B U R N
USQUE AD MORTEM
"Commander! Commander Pike!"
Several heads swerved in surprise as the messenger came barging in on the Assembly. One burly black tom leaped to his paws, opening his mouth in a snarl, but was cut off before he could say anything.
"Silence, Zorius. Let us hear what news he brings us." The brown she-cat who'd spoken was not the largest, strongest, or by any means prettiest cat in the room, yet she was clearly the leader. Her luminous golden eyes appeared sharper thanks to the abrupt slope of her sharp, prominent muzzle -- rather similar to the pointed nose of the fish she was named after -- and her claws were abnormally long; even sheathed, their wickedly sharp points clicked against the ground.
The messenger looked like he'd run miles to deliver his message; his flanks were stained with sweat and his breath came in gasps. He cast a scared look around the Assembly, as if worried about their reactions, and then blurted, "He's dead."
A crack appeared in the cool facade of Pike's face. She stepped forward, looking ready to seize the messenger and shake him. "Who's dead?" she demanded.
The room erupted into murmuring, the cats of the Assembly shifting nervously and exchanging shocked glances. The color drained from the Commander's face. "No . . . No! Did the scouts intercept him? Do we know what he wanted to tell us before he was captured?"
Positively cowering now, the messenger shook his head. "No. He was dead when found."
The Commander's scream of frustration and rage made several cats jump.
"What are we supposed to do now?" cried one cream she-cat. "We have nothing against the Scepter, nothing at all."
The entire chamber fell silent at once. Commander Pike's keen gaze swept the Assembly as though personally assessing each member for any sign of weakness, which they all immediately sought to hide. "We will proceed with our mission. We will find a new way of bringing the Scepter down. Warren's information might be lost, but we will rediscover it, because his spirit lives on. We will never let this go."
A strange smile spread across the Commander's face, a smile that made her look twice as dangerous as when she was wearing her normal grim expression. There was a strange bloodthirstiness in her face, an overeager zeal, like a fire simmering just beneath her skin. She turned on the messenger and flung out a paw, pointing. He nearly tripped over his own tail scrambling backward.
"Him. Cats like him. Our youth. We will raise up a new generation for Shield. The fight will never die," she hissed.
"Usque ad mortem. Until death."
"Excuse me, excuse me, could you please . . . Oh, that's it! Out of my way! Move!"
Abandoning my attempt at being polite, I began throwing legs and pushing my way to the front of the crowd of young cats standing outside the Academy building. "What's going on?" I said, panting as I reached the front of the circle of cats.
A pretty caramel-furred she-cat gave me a rueful look. "A fight, what else? Oh, it's you, Ginger -- listen, don't --"
Too late. I'd already spotted who was in the thick of the fight. "Grayson?"
"He's an idiot." Kenna rolled her eyes, though she looked worried.
"And Tyson," I said with a sigh, as I spotted her boyfriend's black pelt. "Of course."
Spotting my claws coming unsheathed, Kenna said urgently, "Listen, Ginger, it's really best if you stayed out of this. You know how Al and his crew are. Let the toms--"
"Look who it is! Ginger!" called a jeering voice. A thickly-built orange tom named Al emerged from the cloud of dust rising from the fighting toms. "Here to join the fun?"
At the sound of my name, both Tyson and Grayson turned around. Tyson shot Kenna an apologetic look and a sheepish grin, while Grayson looked extremely irritated. "Yo, Ginger, can you just screw off?"
"Nice way to greet your best friend," I snapped. "I was about to jump in and save you from getting your tail kicked--"
"I don't need your help-- Oof!" Grayson's jaw hit the ground as Al stepped on him.
Blood raring in my veins, I stepped into the center of the circle. "Al, why don't you pick on someone who can actually fight?"
A chorus of oohs and snickers rippled around the circle of watching cats. I heard Kenna let out a moan, but I ignored this. Grayson's face turned red and he began struggling furiously under Al's paws. "Gerroff, you fat lump!"
"Let him up!" I snarled.
"Calm down, Ginger. With your fur all fluffed up like that, you look as bat crazy as your idiot mother--"
I socked him in the face so hard that my paw made a cracking noise. Al careened off Grayson, slamming into Tyson, who'd been wrestling with one of Al's posse, a gangly she-cat called Bridge.
"Oh, you are going to pay for that," hissed Al, spitting blood.
Grayson got to his paws, avoiding my eyes. His right eye was swelling, and his ear dripped blood. I thought about asking if he was okay, but avoided the urge; he'd only get angrier, and besides, I had other things to worry about at that second. Al came charging towards me, and I barely managed to sidestep him; his shoulder slammed mine, knocking me off-kilter. I recovered quickly, dropped to the ground, and was preparing to deliver a swift kick to his knees when a shout cut through the clamor of the crowd.
"Stop! Stop right this instant!"
My heart sank. A dark gray she-cat was striding towards us, the crowd parting before her like water. When she came to where I, Tyson, Grayson, Al, and Al's friends lay crouched in the dust, covered in blood and dirt, her lip curled. "Fighting. More fighting. All of you are repeat offenders."
"Not another word, Tyson." Professor Merry, normally the most laid-back, kind she-cat in the world, looked furious. "All of you are suspended for a week. I don't want to see you back at the Academy till you've learned to contain yourselves."
"What?" I spluttered without thinking. "But Professor, Al started-"
"Do you want me to make it two weeks? I'm so disappointed in you, Ginger," said Professor Merry. I could see she genuinely meant that, and the hurt in her brown eyes hurt more than the punishment.
The subdued crowd dispersed, trudging after Professor Merry to get to class. Kenna was the only one who stayed.
"Happy?" Al snarled. His eyes locked with mine. "You're crow-food, Ginger. Utter rubbish. You're going to grow up to be exactly like your mother."
He and his posse rejoined; as they walked away, I heard them already making plans for how they were going to waste their "time off" from the Academy.
Tyson let out a loud groan and buried his face in his paws. "Suspended. Oh, stars above. My parents are going to kill me."
"Then you shouldn't've joined," said Grayson cuttingly.
"I was just trying to help, man. It's what friends do."
"I didn't need your help. Or yours," Grayson added, glaring at me.
"Yes, you did. You can't keep going off whenever someone mentions Warren's name, okay, you need to--"
"Hark who's talking! I suppose I should exercise the same self-control you show whenever someone brings up your mother?"
I grit my teeth. "That's different. You know why."
"Yeah, we get it, Al's father and your mother are together and you don't like it. Same difference, right? We both have dysfunctional families; my brother's dead and your mother's unhinged--"
"SHUT UP!" I exploded.
"Ginger, don't, it's not worth it, both of you," pleaded Kenna. Her eyes were filling with tears.
Seeing Kenna hurt was the one thing that Tyson wouldn't stand for. He wrapped his tail around her and drew her close, giving us a murderous look. "Kenna, they're not worth it. Come on, I'll walk you back to class. Will you come home with me tonight when I tell my parents what happened? If you're there as a witness, they might not be willing to brutally murder me for getting suspended . . ."
And then it was just Grayson and I, Kenna and Tyson having wandered off doing their annoying thing of overcoming any obstacle through their pure and adorable love for each other.
Grayson swiped at his cut ear irritably, trying to stop the bleeding, but only succeeded in smudging red down his face.
I snorted. "Let me." I licked his ear till the flow of blood slowed.
"Thanks," he said to the ground. It was a long time before he added, "For helping, too."
"No problem." Then, "Al's a jerk."
"Yeah." Grayson snorted. "Sometimes I wish I . . . I dunno, even. That Warren wasn't my brother? No. Then what?" His face contorted sourly. "Probably sound crazy, talking to myself."
"No more crazy than my mom, I guess," I said.
He flinched. "I'm sorry, Ginger."
"Least you're honest, instead of talking about it behind my back."
"I shouldn't have said it. It isn't true. Your mother has been through a lot."
"Grayson, my mother's least offensive trespass is being with Al's father. What does that say about her?"
"I dunno. My brother's suspected of being a traitor and defector, and a bad one, too, 'cause he got killed doing it. What does that say about him?"
"It doesn't matter; it doesn't say anything about you, and that's the important thing."
Mustering a feeble smile, Grayson said, "Hey, look on the bright side. We've got the week off school."
"Yeah. And unlike Tyson's parents, my mom won't care what I do."
"Ah. Swinging on vines into the Meridian River? Rolling down the Sun Hills? Exploring the Ghost Woods in the dead of night? There is no limit to the adventures we could have!"
