The cats sat stiffly in front of the Great Oak, still and anxious, peering up at the shadow-wreathed branches. Some were sobbing or tearing up; others' faces were masks of anger, while still others pressed close to their loved ones as though they were afraid of losing them. Barely any stars dared show their faces tonight, and the moon hid under cold fog, obscuring the island in deathly shadow. Most cats bore the marks of claws and fangs, stiff and aching from recent, brutal battles.
Dovewing was among them. She pressed her pale gray pelt to Whitewing's, who was looking up with an almost pained expression on her face, her claws working in the earth. Up in the branches of the trees, several ghostly silhouettes shimmered against the night, their pelts slightly translucent, some more than others. One of the cats poised on the leafy limbs was Tigerstar, his amber eyes glinting with delighted malice. On another branch on the other side of the tree was Brokenstar, his claws digging into the bark. On a lower branch Hawkfrost stood, his icy blue eyes as unnerving as ever. And finally, his muzzle curled into a slight smile, was the former medicine cat Hawkheart.
And clustered at the foot of the Great Oak, staring out smugly and self-assuredly at their former Clanmates, were the traitors. The cats that had betrayed their Clans and gone over to the dark side. Blossomfall was there, the cat she had grown up with, trained with. And Birchfall. Her father. A choked whimper escaped her throat, and Whitewing pressed closer to her, lying her tail over her daughter's paws. However, Whitewing's eyes were dark with sorrow; Birchfall was her mate, after all, and he had betrayed her. When the Great Battle had come, Ivypool had revealed her true colors as a noble ThunderClan warrior, but the Dark Forest... the Dark Forest won. Both the spies, Ivypool and Tigerheart, had been tossed back to the Clans, with dark promises of torture and death. Ivypool shivered beside Dovewing now, and Dovewing knew that the Dark Forest kept their promises.
There were several other traitors from each Clan, as well. ShadowClan's Redwillow, Ratscar, and Applefur sat proudly, looking out over their defeated former Clanmates. From WindClan, Breezepelt, Furzepelt, and Sunstrike smiled smugly. And Icewing, Beetlewhisker, Hollowflight, and Minnowtail, all from RiverClan, were clustered in a tight, menacing bunch.
"Cats of the Clans," Tigerstar began, almost in a purr. "We will now decide each Clan's tributes for the first annual Warrior Games." Dovewing's ears flattened. She could still remember the outrage, horror, shock, and fear she had felt when she had first heard of this barbaric idea. Those emotions still swamped her, only slightly muted, as she stared, defeated, up at Tigerstar.
"They were decided randomly," he went on. "No one was picked for any particular reason. The number of tributes for each Clan was determined by their size. ThunderClan, as it is disproportionately large, will have the most." He really did purr the last sentence, and Dovewing cringed. "I will have the pleasure of announcing their tributes. When your name is called, step forward to the foot of the Great Oak."
He began. "ThunderClan will contribute ten of the twenty-four tributes." What? Dovewing thought, shocked. No... Ten of my Clanmates killed, for the Dark Forests' sadistic pleasure... Her legs shook, and for a moment she thought she might pass out. "First, Brambleclaw."Our deputy? she thought.
"No, Brambleclaw!" Squirrelflight cried out. He barely acknowledged her as he stalked stiffly to the base of the Great Oak, where Birchfall and Blossomfall gazed expressionlessly back at him.
"Graystripe." Tigerstar continued. Dovewing thought she saw Blossomfall flinch, and was that - ? Yes, her claws were digging into the ground. If you hate this so much, fight back! she thought. But she knew the battle was already lost. And Blossomfall was too far into the ranks of the Dark Forest, too long held by their power, to come back to the light.
Cloudtail gasped, his face a mask of rage. "How could you, you fox-hearted cowards?" Tigerstar's eyes flashed. But Brightheart quieted him, her single eye dark with sorrow, and stepped forward.
"Squirrelflight and Leafpool." What? Both of the sisters? How could they? But Dovewing knew very well they could. Firestar's tail drooped, his shoulders hunched, his eyes clouded. He looked utterly defeated. His best friend and both of his deputies were going into the Games, most likely never to return. Random, my foot, Dovewing thought bitterly. [Quick A/N: No matter what Dovewing thinks, they WERE random. I just got lucky. ] Sandstorm covered both of them in last-minute licks, nearly hysterical. Squirrelflight will have to fight her former mate, and her sister... she thought sadly.
"Hazeltail and Rosepetal." Daisy let out a heartbroken wail. What? Dovewing thought in shock. Two of her daughters? This just isn't right!
"Bumblestripe." Blossomfall's claws dug deeper into the earth, sorrow clouding her gaze before she screwed her eyes shut. Now, Graystripe and his son would both be in the Games. Millie looked shattered, winding anxiously around her son, and then pressing her pelt to the only cat she had left in the world, now that Graystripe and Bumblestripe would die and Blossomfall was a traitor: Briarlight. Dovewing's eyes squeezed shut as the young tom stepped forth. In the past moons, they had grown closer, but now... now she would probably never see him again.
"Daisy." A collective gasp rose from the crowd. Daisy? Dovewing thought. She can't fight at all! And two of her daughers are in the Games as well! Daisy let out a moan, but padded forth, head bowed, with no more complaint. Dovewing guessed she would rather die with her daughters, than watch them die without her.
"And last, but not least..." Tigerstar's muzzle held a slight smile. I'll bet it's going to be Firestar, Dovewing thought grimly. "ThunderClan's last tribute..." Dovewing looked up, pricking her ears to hear him better...