Death But Once
His pelt prickled with unease as he stared out over the desolate white. Something was wrong.
He stared out over the rogue border, eyes as pale and dead as the icicles that dripped from the tree's sturdy branches like cat's claws. The snow covered everything like a second pelt of cold, endless white as far as he could see. The trees stood like dark sentinels to the cold moons' destruction, bare branches reaching for the slate sky and swaying gently as the wind screamed past.
This is death, Maelstrom thought with grim certainty. This is the realm of the dead, and it will have victory over us all before the sun shows its face again.
He shook his dark thoughts away like one would do with an irksome fly. Yes, it was death, but only for his enemies. TacoClan had no food, no herbs, no hope; it would only be a matter of time before they were all dead or begging for death. He and death would have their victories as one. The gray-flecked tom turned, his gaze finding the cats that lingered behind him.
"We make our final attack in a moon's time. TacoClan is weak now, and the worst of the cold moons is not yet upon us. ClawClan has agreed to join in our effort in exchange for half of the Clan's lands. Victory is almost ours." The words seemed unbelievable, almost too good to be true. After moons of pain and suffering, more than half of his life spent on planning his revenge, he was close enough to taste it on the wind. So very near, and yet it still remained elusive.
His eyes slid over the small group of rebels, lingering on each one before moving on to the next. Jenner, his dusky fur fluffed out in excitement for the upcoming battle. Twister, her amber eyes narrowed to slits as she stared out over the desolate landscape. Jaci, the bit of Bella inside her glowing like hot coals in those too-old eyes. Soldiers, friends, allies, and, inevitably, martyrs to his crusade. He had no doubt that the young ones would not survive the final battle. But they had stuck by him for all this time, and the end would justify the means before it was all over.
But is the cost too high? something inside of him whispered.
Ignoring it, he turned his eyes to the cat the stood by his side. The gray tom was the most loyal of them all, the most devoted...and, just perhaps, the most important to Maelstrom.
Fool, he snarled inwardly, banishing the thought. I'm a fool and a weakling, and that's all I'll ever be if I continue thinking like that. He's a pawn, just like all the others. A faceless soldier, another sacrifice for the final victory. I can't care, and I don't care about him.
Because if he cared, Maelstrom knew with helpless, heartbreaking certainty that he would lose Shackle just like he had lost everything else he had ever cared for. And no matter what he did, the blue-eyed tom could not let that happen.
"We're so close, Shackle. I can feel it. Only a few more days, and we will have victory." His claws flexed in the snow, driving into the hard earth. The gray tom nodded, looming beside him as ominously as the storm clouds that plagued the sky.
"We should get moving," Shackle rumbled, rolling his shoulders with a slight wince. "The Clanners won't take it kindly if they catch us on their border."
Maelstrom nodded, looking at the others. "We're moving out, so be careful; this is dangerous territory, even if it doesn't belong to the Clan. The Cult is one of TacoClan's greatest allies, and they earn nothing from us destroying them." A murmur of acknowledgement spread through the small group, and the pale tom set off in the opposite direction, casting one more longing glance at the Clanner territory. Soon.
The moon revealed her bright face for the first time in several nights, silvery light cascading down between the clouds and blanching the world below. All was quiet in the night, the silence only broken by the soft crunching of snow under his group's paws. Maelstrom could see his breath solidifying in the air, wispy clouds of ivory mist that lingered for a moment before the howling wind blew it to nothing.
But as peaceful as the journey back to the tunnels was, Maelstrom remained tense and jittery. His body was buzzing with uneasy anticipation, and each step was punctuated by a suspicious glance over his shoulder. His senses were screaming at him to turn back, although he couldn't pinpoint the reason why. Something is wrong about this.
A soft exhale as he opened his jaws.
The soft crunch of snow under paws.
The avian screeches of the wind that buffeted his fur.
A sharp gasp as the scent reached him two heartbeats too late.
