Cats and Dogs
This is a Sleepwalkers short story which perhaps requires some familiarity with the setting, because it was intended for the latter half of the RPG book.
Adam cradled the cat in his lap. It was dead. He stroked it nonetheless- he had grown fond of it and had always hated seeing any harm come to animals. The cat’s death meant that something much worse was coming and he found himself deeply saddened… it was an unwelcome emotion which he had little time for and felt rarely.
A woman sat across the room from him, bound to a chair. She was… bloody.
“They’re dead,” she said. “My betrayal is complete. Might as well kill me now and be done with the whole mess.”
Adam rose to his feet. He held his gun to her head and his lips to hers.
Old John watched Lady Grey out of the corner of his eye. The Stray was pouring herself drinks from the bar. The clubhouse was small but well equipped, more like a pub in a permanent state of lock-in than a stronghold. Back in the Real, the place looked abandoned. Here in the Fringe the place had couches, bunks, gym equipment, even posters on the walls- not that they looked great in shades of grey. Lady Grey’s sib lay stretched out on a couch, idly flexing his claws, watching Old John with cool feline eyes. His name was Happy. The three of them looked up when the X entered the room. He looked somewhat haggard yet he stared unflinchingly at them both.
“Evening,” said the X by way of greeting. “You both ready?” He was a terse and severe man but a good leader. Of course he was- Old John wouldn’t have let a younger man take the top position if he was anything less. The X stepped up beside Lady Grey and kissed her on the cheek, still staring hard into her eyes. That was a less admirable trait… Old John was a big believer in keeping business and pleasure separate and their relationship was a potential problem.
“As always,” replied Lady. She opened a beer for the X and glanced over at Happy. Something passed between them, some unknowable communication between woman and beast. Old John never liked that- never liked Strays at all. There was something unnatural in them, even for Sleepwalkers.
“Aye,” said Old John, nodding at the X. As the deputy of his club, the Mongrels, Old John was privy to the true names of everyone else in the club. He never thought much about it; the X was the X. The one-letter title was customary for leaders among the Nobodies, their parent organisation. The Mongrels had been part of the Nobodies network of gangs for almost a decade and that meant following their rules.
This X was tall and lean, a dark haired youth. He had a dash of vanity but he kept the club fresh and dynamic. Lady Grey- real name Lucille Carr- was built from the same mould, slender without losing muscle. She could have been an athlete. Then again, they could all have been something else if not for the grey shift. Once you became a Sleepwalker, you had to kiss any kind of normal life goodbye. The only way to survive was to embrace the Fringe- which is why Old John joined the Nobodies in the first place.
“Good. John Moses will be here soon. He said he had twenty blood lotus- a massive cluster he found under the west bridge,” said the X, hushing his voice despite the fact that they were perfectly alone. Everyone was skittish at the moment. The hallucinogenic blood lotus bulbs were worth their weight in gold and they were the bread and butter of the Mongrels. Not only were they needed to make the blood powder drug that gave them an edge against rival gangs, they also made a fantastic commodity. Everyone wanted them but not everyone could get them- they grew in the middle of deadly tangles of thorny vines that made razor wire look like dental floss. The reason for the nervous air was that their blood lotus stashes had been raided repeatedly over the last year.
The thieves were careful. The hits were few and far between, never greedy. They had spaced them out, even used different methods. The Mongrels had not even noticed that the raids were connected until just recently and only then because the thieves got cocky, striking more often than before and with increasing accuracy. It became clear that either they were tracking the stashes or someone was leaking information.
“That should make us up to a full shipment. If we’re going to be a target at all, it’ll be tonight,” said Lady Grey. The X narrowed his eyes at that comment and carefully nodded. Her sib leapt from the sofa and stood to attention when a knock sounded at the clubhouse door.
“Right, get to it,” said the X. He pulled a handgun from under the bar, checked it over and slid it into the back of his waistband. He had a bandana tied around one arm, displaying his mask, the identifying badge of a Nobody. It was decorated with several images: the logo of the Mongrels, the logo of the Nobodies, a large X denoting his rank and a copy of his Sigil (which was two parallel curved lines on his back). He was a Seer, coming to the Fringe out-of-body by necessity. His real body was asleep in the bunks upstairs.
