Raw Heart, Red Paws

She stiffened when she felt Smokepaw pull away. His ears were cautiously pricked, warm eyes round and wary. Sablepaw opened her mouth and tasted the the smoggy city air. Could she catch the scent of forests, leaves and blood?

"I don't see anymore Tainted around here," Smokepaw said loudly, backing away another step. A moment later, in a golden blur, Morningstar leapt over the wall.

"Well," she purred, landing smoothly beside Sablepaw. "Well, well, well. I see you haven't caught a Tainted yet." She shook her head, eyes full of a mocking disappointment.

"Actually," Smokepaw interjected. "She helped me catch that tom."

Morningstar ignored him and quirked her head at the black apprentice.

"Isn't it lucky I've found you a scent to track? Now, follow me," she commanded, turning around. She scaled the wall with a giant leap; she didn't quite make it to the top and hauled herself the rest of the way up with her claws.

Sablepaw, not feeling so confident in her physical abilities, took a different route and jumped onto the round metal cylinder and onto the wall. She was keenly aware of Smokepaw jumping up behind her, of how fluidly his muscles rolled beneath his sleek pelt, the way he watched her with a sly, sideways stare.

StarClan help me, she thought, insides twisting, as she scrambled off the wall onto the other side, following Morningstar. I'm a mousebrain. Such a stupid, stupid mousebrain.

The leader turned sharply out of the alley and began to trot down the deserted Thunderpath. Sablepaw loped to catch up with her, but the male apprentice hung warily behind. A hazy drizzle began to fall.

The golden she-cat puffed out her fur with a contemptuous shudder.

"Not too much further," she commented as she boldly strode across an intersecting Thunderpath. "I hope."

Sablepaw didn't reply; she only stared at the grimacing leader, wondering how many kits just like Arrah had been sentenced to death just because they did not fit with Morningstar's plans.

Arrah, one.

Rainkit, two.

Had there been any from Swanpath's litter?

A chilling thought sent a jolt down her spine. Will they take kits from my litter, too? Send them out to die, just like my poor sister?

How many kits survived?

The black she-cat felt sick, but she forced herself to trot faster after Morningstar. She shoved all thoughts of dead kits aside, pushed the image Sorrelstorm and his hollow, haunted gaze out of her mind.

She didn't let herself think about Smokepaw, his warm eyes, his silent comfort.

She didn't let herself think about the grim task ahead or the blood she would have to wash off her paws in the morning.

Morningstar tasted the air; it was thick, heady, and smelled of the city's numerous Thunderpaths.

The golden she-cat hated the Twolegplace; she always had. It reeked, it crawled with Twolegs, and the unsanitary types of cats had taken to haunting its alleys and hidden niches. Cats just like that crude tom who'd approached her. What had he called himself? Arseni? Arseni and his dumb, brutish thug. Had they scratched on their scars themselves just to appear tough?

Morningstar smirked to herself and waved Sablepaw forwards.

"You can start tracking it now," she told the apprentice. Smokepaw stopped behind the leader, and she took a moment to study his muscles, his strong build. If he was as thick as his sullen silence suggested, he'd be the perfect...or rather, ideal, warrior.

Sablepaw opened her mouth and cautiously scented the air. With determination glinting in her eyes, she began to follow the trail.

Morningstar chirruped to herself and motioned for Smokepaw to follow. She did love a good show.

His night vision had never been very good; he squinted as he tried to spot Sablepaw's black pelt slink through the shadows. The glowing orbs stationed at posts every few fox-lengths did help, but his feeble eyes were too weak to see very far in the dark.

Smokepaw contented himself to follow Morningstar. She was easy to spot; a flare of gold and tawny amid the darkness. She carried herself with a regal air. It was almost impossible to miss her.

Morningstar stopped and Smokepaw nearly collided with her haunches. He tried to halt as silently as he could, but his claws slid on the slick pavement and a small, surprised oof escaped his mouth.

The golden leader turned to him, teeth bared in an audible hiss. Her narrowed eyes conveyed a message she dared not speak- she'd ruin the chase, StarClan forbid. The anger was not subtle; he could easily imagine the gist of what she wanted to tell him. It probably included insults such as moron, idiot, dirt-for-brains, and fool. Most importantly, shut up, but that was too harmless a command to pass from the livid she-cat's mouth alone.

She took her raiding very seriously. That small fact was evident.

The grey tom shifted his attention to Sablepaw. She crouched in the shade, tail twining with the shadows. He could see a sliver of her fire-filled green eyes, wide and watching. It made his heart twist; he longed for what he could not he have.

He snuck a sly glance at Morningstar, who was waiting with a look of half-disguised expectant delight on her face. There was a chance- a speck of a chance- that he and Sablepaw could be paired. Then again, the chances that they wouldn't…

There was a small sound, a scuff of paws against the rough ground. Smokepaw's breath caught; he stared with disbelief at the Tainted Morningstar had picked for Sablepaw to tackle.

She was going to fight...that?

Sablepaw, to her credit, did not flinch as the Tainted lumbered into view. The visible sliver of her eye widened, almost imperceptibly, and her tail whipped the air as she tensed to spring.

Her target was an enormous tabby tom with puckered scars in place of stripes. He had a rounded, thick-skulled head with large amber eyes and a wide maw bristling with jagged yellow fangs. His long tail stirred the air as he shambled down the Thunderpath; it was as thick as Sablepaw's foreleg. The small she-cat herself stood no higher than his wide chest.

Sablepaw sank further into her crouch. Her flanks trembled and she took a deep, steadying breath.

Morningstar's ears twitched as she held in a gleeful giggle while she watched the black she-cat.

Smokepaw stared at Sablepaw, feeling terror in each dull thump of his heart, every beat a repeated plea of a single word. Don't, don't don't, don't.

And then she leapt.

I know I'm mean. I know.

Anyway...104 reviews! :3 Many thanks to everyone who has reviewed my story so far- it makes my day.

Sorry for the wait, I'll try to get another chapter out soon amidst working on several challenges.

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