First Blood

"Behold," Morningstar cried, with a dramatic flourish of her golden tail. The Towlegplace sprawled before the cats; a smoggy, towering maze of ugly block shapes that Meadowmist called 'buildings'. A perpetual smoky cloud shrouded the tallest peaks. Somewhere down there, in the glass-and-metal labyrinth, hid the Tainted. Sablepaw unsheathed her claws and sunk them into the springy green turf beneath her. A short trip down the hill and into the heart of loner territory was all that prevented her from spilling poisoned blood.

The Clan peered down at the city, eyes narrowed in a greedy anticipation. It had been too long since the last raid. There had been one a moon or two before Sleetclaw's warrior ceremony. Sablepaw was too young to remember, yet she was as eager as any of them. The single, sniveling Tainted she'd seen as a kit could not possibly compare to the rough and wild alley cats of the Twolegplace.

The sun peeked above the distant forested horizon, sending shafts of light to gleam off the dark glass of the buildings. It fascinated Sablepaw; she could never have imagined something with such a surreal, alien beauty.

Morningstar glared contemptuously at the rising yellowish orb. She preferred the dark. Most PureClan cats did; the dark was where the bloodthirsty, terrifying monsters lurked. "Warriors!" she growled, riveting the attention of her cats. The light sparked off her golden pelt, tinting it with copper and rust.

"We will soon enter the Twolegs' 'city'. While we are in their domain, we are not safe. Remember to watch out for their Thunderpaths and monsters," she warned. "If you get caught, don't ever expect to come back." Sablepaw shivered; she'd learned Twoleg lore from her mentor but their ways still seemed so strange, baffling.

Here, Morningstar began to glare stonily at the gathered party. "First blood is mine." Then she turned sharply and bounded down the steep green hill. The Clan followed, vicious smirks twisting their muzzles,tearing up the ground beneath their paws. They were silent; they'd spoil the game if they made too much noise, and scared the intended prey away.

Morningstar paused when she reached a flat grey surface. The expanse stretched out across several fox-lengths, and was intercepted by white and yellow lines. A huge blue beast, the sunlight shining of its smooth snout and sleek body, roared past. Sablepaw hissed, fur bristling, until she realized it was not going to stray off its path; it kept growling down the Thunderpath, ignoring the cats. Meadowmist scoffed at her apprentice's naïve reactions.

"Cross after me!" Morningstar called, placing a small paw on the Thunderpath. After darting a glance both ways, she began to pound across the solid grey river. Cats began to pelt after her. Swallowing her trepidation, Sablepaw raced after them. The ground was hard and sticky beneath her feet. She nearly collapsed with relief as they reached the other side. A white monster snarled as it flashed past, mere moments from crushing Strongpaw underneath one of its strange, rolling black paws. The white-and-tawny tom no longer looked so cocky. His pale brown patches bristled. Morningstar cuffed her son reproachfully over the ear, hissing a reprimand.

Sablepaw drifted away from her mentor to stand behind her father. His face was carefully blank as he greeted her with a nod. She dipped her head in return as the group began to walk again. The Twoleg place loomed before them. Squat, small buildings nestled around the flashier towers. Some older buildings, beginning to crumble and rot, crowned the outer city expanse. These buildings, unlike the majestic dark skyscrapers, were ugly, unappealing.

It wasn't long before the cats milled on the threshold between the city and the wild; the vastly unknown and the comforting familiar.

Morningstar placed a white-tipped paw on top of the minuatre Thunderpath that bordered the Twoleg place and the rolling fields. Then she hoisted herself onto the warm surface and curled up on the sun-heated stone. PureClan paused, waited for her next command.

"Go hunt, bring me food," the she-cat yawned. "We'll raid at sunset." Grumbling accompanied her words, but never less, cats peeled away from the main group and padded into the surrounding forest. Sablepaw trotted into the woods with her stomach growling. Her last meal had been at yesterday evening. It had only been part of a shrew, barely enough to sate her hunger for little more than a few hours.

Now, she was black apprentice opened her mouth and tasted the crisp air. Bird calls filtered through the air around her. The forest was full of life; in all rights, it should've been simple enough to take one.

Something rustled in a nearby bush. Once, twice, followed by a small squeak. Sablepaw's eyes lit and she dropped into a familiar hunter's crouch, tail hovering lightly over the thik bed of crunchy dead leaves. She watched, waiting, her pelt blending seamlessly with the shadows, as a brown face poked out from between the bush's leaves. The face was followed by a gingerish body and a fluffy tail. The squirrel had eaten well over the course of leafbare; it was plump and sleek. It pawed through the leaves and dirt on the ground, snuffling to itself. Unwittingly, it presented Sablepaw with a perfect opportunity, by sticking its head underneath a clump of dead foliage. Sablepaw did not waste the chance to grab a good meal.

