ƬΉΣ PӨIƧӨПΣD ΛПD ƬΉΣ PЦЯΣ

A Collar of Red

The sun sank with with a relative air of anti-climax. Sablefrost had watched it crawl below the line of the horizon until she'd decided that at last it had leeched all the light from the sky; the first few scatterings over stars had not yet appeared, masked behind thick drifting clouds.

It was then that the new warrior rose to her paws and trotted into the middle of the clearing, where Peppermask already waited. They exchanged a curt nod. They were different now. They were mature- according to their new names.

Slowly the other former apprentices gathered around them. They exchanged wary, courteous glances. They were all mature now, but that did not give them any more knowledge of their upcoming assessment.

Shortly after the moon rose- another boring, climax-less affair- Morningstar appeared in the midst. Her golden pelt groomed to near perfection; she seemed to have missed the fleck of reddy-brown blood on her ear.

"Warriors," she declared softly. "It is time for your vigil and final assessment. You will be sent to stations situated around the edges of camp while the deputy and I will ask each of you a set of questions. It may take a few minutes or half the night."

As if on cue, Iceface slunk to join the group, his perpetual frown fixed on his face. Unlike the leader, his fur was ruffled here and there, paws dotted with dirt.

Morningstar ignored his approach and began to point out the locations of each warrior's vigil.

"Slatethorn beside the nursery, and...Sablefrost, you can guard the forest behind my den. Go now."

The warriors split up silently; they were not allowed to talk before or after their 'interview', and in the darkness, they found they had nothing theyr wanted to say.

Sablefrost leapt lightly over the miniature hill and sat down, her back to the camp. She couldn't help exchange a glance with Smokefang; he was standing- sitting appeared not to be masculine enough for such a burly, handsome tom. He gave a small smile that seemed more like a smirk.

She looked away with a scowl.

He thinks he's a big-shot now; stupid, arrogant, beautiful mousebrain.

The black she-cat stared into the forest. There was not much to see- it was dark and gloomy. Morningstar's voice was an inaudible murmur as she questioned Nettlecloud.

So what, he killed a Tainted. Doesn't give him any right to go around acting like...like...Strongclaw!

She could see him, out of the corner of her vision, trying to catch her gaze. She pointedly ignored him. Exactly why she was in a silent rage she could not saw, but she was convinced that Smokefang was the root of it. She instead glared into the shadows, trying not to picture his smouldering amber eyes or his easy grin that was so easy to twist into a leer. What had happened to him? What had happened to her, to make her be so angry?

Perhaps the unprovoked slaughter of such a young, innocent cat.

Not innocent, Sablelfrost told herself firmly, swinging her head around to glower at the ferns above Slatethorn's head.

He's Tainted. He's awful and crawling with disease and most of all he's Tainted. The world is split like that: there will always be us, the crusaders, and then...them. And if Smokefang wants to slowly poison himself with that rabble, then he can go ahead, but I'm not throwing myself down with him.

Her neck started to ache, so she turned her head to stare into the forest once more. There was nothing to do but think. Naturally, her thoughts turned to her father. Morningstar seemed calm; was it a catatonic calm or one that meant he would be okay? Perhaps the she-cat's teeth had only grazed his throat...Maybe it was only a shallow flesh wound. She remembered the blood on the golden leader's ear. Maybe not.

How long would it take Thornstreak to join Embertooth in StarClan? Her dear dead mother her dear dying father. Her brother that would not talk to her. The pair she would soon acquire-the one she would not even want. The crazy she-cat that tried to overbearingly parent her. What a wonderful family she had. What a twisted life she led.

"Haha, Smokefang." There was delight in Morningstar's voice. Sablefrost moved her muzzle slightly to the right and watched as Morningstar prowled towards the dark grey tom, her deputy slinking at her heels.

"And here he is!" she announced. "PureClan's latest warrior prodigy."

Smokefang did not smile. He did not nod. The burly warrior now seemed almost sullen. The black she-cat stifled a snort of laughter.

"I'm sure you know that we have some questions for you," Iceface said gruffly. Smokefang acknowledged this with a small quirk of his head.

