We had been trekking through the fields for two weeks and five days. We were a haggard bunch. Water was so hard to find we spent most of our time seeking it, instead of the black mouse. Wherever he was, surely he was laughing at us. We were pathetic.
We took off our armor in the first two days. Simply too hot. Then the real heat came, leaving no dew on the grass in the early morning, and no moisture anywhere. The heat wave was awful. Easily ninety-five at night, and well over a hundred in the day. Dry, cracking heat. If we were to find ourselves stuck outside in it even one time, none of us were ever returning to the safe house. It was brutal. Waves of mouse-cooking temperature marched across the fields all day long, only slightly retreating at dusk. And wind had fled from the land the first day of our journey. We had not felt one breeze. Doing my chi-gung in the evening before bed was agony. It must have been for the runt too, but he was there every night without fail.
My happy adventure had turned out to be another stinking disappointment. I could enjoy nothing. We were too parched to speak to each other. We spent all our time running bee lines after water, and every step was stupidly difficult. And, finally, at the three week mark (three years in human time), we were farther from the house than anyone had ever been since our journey to it. That's when the bees stopped.
No more bees. Just one night, we woke and there were no bee lines. None in sight at all.
I swallowed, wishing I had some saliva, and looked at my master. He looked worried, and his breath was ragged in his throat. His breathing could be heard from far away.
"What do we do now?" I croaked.
"Now we're in trouble," he said. Scratchy looked alarmed that my master would say such a thing - for he wouldn't unless it was absolutely true. I was alarmed as well.
"This sucks," I answered. He nodded without hesitation.
"This was the trap," he said. "If the black mouse has powers like Nemo, he knew this would happen."
"If Nemo knew, why did he let us go?" I said.
"He warned us, but Nemo makes decisions for no one, Squibble."
"But he can see the stupid future!" I complained. "'Hey, guys, don't go yet - a drought and a heat wave are coming and you'll cook your brains.' - That would have been easy, huh?"
"Yeah," my master looked at his backpack, resting against a rock. "But he can see what would happen if we didn't go, too. He knows so much, it's impossible for us to know why he says or does what he does. It must be complicated and hard being him."
Scratchy shook his head rapidly as if clearing his ears.
"The least he can do is send us water," I said.
"We're out of his range of power," my master said. "He cannot help us now."
I got an idea (heard something!) in my hot head. "Are you sure ?" I said.
"No," he answered, "But I think so."
"How do the field mice survive?" I asked.
"I wish they were around to ask one," he said. "I haven't seen hide nor hair."
"They see us," I quoted. "They always see us." Scratchy peered about, wary and concerned.
"I wish," he replied. "But I have felt no eyes on us this whole way. Can't you feel it? We have been strangely alone so far."
I did feel it. It was eerie. Like the fields were dead. "I don't like it," I said.
"What do we do now?" I asked. He always knew.
"I don't know," he said.
"Master?" I whined, afraid.
"What would you do, Squib?" he asked me.
"Turn back, or make for water," I answered. Another option was growing in my mind, but I didn't know how to make it happen. Yet. So I kept my mouth shut.
"Yeah," he said. "This was a mistake. We're never going to find that evil mouse. He's not chivalric or honorable. He's hiding from us."
"How mousey!" I fumed.
We both laughed until it hurt our throats too much. Then we turned around and headed back in the direction we came.
And that was when it happened. The real trap was sprung.
On a far hill, one we had come over the previous morning, we saw them. Zombie mice. Zombie snakes. Zombie cat. They had been following us. No wind. Couldn't smell them.
Our way back was barred. They were far away enough that it would take them time to reach us, but we were had. Too tired and thirsty to outrun them. And they didn't have to worry about thirst. They were dead already. If there'd been the slightest breeze, we would have smelled them!
My master didn't hesitate one second.
"To arms!" he cried, though we didn't stand a chance.
Hurrying to put on my armor with Scratchy's help in the fading light, I scoured the skies for any chance of putting my plan into action. I no longer had time to refine it. Now it was the only thing standing between us and death.
The enemy charged.
"We have a few minutes!" my master told the men. "Drink the last drops from the water bags. Then draw polearms. Archers, prepare to fire!" Spears came forward, bows behind. The swordsmice, (us and ten others) stood in front. "Sell your lives at a dear price!" my master bellowed.
The enemy covered the distance, the cat out front, running awkwardly with a wounded paw. Funny. Like he could feel it.
