REESE REMEMBERED in the early moons when she, Rowan, and Nyssa used to fight a lot over orders and how hard Nyssa would push for her ideas to be approved. There had been one time when Nyssa had pushed so hard that Rowan and Reese had backed off trying to make decisions.
“Let her rest,” Rowan snapped, easing Reese into a comfortable position in her nest. “She just got back from saving your sorry tail and you want to debrief her?”
“I need to know if anyone followed her back.” Nyssa bristled. “Let me handle this, Rowan.”
“You and I can go scout the outside!” Rowan argued, “Let Reese rest.”
Reese tried to stir so she could just tell Nyssa that nobody followed her and that she was careful enough that nobody should doubt her, but she also knew that Nyssa was just being cautious for the group. She knew Reese wouldn’t have been spotted, but Reese had been stumbling and clumsy. Her leg was on fire.
In the first few moons after Reese had found Nyssa and Rowan, her leg was a constant hindrance and she was still getting used to walking with a disfigured leg. She was always running wrong and it caused pain to shoot up her leg whenever she walked.
Rowan stood aggressively over her and Reese wanted to shove the russet brown tom away. She didn’t need his protection, even if she longed for nights when he would curl up close and embrace her.
Nyssa’s dark amber eyes flitted to Reese for a second. “I can debrief my cats if I want to, Rowan. Get out of the way.”
“We’re leaders of this group with you,” Rowan snarled. “Don’t doubt Reese’s ability to stay hidden.”
“I lead this group,” Nyssa corrected haughtily, “The two of you help me.”
“Don’t be so obnoxious,” Rowan curled his lip. “You’re not any better than the rest of us. All you do is run your mouth off.”
“And all you do is debase Reese with your eyes,” Nyssa snorted. “I am the brains to this group, Rowan, and you know it. Without me, you would all be helpless.” And it was technically true; Nyssa provided all the plans and her brilliance kept them out of sight from the Elites. But she needed Rowan and Reese to make any of her plans work.
Reese felt her cheeks go hot at the thought of Rowan’s eyes roaming over her with pleasure. Was that really what it was? As if on instinct, Rowan’s eyes darted over Reese now, getting a bit glazed as he took her in. Reese closed her eyes to avoid staring at his dazed look. Nyssa was right; Rowan was like all the toms who took and took what they could from pretty she-cats and left the remains.
“You make all your plans around her,” Nyssa taunted, “One day, you’re going to barricade her in a prison to keep her safe. When that day comes, Rowan, let’s see if she’ll choose you then. No, I don’t think so. I think she’ll always choose me and this group.”
No, Reese thought, I will always choose me.
But she was too tired to say that. When she opened her eyes, all she could see were Rowan’s eyes, enjoying her looks rather than admiring her for her intelligence. To him, she was just another plaything to savor, to lock away once she was useless.
There would come a day when Rowan would lock her up and Reese would never get out unless she stopped it from happening first.
Finally, Reese mustered the energy to sit up and forced herself to push away from Rowan unsteadily. Nyssa didn’t make a move for her and instead, watched her with those intense eyes. She knew that Reese would be strong enough to hold on her own.
Rowan reached for her again but Reese stepped out of his grasp. “No one followed me,” she rasped. And then she rattled off details of the Elite camp that she had gathered. She risked a glance at Rowan and saw the hurt and disbelief in his eyes.
She had chosen Nyssa that time and Reese would choose Nyssa every single time after that because the dark gray she-cat believed in her abilities and knew she would not fail. That had been the most important thing to Reese then, and now.
“Shove off, Rowan,” Nyssa sneered. “You’re not meant to be Leader.”
Rowan had just stood there, his eyes smoldering, but he was staring at her, as if Reese would defend him. She had never tried before, and she wouldn’t start now. The group would need Nyssa as Leader and Reese knew she had to back her up.
“Stay in line,” she said quietly.
Nyssa and Rowan had apologized to each other the next day about the harsh things they had said, but the words had always hung between them. Rowan had backed off, only contributing when he could with his analysis on the situation.
Rowan still showed bits of his affection with Reese, but he had drawn a line and stayed behind it. Reese hadn’t made a move for him either because all she could see were his glazed eyes, as if he wasn’t seeing her but just a she-cat.
