Lynx awoke before dawn. He got out of bed, brushed his whiskers, and licked his fur clean. He dressed in boots and a tunic, then donned his rucksack and set out into the dusty streets. The sun was just beginning to peek up over the thatched rooftops. Most of the other catmen of the village were still asleep.
Lynx hiked west, out of town, through the foothills and into the wasteland, where he wandered amid the stark beauty of the stony plains, winding arroyos, and towering plateaus.
He loved walking here, and today he’d secretly resolved to explore as far to the west as he could. His parents would disapprove. Like all the adults of the village, they harbored a vague mistrust of the wasteland, maybe due to the strange mechanical artifacts that they said were sometimes discovered beneath the sands. But the more time Lynx spent out here, the more he felt that such misgivings were baseless.
All morning he climbed hills, clambered over fields of boulders, and strode between pillars of stone. Finally, around mid-day, his westward progress was blocked by a narrow canyon that stretched as far as he could see in either direction. The canyon floor was forty feet below, and the walls were too sheer to climb, so Lynx turned north, skirting the cliff edge and searching for a way across.
Finally he came to a place where a giant tree had grown up from the canyon floor beside the near wall. The tree was dead now, but its pale, branchless trunk would provide easy access down into the canyon. Though there was no telling whether—
Wait. What was that?
He thought he saw movement, below.
A few hundred yards away, the canyon wall was broken by a wide, low cavern. A figure detached itself from the darkness and wandered down onto the sand. Lynx ducked, then slowly raised his head again as the figure came to a halt.
As far as Lynx knew, nothing lived out here except lizards and birds. But this figure was the size of a catman, and walked upright.
Then the thought came to him: A dogman.
Here? Impossible. But it had to be. He knew he should flee, get help, but …
The dogmen were almost extinct. This might be the only chance he’d ever get to see one. And he should make sure it was really a dogman, before he alarmed the whole village.
He dropped his rucksack and kicked off his boots. He paced, flexing his hand and foot claws. Then he dashed to the edge of the cliff and leapt onto the tree. His claws dug into the wood, and he hung there a moment, then scrambled down the trunk and dropped lightly to the canyon floor.
He sneaked toward the cave, ducking behind one boulder, then another, then another. A strong breeze blew into his face, and this was good, for the wind would muffle his footsteps and carry his scent off behind him.
He lay down and crawled on elbows and knees until he was just a dozen yards away from the mysterious figure, then peeked around a rock.
Yes. A dogman. It was burlier than any catman, and Lynx could make out its grotesque floppy ears. It wore a grungy tunic and a heavy broadsword. Then the creature turned its head, and Lynx glimpsed its profile—a flat face with saggy jowls and wrinkled folds of flesh around the eyes. A horrible, misshapen creature. An abomination.
Lynx began to crawl backward, then paused, as he spied a second figure emerging from the cave.
This one was … not so terrible. A female, slender, perhaps as young as Lynx. Her snout was white, her large eyes banded with brown, and her long, silky ears hung past her shoulders. She too wore a sword, a rapier.
In Lynx’s imagination, dogmen had always been ugly and fearsome and … male. He wondered about the female. What was she to the hulking beast beside her? His ally? His wife? She had a sweet look to her, or was that deceptive? Had she ever killed a catman?
Suddenly the big male straightened and poked his nose in the air, sniffing loudly—once, twice.
Lynx felt a prickle of terror. While he’d been distracted, the breeze had shifted, and he was now upwind of the dogmen.
The male roared, “Catmen!” and whipped out his sword. He turned and stared straight at Lynx, who leapt up from his hiding spot and sprinted away, dodging around boulders and vaulting over ditches. Behind him came heavy footfalls and throaty growls as the male chased him, gained on him. Lynx spotted the tree, his escape.
The female cried, “No! Stop him!”
Lynx ran to the tree, sprang onto it, and scuttled upward. The male bellowed and leapt after him, and Lynx heard the swoosh of the broadsword, then the thunk of metal on wood. The whole tree shuddered as the sword struck just below his feet.
He climbed out of reach. The female dogman shrieked in despair, and the male let loose a frustrated howl.
Lynx fled the canyon, as the dogmen’s terrible barking rose up from below him and echoed in his ears.
It wasn’t until much later, when he was far from that place, that he noticed any pain. Then he found that he was missing a few inches off the end of his tail. Blood pooled there, and fell in thick droplets to the sand.
Night had fallen by the time Lynx got back to the village. He headed straight to the temple, raced through the main doors, and burst into the antechamber.
