Dusty waited till nightfall to come out of hiding. He padded silently onto the wooden deck overlooking the sleepy yard, carefully avoiding the arc of the motion sensor that would set the outside light glowing. A chill breeze ruffled the thick hair of his head. He felt his nose and left ear twitch but other than that, he had no reaction.
He smelled Royal before he saw him, a black silhouette with patches of white that shone luminous silver in the light of the nearly full moon. Royal always smelled of weed and catnip, and his gleaming yellow irises were almost eclipsed by his fully dilated pupils. Royal hopped off the deck he had been lounging in with deft grace and gave Dusty a lazy grin.
“Whassup, D?” he asked. “Cutting it pretty fuckin’ close, ain’tcha?”
Dusty shrugged in a smooth, languid motion. “Crack down,” he murmured back by way of explanation. The people he lived with had a thing about letting him out. Generally this suited him fine – he was small compared to others of his kind, including Royal and Gennavieve. He knew well enough that he would not last long out there without their help. Once a year, though, he had little choice.
Royal, for his part, just returned the shrug and, digging in a pouch he wore around his neck whenever he was not being casually observed, offered Dusty a tightly packed ball of dried leaves. “Wanna’ hit?” he asked. Dusty shook his head hard, once.
“No,” he said, trying to keep the revulsion out of his voice. The people he lived with had never let him have the stuff, though vague impressions form his youth recalled to him a dizzying buzzing sensation that made him lose anything resembling impulse control. Not really something he needed to experience, especially not now. “Where’s Ginny?” he murmured. “We’ve got 22 hours of travel and 24 hours to get there.”
“Use your eyes, recluse,” purred a soft voice. Ginny disentangled herself from the inky black shadows of the foliage edging the deck. Her orange eyes glowed up at Dusty and he felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. Ginny was gorgeous, orange and red and red striped hair, huge luminous eyes, and proud bearing but he did not trust her. Both Royal and Ginny were younger than he was by about a year, but they both had more experience with the neighborhood than he did. And it was a rough neighborhood.
The first time they had seen each other, she had been exploring the yard of the new neighbors and Dusty had been watching her inside his window. She spotted him and came over.
“Hello,” Dusty had murmured, guardedly. “Anything interesting?”
She had glared at him. “You challenging me?” Dusty blinked.
“Excuse me?” he had asked, beyond taken aback.
“Let’s get one thing straight, blue eyes, this is MY block. You can live here if you have to, but let’s just get that one thing clear. I am NOT going to take orders from any kind of Asian-American half-breed. Got it no-balls?”
Their relationship had not improved since then. Dusty had learned soon after that she lived next door with Royal and a musician named Eric. He also knew the only person she truly feared was one of the ones he lived with. The big one, the man of the house. He had an unpredictable temper and ever since he had paused to socialize with her and she damn near ripped his face off, he had something akin to a dangerous attitude toward her. Fortunately for her, she was faster than he was.
Dusty knew that the big man would not ever hurt her, not really. But that was not something she really needed to know, now was it?
Ignoring her less-than-subtle dig, he turned his back on her, his head slightly bowed. This was not a sign of submission so much as deference. This was the only situation that Ginny and he had to play nice, which was part of the reason why he was even willing to leave the house. Royal was busily chewing the dried leaves and his already dilated eyes and grown so only the barest edge of yellow could be seen of his irises. He grinned a wide, dopey grin at both of them.
“Fantastic,” he said, a little too loudly. “Now that we’re all friends, shall we?”
Without another word the three of them moved off the deck and across the yard, still avoiding the motion sensors on the house, then the one over the door leading into the garage. They moved single file to the narrow space between the raspberry bushes, now nearly devoid of leaves, and the garage and in moments they were in the alley. They headed east, using the narrow spaces hidden in shadow and urban entropy that most folks never see. After several minutes, they left the city for the country, crossing state lines minutes after that. Dusty had been this way five times in as many years and he still marveled at how quickly the narrow spaces covered distances. When they arrived at the coast, they waited with several dozen others for their transportation. As they waited, Royal took another hit from his pouch and sniffed loudly.