"Maelstrom!" The shout was a warning, and before he could look up, his own pained screeches are mingling with those of the wind's.
Pain. It enveloped him, ripping at his entire body with undisguised glee. He snarled and slashed at the cat on top of him, clawing her face and neck with cruel hooked talons. She gave no sign of feeling it but a brief twitch of her whiskers. He didn't know her, this she-cat with dead eyes and sharp claws that methodically tear into him, but she must have known him. Why else attack a stranger with such ferocity? He felt her teeth close around his throat, and an icy splash of panic passed through him just before a dark figure blocked what little he could see of the moon. Just as quickly as it had begun, the she-cat's weight no longer pinned him down, and a familiar snarl reached his ears.
Maelstrom was back on his paws in a matter of moments, ignoring the blood that drizzled from every slash the she-cat had made. The scar on the side of his face had reopened, and seeing out of his right eye was a struggle as the blood spilled over it. The pain was excruciating, but the pale tom barely noticed it as his eyes fixed on the brawl raging before him.
The she-cat seemed to be everywhere at once, lithe figure darting and pouncing around Shackle as she struck out at him from every angle. Her tiny form twirled and leapt about as she delivered each of those cruel, crushing blows.
Shackle lunged for her, yellow eyes burning with a wrath like Maelstrom had only seen within the tom once before. That time, it had been directed at him, and quickly he realized exactly what that spelled out for the she-cat.
The gray tom bowled her over, all her prancing useless as he pinned her down on her back. Maelstrom had seen the end of this fight before; it was inevitably the way all the battles Shackle fought seemed to end. The hulking rogue lowered his head to sink his teeth into the she-cat's throat, fangs all agleam in the moon's shine.
Time itself seemed to slow, and the pale tom watched as the she-cat's head shot up quicker than anything, the white of her teeth stained crimson as she ripped at Shackle's throat with one swift, clean motion. She wriggled out from under him like a snake and shot off into the darkness. A horrible scream filled the air, and it took Maelstrom a moment to realize it was his own.
The blue-eyed rogue rushed forward, his eyes scanning the wound as Shackle swayed dazedly on his paws. He bled from half a hundred different wounds, the one on his throat gushing scarlet. "Lay down!" Maelstrom hissed, and his servant complied, crumpling to the ground in a blood-sodden heap. His eyes were glazed, and the starforsaken wound just wouldn't stop bleeding. His eyes widened as he surveyed the gaping wound, entire body wracked with a miniscule shudder; the she-cat had very nearly ripped out Shackle's throat.
"Help me!" he screeched over his shoulder, the voice that issued from his jaws alien to him. A wave of panic crashed over him as he remembered the severity of the situation; there were no herbs to treat his wounds, few cobwebs to bind them. They were ages away from friendly territory, and Shackle was bleeding out onto the snow.
The three stood there, eyes wide and shell-shocked, and Maelstrom felt fury bubble up inside him. "What are you doing, just standing there? Twister, you go find every cobweb in the area. Jaci, Jenner, gather up all the clean snow you can bring back here." The snow would soak up some of the blood as well as slow his heart rate from cold, making the blood sluggish. "What are you waiting for? Go!"
As the three rushed off, Maelstrom turned his eyes back to the wounded tom. "You're going to be fine," he murmured over and over again under his breath. "You're going to be fine. Everything's okay. You're going to be fine." He scooped up a clump of clean snow, smoothing it over the worst of the gashes on Shackle's stomach before turning his attention back to the throat.
Blood still drizzled steadily from the gash, the gray fur around it matted and dark with what had already dried. The tom lay on his side, glassy eyes wide as his breath came in short, hard pants. Maelstrom blinked away his own blood that continued to drip into his eyes and carefully tried to tilt up the tom's chin for a better look. Shackle's head flopped limply to the side, and the pale rogue felt a trickle of something he had buried long ago: fear.