A scribe sat at a small wooden desk and scribbled in a ledger with a quill pen. When he saw Lynx’s agitation, the scribe stood. “Can I help you?”
Lynx gasped for breath. “I have to see Father Cougar.”
The scribe stared disapprovingly. “Father Cougar is delivering the evening service.”
Lynx said, “There are dogmen! Living in the wasteland. Hiding in the caves.”
“Dogmen? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! They chased me, with swords.” Lynx held up the tip of his tail, which was clotted with blood.
The scribe grew alarmed. “All right. Wait here.” He hurried over to a pair of heavy wooden doors, then slipped through, closing the doors behind him.
Lynx stepped forward and pressed his ear to the wood. Father Cougar’s booming voice filled the other room. Lynx could only make out some of the words, but he grasped the essence of the sermon. Father Cougar was preaching, as ever, about how these were the end times, and about the coming Victory, when Cat would return to Earth, the dogmen would be destroyed forever, and the catmen would regain their pure feline forms.
Father Cougar’s voice died away. He must be conferring with the scribe.
Finally the scribe reappeared and said, “Follow me.”
He led Lynx down a hallway to a cozy chamber whose walls were hung with tapestries. Father Cougar, wearing his vestments, sat on a sofa in the corner. He said warmly, “Lynx! Come in, come in.”
Lynx picked a chair and sat down.
Father Cougar settled back and stroked his scruffy gray whiskers. “Now, tell me what happened.”
Lynx explained about coming across the dogmen in the wasteland. Father Cougar listened intently, then said, “And they saw you?”
Lynx hesitated, then admitted, “Yes.”
Father Cougar narrowed his eyes. “How?”
Lynx stared at the floor. “I’m sorry, Father. I … was curious.”
Father Cougar sighed deeply. “As I thought.” He leaned forward, his gaze steady. “How many times must I tell you? Curiosity is the gravest of sins. And now you see what your curiosity has cost us. If you had avoided detection, we could have easily located these dogmen and captured them. But now they’ll be expecting us, and will move on. The danger to those who track them is greatly increased. And what if the dogmen should slip away? You may very well have cost us the great Victory we have awaited so long.”
Lynx felt ashamed, despondent. Everything Father Cougar was saying was absolutely true.
Father Cougar shook his head. “Well, there’s no helping it now.” He turned to the scribe and instructed, “Go to the inn. Fetch the templars.” The scribe nodded once, and hurried off.
Lynx felt awe. “Templars?”
“Yes,” Father Cougar said. “They arrived this morning. Two of them. Pursuing these dogmen you saw. They’ll want to question you.”
“Of course,” Lynx agreed at once, his shame quickly giving way to excitement.
Templars! Holy ones, invincible warriors of Cat. In ages past, their order had eradicated the frogmen, the birdmen, and the monkeymen, and now only the dogmen remained.
The scribe returned a short time later, leading the templars. They were the tallest, most muscular catmen that Lynx had ever seen. Both wore long white tabards, and upon their surcoats were embroidered the holy form of Cat.
Father Cougar gestured to them. “Lynx, these are our templar friends, Lion and Tiger.”
The templars nodded politely. Tiger was brawnier, stern and dignified, with gray in his fur and black stripes around his eyes. Lion had a great tawny mane and seemed almost to vibrate with barely restrained energy. And he was younger, perhaps only five or ten years older than Lynx himself.
Lion said quickly, “Tell us about the dogmen.”
So Lynx repeated his story. When he gave a description of the dogmen, the templars glanced at each other. When he got to the part about his escape from the canyon, the scribe interrupted, “Show them your tail!”
Lynx held up his injured tail.
Lion clapped his hands together and said to Tiger, “Well, look at that! Bloodied by dogmen, and he escaped to tell of it.” He turned to Lynx. “That’s more than many templars can boast.”
Lynx felt an almost unbearable rush of pride.
Lion said, “I’ve heard enough.” He turned to Tiger. “Let’s find this cave.”
Father Cougar said, “You mean to leave at once?”
“Yes,” Lion replied. “I see no reason to dally. The dogmen certainly will not.”
“Take me with you!” Lynx exclaimed. “I’ll lead you there.”
Father Cougar looked worried. “That might be dangerous. Your parents—”
Lynx said, “It’s my fault for letting the dogmen see me. You have to let me make up for it. No one knows the wasteland like I do.”
Father Cougar turned to the templars. “I suppose it’s up to you.”
Tiger opened his mouth for the first time. “I don’t think—”
Lion spoke over him. “Yes, let him come. The dogmen cut him with their swords. He deserves a chance to pay them back in kind.” He grinned at Lynx and said, “But we’ll cut more than just their tails, won’t we?”
