I was ecstatic. For the first time since we came to the safe house, my master and I were going on a real, live adventure! We were gonna go kick the black mouse's butt!
All our stuff was laid out before us. It was alot (A lot, oKAY!?) of stuff. We had swords, armor, shields, helms, backpacks and side packs. We had water bags (two each) because it was summer and water was getting scarce. We had millet, BBs for my slingshot, tools to repair our armor, and capes made fresh for us by Gaia and Leaf. Gaia was a genius at making things, and Leaf was a miracle worker with clothes and sewing. They could make anything. They informed us of how they'd improved our armor design, and they were right. We could move much better in those suits now. They had closed weak points, improved strengths, and they knew how to treat the lobster hides that the kind human brought home - they knew how to make them just soft enough to flex under a blow, but hard enough to protect against damage. The new armor was twice as good as it used to be. I was sad that I had lost my very first suit in the city (damn that bully mouse!) - my momma had made it for me (sniff). I eagerly accepted the new stuff though, since we might need it. It would be too hot in the summer, even at night, to wear it while traveling, but most of it folded up and we could carry it in our backpacks.
We had rope, little grapnel hooks, even mini surgical kits. I knew a bit about mouse medicine from studying it in the city, and my master knew everything, so we were okay. We took antibiotics (1 pill each, and one pill would last ten mice for weeks), and antibiotic cream for wounds. We took a tiny compass the kind human had given my master, telling him, "Here you go, buddy - in case you ever get lost and want to come back here." It was really neato. The adventure was going to be splendid! (My master uses that word. Splendid!)
Scratchy came wheeling up toward me, spinning to the left with all his heavy gear. When he got to me, I looked down at him with a frown. (Hey, I can't explain it, okay? I just can't stand the little runt!)
"Where do you think you're going?" I asked.
He put on a frantic face, hopeful and desperate at the same time, and gestured wildly outside and to me.
"Ummm...no." I said.
"Squires do not whine," I said.
His ears went back. He was suddenly miserable.
"Begone, varmint," I said, and waved him off.
Dejected and covered in a black cloud of rejection, he sluffed off (to the left).
My master was watching the whole thing. He clearly disapproved.
"Squibble," he said, "what if I had treated you like that?"
I looked at him for a moment and then at the broken figure of Scratchy, retreating in his crippled way back to his cage to sulk or run in endless circles for hours. I had no idea why I was such a butthead to the little guy. But it was too late now. He was gone. I had the strong feeling I had made a mistake.
I looked guilty and avoided the subject.
"Where we goin first, boss?" I asked.
My master frowned. Shaking his head, he checked his swords for cracks or flaws.
"Well, We're kinda hoping he'll find us, Squib. I know it's a trap, like Nemo said, and we're the bait."
"OOoOOOOOooo...Mission Impossible stuff!" I chirped.
He looked at me. "You're really excited about this aren't you?"
I rolled my eyes. "Let me think about that-Yes! A chance to get away from Squibble-can't-do-this and Squibble can't-do-that an' having to either study chemistry all the time or watch TV, or write or draw... Yeah. I want out. I wanna be an escaped mouse!"
"I thought you hated those things, Squib..." He got a confused look on his face as he was loading his backpack. "You study chemistry? And like it?" He grinned.
I shrugged. "I got into it at the lab and while I was in the city. I don't know why I like it. I feel as if it has great power. Somehow I'll need it, I think." I didn't tell him that chemistry had taught Clyde to blow things up, or the rat twins to melt steel with acid. I really wanted to tell him everything. I was scared. I was gonna do it anyway when suddenly there was the tromp of many feet. 12 soldiers lined up on either side of us, armed and armored in plated leather. They had swords and spears. Four had bows.
"Whassis?" I asked.
"Our platoon," my master said.
I shook my head. "No way. No platoon."
"BJ's orders," he said. "It's a good idea, Squib. You don't actually think we can take the black mouse by ourselves, do you?"
"I sure do!" I quipped, rattling my tail. "This trip is for old times, master! Just me and you! No ... platoon!" I looked at the men, but they were oblivious, honored to be chosen, and more honored to be in the presence of my master. GAH.
"We need them," my master said matter-of-factly. "They come."
I reduced myself to begging instantly. "Oh, master, please no. Let this be our secret little quest...Like Frodo and Sam. We can sneak up on the bad guy...sneak...sneak up an...an' ...An' GANK him!" I made a throat twisting gesture with my paws, gritted my teeth. "GRRRrrr!"
"Heh heh heh...Squib, you're very cute, but this is serious. We're hunting for a demon! It's a grand idea, because he won't expect it, but we have to be ready for him."
"NooooOOOoo!" I whined.
"YeeEEEeeeeSSS." he said. "Men, you all know the legendary Sir Squibble." He waved a hand at me. The men snapped to attention, drew their weapons, and bowed as one unit.
"SIR!" They saluted me.
Yeah, yeah, take a number. My master didn't know I'd had tons of that back in the stupid city. I grinned back at them and waved. "As you were," I said. They relaxed.
"Oh, good at this already," my master said. "Catch on fast, Squib. Fast mouse."
"Yeah. Fast and disappointed."
"Awwww..." he ruffled my fur. "It'll be an adventure, Squib, just like you want, but we're gonna cover our backs, okay?"
"You get to order them around," he said.
"Yeah. Men, Squibble is the commander of this expedition. You'll take orders from him, understand?"
