THE BORDER WAS silent when Reese got there.
She crept along it, scanning the territory for any of the Elite cats. They had enhanced senses, but they were terrible at keeping hidden. Reese already rubbed berry juice and mud over her pelt to give it a mix of nature’s scent. It also erased the ashy tang that the barren lands outside of Serpentine land tended to have. Reese became part of the environment.
She cursed herself as her leg began to ache and throb as she darted across the border. She hadn’t rested all day and only took five minutes to grab a mouse and gulp it down. Reese didn’t want to wait too long; it took her awhile to get anywhere on a good day.
With the sun already set, Reese was a figment of darkness, blending in with the shadows. Though not for the first time, Reese wished she was dark gray like Nyssa. Actually, she wished she was Nyssa because the Leader only had scars to remember the cresimen by. Reese hated her leg.
She had to sit herself down again and stretch her leg out. Thankfully, there weren’t any Elites on the border. Lately there had been less and less Elites on the border, as if they weren’t worried about spies like her getting in. Or they were too busy dealing with the Forgotten prisoner.
Reese only knew about it because she had gone close to the Serpentine camp last time and had overheard two cats talking. The Elites didn’t like talking about the Forgotten, especially since they got off so easily and disappeared off the face of the earth.
The pale she-cat would have thought that SwiftClan had fled to find a new hunting spot if they hadn’t mentioned that they had finally caught one of the Forgotten.
A scent in the wind caught her attention, dragging her away from her thoughts. She delicately hopped back onto her paws and crept forward, keeping downwind. She was careful to step carefully because she knew Elites had excellent hearing. They had excellent everything, but Reese was better. She had a lifetime of learning how to hunt with a bad leg that made her too silent even for Elites to hear.
Reese crouched low, scanning the grassy lands for any signs of a cat. After crouching there for five minutes, Reese almost stood up—just to give her leg a quick shake because it was aching terrible—but then a light gray tom stepped out. There were white splashes across his pelt and his tail was white-tipped. His paws were like Nyssa’s—they were white as well.
But his eyes—of course Reese knew they weren’t going to be white as well—were a cold shade of icy blue.
Reese did a quick, mental check of the tom Rowan mentioned earlier and cursed herself for not asking him for details. She was supposed to be checking out this tom, wasn’t she? Suddenly she felt like she misheard Nyssa’s orders.
But it was too late now; Reese couldn’t move with him spotting her.
Usually in these situations, Reese held still and waited for the Elite to dismiss danger and walk away before she even dared breathe. But Reese had already been crouching here for too long and her leg was honestly tired of being put in such awkward positions.
So Reese shifted ever so slightly, intending to just stretch out her leg and let it rest, but she accidentally kicked out so hard that she collapsed, her leg giving out entirely to exhaustion.
That caught the tom’s attention and his eyes zeroed in on her.
She cursed out loud instead, swearing colorfully as he began to pick his way cautiously towards her. Now in these situations, Reese would usually fight the Elite and kill them just to protect her identity.
Because with her crippled leg, it was hard not to realize she was a Mistake.
She could tell the moment the Elite tom realized what she was. His eyes, concerned for her for a moment, turned into a hard mask and Reese tried to scramble to her paws so she could run or so she could fight.
But her leg had given out and for the first time, Reese couldn’t haul herself up. She clenched her teeth, choking back a sob as she tried to force herself to stand. The Elite tom drew closer and Reese couldn’t help but let out a whimper.
When he finally got close enough to touch her, Reese lashed out with a paw, catching him by surprise. He let out a yelp and leaped back and Reese resorted to dragging herself out of there with her front paws, her muscles aching and protesting with each move.
“Wait,” the tom’s voice was deep, though richer than Reese expected. “Wait, I’m not here to hurt you.”
Reese snorted involuntarily but at that moment, her body was too exhausted to do anything. So Reese just lay there and mentally berated herself for not accepting Rowan’s help, for not telling Nyssa that she needed the rest of the day to rest.
She didn’t tell her best friends because Reese knew she wasn’t weak. She was just weaker than the rest of them.
The Elite tom stopped a healthy distance away from her and watched her carefully. The blank look that had coated his eyes disappeared and Reese had to admit he was a very good actor. His eyes were warm and compassionate.
“Your leg,” he began.
Reese glowered at him, daring him to continue that sentence. The tom twitched his whiskers at her defiance and shrugged. “I have herbs for your leg if you want them.”
“Like what,” Reese shot back, “your drug, cresimen?”
The tom raised an eyebrow. “You really think that’s all we take?”
Reese studied him carefully. There was no glaze to his eyes, the crazed look that overtook the Elites after they took a dose of cresimen. It was late at night, but there was still enough time that the Elites would look like they’ve taken the drug. His eyes were clear as crystal and he wasn’t trying to hurt her.
“You’re the tom at the border,” she blurted out.
