It was the first night of fall when we finally came home. We came home to chaos.
There was no door guard at all. Alarmed, we drew weapons and rushed in.
There were mice scrapping in the dining room, the first room past the door. They were skeletons of mice, actually - not literally, but they were that thin. Starving. When they saw us enter, they gawked and scattered to the dark corners.
My master went over to where they had been and picked up a corn kernel.
"Food," he said. "They were fighting over food!" He dropped the kernel and looked about. "What's happened here!" he demanded. No one answered him. Instead, mice fled to every corner of the house, mostly into the garage.
The house was stuffy and much too hot - only one window was open. The garage, where most of the mice were set up anyway, was cooler. But there was a stench there, unmistakable in its flavor. The smell of death. Everything was out of whack. Nothing felt right.
The garage was quiet, and none of the usual sounds filled the place. No wheels, no climbing, squeaks or chewing noises. We saw mice everywhere, but they were mostly sitting still. I felt depression. Hopelessness. Despair...these things flowing through the air as though I could reach out to touch them.
We gawked like silly youngsters.
"What happened!" My master said.
Percival answered from behind us. "The kind human is gone," he said.
My master swung around to face his son, once so healthy and strong, now rail thin. My master's face fell. "No..."
"There is more to the tale," Percival said. "You must hear it, but first come back to Nemo's cage, quickly. Bring your weapons."
We went, through a dark house, and all the mice avoided us. Many faces looked out of dark holes, hiding places and cages. They were gaunt and drawn mice.
At Nemo's cage everything was a mess. Even the human's bed was not made, as it usually was. Nemo's cage was splattered in dried blood and a group of thirty armored mice stood guard outside it. The relief was clear on their faces when they saw my master coming across the floor. Once inside the cage, all I could smell was damage. Damage to the cage itself, and to Nemo. He was lying on his side, hissing his breath into damaged lungs through a swollen face. He was out cold, frighteningly thin, and looked dead.
"Explain now," said my master to his son.
Percival obeyed immediately. "The kind human went missing two weeks ago. Just before that, Nemo's girlfriend went insane, and attacked him. He always was small and fragile for a chinchilla, and he didn't stand a chance. There was no warning. Chinchillas strike at the head to kill, and Nemo took several such blows. We got there too late, but in time to stave off the final death stroke. Holding off that female chin was the worst battle this house has ever seen, father - she killed fifty of us. Several knights, and many of the remaining rats. No one could stop her. She was possessed."
"Is that a fact?" my master said.
"Yes. Nemo yelled it just before he was knocked out."
"We had been assaulted not once since you left," Percival said, "and we figured they were coming after you as you intended. We were discussing sending out rescue parties..."
"Stick to the subject," my master said.
"Yes sir," Percival answered. "The female would have finished us all off - none of us could touch her. She was ten times faster and a hundred times our weight. Another hundred mice fell, wounded - most of our good fighters, and finally the human came home, heard the racket, and grabbed that girl fiercely. 'You don't do that to my friends!' he shouted, and stuffed her into a box. Then he cleaned up the mess, tended to the wounded, and wept over Nemo. The prophet really and truly appeared dead, but Leaf said she could feel his breath from his nose. Sure enough, he was not dead, but in deep torpor."
"What's that!" I blurted.
"Comatose. Sleep without dreams, damaged," Percival said. "The human was going to bury Nemo - he was very, very upset - when we pointed out that he wasn't dead. So the human called the vet to come over at once and he did. Doctor Bausone looked Nemo over, tended to his wounds, but couldn't wake him. He said it would be left to fate now, whether he would recover or not. He told the human, and us because we were listening, how to drip fluids and liquid food into Nemo's mouth so that his throat would reflexively swallow to keep him alive. The female chin was still going crazy in her box, and chewed out of it by then. She came at us. The human caught her in mid air, and took her straight away to the ranch, and the doctor left at the same time. We never saw either of them again. We don't know what happened. It's been two weeks. Nemo is barely alive, the house is sealed except for a small window. The heat is unbearable during the day, a drought is going on, and the food is running out rapidly. Three days ago, all hell broke loose and mice reverted to their animal instincts; fighting over everything, hurting or killing each other, and not responding to authority or reason. It's all we could do to retreat to Nemo's cage and use it as a base camp."