"Sit down," Morningstar commanded, settling her haunches on the ground. The two toms did the same.

"Listen closely. These questions are important," the leader purred.

"I'm listening."

"Good, good. First: what would you consider an, hmm, important quality in your pair?"

The grey warrior considered for a moment. Sablefrost had distantly heard Strongclaw answer "beauty" to this exact same question.

"Honesty or loyalty," Smokefang answered. "They're both very important to me."

"Mmmm, yes. What is your pet hate? That thing that really annoys you?"

"The smell of wet fur."

"Make that a personality trait, dear."

"Empty bravado."

"Isn't that a classic," Morningstar murmured; Sablefrost's ears strained to catch her words.

"All right then. Don't laugh at this question- this is a serious interview. Your favourite pelt colour? Truthfully now."

"Black." Was there a reluctance to his voice?

"I see. It is a pretty colour. What is the rank you consider to be most important in the Clan?"

"Leader. Of course."

An ear-splitting shriek reached Sablefrost's ears and she instinctively winced. Specklefrost came hurrying out of the medicine den and raced into nursery.

"Hold on, Redsong," she called. "I know! Sparkpaw, get over here!"

Morningstar threw a disgruntled look in the tabby she cat's direction.

The questions continued in the same fashion. His most self-prized quality was courage. Smokefang's favourite part of being a warrior was hunting the Tainted. His ideal number of kits per litter would be four.

This is meaningless foxdung. How is she going to pair us off of this?

Yet, word by word, the questions turned personal and deep.

"Thank you, Smokefang," Morningstar murmured. Iceface said nothing.

Twisting her head to stare at the three, the new warrior saw that the leader and her cohort had risen to their paws. They began to saunter over to Sablefrost.

She swallowed a nervous hiccup.

"Greetings," the golden she-cat said softly, taking a seat in front of her. Iceface sat in the shadows; he did not seem to be an influential part of the questioning.

"You're ready?"

Sablefrost nodded. Her mouth was suddenly dry, and her tongue felt stuck to the roof of her mouth. Maybe she wouldn't be able to answer and they'd have to leave her pairless.

" First: what would you consider an important quality in your pair?"

"The honed skills of a warrior." So she could speak after all.

"That's a nice answer, dear. What is the thing that irritates you the most in this world?"

"The spread and influence of the poison." So not only could she speak, she was answering the questions exactly like a stone-faced, emotionless PureClan warrior.

"And a personality trait equally as awful?"

"Stupidity."

"Oh yes, dear, an awful one."

"Be serious now: which pelt colour attracts you the most?"

"The colour of the pelt does not matter."

"Muscles and strength or intelligence?" Morningstar asked.

"A mixture of both creates the perfect warrior."

"Indeed. What is the most important rank in the Clan?"

"The leader is the most important, yet all other ranks contribute to the health and well being of PureClan."

"Per litter, what is the ideal number of kits?"

"Four."

"Aha. What is the most important role a warrior can perform?" The leader ignored another groan from the nursery.

"Defending their Clan against the poison."

"We're going to turn to some more personality-based questions now," Morningstar murmured.

Another round of ruthless questions began, each designed to strip away a layer of her heart until there was nothing left but a lump of throbbing muscle without secrets.

The facade of the perfect warrior fell away; she could not twist the truth when such private answers were expected.

Another yowl from Redsong heralded the end of Sablefrost's interview.

"That will be all," the dappled she-cat said, rolling her eyes at her deputy. "Please remain silent until dawn. Do not attempt to speak to the other warriors. You will receive your pair in the morning, StarClan willing. Goodnight."

It was only when the black warrior was sitting quite alone did she realize that she had completed the third test. She'd answered the questions that would seal her fate, but whether she had been successful she could not tell.

...

"Wake up, you adolescent delinquents!" Morningstar yowled, as light flooded over the edge of the world, chasing the shadows of the camp into the forest.

Sablefrost blinked blearily, indignantly mumbling that she'd only been dozing on her paws. Nettlecloud looked equally as sleepy, but her brother Smokefang looked resolute and alert. Slatethorn was wide-eyed after his night spent beside the nursery, while Strongclaw's eyes were not even open. She could not see Peppermask's face.

