“I THINK SHE’S ASLEEP.”
Rowan peeked inside to find that Nyssa was indeed knocked out—right in front of the entrance actually. She wasn’t even in her nest; she must have been exhausted for going so long without sleep.
He ducked his head back out to give Slateheart a brisk nod. He didn’t really like that the SwiftClan tom was following him everywhere but Adel said Rowan could walk around as long as he didn’t work too hard until his wound was better. He was glad to not be cooped up in that den with the sweet scene of cresimen filling his nose.
Rowan still didn’t get Slateheart’s story. He also couldn’t get over what Slateheart had told him about his quest to find the lost daughter of the leaders of SwiftClan.
“Nyssa is who I’m looking for,” Slateheart had informed him.
Rowan had almost choked on his own breath at that. “She’s what?”
“Nyssa is SwiftClan,” Slateheart had tipped his head curiously. “You don’t know that?”
“Stars if I know anything about Nyssa,” Rowan had muttered under his breath. But it made sense why Nyssa had been so adamant about finding the Forgotten and how she never revealed a bit of her kithood to Reese and Rowan.
Rowan didn’t remember anything past the pain of trying to digest cresimen and then finding himself out in the ashes, fending for himself. He didn’t remember his parents or if he had any siblings. Reese was the same.
Now outside of the den, Slateheart was still watching Rowan with that impassive and patient look. Rowan had never really been a patient cat, a trait he shared with Nyssa, but Slateheart seemed to have an infinite amount of patience and no understanding of other emotions other than a calm mask. He was as boring as he looked. There was nothing special about this Forgotten cat and Rowan wasn’t looking forward to keeping him company until they could find SwiftClan.
Rowan was also very worried about Reese. He knew she could take care of herself, but Rowan wanted her close. He felt a twinge of jealousy when he realized that Skye was there for her when he could not. He tried to shake away that jealousy, because he knew the light gray tom cared for Arya deeply.
“I thought you two were friends.” Slateheart said matter-of-factly.
“We are,” Rowan said defensively, even though he had no idea about how Nyssa felt about him and the others. Nyssa always insulted them and pushed them around but sometimes Rowan thought he could hear affection in her voice. “We just don’t like to pry.”
“Or tell each other anything,” Slateheart tipped his head.
Rowan reflected that he never told Reese how he felt. And he suspected that she got closer and closer to Skye every day because the Elite tom was honest. Plus, he seemed to know everything about Reese without being discriminating. That made Reese trust him more than anything.
“We tell each other how to operate and how to protect ourselves.” Rowan said shortly. “There aren’t many secrets we really kept from each other.”
But there were too many. Rowan never told the others that sometimes his strangely colored eye would ache with pain and turn murky, eliminating his ability to see. Rowan saw how others treated Reese and refused to let Nyssa have two disabled cats at her side. He chose to operate on his half-blindness and pretend nothing was wrong.
The russet brown tom knew there was a high chance Reese knew this, but Rowan had been in love with her for a very long time. Sometimes, he still resented Nyssa for painting a vivid image of Rowan ogling Reese, but he knew it was his fault too. He was exhausted and she had just looked so beautiful in that moment that Rowan knew he must have looked dazed.
“If only that not-Elite was here,” Slateheart mused to himself, licking one paw and rubbing it over his face. “He was very perspective. I suspect he would be able to see some of your secrets.”
Rowan instantly felt his mental walls go up. After two days of not really sleeping and a half day of being knocked out and almost killed, Rowan was mentally exhausted. Physically he was used to it, but his eye was starting to bother him. It didn’t give out as often as Reese’s leg bothers her, but Rowan didn’t want to see weak. Not at a time like this.
“Do you take herbs for that eye?”
The russet brown tom stiffened. “What eye?” He grounded out.
Slateheart stared at his yellow eye. “That’s not your natural eye color.”
“No, the cresimen turned it.”
“My eyes used to do that too,” Slateheart admits. “I used to have green eyes as well, but my eyes turned gray. At first, I felt as though I was going blind, but after they kept feeding me the drug, my eyes regained their senses and heightened. I can see things no one else can.”
“Like?” Rowan asked carefully.