Tiger said nothing.
“Come on,” Lion said, and gestured for Lynx to follow.
Lynx went with the templars back to the inn, where they gathered supplies. Lion pulled a shortsword out from among his belongings and tossed it to Lynx, who caught it and put it on. Then Lynx led the templars into the wasteland. The sun was rising by the time they reached the cave.
Tiger scouted about, kneeling in places to sniff the earth, then said, “This way.”
The trail led westward, deeper into the wastes. That night the templars made camp beneath the open sky, and in the morning they continued on again. As far as Lynx knew, no catman had ever come this far before. His boldness waned, and he started to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.
On the third day, the templars stopped to rest beside a circular black pit a hundred yards across. Thick yellow grass grew all around the pit, and vines hung over its edge and into the darkness. There was something eerie and intriguing about the formation.
Lynx wondered aloud, “Could the dogmen be hiding in there?”
Tiger said, “The tracks lead on.”
Lion shrugged. “It can’t hurt to check. Call us if you see anything.”
Lynx wandered over to the pit. Its sides were rough and angular, and he scrambled easily down the many shelves of rock until he reached the cavern floor. Stray beams of sunlight lanced down through the opening overhead and caught the dust that floated in the air. Lynx turned in a slow circle, then stopped as he saw something utterly unexpected.
He drew his sword and cried out, “Lion! Lion!”
Half-buried in the side of the cave lay a strange object that was bigger than a cottage and made of a silver metal. From the object’s side protruded a structure that seemed to be a wing. The object was extraordinarily weathered, and its side was ripped open. That dark gash beckoned to Lynx. He took a step forward, then another.
From the cliff wall above, Lion called out, “Wait.”
Lynx glanced back. Lion was climbing down into the cavern. Tiger stood above, at the pit’s edge.
Lion said, “What are you doing?”
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Lynx said. “I’m going to look inside.” He crept nearer.
“Why?” Lion called sharply.
“I…” Lynx was very close now. “I just…”
“This is curiosity,” Lion warned. “This is wrong.”
“It isn’t,” Lynx insisted, half to himself. Though why it wasn’t, he could not really say. He slipped through the gash.
For a moment everything was dark. Then a hundred spots of light—red, blue, yellow, green—flickered to life all around him. He crouched in alarm. He’d never seen anything like these lights, but his attention was quickly drawn away from them and toward a metal coffin that was built into the far wall. Its lid was made of glass, and inside he could make out the rough outline of a body.
Suddenly a loud voice spoke, seeming to come from all around. The language was unfamiliar. Lynx whirled, but saw no one.
The coffin slowly opened. Lynx backed away, cursing himself. Once again his curiosity had betrayed him, had led him to intrude upon this strange tomb, and now he had awoken something ancient and powerful. His fearful imagination conjured up images of a living corpse with blazing red eyes. But what actually emerged was no less surprising.
A monkeyman. He seemed dazed, and was dressed in some gray uniform, its chest and shoulders decorated with insignia. He glanced at Lynx, then staggered past him. Lynx stared in wonder and horror. The monkeymen were supposed to have been wiped out centuries ago.
A second shape, much smaller, leapt from the coffin, and Lynx gasped as he observed its perfect grace. For all his life he had seen this holy form depicted a thousand times, and now there was no mistaking it. This was the creator of the universe, the giver of all life. Cat, the nine-lived, had returned to Earth at last. Lynx kneeled and whispered, “My lord.”
Cat did not acknowledge him, and Lynx was unsure what to do. Through the gash came the voices of the templars, who now stood just outside. Tiger was saying, with a mix of fear and awe, “It fell from the sky. See? It broke through into this cavern.”
Lion replied angrily, “The dogmen flee, and we stand here engaged in idle—”
He stopped abruptly as the monkeyman lurched through the gash and out into the cave. Lynx followed after.
The templars stood awestruck. The monkeyman ignored them. He stumbled about, studying the damage to his winged tomb. With one hand he grasped his forehead. He still seemed disoriented.
Lynx felt disoriented himself. He wandered over to the templars, tugged Lion’s sleeve, and made him look toward the tomb, where Cat was just emerging. Lion fell instantly to his knees, and Tiger did the same.
Cat ignored them and strode along after the monkeyman. Then Cat lay down, reached into a gap between the tomb and the cave floor, and batted his paw at something within. The monkeyman grunted at Cat and used the edge of one boot to lightly brush Cat away from the hole.
