A brilliant yellow sun rose through the horizon in Collarworld. Gentle breezes wafted through the trees and along the blades of grass. If paradise had a description, this was it.
In a small clearing tucked deep in a realm known as the Silver Forest, a sullen German Shepherd rested among the sun-kissed green. The clearing was silent. Even the breezes dared not make a sound around Lord Bismarck.
And then… in the distance… movement. The sound of heavy, angry breathing.
The German Shepherd looked up. Was there something along the tree line to the Silver Forest? Someone who got lost. Maybe they’ll go away.
“Where is he?”
Bismarck looked around. It did come from the edge of the Silver Forest.
“Where is he?” The voice grew louder, a terse, angry bark. The breathing became more labored, more cloudy and rough. “Where is he, dog? Where is he?”
In those seconds, Bismarck’s head began to hurt again. The pain. The stabbing, rusty pain of the damage caused by the uncaring in the living world. The resultant pain that he caused to his master because of it. The pain that tore through his soul and caused him to lash out at the nearest target, be it human or canine or feline. “Go away,” Bismarck slowly warned. “Leave while you can.”
“Where is he?”
The pain increased, like tugging hooks into flesh. Bismarck stared at the tree line. The voice came from a mix-breed dog with red-white ghostly eyes. “I said go away. This is your final warning.” It was the Demon.
“You do not scare me. Where is he?”
“There is no ‘he,'” snarled Bismarck, as the sunlight reflected from his sharp teeth. “You need to leave now. Right now. Now!”
“You will tell me where he is,” the Demon angrily barked, as he moved closer to Bismarck.
Bismarck kept his gaze fixed on the intruder. Bismarck did not retreat.
“Cameron Flank Dakota 27!”
Minuteman VII, a rescued wild eagle who spent his formative years as a mascot for a college football team, chanted out the play to the other animals of Collarworld, who waited at the edge of the Silver Forest.
Among the animals waiting for Minuteman VII’s reconnaissance was Vincent, a king orange tabbycat. “Confirm, Minuteman VII. Cameron Flank Dakota 27?”
“Confirm. Hut-hut!” And with that, the eagle flapped his wings and flew back over the trees of the Silver Forest.
“He’s there, isn’t he?” barked Bate the terrier. “Is that what the eagle said?”
Vincent nodded. Over the years in the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, Vincent knew the native tongues and chirps and bleats and barks and mews of all the pets of the realm – even those to which their language was native to their original breed. “Minuteman VII said that the Demon and Bismarck are in the clearing now. We have maybe 25 or 30 minutes to get there. We have to hurry. Follow me, everybody.”
“I’m not going in there,” snarled Mourire, the leader of the feral cats. “Let them kill each other.”
“You know that’s not going to happen,” Vincent snapped. “Bismarck did nothing wrong. This is not on him. And the Demon is deadly.”
“Please,” Bate barked. “We have to do this. I’m the only one who knows all the Demon’s fighting skills. We have to follow this plan all the way.”
Vincent looked to the dirt path. At the moment, it was just he, Bate and Mourire, with word sent to any and all animals in the realm. This was an emergency.
“We should have just told Precinct 3:16 about this, they’re all police and fire dogs, they should be able to handle this,” sneered the feral.
“No,” said Bate. “We can’t do that. We need to follow this plan all the way. If we don’t… Vincent, is anybody else coming to help us?”
“They are,” said the tabbycat. “The Hamsters sent word to the Sawdust Oval to get Lord Ingemar the tiger. And if your ferals actually followed directions for once – ” Vincent glared at Mourire – “they should be arriving at Indigo Acres for some reinforcements.”
“Listen, rat-lover,” Mourire hissed, “you say one word about Stave and Torch and I’ll claw your face right now.”
“Stop it, please,” Bate interrupted. “We have to be unified. The Demon can defeat us if we don’t stay with the plan all the way. Vincent, are you with me?”
“All the way, Bate.”
The feral cat looked down at the dirt.
“Mourire?” Bate repeated.
“He attacked my brothers,” Mourire growled. “Let’s do this.”
The pets slowly walked into the Silver Forest. The reflections of sun and sky bounced off the metallic-like leaves, causing animals to lose their way and stay trapped in unfamiliar paths.
“Look down at the ground,” Vincent said, taking the lead position. “Trust the ground, that’s where the right path is. Don’t lose your way.”