I helped Scratchy put on his armor.
The men held their ground. Every one of them would die without running. They were chosen because they were elite. BJ himself had chosen them for this mission. They were ubermice.
My master used the last of his water to mix into a bit of tea leaves. It was what the human gave him for his asthma. Tea with honey. He swigged it down without the sweet and shook his head at the bitter taste. Then he drew his sword and waited. Scratchy offered me his water. I told him to drink it.
The enemy had covered half the distance when my prayers were answered. In the dim light of dusk, an owl flew overhead.
I yanked my slingshot back with great speed and plinged off a shot. I missed. Within a second I had another stone set and sent that one up after the first.
El Smacko! Right in the chest.
It bounced off at that height, of course, but it did the job. The owl looked down and saw us. I hid the slingshot immediately.
"Squibble!" my master shrieked. "Have you gone mad!?"
I nodded. "Yep!"
The owl spread its wings and fell on us, silent as death. I was betting it all on my intuitive idea. Putting all our eggs in one basket. It was crazy. The enemy was almost on us.
The mice saw what was coming and reacted as true warriors, drawing their arrows and spears back to deal with the first and more sure death before facing the second.
"Do not fire!" I shouted.
My master looked at me as if I'd truly lost it. So did the men. Only Scratchy maintained his confidence.
"Am I not in command?" I said to him. "Didn't you tell me I was in command!?"
He nodded, and jumped for cover. The mice scattered as the owl fell the last fifty feet in a wicked stoop.
I jumped aside with my squire at the last second as he thundered to the ground.
The owl was grand and frightening. There's something in mice that forces us to be petrified of such predators. This was a true dragon. Much worse than a snake would ever be, though at that point on the scale it didn't make much difference. The owl turned to face me, wings spread in attack stance. Scratchy hid behind me. I thought of my poor mother, and it gave me the strength to face it.
"Draw your weapon, mouse," it boomed.
I shook my head. "I plead for your help in the name of Nemo, mighty owl."
The owl drew back. His wings folded some. I could feel the eyes of my master and the men on me like laser beams.
The owl cocked its head almost upside down, looking me over. I pictured my mom, proud of me. Believing in me. I did not flinch. I could feel Scratchy trembling behind me, Clutching my leg.
"What do you know of Nemo!" it asked me.
Now the gamble part.
"I know you are the owl that taught him," I said, my voice steady but dry. "I know you taught him to help others, because it is wise to do so. And I know him because I am his student, Sir Squibble the Mouse Knight! And we need help from you this very minute, Sir, and I know Nemo would have asked in my place! You have little time to decide!" I pointed behind him.
The enemy was upon us. They were covering the last twenty feet.
Owls are wise indeed. And I had been right. This was the same owl that had taught Nemo. That was why the chinchilla had told us his story. He knew I would have to know. I had to know or we would all have died then in that field. And some of us did, but not all.
The owl swung a mighty wing and batted the cat aside, showing us his decision. As a snake struck for the great bird, he caught it by the head in his beak. His other wing swept across the ranks of the zombie mice and scattered half their forces.
Then they were on us. I drew my blade and dispatched one foe and another on the return swing. Scratchy launched into his bizarre fighting style that BJ had created just for him, based on rapid circles to the left. He took two enemies down before I had my sword back from my first swing. I slammed a zombie down with my shield and kicked out against another. I dodged and swung, dodged and swung. My master was at my side in a heartbeat, fighting at my back. Scratchy was doing circles around us faster than my eye could follow, taking enemies down like a rotor blade. The soldiers were fighting around us in formation, spears backing up swords, backed up by bows.
"Genius, Squibble. Genius!" My master said.
Nothing could have given me more strength in that moment than his praise. I redoubled my efforts and more enemies fell.
The soldiers were not unworthy. Hand picked by BJ, they did not even slow down from thirst or hunger or fatigue. They each brought down ten mice, and then the snakes came upon them.
As powerful as the owl was, he had his talons full. Two soldiers died to the bites of vipers and one was crushed to death by a constricting gopher snake. That snake fell as the other mice took advantage of their brother's sacrifice. Two more died to the vipers before the archers could fire, but the arrows bounced off. The cat and the owl were sparring above us, yowling and hissing as the snakes struck and struck against us, knocking mice everywhere. Even those who got shields up in time were bashed to the ground and lay still. A snake struck at us. I pushed my master aside and Scratchy pushed me aside at the same time. As we landed I sprang to my feet and spun to defend Scratchy, who I was ready to see being devoured by a serpent, but the mouse had spun around the snake's head at the last moment, and blinded it with two strikes of its own. Then zombie mice piled on the little mouse, and finally they had him down. We were being annihilated, and then the really bad news came.