“I can see you favor your right side. Your eye gives you problems too—it’s murky enough that it clouds your vision some time. But I’m not well trained in figuring out your histories or your tendencies. That’s something I suspect the Elite tom could do though.”
“He was good at figuring Reese out,” Rowan admitted. “But no one can penetrate Nyssa’s wall.”
“What wall?” A groggy voice said from behind them. “And when did you have eye problems, Rowan?”
Rowan felt a bit of panic seize him but Slateheart—Slateheart—turned to Nyssa and said. “You didn’t know about Rowan’s eye?”
Nyssa just frowned and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “No. Tell me.”
“It’s nothing,” Rowan growled. “You didn’t tell me you were SwiftClan.”
The dark gray she-cat regarded him coolly. “I’m not. My parents are SwiftClan though. I’m a Mistake and that’s final. Tell me about your eye; does it bother you often? Why didn’t you tell me? I want to make sure you’re safe on missions.”
That was new. When did Nyssa ever care about his wellbeing?
“It’s fine,” Rowan shook his head. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Except his eye took this moment to begin to blur out. He wondered if there were herbs to help him alleviate the pounding headache this gave him sometime. This hadn’t happened in awhile; Rowan guessed they were all overworking. Nyssa had never knocked out and fallen asleep during an important job before. And Reese’s leg hadn’t given out for moons.
He cursed out loud on accident and blinked rapidly, trying to get his right eye to work. He could still see out of his left eye, but half of his vision was blurry. This was what gave him a headache most of the time—trying to get a clear image.
“Rowan?” There was worry in Nyssa’s voice. “Maybe you should lie down.”
“I’m fine,” Rowan snarled. He settled for closing his eye. The image cleared and he saw dark amber eyes staring at him.
“Go ask Adel for an eye patch,” Nyssa decided. “If you’re going to be stubborn about resting then at least make yourself more comfortable.”
Rowan grumbled but did as she said. But he made sure to tell her as he passed: “Don’t overwork yourself, Nyssa, you still look like the undead.”
Hours later, with an eye patch on his eye, Rowan met up with Nyssa again to plan their next step. She had said to meet him outside when he was done and make sure Slateheart wasn’t going to follow. So the russet brown tom had driven the SwiftClan tom off, reassuring him that there was nothing he could do except stay put. Seriously, that tom needed to shove off sometimes.
Rowan walked outside and stopped short. Nyssa was hunched in front of him, her small shoulders shaking slightly. He knew without having to hear her that she was crying. She heard his footsteps but didn’t lift her head so Rowan sat next to her and waited for her to explain.
It took a few minutes but Nyssa wiped away her tears and straightened her shoulders again. She still didn’t speak and instead stared out into the horizon where the desolate land stretched onwards.
“I’m sorry,” Nyssa finally said, surprising Rowan a little. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into this.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Rowan turned to face her.
On the outside, Nyssa looked the same. Her small stature was stiff and her back was straight. Her eyes, dark amber but now slightly glowing, were fierce and searched the lands beyond for danger. Her jaw was stubbornly set and Nyssa looked as if she was ready to fight the world.
But there was immense sadness in her eyes. Rowan watched her carefully, wondering where she had kept all of these emotions and what she really meant. The Nyssa he knew never apologized for anything and she had always pushed and shoved onwards without care.
Her arrogance, Rowan reflected, was what drove them onwards and kept them alive.
“I should have found a way to keep you all safe. None of you should have been dragged into my own mission. It was my personal mission to find the Forgotten because I wanted to find my parents. I want to know why they didn’t fight harder for me.” Nyssa wiped away another stray tear angrily. “I endangered you all.”
“We’re a team,” Rowan said, “and you are our Leader. We will do anything you say because we believe you will get us out. If you fall now, Nyssa, what will the rest of us do?”
The dark gray she-cat just shook her head. “I should have let you go, Rowan. If you were the one who went to get the cresimen, I could have—”
“You could have what?” Rowan asked gently. “The camp still would have fallen. You would have been captured.”
“But you and Reese would be free,” Nyssa dug her claws into the dirt. “That’s all I wanted.”