“We have to do this,” Bate barked. “Don’t fall behind.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, you pup,” growled Mourire from the back. “I have a great sense of direction.”
Vincent looked back to make sure Bate and Mourire were in sight.
The trio moved forward.
“If anything happens to me, I just – I just want to thank you for all that you’ve done for me. You brought me hope in this world when I had none.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you,” Vincent replied, his tail swishing slowly in the air.
The walk continued.
“Hey, that’s the clearing up there, isn’t it?” exclaimed Mourire.
“No, don’t be fooled,” Vincent mewed. “That’s a reflection. You follow that and you’ll be out of the Silver Forest in ten steps. Stay with us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do me a favor… just trust me.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Because you know that we need to do something right now about the Demon. And if we don’t do it now, then Collarworld will be a place of fear and pain.”
Mourire kept pace with Vincent and Bate.
The pace continued.
In the distance… the faint sound of snarling and barking.
“We’re close,” Vincent whispered. “Mourire, are you ready?”
“Yeah, yeah I’m ready,” growled the feral cat.
“Bate, we’re ready to go on your – on your – ”
“What’s the matter?” Mourire asked.
“He’s gone. Bate’s gone. He must have gotten lost in one of the reflective trails. He was right in front of you, Mourire, you didn’t see him go? You had one job – ”
“Hey rat-lover, you want to blame somebody else? Since when did I become that pup’s keeper?”
Vincent and Mourire looked around. Bate was out of view.
“He’s not sticking to the plan,” said the feral. “He’s not doing good listening. Call for him.”
“If I do that, the Demon will know that we’re here. Quick. Over here by this tree trunk. The clearing is right there.”
The cats moved behind the tree trunk. A clear glance to the meadow showed Bismarck and the Demon, both ready to pounce on each other.
“Bate, where are you?” Mourire whispered. “If you’re not here, the plan doesn’t work.”
“Bate, come on,” Vincent whispered as well. “If you’re scared, go back to the edge of the Silver Forest and – ”
The tabbycat turned to see the feral pointing at the clearing.
Bismarck and the Demon were inches away from the bite. And then…
A small voice.
“Demon. I am the one you seek.”
The mixbreed turned to his left. It was Bate, a few feet away from certain death. Bismarck looked to his right, his body still ready to pounce at a second’s notice.
“You are here. I was right.”
“This is not you. You don’t need to kill me any more. This is the last time. I’m willing to die to save those I love.”
Mourire looked at Vincent. “This dog is crazy. Doesn’t he know that when you die in Collarworld, you’re dead forever?”
“Well, aren’t you going to do anything?”
“I am,” the tabbycat replied. “Just hold on. And shut up.”
The Demon now focused his angry, vicious attention on Bate.
“You are the one I seek.”
“Yes. And I will give my life today to save those I love.”
“You will give your life. Because your life is nothing. You will die now.”
Bate slowly wagged his tail… then stopped wagging.
“That’s the signal,” Vincent said to Mourire.
“You mean – ”
“Shut up. Let’s go. Now.”
And with that, the cats entered the clearing.
“Hey, Demon!” Vincent called. “Remember me? From Indigo Acres?”
And for a second, the Demon turned to his right. And in an instant, before he could react any further, Mourire jumped onto the Demon’s neck.
The mixbreed tried to roll over and shake Mourire off, but this time the feral had his claws locked into the Demon’s furry flesh. “Not this time,” Mourire snarled.
Vincent ran past Bismarck, over to Bate.
“What is this?” the German Shepherd barked.
“I’ll explain later. Right now we need to get out of here. I’m sorry for entering your realm, but I hope you can understand, Lord Bismarck. Come on, Bate, let’s go. Mourire! Now!!”
With that, Mourire jumped off the Demon’s neck. Suddenly, Bate, Vincent and Mourire ran toward the one clearing they knew would take them out of the Silver Forest.
“I will kill all of you!” the Demon roared. Instantly, the mixbreed raced off after the escapees.
“So that was your plan,” Mourire mewed as the three pets raced for their lives, with the Demon hot on their paws. “Distract him and guide him to Fred’s Chasm and make him jump.”
Vincent and Bate kept running, their voices silent.
“That’s the plan, right?”
“Hey you two, I’ve got an angry dog behind me, are we going to Fred’s Chasm or not?”
“Shut up and keep running!” Vincent shouted.