The dead mice were rising. They were getting up and coming at us again.
"The black mouse is near!" I shouted. "The dead rise against us!" I leapt into the pile on my squire and my master joined me. I flung them all about. I struck them from his body. I bit and tossed. His armor had held, though it was in bad shape. He lay surrounded by the dead, still rising. We yanked him from the pile and ran back toward the owl.
"Do not lose heart, men!" My master yelled, and threw his sword into the eye of a serpent. "Fall back! Fall back to me!"
I picked up a charging zombie mouse and threw him with aikido into a striking snake. I felled another and used him as a shield against a zombie mouse's bite. I slammed my metal shield into the face of another. The soldiers rallied around my master, gathering the fallen comrades who still breathed and dragging them along. There were ten standing mice, including us. I handed my master my sword and Scratchy handed me an extra.
A rattlesnake rose up before us, then another...and another. The owl was overwhelmed by the cat, who had him against the ground, though two soldiers had buried their spears in his brain. Several more snakes were about to strike against him. I could see death looming over us. Everything looked like it was happening in slow motion. Blades and spears flashing everywhere, arrows flying like crazy. Mice falling, armor cracking, the ring of claws and teeth as the soldiers broke their last weapons. My vision went spirit-world on me and I suddenly existed in both worlds at once. I did my best to ignore the spirit side and fight to my last, for surely this was it.
Then, in a howling cry of attack, the ravens descended on our enemies. Black talons rained down on the snakes, driving their heads into the ground.
Field mice sprang from all around us - a ton of them - to engage our zombie enemy. They were howling the name of Nemo as their battlecry.
What effect the name of that chinchilla had! We were not outside the range of his power at all. Not even a little!
Within moments the enemy was destroyed. The zombies torn apart, the snakes beheaded. The cat was finished. There were six of our original party standing, back to back, panting heavily, shaking with adrenaline. My fist was frozen around my sword. I would have to pry it off.
My master fell to bandaging the wounds of those still alive. It turned out to be four. Ten of us survived the enemies trap. I sprang to the top of a rock and shouted at the top of my parched lungs, "You see, black devil?! You shall not have us, demon! You will fall! Do you hear me?! You will pay for the lives you have taken! I swear it on my name!"
The ravens and the owl raised eyebrows at my outburst. I jumped down to bandage Scratchy, who was covered in wounds. I didn't realize it, but I was as well.
My master conversed with the owl for a long time, relating to him the circumstances of our plight, telling him about the black mouse, and the attacks on the safe house. The ravens sat in listening, as did many of the field mice. He told them the whole story, from the time we arrived at the safe house until now. It seemed to me that a million years had passed.
When he was done, they told him that the entire field had gone into hiding. There was a malicious presence, like that of a very frightening predator, but somehow twisted and wrong (dead mice that walk), and no animal in its right mind would have anything to do with it. So the field had all but shut down. Normal predators still fed, animals still foraged for food, but nothing wanted to go near the dread smells - the bad things - the strangeness everyone sensed. All agreed that our enemy was their enemy.
Now, I was seeing things two ways while I was trying to fix Scratchy, who was in really bad shape. First off, I thought my mission was a failure. No black mouse appeared, and I had led us right into a trap. The thought was depressing, and would become more so in the next months ahead. I fell for the oldest trick in the book, really. In my enthusiasm to kick ass, and my desire to go on one more mission with my master, I had messed everything up.
On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel as if...as if things were meant to turn out like they were. As stupid as that sounds, I felt in my gut that things were supposed to be that way. Of course, this led to a whole new series of feelings kinda like, well, why is everything supposed to be so stupid then? But that wouldn't go anywhere, and I knew it. No matter how much I wanted answers, all I got was more questions.
Scratchy was in pain, and had lost alot of blood. His small size had almost killed him when he was piled on and couldn't dodge or spin. His armor had saved his life, but barely. I didn't know if he'd make it back to the safe house - assuming any of us were going to.
My master was talking to the owl still, a ways off and I couldn't hear him (even with my big ears). After a time, he came over to me and said, "How is he?"
I replied, "Bad. Got bitten several times, head injury, tail is limp."