Old John wore his mask over his face, partly for tradition and partly because his face was not his best feature. Old John was a Spirit, killed over two decades ago, at the age of forty eight. The gunshot wound to the throat made for a messy corpse and a somewhat unpleasant Sigil, his ragged neck glowing red as if he had swallowed a glow-stick. When he died, he had been a blunt instrument for a gang of smugglers; a simple fight over territory had ended his life on earth, if not his life of crime. His mask was decorated with a circle to denote his position as deputy and a copy of his Sigil, portrayed as a ragged vertical line. He had his own handgun, too. It was his ‘possession’ as they were known- an object bound to stay with him forever, haunting him as he haunted the Fringe. He called the gun Edith and like him she was creaky but dependable. Edith went into a pocket inside his leathers, put to bed until he needed her.
Lady Grey and Happy moved in perfect concert. He was a tortoiseshell, a mottle of black and orange with a gash in one ear and a slight limp. Lady Grey wore matching colours, an orange vest top under her black leathers. Her mask was tied around her neck like a scarf. Their Sigils were identical; a jagged triangle that appeared on her exposed stomach and on his left hind leg. Both the Amazonian woman and the fickle household predator walked with a confident edge that made Old John glad that he carried Edith.
The weary old Spirit followed the X and Lady Grey to the main door. The clubhouse was an abandoned fire station, long since boarded up in the Real. The Mongrels had put good time and effort into making sure that its Fringe echo remained intact. The main door was large and heavy and like all of the outer walls bar one, it had a tooth hammered into it. To be precise they were fangs; the fangs of dead underdogs, charmed to prevent people passing through the walls. The Fringe had its own rules. Old John missed keeping underdogs- they were a great deterrent to thieves, but Lady Grey had been afraid of one getting loose and eating Happy.
Old John and Lady Grey opened the door together, alert for danger. Happy sat behind them, calmly watching proceedings as the door opened to reveal John Moses and a truck laden with blood lotus bulbs.
“Lady Grey, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” crooned Moses, leaning into the door. Aside from being dangerously flirtatious with the girlfriend of the boss, he was a Shifter, a good one. He wore a set of goggles, dirty overalls and industrial grade protective gloves and boots. He had been crawling through the bowels of the district, following tendrils of bloodvine to find the precious blood lotus plants.
“Yeah, yeah, just get that truck into the garage before you’ve got more than sore eyes,” she replied, punching him on the arm.
“I’ll open up,” offered Old John and left them, heading down the corridors of the building to what was once a bay for fire engines. There were three heavy set motorbikes in there already. His own was the dirtiest and loudest of them; he liked a bike with a scuff or two. Grumbling to himself, Old John raised the heavy garage door. The electric motors worked well enough thanks to a generator they had built here in the Fringe.
Adam heard a scream, but it was cut short. He was in the alleyway behind the clubhouse. He ran towards the sound, hearing more noises, a gunshot and a loud hiss that sounded like a cat. Rounding the corner he found his friend John Moses lying face down on the floor, a ragged hole in his back. A woman stood over him, a strange woman with long limbs, fingernails thick enough to be claws and a ring of stones and beads around her neck. She had two lines across her face. There was a cat beside her which hissed again, this time at him.
When the garage door came up, the truck was right in front of it. The headlights shone in Old John’s eyes, making him squint. When his eyes adjusted, he saw John Moses concentrating on steering through safely… oblivious to the woman silently climbing onto the top of the truck. Old John shouted a warning and went to pull out Edith, as the woman on the truck raised a short spear like a javelin and plunged it through the Roustabout’s roof. Old John knew exactly what that was- a Dja, the sacred weapon of the Rapture of Bastet. Strays- damn them all!
The spear penetrated the roof but missed John Moses- barely. Old John squeezed Edith but her aim was off; the bullet hit the woman square on the chest but rebounded off her necklace, a heavy set stone circle of eye-watering colours. She wore some kind of war paint, two lines across her face. The woman leapt backwards off the truck and by the time Old John had stepped around it, she had disappeared into the gloom. John Moses drove forward, quickly getting the truck safely inside while Old John lowered the garage door.
“What in hell?” shrieked Moses, climbing out of the truck.
