Redwoods – Prologue

Redwoods – Prologue

Blood pounding, heart thumping, paws jumping. Chirppaw carried herself with all the elegance of the midnight breeze and all the speed of a fleeing rabbit. Another hit to Lastpaw’s snout, and he stumbled backwards, nearly tripping over his own tail. The moonlight sparring session in the clearing had grown a bit heated again, but that was only natural with Chirppaw’s determination to perfect her technique for her warrior evaluation next week.

The counterattack from her friend hurt, but she took it, letting it knock her backwards only for her to spring back up at Lastpaw, barrelling into him and sending them both rolling across the leaf litter. Flashes of silvery gray and vibrant tortoiseshell could be seen as the calico molly tumbled, signs of her onlooking friend and sister. The prodigy of Redwoodclan wasted not a second heaving herself back up, towering triumphant over the brown tabby. For a moment, the cool air in her face painted pictures of her as a victorious, battle-scarred warrior, but only for a heartbeat before folding and dying again. Her lungs burned, trying to grapple for air as the momentum of battle calmed.

“You pushed yourself too far again, Chirp.”

Lastpaw’s meow barely made it to her ears. A shaky breath escaped the cage of her teeth. If she could’ve collapsed, she would’ve, but she couldn’t. She was going to be the star warrior of her clan soon. Their idol, their hero, their gem. Idols didn’t have time to falter.

“I’m fine, Lastpaw. Thank you for your concern,” she managed to huff out, straightening up and taking a deep breath. There it was, that graceful tone, those fluid movements. By the time she was back home she’d be back to moving like a bird in the wind, and nobody would suspect a thing.

“I think that’s enough training for one night,” Corvidpaw chimed in, leaping off the rock she’d been perched on top of. “C’mon guys, if anyone finds us out here we’re going to be in some real hot water.”

Rainpaw raised his head at that, a confused and almost vacant look in his eyes. “Will we?”

“Mhm! Now come on, let’s get home before Doestar can assign us to cleaning the elders’ den tomorrow!”

Corvidpaw darted away in a blur of vibrant tortoiseshell fur, followed quickly by Chirppaw, who sprinted like a rabbit to keep up. She could vaguely hear Lastpaw’s panting breaths and Rainpaw’s clumsy pawsteps behind her. Even with her exhausted muscles screaming at her, begging her to stop, she didn’t slow down in the slightest. She’d just been about to pass her sister by a whisker-length when all four of them tumbled to a sudden and painful halt, accidentally barreling directly into someone else entirely.

“Hey! You four!”

Lastpaw flinched behind Chirppaw as Furzeshoulder’s sharp voice cut through the night. They were always the last cat you wanted to see if you were doing something suspicious. Rumor had it that they’d make you pay them in fresh kill to keep their secrets. Chirppaw clenched her jaw and held her head up high while the flame-point stalked closer.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you four are out way past your curfew, aren’t you?” they teased, electric blue eyes sending shocks down the apprentice’s spines. “I wonder what you could possibly be doing…”

“Training for our warrior evaluations!” Lastpaw blurted immediately, shaking like a leaf under the scrutiny of the warrior.

“Time slipped away from us. We’re sorry,” Corvidpaw lied, gently placing a paw over Lastpaw’s mouth before he could blurt out anything else that might turn the tides from them being studious apprentices to being just downright rebels disobeying explicit rules set by the clan. “We just want to do well.”

Furzeshoulder snorted, glowering at each one of them in turn before turning away with a flick of their tail. They took a few pawsteps away before glancing back at the little group, sneering slightly. It didn’t take any of Starclan’s wisdom to know that they saw right through Corvidpaw’s little act. Chirppaw’s mentor was always saying things about how Furzeshoulder was too clever for their own good sometimes.

“Allow me to… escort you back to your family dens,” Furzeshoulder chuckled rather mockingly, quickly taking off down the little hill leading into camp. A ball of dread roiled in Chirppaw’s stomach. If her parents realized how late she and her friends had been out, she’d get her ears chewed off by her father all night. She would have begun to panic had Furzeshoulder decided not to wink over their shoulder at the apprentices, silently assuring them that they wouldn’t tell a soul… at least, for now.

While Lastpaw and Rainpaw raced along to stay by Furzeshoulder’s side, Corvidpaw and Chirppaw stuck back together, speaking in hushed tones to one another. 