I laughed. "Not the last one."
"Scaredy-cat," he taunted.
"Says the tom who screamed when Kenna said hi to him this morning."
"You guys crept up on me!"
I grinned, and he grinned back. Just like that, order was restored. That was the nice thing about having Tyson and Kenna as friends; they were the nice ones, so Grayson and I could be the jerks. Our fights rarely lasted more than a few minutes; in fact, I could think of only one time we'd actually not spoken to each other for days.
"Where do you want to go now? Home?"
I shuddered. "Please. So I can practice looking at Al's father and not throwing up? Or see him smirk when he realizes I got thrown out of school because of his son?"
"I won't deny that Al hates you; he hates both of us. But do you really think his dad hates you? He's not that bad."
"He's an ugly, lazy, useless--"
"Okay, okay. I get the picture," sighed Grayson. "How about Thistle Fields?"
Thistle Fields was a large expanse of messy, overgrown grass and weeds; it was a popular hangout for young cats of all shapes and sizes, offering shelter to talk with friends, spend time with significant others, or play games that any adult cat would frown upon.
We crested the first hill and looked down on the sea of green-gray. "We could run on forever, just screaming our lungs out," I said dreamily.
"Don't be silly. Eventually we'd use up all the oxygen in the entire world and die -- or fall off the edge of the earth."
"Yes, of course, how stupid of me to forget those possibilities," I smirked.
"Okay, I have a better idea. We carry Al to the edge of the earth."
"And throw him into the Sun," I said approvingly.
"Er, yeah, okay, sure."
"Why does he hate us so much?" Grayson wondered, after a slight pause.
"Because Al loves normalcy and conformity, and we annoy him with our social reject-ness and inability to function normally."
Letting out a bitter laugh, Grayson said, "Gosh, I wonder why we're so messed up. Anyway, you forgot the Scepter. He loves the Scepter, which is why he hates me."
"You don't know that Warren was a traitor."
Grayson was silent. I gave him a keen look. "Do you?"
"I wonder . . . He had contacts, he used to disappear for days at a time and never told us where he went . . ."
"That doesn't mean anything. He was older than you; of course he wanted time alone."
"Yeah. Still. The Scepter really suspected him, didn't they? Probably why they--"
"Don't say they killed him. His death was an accident."
"Never got fully explained, though."
"The boulder came loose."
"Sure looked like someone pushed it."
"Look, I get it. You want answers. You don't want the explanation to just be, 'Oh, sorry, your brother's death was a tragic accident.' It seems wrong that he's just gone because of something like that. But sometimes that's the way it is. It doesn't mean he was a spy or a traitor, it doesn't mean there's some secret conspiracy behind it all."
Scowling, Grayson said, "Yeah, but that just makes me want to know the truth more. Because otherwise I've endured all the rumors and snide comments by idiots like Al for no reason."
"Al doesn't know what he's talking about."
"Then why do I always get the feeling he knows more about Warren's death than I do?" asked Grayson darkly.
"Because he specializies in lying."
Grayson shook his head. "I can't explain why, I just have a feeling Warren's death had more to it than what we were told. And I have to figure it out, or I'll never get any closure."
I shrugged. "You're too stubborn for your own good. But if you want to investigate, you know I'll help."
"You're home late."
"Don't be ridiculous. It's only midnight."
"Ginger. Don't speak to me that way."
I stopped in the middle of our den and whirled on my mother. "Oh, so it's like that? We're pretending you ever care when I get home or what I do?"
Ignoring the injured look on my mother's tired features, I said, "You're not the only one who tries to cope with ghosts the wrong way. Leave me alone."
"I don't think you should address your mother that way," said the overweight ginger tom sitting beside my mother.
"I don't care what you think, Greg."
"That's it. Ginger, you're staying home tomorrow--"
"Wrong. I'm staying home everyday this week. I got suspended."
I smiled serenely, getting a vindictive sort of pleasure at the distraught expression on my mother's face. "Sorry, you're stuck with my company for a little longer than usual. Don't worry, I'll spend most of the time with Grayson, anyway."
"That's another thing I wanted to talk to you about. You need to spend less time with that tom, Ginger."
"And so do I," said Greg, giving me an ingratiating smile.
"Greg has connections with the Scepter Assembly--"
"Oh, what a fun and trustworthy bunch they are," I said sarcastically.
"More trustworthy than your friend. Surely you've heard the rumors about his brother."
I fought back the urge to fire back that I was too busy keeping track of all the rumors about her and her odd behavior. "I have, but I don't believe them. I know his family. You used to, too."
"Which is precisely why I agree with Greg; they're not the sort of cats you want to be associated with." A dark, burning thunderstorm sort of look came into my mother's eyes, a strange change from the vacant space that usually filled them. Before I could be sure that the cloud had truly existed, it had vanished.
"I'm done talking. Good night."
My mother didn't respond. She was looking at me in a vague, dazed sort of fashion, like she'd forgotten who I was. I winced, and said more softly, "Sweet dreams."
"Sweet as honey, honey from flowers," she said in a bemused, almost child-like tone. Greg drew her close and tucked her under his chin; I looked away before I threw up all over the pair of them.
"Is Al staying with us tonight?" Greg asked me.
"Nope," I said curtly. "Thank the stars for small mercies," I added under my breath.
Heaving a little sigh -- it was exhausting being so bitter all the time -- I dropped into my nest and let my eyes slam shut.
* * *
"I still can't believe you all ditched me," Kenna pouted.
The four of us were sitting on a small hill at the edge of Thorn Fields, watching the sun come up, Kenna with her head on Tyson's shoulder.
"We didn't ditch you. We got expelled," pointed out Grayson reasonably.
She sighed. "Still. I have to sit next to Heather and partner with her for training exercises now."
Perking up in interest, Grayson said, "Lucky."
"Lucky? She's such a priss."
"She's seriously gorgeous, though," said Grayson musingly.
I nudged him. "Want me to pick your tongue up off the floor so you don't trip over it?"
"Be quiet. I'd give anything to be her partner in training," he said, a roguish glint entering his eyes. "I've had a crush on her since like . . . the moment I laid eyes on her."
"Of course. Have you ever even spoken to her?" said Kenna disapprovingly.
"Hey, go easy on him. I've learned not to underestimate the power of a beautiful she-cat," said Tyson, touching his nose to hers.
I mimed projectile vomiting behind the two of them, and Grayson gave me a crooked smile. "Ginger's just bitter 'cause she's got no love life of her own."
"Why would I want one? Greg and my mother have spoiled that stuff forever for me. I don't really want kits, either, so what's the point of romance?"
"Fair point. Heather and I will visit you when we're mates," offered Grayson. "Keep you from getting too lonely."
I cackled. "Keep dreaming, freak."
Kenna let out a sigh. "I should get to class . . ."
"What a loser. Have fun with Heather," I smirked.
She stuck her tongue out at me. "I won't have to do much with her today, I don't think. Professor Merry mentioned that we were having some guests from the Scepter Assembly visiting."
"What?" I wrinkled my nose. "What do those bigshots want with the Academy and a bunch of juvenile delinquents?"
"There are no delinquents anymore; you got suspended," Kenna reminded me with a giggle. "And I think they want to test us or something. I guess they want to make sure our training is up to scratch; we're the future of the nation, after all."
I shook my head sadly. "But I'm not there! Professor Merry didn't do herself a favor by suspending her best student right before an evaluation."
"I know, right. She shouldn't have suspended me," said Tyson cockily.
"Unbelievable." Kenna shook her head at us. "Bye, you guys. Don't get into too much trouble without me..."
"Us?" I feigned offense, batting my eyelashes at her. "Kenna, we would never, ever, ever--"
"Yeah, yeah." She brushed her cheek against Tyson's. "I love you."
"Love you too!" I called in a sappy voice.
"Eat crow-food, Ginger!" she called over her shoulder as she jogged away.
Grayson stood and stretched till his joints popped. "What now?" he said, giving a sigh of contentment.
Tyson, who was staring after Kenna with a slightly lost expression on his face, mumbled, "Don't care."
"Do you even remember who you were before you were with Kenna?"
"Unbelievable. Y'all are disgusting. But it's cute," Grayson said, laughing at the appalled expression I knew I must be wearing.
Much as I loved Kenna, her absence meant we could do whatever we wanted without the guilty weight of her disapproving gaze on us. We splashed through the river, ate more prey than we had a real right to, considering the recent lack of it and resulting tensions, and dared each other to go into the Ghost Woods (none of us did, not even Grayson, for all his bravado).