Lion leapt to his feet and cried, “You dare!” He ran up to the monkeyman and seized him by the shoulder.
The monkeyman shoved him back and yelled at him in a strange language. An amulet on the monkeyman’s belt buzzed, “Get your hands off me, catman scum!” Puzzled, the monkeyman glanced at the amulet. Then he shouted at Lion, and again his magic amulet translated. “Report! What unit are you with? And what the hell are you wearing?”
Lion backed away. He moved to stand beside Tiger and said in a low voice, “A surviving monkeyman. He struck me, you saw. I should have the honor of slaying him.”
The monkeyman’s amulet spoke in a strange tongue, presumably translating Lion’s words.
Tiger said, “I don’t know. He comes to us from the sky, as a companion of Cat. Dare we slay him?”
Lion said, “Cat’s holy word commands it.”
Tiger said, “Cat himself stands before us now. Everything is changed.”
Lion glanced at Cat, who sat licking himself. Lion approached him, knelt, and said, “My lord, I am Lion, your most faithful servant. I am yours to command. What is your wish for this monkeyman? Say the word, and I will spill his blood in your name.”
Cat lifted his head, gave Lion an inscrutable stare, and went back to licking himself.
Lion, still kneeling, glanced at Tiger and hissed, “Why does he not answer?”
Tiger growled softly, “It is not our place to question his motives. He will speak when he wills it.”
Lion turned back to Cat. “Answer me, lord, I beg you. Or if you will not, give us some sign, that we may do your will.”
The monkeyman seemed to finally shake off his confusion and comprehend the danger. He glanced back and forth between Lion and Cat, then crouched and whistled to Cat and spoke. The amulet translated, “Hey, come here. Here, kitty kitty kitty. Come on.”
Lion said darkly, “He presumes to command Cat.”
The monkeyman ignored this and kept calling. Cat gazed at the monkeyman, but did not stir.
Lion said, “Cat rejects him.”
“Wait!” The monkeyman held up a hand. “Just … Leo, come here, dammit!” He whistled again. “Here, kitty kitty.”
Lion reached for his sword and said, “He dies.”
But at that moment, Cat languidly uncurled himself and strolled across the dirt to the monkeyman, who scratched Cat’s whiskers, then his ears, his neck, and his back. Cat purred and rubbed against the monkeyman’s shins. Lion froze.
“Cat shows him favor,” Tiger observed. “Cat has a special plan for him.”
The monkeyman picked up Cat and held him like a shield. Cat continued to purr.
Lion glared at the monkeyman for a long time, then strode over to him, stood very close, and said softly, “I do not know why Cat chooses to prolong your miserable existence, abomination. But let no one say that I was curious.” He brushed by him and walked away.
The monkeyman lowered his head to Cat and whispered, “Good Cat.”
The catmen set out again, now joined by Cat and his strange monkeyman companion. The monkeyman brought along a sort of satchel in which he carried Cat, who seemed pleased enough with the arrangement. Lion remained hostile to the monkeyman, no matter how often Tiger insisted that the Victory was now at hand and that Lion should be rejoicing. The templars often knelt before Cat and asked him for guidance, but Cat never deigned to reply.
Sometimes the monkeyman would stare into the amulet, but whatever it told him must have displeased him, for he would shake it, strike it, and yell at it. Lynx was desperate to question the monkeyman, but that would be showing curiosity, so instead he tried to mimic the stony indifference of the templars. Still, Lynx couldn’t keep his eyes off of Cat.
The monkeyman noticed this. Finally he said, “Do you want to hold him?”
Lynx was stunned. He glanced at the templars, who were now well ahead. “I couldn’t.”
“Sure.” The monkeyman reached into the satchel, lifted Cat free, and handed him over to Lynx, who scratched Cat’s ears the way the monkeyman had. Cat purred.
“See?” the monkeyman said. After a moment, he added, “What’s your name?”
Lynx hesitated, then told him.
“I’m Charles,” the monkeyman said. Lynx didn’t respond. After a moment, the monkeyman lowered his voice and said, “Tell me, Lynx. What year is this?”
Lynx was perplexed, but the monkeyman seemed earnest. Lynx passed Cat back to him and said slowly, “1293.”
“Using what calendar?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Dating from when?”
“Why…” This was the strangest question Lynx had ever heard. “From the creation of the world.”
The monkeyman said nothing for a long time. He and Lynx resumed walking. Finally the monkeyman asked in a low tone, “And what is this ‘Victory’?”
“You really don’t know? Cat hasn’t told you?”