Tiny tremors ran through Shackle's body, and the gleam of sentience in his eyes had been reduced to a dull glint. His eyelids threatened to close, and Maelstrom hissed. "Shackle, no," he said, the low, sharp tone not enough to hide the trembling there. "You are not allowed to die on me, understand? That is an order." His paws were shaking as he carefully spread more snow over the wounds. "I command that you stay alive." His voice cracked and fell away to silence for a long moment.
"You swore to me that you would always remain by my side," Maelstrom murmured. "Do not break your oath so easily, Shackle, please. I swear on the stars themselves that I will repay you for this tenfold. All you have to do is keep breathing. Please, don't leave me."
He looked up at the stars, nearly obscured by the clouds. You say you watch over every cat? Prove it to me. Protect him, keep him alive, do something! His lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. Forsaken cowards, if you don't...if you don't, you are no better than I am.
The screaming wind seemed to still for a moment, and Maelstrom felt Shackle's chest rise and fall under his paws. A deep, steady breath. The blue-eyed tom's heart leapt as his servant blinked up at him with pain-clouded eyes. "Mastsr..." he murmured.
"Quiet," Maelstrom whispered, his voice tight with the lingering anxiety. "You need your rest, and trying to speak will do your throat no good. You're going to be fine." The pale rogue wondered if he was lying, and if he was, why it hurt so much to do so.
Shackle nodded wearily, his eyes closing as Maelstrom settled down beside him, but not before placing a snow-chilled paw on the gray rogue's throat. The tom's heartbeat was strong and stable, something that caused the tom to almost smile. He was going to be fine.
"I won't forget this," he murmured, not sure if the other cat could even hear him. "Thank you, Shackle."
There was no reply from the larger rogue, but the stars overhead glittered in reply.
The night was dark, and cold. Shackle's shoulder ached from the baleful chill that had haunted the last few dawns, a biting freeze unprecedented by anything that had come before it in the cold moons. He cast a quick glance up at the sky. The moon's silver claw could barely be seen through the storm clouds, but it had definitely reached its peak in the sky.
It was time.
He turned his gaze away from the sky, looking back at the cats gathered behind him. He could pick out the familiar pelts among the strange ones, most of them soldiers that had defected to Maelstrom after Lelouch's death. Jenner and Jaci stood side by side, Twister pacing at the edges of the pack.
"None of them will make it out alive."
Maelstrom's voice was barely a murmur as he sat down at Shackle's side, speckled pelt dusted with a fine layer of snow. His voice was colder than even the wind. "I can feel it, Shackle. Death is hovering, breathing his black breath down our necks. We have soldiers here, good ones, and not one will see the next dawn."
Shackle wondered at his Master's odd choice of words. The tom sounded distant, his mind a thousand miles away. "Not all of them. Some will make it out alive."
A shadow fell over the younger cat's face, and he nodded the the territory before them. "That is the territory I have fought for since I was little more than a kit, Shackle, and I know it better than most. Trust me on this: it will be their end tonight." A soft hiss edged his words, low and cold. "I know what tonight will bring them. Woe, destruction, ruin and decay; the worst is death, and death will have his day."
Maelstrom glanced up at him then, and Shackle's stomach twisted as he saw that something glint in his eyes for a moment before it was extinguished. He still doesn't understand, he thought grimly. He never has, and he never will. The gray rogue watched as his Master turned and let out a sharp hiss, capturing the attention of the other cats.
"The time has come. ClawClan will be attacking in this moment. Everything we have worked for in these last few moons is coming together, and victory is only one battle away. TacoClan will fall, and each of you will be rewarded handsomely for your part. A new era is dawning; the age of the rogues." A yowl of approval rippled through the ranks until Maelstrom gestured for silence.
"Our time has come to go to battle for all that we believe in. Some of you will not return, and your names will be honored for eons. All of you will reign as legends, and it has been an honor to fight beside you." Shackle thought he saw the blue eyes flicker to him, but he brushed off the thought. Masters didn't thank their servants, let alone honor them.
Maelstrom has never been the average Master, he reminded himself.