“Hey,” he mewed, prodding Dusty indelicately with his shoulder. “What’s the story on that prize piece you’re living with?”
Dusty rolled his eyes. “You don’t have a shot, Royal. She’s married to the big man. They have offspring.”
Royal tossed his head. “Please. She likes me better. She gives me deliciousness and I give her what she needs.”
Dusty scoffed. “You call a dead rabbit on the sidewalk what she needs? Their son saw that the next day and had all manner of questions. I mean honestly, how do you explain death to a 4-year-old?”
Royal opened his mouth again to retort, but Ginny cut him off.
“Speaking of the big man, have you told him yet? You have had plenty of opportunity,” she said snidely. She knew he had not. The big man could See, though Dusty doubted he understood exactly what that meant. On the 31st day of the 10th month of the Christian calendar, the language barrier broke down and those with the Sight could communicate freely back and forth. Dusty had never bothered.
“You know I haven’t,” he replied. The big man had the Sight all right: More strongly than anyone else Dusty had ever heard of. But Dusty had not told him for one reason: The big man would want to help. And such things were not possible. Ginny sniffed.
“Good,” she growled. “I don’t like him.”
“Big surprise,” Dusty muttered, but Ginny’s sharp ears heard him. Her gaze grew frigid and full of rage.
“Were it not Halloween Eve-” she snarled, but Dusty had had enough.
“You would flay me alive,” he growled. “You’ve said this. Also, Halloween Eve? Really? You sound like an idiot. Halloween is a bastardized version of ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ so you’re essentially saying ‘All Hallow’s Eve Eve’ you mangy ignorant cretin.”
The big man was something of an academic. Most of these things Dusty had picked up from snippets of whatever the big man was interested at the time. Every Halloween, the big man would do a study of the history of the holiday. Dusty knew that November 1st was All Saint’s Day, kind of like Christmas but for every Catholic saint. The day before was kind of a Christian Cinco De Mayo. This stopped being taken seriously in the previous century and became a more secular tradition. What most folks did not know was that the old beliefs were not far off… which is why they were all here.
Ginny was quivering all over, bristling with undisguised rage. Dusty met her gaze point blank.
“You need me,” he said flatly. “So step off, bitch.”
“Oh snap,” Royal breathed through clenched teeth. “Too far, ya crazy cat.”
Before things could escalate further however, the moon broke through the clouds, revealing a golden nHbt; a long, canoe-like boat, sidling up to the beach. Without another word, they got on board. The nHbt was not large, but still comfortably carried 1000 of them. Dusty left Royal to try and calm Ginny and sought out friendlier acquaintances.
He found Grimm and Mogget seated in the stern of the nHbt, conversing quietly. Grimm spotted him first and stood up to greet him with a broad grin.
“Dusty you alabasterd, how the Hells are you?” he asked. Dusty grinned back and greeted his old friend.
“Grimm you gutless violin-string, you staying out of trouble?” he shot back. The two laughed and bumped shoulders in greeting. Peering over Grimm’s shoulder, Dusty eyed the huge Mogget. Huge and dark-eyed, Mogget was smiling widely. This did not necessarily mean that he was happy or even friendly, but Dusty knew him well enough to recognize the genuine emotion behind it. Mogget was happy to see him.
“Keeping busy?” Dusty asked. Mogget stood in a smooth motion and bumped shoulders with Dusty, nearly knocking him flat. Mogget was huge and dark and one of Dusty’s best friends. He had known Grimm and Mogget from before. They had been friends in their respective youths and, while Dusty’s current living situation was a far cry better than it had been, he missed them terribly. Especially when Ginny was busting his chops. Mogget did not speak, and sat back down. Sometime in their younger days, the man Mogget lived with had gotten high on something called bath salts. In his mind-altered state, he had split Mogget’s tongue in half by nailing it to the table and then pulling him off.
