Sablepaw felt her heart plummet to her paws. It was all she could do to simply stand and watch as the she-cat rolled off of her father and dashed away into the forest. Fallenfeather half-heartedly chased after her, but the Tainted had tasted freedom and intended to cling on to it with thorn-sharp claws. It wouldn't be wise to lose another warrior.
So the black she-cat stood, alone and shaking, watching as Morningstar covered Thornstreak's face and muzzle with sloppy licks that the other cats pointedly ignored. She watched his tabby flanks heave with frantic, irregular breaths and watched as his blood seeped into the dirt trail.
Two toms gently pushed Morningstar away, before slinging Thornstreak over their shoulders. They began to stagger back to camp, and, numb, Sablepaw followed. She felt Smokepaw trying to catch her gaze, but she trotted ahead, sweeping off his glance with an indifferent twitch of her ear.
Inside, she was was mentally running through the list of cats she knew to be dead. Rainkit. That rogue Tainted. Mother. Arseni and his 'crew'. That tabby beast. Sedgewing. The white and ginger toms. The cat from my first assessment. And now my father too? A few days ago he had been strong and healthy, perfectly unmaimed. Like the Tainted he would pick, he could die.
"Wow," Nettlepaw whispered, catching up to her. "I've never seen a PureClan warrior die."
"He's not dead," Sablepaw snapped. The cats behind her were silent; her voice was unnaturally, uncomfortably loud.
"What about my assessment?" Smokepaw asked quietly.
"It's okay. I'll go back and get you another, all right?" Waterstripe replied with a voice that was equally soft.
Sablepaw gritted her teeth. My father is a strong cat. You, you are weak, puny, sniveling...sympathetic. Smokepaw deserves a better mentor than you. You're no better than a common Tainted.
Sablepaw was angry, but she confined it. She let it simmer. She'd use it, like a physical weapon, in her fight.
She pricked her ears and heard Watestripe padding away. The black she-cat gave a small, vindictive snort. They were almost at camp; the stupid tom would have to travel the path four times, where the rest had only done it twice.
The arrived back at camp as the sun slid fully over the horizon. Thornstreak were nowhere to be found- neither was Sorrelstorm or his young apprentice Pinepaw. Morningstar, however, sat calmly on her small grassy hill, flicking her tongue over her paw in brisk, indifferent strokes.
"Sit down, sit down," the golden she-cat drawled. Her mouth was a tight, rigid line as the Clan hurried to do so, making a rough ring around the chosen prisoners. They trembled and sat, too.
"Today we witness the final stage of these young cats' apprenticeships. Today, each will fight and kill a Tainted to earn their warrior name. Today, if each is successful, they become a warrior."
She paused; here the Clan nodded approvingly.
"In accordance with our traditions the apprentices will fight in order of age. Slatepaw will fight first."
Slatepaw's bulky ginger tom was shoved into the middle of the clearing; the other Tainted were pushed into the fringes of the crowd. The grey tom himself strolled into the ring, the muscles under his pale grey pelt. He had a haughty look of confidence on his face, and carried an air of bravado. Sablepaw wondered how long it would take to disappear. Moments or minutes?
"Begin," Morningstar called lazily; was it only Sablepaw that saw her eyes briefly dart towards the medicine den?
The apprentice's attention switched to Slatepaw. He was smaller than his brother-Sablepaw had not know that he was eldest; if she'd had to guess, she would have chosen Smokepaw merely for his size- but he was only a mouse-length shorter than the Tainted.
The ginger tom made the first move; he bolted for the crowd, speeding towards where Meadowmist sat with her kits. Perhaps he thought that she would be weak, a soft push-over queen. He did not know the vindictive white she-cat- he didn't know that every night she sharpened her claws mercilessly on the trees surrounding the clearing.
Plump as the queen was, she was not slow. As the tom reached her, she slipped out a paw to trip him, while sweeping her unsheathed claws down his side with her other paw. The tom reeled back, and Slatepaw suddenly there, hauling him back into the ring by the scruff of his neck.
"Let me go!" he yowled; Slatepaw obliged and dropped him on the flattened grass. While the tom lay stunned, Slatepaw took the opportunity and plunged his claws into one of his rapidly-blinking eyes.
He howled, his legs thrashing. Slatepaw neatly sidestepped a flailing limb and grabbed its tail, tugging it closer to Morningstar so she could better see the gory fight and his honed skills.
The tom rolled to his paws, staggering blindly; one eye was a bloody ruin; the other was gritted with dirt. It would have been an easy kill, but Slatepaw took his time, toying, taunting and teasing.
A scratch there, a small nip there, a pounce here and a swipe there, until the ginger tom collapsed and the grey apprentice sank his fangs into his throat. Nettlepaw's Tainted wailed hysterically.
Morningstar nodded in approvement. A drop of blood had landed on her shoulder; she turned her head and licked it away, seemingly with relish. From Sablepaw's vantage point, her bulging stomach was easy to see.
"Next," she called in a bored voice. Waterstripe hadn't returned with a replacement yet, so Nettlepaw padded into the ring, her dappled fawn pelt surprisingly smooth and sleek. In stark contrast, her Tainted was a blubbering mess. Her dark grey markings gave her ruffled fur an even more dishevelled look, and her green eyes were round green pools of terror. She crouched on the ground, her claws still sheathed.
"All right. Go," Morningstar called.
Nettlepaw's assessment was over in a matter of seconds. She leapt at the she-cat and bowled her over. The Tainted's teeth sank half-heartedly into Nettlepaw's shoulder, but this only fuelled the apprentice's fury; with a vicious shriek that abruptly cut off in a spray of blood, she tore out the tabby's throat.
She'd evidently gone for speed; maybe she feared the flaws in her training would evident if she let the fight go on too long.
