Among the many realms and lands in Collarworld, the afterlife waystation for all pets who cross the Rainbow Bridge, the Ashen Forest evolved as a lonely, desolate region. Most animals avoid traveling through the Ashen Forest at all costs, lest they incur the wrath of the gang of feral cats who patrol the area.
But on this day, the leader of the feral cats, a black cat named Mourire, was on the hunt. Not for prey or for bullying targets – no, on this day Mourire was in search of his fellow ferals, Stave and Torch. Stave disappeared from Mourire’s watch a few weeks ago, and now Torch – a grey cat with white paws – had disappeared as well.
Mourire searched from tree to tree, from rock to ground, for his feral brothers. No sign anywhere. Nothing.
And then he saw Truffle.
Truffle was one of the Royal Order of Ancient Carissima Hamsters, the trio of rodents who acted as heralds for St. Francis of Assisi. The Hamsters communicated news and information throughout all the realms of Collarworld.
“Stop there, rodent.”
Truffle looked up. “Mourire – don’t hurt me – ”
“I’m not going to hurt you. As long as you tell me where my brothers Stave and Torch are. Right now. Talk. Or we find how how many claws it takes to get to the center of a hamster.”
“I haven’t seen Stave anywhere, but the black cat is at the Shore of the Cedars.”
“Doing what?” Mourire snarled.
“He was talking with Lord Jackson at the shore. I don’t know why. Please, all I want to do is get from here to the Sawdust Oval to see Lord Ingemar the tiger – ”
With a swipe of his paws, Mourire hit Truffle into the air. The hamster landed on the other side of a grey fern.
“I just gave you a head start. Don’t make me catch up and give you another one.”
Since his time at the Shore of the Cedars, Jackson the golden retriever became lord of the shore’s healing waters. Animals would enter the waters, Jackson would say a prayer, and whatever sins or transgressions that animal achieved – either in the living world or in Collarworld – were absolved and healed.
As Mourire arrived at the Shore of the Cedars, he saw a grey cat walking toward the water. It was his brother from the Ashen Forest, Torch.
The cat turned around at the sound of Mourire’s voice.
“What are you doing? Don’t stand in that water, it’ll burn you alive!”
“No it won’t,” Torch said, “Lord Jackson told me it will clean my sins.”
“What sins? You don’t have any sins. Come on back with me, we have to go find Stave, he’s been missing for days.”
“Welcome, Mourire,” Jackson the golden retriever barked. “This cat has come of his own free will to be baptized and cleansed in this water. This is a solemn moment. It is very important.”
“No. I saw what that water did to the Demon,” Mourire growled. “I’m not having that happen to my brothers.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Torch replied. “Because of what you did that day to the Demon.”
“I did nothing. I was working with Vincent and all the other animals to stop that Demon. That’s all I did.”
“Stave and I both saw what you did to protect that terrier Bate,” Torch said, his paws still dry from the sand along the Shore of the Cedars. “You not only saved that dog, but you also saved us. We both know you did this.”
“I didn’t save anybody,” Mourire snarled. “All I did was make sure that dog never enters our world again.”
“He won’t,” said Torch. “Not now. No. But after that battle, Stave and I talked about some things. And as much as you’ve led us and protected us all these years… we both needed to move forward.”
“What are you talking about – move forward? Where?”
“You don’t know what happened to Stave, do you?”
Jackson the golden retriever paced over to Mourire. “A few weeks ago, Stave visited my realm. And he asked if there was a place in Collarworld outside the Ashen Forest for ferals. I asked him to walk into the water and confess his sins. And he did so. A day later, he was called to join the Order of the Seven Angels, to watch as a heavenly host over a child in the living world.”
“That’s not possible. Ferals can’t do that, they don’t have masters. You’re lying to me.”
“He’s not, boss,” mewed Torch. “I know this.”
“Oh what, you’re going to be an angel too? You go swimming in this water and all of a sudden you’re going to grow wings and play a harp?”
“Mourire,” Jackson barked, “it doesn’t work that way. You know this. So many are chosen for the Order of the Seven Angels, chosen because of their pure heart and soul.”