Mogget had recovered, but his tongue was still split and badly scarred, making it nearly impossible for him to speak, and when he did it was with a sharp impediment. The man who had done this had died later that year in a shoot-out with the police and Mogget had come to live with Dusty and Grimm.
Further, Mogget was one of the Dark Ones, so named for their obsidian coloration. They had it rough this time of year, so Dusty was not offended by Mogget’s silence.
Dusty took a seat with his companions and glanced about. The nHbt was filled to capacity and pulling away from shore, a second moving to receive more of those waiting on the shoreline. This would continue until all of them were ferried across the Atlantic. The entire thing was happening in the spaces between, so though it would take many hours to ferry the last of them across, a full night will not have passed by the time they finished.
Mogget stared off into the middle-distance as if something held his interest but only slightly. Grimm was more alert, eyes bright in the moonlight. Dusty, for his part, was looking for another of their group, the last and only female. Finally, about halfway through the big blue ocean, he spoke his thought aloud.
“Where is Voila?” he asked. Grimm and Mogget exchanged a glance.
“She’s gone, Dust-bomb,” Grimm said softly. “The people she lives with moved to the west coast. Took her with. On a plane no less.”
Dusty frowned at this. It was wonderful to see his old friends again, but Voila made the unpleasantness of the damp ocean air, and length of the trip and the… inconvenience of what was to come worth bearing. Mogget’s face furrowed, obviously understanding Dusty’s feelings. He exchanged another glance with Grimm and the smaller of the two seemed to understand his meaning.
“Look, she’ll catch one of the westerly nHbt’s. She’ll be there, Duster.”
Dusty nodded but said nothing. Anything could have happened to her. She could have easily been put down in the last year. It happened, more and more often as their numbers worldwide swelled. It concerned him more than he would admit to Grimm or Mogget. Sure he and Voila could never breed, neither were equipped any longer, but some things transcended the biological need to procreate. The people he lived with would have called it love. Himself, he was not sure such a thing really truly described what went into it, but all the same…. He rode out the rest of the journey in companionable silence.
Only one further incident marked the time, and that was when Ginny wandered too close to their circle. She had glared at Dusty and started to get her hackles up, but backed off when Mogget stood and glared at her. Dusty had seen her face down larger opponents than Mogget, but none of them had been a Dark One. She was not stupid: The Dark Ones were the only ones permitted to attack and, if necessary, kill during this time of year. She would have to terrorize Dusty another time.
They arrived in Egypt just before midday. One by one, they disembarked and made their way, again using the spaces between, till they reached Cairo sometime after noon. Others streamed into the city from all quarters from all over the world, hundreds of thousands of them. Dusty traveled with Grimm and Mogge, and then waited at the gathering ground at the base of the Great Pyramid outside of Giza. The influx had begun before dawn and continued throughout the day. They stayed just this side of the spaces between so as to not be spotted in their great numbers by those who would not understand their purpose. All the while, Dusty kept an ice-blue eye open for Voila, but to no avail.
As the sun began to sink in a general westerly direction, a hushed call in the universal language of their kind and Mogget took his leave. The Dark Ones filtered through the crowds and poised at the edge of reality, a thickening dark line of blackness at the rim of the world. As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, they darted into the shadow of the pyramid which pointed in the direction of the sunrise as if it where the marker on a vast map. They filled the shadow, exactly the number needed to fill every inch with a deeper sort of blackness.
The gingers were next, filling in the orange and red shadows of sand reflecting the orange and red sky. The others, including Grimm and, Dusty hoped, Voila, filled in the gaps between. That left only himself and the other Light Ones. The Light Ones for their moment, lining the edge of reality with tones of white, buff, and cream. The ones who had done this before had darker markings than some of their younger companions and a few, like Dusty, were showing signs of the transformation to becoming a Dark One.
