Job Well Done

PureClan made it back without incident or interruption, much to Morningstar's pouting disappointment. That put her in a foul mood; when they left a crippled Tainted tom behind, that only worsened it. Pepperpaw made sure to keep a careful distance away from the skulking she-cat. Just to make up for the lack of blood loss, she was liable to attack anything- even one of her own cats.

The sky darkened to match Morningstar's mood, and by the time the raiding party reached their forest, a light drizzle had begun to fall. The Tainted looked absolutely miserable; half-dead on their paws. Their pelts, crusted with blood, began to run red as the rain washed their wounds.

Pepperpaw tried not to look at the Tainted. The she-cat he'd caught was a skinny tabby, with dark, sombre amber eyes. Each of her ribs could be counted, but her stomach was swollen. Pepperpaw had the distinct impression she was carrying kits; maybe that was why she hadn't put up much of a fight.

Instead of looking at the shambling prisoners, Pepperpaw stared at his sister. She twitched on Thornstreak's back and a paw flung over Smokepaw's shoulder flexed, curled, and unfurled. He hoped that the small piece of white against her sodden black fur was only fat or gristle; it seemed for likely to be bone. The whispers said she'd been hit by a monster, but she was the lucky one.

She was fighting a Tainted, the rumours said, a massive Tainted, a great brute with eagle's talons for claws. They rolled onto the road and didn't see the monster- their doom- approaching. The force of it threw Sablepaw into the air and tore the giant tom in half.

She'll be a cripple, the gossipers murmured. A useless cripple. We all know what Morningstar does to them.

In the middle of the forest, the medicine cat, Thornstreak, Smokepaw and Sablepaw split from the group and returned to camp. It was evidently, obviously, painfully clear that the injured black apprentice needed proper treatment. The other raiders herded their Tainted, heedless of thorns, brambles or undergrowth, towards their designated prison.

When the reached it, the sun was not visible through the dripping as it reached its pinnacle; the clouds had blocked it and its welcome warmth from sight.

"Finally," Morningstar grumbled, as they reached the edge of the forest and stepped out of the shadows. "I thought we'd never get here." This last sentence was accompanied by a glower at her warriors.

Here was not much. At first glance, with an untrained eye, all that could be seen was a large pile of assorted rocks. If you looked hard enough, if you knew what it was that you were looking for, then perhaps you might see the hole in the shadows. It was located at the foot of the pile, and it was no bigger than a tail-length across.

One by one, the Tainted were shoved into the dank hole into a musty and cramped underground cave. Morningstar licked one golden paw and drew it over her pricked ears, eyes cold and uncaring. When a small tabby tom broke away from the huddle and dashed towards the forest, it was the leader herself who leapt after him.

She bowled him over, snarling, and plunged her claws into his exposed throat as he squealed.

"We didn't need him," she growled, licking the blood off her sleek fur. When Pepperpaw swallowed, his tongue felt furry and thick. He'd never seen such callous killing before, such brutal waste of innocent life. He hardly remembered his first execution, but somehow it seemed to pale in comparison. His death had meant something- this one was because of Morningstar's restless angst, her needless thirst to kill.

No, he reminded himself harshly. They weren't innocent; they were Tainted, and that made all the difference in the world. And if Morningstar had to kill something, he'd rather she sate her thirst on a measly Tainted than a PureClan warrior. When it came his turn to shove his own prisoner into the cave, he hardened his heart and avoided her terrified amber eyes. She landed with a small squeak, curled around her stomach.

He hoped the kits were stillborn.

The afternoon light was fading as they returned. The forest- their entire territory, in fact- felt smaller; dwarfed by the enormous Twolegplace. Anything could look small compared next to its expanse.

Pepperpaw finally shambled back into camp, yawning, to a cold and quiet reunion. No cat cheered; the kits seemed to be the only ones who were happy; they bounded up to Strongpaw- their burly masculine hero- and demanded to know how many he'd killed.

"More than I could count on my claws," the tabby-and-white tom boasted.

Morningstar strolled into her den below the knoll and dragged out Iceface by his scruff. Hiding a smirk, Pepperpaw grabbed a starling from the fresh kill pile and pretended to devour it while watching the pair.

"Have you messed up my nest?" she hissed, tail lashing. She didn't ask about the welfare of her Clan. She was (loudly) confident about PureClan's prowess in managing themselves. They'd come so far from weak, snivelling mouse-hearts.

Smokepaw flopped down beside Pepperpaw, watching the spectacle. There was blood on his pelt; his sister's blood, the tabby tom realized suddenly. If the other apprentice was so calm, it at least meant that she hadn't died.

"I know I left you in charge! I didn't tell you to utilise my den!"

"How is she?" Pepperpaw asked quietly.

Twitching an ear to show he'd heard, Smokepaw paused for a moment before replying, "She's fine now, I think. Specklefrost is treating her now. She shooed me away pretty quickly, but Sparkpaw said she'd be all right."

"You can return to your own nest now, in your own den. I have an announcement to make."

Disgruntled, Iceface stalked away, and didn't see the glare his leader shot him.

Morningstar called the meeting without her usual grand voice. Maybe it was her foul mood interfering again; it wasn't likely she was worrying on Sablepaw's part. She took her time before she spoke, resting her gaze on each of her warriors, her eyes gleaming. At last she announced, "Sedgewing is dead."

The crowd did not react. One or two cats murmured to their neighbours, but the rest stared at her with blank eyes that said, yeah, so?

"Of course that leaves me without a pair. For a leader, than is unacceptable and must be immediately rectified. My medicine cats have agreed with me and said StarClan encourages the match between Thornstreak and myself."

Pepperpaw felt a curious shock.

Thornstreak is Morningstar's pair?

He didn't fear the sly golden she-cat; to the tabby apprentice, she posed no danger, no threat. For all of PureClan's thirst for blood and violence, he was soft. That was the difference between his sister and himself; she recognized the leader's malignancy, felt that things weren't quite right, sensed the undercurrent of lies that cascaded from her grinning mouth.

That's awesome, Pepperpaw thought, hiding a smug purr.

Ultimately, it was going to get her killed.

Just a bit of a filler before we get back to Smoke and Sable fluff. But for now, hoped you enjoyed darling Pepper's POV. This chapter probably would've been up sooner if I wasn't working on a little dire wolf cult-worship pack thingy. If it distracts me from TPappy….sorry! (In advance.)

Um, to conclude my rambling, 152 reviews! Woot!

Oh, by the way, do you all like the new cover? I sorta made it myself.

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