A few hours before sundown, Tyson excused himself to pick Kenna up from the Academy and walk her home. Grayson and I raced each other down the gentle slops of Thistle Fields, yelling and hooting like a pair of utter nutcases, enjoying the burn in our lungs and the slice of wind across our faces, only stopping when a sharp pain in my right front paw forced me to.
Still panting for breath, we sat in a dense patch of dandelions while Grayson attempted to dislodge the thorn from my paw. "Ouch!" I swore loudly as his teeth accidentally bumped it in deeper.
"I am holding still. Ugh, stop being such a pansy and just pull it out! You're making it worse with all your fiddling around."
"It's gonna hurt."
"Whatever. I can deal."
He gripped the thorn firmly with the edges of his teeth and yanked.
I stifled a yelp as blood spurted out the small puncture, and stuck my paw in my mouth.
"Well, now that you've sustained a life-threatening injury, we should probably get back home," said Grayson.
I groaned. "No. Just no. I can't deal with Greg and whatsherface."
"Whatsherface meaning Hazel? Also known as your mother?"
Ignoring this, I said, "You know what would be nice? Staying out late enough to watch all the stars come out."
Grayson laughed. "Like we did when we were kits all the time?"
I didn't answer. I knew he was probably remembering the same thing as I was: the two of us snuggled against Warren's side -- he'd been slightly younger than we were now back then -- as he pointed out the constellations to us and told us extravagant, hyperbolic stories about each one that he probably invented himself. Grayson's parents were sweet but overprotective; Warren had been the cool older brother, and he always treated me like a little sister -- and tolerated the obsessive, now embarrassing crush I'd had on him for a few short weeks. (Yes, contrary to what Grayson insisted, I was capable of some emotion.)
Sometimes, I thought Grayson forgot that he wasn't the only one who'd lost Warren. Who still lay wake at night at times, wondering how such a wonderful, warm soul could be extinguished as easily as a firefly is crushed. I got that it was hard to talk about, but maybe Grayson would heal more quickly if he let the wound open first.
Tonight, Grayson obliged like I'd known he would. By the time the sun was down, the two of us were lying comfortably on the highest hill of Thistle Fields. I won the competition to spot the first star, which meant I got to make up the first story.
"Okay, see those two stars over there? The little ones? They're the two cubs, and that cluster of stars is the momma. And all those beautiful strips of stars, the ones that are really far-off, are fish leaping out of the water. The momma bear's name is Eden, and she's feeding her sons, Warren and Grayson, 'cause she'd do anything for them no matter what."
There was a long beat of silence. Then Grayson said, "You're a lot nicer in starlight."
"You're a lot less ugly when I can't see your face," I retorted. "Now come up with a good story."
"Fine, fine. Okay, that smudgy star up there is a dumpy she-cat called Ginger -- OW! Take it easy, would you? D'you see the stars all in a circle? That's the Scepter. . ." He trailed off.
A single, blazing streak had shot straight through the middle of the circle of stars he'd been talking about. A fiery shooting star, right in the heart of the Scepter. Neither of us knew what to make of it.
After several minutes, I said, "Do you ever wonder if Warren had his reasons? For what he did? Sort of like my dad... Some cats just can't fit society's expectations. Sometimes I feel like that, too. . . . Grayson?"
A soft snore tickled my ear. "Wow," I grumbled, curling up against his lanky frame. "And too bony to even be a pillow -- useless even in sleep," I added in complaint.
I needn't have worried, though. Before I had a chance to so much as close my eyes, the thud of approaching pawsteps interrupted the peace of the night and had me standing up, straining to see the figure charging towards me.
"Tyson? What's wrong?"
The black tom's face was a mask of shock and fear. I didn't know how he'd found us; he didn't seem to know either, for he barely seemed to see me. "I didn't think she meant it!" he yelled in my face abruptly. "They only . . . weren't supposed to . . ." He gasped for air, his eyes bulging.
"What's going on? Stop sputtering nonsense!" I yelled, so loudly that Grayson gave a great gasp and jolted awake at my paws.
"Kenna. It's Kenna," said Tyson, and I felt my heart turn to ice. "She was so scared and sad after classes today -- I didn't know why, all she said was that the tests were a lot harder than she thought, and she did horribly . . . I said we could do something special for supper to cheer her up, but she never showed up, and her parents haven't seen her . . . Oh! I should never have let her go off on her own, this is all my fault."
"You couldn't have known. For all we know, nothing happened to her," I tried soothingly.
But Tyson was already shaking his head. "I've checked everywhere, a million times. It's past moonhigh; Kenna would never stay away this late without letting her parents know. Something's happened to her."
I knew he was right.
Grayson, who'd been growing steadily paler while Tyson spoke but who wore a surprisingly calm expression as he got to his paws, said, "Is there any trail? Any sign of a fight, anything to go off of?"
"I didn't do a thorough search," admitted Tyson shamefacedly. "I was so frantic, I could easily have missed something."
"We'll start where you two separated and trace her pawsteps," I said decisively. I lay my tail on Tyson and gave him a quick squeeze. "It's going to be okay," I whispered. "We'll find her."
Flanking Tyson on the other side, Grayson gave a nod. "Lead the way."
The short-lived peace of the day shattered, the three of us forged our way into the night.
Not having Kenna with us was like trying to walk on three legs. It completely threw off the balance of our little group. Without her calm demeanor and patient peacemaking, Grayson and I argued about once every two seconds. Tyson was no help; he kept glancing over his shoulder at every sound, so that he looked like he had a constant twitch.
We had traced Kenna to a brook a couple miles away from her home, but the trail was hard to pick up after that; the brook was a popular spot and the scents of dozens of cats clung to its banks.
Out of the three of us, Grayson was definitely the best tracker, so we decided to let him do his thing -- though, true to nature, I couldn't help hanging around his shoulder, pestering him with questions and suggestions that he ignored.
Letting out a snort of frustration, he said, "It's useless. There's just too many conflicting trails..."
"We've got to find her." I glanced back at Tyson, who was staring into the rippling brook as if seriously contemplating drowning himself in it. "For ourselves as much as her."
"I know that, Ginger." Grayson looked like he was fighting back the urge to say something rude; he glared at me and added, "Look, I know you want to help, but you have to learn to stop breathing down other cats' necks."
Outraged, I started to protest, but he cut me off. "Why don't you go get Tyson out of his daze? When I pick up the trail -- and I will, don't give me that look -- he needs to be ready to move."
I hesitated, then nodded. "Work fast."
Rolling his eyes in mingled amusement and annoyance, he said, "I will."
I padded over to Tyson and touched my tail to his shoulder. "Hey."
"Hey." He didn't look at me.
"Ty, we're gonna find her."
"She could be anywhere. I don't understand -- she seemed so upset about that stupid test . . . Do you think something happened with the cats from the Scepter Assembly?"
I felt a twinge of unease. "Maybe, but let's not jump to conclusions."
Now he looked up, but I could tell he barely saw me. "That's not good enough, Ginger."
"You can't help her by sitting here and freaking out," I pointed out truthfully, if a little insensitively. "You need to be alert. So snap out of it."
Tyson blinked, a bit taken aback, but some of the fog had dissippated from his eyes. "Okay," he whispered.
"Guys!" called Grayson sharply.
No further summons were necessary; I was nearly bulldozed as Tyson rushed past. The two toms were already trotting quickly along the wake of a trail that only Grayson could detect. I tried walking beside Grayson, tried to see and smell what he was seeing and smelling, but he moved too fast for me; I had barely begun sifting scents when he said confidently, "This way," and changed course.
After a few moments of zigzagging in silence, Tyson said nervously, "Does it seem like she was just walking, or . . ." He trailed off, apparently wrestling with thoughts too terrible to say aloud.
Grayson's eyes met mine, and I gave him a look that said, Just tell him the truth. "There were other cats with her. And it does look like she was being taken . . . unwillingly."
Tyson didn't reply. A grim look in his eyes and a tightening of his jaw were the only indicators he'd even heard Grayson.
The three of us settled into a deeper, thicker silence than before. An hour passed; it had to be around midnight by now. I glanced up at the sky every now and then, wondering if my mother and Greg had even noticed I'd never come home. Probably not.
Of course, I couldn't dwell on this for more than a few seconds. How could I feel sorry for myself when Kenna was missing? The stone of fear that had settled in my stomach the second Tyson had come to get Grayson and I had swelled into a boulder.
