continued before waiting to see if the whole Clan was there.
"This is the last time I will address you. My time is coming, and I feel it." She paused to cough roughly. It hurt her. "I must... do one thing." Darkness was approaching. "Cloudpaw, where are you?"
Nervously, her apprentice stepped out from the crowd. "A... are you okay, Angelstar?"
Angelstar did not reply to him, but instead shivered in the sunlight. "Cloud... paw... do you... promise to uphold the warrior... code and protect the... clan... even at the cost... of... your life?"
Cloudpaw's body shook. "Do you really think I'm ready?" Angelstar's reply - a cough - hurried him. "I do."
"Then by... the power of... Star... Clan... I give you... warrior name... Cloudfluff. Congra... tulation..." Angelstar broke off in a wild coughing fit, so only one or two cats chanted Cloudfluff's new name, the others worried about their leader.
"I must... continue..." Angelstar, went on, grabbing everyone's attention though most eyed her suspiciously. "I can't... go... without a... deputy... everyone knows... by StarClan's right... so I announce... the new Grassclan deputy will be..." Her coughing started again, too violent for anyone to wonder if they were deputy, instead worrying about her. "Cloudfluff." The "fluff" was covered with a violent cough. "He shall... mentor Birchkit... when her time comes." Her voice turned to a whine and everyone was silent except for her, though she wished StarClan would come for her now.
Out of the corner of her eye, Angelstar saw Heatherkit, lying dead in the clearing, and the sight of that killed her.