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Welcome to Society. Here, you'll be judged on your looks and the way you groom yourself, on how well you hunt and how well you fight. On who you hang out with and how you act, on how you talk and how you walk. You'll be judged on who your mentor is, and who your friends are. Welcome to Society.
Enjoy your stay.
Her small body, crouched on the crest of the hill, was silhouetted by leaping flames. Behind her, the barn was completely ablaze; sparks shot into the midnight sky and embers fluttered to the grass. Small shapes darted to and fro inside the sprawling building, an occasional yowl of fear rending the night. Cries -- Twoleg cries -- pierced the air like sirens. Paralyzed with fear, Hazel could only watch as the only life she knew burned down in front of her. Dawn came, soon, as the flames began to ebb, quenched by the rain that fell from the sky. Hazel's small body trembled as she peeked over the hill, eyes streaming at the blackened, burned-out shell that now sat where her home had once been. The kit felt an impulse to collapse in despair, and nearly did: with tears now pouring from her eyes, she sobbed freely, questioning the will of her ancestors as everything she loved was taken away from her. Twolegs still streamed in and out of the broken building, with massive, snake-like things trailing from blazing red monsters. Hazel watched as her home, since burned to a couple of charred, sinking posts, was drowned in a spray of water.
But, as Hazel watched, a set of Twolegs came waddling out of the main den with colorful pelts wrapped around their shoulders. One let out a cry and broke apart from the pair, racing towards where Hazel crouched, hidden by the brush. The Twoleg was getting closer. She needed to leave.
And so there she went, small, stubby legs wobbling as she clambered down into the valley, rain spotting her dusty brown pelt, and headed for the cover of the trees -- headed for the new life her ancestors had promised her.
I feel lost and weak as I crack open one eye. My surroundings surprise me - where I expected the soft, lush, verdant forest, it was instead replaced by a chilly cave, with the faint bubble of a stearm in the background and a lichen curtain obscuring the outside. A dark gray tom paces at the rear, the strong scent of something sharp coming from his vicinity.
With a heavy sigh, the tom wheels around - and then, all brusque manner returning, wiping the look of exhaustion from his face, exclaims crisply, "Ah! You're awake!"
I nod cautiously, opening my mouth to speak. All that comes out is a dry, rasping rattle, sending me into a fit of coughs, leaving me gasping for breath. The tom hurries towards me, concern etched into his young face, and puts a paw on my chest to check for the beat of my heart. Listening and feeling for a moment, he appears to deliberate, before racing back towards a small crevice in the rock by which he was pacing earlier, and squeezes inside. Moments - and three, chest-wrenching coughs - later, he returns, a wad of herbs in his mouth. He deposits them by the edge of my nest and begins to work.
Rubbing a poultice of golden leaves on my chest, I feel my nasal passage beginning to open up and the coughing finally eases. I manage to gasp a few words out, intelligible enough for the tom to understand. "Where...am...I...," I choke.
"You're in the Clan," he replies, though the vague answer barely satisfies my question. As if reading my mind, he gives a small smile and continues, his small paws working rapidly to squeeze the juice from a couple of leaves. "We're the only Clan around. Seasons and seasons ago, there were three - LeopardClan, LionClan, and TigerClan. They soon divided into four - ThunderClan, ShadowClan, RiverClan, and WindClan - and then combined into one after moons of fighting nearly tore them apart! We're the result, and we've been here as long as any cat can remember, the only way the memories of the ancient Clans remain is by storytelling. Elders, you know," he adds knowingly, nodding sagely.
"Oh," I stammer. "When can I--"
But my choppy sentence is interrupted by the arrival of a silvery tabby, accompanied on one side by a dark brown she-cat and on the other by another white-and-tabby she-cat. The two flanking cats smile generously at me, but the first merely looks faintly annoyed. I feel my self shrinking into the nest, cowering at the powerful aura emanating from the she-cat.
"I'm Sagestar," she declares coolly, flicking her ear to rid it of a scrap of lichen. "And we - that is to say, Willowtree, Avalanchestrike, Skyheart, and I - have spent the day deliberating on a few issues that have arisen along with your arrival."
Skyheart frowns, but says nothing, while Avalanchestrike - the pretty tabby - smiles smugly. Willowtree gives the yonger-looking she-cat a disaproving glare, but she says nothing. I nervously flex my claws, tearing up the moss in my nest. Skyheart's tail rests reassuringly on my shoulder, but with the ominous words hanging in the air, I can't be reassured in the slightest.