Apparently, when Rowan or Nyssa wasn’t with her, Reese was capable of making mistakes. Especially if a strange rebel tom from the Serpentines decided to befriend her and talk to her.
“And you’re one of the she-cats Arya was talking to.” The tom nodded. “I’m Skye.”
Reese didn’t offer her name. She knew his name was a gesture of trust, but with the Elites, Reese would never trust. There were simply too many consequences. “That’s a great name,” Reese grunted, “but now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”
Go where? Reese couldn’t think around this situation. She was trained to be a spy, but Reese had never had an encounter like this before. She was simply never caught. But she still couldn’t get up and Reese decided she would just have to continue with the mission and feel this tom out.
“You need herbs,” Skye insisted, “I can get you some.”
“No thank you,” Reese shook her head adamantly. “Herbs from the Serpentine gave me this bad leg. I’m not risking it with you guys.”
“I’m not one of them.” Skye said, his eyes unfathomable.
Reese snorted again. “You’re an Elite; I know you are.”
“I may be an Elite but I’m not allied with the Serpentine. They’re just stupid enough that they can’t see that I haven’t been taking cresimen for five moons.” Skye flicked his tail, shrugging with the gesture.
Reese studied him more carefully. Five moons? That was an awfully long time to be off a drug that kept the Elites alive. Reese was surprised Skye was able to walk or even function. He must have read the confusion in her gaze because he opened his mouth to give an explanation.
“I slowly weaned myself off the drug. I took less and less until I was completely off it and nothing happened. Granted, I’m losing my Elite ability slowly, but it’s not a loss I can’t handle.”
“What is then?” Reese couldn’t stop the words from coming out of her mouth. “You’re staying for a reason.”
“Because I want the Serpentine gone,” Skye deflected easily.
The flicker in his eyes told Reese differently. She just nodded along, however, no use in pushing Skye too far. It was a miracle that he was telling her all of this and not turning her in. She had other things she had to ask about.
“Well, you can start by helping me with something.” Reese started.
“Like helping you up?” Skye suggested.
Reese was too proud to admit that so she shook her head and continued to lay there like an idiot. But Skye wasn’t having any of it. He scooped her up and nosed her into a standing position before half-dragging, half-leading her off Serpentine territory. When Reese tried to protest, Skye mumbled around her mud-streaked pelt. “We’re too vulnerable in there.”
He was right, of course. Still, Reese was miffed that he thought her weak enough to be carried out. She was satisfied when he had to spit out the mud that was smeared over her pelt.
“Okay, what did you want me to help with?”
“Do you know anything about a Forgotten prisoner that the Serpentine took in say, about two weeks ago?” Reese knew she was taking a huge risk asking the Elite tom for help outright but he wasn’t on cresimen. Reese was smart enough to know when cats were lying and so far he’d been telling the truth about wanting to help her.
Surprise lit his eyes. “There’s a Forgotten prisoner?”
Reese squinted at him. Either he was extremely dense or he honestly didn’t know about the prisoner. “You don’t know about it?” She asked incredulously. “Haven’t you been paying attention while you’ve been trying to defeat the Serpentines?”
Skye looked slightly uncomfortable. “The overseers do things separately from the Elites. They have a separate camp we don’t even know about.”
Now that was something Reese didn’t actually know. She always assumed the overseers were with the Elites and that all of them knew what was going on. But Reese felt miffed; she had barely managed to get all the way out here to spy on Skye and she had been caught instead.
It was a blow to her pride and she didn’t get any of the information she wanted.
Skye sensed that Reese was annoyed and finally let her stand on her own. “Here, let me walk you home.”
“No way,” Reese immediately said, shaking her head furiously. “You can’t come back with me.”
“Why not?” Skye asked at first before realizing what he was asking. He looked a bit guilty and sighed. “Oh, I see why. Look, I’m not going to turn any of you, I promise. I just…you don’t look like you can make it on your own.”
“I got to the border, didn’t I?” Reese growled but she let him put a shoulder under her own. “You can come for a little bit but I’m not showing you where I live.”
“There are more like you, aren’t there?” Skye observed.
“Only the three of us you saw earlier today,” Reese lied easily. “It’s not that easy to survive out here, you know.”
“I don’t know but I can imagine.” Skye fell silent after that.
They walked for so long that Reese suddenly realized she could see the ruins. She hadn’t realized how far she’d let Skye come and that she was fully leaning on him now. She pulled herself off him and nearly fell face-first into the ash but Skye was too busy cursing under his breath to notice her. She managed to regain her balance and peered out in front of her to see what had caught the Elite tom’s attention.
What she saw made her blood run cold.
An Elite patrol was standing right outside the ruins, searching around. There seemed to be about ten cats but even ten was too much for the Mistakes. The Elites had powers. Reese turned on Skye, intending to attack him, to question him even though her leg barked in pain. But the tom was staring at his comrades with such horror on his face that Reese paused.