When Grayson stopped and let out a soft cry, it took me a few heartbeats to locate the source of his dismay.
Lifeless shapes in the grass, almost unnoticeable in the darkness of the night -- except to Grayson's keen gaze.
The toms seemed frozen to the spot, but I stumbled forward, I had to know.
I reached the first cat. A dark gray she-cat, her eyes wide open and glassy, reflecting stars they would never see again. I felt a flare of relief, then felt disgusted with myself.
Grayson checked the other shapes; there were four bodies in all. "None of them are Kenna," he said, and Tyson let out a weak groan, his knees giving out as he sunk to the floor.
"But who are they? What did this?"
"I think you mean who," said Grayson darkly, examining the form of a black tom. "These are the marks of a cat's claws."
"They're Scepter cats," I said. "They have the tattoo." I pointed to a blue-black cross -- made with dye from crushed berries -- just above the gray she-cat's right front paw.
"And I don't think their killers liked the Scepter very much," said Grayson, sounding revolted.
I walked over to him and peered down at the black tom he stood over. My stomach turned over; I was willing to bet anything that the tom had had the Scepter's mark too, but someone had chewed his paw till it was mangled and bloody; there was no skin left to bear the tattoo. He, too, had been killed like the she-cat, cut open.
"The other two are the same. That one," he nodded at a small calico, too small to be lying dead and alone in the middle of the night in a foreign field, "was a clean cut, but the other one was all chewed up too, like it was some kind of sick game."
"A hate crime," I said softly.
"Not just that," said Tyson; both Grayson and I jumped, having momentarily forgotten about him. "Kenna might not be here, but this is where her trail led."
A low laugh rumbled from somewhere out in the grass. "So that's who you're looking for. Pretty-Eyes."
"Who's there?" asked Grayson sharply, our sides brushing as we squared off into the shadows.
Her eyes emerged first, glowing an eerily bright shade of yellow. Then the rest of her, and I raked my gaze over her quickly -- disheveled black fur, walked with a slight limp, crooked, protruding teeth that stuck out of her mouth when it was closed, like white needle-fangs.
"You can call me Gertie."
"Who are you? Did you see our friend? Kenna?"
"Pretty Eyes." She nodded. "I saw her."
Her head kept bobbing up and down, and I got the impression she was still laughing at us, though she wasn't making a single noise. "Where is she? Where did she go?" Grayson demanded.
"They took her." She pointed at the four dead cats.
"She escaped?" Tyson asked.
At the same time, I blurted, "She killed them?"
Gertie burst out laughing. "Kill them? Unconscious, wasn't she? How she coulda killed 'em is beyond me. No siree, she did not kill 'em. Angel faces like hers don't kill. But someone sure did kill 'em, yes siree."
"Who? Who killed them?"
She squinted at Grayson. "Why do young'uns insist on askin' so many questions all the time?"
He sniffed. "I hardly think I should answer that one, if you won't answer any of mine. Please. It's important; we have to find our friend, she's been kidnapped."
"I know that. Watched the whole thing."
"Why didn't you do anything?" cried Tyson.
She swung her yellow beam gaze on him. "Do anything? Against the Scepter cats and the Shield cats? Neither of them care a bit about old Gertie, and they wouldn't hesitate to kill me. Me interferin' would only have made 'em mad, made things worse for Pretty Eyes."
"The Shield cats?" I repeated. "Why does . . . That sounds familiar." I glanced at Grayson to see if he recognized the name too, but his face had gone incredibly pale, and he was determinedly avoiding my eyes.
"Of course it sounds familiar. Mebbe you ain't as stupid as you look."
I glowered at Gertie. "Did the Shield cats kill them? The Scepter cats?"
"No siree, not nearly as stupid as you look . . . Of course the Shield cats killed 'em. S'what they live to do."
"Kill cats from the Scepter? But then the Shield--"
"We don't care about your rubbish tales, old cat," interrupted Grayson harshly. "Just tell us where they took Kenna, whoever they are."
Gertie sized us up. "And what'll you give me?"
"Give you? Don't you have any goodness in your heart?"
"Ginger," Tyson said warningly; he seemed to think I was about to ruin our one chance of finding Kenna. "What do you want?" he asked Gertie.
She cackled. "Smart tom. Old Gertie don't want much, y'know."
"We'll be the judges of that," mumbled Grayson under his breath, looking doubtful.
"Gertie's got a problem. Problem's got a pointy nose and a bushy tail and red fur, all sleek and shiny. Problem lives just below the small rock ridge down yonder" she flicked her tail, indicating the spot, barely visible in the night "and has been a real trouble to me, bein' old and not able to outrun him and all."
"Just so we're clear, Problem is a fox?"
"'Course he is. And a smart one, too. I'd be mighty indebted if you managed to get rid of him for me."
"And you'll tell us where Kenna went?" pressed Tyson.
"We could just track her," I whispered urgently. "I'm not risking my neck for a crazy old she-cat in the middle of the night--"
"Ginger, we've got no choice," pleaded Tyson. "It's not just about finding Kenna -- the more we know about who took her and why she was taken, the better chance we've got of rescuing her."
None of us could bear to think otherwise, that Kenna was in a way that we couldn't rescue her. It was too horrible to contemplate for even a second.
"Okay," I said finally, turning to Gertie. "We'll do it."
"What's the plan?"
We crouched at the top of the ridge, looking down the steep face and craning our necks to see if the fox would appear: it didn't, of course. "I was hoping you had a plan," Grayson said, nudging me.
"Me? You're the smart one."
"That's not true. You can be smart when you want to," he shrugged off my words. "Anyway, it's the three of us against a fox. We've got to come up with something clever, because I am not dying for Gertie."
"If the fox is in its den -- and I really hope it is, 'cause this'll take all night if it isn't -- we've got to lure it out," pointed out Tyson.
"Right, who wants to be bait?"
"Me," I offered immediately. I wasn't particularly interested in being chased or eaten by a fox, but having me be the lure made the most sense; my orange pelt stood out more than Grayson's gray fur or Tyson's black fur, and I was quick-moving and small.
Grayson made a small, disparaging sound in his throat, and my hackles rose in irritation. "Listen, genius, we don't have time to come up with one of your many-staged, ultra-complex plans. We need to kill the stupid fox and get Gertie to tell us who killed the Scepter cats and took Kenna. And here's how we're going to do it. I'll get the fox out of its den, and you guys rush it," I said as quickly as possible, as if by slurring all the words together I would smudge over the gaping faults and holes in my plan.
Before Grayson could start on the list of protests I knew he had already assembled in his mind, Tyson elbowed past us. "Let's go. Grayson, you go around on the left, I'll take the right."
"And I'll take a graceful dive off the ridge, right in front of the front door; that should catch the fox's attention fairly quickly," I said. Grayson snorted, then scowled when he saw I wasn't kidding.
"Don't get killed. Both of you," he said. "Hey, seriously, guys, Ginger--"
"There's no time, Grayson," I said. Tyson had already disappeared, sneaking down the right side of the ridge in a large half-loop.
Blowing out a gust of breath, Grayson nodded, gave me one last worried look, and went to take his position.
I stood at the edge of the ridge and counted silently in my head, forcing myself not to rush, focusing on the little things -- the grass rustling around me, the gentle breeze on my face -- so that I wouldn't jump too quick.
When I was sure that both Grayson and Tyson were in position, I took a deep breath, gathered my muscles and centered my weight, and launched myself off the ridge.
For a second, I seemed to hang in the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark shape of my shadow block the moonlight from shining on the ground beneath me. My claws stretched towards the sky, as if I were aiming to catch a star.
Then gravity kicked in. The ground rushed up at me with surprising alacrity; I barely had time to prepare myself for the landing, and went rolling through the grass, making enough noise to wake the dead.
It certainly woke our intended target. As I got to my paws again, shaking out the parts of me that felt sore and bruised from the tumble, I saw a pair of glinting eyes gazing at me from the darkness of the cave built into the side of the ridge. A long, dark red snout poked out from the cave entrance, the black nose sniffing the air, the jaws parted slightly.
For the first time in my life, I understood what it was like to be the prey, not the predator, the hunted instead of the hunter. Adrenaline kicked in; it felt like my veins were buzzing. The fox stepped out of its cave.
The normal shyness of the solitary animal was replaced by an almost feverish hunger. I noted that I could see its ribs through its pelt; it looked like it hadn't eaten well in weeks, maybe moons. That wasn't a good sign; a hungry fox was a desperate one.