"Issues being," Willowtree interjects, "what to do with you. Not in that aspect, of course," she adds hastily, seeing my astonishment. "We need to find a place to put you. We clearly can't throw you back out into the Wilds, but there's really almost nothing we can do. So we've come to a consensus, with a near unanimous vote," at this point, she shoots a dark glare at Avalanchestrike, and I get the immediate feeling the small she-cat has alreayd developed a rather strong enmity for me, "and we've decided to offer you a place in the Clan. Should you choose to accept it, you will receive your warrior name presently and undergo training."
Barely conscious of the words spewing like vomit from my mouth, even leaving the same bitter taste, I say, "I'll join."
"Where do I sit?" I ask meekly, turning to Avalanchestrike. The snowy white she-cat is as cold as her name, and she just gives me a cool-eyed stare as though she really can't be bothered to answer my question. "Guess not," I mutter, and push past her into the massive space of the main camp. Trunk-lengths above my head, trees' branches intertwine to form a massive, emerald canopy. Sunlight filters into the camp, bathing the gathered cats in a golden light.
A loud yowl interrupts me, and I step back as a dark reddish she-cat barrels towards the medicine den. She's followed by a plump dusty brown tom, who stops as his friend tumbles into the den.
"Hi," he mews brightly, stepping back a bit as the sunlight hits him squarely in the eyes. He blinks a couple of times, and then squints, looking at me curiously. "Are you new here? I've never seen you around here, but we almost never get new cats. On the other hand, maybe you're just a visitor, right?"
"Hatchfur, shut it," Avalanchestrike says irritably. The tom, Hatchfur, looks slightly put out, but brightens as Avalanchestrike continues. "Show this one around, will you?"
"Right! What's your name?" Hatchfur asks.
"Hazel," I say sheepishly. "You're Hatchfur, then?" The tom nods, tipping his head inquisitively as though he still can't believe I'm here. He looks at me like I'm some sort of apparition or mirage, before shaking his head as if to rid his ears of water. "Where do I...go? Is there some special place I have to sit, or what?" For some reason, a silly smile comes over Hatchfur's face, and he beckons me with his tail. "What's so funny?" I persist, but he says nothing, only insists that I follow him with the rapid waving of his tail. I trot after his retreating back.
I follow my tourguide around the camp, only half-listening as he points out every cat. After introducing the moony-eyed cats splayed in odd positions over a sunny patch of boulders as Eclipsesong and Iceheart, Hatchfur completely stops, and I have to swerve to keep my momentum from carrying me into Hatchfur's corpulent rear. I had to jump a bit to see around Hatchfur, and I was able to follow his gaze to a group of pretty she-cats sitting in a shady corner beneath a tiny grove of trees.
"Who are they?" I say loudly, waving my tail in front of Hatchfur's eyes.
He breaks somewhat reluctantly out of his reverie. "Huh? Oh, that's Songpetal." He smiles dreamily, and I have to stifle a giggle, despite the fact that the she-cat in question has a beautifully sleek silver pelt and a pink lily wrapped around her left ear.
"Are you and her--"
"What? No, no of course not," Hatchfur stammers, a blush rising to his cheeks. "Songpetal and Sunshimmer are the most popular cats in the entire Clan. They're the highest on the social ladder, neither would never date a fat nerd like me. But I've got my eye on Songpetal, and I'm hoping that maybe, someday, it'll happen. Besides, she's not betrothed to anyone yet--"
"Betrothed?" I cough, struggling to keep a grin off my face.
Hatchfur looks astonished. "What, don't they have bethroals where you come from?"
I'm saved from the humiliation of replying by the arrival of a tiny, white-and-black she-cat with clear blue eyes. She gazes disdainfully at me as though I'm a particularly stubborn piece of mud she can't pick from between her claws, and then a frowning sort of simper comes over her face. "I'm Ivydrop," she says in a silky voice, bypassing a greeting entirely. "You are?"
"Hazel," I reply, slightly uncertain. "Er...hi, Ivydrop."
"Will all cats old enough to hunt gather in front of my den for a Clan meeting?" Sagestar's rich voice booms through the massive camp, and I'm surprised that I can hear her even here, in the crevice the farthest from her den. Hatchfur gives me a nudge in the flank with his paw, nearly sending me toppling, and together we trot towards Sagestar's den.