When the moon arched high in the sky, almost directly above the Pyramid, the Light Ones darted over the still crowd of their fellows and climbed the pyramid, covering every available inch of it so that an outside observer would witness the pyramid as white and gleaming in the midnight moonlight as it once looked over 3000 years ago. Dusty was among them, near the bottom with the other transitioners. The youngest of them topped the pyramid, white and pure as the falling snow several feet below Dusty were the ones, like Royal, who had almost fully transitioned.
As the great lower hemisphere of the moon brushed the top of the tower, the singing began. Dusty glanced around to meet the eyes of his neighbor who was doing the same. It was hard not to, for it was not their kind who sang. It was every stone of the pyramid. It was the sky where the earth and the heavens met. It was the darkness of space, the twinkliness of the stars, and every grain of sand. As the moon reached its zenith, the song began to harmonize melodically, and then shift ever so slightly out of cadence. Then the discord grew more pronounced. The sky rippled as the moon, now in perfect geo-synchronous above the Great Pyramid, turned violent orange, then blood red, then deep purple like a bruise below the skin.
Clear and calling against the dissonance of Natures song, the topmost of their kind began to sing. She was barely old enough to walk, her eyes still shying from the light as if they had only recently opened. Dusty remembered his time, all those years ago, when he had stood on the paramount of this very pyramid and started the great song.
Soon, the individuals surrounding her began to sing as well, all the way down the steep slopes until everyone surrounding the pyramid sang as well. The Dark Ones remained silent, but eventually everyone else had lifted their voices in song. The dissonance grew more pronounced even as the melody swelled. It was then that the Dark Ones lifted their voices, deep and low, to the purple bruise of a moon.
A hand bearing four digits pressed against the fabric of reality in the place where the moon ought to have been. It pressed hard, to the point of tearing, when a pair of claws burst through at the tip of each of the digits. Organic membranes shredded, spattering the Light Ones with black blood, darkening their coloring where the viscous liquid hit them. This was part of the transition and could never be removed. Dusty closed his eyes as he was spattered and felt the vile liquid slide down his head, shoulders, and back. But he, like his comrades, never stopped singing.
He looked skyward again and watched as a woman with the head of a feline and the naked shoulders and breasts of a human. She reached down a four-fingered hand and swiped a clawed hand at the young one on the top of the pyramid. Dusty winced as the young one sprayed red blood over the opposite slope of the pyramid. They would bear russet patches in addition to the darkening moonblood. That is until the transition took hold and they became Dark Ones. The young one’s head had been severed from her shoulders, and it bounced down the slope of the pyramid, bouncing off the tightly packed shoulders, heads, and backs of the Light Ones. This was not unheard of, but was generally not a good sign.
Dusty mourned the loss of one so young more acutely than the others, but the people he lived with had little ones of their own and he had a soft spot for the young.
The cat-headed woman struggled her way out of the whole in the sky created by the hole in the sky where the moon ought to have been. She seemed to be almost swimming against the tide of the music they sang, but despite this, she managed to perch softly on the tip of the pyramid. She was naked, with bronze colored skin and a felines head of the darkest obsidian. Her eyes were huge and glowed gold in the near-darkness.
<Not this year!> She screamed in her ancient language. Dusty understood her perfectly well, as did all those around him. This was their language, from a time when his kind were thought of as the guardians of the underworld and venerated by the gods. Dusty glanced around sharply at this proclamation. She had never come out this far before, at least not to his memory. The others were doing the same, still singing, but Dusty could hear the song faltering. Suddenly he realized why: The Dark Ones had stopped singing altogether. Without their smooth countermelody, the rest of the song fell apart.
Dusty felt panic rising in his chest. This was not supposed to happen. The cat-headed woman placed her other foot on the pyramid and laughed loudly, a hysterical sound that echoed against the distant horizon. Bastest, bloody goddess of war and love, looked over her rebellious children, all the cats of the world, and knew that they were powerless to keep her out… not this time.
Dusty looked around and saw that the Light Ones around him were confused. They were not so enthralled that they could not know that they needed to do something, but not one of them had any idea what. The rest, the gingers, tabby’s, tiger-striped, they were all completely agog, staring hard at their mistress. The Dark Ones Had the air of waiting for further instruction. Proving this true, the bronze cat-headed goddess turned her golden eyes on them.