“I didn’t see a cat, but she looked like Rapture of Bastet,” said Old John, quickly heading back to the main room.
“Lady’s old friends?” asked Moses, slinging a bag over his shoulder from the truck’s passenger seat. The bag was full of pool balls and Old John had seen the Shifter use his control over the Fringe to turn the things into deadly projectiles.
“The very same,” grunted Old John, giving Moses a pointed look. He had tried to warn the X about this.
They ran back inside and met the X, Lady Grey and Happy in the corridor. The X was scratching his head and regarding Moses with his calculating stare.
“We heard a gunshot…” he began.
“Attacked by a woman,” said Old John. He turned to Lady Grey. “Using a spear. Ring any bells?”
“The Rapture? I don’t know…” she said, putting her palms up defensively. She looked at Happy for a moment before speaking again. “They could be the thieves, I suppose. They’d want the blood lotus to make anti-Phagi weapons and medicines.”
“And they always seem to know where to strike,” said Old John, leaning in close to her and baring his teeth. “I’m telling you now… when you took your mask, you joined the Nobodies and left the Rapture forever. If that was a lie, you won’t leave here alive.”
“I wasn’t me. I haven’t said a word,” said Lady Grey, her voice edged with a challenge. “X, I’m a Nobody. You know that better than anyone.”
“We’ll find out tonight,” was all he said, watching her face closely. She stared back at him, clearly wounded by his less-than-absolute faith in her loyalty. Old John couldn’t help but smile. Maybe the X wasn’t totally blinded by his affection for the woman, after all. He had always been hard to fool; something of his Seer nature kept him sharp, kept him questioning.
“Look, that crazy bitch is still out there,” said Moses. “I’m going to check all the entrances.” He turned to go but the X grabbed Moses’ wrist with sudden urgency.
“Take Old John with you. Watch your back,” he ordered. “We’ll check upstairs.”
Old John nodded and left with Moses, wondering what the X knew that they did not. They checked the back door and all the windows and made sure that all the underdog teeth were in place. Moses paused and turned to Old John:
“Hey, deputy dog… if they have an insider, could they know about the secret entrance?” he asked. He was right- there was one wall that was not protected, in case they needed to get in or out quickly. Old John did not even have to answer- they both turned and ran for the garage.
The moment they arrived, they knew the unknown Stray had used the hidden door- because Old John fell to the floor, shocked with a sudden pain in his chest that felt like someone had shaken his ribs loose, bass vibrations running through his body. He looked up to see a cat watching him. It wasn’t Happy- it was white furred and smaller. The cat was draining his strength with its natural command of magic. John Moses ran over to the cat and kicked at it, but it ran, too small and fast for him to hit.
The Stray had been counting on him to turn his back. She appeared from the corner of the room, from behind a tool unit, gliding through the grey gloom of the Fringe, the colour of her skin and clothes shifting to hide her. She raised her hands- which had grown into claws- ready to strike him in the back. Old John knew that if Moses had been alone, she could well have killed him. Instead, he climbed to his feet, focusing himself to undo the harm that the cat had inflicted. Dead men did not go down easily.
“Behind you!” he called as he rose. Moses span around; a claw raked across his chest but he avoided the brunt of the damage. Old John was afraid to use Edith with Moses in the way- instead he helped by unzipping Moses’ backpack, taking a handful of pool balls out and throwing them upwards.
They did not fall. Instead, Moses used his command of the Fringe to propel them through the air towards the Stray. The balls flew like cannon balls, causing a heavy smack of impact each time they struck her. Half of them missed; she leapt to the side with the speed of… well, a cat. Nonetheless, Moses was good at what he did and the balls that struck raised large, bloody cuts on the Stray’s cheek and forearm. She shouted out in pain then disappeared back to the Real in a flash of red electricity.
“I’ve got her!” shouted Moses, placing his hand against the wall, causing the same red electricity to crackle out from his hand, leaving a portal in its wake that led into the garage in the Real.
“Wait, I can’t follow you!” said Old John. He tried to grab him but was too late. He could only watch as Moses travelled to the Real, to the old fire station. Only Sleepwalkers could cross that threshold. The Stray was on him immediately, leaping from behind, landing heavily on his back to force a knife between his shoulders.