There are already numerous cats gathered, each in separate little groups. A handsome golden tom is surrounded by a few pretty she-cats, but first and foremost in his attention is a gorgeous black she-cat with golden flecks, her eyes like mini pools reflecting the sun. The two look like the epitome of perfection and love, tails curled around each other, sitting so close their flanks touch. If I was to pad around to the front, however, I could see that both had cold eyes and neither were looking at the other. The she-cat is idly examining her claws and the tom looks mildly repulsed.
Sagestar's yowl jolts me out of my observations, and I pad up around the side, near a group of awkward-looking cats. Hatchfur drifts away, and I feel suddenly desparate for companionship.
"We are gathered here to welcome a new member into the Clan," Sagestar thunders, "will Hazel please step forward?"
Meekly, I take a step into the front of the group, and Sagestar bounds down from her perch on top of her den. She lands in front of me with a sort of careless grace; the unpracticed ease of a skilled fighter or one who had been going through the motions for so long she'd lost track. I find myself face to face with Sagestar's angular silver features and sharp green eyes, and I have to quash the urge to retreat a few steps.
"Hazel, do you promise to uphold the Clan Code, at all costs? Even at that of your life?"
Everyone's looking at me expectantly, and I glance around to find a thick-furred brown tabby mouthing, "I do." Hurriedly, I repeat her words, and give Sagestar a weak smile.
"Then, by the powers granted in me by our omniscient ancestors, I name you Hazelheart, warrior of the Clan."
"Hazelheart! Hazelheart! Hazelheart!" The cats around me strike up the chant, their voices forming one giant thunderous call that sends the blood roaring in my ears. I turn nervously, expecting piercing glares beneath the words, but all I get are blank stares. Apparently this isn't as unique a phenomenon as welcoming a new cat into the Clan, and the rest are easily bored.
At Sagestar's call, the cats begin to disperse. Instead of returning to Hatchfur, I find myself drawn towards the helpful tabby, who, as she comes closer I see she has a large scar twisting one half of her face. I smile a bit, a gesture that she returns, and wordlessly, I follow her towards a slightly secluded spot where a couple of other cats are waiting.
"I'm Bramblepath," the cat declares. "You're Hazelheart, and this is Berryleaf, Stoneclaw, Stormheart, Swiftnight, and Rainwhisper." She matches each name to one of the cats, and each gives a slight wave of his or her tail. Bramblepath settles herself down and beckons for me to do the same, and then she asks promptly, "So, Hazelheart, where do you come from?"
And so I explain - everything. Everything about my entire childhood, all of that, and I find Rainwhisper nodding sympathetically, while Bramblepath just looks slightly pained, as though I've reminded her of a particularly unpleasant memory.
I open my mouth to answer a question Bramblepath has asked, but I'm interrupted by Berryleaf, who smiles apologetically before continuing.
"The night call is about to come soon, and we'd better get you situated along with us. You wouldn't want to be caught out after curfew alone, especially on your first night with no place to sleep. I'll let Rainwhisper help you with that; I'm on Moon Duty at moonhigh and I've really got to squeeze in as much sleep as I can." The ginger she-cat turns to Swiftfoot - Swiftfoot? Or was it Swiftbright? "Swiftnight--" That was it, right. "--you'll wake me up, won't you?" At his name, Berryleaf seems to melt a bit, but at Swiftnight's brusque nod, she freezes up again.
As the cats begin to break up, a dappled gray cat comes up and silently leads me out of the camp, down a leafy tunnel after Bramblepath and the rest.
Within moments, the she-cat - Rainwhisper - has left me curled in a mossy nest. I can hear her already slow breathing to my left, and Bramblepath's to my right, though Bramblepath is still sitting up and staring out of the den through a small gap in the roof. My own eyes are drawn to the opening, where the bright stars twinkle as though saying good night.
"Good night, Mother," I whisper, my voice caught in my throat. "I miss you."
"Did you seriously just chip my claw?"
The gray she-cat is frozen in disbelief, her pale blue eyes stretched as wide as moons. Removing her gaze from the black she-cat - Shadowflower, I think her name was - in front of her, the gray one examined her claws, noting the cracked one. Her expression morphed into one of disgust, and she shot a contemptuous glance at Shadowflower before trotting daintily over to the sidelines and settling herself down beside the moderator of the mock fight, the deputy, Willowtree.
