Chapter One: Mint, Chai and Sandwiches

The bell rang for the first time that day, piercing through the peaceful early morning bustle of the Ragdoll Café. Tina Hayashi glanced up from behind the counter, her eyes widening when she saw the first customer of the day half-in, half-out of the front door, leaning over to re-tie his shoelace. Figuring she had about fifteen seconds to ready herself, Tina quickly stowed the mop bucket in the store cupboard and ran back to the till, plastering her best customer service smile and smoothing down her purple apron.

"He's early today," muttered Liv, grabbing a cup from on top of the coffee machine. Tina nodded, biting the edge of her lip. The Ragdoll Café opened at six thirty every day, but only a few people came into the shop before seven. It was always the same three, too – Mint Guy, Chai Girl and Sandwich Man. Those were the names Liv, the barista, had chosen for them. Mint Guy was always first, arriving at the café when it opened almost to the minute. That morning he was five minutes early, but Tina would never dream of turning a paying customer away. Once his shoelaces were properly secure, he stepped into the café, his cheeks flushed from the cold winter air outside. He was tall man and rather lanky, wearing a simple dark grey business shirt and with a black tie and sharply pressed pants. In stark contrast to this rather sombre attire, his hair was a bright, vibrant red, the sort of colour that would make him remarkably easy to distinguish in a crowd. His blue eyes were narrowed slightly in a way that made him appear deep in thought as he strode over to the till. Tina cleared her throat, fiddling with the edge of her collar as she flashed him her best sales-person smile.

"Good morning," she said as he stopped in front of the counter. "What can I get you?"

Her question was obsolete, of course. She knew what he was getting because he always bought the same thing. There were many regulars like that. They knew exactly what beverage they wanted and they'd prattle it off before she'd even had a chance to greet them.

"Hot chocolate, please," he said abruptly as he fumbled with his wallet.

"Sure. With mint?" she said, tilting her head slightly to the side and smiling again.

The man looked up at her and frowned. Tina blushed, and looked away quickly. Of course. He has to be one of those people who hate it when the waiter knows their order.

"Yes please," he said stagnantly. Tina nodded and added his request in. He passed her a fifty-dollar note and she put it through, handing him the receipt and change.

"We'll call out your number when it's ready," she said, as she did every time he came in. Even so, he took the number and nodded, turning stiffly on his heel and striding over to a table on the far side of the café. As he sat down, the door bell chimed again and Chai Girl walked in, her thick shoulder-length blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders. She was tall and very glamorous, wearing a tightly fitted back business jacket with a deep red blouse. She strode over to the counter with such purpose, such confidence. It was something Tina deeply envied. But then, she thought, if she acted the way Chai Girl did people would only laugh at her. She wasn't remotely pretty enough to pull it off.

"Hi there," said Chai Girl, smiling broadly as she recited her order, her bright green eyes twinkling. Tina nodded and wrote it down quickly, her stomach tying itself in knots as she charged her for her chai latte. Chai Girl stepped to the side and pulled out her phone while Tina busied herself with fixing their orders. She glanced at the door every so often, her heart racing slightly beneath her chest.

Will he come today? Surely…

She scolded herself silently while she cleaned the tables, but even so she waited with baited breath. It wasn't until both Mint Guy and Chai Girl had left that Sandwich Man strode through the door. Tina held her breath as he smiled and nodded at her, feeling her cheeks colouring all over again. He was as tall as Mint Guy but much handsomer, with thick black hair and pale blue eyes that made her heart race.

"Morning, Tina," he said as he approached the counter, grinning and showing her his pearly white teeth. "How are you today?"

"Good," she said quickly, her stomach swooping pleasurably. She knew he only knew her name because of the large, bright blue nametag all of the staff had to wear, but even so she was thrilled to hear him say it. "Which sandwich are you keen for today?"

"Oh, I don't know," he said, leaning his elbows against the counter and winking. "What's your favourite?"

Liv made a small choking noise behind them. Tina glanced at her and blushed when she saw the older girl doubled over the counter, barely managing to contain her laughter.