The fox began to growl; it was a low, keening sound that was half-bay, half-snarl. I tensed, preparing for the chase.
And it sprang. Away we went, me pumping my legs like a rabbit, sheer terror and the sound of snapping jaws behind me propelling me over the field.
I heard a loud yelp, abruptly cut off, and dared to turn.
Tyson had cannoned into the fox's side, knocking it to the ground. Hunger, it turned out, could also be an advantage; the fox was weakened from its period of slow starvation. Grayson leaped onto its side and clamped his jaws on its throat.
The fox's survival instincts were not weakened by any means, though. It placed its paws on Grayson's chest and shoved him off; he staggered, spitting blood out of his mouth.
As the fox began advancing on him, I sneaked around the side and threw myself onto its back. Coarse red hairs and soft skin gave way to flesh and blood under my claws. The fox bayed in pain and tried to buck me off, but Tyson had grabbed it by the underside of its jaw, right where its throat connected with its head, and was dragging its nose-first to the ground.
The fox shuddered once, and I heard the sound of blood gushing. It shuddered, then buckled beneath me.
Grayson prodded it once. "It's dead," he proclaimed.
I clambered off its back and was shocked to find that I could barely stand: I was shaking so hard. Tyson dislodged his fangs from the fox's throat and wiped his mouth, looking disgusted.
"It was starving. Crazy with hunger," I said in an unsettled tone.
I continued staring at the body, unable to tear my eyes away. "It shouldn't."
"It's a fox, Ginger, you can't honestly be feeling sorry for--"
"No," I said impatiently. "I mean, this is a great hunting ground." I gestured to the grassy field all around us. "There must be tons of prey."
"Maybe it's old or sick," suggested Grayson, though I knew that he of all cats, with his unfailing observation skills, must know that neither of these things was true.
"Who cares? Let's go tell Gertie. Ding dong, the fox is dead." Tyson began bounding up towards the ridge.
Grayson and I followed more slowly. "You okay?"
"It just feels like we killed a weakened creature for no reason."
"It was dying anyway," he pointed out.
"Don't get me wrong. I want to find Kenna. But . . . how do we even know we can trust Gertie?"
"We don't." Grayson sighed. "Right now, though, this is our only shot."
Tyson was standing near the four Specter cats' corpses with Gertie, awaiting us. "Well, this is pleasant. Think we can negotiate away from the freaking dead bodies?" inquired Grayson as we approached them.
"Goin' to see a lot more dead bodies if you actually stupid enough to go after your friend. Get used to it," leered Gertie.
I did not like this old she-cat one bit. "Just tell us what we need to know."
"It was a rescue mission. The Shield took her thataway" she flicked her tail northwards, in the direction of Rockfyre, the abandoned stone stronghold that cats had lived in seasons and seasons ago "but I have no clue if they'll make it there alive."
"They're rebels, aren't they?" I asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Grayson shoot me a covert, darting look.
Gertie blinked and said evenly. "Don't know nothin' bout no rebels."
"But . . . can't you just--"
"No. Won't catch me giving myself up, no siree. Know what the price is for talking 'bout treason? They kill you -- they kill everyone you love -- they hunt you down--"
"We get it," interrupted Grayson harshly. I knew he was thinking of Warren, of the mystery that had never been solved about his brother's loyalties. "We don't really care if the Shield are rebels or not; the less we know about that, the better, 'cause we can't afford to be incriminated. But what do they want with Kenna?"
"Haven't I just said? In their minds, they rescued her from the Scepter."
"What did the Scepter want with her?" asked Tyson. "The Assembly cats sent to the Academy were only supposed to be there for testing . . ."
A dark shadow passed over Gertie's face. "I can't say nothin' more. But if ever in the future you three wanna know what the Scepter's heart is like, go to the Ghost Woods."
We exchanged looks. "The Ghost Woods? That's just . . . tales to scare kits," I said hesitantly.
"But you've never gone in there, have you?"
I paused, then shook my head.
"Of course you haven't. Ain't no cat with a grain of star-given instinct would go in those there woods. It's terrible."
"What? Why did those cats" -- Tyson indicated the four dead Scepter cats -- "want to take her there?"
"Sonny, when you've lived long as I have, you'll know that there are some truths not worth saying."
"So you just pretend whatever it is doesn't happen," I said cuttingly.
Gertie did not look the least bit concerned by my disapproval. "I used to be idealistic and young like you." She let out a short-lived cackle. "Crazy fools. Go find your friends."
She didn't thank us for killing the fox, which now seemed like an incredibly high price to pay for very little information. We couldn't afford the time it would take to complain, though, so we just marched away from her, towards the distant spires of Rockfyre.
"Pool our information. What do we know?" I asked the other two, mostly to take my mind off of reliving the scene of killing the fox.
"Rockfyre. Before the Scepter, it was a shelter for many cats, back when cats lived in Clans. Now it's abandoned -- or supposed to be, according to the Scepter," rattled off Grayson immediately.
"And it's treason to go near it," I finished with a soft sigh.
I hadn't forgotten about Grayson's reactions to any mention of rebel activity, but I didn't want to bring it up, not when he kept flinching whenever anyone mentioned the Shield. Warren had been kind, loving, spirited . . . I didn't blame Grayson for not wanting to tarnish his brother's memory with accusations of betrayal.
"What'll we do when we get there? If the Shield, or whoever, are using Rockfyre as a base, it's going to be impenetrable. The place is literally a fortress," I said.
"They might not want to keep her. They might've been trying to rescue her, protect her from the Scepter."
I stared at Tyson like he was an extraterrestrial. "They're a rebel group," I said slowly. "They don't protect cats; they want to tear down our entire civilization."
"Then what do they want with Kenna?" he asked desperately. "Surely not much. They might just give her to us."
I sincerely doubted that, if the Shield cats had gone through the trouble of killing the four Scepters who'd kidnapped Kenna and then taken her all the way to Rockfyre, but I didn't say it.
"Stop. We can't keep going. We need to get some sleep," said Grayson randomly. Both Tyson and I halted, but more out of surprise than obedience. I said,
"Are you nuts?" and Tyson was clearly thinking along the same lines.
"Please. We can't get to Rockfyre tonight, there's not a chance. It'll be better in the daylight."
Understanding dawned on Tyson's face. "You two don't have to come. You have families who'll be wondering where you are--"
"Not mine," I said almost reflexively, even forgetting to be bitter.
"That's not it." Grayson looked strangely angry, as if he were hurt Tyson would even suggest he wanted to go home. "But we'll be thinking clearer in the morning. Look at us. We've been up all night, we've just killed a fox . . . We can't storm a stone fortress in this condition. Not to mention we still don't know what we're up against. I'm going to see if I can't find something to eat." He gave Tyson a stern look. "Stay here. Try to rest."
Leaving us to exchange looks of pure disbelief, he strode away.
"He's lost his mind!" Tyson burst out.
I remained silent, staring quizzically at the spot Grayson had vanished into the grass. Something wasn't right . . .
An hour passed before Grayson returned. Tyson was lying on the grass; at every movement or small noise, he would twitch and jump. I knew that nothing but the bonds of he and Grayson's lifelong friendship had kept him from going to Rockfyre on his own -- that, and me threatening to pin him to the ground if he even tried.
Nevertheless, no bond was strong enough to prevent Tyson from leaping to his paws when he saw Grayson approaching and whamming Grayson's face with his paw.
To his credit, Grayson didn't even yell; he accepted the blow almost meekly. His steel blue eyes were almost iron gray. Something definitely wasn't right.
"Eat." He gestured to the mouse at his paws. "Split it."
"You can have it," I said to Tyson.
"Ginger," he said loudly. "Just eat it, okay?"
"How come it took you so long to catch a mouse?"
"There's almost no prey in this field. No wonder that fox was starving. It's a wonder Gertie's managed to survive." His tone was casual, but his gaze roved over the grass behind me as he spoke. He was hiding something, something that he'd seen or that had happened while he'd been out hunting. And more, too. Secrets written plain as day, but in a language I didn't understand.
I studied Grayson critically, trying to remember all the sleuthing tips he'd ever given me. "Be observant. All the details, all the little things matter."
And something caught my eye, a dash of pale blue where it didn't belong, smudged on his paws.
"Tyson! Don't eat the mouse!" I shoved the black tom aside roughly and flung the prey away from him.
"I wasn't going to. You think I could stuff my face under these circumstances?" he asked, giving me an injured look that gave way to concern when he saw my expression. "Ginger? What's wrong?"