The monkeyman said, “Cat isn’t overly fond of explaining himself. As you may have noticed.”
So Lynx spoke of the Victory. When he saw that the monkeyman was utterly confused, he found himself explaining more and more. Soon he had gone all the way back to the beginning, back to when Cat had created the world and all its inhabitants, including his most favored creation, cats, whom Cat had made in his own image. To them alone Cat had granted the gift of speech. But the cats had grown curious about what other animals might say, and so the cats disobeyed and shared the gift of speech with birds, frogs, dogs, and monkeys. But those other animals were wicked and spoke only lies. When Cat returned and saw what had happened, he was very angry, and punished those animals, twisting them into catmen, birdmen, frogmen, dogmen, and monkeymen. The catmen wailed and beseeched Cat to restore them to their perfect forms, but Cat decreed that he would not until the catmen had wiped the Earth clean of the abominations—any animal who spoke and was not feline. But Cat, in his ultimate mercy, also decreed that this redemption was inevitable, and promised that in the last days he would return to Earth to lead the catmen to ultimate glory. Lynx finished, “So that is the Victory. That is why Cat has come again. But his ways are strange. We did not know that he would be accompanied by a monkeyman.”
The monkeyman said, “And these dogmen we’re pursuing … are the last on Earth?”
“Perhaps,” Lynx said. “They are among the last, certainly.”
“And the … other monkeymen. Like me. Are all…?”
“Dead,” Lynx confirmed. “Long ago.”
That night Lynx was awoken by the sound of the monkeyman sobbing softly. Lynx thought: He weeps for his vanquished race. It had not occurred to Lynx that abominations might be capable of such grief. This monkeyman was the last of his kind, probably. And in the end, when the Victory came, he too would be cleansed from the Earth. That made Lynx feel almost sad.
He did not get back to sleep for a long time.
The templars tracked the dogmen ever deeper into the wasteland. Supplies were running low, and nothing edible grew here. But Lion said, “Good. The dogmen will have the same problem. They’ll have to turn and face us.”
And he was right. The next day, the catmen mounted a low, wind-swept pass, and Lynx spotted the dogmen waiting amidst a jumble of boulders.
The male stood there, holding his great broadsword. The female reached for her rapier, but the male barked at her, and she reluctantly backed away. The male stepped forward, seeming worn and haggard, but for all that he was still even bigger and more imposing than Lynx remembered.
Lion sighed. “Only two. And one a female.” He drew his sword and strode forward. “Stay back. I’ll handle this.”
Lynx looked to Tiger. “He’ll fight alone?”
Tiger was stoic. “He prefers it this way.”
“Why bring me all this way?” Lynx said. “Why give me a sword, if he never meant for me to help?”
“That’s just how he is.”
The monkeyman moved to stand beside them. “How he is is arrogant and reckless. Why do you endure it?”
Tiger said softly, “You’ll see why.”
Lion closed in on the male, who roared and thrust at him with savage force. Lion parried casually, spun in a crouch, and came up with both fists wrapped around the hilt of his sword. He slammed his fists into his opponent’s jowled face, and the male thudded to the ground. Lion kicked away the dogman’s sword, and just like that it was over.
Lynx exclaimed, “He’s amazing!”
Tiger nodded. He hurried forward, and Lynx and the monkeyman followed. Tiger knelt to tie up the male as Lion strode toward the female.
She’d drawn her rapier, and as Lion came on she backed away in a fighting stance, her movements swift and graceful. Lion held his sword at his side.
She thrust at his throat. Her speed was remarkable, but Lion whipped up his sword and easily blocked the blow.
The female backed away, launching a series of feints and attacks. Lion laughed, contemptuous, as he parried each one. But her last thrust deflected off his blade and scratched his shoulder.
He glanced at the small circle of blood that blossomed on his white tabard. “Not bad. I might have to try.”
He moved to close with her, but again she slipped away.
Tiger looked uneasy. He whispered, “At close range, he’s unstoppable. But he has no patience.”
The female kept retreating, staying always just beyond the reach of Lion’s sword. She attacked again, and again she got through, pricking his other shoulder. He hardly seemed to notice. His expression was dark now. He kept advancing.
Lynx said, “We have to help.”
Tiger hesitated. “He … would not like that.”
Lion roared, slashing at the female’s head. She backed out of reach, then quickly counterattacked, striking his chest. Three stains now blazed on his tabard. The blood from his shoulder wounds soaked down to his elbows. He seemed to be slowing.
Lynx said, “If you won’t help him, I will.”
He drew his shortsword and ran in a wide arc, so that he circled behind the female, then charged her.