"Get back in, Petalsnow," Willowtree said, with the droning monotone of one who had repeated him or herself far too often for his or her liking. "You'll do more than chip a claw in battle."
"But we have no one to fight," Petalsnow whined. "This is useless and stupid. There aren't any other Clans around."
Willowtree paused for a moment, before rising fluidly to her feet. Her expression was pained, as though she had to face this obstinate opposition daily. When she spoke, she spoke slowly, as though speaking to a less-than-intelligent kit. "Petalsnow," she began quietly, "we do not fight in preparation. We fight for practice and to show our talent in order to further advance your skills. An omni-present enemy is not necessitated for us to practice battle moves and strategies. Next time you have a nonsensical opinion, I suggest you take it to the nursery where they will accept you with kinder words and more sympathies. Get back in the clearing and we will increase the intensity of training. Clearly you have not been working hard enough if you still have questions about enemies."
The she-cat in question pouted, clearly not used to not getting her way, and opened her mouth with a less-than-witty comeback burning at the tip of her tongue. She was interrupted by Shadowflower's soft, now slightly irritated, voice saying, "Can we get back to training? I'm starting to get hungry."
Petalsnow rolled her eyes and stomped back into the clearing, wincing every time her paw came in contact with the sandy patch of ground. I shot a hesitant smile at Shadowflower, but the she-cat merely gazed dolefully back at me, her expression unchanged. Eyeing my paws, I followed the black she-cat and our partners, Swiftwing, Hailstorm, and Windchaser back to the center of the clearing where our opponents had already gathered. Swiftwing - a tall, pale gray she-cat with googly eyes for Hailstorm - led the way, assuming a position of leadership even though she wasn't the brightest.
"Huddle and plan," Willowtree shouted, and our opponents immediately swung into a rough approximation of a tightly-knit circle. I moved closer to my teammates, my flank brushing against Windchaser's. The skinny gray tom pulled away with a hiss, eyes dark. I whispered a weak apology.
"I'll go for the laurel leaves," Windchaser interrupted. "I'm the fastest and I can do this alone. Just hold the others at bay and I'll take care of it." Swiftwing looked slightly hurt at the tom's outburst and interruption, but gave in with a shrug and a nod. When she opened her mouth to continue, Windchaser cut her off again. "Shadowflower, you take down Flamestripe." The she-cat nodded, her drooping eyes perking up slightly at the delegation of an important job. "Hailstorm, you take care of Petalsnow. I'm assuming she won't be much of a threat for obvious reasons. Swiftwing, you make sure Ashstream doesn't attempt anything, all right?" He turned to me, eyes sparkling somewhat maliciously. "And you, Hazelheart. Stormclaw and Gorseheart."
"But they're--" I began to protest, but Windchaser smirked at me.
"Too new to handle a couple of toms?" he said with a challenge edging his voice. I frowned, eyes hardening.
"No. I can take them on."
"Just as I thought," Windchaser replied, a smile still curling his lips. "Good." He turned to Willowtree, who had hauled herself up and stretched, then began to explain the rules of the mock battle one more time. Her gaze came to rest on Petalsnow, who was still fretting over her chipped claw.
"Begin," the deputy yowled.
Immediately, I raced for Gorseheart, the golden-brown tom I'd seen when I first entered camp. He was still, scoping out the battle, and so when I launched over his head and landed on his back, I took him by surprise. The initial shock wore off after only a moment, however, and he automatically rolled onto his back, crushing me between the floor of the clearing and his own heavy weight. I could barely breathe, he surely wasn't going to let me die, smashed beneath the ground and himself--
He clambered off after a moment, and I sucked in a lungful of air, glaring purposefully at him. He snickered, earning a clout to the ear. I chased him off to the side of the clearing and lured him tauntingly into the brambles. Being considerably smaller than he was, I slipped out the other side of the thicket and left him entangled in the thorns.
My next target: Stormclaw.
I noticed the dark gray tom lurking on our side of the clearing. Everyone else was dealing with an opponent - I was surprised at the fight Petalsnow was putting up - and so I slipped into the stance reserved for stalking prey and crept after him. I was by far not the best hunter or stalker in the Clan, so it only took a few moments for Stormclaw to take note of my presence. When he had, he spun around with his claws already extended and lunged for me. Taken aback by the strength packed in his skinny body, I rolled backwards and slammed into one of the trees lining the clearing. Slightly dazed, I staggered to my feet.