I pressed against Tyson, squaring off against Grayson. "What's that on your paws?"
Grayson tensed, his eyes flickering down. I saw the realization -- then the guilt, and my heart sank; I'd hoped it wasn't true. "It's nightblue, isn't it?"
Beside me, Tyson let out a quiet gasp. "Where'd you find them? Of course, it might've been easy . . . Your mother knows all about herbs and plants, you would've recognized them immediately. But why? Why would you want to drug us?"
The tone in which he said my name, the quiet pleading, it was as good as a confession. "What's going on?" My voice squeaked on the last word, and I hated myself for the sign of weakness.
Something was nagging at me. Grayson was incredibly intelligent. He was the best tracker and detective I knew. It wasn't like him to be sloppy enough to leave nightblue powder on his paws. That suggested that his attempt wasn't premeditated, that he himself hadn't known he was going to do it, that it was an impulse. But it just didn't make sense. To have him randomly turn against us?
Grayson looked miserable; his eyes were tortured. "You can't go to Rockfyre. Neither of you can. It's not safe."
"And how would you know? No one's been there in so long," said Tyson.
"I'm . . . I've been there." Grayson took a deep breath, and, with the air of someone laying their heart open, said, "I'm part of the Shield."
Finding out my best friend was a traitor was the worst feeling in the world. I felt like someone had rammed an icepick as sharp as a claw through my heart. All I could think was, Warren, Warren, Warren . . . Was it really you, all along?
"No," said Grayson, and I jumped at the sound of his voice. He shuddered. "I didn't let my brother die for me; how could you even think that?"
I used to love the way we could practically read each other's thoughts, a skill testament to our lifelong friendship. Now it scared me. Just who was this cat I thought I knew?
"Warren was part of the Shield."
I took a deep breath. "What was it, some kind of brotherly bonding activity? Go betray the regnants and go hunting on the way home?"
"Ginger," said Tyson in a warning tone. "Take it easy."
I turned to glare at him. "Are you kidding me? Did you know?"
"Of course I didn't! But can't you let him explain?"
"Thank you, Ty," said Grayson, but his eyes never left my face, the look in them pleading; now he was finally meeting my gaze, and I just wanted him to look away. He steadied himself, gulping in air. "Warren was a very important agent in the Shield . . . He was a spy, he was invaluable, but . . ."
"He still died," I whispered.
Flinching, Grayson said, "Yes. Invaluable, not indestructible. But he told me, he told me what I needed to know to continue in his pawsteps."
"What you needed to know?" repeated Tyson.
Pained, Grayson said, "Yeah. Not everything. There wasn't time." His voice was ragged. "I was there. I saw it happen, I saw him die. He came to me first, begged me to protect our parents, to never tell them what their son was -- the Scepter would come after them if they knew. He was making plans to go into hiding, but he was betrayed. One of his friends told the Scepter where to find him; I don't know who. He had to run for it. I followed him. I was too late. They were almost finished with him by the time I got there."
I felt sick. More than questioning, more than demanding answers, I felt the overwhelming urge to pummel the cats who'd killed Warren into a pulp. I stifled it; I wasn't a traitor to my nation. The Scepter, like it or not, were our ruling body of government. I couldn't assassinate Scepters, I couldn't . . . My mind went fuzzy; the images of the four bodies I'd seen earlier played across my eyes, but instead of feeling horrified, I felt a disgusting kind of vindication -- what if they'd killed Warren -- what if--
"So is that why you joined the Shield? For revenge?"
"Good, because it's wrong. Turning against the Scepter. You think Shields are any better? They're rebels, Grayson. Do you know how many cats get hurt in a revolution?"
He swallowed. "You're saying that because of the Great War. But Ginger, things under the Scepter aren't good."
"It's all we've got. If you're so ungrateful you take issue with life itself, you're never going to be happy," I said hotly.
"I want freedom."
"They killed my brother!" bellowed Grayson. Tyson jumped, startled, but I didn't bat an eyelid.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"They executed him, classic Scepter style. They pushed his nose into the dirt. They cut him open."
I swallowed, fighting back the acrid sting of tears. Fighting back the memories: Warren, tucking me into my nest, telling Grayson and I stories about the stars, teaching us how to play moss-ball, stopping by our family's home to chat and joke and hug.
Warren, traitor, a Shield . . .
"Do you know why they took Kenna?" blurted Tyson. Of course: That was why he'd defended Grayson. Connections to the Shield might mean there was hope to get our friend back.
"I didn't want you guys coming with me. I can get into Rockfyre, but you guys can't afford to be linked with the Shield. If I'm ever discovered . . . This is why I never told you." His tongue darted out, wetting his dry mouth. "I can't risk anyone hurting you -- anyone I love."
He really is part of the Shield. He's hid it his whole life, he's had to bear the rumors and the accusations, the weight of his brother's death and the truth about how Warren died, all by himself.
"Grayson . . ."
"I'm so sorry. If there was any way I could've told you--"
I rushed forward and wrapped myself around him. He blinked in surprise, but his tail went around me a heartbeat later. I felt a wall break between us, a wall I hadn't even realized existed. I'd knocked down the prison he'd constructed for himself.
"We'll go to Rockfyre," I said. "We'll get Kenna out. But we have to do it together."
"It's going to be really hard."
I gave him a watery smile, my eyes darting towards Tyson, who was standing awkwardly to the side. I beckoned him over and nudged him with my muzzle. "We'll figure it out. Okay?"
* * *
Tyson, Grayson and I stood side-by-side as the sun spilled over the horizon; we'd ignored Grayson's suggestion of getting some sleep, even after forgiving him for the nightblue thing, and had traveled all night. The sunrise illuminated the enormous rock formation rising out of the ground about a half-mile ahead.
I gulped. Rockfyre was gargantuan. Its rock walls looked unbreachable. It had three spires, which if looked at aerially would form the points of an equal-sided triangle; if I squinted, I could almost see little smudges above them, sentries with a clear view of the surrounding fields, though that could've just been my imagination. It was more than likely, however, that if the Shield had taken up residence at Rockfyre, they had many lookouts, which was why we were crouched under a log in a shallow valley instead of taking the straightforward path towards the entrance.
"You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that trying a stealth operation is going to get us killed," I said.
"What do you suggest? Marching up there and storming the place? With all three of us?" asked Grayson.
"No," I snapped back. "There are other ways. What if we just . . . asked entry? You're a part of their organization!"
"Which is exactly why I know that wouldn't work. You have no idea the kind of security, the level of suspicion, with which they treat outsiders." Anticipating my next protest, he added, "And it doesn't matter that they know me. The stakes are too high for you to even imagine; do you know how vicious the Scepter is towards the slightest hint of rebellion? Multiply that by a hundred, and that's the cost of being part of the Shield if you're caught." His eyes have a wild glint. "You have no idea . . ."
My retort died on my tongue. "Grayson," I said urgently. I had to get him out of the torture chamber of his own mind, or we didn't stand a chance; we needed him. "Think of Kenna," I whispered. "This isn't about the Shield or the Scepter."
He turned away. "Everything in this world is about them."
"Not ours." I looked from him to Tyson. "We are more."
"Please." Impatience mingled with desperation in Tyson's eyes. But I knew not to push it. Putting my paw on Tyson's to steady him, I waited.
Gradually, Grayson stopped trembling. He swallowed, his eyes focused on the underside of the log rather than either of our faces. "I'm sorry."
I didn't respond, which felt wrong, but necessary; we were out of time to waste. "We need you to evaluate everything you know about the Shield. I understand your knowledge may be limited; it's doubtful they tell anyone everything, in case of betrayal."
"You're right," he murmured.
"But you do know more than either of us. So you have to gather what you know and what you predict. Figure out who'll be on guard, what our best chance is of getting in, what they might be keeping Kenna for. You're our best shot."
"Can you give me time?"
"Please. Half an hour."
I glanced at Tyson. "We have to do this right."
The black tom's eyes filled with anguish, but he nodded.
I'd never known a half hour to pass so slowly, but by the end of it, all traces of Grayson's breakdown had vanished. The look in his eyes wasn't wild, but determined.
"Okay, guys. I've got a plan."
"What if he got caught?" Tyson asked for what felt like the millionth time.
I responded, again, "You have to trust that he knows what he's doing."
"This is the most heavily guarded place in the country, besides Aere-Cael. Even Grayson can't--"
"There!" I leaped to my paws, gazing up at the spire we'd been crouching in the shadow of. A small dusting of blue powder had fluttered into the air, barely distinguishable against the grayish sky. "Come on."