Moses died. Old John screamed with rage. The Stray fled- in two steps she was away from the portal’s field of view and gone.
Adam was running. He crashed through a doorway, into the bar, knowing that someone was in danger but unsure of who. The first thing he saw was the Stray assassin, her lungs heaving from exertion. A woman lay on the ground… Lady Grey.
He stepped forward but the Stray made no move to harm the other woman. Then he saw the glowing mark on the floor, a Sigil burned into the ground. That only happened when a Spirit was wounded, leaving them as a Sigil without a body. She had somehow defeated Old John.
The unknown Stray’s cat was hunched over the glowing mark. The light from the Sigil poured into the beast as it consumed Old John’s very soul and self. Adam raised his gun and fired- a lucky shot right through the beast killed it instantly, but too late to save his friend’s soul.
The X charged into the garage with Lady Grey. Old John swung his gun towards them but lowered it when he saw who it was.
“She killed Moses!” he shouted. “She knew about the secret wall!” he added, bringing Edith around to point at Lady Grey.
“What?! I told you to stay with him!” shouted the X, standing between Old John and Lady Grey. He was staring intently at Old John.
“I tried. We were ambushed but we held our own,” said Old John. He gestured to the portal. “She fled to the Real, he followed. I tried to stop him… I’m sorry.”
He hung his head. He was meant to be the deputy, meant to look after the other johns. This all felt wrong. Where was the wrath that the club usually brought to bear on their enemies?
“No, it’s not your fault. I saw this coming,” said the X. He sighed and rubbed his temples. “We don’t have time to worry about it. The Stray’s in the Real now, so she could be going for my body…”
“I’ll go,” said Lady Grey.
“No, you can’t trust her to go on her own.” argued Old John. The X looked at them both and sighed.
“I can’t leave you on your own, either,” he said to Old John. “Okay: I’ll wake up, return to the Real and look after my own body. Lady Grey, stay close to him. Simon- be careful.”
The X closed his eyes and within moments he disappeared, his projection leaving the Fringe to return to his body. His gun and his leathers dropped to the floor.
Old John shook his head, surprised that the X had used his true name. He watched Lady Grey closely as they headed for the bar together.
“You’re a traitor,” he accused as they entered the room. He checked every corner for the Rapture of Bastet assassin. It was best to question her without the X present- his feelings for her could cloud things. Old John was expecting her to protest, to make him squeeze the truth out of her. He was not expecting the reply he got.
“I’m going to make it right,” she said, rounding on Old John. Her eyes were wide and glistening with almost-tears. Happy mewled at her but turned his back, laying in the doorway, perhaps to watch for the other Stray.
“You admit it?” he asked, taken by surprise. He raised Edith again. This whole situation contained far too many surprises. Strays complicated things. Women complicated things. Edith had been no exception, but at least the gun that bore her name was quite capable of simplifying life for him.
“I used to be in the Rapture. You know that much. They planted me with you. They wanted someone inside the Nobodies… feeding back information on your numbers, your weapons, strongholds…”
“Blood lotus supplies.”
“Yes. I told them all the locations and times,” she admitted, looking down at the floor.
Old John was drawing a line on himself as he listened to her. The line glowed red as he traced his finger down his forearm, copying her Sigil.
“Well, now they’ve killed Moses,” he said. “You want to explain to me why I shouldn’t kill you right now, Lucille Carr?” he asked as he used her true name against her. The curse weakened her visibly- she groaned and sagged like someone who had been awake for a week.
“Please… wait… I didn’t want this. Yes, they got the information from me, but she- Alexis, the assassin- was meant to come when nobody was here. I told them I wanted out, I wanted to leave the Rapture and join you. I swear it!” she protested. Happy hissed angrily, so Old John stepped back towards the door to keep the beast in his view.
“So she’s come to kill you too?”
“No,” said a new voice. “I came to test her. Lucille, it is not too late to undo your betrayal. Kill this one and come back to the Rapture with me.”
Old John moved faster than he knew he could, spinning back to the doorway where the assassin appeared, cloaked in shifting greys as she channelled her sib’s affinity for stealth. Having half of his mind focused on Lady Grey’s Sigil took a toll on his reaction time; he squeezed off a shot but it only hit the wall. The assassin ducked and twisted, beautifully graceful. She closed with Old John before he could fire again, closing a clawed hand over his wrist.