Morningstar gave her son a rough poke with one claw, and he woke with a small surprised squeak that half the camp heard.

"Follow me, follow me!" the golden she-cat demanded, waving her tail like a molten banner. "To the hill, yes, I mean that hill, Strongclaw, not some StarClan-forsaken dirt lump in the forest. Are you normally this bright when you wake up?"

The new warriors gathered beneath the Speaking Hill as Morningstar leaped on top of it, Iceface hunched in its dark shadow.

"As I'm sure all-most- of you are aware, the questionings last night were to finalize the cat you will be paired with. In the hours before dawn, the deputy and I have laboured to make the pairings perfect. As you will soon discover, we have been successful. We will announce them in a very public PureClan gathering.

"Let all cats old enough to unsheathe their claws assemble in the camp for a Clan meeting!" she bellowed; the size of her lungs were belied by her apparently small and narrow chest cavity.

With grumbles and wide yawns- the sun had barely risen, after all- warriors, elders and apprentices alike shambled into the clearing from their dens.

"This is a very important and unique announcement. I ask that silence from the crowd is maintained," she said gravely, but a malicious smirk twisted her muzzle. She always enjoyed these speeches; the ones that ripped and tore their wishes and dreams to tiny ribbons, until their foolish hope lay as nothing but pretty dust.

"Fleetstorm and Jayflight, join the new warriors please," Morningstar murmured. Her soft voice carried over her demanded silence. Without questions the two siblings pushed a path through the others and stood warily behind Sablefrost's huddled group.

The black she-cat's heart began a fluttering, erratic beat.

Strong...claw...Smoke...fang, it seemed to say, by right now, she didn't want to be paired to either of them.

"Two of you will not receive your pairs today," Morningstar boomed. She seemed unnecessarily pleased by this.

"The rest of you, however, will. Each pair will be named aloud, males first and females second. I decree that StarClan has approved the matches between...Peppermask and Nettlecloud."

Sablefrost smiled politely as Nettlecloud inched closer to her brother, a half-concealed expression of wariness in her green eyes. Inside, she was happy that her brother had gotten such a great she-cat as his pair- perhaps one that he didn't even deserve. But the nerves broiling in her stomach would not let her concentrate on her brief happiness.

She glanced away from Morningstar's grin, her eyes combing the fringes of the camp, searching for the leaf or twig out of place that could-impossibly- postpone the pairing. She startled as her eyes found a sprawled shape beside the medicine dens. A lump of red-stained cobwebs circled his throat, and his flanks heaved with laboured breath. But despite his pain, her father managed to smile.

"Smokefang and Jayflight. Strongclaw and Sablefrost."

The next names were fired off with such rapidity Sablefrost had only time to blink. She tore her gaze from Thornstreak to stare at Strongclaw's smug calico face.

She didn't feel horror. She did not feel surprised. She'd suspected it all along, really, so she just felt numb.

Yay, they have finally been paired! I was gonna be mean and leave the chapter off after the questions but I decided I'd out this off for long enough.

Now I know that some of you are going to grumble and complain about SableXStrong. Well, I know that it was blatantly obvious and most of you hate him, but please don't try to tell me who I should pair with who. It is my story, after all, and I've had this planned out ever since Strongclaw was born. It's his whole reason for existence, actually. It would make no sense at all to pair her to a random when we've been building up the antagonist through all these chapters. That rather defeats the purpose. So don't complain, all right? Well, you can if you want, but I won't be pleased.

So how was this chapter, anyway? I think it's a little boring at the start and middle with all the questions, but they needed to be done. I had fun with the last part though.

Anyway, it was my birthday yesterday and I am now unspeakably ancient and crippled. So I was thinking for my FFN birthday present I could get five reviews to push us to the 300-review mark? That'd be awesome :3

Anyway, this has been a pretty long AN so I'll wrap it up here. Sorry for ranting. At least Thornstreak's alive, y'know.

-the decrepit Swyfte

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