My master looked very disturbed and angry. "Where is BJ?" he demanded.
"Wounded in the fight - he rushed the female chinchilla first."
"So you are in command here," my master said.
"Yes," Percival answered. "I know I've done poorly," he choked on the words, "but it was the best I could manage. I can't beat sense into our own people. It's as if they are possessed." He looked down at the floor, ashamed of his failure. I knew how he felt, and my heart went out to him.
"I know you did your best," my master told him. "The trap wasn't for us, it seems. It was for Nemo. And we fell straight into it - all of us. We've been very stupid."
Yeah. I felt stupid alright. Looking there at Nemo, I saw our enemy's thinking. Treacherous, no rules, dirty, below-the-belt fighting. We needed wisdom now more than ever, and our one source of it was gone. Unreachable by any earthly means.
We were pretty well done for now. Starving, overheating, trapped, and most of our best fighters wounded. But I had an idea, and it was crazy - so I said nothing. Just remember that I had a crazy idea then, sitting there looking at Nemo. I'll get to it later.
"Who else perished?" I asked, worried. Scratchy nodded emphatically.
"Your daughter," Percival said as I felt my heart skip a beat, "is fine. Stompy is too, and Ghost. BJ is bad off. It's a miracle he's still alive. We lost many others, without names, but my lord," he bowed his head, "Gaia died in the attack."
My master's daughter. I heard his chest make a horrible grating sound that might have been a choking sob. His eyes, full of tears, were hard. His face never changed. He nodded.
"She was once of the first on the scene - was even headed right toward Nemo's cage when the treacherous attack occurred. It was she who warned Nemo of the first blow, else he would not have survived at all. She claims she heard a voice in her head tell her to go to the cage from her sleep. She told me this moments before she went."
"Who's voice?" my master asked, struggling to push the words out. His nose was bleeding.
Percival looked at me hesitantly.
"Oh nooo," I said. "I was all gone an' everything!"
But everyone looked at me.
"Are you sure she said it was Squibble's voice?" my master said.
Percival nodded and sealed my condemnation. Now I was labeled for something I didn't even do - or at least, not yet.
"I'm...I'm sorry," I said. "I would never have... I didn't...I wouldn't..."
My master steeled himself and put his bleeding nose in his paws. He looked up, eyes showing the strain of the news, and said, "Yes, Squibble, anyone would have done it. It saved Nemo's life...and maybe it was the only way." He looked at me. There was no condemnation there, but the others smelled differently. "Gaia was always sensitive that way," he said. "She would have been able to hear you. No one else would have."
"Nemo would have," I cried.
"Nemo wasn't asleep," Percival said in my defense.
"It shouldn't matter!" I said. "He was the all powerful Nemo! If my future self or...or whatever...tried to warn him it shouldn't have cost Gaia her...it shouldn't have done that! That was stupid!"
There was silence for a full minute as everyone sat around. Below us, a horde of starving mice had gathered from all around the house, garage, and basement. My master looked down at them with fury.
If they were possessed, the demons left them under the intensity of that dread gaze.
"So!" he yelled in his most powerful voice, standing up straight and drawing his well worn blade. "WE leave and you all turn into animals!" He pointed at them. "You know better! You obey the leaders here or you don't stay!" He was furious; I had never seen him so angry!
"There will be no more fighting - no more killing each other over food, no more doing our enemy's work for him! I am ashamed of you! Things go bad and you fall apart...like...like vermin instead of the courageous, smart mice you all are! You will shape up this very second or I will personally kick every one of you out the door, into the burning fields, and you can fend for yourselves! I have returned, and you have let us all down. Now you will do penance for it! You shall obey me - and my knights - or get out! Now, who wants to leave? Go!"