The animals sprinted out of the forest – Bate and Vincent first, then Mourire a few moments behind.
“What took you so long, boychiks?”
It was the Great Ingemar, the champion circus tiger of the Middle East.
“He’s right behind us,” barked Bate. “We need a few minutes of distance, he’s too close.”
“Do not worry, little one,” the tiger roared. “The Great Ingemar swore an oath to protect you. Run now!”
The three hurriedly raced along the path.
As the Demon fought his way out of the Silver Forest, he stood face to face with the greatest circus tiger in the known world. And that tiger was now blocking his path toward Bate.
“Stand aside, beast,” growled the Demon.
“You shall not pass.”
“I will kill you, beast.”
The tiger began to chant in the language of his master trainer in the living world. “Az mir vill schlugen a hunt, gifintmin a schtecken.”
And with that, the tiger clubbed the Demon with his clawed, striped paw. The dog stumbled to the ground.
“Gifintmin a schtecken,” chanted the Great Ingemar, who followed the pawslap with a mighty roar. “When one needs to stop a dog, one must find a stick. My paw is the stick.”
The Demon staggered to his feet and dove for Ingemar’s front leg. The tiger rolled aside, and the dog fell to the ground again.
“That is your only trick, dummydope?”
Within seconds, the Demon ran past Ingemar and continued his chase.
The tiger smiled. “Two minutes. I hope that was enough.”
The sun shone on the glistening waters of the Shore of the Cedars.
Jackson, the Golden Retriever who found solace and comfort along the blessed waters, was ready. “They’re on the way,” he called out.
To his side – Cassius Marcellus, the drafthorse and leader of Indigo Acres. “I’m ready,” neighed the stallion.
Bate arrived at the shore, with Vincent and Mourire close behind.
“You can’t follow me,” Bate barked. “I need do this. Please stay with the others and be safe.”
The Demon was forty feet away.
Vincent and Mourire sprinted over to join Cassius Marcells and Jackson.
Bate stepped into the water.
The Demon arrived at the shore. He was twenty feet away from Bate.
“You are the one I seek,” the Demon barked, moving closer. It seemed that the chase made him stronger and quicker, as if the challenge increased his drive and desire.
Bate stepped further into the water. The terrier barely kept his snout above the waterline.
“He’s going to drown himself,” said a weary Mourire. “That dog’s going to drown himself in the Shore of the Cedars and take the Demon with him.”
“You will die today,” the Demon growled at Bate. “You will die today.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Bate,” Vincent mewed, the tabbycat’s body exhausted from the fight.
“If he was going to kill the Demon,” asked Mourire, “Why didn’t he just guide him to Fred’s Chasm and get the dog to leap over the fence to his death? That’s what I would have done.”
Vincent glared at Mourire, remembering that Mourire’s very words about Fred’s Chasm almost cost the life of Vincent’s friend Butterscotch the calico cat. “I think Bate has something else planned.”
“I will kill you now,” the Demon sharply barked, as he ran onto the shore. A wave lapped at the Demon’s paws.
Mourire looked at Vincent. “We have to do something,” the feral mewed.
Vincent looked back. “We are. This is the plan. I just hope it works.”
In the sky, a red sunbeam slowly pierced through the blue-white heavens.
The Demon splashed into the water. “You think that hiding under water will stop me, it will not. I will kill – will – kill – AAAAAAAARRRGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
A wave of water cascaded over the Demon’s body, splashing and wetting his fur. And in seconds, the water penetrated through the Demon’s short coat, as chilly, stinging waves seeped into his skin.
“AAAHHH IT HURTS IT HURTS!!! PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!!!”
The Demon splashed around in the water, unable to step out to the sand. Every splash seemed to scrub away at the Demon’s inner soul, every drop of water attacking the Demon’s anger and violence.
Bate slowly swam around the Demon, and eventually paced to the shore. “I think it’s working,” he barked to Vincent and Mourire.
At that moment, Bate was joined by other pets – Cassius Marcellus, The Great Ingemar and Jackson. Every time the Demon tried to get out of the water, the others roared and barked and whinnied and stomped to keep the Demon in the water.
“Stay in the water, nudnik,” snarled Ingemar.
And then Jackson said a prayer. “In the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the lord of all animals in our realm, may your sins be cleansed with the purified holy water of the Shore of the Cedars. In his name we say, you shall be cleansed and you shall be healed.”
