A cool breeze wafted through the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, where pets wait until they are reunited once again with their masters. And in the Ashen Forest, a muddy, chilly realm, a black feral cat known as Mourire spent the morning teaching two new residents – a Dalmatian pup that Mourire named Hickory, and a Siamese kitten that now bore the name Beacon – new life lessons.
“But shouldn’t we all have masters?” Beacon purred.
“If you have the right ones,” Mourire replied. “Just remember, we existed long before humankind, and we did very well for ourselves. Sometimes you can find a master who will take care of you and treat you properly. I wish both of you found masters like that.”
Hickory the Dalmatian puppy sniffed at a damp twig on the ground.
“Humans will throw a stick like that and expect you to bring it back to them,” said Mourire. “But what they don’t understand is that once they throw that stick, you have control. You don’t have to bring them the stick. And if you choose to do that, you should expect a treat for doing so. Humans need to be trained.”
“But what if there was a human who needed a pet like us?” asked Beacon.
“They’re very rare. Especially here in Collarworld. I remember one cat who volunteered to be a companion for a young soul on Earth … ” Mourire’s voice faded, as he remembered his old charge Stave, a Maine coon feral cat who lived in the Ashen Forest years ago. “There’s a thing called the Order of the Seven Angels, you ever hear of that?”
“Nope,” barked Hickory, as he nudged the muddy twig.
“Every human in the living world has seven angels as guides, the angels are made up of people and animals, and all seven angels work to help make a human a better person.”
“Can we be angels someday?” asked Beacon, her tiny twinkling eyes shining in the cold air.
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Mourire, his black tail whipping back and forth, “you two are my angels. Hey Hickory, I bet if you tried real hard, I could enter you in the Agility Games soon.”
“Agility Games?” the Dalmatian pup yipped, as he finally worked the twig out of the mud.
“Yeah,” the black cat smiled. “The Agility Games are a big deal here in Collarworld. You go through several obstacle courses and you have to jump and run and obey commands.”
“I can do that,” baked Hickory. “I’m a good listener. Can I be in the Agility Games, Mourire? Can I? Huh? Can I?”
“Easy,” Mourire purred. “You have to train first. I’ll talk with some of the other animals and see if we can set you up for a training session.”
“Oh, Hickory, I know you can do it,” purred Beacon. “He’s a champion dog, Mourire, you know he can do it. Please, please let him try?”
Mourire thought for a moment. Why did he bother raising Hickory’s hopes up? Mourire already knew that Hickory was part of an abandoned litter, a breed of Dalmatians that suffered from a disjointed hip and improper breeding. Even when Hickory ran around in the Ashen Forest, Mourire could see that the Dalmatian puppy was overcompensating his gait.
“You know what, Hickory… there’s never been a feral animal that entered the Agility Games. And I’ll make sure you’re the first one that not only enters … but wins the Games.”
“Really?” Hickory jumped in the air, and trotted over to Mourire. “Thank you so much, thank you, thank you.”
“Yes,” Beacon mewed. “Thank you for everything, Mourire.”
“Okay, okay, easy now,” purred the black cat. “Happiness now, training later. Right now we need to take care of – ”
“You’all need to take care of what?”
Mourire looked behind him. A flop-eared pointer. A Doberman. A tiger-striped cat. He knew all three. The Guild of the Bloodline. The self-appointed protectors of purebreds in Collarworld, who treated mixbreeds and overbirths as second-class residents in Collarworld. As far as the Guild of the Bloodline were concerned, any pet who didn’t have purebred parentage belonged either in the realm of the Rainy Barn, or should be expunged from Collarworld entirely.
He knew that the Guild of the Bloodline weren’t here for a chat and a visit. And his paws tensed. “You’re a long way from home,” Mourire softly growled.
“Everywhere is our home,” the pointer known as Snicker barked. “Everywhere. Especially here, it looks like you’all haven’t taken care of this place in years.”
“Keep walking,” replied Mourire. “Take your crew and get out of our realm. We don’t need your purity speeches here.”
“Oh, we’re leaving, for sure,” barked Snicker. “Just as soon as we take those two whelps with us.”