Reese knew he wasn’t actually like that, but the picture Nyssa had painted was too vivid for Reese to ignore. And in times where any of them could die in a single moment, Reese didn’t want to be in a relationship.
So the three of them pushed each other away constantly until Reese wasn’t really too sure what kept them together. Survival? Friendship? They were friends, but Nyssa had formed cages around all of them with her desperation to shove away anyone who dared to control her.
Rowan and Reese gave Nyssa leadership for her barbed words and forked tongue. If they didn’t want to shatter, they simply just had to follow orders. Nyssa stopped making jabs at Rowan once he claimed the title of Second, and she was kinder to Reese for being Third.
But sometimes, it still felt like a slap to the face when Nyssa blatantly ignored good advice from either of them.
“Where did she go?” Skye panicked, spinning around frantically in circles.
Reese studied the ground. “To the prisons of course.”
“She promised you she wouldn’t do anything.” Skye stopped and stared at her with those wide eyes. Reese almost snorted at his words.
“Nyssa’s promises don’t mean anything,” Reese replied flatly. “No one matters to her but herself.”
“That’s not true. You matter to her. Even Rowan matters to her and the two of them have fought every single time I’m around.” Skye shook his head. “Nyssa doesn’t show her feelings very well.”
“If she cared, she would have kept her promise,” Reese shook her head. “If she wanted us all to be safe, she would have stayed behind with Arya and let Rowan come. At least then he would have found ten ways to get into the camp instead of standing there like a fool while the two of us had to figure it out.”
Skye was quiet. He was quiet for so long that Reese just let out a long sigh. “Let’s go.”
The light gray tom glanced up sharply. “Go where?”
“Bring the cresimen back to Rowan and Arya. Then we’re going to ask Rowan to come with us and we’re going to have to save Nyssa’s tail.” Reese said decisively.
“Shouldn’t we get Nyssa first?” Skye inquired.
“She shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Reese said shortly. “I’m not going to compromise the cresimen for someone who couldn’t follow her own orders. We were here on a mission to get cresimen to save Arya’s life and we’re going to complete it. Did we gather enough for Arya to wean herself off?”
“Yes.” Skye dipped his head once before picking up his share of the stalks. Reese picked up hers and the two of them trotted out quickly.
Reese noted the tunnel that Nyssa must have gone down as they exited, but she forced herself to quickly glance around for overseers before darting out. Whatever Nyssa found down there she would have to deal with by herself.
They got through without being spotted and Reese risked a moment to try to see why it was so empty. “Maybe they know that nobody knows about this place,” Skye suggested, “The more cats that come and go, the more likely someone will spot them.”
“It’s the same with us,” Reese mused, “that makes sense. But why does nobody from the Elites wonder where the overseers go?”
“It’s likely many of them think that the overseers also live in the camp, just in a secluded area we weren’t aware of. They don’t let us go everywhere in our camp; there’s a section just for them.” Skye explained. “But I checked it through; it’s just a fake set up so we don’t question where they sleep.”
“No wonder I’ve always thought they lived with the Elites,” Reese sighed, “so much for being the best spy.”
Skye smiled slightly. “I think you’re the best spy considering the circumstances.”
“You learn to adapt,” Reese said quietly as she turned.
A cat of pure black was smiling at them, his pelt bleeding darkness into the world. Skye stiffened next to Reese but the overseer was staring right at Reese. “Hello, Mistake,” he purred, “what are you doing so far from your camp?”
“What camp?” Reese managed to say around the cresimen.
“There’s only a few of you in the camp—around ten, right? We found each and every one of them.” The overseer glanced briefly at Skye. “And we found something interesting too. We found an Elite.”
Skye was frozen as well. His blue eyes were wide and horrified. “Of course, she was captured by the Mistakes, wasn’t she, Skye?” The overseer purred.
He didn’t say anything.
“Or at least we thought so until that russet brown tom fought with every breath of his body to try to keep her from our grasp. That’s when I knew Arya wasn’t a prisoner, but she was just dying from the lack of cresimen in her system. How long have you been skipping out, Skye? Moons now? You should have known that Arya couldn’t withdraw so fast.” He clicked his tongue, “Too bad those leaves in your jaw won’t do you any good now.”
“You’re bluffing,” Reese tried to keep the waver out of her voice.