As he neared, she pivoted and thrust at his face. Lynx ducked and retreated. Instantly she turned back to Lion, but now he had closed with her, and she was doomed. When she attacked, he locked her wrist and wrenched her sword away. He smashed an elbow into her face, and hurled her over his hip. Then Lion was upon her, straddling her, pounding his fists into her face, knocking her head this way and that. Soon she was unconscious, with blood oozing from her muzzle, but the blows kept falling.
Lynx murmured, “Wait,” but Lion ignored him.
Finally, Lion stood. His chest wound had bled a red blotch around the holy form of Cat that was embroidered on his surcoat.
Lynx said, “Are you all right?”
Lion’s eyes were full of fury. “I told you to stay back! You could’ve gotten us both killed!” He shoved Lynx aside and stormed on past.
Tiger came forward and knelt to bind the female. He said, “He gets like this. Just let him calm down. It’ll be all right.”
The templars marched the dogmen east. The prisoners were not spoken to, and when night fell they were bound at wrist and ankle. Tiger took the first watch while Lion dozed. Lynx sat a dozen yards away, off by himself, leaning on a boulder.
The monkeyman settled down beside him and nodded at the prisoners. “So what happens to them now?”
Lynx said, “The templars will want to show them off, charge money to see them, that sort of thing.”
The monkeyman’s voice was soft. “You said these might be the last dogmen on Earth.”
“They might,” Lynx agreed.
“And then they’ll be executed?”
The monkeyman caught Lynx’s gaze, held it. “And you’re going to let that happen?”
Lynx glanced over at Tiger, but the templar was too far away to hear them. Lynx hissed, “Of course.”
The monkeyman said, “No one has ever called me squeamish, and I have no love for dogmen, but to wipe out an entire race … That’s evil, Lynx. You must know that. Whatever some old legend says.”
“You’re just a monkeyman. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand more than you can imagine,” the monkeyman said. “I’ve flown among the stars, and slept for ages, and I remember Earth as it was, when monkeymen—as you call us—ruled all. We made you, Lynx, you catmen, in our labs. The dogmen too, and all the rest. We made you to be soldiers, and I guess we did our jobs too well, because I awake to find that you’ve beaten us. But that doesn’t—”
“This is blasphemy,” Lynx said. “I warn you, not even Cat’s favor will protect you if—”
“What? Him?” The monkeyman jabbed a thumb toward the satchel where Cat slept. “He’s an animal, like any other. I raised him from a kitten.”
Lynx stood. “I should kill you for that.”
The monkeyman glared up at him. “Fine. Kill me. Like you killed my race. What’ve I got to live for?” He gestured toward Lion. “Rouse your maniac friend there. Tell him to chop off my head. He’d like that. And would you? I thought you were different.”
Lynx scowled and stomped away. He sat down beside Tiger, who asked, “What’s wrong?”
Lynx said furiously, “Nothing.”
Tiger glanced at the monkeyman, then said, “Monkeys lie. That’s why they should never have been granted the gift of speech.”
Lynx crossed his arms and agreed, “Yes. They lie.”
For the next two days, Lynx refused to speak to the monkeyman, but doubts gnawed at him. Much as he hated to admit it, the monkeyman was right about one thing: Lynx was different from the templars.
He had always thought of himself as faithful, but traveling with them had made him see just how shallow and perfunctory his belief really was. Lion’s faith was like fire—it gave intensity to everything he did, but it was a fire that was raging out of control and would someday consume him. And Tiger’s faith was like a mountain—immense, solid, and immovable. But Lynx realized that his own faith was more like the wasteland itself, existing only in the absence of anything else. The monkeyman’s briefly spouted heresies made sense to Lynx in a way that the wisdom of Father Cougar never really had.
That afternoon, Lynx found himself walking for a moment beside the female. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “You fought well.”
She looked up, startled to be spoken to. “What?”
Lion was off ahead of them. Tiger was back a ways, out of earshot. Lynx said softly, “The other day. You fought well. I think you would’ve beaten him, if I hadn’t interfered. Beaten a templar. You should be proud of that.”
“Oh,” she said, puzzled. “Thank you.”
“Sure,” Lynx said awkwardly, and hurried off.
The monkeyman sidled up from behind him. “Why did you do that?”
Lynx maintained a stony silence for a moment, then said, “I … I was just …”
“Curious,” the monkeyman said.
The monkeyman added, “Curiosity is no sin. If you’re not curious, you’ll never learn.”
“That’s blasphemy,” Lynx said, but his tone was flat.
The monkeyman didn’t respond.