The rogues moved out, a cloud of shadowy pelts slinking across the ivory snow. A twig cracked somewhere under a paw, and Shackle hissed, remembering the blood gushing from his throat. It had been a moon since the attack, and it had put the gray tom on the alert. Clanners weren't the only ones that wanted to kill Maelstrom, and that only made his job more difficult.
The patches of bare trees began to thin, a forest of skeletons slowly fading away into snowy meadows. All was silent but the screaming wind. Shackle felt a sense of forboding crawl over his flesh as the territory became more familiar. He had a bad feeling about this.
Camp came into view, but it the masses of cats were what drew his eye. TacoClan and ClawClan's screeches rang through the air as the enemies hurled themselves at each other. Shackle vaguely recalled Maelstrom telling him that the two had been at war as long as they had existed.
A lone yowl split the air, and Shackle recognized the voice. "Attack!" Maelstrom ordered, and his horde of soldiers sprang.
Chaos surrounded Shackle, a sea of cats pushing in on him from every direction. He lunged at the nearest Clanner, sinking his fangs into the white-furred neck and snapping it to the side with ease. Without further thought over the unfortunate Clanner's fate, he leapt onto the next cat.
Shackle had never enjoyed battle. Attacking a cat purely for sport wasn't his idea of entertainment, but there was definitely something invigorating about the fighting. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, a sense of complete calm washing over him as he lashed out with measured strikes, countless cats falling under the enormous cat's paws.
This was his duty, his birthright. He had been born to blood and raised to carnage. Every life he took was that of a cat who would have gladly killed his Master. And as images of Maelstrom's cool eyes mingled with those of a lost kit's in the forest, he knew that he couldn't take any chance on letting that happen. Not only because he was his servant and it was his duty, but because it was what he had promised the young cat so long ago.
The she-cat drew her final breath before going still in his jaws, and he tossed her body aside. He could feel blood drizzling down his cheek where she had clawed him, and he shook it off before moving on to the next cat. He had seen the cat before, the same dark gray pelt darting around the battlefield with blood staining his claws. The rogue tackled him, slashing at the Clanner's stomach with sharp claws. There was no time to waste on just injuring the cat; he would have to die.
The blue-eyed tom clawed his face, struggling under Shackle's weight. Blood streamed into his eyes, and the larger tom snarled. He slammed one heavy paw down onto the Clanner's head and sunk his teeth into the cat's throat. His thrashing grew weaker, each swipe more feeble than the last. He wouldn't last much longer; they never did.
A shadow flickered over him, and he felt the weight of another cat on his back. He shook himself, swinging the dying cat in his jaws from side to side as he tried to break his attacker's hold. The cat held firm, though, and he felt something sink into the back of his neck.
Shackle felt a cold touch of dread that found its way through the pain that set him on fire. If it dug much deeper, the cat would find his spine. And from there, it was all over. The cat in his jaws still twitched feebly, and the hulking rogue continued to thrash under the unseen cat's weight. Its fangs dug deeper, and Shackle knew that this was it. Fate had led him down this dark road like a mouse to an unseen hunter, and he had willingly followed straight into its jaws. Death had come for him, and he smiled, waiting for his attacker to end it.
The final blow never came. There was a snarl, the fury there like crackling fire and shattered ice, and the weight from his back was lifted. Shackle dropped the still-twitching Clanner and whipped around, turning just in time to see Foxtrot fall with a choked scream under Maelstrom's paws.
The pale tom looked up from the mutilated cat's body, his distinctive eyes weary and grim. "I shouldn't have let him have such a quick one, the treacherous foxheart," he meowed. "He didn't deserve something so painless."
Shackle nodded, eyes already sweeping the area for potential enemies, but most of the fighting had immigrated to the center of the camp. Corpses littered the ground, but a few caught his eye in particular. A tabby body had curled over Jaci's fallen form, the remnants of his last snarl still twisting his features. Jenner. Shackle felt a dull pang of sorrow, and he turned his eyes back to Maelstrom before he had time to study the mottled cat laying motionless not far from them.