Mourire’s claws sparked out of his paws. One more move…
“See, three animals escaped a few months ago from the Rainy Barn,” Snicker said of the realm where pets who were unwanted by their masters in the living world lived in sorrow and misery. “We caught one of them at Indigo Acres, and now we’re rounding up the other two bastards.”
“There are no bastards here,” Mourire snarled. “Now you and those ugly friends of yours get out of our realm. Don’t make me say it again.”
“You know,” replied Snicker, “We don’t care what you’all say. Treble, Moe, go get ’em.”
“Right, boss,” barked Moe the Doberman, as he raced to round up Hickory and Beacon.
“You got it, boss,” hissed Treble, the tiger-striped cat.
“And if this bastard tries anything,” laughed Snicker, “we’ll dump him off of Fred’s Chasm just like we did that grey cat… what was his name, Flame, Candle, Torch – ”
Snicker never got a chance to finish. Mourire leaped on the pointer, sinking his claws into the dog’s back. “What did you do to Torch?” Mourire yelled. “Hickory, Beacon, RUN!!!”
Beacon scampered up a tree, with Treble chasing her. Hickory wiggled under a fallen log, with Moe the Doberman barking and yelping.
“Get off me,” roared Snicker. “You’all are the reason why Collarworld needs to be pure.”
Mourire whacked and gripped Snicker’s back. “What did you do to Torch?”
Snicker rolled on the ground, hoping to force Mourire off his back. No such luck. Mourire knew the tactic and sunk his teeth into the pointer’s flesh.
“Let go! Let go of me!!”
“You cowards… you probably had masters who taught you to treat others as less than human,” growled Mourire. “And what they taught you… you brought it here.”
“Filthy bastard… let go of me!”
Mourire looked up. Treble had scurried up the same tree as Beacon, and was slowly forcing the Siamese kitten onto a narrow branch.
“You’all let me go or that kitten dies. Treble will push her right off the branch.”
Meanwhile, Moe the Doberman started digging through the muck and sludge under the fallen tree trunk, and was only moments away from forcing Hickory out of the hiding spot.
“And that little puppy is next. We’ll take them dead or alive, we don’t much care which.”
Mourire looked around. It was just him, a puppy and a kitten against three strong allies. He might be able to take out one of the Guild of the Bloodline… but not all three. But he held on.
“Leave us alone. Get out of our realm and don’t ever come back – OWW!!”
Instantly Mourire felt a row of sharp teeth on his neck. He felt his grip on Snicker’s back melting away and coming loose. He flinched and flailed. But the tight jaws of Moe the Doberman held fast.
“Good work, Moe,” Snicker panted. “I’ll get the runt under the tree trunk.”
Meanwhile, Moe rocked his head back and forth, swinging Mourire like the cat was made of rags. Mourire could feel his breath exiting his body. He tried to swing his claws, but he couldn’t reach Moe’s face or body.
Meanwhile, Treble had forced Beacon down the tree trunk to the ground, while Snicker dug Hickory out from under the fallen log.
“Don’t take them,” Mourire wheezed, as he struggled to get free from Moe’s clutches. “Don’t take my family from me.”
“Ha,” barked Snicker the pointer. “A feral cat claims to have a family. That’s funny. Like you think you’re worthy of a family in Collarworld. No master in the living world, and no one to claim you. Moe – take care of this bastard feral.”
In an instant, Moe whipped his face to the side, flinging Mourire to the muddy ground.
“Stupid cat,” Snicker laughed. “It’s animals like you that ruin it for all of us here in Collarworld. Ain’t you ever heard that the only good feral is a dead feral?”
Moe and Treble walked over to Hickory and Beacon, surrounding the puppy and kitten so that they could not escape.
“Get these two nameless whelps back to where they belong,” barked the pointer.
The Doberman and the tiger-striped cat inched closer to Hickory and Beacon.
“Please. Don’t hurt us,” the Dalmatian puppy whined.
“We won’t hurt anyone. We’re happy here. This is our home now.”
“No it ain’t,” growled the pointer. “You’all ain’t welcome here. We don’t need any more dang ferals and inbreeds running around Collarworld. We’re taking you back to the Rainy Barn where your kind belong. Away from good animals and pets. That’s where you’all belong.”