She bunched her muscles, narrowed her gaze and leapt. The squirrel tried to flee, when the hungry predator burst from its shadowy hiding spot, but it was too fat, too slow. She trapped it beneath her paws. Savouring her triumph, she leaned down slowly, drank in the scent of its fear, scorned its feeble attempts at escape. Its blood tasted thick and coppery, when she sank her fangs into its bared neck.

"Nice catch," Smokepaw said from behind her. She startled with a snarl, whipping around with her kill dangling from her jaws. She spat it out when she saw it was only a fellow apprentice. Fury blazed in her eyes, masking her fear and shock.

"What," she snapped, "in the name of StarClan? Don't do that! You scared me out of my fur!"

Smokepaw twitched his whiskers wryly. "What, can't praise a friend for catching such a nice, fat squirrel?" he asked innocently.

Sablepaw narrowed her eyes. "No. You can't," she answered shortly. "It's not allowed." And you're not my friend.

Smokepaw reclined against a tree, his amber gaze scrutinizing hers. "We can't do this, we can't do that. It's not allowed. The Warrior Code forbids it. I wouldn't have picked you for being such a stickler for the rules, Sablepaw."

"So what if I am?" she replied, feeling hot underneath her black fur. The whole conversation felt wrong; she shouldn't be speaking to him. The rules dictated that no contact should occur between the two sexes until they were paired.

"Maybe there's more to the world than rules," Smokepaw suggested. His tone was nonchalant, but his words were hearsay. Rules were everything; they structured the Clan, shaped their daily routines, their hierarchy, their lives.

"You don't know what you're talking about," Sablepaw hissed, unsure of where this conversation was leading, if she even wanted to go there.

"Only one way to find out," Smokepaw answered, backing into the undergrowth until all she could see was a pair of smouldering amber eyes. "Only one way, Sablepaw." Then he blinked once and was gone.

StarClan, she hated the way he said her name, as if it actually meant something to him.

She returned to the edge of the Twolegplace with her squirrel hanging from her mouth. A meager prey-pile rested by small Thunderpath. Morningstar snored on the warm grey stone, her pair sitting diligently beside her. She cracked open a bleary eye as Sablepaw returned. With a cracking of stiff joints, she uncurled and gave a massive yawn.

"Apprentice, here," she commanded, gesturing with her tail. Suspicious, Sablepaw sidled towards the leader, the dead squirrel hanging in her jaws. She could read the greedy imperative her eyes.

"Give me that squirrel," the she-cat demanded. Quashing an inner grumble, the apprentice spat out the prey onto the pavement. Morningstar licked her lips and dismissed Sablepaw with an absent twitch of a golden ear. Sedgewing only watch as his pair hungrily devoured the unfortunate rodent.

The black apprentice wandered over to the fresh-kill pile. It consisted of a shrew, a scrawny sparrow and a tiny mouse.

"You can share my hare with me," Strongpaw said from behind her. For the second time in the space of a day, she bristled and spun around. The white-and-tawny tom watched her, head quirked on the side, a limp brown hare slumped at his large paws.

"Maybe she doesn't want to. Maybe she prefers the taste of fish," Smokepaw growled, materializing out of the forest. Strongpaw shot him a resentful glare, before his eyes settled on the fat silver fish Smokepaw had caught.

"I don't think she's going to like a tom who reeks of fish," he retorted.

"I don't like either of you," Sablepaw spat. The sudden influx of male attention made her nervous.

She crouched and grabbed the shrew. The apprentices stared at her. Smokepaw's amber eyes were dark and unreadable, but Strongpaw looked visibly irritated. Sablepaw retreated to her mentor's side. Meadowmist flattened her ears at the toms and hissed until they scurried away with their kills.

"Sablepaw," the white she-cat sighed. "Things would be so much easier if you didn't look so much like your mother."

Sablepaw took a small bite of her shrew, not daring to ask what Meadowmist meant by that flippant comment.

The sun had almost set in the sky by the time Morningstar decided to start the raid.. She relayed the morning's instructions once more. There was a feral gleam in her eyes as she hissed, first blood is mine.

PureClan traveled through the outskirts of the city unscathed. Sablepaw grew used to the strange, square territories of the Twoleg nests, the wide Thunderpaths and their miniatures that sprawled beside them. Thick, heady scents clotted the air, but she put up with it, reasoning that it was only a part of the authentic experience. But beneath the greasy reek, they could only pick up stale traces of cat-scents.

They were in what appeared to be a working industry, with old warehouses, dark alleys and streets crammed with older, often abandoned buildings when the real excitement started. Artificial light feebly illuminated dark streets. At first Sablepaw thought they were imprisoned stars, but their energy was to weak, too fleeting. They held nothing of the imperial beauty natural stars possessed. These were a cheap imitation. She was too busy studying the harnessed light to see the shadowy figures approaching.