After a time, Lynx said, “Even if I agreed with you—about the dogmen, I mean—what can I do?”
The monkeyman whispered, “You can pretend to be asleep tonight, and when I create a distraction you can crawl over to the dogmen and cut their bonds, and let them escape.”
Lynx was startled. “I didn’t mean…”
“I know.” The monkeyman gave him a thin smile. “But think about it. I’ll create the distraction. What you do then is up to you.”
“Wait,” Lynx said. This was too much. “What sort of distraction?”
“You’ll see. Your little outburst the other night gave me an idea.”
Lynx considered this. “During whose watch?”
“Whose do you think?”
Lion’s, of course. He was by far the more easily distracted.
“Think about it,” the monkeyman repeated, and fell behind again.
As night came on, the templars made camp atop a low hill. Tiger slumbered, and Lynx pretended to. He still couldn’t decide whether to help the dogmen. After several hours, he heard movement and peeked out one eye. The monkeyman came up to stand behind Lion and said, “You seem like the religious type.”
Lion turned to him. “Do not mock me, monkeyman.” Lion was now facing away from Lynx and the prisoners.
The monkeyman sat down on a stone. “Not at all. I just thought you might be interested in some of the religious ideas of the monkeymen.”
“The chattering of abominations does not interest me.” Lion began to turn away.
“Wait,” the monkeyman said. “For example, did you know that many monkeymen believed that they were made in the image of the creator of the universe?”
Lion laughed at that. “Did they ever look in a mirror? Surely they could not believe that the creator of the universe was so ungainly and absurd.”
The monkeyman shrugged. “Others had another idea about how they came to be. It was called ‘evolution by natural selection.’”
Lion’s back was still turned. Lynx glanced at the prisoners. He thought he could crawl to them without attracting attention.
If he was caught at this, the templars would kill him. And what if Father Cougar was right, about Cat and the Victory and all of it? Lynx stared at the female. He was impressed by her, liked her, though they’d barely spoken. He didn’t want to see her die. If he helped her escape, the catmen would have other opportunities to apprehend her, if necessary. But if she died…
He began to crawl toward her.
Lion was saying, “Even if that were possible, it would take thousands of years.”
“Millions,” the monkeyman corrected.
“The world is not that old.”
“Well, these monkeymen had some ideas about that too.”
The female’s eyes were wide as Lynx crawled up beside her. He glanced over her shoulder at Lion, who was absorbed in the argument. Lynx drew the shortsword and whispered, “If I set you free, will you swear to run away and never come back, and never trouble any catman ever again?”
She stared at him a moment, then nodded quickly.
“All right.” Lynx sliced her bonds, then squirmed over to the male to cut those ropes too.
Lion exclaimed, “That is heresy!”
The monkeyman replied, “That is fact.”
Lion stood up. He towered over the monkeyman and said, “Take it back!”
“I’m just telling you what—”
“Silence!” Lion used the back of his fist to strike the monkeyman across the face, knocking him to the dirt.
Lynx freed the male, and together the prisoners began to crawl off.
Lion drew his sword and strode toward the monkeyman, who sprang up and backed away. Lion said, “Come here.”
“No. Get away from me.” The monkeyman turned and stumbled down the hill, and Lion went after him.
Lynx thought: Lion will kill him. The monkeyman knew this would happen. He knew he was sacrificing himself.
Lynx glanced at the prisoners, who were now on their feet and hurrying away.
Lion and the monkeyman were soon lost in the darkness, but Lynx could hear them cursing. He considered waking Tiger, who might restrain Lion. But Tiger might also notice the prisoners fleeing.
Then the monkeyman let out an anguished wail, and Tiger opened his eyes. Lynx had no choice. He cried, “Tiger!”
The templar reached for his sword. “What?”
Lynx pointed. “Lion. He’s gone crazy!”
Tiger leapt up, and Lynx followed. As they reached the bottom of the hill, Lion stepped from the shadows.
Tiger shouted, “What have you done?”
Lion was smug. “The monkeyman blasphemed with every word. I have silenced him.”
No! Lynx thought, hurrying forward, scanning the ground for a corpse.
But the monkeyman was alive, weeping, kneeling over the smashed remains of his magic amulet. There was a gash over his brow, and his eyes were forlorn as he uttered a string of gibberish.
Lion had spared the monkeyman’s life, but now there wasn’t a single being on Earth that the monkeyman could talk to.
Lynx said, “I’m so sorry … Charles.”