"SIR! YES SIR!" They bowed to me again, and as one, said, "My Lord Squibble, we are yours to command." They looked like a cyborg army.
I hummed the theme to The Twilight Zone. No one got it.
Nemo and the others bade us farewell at the door. The kind human was there too. Everyone wished us luck and safe travel.
"Should you not look in the city?" Nemo said.
I shook my head vehemently. "Nah. City's stupid."
"He's kinda right, Squibble," my master said. "Maybe we should start there."
I shook my head twice as hard. "Noway."
"Why are you so against it?" my master said, getting interested. Drat. I made too big a show of it.
"He's traumatized from his experience there before," One-Ear said. He had snuck up behind everyone. "Don't make him go back."
Everyone looked at the rankless mouse with surprise. Me included. He had saved my bacon. He winked at me and smiled when everyone looked back at me.
"Um... Yeah. Right," I said. "Besides, the rats have everything under control there."
"Are you certain?" Nemo said. "They were such gentle boys."
"Ummm...Yeah. Yeah. I'm sure." Boy, if you can read my mind, you sly chinchilla, you better keep your mouth shut.
Don't worry, Squibble, came the reply in my head. Your secrets are your own.
(Heard Something!) My ears shot up like rockets, as if someone had bit my ass.
"Squib?" my master asked, worried.
"Nothin!" I chirped, too quickly. "Let's go! Gotta go! Go now!" I picked up my backpack and gear (way heavy!) and bolted for the door.
Behind me, I heard the kind human say, "My little buddy, if you need anything, you just ask. I'm worried for you. Please come back to me, okay?"
I'm sure my master nodded or whatever. The human worries about us too much. The platoon of soldiers and my master came marching down the wooden plank the human had put over the stairs. They met me in the red light of the sunset, and we waved goodbye to everyone. Nemo was smiling at me. Behind him, Scratchy poked his scruffy head out and looked at me with wet, sad eyes.
I stopped and stared.
What if I had treated you like that, Squib?
I would have been broken hearted if he'd done that. I would never have had the spirit to endure as Scratchy had. Maybe that was why...
A hand suddenly came around Scratchy's face and yanked him backward, out of sight.
"Get out of here, you little punk!" One-Ear yelled. "He doesn't like you, see?" He stood tall and proud in Scratchy's old spot next to Nemo, sure I would approve. Part of me did.
But Nemo did not. He twitched his great tail hard, sending the mouse flying much farther than Scratchy had gone, as the huge crowd looked on. His face twisted into a scowl that actually looked like disgust. He wiped his nose, a chinchilla gesture of distaste.
Scratchy came back, crawling slowly, upset by what the one-eared mouse had said and looking to me to see if it was true. His body shook. His eyes looked so sad. Oh, why me!? I thought. What did I do to deserve a midget cripple that would graft his entire existence onto how I treated him?
I gestured...come here, while looking aside and upset.
Gleefully the tiny mouse bounced right down the stairs, ignoring the plank. In seconds he was by my side, hopping and shivering in excitement.
My master was smiling.
"Happy now!?" I said.
Scratchy grinned ear to ear and licked my feet. My master nodded slowly.
So we left the safe house in the middle of summer, traveling at night, and going in the direction of the city on foot. We tried to be discreet, but 26.5 mice wearing armor and bearing swords made that something of a joke. I was miserably tired. Within the first hour it was past my bedtime. Through the night I just got more weary, but managed to stay on my feet, even with all that stuff. I don't know how...I wasn't used to marching, much less with so much equipment. It was really difficult. My bad leg started to bother me some.
But the night was warm, and the field quiet. Whenever our scouts would see movement in the air they signaled and we dropped. Our capes made us look like the ground. They were all dark green, signifying my master's colors, but it was a very grayed out green, and hid us perfectly. By dawn everyone was bushed. We dug a giant cave (because we hadn't found any natural shelter) and slept, leaving mice on watch by shifts through the day at the entrance of our cave. As tired as I was, I had resolved to begin practicing the chi-gung moves Branch had given me in his letter (which I had brought), so I wearily busted them out and followed the instructions for fifteen minutes or so. It was really easy, kind of like a slow dance, with deep, low breathing. Next to me, Scratchy imitated my every move. By the end of it, I was still tired, but my body did not ache one bit. Maybe Branch was onto something. It gave me great pleasure that Nemo had not taught me this. This was mine! I set my willpower to do this practice each and every night before bed, not missing one. And always Scratchy was there, matching my every move like a strange, stunted, white version of me.
Within four days our water had run out, but my master had planned for this. He had spoken to the bees, and the flying allies knew we were going to need guidance. We followed the flight path of bees to water, and dense flower beds. We flagged them down if we wanted to send messages back to the safe house. Worker bees are kinda stupid, but they can remember things really well.
Scratchy kept up with everyone, even racing ahead to act as a scout at times, in his weird circular movements. As crippled as he was, he had compensated for it in amazing ways. He wasn't slow.
I was in heaven, on an adventure with my beloved master, but he and the men were concerned. There wasn't anywhere near as much water as had been here in the spring. This was our first summer in the safe house, and we knew nothing of the wilds. We also didn't know a drought was coming. We had no clue, and had no way of getting one. We had stepped out into what would become the harshest summer the Fields of Fate had ever known. And before we knew it, we had gone much too far.