Scaling the tower was no easy feat. You had to find the places between stones where moss and earth afforded you some purchase, and these places were few and far between. My claws caught and tore on hard rock, and at times it felt like I was trying to cling to a flat, absolutely vertical surface, a world turned upside down.
When I finally reached the tower top, a pair of claws latched onto me, and for one heartstopping second I lost my grip on the rock and was sure that I was about to be hurled off the top of the spire. Then Grayson was hauling me over the edge, and Tyson was helping me to my paws.
After I'd caught my breath, my eyes landed on the unconscious cat slumped over right next to us. I peered down at her cautiously. "Out cold?"
"Hopefully for a long time," agreed Grayson.
"I'll say," I said bitterly; my legs still hurt from racing all the way back to the field where Grayson had found the nightblue, collecting a large load, and then racing back, even though I'd volunteered for the job. And I guess it could be worse. Phase one had taken all day to complete, and now the sun was nearly set, but the cover of darkness might prove an advantage. Plus, I hadn't run into a fox, or even worse, Gertie, so I could even count us lucky.
"Thank goodness she didn't sound the alarm," sighed Tyson.
Nodding, Grayson said, "I managed to prove my identity to her before she did, and before she could question why I crept in here like a criminal instead of entering in the designated fashion of agents, I well, you know." He gestured again to the slumbering sentry, traces of pale blue powder still visible around her muzzle.
"What's her name?" asked Tyson. When I gave him a weird look, he shrugged and said, "I feel bad. Maybe if I ever meet her again someday, I can apologize--"
"You don't need to know her name, and hopefully you'll never meet her again. Secrecy is a Shield agent's best friend," said Grayson, and I felt surprised at him now. I didn't like the idea of him keeping things from me, as understandable as it was in regards to what I now knew.
Shrugging, Tyson gestured wordlessly towards the side of the spire which, climbed down, would lead us to the main portion of Rockfyre. "Lead the way."
Grayson went first, then me, then Tyson, who accidentally kicked down a few loose rocks, which echoed and bounced harshly off the roof. We held our breath, waiting in agonized silence to see if anyone would come to check out the noise. No one did, and I finally relaxed as Tyson closed the gap between us and said, pointing to a square-shaped gap in the roof beneath us, "Is that how we get through?"
"We just jump?" I said dubiously.
"There's padding, and it's not a deep fall," explained Grayson. "I'll go first, check that the coast is clear--"
"Wait." I held up one paw to block him. "I should go first. We should avoid you being seen breaking into the Shield's base until it can't be helped at all. Your membership in the association might save us; we have to keep that trick in our arsenal."
"Then I'll go first," said Tyson immediately.
"You can go second," I told him, and as both toms moved to stop me, I took a step forward and plunged through the skylight.
I landed with an oof on a pallet of soft grass. Gazing around at my surroundings, a small dark room with rock walls and almost nothing inside it, I forgot to roll out of the way; Tyson landed on top of me with enough force to convince me that I'd just imploded. "I think I just ruptured a kidney," I groaned, staggering out from under him and shooting him a baleful glare.
"Klutzes," said Grayson, who landed perfectly, neatly somersaulted off the pallet, and glanced around almost casually. He gave a perfunctory nod. "I know where we are. Come on."
"Can you give me a second to pull my stomach out of my toes?" I grumbled.
"Geez, so-rry," said Tyson, though he barely looked at me; he was craning over Grayson's shoulder out into the hall beyond the room we'd landed in, as if expecting Kenna to come strolling past.
"You two need to be quiet before I pull out your tongues," said Grayson. I made a face at him.
We didn't goof around for long, though. Creeping down the hallway, nearly plastered to the wall, we kept dead silent, our ears straining for the sounds of approaching paws or accusing voices.
I leaned against Grayson, muzzle a hair's width from his ear. "Where d'you think they'd keep her?" I whispered, so quietly I could barely hear myself.
He hesitated. "Down in the cellars, underground, they have chambers."
He said no more, but I was sure he knew the thrill of horror that ran through me. The thought of gentle-eyed Kenna trapped alone in the dark made my heart ache. "How do we get down there?"
We moved with more urgency now, ducking behind corners at the slightest noise, bodies so tense that I felt a headache coming on. When Tyson hissed, "There!" I nearly jumped out of my skin. "I hear her voice."
I guess I really would never know the true meaning of love, because I hadn't heard a thing. Nevertheless, Grayson and I ran after him -- mostly to make sure he didn't do anything stupid. We poked our heads ever so slightly around a corner up ahead and saw . . .
Unbelievable. Kenna sat with a group of tough-looking cats in a large, circular room that appeared to be a meeting hall of some sorts. She was surrounded by cats who had been strangers to her just yesterday, yet she was talking with them -- even smiling occasionally, and putting up an act so thorough that even I, who'd known her most of her life, could barely tell it was just an act.
I heard a noise to my right and turned to see Grayson practically sitting on Tyson to keep him from bolting to Kenna. "Please, please . . ." he muttered distractedly, his eyes sparkling with emotion.
Helplessly, Grayson gave me a look that clearly said, Do something.
So I lifted my chin and marched into the room.
Instantly, Grayson released Tyson, racing after me with a disbelieving groan of anger.
"Agent Gray?" One of the toms who'd been talking to Kenna whirled with a curious frown.
The others reacted more appropriately for agents of a secret rebellion. Within seconds, Tyson and I were pinned to the ground with claws inches from our throats. "Who are you? How did you get in here? Agent Gray, did you capture these spies? Are they from the Scepter?"
"Stop. They're not -- they're not spies." Grayson took a deep breath and told me with his eyes that he felt like murdering me at that very second. "They're with me. We're here for her." He nodded at Kenna.
Now everyone looked confused -- except for Kenna, who let out a strangled cry and ran forward into Tyson's embrace. Watching the two of them reunite stoppered all the tension in the room for a moment; I could even see some Shield agents relaxing as Tyson murmured into Kenna's ear, holding her as if he'd never let go. They broke apart, but Kenna stayed pressed against his side. I moved forward and touched my muzzle to her cheek. "Hey. I missed you."
She smiled, her eyes watering. "I missed you too, Ginger."
Grayson cleared his throat. "Not to be rude, but could we like, save that for a time when our lives aren't in danger?"
"Your life isn't in danger if you let us take these three down to the chambers. They're obviously part of a conspiracy. Prove your dissassociation," hissed one of the Scepter toms.
"I want to talk to Pike," said Grayson.
"Lofty orders, Agent Gray."
Every cat in the room jumped and turned. From their reactions, I'd expected someone a lot bigger and more forbidding than the lightly built she-cat who stood in the entrance. Yet there was something haunting about her golden eyes, the narrow face and pointed chin. Something chilling, almost, like here was a cat with nothing to lose.
"Commander Pike," said the tom who'd just threatened Grayson, dipping his head respectfully, though his eyes still burned.
"Zorius. Stand back," the she-cat said, stepping into the room so that the dark brown color of her pelt emerged from the shadows. She turned to Grayson. "Explain."
"We're here to get our friend back," he said. "You shouldn't have brought her here."
"You are woefully underinformed, I fear. We saved your friend's life, Agent Gray," Pike said. "She was taken by the Scepter."
"We know," I blurted. "We found their bodies. Your agents' work, I presume?"
Pike didn't react; a couple other agents gave me furtive or annoyed looks, and Grayson flinched like I'd accused him of murder, something I didn't have the time to evaluate. "We did what had to be done. Agent Gray, you have never seen any reason to doubt my strength. But you have no reason to doubt my justness either. I will let you and your friends leave, on one condition. You must attend the Summit we are holding in a week's time, where you'll be given a briefing that should be very eye-opening." Pike glanced at Kenna. "Anything your friend tells you about the Scepter's capture of her will become clearer once you've come to the Summit. Your brother served the Shield well, and you know there are still hopes that you will follow in his pawsteps. Do not throw away this opportunity. Any attempt to ignore or sabotage the Summit will be seen as complete betrayal." Pike didn't elaborate, but her scarily long claws unfurled and tapped the stone floor.
"Wait a second. We deserve to know--"
"Thank you," interrupted Tyson loudly. "Thank you so much. Guys, let's get out of here." And he all but dashed out of the room, dragging Kenna with him.
I lingered, casting a searching look around the room. "Don't push your luck," Grayson breathed in my ear.
"Something's going on."
"Ginger. Not now."