At the sound of his name, the monkeyman looked up. “Charles,” he repeated. He took a deep breath, wiped his eyes, and rose to his feet. Lynx took him by the arm, and they hiked back up the hill.
They entered camp just behind Tiger, who said, “Where are the prisoners?”
Lion looked stricken. He glanced about.
Tiger cursed. He ran across the camp and stared off down the far side of the hill. “Nothing. They’re gone.”
“I…” Lion hesitated. Then he pointed to the monkeyman. “It’s his fault!”
“His fault?” Tiger raged. “Was it his job to watch the prisoners? Or was it yours?”
Lion stomped away, then turned back and glared at the monkeyman. “He knows something.”
“Maybe,” Tiger said. “No one’s ever freed themselves from my ropes before. We could question him … if you hadn’t ‘silenced’ him.”
Tiger gathered up some belongings. “It won’t matter. We’ll catch the dogmen again, and we’ll have the truth from their own lips.” His tone was grim. “And we’ll take no more chances. No more prisoners. The dogmen die.”
The catmen walked all through the night, and at dawn they came upon a shallow cave in which the dogmen were huddled together, sick and weary.
The templars strode forward, drawing their swords and advancing on the dogmen, who stood to meet them. The male pounded his meaty fist into his palm—a futile gesture of defiance. The dogmen were unarmed, and would be slaughtered. Lynx and the monkeyman watched helplessly.
But then Lynx called out, “Wait!”
Tiger paused and glanced back.
Lynx said, “Let Cat judge them.”
Lion sneered. “Cat’s feelings toward dogmen are well known.”
“Then what’s the harm?”
Tiger thought this over. He lowered his blade. “All right.”
Lynx approached the monkeyman, who was confused. Lynx nodded at the satchel, and the monkeyman got the idea. He lifted Cat free and set him on the ground.
Lynx knelt. “My lord, we have need of your wisdom. What is your wish for these dogmen? Please, give us a sign.”
Cat looked up at Lynx and said nothing.
Lion growled, “Why trouble Cat with this? He has already decreed death for all dogmen. Long ago.”
Lynx stood up and took a step back. He called gently, “Here, kitty kitty.”
Lion said, “What are you doing?”
Lynx backed up until he stood between the dogmen, then he crouched and called, “Here, kitty kitty kitty.”
Cat continued to stare.
Lynx said to the dogmen, “Come on. Like this.” He added softly, “Please, just try.”
After a moment, the female bent down and called, “Here, kitty kitty.” The male did the same.
Lion was outraged. “What is this?”
But sure enough, Cat stirred. He picked his way across the ground until he stood before Lynx and the dogmen. Lynx reached out and scratched between Cat’s ears, and Cat purred. The female stroked Cat’s back. Cat wound among Lynx and the dogmen and rubbed against their legs.
The templars stood stunned. Tiger intoned, “Cat shows them favor.”
Lion said, “No! The Cat I serve shows no mercy to dogmen!”
Tiger gestured. “Look.”
“It’s some trick,” Lion said. “This … this is not Cat. It cannot be. Maybe this is one of the cats who—”
“That is heresy,” Tiger warned. “The cats were transformed into catmen. All of them.”
Lynx cried out, “Cat returns to Earth with a new message of peace!”
“No!” Lion shouted. “No! Cat, the eternal, does not change his mind.”
Tiger turned away and sheathed his sword.
Lion stared at him in horror. “What are you doing?”
“I will not stand against the incarnation.”
Lion was shocked. “What?”
Tiger said, “I must think on all this.” He stared coldly over his shoulder at the dogmen and said to them, “You have a reprieve from me, for now.” He began to walk away. To Lion he said, “Do as you like.”
Lion looked all around, at Cat, at the dogmen, at the monkeyman. Finally Lion shot Lynx a withering glare, then followed after Tiger.
Lynx waited until the templars were a good distance off, then he let out a long sigh of relief. He thought to himself: I can’t believe it. We won.
But his gladness was tempered by apprehension. The templars would return, and even if they didn’t they’d spread their tale. What would Father Cougar think? Or Lynx’s parents? And what would become of Cat and the monkeyman and the dogmen now? Others would come seeking them, he knew.
For a moment the group all watched each other uncertainly.
Then the monkeyman laughed. He stepped forward and introduced himself to the male. “Charles.” And then again to the female. “Charles.”
She glanced at Lynx, who gave her a bemused smile and shrugged.
Cat purred and rubbed against Lynx’s shins. In that moment, he felt a bit of hope. If they all just stuck together, he thought, things might work out, in the end.
He bent down and petted Cat, and scratched his chin.
He whispered, “Good cat.”