No mouse moved. Everyone was stock still in shock. Even Percival. Even me!
"Fine! Then you will endure this tribulation with integrity by the Mousegod!" he thundered. "And you will not break, do you hear!? You will not! We are against a terrible foe, and every ...last...one of you will summon the courage, and strength, and honor to do what is required of you, just as Nemo would. Now begone from my sight - until you earn back my respect!" The last was almost supernatural in its echo - and the mice vanished into the dark.
Once every mouse was gone but the base camp and its knights, my master sagged and choked. More blood came out his nose. He snaffed and wiped it away violently, as if greatly annoyed that he was not well. He looked tired. Not an ounce of that had shown a moment ago, though. Not one ounce.
"We are under siege," he whispered. "We must not fold."
So my master told Percival and the others everything we had encountered on our mission, the horrible failure. We saw BJ. He had been slammed into a wall by that stupid chinchilla, and then stomped on several times. He looked as bad as Nemo, maybe worse. At least he woke up sometimes, to eat and drink. Though he could not move except to crawl on his front legs (I was reminded sharply of Favorite), he insisted on reaching the food and water himself, and wouldn't let anyone help him. Tough mouse. Very tough mouse. No one spoke of replacing him as King. No one dared challenge him, even in his crippled state.
Stompy, Squibette and Ghost had taken bad wounds. Stompy had been bitten by the rabid chin - but it had only pierced fat and muscle. Squibette was been thrown ten feet, and her armor had broken her fall. It also destroyed the armor, but that's what it was for. Ghost has had his shield splintered, gone through ten swords, and finally took a tail bash that sent him to the floor. The rats had come from their spot on the porch, and the female chin had taken them seriously, being more her size, but not knowing what was going on, they were reluctant to attack her - that was, until Percival yelled "Kill her! Do it now!" and they all rushed in, but too late. If they'd had surprise, they might have won, but once she was aware, nothing could stop her.
"It's as if a dark spirit powered her," Percival said. "And after, that spirit went into the entire house, and caused mayhem and chaos in all our people."
"That's exactly what happened," my master said. "But we have returned, and the angels Nemo sent with us have also. That evil spirit has no more power here."
"All along it was a trap for Nemo," I murmured. Master nodded.
"Why didn't he tell us? He had to be all mysterious an' everything! Couldn't just say, 'Hey, everyone, look - if you leave, the black stupid mouse is gonna gank me, an' the human, and drive the house insane, so pretend to leave, an' we'll get him when he shows up!' But noooo... he had to be all prophet like an' sacrificial an' stuff. You know, the villains always tell James Bond what they're gonna do instead of just killing him, and then they wonder why they lose."
Everyone was looking at me. I was getting sick of that. "What!" I chirped.
"What makes you think the black mouse ganked the kind human?" Percival said, stumbling over the word ganked with his proper English tongue.
"Isn't that obvious?" I said. "The kind human would never abandon us! He's toast!"
"No! Don't say that, Squibble!" my master cried. He loved the kind human dearly, more than any of us.
"It's the only explanation," I said. "He's gone! We're on our own!"
"No! Not true!" he claimed.
"Wakey wakey, master!" I pointed around. "He would never have left us like this."
He got mad then. You can't push anyone, even a saint, as hard as my master had been pushed.
"He's not dead, Squibble, by the Mousegod! Not dead, do you hear! You're scaring everyone and discouraging me!" he yelled.
I shrank back, alarmed. His tail actually rattled at me. He stopped immediately, but the damage was done. I ran away.
I went and hid in my corner nest box, which had been demolished by rioting mice. My drawings and writings were strewn all about, chewed on, peed on. My stuff was in ruins. I spent the rest of the night putting it back together with Scratchy's help, crying the entire time. I knew why he'd yelled, but it still hurt. I yelled just as loud at Scratchy while he pestered me, trying to make me feel better, and finally I banished the little runt. I told him to go to the base camp and guard Nemo, or listen to the plans they were making, or something - just go away. Finally, I was alone.