“Ugh, we should’ve gotten to training earlier. We still need more practice!” Chirppaw murmured to her sister, ears pinned back against her head. Her paws crunched against the leaf litter below, kicking up pine needles and dust in her anxious haste.

Corvidpaw bumped her head against her sister’s shoulder, trying to ease the roiling feeling in the calico’s stomach. “No, we don’t,” she replied in a gentle but optimistic tone. “You did just fine back there, and Lastpaw and Rainpaw were really good too. We’ll be fine.”

Chirppaw’s face screwed into a grimace. “Are you kidding me?!” she hissed under her breath, bristling for a moment. She’d been feeling more and more agitated over the past few moons, and sometimes she couldn’t help but let it out, snapping when the stress built up too far. It wasn’t that she meant to hurt her sister – the opposite, in fact – she just wanted to ensure that they were on the same page. Corvidpaw’s optimism was just so irksome sometimes. “Did you see any of that?! I couldn’t dodge the most obvious blows, Lastpaw keeps stepping on his own tail, and Rainpaw is – for lack of a better word – so dense a blow to the head wouldn’t even hurt him! Plus, he still can’t dodge to save his life.”

A rattling sigh heaved itself out from Corvidpaw’s chest. “Chirp, we still have a week left before the assessment. We’ll have plenty of time to train. You’ll only fail if you keep refusing to rest.”

“How can I rest when Mother and Father are counting on me?!”

Both sisters went silent at this. They knew well the pressure that rested on Chirppaw’s shoulders, even if it was never really spoken of. It was everywhere, tucked in their father’s watchful eyes when they and their siblings headed out to train with their mentors each morning, tangled in their mother’s words whenever she checked in with Chirp. Subtle most of the time, but always haunting the russet-eyed molly like the ghost of a lover scorned. An orchestra of crickets played softly from the bushes, and Chirppaw’s face softened.

“I’m sorry, I-”

“It’s fine. What do you think your warrior name will be?” Corvidpaw interrupted with a gentle smile. “I’m hoping maybe Corvidfeather, or Corvidsong.”

Chirp thought for a moment, then cracked a smile for the first time all night. “How about…”

Chirpbreeze was probably the youngest warrior in the clan to have an apprentice. No, not probably. She was. At only 13 moons, she’d been selected by Doestar herself to mentor her little sister, Ravenkit, who was among the first batch of apprentices to be made since she’d become a warrior.

Maybe she would’ve felt better about it if she wasn’t the only fresh warrior to be given an apprentice, but she was. All her other friends were still exploring their warriorhood, while she’d just been thrust into this situation by her clan without even consulting her. Straight from the medicine den after a brutal fish attack and now into her first stint as a teacher.

Looking back, the fish attack was probably the reason she was here in the first place. She’d been trying to cross the river in Redwoodclan territory on one of her usual walks to clear her head when some fish unlike anything she’d ever seen before attacked her. It came up and snapped its jaws around her leg, dragging her under with a force she’d never known a fish could have, and nearly consumed her that day. In a fit of panic and shock, she took out its eye and escaped, running home and warning her clan immediately. When the beast was taken down by other warriors, the whole camp had eaten fish for weeks. Personally, Chirpbreeze never wanted to eat or see fish ever again… and certainly never swim in or cross any kind of water.

And yet, despite the traumatic experience she’d just been through, cats heralded her as some sort of hero. If she hadn’t been a prodigy before, she certainly was one now, and she hated every bit of it. If anything, half of her almost wished she’d been eaten… or at least been so badly injured by that fish that the pressure would finally be taken off of her. Was a little room to relax too much to ask?

Across camp, the soon-to-be apprentices celebrated in the morning air, rolling in the dew and playing chase and mossball one last time before they would inevitably outgrow such games. Chirpbreeze could see Ravenkit among them, tumbling around with her friends and lightly biting at their tails.

Mew, Chirpbreeze’s closest consort and pet pigeon, glided down to perch on the molly’s shoulder, cooing softly. She could catch a few words from it, most of it broken by her still rudimentary understanding of Bird, but she listened close anyways. 

“Big day. Excited? She grow.” 

“She has grown, yes,” Chirpbreeze replied, a tiny smile gracing her features. How was it that she’d grown so fast already? Chirpbreeze still remembered the kit’s newborn face, soft and round with folded ears and closed eyes.

“All cats old enough to catch their own prey, please gather around the Meeting Stump for this moon’s Apprentice Ceremony!”