I let out a little breath and followed him out of Rockfyre.
Grayson and I walked Tyson and Kenna to Kenna's home, where Tyson was going to be spending the night. By the time we'd said good-bye and had one last group hug, the moon was high in the sky. After being awake for two days straight, I was so tired I could hardly walk properly; I kept tripping over my own paws, and compromised by leaning heavily on Grayson for support while I focused on not falling into a ditch.
Both of us were so distracted that we didn't notice Al till he was right on top of us, face leering out of the shadows like some twisted mask. I had to bite down a scream of surprise as three of his cronies moved out from behind him, their glinting eyes and unsheathed claws making it clear that they were not on an ordinary late night stroll.
Lashing his tail in impatience, and, I knew, frustration that he hadn't sensed them, Grayson growled, "What do you guys want?"
We're idiots. Total idiots. We should've stayed with Kenna . . . I began darting my eyes from side to side, trying to figure out the best way to get around Al. As if reading my mind, Bridge and another tom circled around to stand behind us, boxing us in.
"Relax. We're not a threat," said Al in a lazy sort of voice. "Besides, you have enough to worry about already, don't you, pretty?" He flicked his eyes at me.
I tensed. "What do you mean?"
"Are you kidding me? That's getting pretty old, Al," said Grayson.
"Not the fact that she's crazy. We've established that. I'm talking about the fact that she's gone missing."
I froze. "What did you just say?"
"You heard me. My dad was talking about it. Asked if you were around, if you knew where she might be -- but I can see from your face that's futile. You're useless; you don't even know that your own mother isn't home."
The corners of my vision were turning red. One job. Greg had one job: stay with my mother while I wasn't there. "Where is he? What has he been doing while . . . How long has she been gone?"
"Relax. A few hours after you left, I think. You shouldn't have gone, Ginger. The loon couldn't handle it, and now she's probably lying in a ditch somewhere. You sacrificed home, and for what? A few hours with your boyfriend? Where've you two been, anyway, you and your friends?"
I wanted to kill him. I wanted to pummel him to the ground till the leer on his face was unrecognizable, till I never had to hear his grating voice again. Instead, I whirled and began to run for home.
I made it about fifty strides when I heard shouting behind me. Almost against my will, I glanced back and saw Grayson waving wildly. "Run!" he screamed, motioning for me to keep going, but then he contradicted himself by running in the opposite direction.
"What? Hey! Grayson, come back!" I swore loudly, hesitated for the briefest second, and then doubled back.
"Something grabbed him! Something leaped out of the woods -- it was big, it was . . . crazy eyes. It took him, Ginger!" Grayson babbled incoherently, nearly knocking me over as I reached him.
"Al! In there!" Grayson flung out a paw, and my stomach dropped into my paws as I followed the gesture to the Ghost Woods.
"Grayson . . . My mom."
"I know. Go. And be careful." Without a glance back, he plunged towards the woods.
And I, after one last desperate glance towards home and the possibility of finding my mother, ran after him.
"Are you insane? Go find your mom!"
"What took Al?" I demanded, barely suppressing the urge to add how much I hoped it ate him before we got there.
"It -- it looked like a cat. But not." Grayson sounded shaken; under normal circumstances, I would have a detailed description of every hair on the attacker's body by now. But he just shook his head, and I didn't dare push it.
Another shout came from up ahead, twisted with pain, unmistakably Al's. "What happened to the others? Al's friends?"
"I saw Bridge and one tom run away. I don't know where the other one -- Kass, I think her name was -- went."
We were getting closer to the commotion. Grayson began to slow down. "Ginger, hold up."
Something large and dark came crashing through the thorny bushes ahead of me. I screamed and shoved Grayson out of the way just as it struck me on the side of the head. Something hot and wet and sticky splattered my face.
It was Al. His dark orange fur was drenched with blood, and his chest had been slashed. Worst of all, he was still moving. His eyes bulged and rolled till they found mine. "Tell . . . Dad . . ." he whispered, but then he shuddered and stiffened, the light in his eyes dying out.
"Dirt. Something's moving back there." Grayson backed into me. "We're in the Ghost Woods." When I didn't budge, he said, "Let's run. We've gotta run, come on, Ginger."
"Leave him here?" I didn't even know why I asked it. There was no love lost between Al and I, and in any case, there was nothing I could do for him. But it just felt wrong.
A branch snapped. My head shot up, and I locked eyes with -- with I don't know what. A monster, was the first thing that came to mind. It was shaped like a cat, but its eyes were larger, somehow, than a normal cat's -- larger, and ringed with red, even the irises tinted pink.
This time, I couldn't stop the scream.
We fled as fast as we could, not stopping when we got out of the Ghost Woods. Grayson tripped over something lying prone on the ground and went down; I dragged him back up, and both of us looked at what he'd stumbled on.
It was Kass, one of Al's friends. She'd suffered a similar injury as Al, only she was already stone dead. I swallowed and reached out, gently sliding her eyes shut.
"Ginger!" Greg came lumbering towards us, panting, huffing and puffing. "What happened? Where's--"
"Al's in there," I said shortly. His eyes searched mine, and the narrow eyes and wide, flat face that I'd spent so much time hating betrayed nothing but pure desperation. I felt a horrible pang of guilt and sadness. "He's -- I'm--"
Letting out a strangled cry, Greg ran past me. "Be careful! There's something in there! It killed Kass and--" Grayson broke off, shaking his head wordlessly. "Ginger, what is happening?" And I had no answer.
By the time we were done burying Kass and Al, I could barely keep my eyes open any longer. We were all covered in dirt and scratches, muscles sore and aching. Tear tracks traced their way down Greg's cheeks. He hadn't said a word since coming back out of Ghost Woods, shaking and pallid. Grayson and I had retrieved the bodies -- mercifully without another a single sign of whatever thing had killed them.
I mumbled something about a vigil, but Greg didn't seem to hear me. He wandered off in the direction of home. I didn't attempt following him. My mother wasn't waiting for me.
"You're shaking," Grayson said.
"You always were observant," I said in a dull voice, looking down at myself. There were red streaks in the grime coating my forepaws. Al's blood. Kass's, too.
"Come on. You can come home with me. We need to get some sleep."
"I need to find my mother," I said. It was the only thought I could focus my mind, rendered stupid with exhaustion, around.
Jutting my bottom lip out like a petulant kit, I mumbled, "Who are you to say no? You're not the boss of me."
My knees buckled. Grayson swooped in just in time to catch me before I hit the ground. The last thing I saw was his face, swimming in a haze of gray mist, before my eyes slammed shut.
* * *
". . . long has she been sleeping?"
"Not long enough. She must be so tired."
"You must be, too. You don't need to always watch over her, you know. She can take care of herself."
"I know. I've watched her do that all her life."
There was a long pause. I wanted to open my eyes, but doing so would mean stepping out of the pillowed chamber of sleep I'd locked myself in out into a world that was all sharp edges and thorny memories.
A soft, bitter laugh. "I would say there's no need to apologize, but you don't seem inclined to at all. And I can't blame you. I've never been there for her like I should have been. But Grayson, there's a reason for that."
Hang on . . . That voice . . . But how?
"Is there?" Grayson said, sounding supremely skeptical.
"Yes. I think you understand."
I could practically see Grayson tense up, even with my eyes shut. "What are you talking about?"
"Having to hide who you are and what you do, because you can't let them -- your friends and family -- get hurt. You can't keep at that game, you know. In the end, it always backfires. You're going to destroy either yourself or them -- or both. That's what happened to--"
I remained very still, cursing Grayson in my mind. What had my mother been about to say?
"Ginger, I know you're awake," Grayson said, more loudly.
Then I heard my mother: "Sweetheart? It's me. I'm here."
There was no use in pretending any longer. I opened my eyes and faced her. I didn't even know where to begin, I had so many questions.
"Where were you?"
My mother stopped short of embracing me, a motion which I would never have expected of her. "I -- I had some business to attend to."
"And you're not going to tell me what."
"No, honey, I really can't--"
I glanced from her to Grayson. "Stop. Stop right now. Don't say another word if you're going to lie to me again -- this goes for both of you. Stop with the secrets."
Flinching, Grayson said, "I told you. I was honest. I'm part of--"
"Don't," I warned, glancing towards my mother.
But he shrugged it off. "I'm part of the Shield."
I stared at him. "Are you crazy? You trust her?"
"She won't turn me in. She hasn't turned anyone in."
I took a step back. "Mom? What is this about? Is this about Warren?"