"I… I like this one," she mumbled, turning back to face Sandwich Man and pointing uneasily towards a roll in the display cabinet. "It's called the Scottish Fold. It's got beef and cheese and tomatoes and this really nice sauce, I'm not sure what else is in it but – it's really good."

"I'll take that then," he said with a small nod, smiling at her again. "And a coffee too, thanks. You know what I like."

"I sure do," said Tina, daring herself to give him a small smile. She quickly entered his order into the till and let him pay. When he was seated on a small bar stool at a nearby table she ducked behind the counter, glad for the distraction as she wrapped his chosen sandwich in baking paper and placed it into a small take-away bag.

"So, how's your boyfriend this morning?" said Liv, grinning as she set about making Sandwich Man's coffee order. Tina rolled her eyes, glancing at him nervously and hoping he hadn't heard. Luckily, he'd taken out his tablet and was reading it attentively, his eyes darting quickly across the screen. Feeling slightly reassured, she turned back and shook her head sternly at her friend.

"Will you ever give this up?" she said in a low voice. "I mean… it's completely unfounded. He's a regular, so I try and be nice. Is there anything wrong with that?"

"No, but I don't see you giving any of the other regulars that flirty little smile," said Olivia, nudging her in the ribs as she frothed milk for his coffee. "So clearly, it's something you reserve just for him. And I have no idea why, by the way. He's so goddamn smarmy."

"No he's not!"

"He is. Come on, even you have to admit that. And here's some advice – instead of being all nervous and elusive, why don't you just ask for his name? We can't keep calling him Sandwich Man."

"I - You're the one who came up with that, not me," Tina mumbled, folding her arms across her chest.

"So what? You know you call him that too," said Liv firmly as she finished making his drink. She handed it to Tina and pretended to bow, her grey eyes shining as she grinned. "Now, go forth and dazzle him."

Tina rolled her eyes again, taking the cup from her friend and turning back to face the counter. Clearing her throat, she glanced down and double-checked the number written on the cup, even though she remembered it perfectly.

"Um… Number three," she said, raising her voice slightly above the noisy bustle of the kitchen behind them. The dark-haired man looked up from his tablet, striding over and taking his sandwich and coffee with another warm smile.

"See you later," he said as he turned to leave.

"See you," Tina called out, trying to ignore Liv as she rolled her eyes.

"You're incorrigible, Tina," said the older girl, but she shook her head fondly.

"Oh come on. It's not like – He'd never give me a chance anyway. I'm –"

She paused, steadying herself before she blurted out she was far too ugly for a man like him. True or not, she knew Liv would just rebuff her and tell her she was exaggerating. Still, no matter what the older girl said, Tina knew it really was the truth. She was small and squat with thin, dark brown hair that hung limply around her shoulders. Her eyes were a similarly uninspiring brown, while her thin cheeks were covered in acne scars. She hated the way she looked and any reminder of that simply depressed her.

"I…" she continued, turning slightly so Liv couldn't see her face. "He's – well, he's clearly some kind of successful government person or business man, while I'm just... You know. The girl who sells him coffee."

She blushed, clearing her throat and glancing back at her friend. Liv raised her eyebrows, opening her mouth to retort, but luckily the door opened again and they soon found themselves occupied with a flurry of customers. It stayed busy all morning and by the time it was midday and Tina went outside into the adjacent alleyway for her lunchbreak, she was utterly exhausted. Clutching the sandwich her mother had made for her as a surprise, she sat down heavily on the back steps, stretching her legs and yawning. She was in for a long day – one of the other waitresses had called in sick for the afternoon, and Tina had promised Trevor, the manager, that she would stay until closing so he didn't have to bother calling anyone else. It meant almost twelve hour day where she both opened and closed the café, but even so she was glad for the extra work. Now that her mother was unable to do so, Tina's was the only income they had. She was lucky enough to have a job at all. When she turned sixteen, Tina had tried to get work in the factories, like her mother and most of the people in her building. Small and not very strong, she had tried her best, but after two days they told her not to come back. Despairing, Tina had no choice but to look to the inner city for work. She had been lucky enough to snag herself a job in the café and had worked hard for the last three years. Her favourite part of the job was seeing a side of Salvos she was completely unfamiliar with. Their customers were inner-city dwellers; wealthy men and women with enough money to afford luxuries on a daily basis. It was their money and their interest that kept the Ragdoll Café going. After all, the world may have almost ended, but people still needed their coffee. Smiling slightly to herself, Tina took another bite of her sandwich.