The mission was a stupid, wretched failure. Within hours every mouse would know. It was my fault Gaia was dead along with fifty other mice, and a hundred others wounded. My master was upset, the house was suffering a drought and a famine, and that was my fault too. I wanted to die. I crawled into my busted house and curled up in the dark, sobbing. When dawn came, I could not go to sleep.
And sure enough, my prediction came true. The next night, every mouse knew I was responsible for the miserable failure of the mission that left the safe house unguarded, and might have resulted in the king crippled, Nemo being almost dead, and the kind human going the rest of the way. And us being doomed.
It didn't take a genius to figure it out. We all came back empty handed, having been beaten within an inch of our mousey lives, struggling just to walk. Everyone knew the mission was my bright idea, because I had gleefully told them all before we left, filled with visions of glory and victory, parading back through the door with the black mouse's head on a pike, the hero Squibble. Everyone already thought I was crazy. Now I was stupid as well. No one would listen to me now. My days of honor were over.
I spent some time with Favorite, grooming her and fetching what tiny bits of food were available for her (and giving her mine), but she was depressed beyond all reason. She had grown rail thin, more so than any of the others, even with her daughter caring for her constantly. I tried to cheer her up, but there was little cheer in me, and I could not fake it for long. Finally, I retreated back into solitude. I could not take being near her, and unless you've been in the very same situation, you might not be quick to judge me. It was horrible. All joy and play had left this mouse who had only months before been jubilant and full of energy...happy to be alive. It was unbearable because it was so sad, but also because I was quickly following the same path.
My master organized the mice as only he could. They all obeyed him without question. Rations were given out each night, a tiny amount to each mouse, and every cupboard and pantry was raided in the entire house, even some we had to chew our way into. The human would have understood. With the rats help we pried our way into the refrigerator. We gathered everything in the entire house that we could reach, and I actually came in handy. My trick of navigating high shelves was of some use when we had to loot the high levels of the kitchen. I taught other mice to do it, all of whom looked at me with the bare thoughts visible that I was leading them to their dooms. But none of them died, or were even injured. So there, heathen unbelievers.
All the food we could gather was not much. Everyone went hungry. I went to the high council meetings, now much smaller than before, because I felt I had to. Not out of duty, but sanity. I could not give up, though I really wanted to. I could not. If I did, the black mouse won. I went because if I didn't, I'd sit in my crumbling house and do nothing. At these meetings, the mice discussed strategies of survival, and beating the demonic enemy (which everyone now had a very healthy respect for). BJ insisted on being there, and awake, for each one. An agonizingly long week passed, and no one had any solutions. The best idea seemed to be to send a courier back to the city to find help, but no one would make it, and everyone knew it. Not one of us was at full strength, and even if we were, that journey was deadly without tons of zombies lurking the tall grass.
I spent the rest of that time in the week doing only mindless, robotic things. Drawing really bad art, meditating, and doing my chi gung. I did tons of chi gung. Hours on end. I went over and over Branch's notes and religiously corrected every mistake I made. I made up new moves which felt right. I did it all because it was the only escape available to us...by myself I could not turn on the TV...and because it was the only thing in my life that felt good anymore. The only thing I felt I had control over. That and my art.
My master sent squads of brave mice out into the fields to gather what little wheat grass remained, and sometimes they didn't come back. All of the ones that survived reported that the house was surrounded by the enemy, and they could not sneak with large amounts of food. Maybe sixty grains of wheat went into the stockpile of food each night, and several hundred came out. By the end of the week, we were all starving.