“No, I don’t think I am. You don’t believe I am either.” The smirk grew wider and wider. “Now you have a choice. I can let you go now, and I’ll kill your friends one by one, or you can come with me.”
“At what price?” Skye dared to ask.
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” The overseer purred. “But I only need one of you to come to ensure that the other doesn’t stay away. Of course, my newfound Mistake prisoners should be enough for the cripple to come running, and Arya will keep you here, Skye. Maybe you both don’t need to come,” his eyes glinted. “All right—I’ll make a better deal with the two of you. I’ll let you both go now, with the cresimen, and if you don’t return in five days with your Leader, I’ll kill Arya first. Then I’ll kill the russet brown tom. Then I’ll kill every single one of the Mistakes one by one.”
“Why do you want our Leader?” Reese didn’t dare breathe Nyssa’s name.
“She has something I need,” the overseer turned away. “Go on now—you have five days to bring her before I start playing with my prey.”
He was gone before Reese could even blink. “Reese,” Skye said hoarsely. “We have to get Nyssa, now.”
“They don’t know where she is,” Reese said desperately. “Maybe we can—”
“We can what?” Skye snapped, the cresimen dropping from his jaw. “We’re knee deep in trouble. We can rush back to your camp right now but I bet you they really did raid the camp and take your cats prisoner.”
“There might be someone left,” Reese pleaded, “Rowan—”
“Let’s stash the cresimen somewhere safe,” Skye decided, “We’ll still need it for Arya when she wakes. Now that she’s dying, the overseers won’t feed her more. They know I’ll come quicker if Arya is dying on her own. She might not make it to five days.”
“We’ll get them back before,” Reese vowed.
They quickly crossed the territory and made it to the Mistake camp. Reese found the tunnel completely blocked and caved in. “Shakers could have done this,” Skye shook his head miserably. “They can control waves in the earth and cause it to shake and crumble.”
“We’ll hide it in the ruins then,” Reese hurried through the rubble, coughing on the smoke that always lingered there. She found a nice spot behind a huge pile of rocks and stuffed the cresimen in. Skye followed her lead.
She sat herself down and tried to make sense of the situation. Rowan and the others were captured. Arya was still out of action from the lack of cresimen in her system, and Rowan was down.
How many actually made it out? Vera was half-blind—did they spare her? Did she manage to make it out even with one eye? Then Reese shook her pelt out. She was being stupid. She couldn’t worry about her cats this way; she had to rescue them.
When they walked back out of the ruins, they found Nyssa frowning at the caved in tunnel. She turned, alerted by the crunch of ash under Skye’s paw. Reese’s pawsteps were still silent.
“What happened to the tunnel?” Nyssa demanded.
“It got caved in,” Reese said flatly.
Nyssa narrowed her eyes slightly at Reese’s tone. The pale she-cat had never put down her paw and yelled before, but she was quite tempted to do so now. Still, she forced down her anger and said tightly. “An overseer found us and taunted us. They raided our camp, took all our cats prisoner, and we have five days to present ourselves.”
“Present you,” Skye corrected.
“Me?” Nyssa blinked in surprise. “Why would they want me?”
“You tell us,” Reese sat down and stared at Nyssa with her blue-green eyes. “Arya is still unconscious from the cresimen and Rowan is injured from trying to fight off the overseers. If you had stayed behind—”
“If she had stayed behind,” Skye warned, “the Serpentine would have Nyssa in their grasp already and wouldn’t need the rest of us.”
I don’t care, Reese realized, Rowan is in danger because of her.
Nyssa’s paws were muddy and dirty, but there was no sign of another cat around her. “Did you find the prisoner?” Reese found herself asking, curious for the answer. Perhaps the Forgotten could help them. Then Reese berated herself for that thought—the Forgotten weren’t coming back.
“No,” Nyssa sighed, “He wasn’t there. The overseer tricked us; he must have known we would come for cresimen.”
“I didn’t realize they kept track of who they gave cresimen to,” Skye shook his head. “I should have taken the leaves and hid them somewhere so they’d think I was still taking it. Then they wouldn’t have noticed Arya’s disappearance too.”
Reese was out of ideas, out of questions except one. “Well?” She looked at Nyssa, waiting for that brilliant mind to turn and form a plan, “What do we do?”
Nyssa rubbed the dirt off one of her paws in thought. “We do what they want,” she said decisively, “we turn ourselves in.”