Morningstar had seen them though; she halted and waved her Clan into the darkness of a side alley. She, however, remained on the street. To the approaching cats, she appeared alone. She hunched her shoulders and pressed herself against the paving. From Sablepaw's point of view, she could see the she-cat's eyes widen with 'fear'.

The figures drew into the pale light of a lamp. There were three of them; two toms and a slim she-cat. The leading tom was a large grey tabby, with bold black stripes snaking through his pelt. He was heavily scarred, as was his other male companion, a burly black beast. The she-cat, a faint cream tabby, was tiny. Her soft fur was filthy, smeared with mud and dirt. Scabs gleamed under her pelt.

"Well," the grey tabby drawled, flicking his gaze over Morningstar. "What do we have here, Orc?"

Orc snorted, shifting his heavy bulk from one black paw to another. With horror, Sablepaw that the right side of his face had been clawed away. All that remained was a mess of scarring, a pit where there had once been a round yellow eye.

"Dunno, Arseni, but it's a pretty one," he replied, his remaining eyes narrowing in a thuggish delight.

"What're you doin' out here, now?" Arseni purred, directing his attention at Morningstar. The golden she-cat didn't reply, but lowered her gaze submissively.

"Don't you know it's...dangerous for such a beautiful she-cat to be out here at night...alone?" he asked. The pauses in his sentence seemed for effect rather than a difficulty in the ability to string the right words together.

Morningstar hesitated, nodded once. Arseni seemed to think it a great victory; his eyes glittered and he began to swagger forwards.

"Why don't we head over to my nest, a couple of blocks away? I'm sure Calla won't mind if she has to share Orc's-" Aresni never got the chance to finish his suggestion. Morningstar flew towards him in a golden blur, claws outstretched. Arseni yelped, gurgled, choked as she sank her her teeth into his throat. Orc snarled at the she-cat, slipping his talons out of their sheaths as he prepared to spring. His single eye was focused on Morningstar; he didn't see Thornstreak as he leapt out of the shadows. The PureClan tom tore into him with teeth and claws until all that remained was a bloodied heap of fur and bared flesh. Tornear raced out of the alley and knokced Calla, the cream tabby, to the ground.

"First blood tastes good," Morningstar commented, licking the red liquid off her paws before it could dry in messy clumps.

She stood up, stretched. "Split up," she commanded. "Hunt the Tainted down in pairs. Maim, injure, but don't kill if you can help it. Bring as many back here as you can. We'll be needing them later."

Somehow, Sablepaw found herself slinking through the shadows with Smokepaw. In the absence of another female apprentice she'd been forced to pair up with the grey tom. They both did their best to stoically ignore each other; she thought her earlier retort I don't like either of you- had wounded him, although she wasn't sure why.

"This way," Smokepaw murmured, ducking into a gap between two defaced old buildings. Sablepaw pricked her ears and darted after him. Another cat's scent hung thick in the air. After following a series of angry yowls, she found the grey apprentice cornering a bristling yellow tom.

"What?" the yellow tom hissed. "What did I do?" he asked, swiping at the air clumsily with one small paw. The blow never connected; like a grey shadow, Smokepaw dodged swiftly before streaking forwards and pinning the yellow tom to the red wall at the end of the alley. He held him there, a paw on his throat.

"What did I do?" he gasped again. "Are you one of Aresni's thugs? I followed his rules, kept off his turf and away from his she-cats-"

"Arseni's dead," Smokepaw interrupted. Relief blossomed in the tom's eyes, right before Smokepaw struck him a solid blow to the head. He crumpled to the ground, eyelids fluttering, a low moan issuing from his throat. His mouth hung half-open, revealing rows of jagged teeth coated in tartar.

"I'll take him back to Morningstar," Smokepaw said, stooping to clench the tom's scruff between his jaws. The yellow street cat was small, scrawny. Smokepaw could carry him with ease.

"Okay, I'll keep looking," Sablepaw replied, launching herself onto the top of a tall metal sphere. From there she jumped onto a pile of sodden boxes. An easy leapt later she perched on top of the brick wall that cleaved the ally in half. A flash of motion, a blur of grey attracted her gaze. She left Smokepaw to drag his captured Tainted back to their leader and leapt into the next alley. The eminent prospect of spilling Tainted blood pleased her.

Here, it reeked of Twolegs' garbage. Giant green boxes lined the walls, filled with junk, along with more metal spheres and abandoned boxes. The stench of rot and decay clung plaintively to the air.

Sablepaw hid in the the shadows, prowling forwards until her eyes caught a glimpse of a patch of grey. Without a thought, she darted towards it. The grey shape solidified into the form of a cat. It gasped- a very feminine sound- and tried to run. Sablepaw crashed into it with a snarl.

The other she-cat squealed and tried to throw her off. After a brief tussle, Sablepaw gained control and pinned her opponent to the ground.

With shock, her heart wrenching, she found herself staring down into Embertooth's green eyes.

Whoo, big chapter! Any guesses as to who Sable's got pinned?

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