Tina glanced up, her eyes widening as a small, short-haired ginger tabby cat jumped down from a nearby windowsill. It was staring up at her with piercing blue eyes. Tina looked away quickly, feeling rather self-conscious. She knew she was being ridiculous – after all, it was just a cat. Still, she couldn't help but feel like the cat wanted her to do something the longer it stared. It edged closer, meowing loudly again. Tina glanced at her sandwich, picking out the small piece of beef contained within and throwing it to the cat.

"Here," she said, clearing her throat. It must be hungry. That makes the most sense. "Eat this. Is that what you want?"

The cat marched right past the beef and jumped up the steps. It reached up and batted its paw against the door, glancing back at her and meowing. Tina shook her head, crouching down next to the cat and stroking its back.

"You can't go in there," she said, wondering briefly why she was bothering to talk when the animal clearly wouldn't be able to understand her. "I – we sell food inside. It's unhygienic. Sorry."

The cat meowed again, sounding oddly disgruntled. It batted the door for a final time and, realising she wasn't going to open it, turned around and bolted away. Tina watched it go, her eyebrows knotting.

That was… Weird. What a strange cat.

Settling back down on the step, Tina took another bite of her sandwich, which tasted very plain now there was no meat inside. A white ibis flew into view and landed next to the abandoned beef and ate it quickly while another flew on top of the bins, picking at the plastic with vigour. Biting her lip, Tina jumped up and shooed them away, inspecting the rubbish bags for large holes. Luckily, the bird had only had the chance to make a few pin-pricks into the plastic. Relaxing again, she turned away, ready to pack up her lunch and go back inside to resume work for the afternoon. However, before she could do so a strange glint caught her eye. Frowning, she squinted in the direction of the light and spotted a strange-looking bright turquoise stone hidden under the bins. Crouching down, Tina reached under the bin and pulled out the stone plus the heavy cloth bag it seemed to have spilled out of.

What… What is this? Where did it come from?

She opened the bag and found nine additional rounded, smooth, pebble-sized stones. They were all different colours, ranging from gold to violet to bright green. Hesitating slightly, Tina glanced down at the turquoise stone, turning it over in her hands. Holding it made her feel… strange. She shivered, her palms tingling where they came into contact with the smooth surface.

What are these? Are they precious stones from before the world ended?

She had heard of them, of course, but they were so rare now only the very highest class of people could afford the few that had survived. They had been expensive before the war, but now a mere single carat diamond cost close to one hundred thousand dollars. The stones were not diamonds, she knew that much – diamonds were supposed to be clear, after all. Still, they were very likely to be worth a lot of money.

I… If I sell this, then – we'll get out of the slums. We – Mum and I could live in a high-rise apartment in the inner city and never have to worry about money or anything else again. And maybe – If we can afford the best hospital care and testing, she might – maybe she'll even get better…

Swallowing, Tina turned away from the bins, her fingers clutching the neck of the bag tightly. Her life had been one trial after another for the last six months, ever since her mother had been injured in a factory explosion. Thirty men and women had died that day, with hundreds more injured, but the government didn't seem to care. The President himself had expressed his apologies to those involved in a sincere-sounding voice and proceeded to do absolutely nothing to prevent it happening again. The city of Salvos apparently had far bigger problems than a few hundred of the lower class being caught in an explosion. Her mother Aya had been hit by shrapnel that embedded into her skin and transected her spine mid-way down her back. Of course, the doctors weren't entirely sure her injury was as bad as it appeared – they hadn't been able to perform the advanced imaging needed to be more certain. Tina held onto hope that if she could only save enough money, she might be able to afford some kind of life-saving treatment for Aya.