Water was scarce also, and many mice had drowned in the toilet bowl trying to get to the only obvious water source in the house. Now that water was bad, and none of us could use it for fear of disease. No one had the strength to turn on the faucets, even with ropes and levers, the stupid slippery things. We found leaks in the pipes down in the basement, and other small sources, but it was not enough, and the heat began to kill mice. A few each day passed on, and all our dead were put in a hole down in the basement, for we could not abandon them outside to be raised by our enemy. None of us would damn our friends so.
I was finally ready to listen to Nemo. He finally had my respect, and he was lost to us. The irony was terrible, and seemed to follow me like Scratchy did. Now, when I needed him the most, and would finally listen, he was gone. But I knew what he might suggest, so I set to work on it. I asked my master to teach me hypnosis. He had learned it from Nemo, and I had had a few lessons. I learned it well enough right away, and used it on myself immediately. I told myself I felt no hunger. I gave all my food to Favorite and Squibette, though for my daughter I had to sneak it into her rations one grain at a time. She would not have accepted if she knew. My chi gung seemed to sustain me, and while I knew that wouldn't last forever, it was a kind illusion for now, so I entertained it. I could see that Percival was doing the same thing with his food, and he winked at me knowingly. He did not have the benefit of hypnosis to defy hunger. His sheer willpower was awesome. I taught him chi gung, and he practiced every night.
The heat in the day was awful, the house stuffy and oppressive, upwards of a hundred degrees. The council said that normally we'd all be dead in such temperatures, especially Nemo, because his thick, fine coat made it all the hotter for him. No one could explain why we weren't dropping by the hundreds, but we weren't. Many thought living through it was worse. At night, the house was quiet and lonely. Nobody wanted to run around, play, or use their wheels. It was a house of darkness, and my heart was at the center of it.
Very few pet mice who are really loved have ever experienced real hunger. I had known it only as a tiny baby, but that memory was enough. By the second week into fall, every mouse was gaunt and weak. By the third week our numbers had dropped off by several a day.
BJ suggested eating our own dead.
Seriously, it was a good idea. We thought about it, but my master vetoed the idea. He said the enemy would be delighted at the damage it would cause our souls to do such a thing. Had it been pure survival without demonic intervention, he might have said yes, but this had been done to us. It was not just bad luck. If our integrity was all we had left, he said, then we would have to eat that and not each other.
My chi gung was growing powerful. I could feel energy coursing through my body with each delicate movement, and the sitting meditation had my mind off in la-la-land while my body charged its internal power with deep breathing and relaxation. I tried to reach my dock out there on the water. Sometimes I got close, but it always eluded me. That was okay. I went other cool places. But in the mortal realm I had dropped forty percent of my body weight, though I felt it not at all. I had more strength than anyone, and no one noticed. Perhaps no one cared.
Then, one day, I was resting my hand on my daughter while I sat there meditating and she was talking to me. It was a rarity that anyone came to visit me in my hovel, but she made a point of it almost every evening, even if just to touch noses. She said I was becoming deeply depressed, and needed company. This just in.
Anyway, my hand rested on her for about fifteen minutes one evening while I was meditating, and afterward she went away, to return at dawn. I had gone back to my anti-nocturnal schedule and was just rising for the daylight hours of peace and quiet from a long sleep of disturbing dreams. She told me she felt great. Energized. Not hungry or weary. She asked for more, so I shared my morning meditations with her as well, and showed her the chi gung. She told me, "Be careful, father - you have a secret weapon there."
Ding. The light bulb went on over my head. Finally.
From then on, I did all my chi gung in Nemo's cage. Right next to him. And in my seated meditations, I used his big body as a backrest. No one said anything, and not many people ever came into the cage except to trickle powdered food and water down the poor guy's throat. I would do both moving and seated chi gung in his cage for six hours a day. And that was when I started using my bright idea - the one I told you about earlier.
No one could reach Nemo by conventional means, and I still didn't have enough control over my spirit sight to click it on at will, but I might have more power in my dreams, and Nemo had told me dreams were the crossroads between this life and the next.
So I set out each night in my sleep to find master Nemo.