He intended to struggle against the grip, to rail at her, to hold onto Edith with all his might. He didn’t get the chance because her claws severed the whole hand in seconds. Old John had never felt a pain like it. Blood flowed and bone cracked as the hand fell away.
“Stop!” screamed Lady Grey.
She ran forward, changing as she moved, growing claws and fangs. She lowered the veil between her humanity and the part of her that came from Happy. When she collided with Alexis, the two Strays looked frightfully similar, except for their clothing. Claws flashed, teeth shone.
Old John roared too, with a different kind of rage, a howl of indignation. His hand reformed, though it took all of his strength and it hurt as much as having it severed. He dropped his control of Lady Grey to focus on repairing himself. He knew that if he were killed he would not die outright, that he would be reduced to a bodiless Sigil- but then he would be at the mercy of the Stray’s sib. Cats were not known for that particular trait.
He could do nothing to help Lady Grey- the two women danced as they fought, both bleeding from long scratches, kicking and clawing at each other. Alexis was winning. Old John could see that she was the more advanced Sleepwalker, capable of more potent supernatural acts. No doubt that was the training of the Rapture of Bastet- Lady Grey was behind on her studies, living for so long with the Mongrels.
He stepped around them, looking for the intruder’s white sib. Happy had already found it, out in the corridor- the two cats fought just as their mistresses did, spitting and swiping, circling and lunging. Old John waited until the cats broke apart and then brought his boot down hard on the white cat’s back, ignoring the short screech of agony and the sensation of snapping bones and ruptured organs. Happy looked at him with an expression that he could not even begin to understand.
Old John expected Alexis to scream in rage when her sib died, but she actually went silent- so deep was the shock and the dread. She pushed Lady Grey away with a kick fuelled by desperation and rounded on Old John. She had murder in her eyes, but he did not worry, knowing that even if she killed him now his Sigil would be safe from her sib. She plunged her teeth into his neck, near the base of his skull. The death was mercifully short.
Lady Grey seized her opportunity and wrapped her claws around the assassin’s throat, tearing it away like paper. She fell, expiring beside Old John, whose body faded as his Sigil burned into the floor, temporarily bodiless but quite alive in the state that Spirits called ‘slumber’. Happy stepped over the mark, sniffing at it.
Both Happy and Lady Grey jumped with fright when a figure charged through the door.
The X saw a Stray standing over a woman’s body and a cat hunched over Old John’s Sigil.
The X cradled the cat in his lap. Sadness hung heavy in him. Lady Grey sat opposite him, weak and defeated. She clutched at her ribs. He remembered her telling him that she had died in a car crash, before Happy had saved her and made her a Stray.
“I’m so sorry,” he moaned. “I had a vision of a cat killing Old John. I didn’t know…”
“It’s okay,” she replied. She looked pale and tears were fresh on her cheeks.
“No. I should have realised when the vision about John Moses turned out differently. The gift only shows possible futures. At first I saw you tied to a chair… I thought you had betrayed us…”
“That’s because I did. I’ve been betraying the club since I first arrived. I gave the Rapture everything I knew. It’s my fault. Don’t blame yourself.”
“No! This is all wrong! Some of the visions play out the same, some don’t. I…” the X had no more words.
Happy was dead, but he stroked him nonetheless. He had grown fond of him and had always hated seeing any harm come to animals. His death meant that something much worse was coming. Without the sib keeping her death at bay, Lady Grey would die- slowly and painfully- as the car crash replayed itself on her ribs. Her death was coming back for her.
“You’re a good leader, whatever you think,” she said. “Old John will live and I’m ready to die. It was only ever borrowed time. Besides, the Rapture would come for me sooner or later. I’m glad I chose you.”
“But… you’ll die for us. You should have gone with her. Damn loyalty, I’d rather you’d betrayed us and lived.”
“Is that as close as you get to saying ‘I love you’?” joked Lady Grey weakly. “Well, she’s dead. My betrayal is complete. Might as well kill me now and be done with the whole mess, Adam.”
He rose to his feet. He held his gun to her head and his lips to hers.