“Skye,” she said quietly, “why are they here?”
The two of them were far enough back that they weren’t easily spotted but one she-cat split from the ranks and came quietly trotting over. She didn’t notice Reese at first and waved at Skye with her tail. “I couldn’t find you at camp,” she said by way of greeting, “I’m glad you’re here though, we—”
The she-cat suddenly noticed Reese and with a start, the pale she-cat realized that this was the same she-cat Nyssa had taunted earlier today. “Who’s this?” She asked sweetly. “A Mistake?” Her eyes dove to Reese’s bad leg.
“Yeah,” Reese replied venomously, “Your Mistake.”
The black and white she-cat flicked her tail, unconcerned. “This is even more perfect, Skye, we can use her to get into the rebels’ camp. We know this is their hideout but we can’t find the way in.”
“How?” Reese couldn’t help herself.
Luckily, the she-cat seemed to like gloating because she kept going as if she was still just talking to Skye. “One of your cats told us. She was some scruffy brown she-cat and she just gave you guys away.”
Reese’s blood ran cold. She knew a cat by that description but…Rowan had told her right before she left that Marisse was dead. “She gave you guys the wrong location,” Reese informed her coldly, “Because your friends murdered her afterwards. So much for loyalty, right?”
Surprise lit the she-cat’s eyes. “Arya,” Skye sighed a little, sounding tired, “there’s nothing here. It’s just ruins. We should just get the Elites home.”
Arya stared at the tom incredulously. “Even if this is the wrong place, we have her.” She stabbed a paw towards Reese, who didn’t move an inch. “We can just get her to tell us where their camp is.”
Suddenly Skye seemed to remember something. “You said there were only three of you.” Skye wheeled on Reese. “So who is this cat who betrayed you guys? I saw all three of you this morning.”
Reese felt uneasy. “Please just get them away from here,” she whispered.
Arya gave her a funny look but Skye just nodded grimly. “We’ll talk soon; I know how to get them out of here.”
“What?” Arya made a move to grab the tom but he evaded her grasp. “What are you talking about, Skye? These cats are our enemies. We need to annihilate them immediately to protect the Elites.”
“You’re crazy, Arya,” Skye stepped around her, “and you know as well as I do that the Elites aren’t saints.”
When Arya still tried to intercept him, Skye waved a tail at Reese. “Look at her,” he said quietly, though not quietly enough for Reese not to hear, “the Serpentine did that to her. Just because we’re lucky to have survived the cresimen doesn’t mean others are so lucky. And didn’t you hear? They killed the cat who tried to save her life by ratting her friends out. The Elites don’t care about anyone but themselves. When you die from cresimen, Arya, no one will take care of you either.”
Reese felt a flicker of embarrassment and shame as Arya ran and eye over her but she also felt angry. Angry that Marisse had sold out the group. Angry that Arya was looking at her with such pity.
But Skye’s words registered before Reese could do something extremely stupid and snap at the black and white she-cat. Arya seemed to realize it too because she started to say something but Skye was already gone, strolling towards the Elites, calling their names.
Reese backed up, hiding. There was only one way into the camp but thankfully nobody seemed to have noticed it. Reese backed straight into the ruins, looking for a place to avoid the Elites. The ruins were a smoky, desolate land and Reese coughed, her lungs rejecting the terrible fumes in the air.
She didn’t realize that Arya was following her until the she-cat started coughing behind her as well and cursing about the dust getting into her eyes. Reese spun around once they were hidden from sight. “Why did you follow me?” She demanded.
On a good day, Reese knew she could best Elites. She was a good fighter—perhaps not as good as Nyssa or Rowan, but Reese was still good. And the she-cat was still swaying from lack of cresimen for the day so Reese knew she was weaker. But Reese’s leg ached and she felt like it was just going to snap right off if she kept going.
“I don’t know,” the she-cat said in a frustrated tone. “But I trust Skye.”
She looked dubious as she said this, as if something had caused a rift between the two of them. “He told you to avoid cresimen this morning, didn’t he?” Reese guessed. She might as well continue to feel Arya out while she had the chance. “That’s why you were on the border instead of taking the dose with everyone else.”
Arya nodded. “Skye’s been skipping out on it for weeks,” she mumbled.
“Moons.” Reese corrected.
“Moons?” Arya sounded incredulous. “Why would he do that?”
Reese pondered over her next answer. She was already connecting some pieces however, and she knew if she reported this to Nyssa, the dark gray she-cat would have leads on why anyone would be smart enough to stop taking cresimen. Then Reese studied Arya. The she-cat seemed to desperately want answers, and she trusted Skye enough to not try to turn Reese in. The tom had sway with her. So Reese decided to tell her the truth.
“Because the cresimen is slowly killing all of the Elites from within.”