Maelstrom met his eyes. "I told you," he said, and the strange tone of his voice made Shackle's blood turn to ice. "I told you I would return the favor when I had the chance. Should I be afraid? Because I'm not." His Master attempted to pad over to him but staggered, falling to the ground.
"No," Shackle whispered hoarsely, moving to his side without thought. The closer he came, the clearer things became in the thin moonlight. Blood stained Maelstrom's pale fur black, and the gaping hole in the smaller cat's stomach was still gushing blood. Foxtrot had nearly gutted him.
A numbness spread over Shackle as he looked down at the tom. He had done it again, broken the unspeakable rule. Maelstrom had risked everything for him, a mere slave, and this time, he had lost. The gray-flecked tom's breathing was shallow and ragged, and his eyes fluttered closed every few seconds before they snapped back open.
"Sorry," he gasped, each word a struggle. "Sorry I...broke the rule. Couldn't let you die. It was...not part of our terms. Shackle. Shackle, I'm sorry I lied. I care, I'm sorry I care. I care about you. Had to keep my promise. You...you are the most important cat in my entire life."
It was like being doused with cold water; the momentary numbness was gone, and the icy, painful shock was beginning to spread. His Master was dying, gasping for breath as blood flecked his lips, and he could do nothing. He had failed again and let Maelstrom down when he had needed him most. He was nothing, worse even than a slave.
"Shackle. Please don't leave me." The gray rogue looked down at the sound of his name, and he did not see a murderer. He did not see the grown tom with blood on his claws and ice in his eyes. He did not see the ambitious terrorist, the cat who would stop at nothing for vengeance. He saw a kit with ruffled fur, lost in the forest and trying to hide how frightened he was. He saw his Master making one final request, and he could not have refused him.
As he sat down by Maelstrom's twisted body, the young cat's eyes were fixed on the black night. Only a sliver of the moon showed, the rest of the sky covered by dark clouds. His breathing was growing slower, more feeble. His words were broken and soft, stumbling out between everything few breaths. "You didn't leave...not like everyone else. You are the...only one to...never desert me. Thank you, Shackle." A weak, bitter smile twisted across his muzzle.
"I have not known...many instances of kindness in my...life. I don't know how to react. But...I thank you for it." Shackle recognized his own words, and he pressed his muzzle against the tom's bloodsoaked shoulder.
The smaller cat's eyes grew wide, impossibly pale in his white-furred face. "St-st-..." Calm filled the young rogue's expression.
"Stars," Sleetkit whispered. "I can see the stars."
When Shackle looked down from the jet-black sky, his Master was gone.
The world seemed to dull and blur under that atramentous sky, Shackle's senses fading away from him. He closed the dead cat's eyes before standing, blood dripping off his pelt and staining the snow red. He moved without thought, lunging back into the fray with sheathed claws.
The pain was excruciating, cats slashing at him from every side. All of them had seen him murder countless cats, faceless enemies whose blood colored his fur, but only a few actually attacked him. Most were too preoccupied with their own battles to attack the mad tom padding across the battlefield.
He found the cat quickly, a nondescript cat in a crowd of gray toms that was tangled with a she-cat almost as big as Shackle. The numbness had not faded yet, and he hoped his courage would not go with it. Should I be afraid? Because I'm not.
The large she-cat raced away with a cry of retreat as she wriggled away from the gray tom. Wolfstar turned to face Shackle, perhaps expecting another, and the look of surprise had not quite left his face as the rogue ripped his throat out.
The horde of TacoClanners fell upon him in the moment he killed their leader, each clamoring for his blood. Shackle did not hear their curses or see them rush him as one; he barely felt the fangs and talons tearing through his flesh.
This is death. This is the realm of the dead, and it will have victory over us all before the sun shows its face again.
Before the darkness consumed him, Shackle's eyes found a star.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once
- William Shakespeare