<Destroy the rest.> she snarled. The Dark Ones did not hesitate. Snarling, they burst from their place outward, slaughtering, maiming, and bloodletting with joyous abandon. Dusty’s keen eyes followed Mogget as the huge cat tore into Ginny. Ginny, for her part, stood her ground, snarling and hissing and spitting in all her street-fighting glory. She did not stand a chance. Dusty looked away, unable to watch his longtime friend betray everything they had ever fought for. His eyes then fell on Grimm, who was cornered by three pitch-black short-hairs. Snarling, Grimm lashed out. Dusty longed to go to his aide, but he knew that he could not. If he, if any of the Light Ones left their place, there would be no hope. None.
The lowest echelon of Light Ones began panicking. They surged against the first ring of transitioners—who had split into several different groups, some fighting the Dark Ones, some fighting each other, most trying desperately to flee—and were trying to get away. Dusty screamed at them to stop, knowing he was not the only one, but the dissonance had grown exponentially in the past few moments and he could not be heard. It was over. Once the Dark Ones had finished their grisly work, the thin line of protection, supernal though it was, would dissipate and they would fall on the Light Ones.
Dusty looked around wildly, praying to whatever benevolent spirit might be drifting by that there might be an answer. Above, Bastet was alternately growing and absorbing a fifth digit—thumbs humans called them, and seemed to put a great deal of stock into their superiority because of them—and giggling wildly. She was mad and soon, there would be nothing between her and the rest of the world. And Dusty had nothing, no plan, no hope, not a thing that could stop her. He felt despair clutch his heart with icy fingers—and opposable thumbs—and he let out a wail of frustration and anger.
Suddenly he heard a voice. Cutting through the dissonance, carrying over the noise of battle, it filled the air with its crystal clear clarity. Dusty cast about until he spotted the source. Standing amid the melee was Voila, her iron grey fur matted with blood in places, she sang out, standing behind a wall of the others, having gathered around her to fend off the push of the Dark Ones.
He quashed the feeling of hope that threatened to take hold of him. There were three parts to the song, and without all three parts, there was no chance her plan would work. With the Dark Ones under the thrall of Bastet, there was no way—he stopped suddenly to listen. From deep behind the lines of the Dark Ones he heard a voice, deep and rumbling, singing the part of the Dark Ones. He searched the sea of black and thought, though it was nearly impossible to tell, that Mogget was singing, even though he still faced off against a nearly black transitioner.
His heart leapt. Everything had slowed around him in a moment of perfect clarity. If only one of the Light Side could lift their voice in song maybe, just maybe they could send Bastet floating back to the Underworld where she belonged… and he realized it was just him. He stood among the others, their fur various shades of white, alabaster, and ivory, but there were not listening. They could not hear the song amid their panic and the confusion of the goddess’ maddening laughter.
He opened his mouth and began to sing. The song, which had come so naturally only moments before, was difficult to sing now. He forced the tune and the wordless notes through his throat against a rising tide of fear, despair, and loss. Instantly, Bastet’s eyes fell on Dusty. He had expected this. He was the closest and, for good or for ill, he was one of the Light Ones. Her recently bethumbed hand stretched out and, though he tried to squirm away, scooped him up. She was bigger than most humans several times over, a difference measured in yards rather than feet. She lifted him to her great feline head and she squeezed.
He stopped singing. She was squeezing slowly, mounting the pressure in deliberate degrees. The air she had pushed out of him right away and the rest… the rest was just pain. He squirmed and writhed and clawed snarled as only a cat in a corner can but to no avail. Without his voice, the song was incomplete, and without a complete song, there was no hope. Dusty road that roller-coaster down yet again as despair filled his heart yet again. He determined that he was, indeed, too old for this shit.