Even if she can't be cured, these… These stones might get me enough money to afford proper pain killers for her. At least then she won't be so uncomfortable all the time.

Biting her lip, Tina closed her eyes and nodded once, her mind made up. She stuffed the turquoise stone into her pocket and ran back inside. She hid the rest of the stones inside the backpack she brought to work, smiling nervously at the kitchen staff as she did so. She adjusted her apron awkwardly and hurried back to the café counter, forcing herself to smile and continue on serving as though nothing had happened. She was on edge all afternoon, half-expecting the police to charge in at any moment and arrest her on the spot. No matter how many times she tried to reassure herself that it wasn't stealing, that whoever had left the stones behind surely wasn't all that interested in them, a niggling doubt in the back of her mind kept telling her she was doing the wrong thing.

It's… It's not really stealing, is it? I mean – someone just left them there, under the bins. They were probably just trying to throw them out, or – I don't know. Surely they won't come back.

When the café finally closed at seven p.m., she was no more certain of her decision to take the stones than she had been at the time. After spending another half-hour cleaning the store, she stepped into the alleyway behind the shop and hauled the day's rubbish bag into the outside bins. Tina locked the backdoor of the café with the key Trevor had given her and yawned loudly as she prepared herself for the long journey home to the outer city. Adjusting her backpack, she trudged through an intricate network of back alleys, taking a shortcut to the nearest train station that she knew very well. On the way, she absent-mindedly reached into her pocket and felt the stone resting against her thighs. She picked it up, intending to just glance at it quickly for reassurance before shoving it back inside. However, the minute she laid eyes on the stone again she stopped dead in her tracks, a chill running down her spine. The smooth surface of the stone was now a deep, shimmering violet, almost exactly the same colour as the apron she wore.

Wait – wasn't – I thought I picked up the turquoise one! How can it have changed, it's… No. Clearly, I just wasn't paying attention. That has to be it.

Shivering, Tina shoved the stone straight back into her pocket. She shook her head, her stomach swooping. It had to have been her mistake - after all, how could a stone change colour like that? It didn't make any sense at all.


Tina jumped violently and whipped around, relaxing slightly when she saw the same ginger tabby cat from earlier plodding along behind her.

"I – It's just you," she said shakily, crouching down and petting the cat on the head. It rubbed its cheeks against her legs, nudging the pocket holding the stone lightly as it did so. It looked up at her and mewed, its bright blue eyes watching her intently.

"I – I'm sorry," she muttered, her cheeks flushing slightly as it continued to stare in such a piercing manner. I – stop being silly, Tina. It's just a cat. "I don't know what you want me from me, puss. If – if you wanna come home with me, well – you can't. I won't be able to feed you properly…"

Her voice trailed off as the soft plod of footsteps sounded in the distance. She looked up, her heart racing, relaxing only when she saw it was a woman walking towards her. Relieved, she glanced back down at the cat, only to find it had disappeared. Frowning, she stood up, confused at how it had run away so quickly without her noticing at all.

"Did you see where it went?" she called out to the woman in the distance. "I – sorry to bother you, I just…"

Her voice trailed off when she looked up and saw the woman standing directly opposite to her. She was tall and wearing a strange brown mask that covered her face so only her piercing green eyes were visible. Tina swallowed and stepped back a few paces, her legs trembling.

"I – never mind," she stammered, averting her gaze. "I'll just – I'll be on my way, I don't wanna miss the train –"

"Where are the stones?" the woman said, her voice chillingly quiet.

