Well well well, who do we have here?
Words spread quickly, in the Twolegplace. They slunk through the shadows, sped through alleys. Rumours flew as fast as any bird. The truth was less desirable, but circulated only a fraction slower.
But she wanted the truth, the facts that could tell her everything she needed to know. Gossip didn't run order, respect; it ran chaos, and that was the last thing she needed. The city was a volatile place and the smallest spark could ignite panic, fear, disarray.
The she-cat stirred in her nest. The material was rough and itched against her scars, smelling faintly of Twolegs. There was an entire pile of the musty things, heaped in a dismal corner of the warehouse. She'd picked them over the small stack of boxes crowding the opposite wall; they were saturated with moisture and to judge by the pungent odour, it was not rainwater.
Through a shattered window, a chill wind whistled into the old building. The long months of sunlight were over, and harsher grey skies had begun to invade the horizon every morning. Long dusty puddles pooled on the cold stone floor; the taste of them was bitter, chemical. She drank it anyway, because anything was better than licking dew from the fur of prey, water off dirt walls, tiny collections of muddy rainwater in divots in the ground. There was always the river, a small distance from her encampment, but lately it was flooded and swollen. The dead cat that had washed up on its banks had quite put her off.
"Miss," Emory said, "we have news." That was what he called her, constantly, without fail- Miss. She never told him her name, said she'd lost it. The look in his green eyes asked, how do you lose a name? but perhaps one of her ravaged features distracted him-scared him a little- and the tabby had never pursued it further.
Miss, here is your food.
Miss, your wound is weeping.
Miss, it's all right Miss, just a nightmare. She had many nightmares, and Emory was there to console her every time she woke shivering, her scars burning as if they would never heal. He was a gem, really, her page, her messenger, her charisma.
"Ugh, tell me someone's dead," she groaned. Streetlight trickled in through the ajar door, where two more cats waited, heads bent in quiet discussion. Her henchman's henchmen, she supposed.
Emory grinned, stepping nimbly aside as she scrambled down from her nest. "Not yet, Miss."
'Miss' rolled her eyes, snapping, "What's that supposed to mean? I just woke up, you know."
"Our insider says they're planning a raid. Sometime in this moon or the next, but it will be lead by the golden leader herself, he says."
She bit back a growl. "That's the last thing we need!" she protested. We're not ready-"
"We have our plans in place," Emory reminded her. "Everyone important will be safe, you most of all. What happened before won't happen again."
She hadn't told him much about her adventure with the cats of PureClan, but he'd pieced it together, with the help of the insider's information. Their helper never gave them his name- for the sake of discretion, he said. Sometimes, in the early afternoons when she and Emory had nothing better to do, they would suggest what it could be, each name more ridiculous than the last.
Clan names were foreign to them, odd yet enticing.
No, I'm sure it's Icyeyes.
That's silly. Frostvoice.
Greystreak- oh, sorry.
"I'm not a helpless kittypet," she snapped- everyone treated her as if the slightest touch would rip her fur from her flesh, shatter her bones to powder. They told her she was essential, and acted as if she was vital.
"We know," Emory apologised, ducking his head, the picture of sheepish abashment. "But now we have to pick our martyrs."
Together they turned and headed towards the enticing slab of pale yellow light stretching across the dirty floor. Evori and Fray halted their murmured conversation and straightened. They were both large black toms, strangely unmarred with battle scars. Evori had yellow eyes, Fray dark brown, and she used these small aspects to tell them apart.
"Tell our dear spy his information is most welcome," Emory commanded Fray. The black cat nodded and slipped outside. He wouldn't deliver the message personally, of course, but rather through a chain of cats dotting the countryside. This thing she led, it was nothing if not efficient.
"To the basement, sir?" the remaining tom asked. To him, Emory was nothing but sir, and she was nothing but Miss, the revolution personified.
"Where else?" the tabby asked, feigning mild amusement. Maybe it was for her sake, because she hated the basement, all it represented, the memories it brought plunging back. When Emory smiled, she rarely failed to smile back.
But this was not a suitable situation for smiles and laughter.
The steep steps to the basement were slick with water and mold, damply, achingly cold from lack of sunlight and warmth. It was a cold she remembered well, a cold that permeated her dreams, lingering in shadows she dared not breach. Emory's tail rested on her shoulders, guiding her as the descended. Evori waited at the top, dense dark fur gleaming in the light from a streetlamp.
The first thing that struck her was not the dim gloom but the rancid, fetid stink that filled the underground room. She shuddered and Emory pretended to gag.
"Get used to it," she said indifferently. She had; this reek had covered her fur for moons on end, and every so often she thought she caught a whiff of it, clinging demurely to to her pelt.
It didn't take long for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, for the shadows to become shapes, silhouettes, cowed cats.
This was voluntary, she reminded herself. They volunteered for this, for shelter and free food. For sacrifice.
Emory nudged her forward as the huddle of nameless cats looked towards them. She felt a flicker of annoyance- she could take her own cues, thank you very much.
"The time has come, and another raid looms on the horizon," she announced dramatically. "The murderers of the distant forest intend to take from our very city the lives of our friends and foes alike. But comrades, do not think that we are defenceless. Do not think we are without hope."
She paused to gauge the impact of her words. No one looked particularly invoked, but they were all staring at her. Her appearance was anprecedented change in the status qou.
"You are our hope!" she cried. "You are our defense and it is you who will save us from PureClan's long-dreaded teeth and talons.
"You have pledged your word and come tomorrow, my best and brightest will begin to teach you how to evade and counter our enemy's attacks. The cats of the city depend on you, my comrades. However there is one sad thing I can not ignore; not everyone may be our saviors. A few must be preserved for later situations."
Her tabby shadow pushed forwards, his shoulder brushing gently against hers. "So now, companions, we ask for any volunteers to step forwards. Understand this is a formality and we can take any cat we wish." Emory's narrowed gaze swept the room. "So approach us, any cat of worth. We have need of you."
A ragged line formed in front of her eyes; thin cats, short cats, tall, shivering, ungroomed, scarred. Their names were too many to remember; Paora, Mikearr, Asunder, Dax, Jure, Perica, Shevon, two Skys, Priscilla, Rose-not to be confused with Rosa- Hadrian and a dozen more. But she did not need to remember their names, only their sacrifice. Their sacrifice that had once almost been hers.
Like a broken tempo, her mantra began to pound in her head.
Help me, help me-
Help wasn't for cats like her. She would deliver help to the city, Emory at her side, all while watching the golden queen's world crumble. Yet her mantra refused to fade, and its soft persistent echoes lined her dreams that night.