But then, Bastet released him. Dropped him all of those yards to the steeply inclined pyramid below, but true to form he landed—albeit unceremoniously—on his feet. As his sharp ears cleared of their ringing, he could hear the song… rich and full and complete! He glanced around and spotted Royal, who had nearly fully transitioned to a Dark One, who must have almost completely forgotten the Song of the Light Ones, singing the Light part. He was off-beat and badly off-key, but he was singing all the same. Several other Dark Ones had shaken loose the shackle of Bastet’s whim and were singing their role as well, and others had joined Voila.
Despite what was undoubtedly a series of broken ribs, Dusty took in a wracking, painful breath and began to sing again. This time, more of the Light Ones joined in. Soon, the battle stilled and the song resumed: Ragged and breathless, but beautiful in its desperation. Bastet screamed her rage as she was slowly swept up in the melodic tide and, circling the edge of the moon once, was swept through the hole in the sky like a turd circling the toilet before giving up the ghost.
The membranous remains of reality that streamed away from the hole in the sky began to reknit and soon a bruise colored moon faded to faintest silver. It moved away from the Great Pyramid and all the cats of the world breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.
In the aftermath, there was much rejoicing and despair. The Dark Ones were a scrappy lot and they had managed to kill a good number. Mogget had to return to his home with more than ten lives on his conscience, something Dusty knew he would never forgive himself for. But he would return the next year, and the next, till time caught up with him. They all would. The danger was forever, the gateway to the Underworld weakest on Halloween night, but the danger was always greatest on the full moon. This did not happen often, this was Dustys first. And if tonight were any indication, Dusty was grateful it happened only every so often.
He spoke with Voila only briefly before they boarded their respective nHbt’s.
“That was brave,” he told her softly. She shrugged and looked away demurely. She sat, her paws placed delicately together before her, her long tail wrapped around her just touching her left paw. She looked so beautiful in the slow twilight of the Egyptian dawn that if cats could weep, Dusty would have sobbed. In spite of the matted fur, the flecks of blood and one dark blemish from a splash of moon membrane that would never go away,, to Dusty, she was still perfect. He wanted to remember her just this way. He turned to leave.
“Dusty,” she called. He turned his head but not his body. “Do you still… you know. Love me?” she asked.
“I do. You know I do,” he said. “Do you, y’know… love me?”
“I never have,” she said. “I think I might a little bit now.”
He walked back to the nHbt without touching the ground.
He missed Grimm on the return trip. Mogget was hardly good company. Wracked with guilt and still licking the wounds of his injuries, he retreated to the back of the nHbt and no one dared bother him. Not even Dusty. Grimm had not survived the attack. All told, a full third of the world’s cat population had been killed that night. Dusty himself had been marked by the handprint of Bastet, his darkening fur had grown darker. His ribs healed on the return trip, as did Mogget’s cuts and bruises, but they would never forget. As they disembarked, the nodded to each other for the last time. They would see each other the following year, and the year after, but they were no longer friends, not really. Without Grimm it was not the same.
Ginny had survived, though barely. She said little on their return journey. Overall, Dusty felt better about Royal, but he was back to his old tricks, freebasing catnip. As they reached the neighborhood, sometime around noon on November 1st, Dusty decided to take a little prowl around the place before he was trapped indoors for another year. Ginny and Royal simply went home.
He wandered for a while, not bothering with the spaces between. The air here was cooler than Egypt, but then Minnesota is far less equatorial than northern Africa. As he passed by a trio of gray, white, and brown tabby cats, they nodded in deference to him and his accomplishment. He was one of four cats who had saved existence. That was notable. One, a tiger-striped gray cat named BuonBuon showed him her genitals, but as he was fixed, he could not truly reciprocate, nor could he press the advantage. Besides. He was in love with Voila. He always would be. And she loved him more now than she had before, which was a far cry better than where he had stood previously.
Eventually, he returned home. His people were upset that he was gone for so long, but ultimately relieved that he had returned, meowing and starving. The worst reprimand he got was from the big man who simply muttered: “Stupid cat.”
He was home. The world was safe for another year. Life was good.