The Demon screamed. “Let me out! Let me out now!”
And the waters cascaded over the Demon’s writhing body.
“What is this?” Mourire asked.
“I can’t believe I never thought of this,” Vincent replied. “The water at the Shore of the Cedars has been used to heal our pains caused by harmful masters in the Living World. Bate is using the waters to heal the Demon from that dogfighting training he went through.”
The mixbreed continued splashing in the water, but with each splash he grew weary and weak.
“Let me out. Let me out.”
“Not yet,” Jackson barked.
“Let me out. Let me out.”
And with one final breath in his lungs, the Demon barked, “I’m so sorry.”
“Stand back,” Jackson said to the other animals. He walked into the water, and slowly nudged the Demon to the shore.
The Demon lay on the shoreline for what seemed like hours. The animals of Collarworld stayed by his side, making sure the mixbreed stayed conscious.
As the waters dried over the Demon’s fur, the animals noticed several marks on the Demon’s coat – marks that were most likely caused by whips and brands and other insidious torturous devices, in a vulgar training method to increase pain and violence. The marks slowly changed from brown and red to white and silver, each mark healing and taking away ages of pain.
“Are you all right?” Bate whispered.
“I can’t – I can’t move,” the Demon whimpered. “I hurt.”
“Rest now. The healing must begin.”
“I can’t heal. I don’t deserve to live.”
“Everybody deserves to live,” purred Vincent. “Bate, Cassius, Jackson, all of us. Even Mourire.”
“Hey wait a – ”
Vincent winked. “You will heal, and you will find your place in Collarworld. You are not an evil dog. You had evil thrust upon you. And that evil was conveyed through evil masters. That is not your fault. It is now time to heal and forgive.”
“Hey Vincent,” Mourire interrupted. “Look. Over there.”
The animals looked. Walking toward the Shore was the large, dark form of a sullen-eyed German Shepherd. Bismarck walked up to the shivering, whimpering Demon.
“Come with me now.”
“No,” the Demon timidly barked. “You will hurt me now that I am weak.”
“I will not hurt you,” barked the German Shepherd. “You must learn penance. You must learn that what man did to you was not right. You were taught to do horrible things for man’s enjoyment. That is not your fault. But what you did because of how you were taught – that IS your fault. And the dog Stapravi – the death of another in Collarworld is your fault. And you must learn atonement. And penance. And self-discipline.”
“Why would you save me? I tried to kill you.”
“And now it is time to learn forgiveness. You must come with me. Stay in exile with me. I will teach you how to live past all this. And one day you will understand everything. Your legs are strong now. Rise and walk.”
The Demon struggled to stand.
“Come with me now. You will be protected under my watch, and if any animal ever harms you, you will be avenged seven times over. This I swear.”
The Demon walked toward Bismarck. “Lead me, my Lord.”
The two animals slowly turned to leave the Shore of the Cedars.
“Wait, my Lord,” exclaimed the Demon. “Just one minute.”
“One minute,” the German Shepherd barked, “and not a second more.”
The Demon’s legs still unsteady, he took a few steps towards Bate. “Please forgive me,” the mixbreed whispered. “I did not know. I was wrong. You saved me. You were the one I seeked.”
Bate walked over and rubbed his wet snout against the Demon’s trembling leg. Then the terrier returned to the other animals.
“Come now,” Bismarck barked. “Let us go.”
And the two dogs returned along the path, on their way to the Silver Forest.
For the first night in what seemed like forever, Bate the terrier slept peacefully.
Vincent slept nearby, his attention still focused on the timid terrier. One peaceful night achieved.
The tabbycat sparked up. Is it the Demon? Are the feral cats around? A new danger –
“Vinny-vin, wake up!”
“Come on, buddybud!”
Vincent squinted. It was the hamsters. The Royal Order of Ancient Carissima Hamsters – Cupcake, Bacardi and Truffle, heralds to St. Francis of Assisi.
“St. Francis wants to see you, Vinny-vin.”
“You missed the red sunbeam.”
“Oh come on, guys, leave me alone, I just saved Bate from – ”
“We know, we know,” chirped Bacardi the hamster.
“But St. Francis wants to see you,” squeaked Truffle.
“Right now, wakey wakey don’t be late-ee,” chided Cupcake.
“But come on, guys, what happened with Bate – ”
“It’s about Bate!” one of the hamsters chirped. “His master is here!”