"Mhm. Well done," the leader purred.
By this time Waterstripe had returned with a wircalico tom for Smokepaw; of course, it was his turn to fight.
The calico Tainted brushed past Sablepaw. She saw the hungry, cruel light in his eyes and repressed a shudder. She'd never properly seen Smokepaw fight, but she told herself he would be fine; he was in a better position than her father right now.
The golden, dappled leader smirked. She too sensed that a real fight was brewing.
Did Smokepaw? Sablepaw risked a glance his way. He appeared calm, but his gaze was wary as he watched the Tainted approach.
Her heart gave a small, unconscious, unwelcome twinge.
"Go!" Morningstar commanded, inching forwards on the knoll.
But for a moment, neither did. They simply stood and stared. Suddenly Smokepaw was a grey blur of movement; the Tainted thrown from his paws to land with a heavy thump on the ground. Smokepaw tried to take advantage of his vulnerability by by pouncing on his stomach, but the calico only kicked him away.
Nettlepaw had taken her seat beside Sablepaw again and was trying to keep up running, biased commentary.
"Ow, stupid Tainted, that was a cheap move," she muttered.
Smokepaw sliced open the tom's nose.
"That's my brother."
The Tainted retaliated by sinking his fangs into Smokepaw's shoulder. Smokepaw easily knocked him away, but Sablepaw saw his pained wince.
"That tom's no good," Nettlepaw hissed. "He's being wasted."
Smokepaw leaped to his paws, a low growl humming in his throat. His eyes flicked to Sablepaw, and his muzzle gave a tiny, jerking nod.
I'll be all right, it seemed to say. You will too. But like her father- her precious, injured father- he could not talk in small head movements. She did not nod back, but by that time the calico had unleashed a series of furious blows and it was all Smokepaw could do to block them.
"At least he's using his size, that's a good advantage against that puny runt," Nettlepaw murmured under her breath. "And he calls himself a Tainted."
Both toms were covered in blood; the calico had more red than tabby or white fur and the front of Smokepaw's chest was slick and dark. The Tainted had spotted his old wound and taken advantage of the weakness.
"Those eyes are so shifty...gouge 'em out, Smokepaw!" Nettlepaw cried. A senior warrior gave her a disgruntled look and mouthed 'be quiet!'. Nettlepaw did not shut up.
The sun rose a little higher and beamed down at them all, with no inkling of the savage fight playing out below it.
Smokepaw's claws ripped open an old wound; the calico made a new one on Smokepaw's foreleg. Both tired quickly, in the elaborate game that required energy and the utmost concentration at every moment. But here, the bulky young PureClan tom had an advantage. He had full meals everyday, eating the finest and freshest prey the warriors and apprentices alike could find. If the Tainted was lucky, he could snatch a mouthful or two of crow-food. Once, a whole, live shrew had been tossed into their cave.
His shrunken stomach was full and cramped that night; he had leered as the weaker cats licked the prey's blood from the dirt. Anything to sustain you in that reeking cavern was a blessing.
And so it was by brute force and enforced strength that Smokepaw won the fight. In one smooth, severe movement, Smokepaw shoved the calico tom to the ground. His neck snapped, and his head lolled at a strange and awkward angle. He'd had a name once- his housefolk had stupidly called him Rex, like a yappy little dog- but that day, not a single cat who witnessed his death knew what to call him. The one thing they knew about him was that he had put up a good fight.
PureClan was silent for a moment; Smokepaw gritted his teeth and staggered to remain upright.
"Well done," Morningstar said shortly. "Okay, next."
Sablepaw's brother stood up, proudly puffing out his white chest. If he was worried about their father, he gave no sign; an easy smile played with his muzzle. His plain brown Tainted tumbled into the ring. Smokepaw limped away to sit beside his mentor, whose expression was almost apologetic.
Pepperpaw leapt at the she-cat and slid beneath her belly, twisting onto his back to rake his claws down the length of her belly. She lurched heavily around to face the lithe tabby tom; he laughed in her face and swiped his paw at her cheek.
She retaliated by bowling into him and sinking her teeth into his ear. Pepperpaw jerked his head and ripped free of her hold; the Tainted was left clenching a small, bloodied scrap of fur and looking bewildered.
Yet the now-disfigured ear would only be a trophy to the tom, the sign of his prowess in surviving a bitter battle. The more scars the warriors had, the greater their strength was said to be rumoured.
The she-cat spat out the ear-tip and lashed her tail in anger. Pepperpaw darted towards her and the she-cat braced herself for another collision. It never came: Sablepaw's brother soared over her head to land on the Tainted's broad back. He sank in his claws before leaping off; under the force of the movement the brown cat fell over with a snarl.
Pepperpaw turned and lashed out a taloned paw, tracing a slim path across the starved cat's throat. The thin lines bloomed, blossomed with red. The Tainted gave a grunt of surprise and fell.
"Good," Morningstar called dismissively. Pepperpaw slunk out of the ring, and a warrior hauled the she cat's body away.
A tiny tom was pushed into the middle of the clearing, preceding the word the sent Sablepaw's heart into nervous flutters.
The black she-cat gulped and felt herself rising. She brushed past Nettlepaw, who was mouthing, 'good luck' and into the ring. She sent a cautious glance at the medicine dens, from which there was no movement. She let her anger slowly simmer.
Morningstar winked at her. "Go," she commanded imperially.
She imagined the that tiny, pathetic tom in front of her had mortally wounded her father. She pictured his dying-dead?- face, and she let her fury loose.
Cue maniacal laugh. Lol. :3
Anyway, the show is the bestest show ever. The A&P show is the Agriculture and Pastoral (err, something like that) show. It's awesome. Me and my friend are going together. She says hi.
I'M GOING TO HAVE FUUUUN! Before all my exams kill me.