“May He keep you warm and well-fed,” Father Longmuzzle intoned, closing the Book of Whispers. He looked down at his pack affectionately, and his panting mixed with theirs to fill the Master’s House with a susurrus of moist breathiness.
The service officially ended by his blessing, they began to chat and sniff one another, or file out in small packs. Some of the pups, who had kept mostly quiet and still throughout the service, now sprang about with the boundless energy they had contained so well. Longmuzzle smiled to himself at their mothers’ fruitless cries of “Heel!” He gathered up the pages of his sermon and stuffed them into the low pack slung about his haunches. He straightened his collar and untangled his ceremonial leash from the microphone stand before moving down the dais to perform the usual meeting and greeting.
He was just about to sniff Sammy Whisktail hello when he noticed Mrs. Oreo standing pensively to one side, her eyes pleading for his attention, tail curled between her legs and still. Longmuzzle’s heart skipped a beat. He knew that look, so common in these days, and it was an act of pure will for him to move toward her rather than the communal hubbub of the pack.
“Mrs. Oreo,” he said quietly. “Are you alright?”
She suppressed a whine, and lowered her head in a gesture of supplication.
“Oh, Father,” she said in a trembling voice. “It … it’s Wiley. I think … I-- I think …” she burst into tears and he embraced her, licking her muzzle soothingly.
“There, there,” he cooed. “It’s all right. We’ll get you sorted out.”
Despite his words of comfort, Longmuzzle could not bring himself to wag, even as he separated from Mrs. Oreo with assurances he would visit her that evening.
His spirits revived somewhat as he greeted the other parishoners, but the prospect of another trial was daunting. When he retired to his crate, Longmuzzle found himself contemplating the Ball and unable to rest.
It wasn’t all right. Not at all, he thought, and licked the patch of bare fur on his right paw -- a memento of his last encounter with the Other.
When he arrived at Mrs. Oreo’s home that evening, he greeted her warmly, hiding the cold, unsettled feeling in his gut. The widow seemed both reassured and frightened by his appearance, her eyes taking in his formal priestly garb and leash. She had put out a single bowl on the table and he took a few polite laps before getting down to business.
“Where is Wiley?” he asked, holding the widow’s paw between his own.
She winced, and looked to a door near the pantry.
“In the basement,” she said quietly. “He won’t come out during the day, but he spends all night wandering around the house, knocking things off of shelves, and stalking through the garden.” She hesitated, swallowing hard. “Sometimes he brings ... things back,” she said.
Longmuzzle needed no elaboration on that.
“I will talk to the boy,” he said, stretching and padding over to the basement door. He paused before opening it. “You should probably stay,” he told her quietly, and the widow nodded and sat.
The basement was not well lit. A single hanging bulb with a chain pull seemed dim and weak, barely filling the space and leaving the corners in murky shadow. From one of these shadows, two horribly familiar yellow eyes watched him keenly.
“Ssoooo …” Wiley’s unnaturally high voice bit into the priest’s ears like a whistle, “Ssoooo mother has fetched an ass sniffer to deal with me.”
Longmuzzle gripped his leash, rubbing it silently with his paw for strength. “Your mother worries about you, Wiley,” he said. “She wants you back.”
“Wiley … Wiley … Wiley …” the voice of the boy repeated, and he stretched out on the floor, unnaturally sinuous, seeming to ooze from the shadows into the light from the hanging bulb. The priest felt his gorge rise when there arose a thrumming vibration from the child’s breast.
“Unclean beast!” Longmuzzle snapped at the creature in Wiley’s body. “I tree you, in the name of the Master, I tree you!”
Wiley hissed at him, crouching and arching his back in a painful-looking rictus, his tail bristling like he’d touched a live wire.
“Go dig your holes!” the voice snapped. “Go eat your shit!”
Wiley held up the Ball. “You will be gone from this place!” he declared. “The Master shoos you from His house!”
The boy circled at the edge of the pool of light thrown by the single bare bulb. He wore no collar. Feral. As the priest’s eyes followed him, he noticed small, furry corpses littering the floor.
Mice. And rats. Even a few birds, he noticed with increasing dismay.
“The Master is gone,” Wiley purred, eyes ever locked on Longmuzzle’s. “He’s not coming back for you.”
The priest growled in anger at the blasphemy, even though he knew it could never come out of the poor boy’s mouth without the foulness of the cat within. He began to quote scripture.
“And He shall find thee, when thou art LOST, Thy name and visage upon the telephone poles, And REWARD be his word for thy return.”
Wiley rolled on the ground, hiding his face and mewling piteously.
“And His hand shall stroke thy brow, His fingers find thy itch and scratch it.”
“STOP!” screeched the boy, rolling on his back.
Father Longmuzzle took a step toward him and held up the Ball.
“And, though He find that thou hast overturned the garbage, Or chewed upon His shoe, thou shalt be loved, for thou art His best friend.”
Wiley’s cries had died to mere whimpers.
“And he shall throw the BALL for thee, All the days it doth not rain.”
The pup’s eyes opened, then, and Longmuzzle’s heart leapt to see the jaundice yellow color and split pupils had faded. Wiley’s eyes locked on the red Ball, and the priest tossed it lightly at the far wall.
The boy rolled and unsteadily got to his feet. He hesitated at first, but then his eyes found the still-rolling Ball and he stumbled toward it. Picking it up in trembling jaws, he brought it to Father Longmuzzle, who laid a hand between the boy’s ears and scratched him affectionately.
“And He shall call thee 'Good Boy,'” he said softly.