"What do you mean?" said Tina, her heart racing. She glanced down at her pocket nervously. How can she know? I didn't – No-one saw me take them. "What stones? I – I don't know what you…"

Her voice trailed off as the woman raised her arms, the large golden ring with a pure white stone she wore on her right index finger glinting in the moonlight. A whooshing sound filled the air as a shining silver dagger with intricate patterns carved into the handle appeared in her right hand. Before Tina could so much as gasp, the woman thrust the knife into the side of her chest. She cried out and collapsed to the ground, clutching at the knife feebly while blood spread across her shirt and apron. The woman coldly knelt down and pulled the dagger out, stabbing her again in the other side. Tina gasped for air, her throat burning as she tried to cover the holes in her chest with her hands. The woman pushed her to the ground, jarring the knife further and sending another shot of pain through Tina's body. Her green eyes narrowed, she knelt beside the young girl and rummaged through her pockets, drawing out the bright red stone Tina had been so surprised to see was violet only minutes earlier.

"Help me," she gasped weakly, desperate for air. She tried to take a deep breath but found herself unable to, glancing desperately around the alleyway while her attacker located the rest of the stones in her backpack.

"Someone…" she murmured, her vision starting to fuzz. "Please, I – I didn't mean – someone help…"


The orange cat appeared suddenly in front of her, its fur standing on end as its piercing blue gaze fixed on Tina's attacker. The woman glanced down at the cat, raising her arm as a second dagger appeared in her hand.

"So you're the Shape-Shifter," said the woman fiercely, but she wouldn't look the animal in the eye. "I – It makes sense they'd send you, I s'pose. But don't –"

She stopped abruptly as the cat let out a loud, continuous yowl. It doubled over and started to contort violently, its limbs and neck lengthening while fur retracted into its body. The cat started to grow dramatically while its fur darkened to black. It curled over into a ball, continuing to yowl as the transformation continued. Eventually, the creature rose to full height, revealing itself to be a human wearing black from head to toe. The person's face was covered aside from a small slit surrounding their eyes, which were as bright blue as the cat's had been beforehand. The woman lunged at the cat-person, dagger in hand, but they circled swiftly to the side and kicked her directly in the chest. She staggered backwards and raised her right arm, a small black throwing knife appearing in her hand. She threw it feebly towards the cat-person, who caught it easily by the handle and tossed it aside. They jumped forward with great conviction and disappeared mid-air, much to Tina and the woman's surprise. Moments late they reappeared directly behind the woman, elbowing her hard in the chin as she whipped around. Cursing, the woman dropped her dagger and spat out a dislodged tooth, punching feebly towards the cat-person, which they blocked easily with the back of their arm. The person ducked down quickly and grabbed the woman's fallen dagger, rolling to the side as she aimed a kick towards their head. They jumped to their feet swiftly and kicked her directly in the stomach, catching her off balance. Stepping forward and forcing her arm behind her back, the cat-person raised the dagger and slid it forcefully across the woman's throat. Tina watched in horror as the woman's blood sprayed across the alley, the cat-person holding onto her tightly as her body contorted. Eventually they let her go and she collapsed to the ground, her green eyes staring vacantly ahead. The cat-person knelt next to her body and retrieved the bag of stones. Tina gave another small small gasp, blood bubbling in her mouth as she did so. The cat-person looked up and hurried over, dropping the bag of stones at the girl's side.

"Can you still hear me, Tina?" said the cat-person. Their voice was deep and obviously male. In fact, he sounded oddly familiar, although his voice was muffled through the thick layer of material.

"My – How do you know…" Her voice faltered. Her vision was spotting over and each breath was a struggle. She glanced up, but all she could make out was a tall, blurry figure leaning over her. She heard the man swear and something pushed against her stab wounds. A strange pink glow spread through the night air, and all of a sudden she started to feel… good. She was still incredibly exhausted, but it was in a lovely, sleepy way. She opened her eyes again and saw the man muttering quickly under his breath. She glanced down and saw his fingers pressing hard against her wounds, which were shimmering in the dim light of the alley.

"What are you…"

"I'm sorry," the man interrupted, his voice oddly choked up. "Someone like you should never have gotten involved with this. I should've taken the stones when I had the chance. But – Don't worry, I'll make it right. I'm going to take you back to..."

His voice faded quickly as Tina closed her eyes again, her ears buzzing warmly. She yawned for a final time and fell into a deep sleep, the horror and confusion of the past fifteen minutes fading as quickly as it had come.