“Yeah… and you and Stave think you can do better than being in the Ashen Forest with me?”
Torch bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he purred. “You have taken care of us for many years, ever since we left the Rainy Barn together. You took us into the Ashen Forest and trained us. You took care of us. You were our guide. Mourire, you were our master.”
“I was nobody’s master,” Mourire spat. “Don’t even say that.”
“You were,” Torch replied. “You taught us brotherhood and respect and to protect ourselves against the world. Because the world is a cruel place, especially for those without masters. And you became our master.”
“So what, you’re just going to walk away? And just leave me alone in the Ashen Forest?”
Torch looked down at the golden sand.
“Leave him alone, Mourire,” Jackson barked. “He’s already spent most of the day deciding whether or not to even take this step.”
“Please, Mourire…” Torch cried. “The only reason I haven’t done this sooner is because I felt like I wasn’t worthy of your respect or love.”
Mourire twitched his black whiskers.
Torch continued. “I don’t know what my next step will be. I’ve heard of pets in Collarworld who unite with masters who never had pets in the Living World. Maybe I’ll be one of those.”
Silence from the black cat.
“Mourire, I didn’t make this decision lightly. You inspired me through many things. Both right and wrong. Just please… let me take what you taught me… let me show you that I have learned everything you have taught me.”
Mourire looked toward the horizon, beyond the grey cat and the golden retriever.
“I’m not a master, Torch. I’m not anybody’s master. And no master has ever placed a chain on me. And no master should ever place a chain on you or on Stave. Doing this means you’re turning your back on our brotherhood. You’re turning your back on me.”
Torch wiped sand from his front paw. “I’m ready, Lord Jackson.”
The golden retriever and the grey cat walked toward the shoreline. “Walk as far into the water as you can. If you feel any pain, that’s your sins leaving your body.”
Torch did as he was commanded. The grey cat’s snow-white paws slowly tread into the water.
Jackson invoked a prayer. “In the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the true and just ruler of all animals, both living and dead, I command that all sins exit your body. Let the hurt and pain of the past wash away. And let nothing but peace remain in your heart and soul and body.”
Torch watched as the water tingled and glistened around his paws. He slowly walked into the water, the rippled liquids splashing and flowing around his legs.
He looked back to the shore.
All he saw of Mourire was a black tail, his fellow feral leaving the Shore of the Cedars.
“Come out of the water now,” Jackson barked. Torch slowly walked back to the sandy shore.
“Where will I go now?” Torch mewed. “Mourire certainly won’t let me back in the Ashen Forest.”
“I will arrange for you to travel to Indigo Acres,” Jackson barked, reminding Torch of Collarworld’s agrarian farmland. “Cassius Marcellus will watch over you. And you will also take care of another feral on the farm – a little kitten who escaped from the Rainy Barn and ended up at Indigo Acres. The kitten’s name is Arklatex. You will help guide him.”
“Just as Mourire guided me?” Torch asked.
“Whatever truth and light you learned from Mourire and Stave,” Jackson replied, “pass it forward to this new charge.”
The trip back to the Ashen Forest was cold and rocky, and Mourire snarled every step of the way. How dare they leave me. How dare they abandon me. After everything I’ve done to protect them and guide them. They wouldn’t have lasted two days in the Ashen Forest without me. Probably could have fallen into Fred’s Chasm or gotten eaten by Lord Bismarck or any number of things.
The black cat’s piercing eyes showed anger and resentment and hatred. And every time he thought about Stave and Torch, he continued to seethe.
Nobody came up with this idea on their own. Someone had to put it in their head. Someone. Someone who doesn’t want the ferals around in Collarworld.
And in that chilly second, that wet, stingy instant, Mourire knew of one animal in Collarworld who might want the ferals out of the realms.
Call me friend to my face, and then convince my brothers to leave me.
One second later, Mourire changed his travel, heading instead toward the green meadow near the Meeting Place.
I’m going to have a word with that rat-lover Vincent the tabbycat, Mourire snarled to himself. And if that greasy Newfoundland dog friend of his gets in the way of our little chat…
He’ll get a claw on his nose as well.