Cats started coming out of the woodworks, brilliant tones of warm and cold fur, silver and gold and bronze, amber and obsidian and tiger’s eye. They gathered around the massive stump in the center of camp and watched with attentive eyes as Doestar leapt up to the top, gazing out across her clan as they all waited with baited breath for her to speak. Shafts of light peeked down through the gray clouds and verdant canopy, illuminating the stump in what looked like a spotlight from the sky. Chirpbreeze felt her family sidle up to her to both her left and right and she did her best to shrink in, not keen on touching or speaking to any of them at the moment. Mother and Father had their eyes on her, and soon enough the rest of the clan would, too.

“As I’m sure you’re all aware,” Doestar began, smiling proudly, “Six moons ago, we were blessed with many kits born here under our trees. Today is the day that those kits graduate from kithood and begin the next step on their journey to becoming an independent member of our clan.”

Cheers and hollers resounded from all around the Meeting Stump, smiles and purrs abound. Doestar waited patiently for the crowd to calm, though by the twinkle in her eyes it was easy to see she was just as proud as they were.

“Mantiskit, please step forward.”

A dilute calico molly with soft bengal patterning stepped forward, amber eyes blazing and head held high. She hopped up upon the stump next to the fawn leader and awaited her next instructions.

“Mantiskit, it is upon this day that you have reached the age of six moons and have shed your old name in favor of a new chapter. From this day forth until your Warrior Ceremony, you will be known as Mantispaw, and will train under Sandyhoot in all that she knows.”

Sandyhoot, a bob-tailed warrior with cream fur and sandy points ventured forth from the crowd, climbing swiftly up to stand by the apprentice’s side. Slowly, she bowed her head and touched her nose gently against Mantispaw’s, taking a deep breath. She was a distant part of Chirpbreeze’s orbit, but from what the latter had gathered, she was calm and brave. A rational, clear-sighted individual. A resounding cheer started through the camp when they separated, Mantispaw beaming as cats chanted her name to the rhythm of their hearts. “MAN-TIS-PAW! MAN-TIS-PAW!!!”

Next was Foxkit, a sharp-eyed molly the color of the fiercest vixen. Once her name was called, she wasted no time in making her way to the leader, commanding the crowd’s attention with a mere flick of her tail. She was to be apprenticed to Pooldusk.

The sleek black tom by Chirpbreeze’s side stepped forth, a cat-shaped void in the morning sunlight. Chirpbreeze fought back the urge to wince. Her father was a smart cat, but he was only ever as close as the closest star. Since she was apprenticed to Rubblescream all those moons ago, their connection had only been about his expectations of her… and how high they had grown. As he touched noses with his new apprentice, a twinge rose in her chest. What would his relationship with Foxpaw be like? Did she envy the russet she-cat?

Yet another roar of cheers, but it was all a din to Chirpbreeze’s ears. She shook her head and joined the chant, trying to shake off the odd poignancy that had settled over her. Cats cycled again and again, apprentice after apprentice onto the stump to meet their mentor. Jaypaw and Furzeshoulder (a combination that would play out either beautifully or horribly), Splashpaw and Rubblescream, Bilbypaw and Cottonsilver.

Bilbypaw stuck out. Electric eyes, a still-fresh scar on his snout, and a smug air of self-assured superiority were some of his defining features. Chirpbreeze felt herself shiver when his blue-rimmed pupils scanned the crowd, passing over her before alighting on her eyes for half a second. Something was wrong with those vibrant yellow eyes. He looked… hollow, like a bone missing its marrow. It made her pelt crawl.

And then there was her name, and her paws moved her with almost a mind of their own up to the stump, where she stared into her little sister’s verdant eyes. So full of pride, just like Chirpbreeze had been at her Apprentice Ceremony before realizing the hell she was being thrust into. Her eyes carefully traced Ravenpaw’s face for a moment, taking in every strand of fur and the way her snout was quirked up into a little smile before she finally leaned forward to touch her nose to the younger molly’s, silently praying the movement didn’t come across as too reluctant or stiff. If there was one thing being the clan’s ‘star warrior’ had taught her, it was that showing any sign of her true feelings was wholly unbecoming of her and should be eradicated without a second thought. Perfection left no room for emotion.

As the clan erupted into cheers of her sister’s new name, Chirpbreeze fought back the sinking terror in her chest. This was special for her sister and she was not going to ruin it with her bitterness.

Push it out, Chirp. Get rid of it, you don’t need it.

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