There it was. The reason for Nyssa’s tears. “We’re a team.” Rowan repeated. “The three of us are going to get out of this together or not at all. And we need you to lead us.”
“Tell her how you feel,” Nyssa whispered, “when she comes back.”
Rowan’s heart ached viciously at the thought of Reese. “It won’t make a difference,” Rowan shook his head. “It’s too late for the two of us.”
“No,” Nyssa said fiercely, stopping him. “Love waits for everyone. I’ll help explain it to her if that’s what you’re worried about. I…I shouldn’t have said what I did all those moons ago. I know you’re not that kind of tom.”
“She should already know that too,” Rowan said stiffly. “We have more important things to worry about.”
Nyssa fell silent at that so Rowan took the opportunity to change the subject. “I think we should get rally forces to attack the Elites. We’ve spent too much time dancing around the subject. If we want to get rid of the Serpentine we’ll have to act first.”
The dark gray she-cat pondered over that. “You’re right,” she agreed. “But we don’t have enough forces. We have around ten cats.”
“Slateheart has the ability to cancel Elite’s powers.” Rowan reminded her. “We’ll have the advantage of surprise with him. The Elites feel utterly useless without their powers.”
Nyssa thought it over before she suddenly shook her head. “No. We can’t just attack them. What happens after we defeat the overseers? The Elites will either die from the lack of cresimen or we’ll have to slowly wean them off. Who knows how many will actually be patient enough to wait for the results? We’ll get a rebellion.”
“Then what do you propose?” Rowan tipped his head. He hoped she didn’t think about cutting off the cresimen supply and letting the Elites die that way. He supposed that was one way to end a war. But Reese and the others would never stand for that. Rowan wasn’t too sure if he was willing to do that anymore. They were all cats after all.
“There has to be a cure.” Nyssa closed her eyes, taking away the unnatural glow. “There has to be a way to revert cresimen. Maybe that cure can cure us as well.”
How? Rowan thought. Sure, his eye may turn green again and stop going blind, but there were some things that couldn’t be recovered. Vera would never get her eye back. Reese’s leg wouldn’t grow to its normal size.
“I never knew you to be optimistic,” Rowan tried to joke.
Nyssa just opened her eyes, her expression tired and weary. “Do you think a cure is out there? Do you think it’s possible for us to revert cresimen and save everyone?”
Rowan hesitated. He never thought about being a hero and saving the world. To him, the world had been too spiteful. He had only cared about himself, Nyssa, and Reese. Everyone else could burn to the ground and Rowan would never waste another moment thinking about them again.
“Yes,” he finally said, because he knew Nyssa wanted to hear it. But he also said it because there was a part of him that wanted it to be true. He didn’t want his life to be turned over by cresimen anymore. If there was a cure, then stars, Rowan wanted it. Maybe miracles would happen and it could save Reese’s leg.
Nyssa looked at him. There was softness in her gaze, something Rowan hadn’t seen before. Maybe it was the exhaustion or it was because of their near-death experience. Death had never seem so real in the past two days.
“I’m glad you’re my friend,” she murmurs, ducking her head a little bit. “I don’t know what I would have done without you and Reese in my life.”
Whatever you always do, Rowan thought, thinking about what Reese had said before. But he knew that wasn’t true. Nyssa wouldn’t just shove it off and keep going. She was more fragile than he had realized.
And he was grateful that Nyssa was in his life. She was their rock—a stable connection to a belief of a better world.
Before he could return the words, ash sprayed over them and Adel appeared, panting heavily. Wild fear danced in Adel’s eyes and Nyssa was instantly alert, the exhaustion wiped off her face.
“What’s wrong?” She intercepted Adel, not even letting her get the first words in.
“Arya has woken up but she’s vomiting everything up. She can’t keep anything down—not even water.”
“What about the cresimen?” Nyssa’s fur bushed up in alarm.
Adel just shook her head. “It’s too late—the withdrawal is killing her.”
That’s impossible. Rowan thought, but Adel was their best medicine cat. She knew everything about diseases and illnesses. But if Arya couldn’t keep the cresimen down…then she wouldn’t be able to fight off the weakness of not taking cresimen. There was no dancing around it.
Arya was dying.