Stormclaw was soon joined by Gorseheart, who had fought his way free of the brambles and was now ganging up on me. This was one battle I couldn't win - but if anything, I needed to give Windchaser more time. Shooting a glance to the left, I saw the thin tom's pelt a streak of gray against the gold and brown sand of the clearing. He was shooting for the laurel, no longer hampered by Flamestripe, who had been successfully attacked by Shadowflower.
Gorseheart noticed my line of sight.
Before he could move, I reached out and batted at his head. He growled intimidatingly, and then let out a yowl as someone behind him - Swiftwing, I presumed, from the flash of gray and black behind him - clamped down hard on his tail. Stormclaw spun around to help, and I darted out from my cornered position.
"Go help Windchaser," Swiftwing mouthed, leaping onto Stormclaw's back and digging her paws into his shoulders to force him onto his stomach. She executed a complicated move, involving slipping between both tom's heads and ending up bashing them together. Stormclaw and Gorseheart pulled away, wincing, as the she-cat danced around them, batting at tails and ramming exposed flanks with her head.
Heeding Swiftwing's words, I raced after the gray tom. He had slowed considerably and was slinking along the edge of the clearing, trying to stay out of sight of Ashstream, who, after being abandoned by Swiftwing, took charge of guarding the laurel leaves. It would be impossible for Windchaser to escape unnoticed, so I did what could possibly be considered the dumbest move in existence.
I yelled Ashstream's name.
The small tom's head whipped around; his eyes had been roaming dangerously close to Windchaser. My teammate froze, looking absolutely furious, but I widened my eyes to signal him to keep moving. I would occupy Ashstream for the time being.
"Hey, Ashstream," I called again as his attention snuck back to Windchaser.
Realizing that this rather stupid tactic would never succeed, I took a running start and flung myself on Ashstream. The force of my...fling...knocked the muscular tom over, and rather childishly, I'll admit, I climbed on top of him and sat on him, digging my paws into his shoulders to keep him from moving.
To be frank, I didn't expect this would hold him too long, but it was only a couple of moments and then Willowtree's shrill yowl signalling that the bout was over.
I grinned cheekily at Windchaser, but the skinny tom didn't look at me. Wordlessly, he stalked in front of us all, dropped the laurel at Willowtree's feet, and padded - stomped, more like - somewhat angrily from the clearing, leaving a trail of startled cats in his wake.
"You did great," Willowtree told us as we padded back to camp, wrapping her tail bracingly around my shoulders for a brief moment. "Especially for a rogue," she added, tipping me a heavy wink. I was bemused, a little bit, by her words, but before I could ask for an explanation she'd already gone and galloped ahead, conversing with some of the more senior warriors.
Swiftwing fell into step beside me, her tufted ears twitching with excitement. Without any sort of precursory introduction, she leaned in to whisper conspiratorally into my ear, "Watch out. There's a massive--well, I can't tell you, but something's about to happen and it's going to be hilarious. Just...watch out, okay? Don't want the newbie to get hurt." She finishes her words with a snicker, veering away from me suddenly as a loud shriek slices through the stagnant forest air.
A white shape vaulted in front of the patrol. Willowtree paused, tail kinked: a signal for the troop to pause. Then came another shape, this one more of a darker brown, that careened after its partner-in-crime into the bushes. Willowtree frowned, brows furrowed and her ears pricked. She seemed to be tasting the air with parted jaws.
I raised my head, muzzle pointed towards the trees, and nearly gagged.
This wasn't the scent of the Clan. This wasn't the scent that was growing familiar in my mouth and whose earthy taste brought me back to the medicine den. No, this scent was one so awful that it brought bile to the back of my throat and made me -- and a couple of others -- duck into the closest patch of undergrowth to retch. When Hailstorm pulled out alongside me, his gray fur was flecked with leaves and small bits of twig.
Swiftwing was chucklikng.
As a third shape, this one more russet-colored than the first two, barreled in front of us, Willowtree began to give chase. Reluctantly, the rest of us followed, tails streaming behind us and ears pricked for any sign of further movement or unfamiliar noises.
We were gaining on the reddish shape when it suddenly lunged to the left, rolling slightly in the undergrowth before coming to a stop. Unfortunately, the rest of us were going at too fast a speed to pull back as hastily as the tom had, and we went headfirst into a massive, sopping pile of droppings.
Willowtree, usually kindhearted and good-natured, spat out a curse.