Mourire could feel his heart pounding through his ribcage.
“You know what’s the best thing of all?” said the pointer. “I did like my master used to do, and rounded me up a black cat and a couple of bastards. He’d be really proud of me, wouldn’t you think Moe?”
Mourire tried to get on his feet. He could not move. His body was nearly lifeless. I have to try, he murmured. I can’t let my family go. “Beacon… Hickory… Please… don’t take them…”
Treble and Moe nudged Hickory and Beacon down the path, with Snicker following.
The black cat had no strength to even raise his head. There was no hope. He had failed. And the puppy and kitten that he tried to save… tried to keep away from a life in the Rainy Barn… tried to keep away from the Purists…
“Hickory… Beacon… I… I… I love you…”
Mourire’s weary, bloodstained eyes closed.
All that was left for the black cat was his hearing. And in those moments of angry, deperate pain…
He heard another voice. A voice he never thought he would ever hear again.
“I am the one that you seek.”
“What? Who’all said that?”
“I am the one that you seek.”
“Boss… Boss, look.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“You claim to speak for all animals. You show hatred against those who are not like you. I am the one that you seek. Leave now. Alone. I will not warn you again.”
“Big talk,” barked the pointer. “You’all ain’t no police dog. We don’t answer to you. Now get out of our way, or we’ll – ”
A vicious snarl.
“You’all want a piece of us? Another mixbreed thinks he’s better than us purebreeds. Moe – take care of him.”
“Right, Boss – OWWW!!”
A snarl and a roar.
“Moe, are you all right?”
“He bit me right through my leg!”
“Boss, I know that dog… that’s the Demon!”
“That’s the Demon! I’ve heard stories, someone told me he killed a hundred police dogs with a single attack.”
“You’all are the Demon? I thought you were dead and gone!”
“Last time. The three of you. Get out of the Ashen Forest now. And leave the kitten and the puppy behind. The next time … I will not hold back.”
Every muscle and bone in Mourire’s body screamed in pain. The Siamese kitten Beacon licked Mourire’s chest wounds, while the Dalmatian puppy Hickory wagged his tail and nuzzled Mourire’s wounded face.
“You need assistance.”
“What… what… ”
“Someone has contacted St. Francis of Assisi, he will come to heal all of you.”
“You… what… you’re the…”
Mourire slowly opened one eye. It was the mixbreed fighting dog with piercing red-white eyes, the one known as the Demon. And as Mourire squinted through the blood, he saw that Mourire now wore a red collar … and hanging from the collar was a black jewel of penance.
“You will be safe. I will protect you until St. Francis of Assisi arrives.”
“You’re the Demon.”
“I am no longer an animal named the Demon.”
“My master, Lord Bismarck, told me that I was trained by evil men. I must lose that name and lose that part of my life. Lord Bismarck is my master, and he has given me a new name. I am now Dismas.”
“In the living world, Lord Bismarck’s master was a professor of faith. So Lord Bismarck told me of a man in the Bible known as a penitent criminal. He died on the same day and in the same way as did a man named Jesus. And as I am trying to atone for my horrible sins, I have taken that name ‘Dismas’ as my own.”
“But how did you… Demon – Dismas – how did you know…”
“A grey cat came to the Silver Forest and asked for Lord Bismarck’s help. I told my master that I would protect the Ashen Forest and protect Lord Mourire and his family.”
“Grey cat… white paws?”
“He did not tell me. All he said was that for what you taught him – survival and kinship – he will always be in your debt, Lord Mourire.”
“Lord Mourire… I am not a lord. I’m just a cat.”
“You saved my life as well, Lord Mourire. You saved my life and showed me that I can choose a more humane path. You saved a life. You saved the world entire. You would give your life for those who call you family. Truly, you too are a Lord in Collarworld.”
Footsteps in the distance.
“St. Francis of Assisi is arriving. I must go. God bless you, Lord Mourire.”
With that, the mixbreed walked into the forest.
“God … God bless you too, Dismas,” Mourire moaned. “And thank you.”