He looked down at Scratchy. The squire looked back up at him through a bloody face and gave him a right finger up. It's the equivalent of thumbs up, since mice don't have thumbs. My master smiled at the hurt mouse.
"The ravens are going to help us bury our dead," he said, "and then they're going to fly to the lake and bring us water in our bags."
"What if they fly off and leave us without our bags?" I said.
"Then we're dead mice," he said. "But we can't go paranoid on ourselves now. They're the only allies we've got, and they're good ones. The field mice know the way back to the house. They're willing to send warriors with us to help us out. With the ravens bringing us water and the field mice guiding, we outta make it."
"Yeah," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what, Squibble?"
"For leading us on this stupid mouse hunt."
He pursed his lips and contemplated me for awhile. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and said, "It was the right thing to do. It's what I would have done." He always knew the right thing to say. I felt better right away. I smiled at him. He smiled back.
The ravens took off with all our waterbags, including those of the dead, since we needed them more. My master, I and the surviving mice who could work dug graves for the dead and buried them as deep as we could. The other five wounded, including Scratchy, just watched.
As I dug I looked up at the owl, who was just watching us with that gnarly gaze of his. None of the field mice would meet his stare, and I understood why. His eyes glowed. His face was formidable, and his soul was full of strength. My second sight had vanished after the battle, but I could still see his power. This was Nemo's teacher. Just the willpower of watching us bury several days' worth of meals when he was clearly famished made a deep impression on me. I wondered if there were Owl Knights. He saw me staring and swiveled his head and his luminescent eyes straight toward me. When I didn't look away he squinted a bit, and gave me the tiniest of nods. Nemo's teacher. Even I was impressed by that.
When we were done the ravens returned with many bags full of water. They told us the lake, for some reason, was free of the wrongness feeling, but all around it the feeling was immeasurably strong. So the enemy had the lake surrounded, and in great numbers. Yet the birds had not been jumped at the lake. Maybe the enemy couldn't approach it?
We rested until the following night, through the unbearably hot next day and into the dusk. I sat under a jutting rock, looking into the sunset that slid to and fro in the heat waves. I performed my chi gung with Scratchy watching longingly, and then we were set to depart that cursed place.
One raven would remain with us the entire way, watching and circling, scouting for enemies. That one could easily reach the owl or the others quickly if needed, and would also refill our water when it got low. If we really hurt for food, he could bring us talons full of grain grasses. It was clear that everyone in the field revered Nemo, that they would go so far and hard out of their way for us. The field mice clearly did not want to be there, but they were with us always, skulking along like Indian guides, never seen unless they suddenly popped out of the grass, often scaring us and enjoying it.
The journey back was longer than the journey had been to the trap. We were cautious, wounded, and many times I had to carry Scratchy on my back. Normally I would have been angry, irritated, and ungrateful for him, but he had fought hard in the battle, and I felt sorry for him being in such pain. My master said he saw Scratchy save my life in the fight. Him not being one to ever lie, I had to believe it, and it would have been easy to miss something happening behind my back I guess. If I hadn't brought him, that might have been me being buried back there. In that lonely field. I didn't want to think about it. Or maybe I was just too tired and hot to care. Who knows.
Several times the enemy tried to attack us. We always had word of their coming, and we hid. It was a shameful thing to do in my mind, but I knew it was wise. The black mouse was sending huge groups after us. Sometimes as large as hundreds. Like ghosts, we skittered back toward the safe house under cover. Twice we had to engage the enemy, because we had no choice. We lost two more of the soldiers - two of the wounded ones who insisted on fighting anyway, which they all did. Eight of us left, we skulked and hid and lurked our way back to the house, and summer passed us right on by. I lost track of time out there in the hinterlands, but it was at least four weeks.
By the end of it, I'd had my adventure with my master, though it was quite shy of a happy story, and Scratchy had healed enough to walk and practice Chi Gung with me again. By the second week on the return, I could feel energy moving within me when I did the chi gung. It felt like...heat, or tingly electricity. I could feel it in my hands, feet, tail, and stomach. It kept me strong, even when I was hungry or tired. Branch had been right - it was great power. My master even started joining me in the mornings before we made camp and the evenings before we left. His illness all but left him. His wheezing stopped. I never did know if that was the tea he made, or the Chi Gung, but he started acting healthy again, and walked with some spring in his step. He was only one year old, after all. Still fairly young for a mouse. If he had been human, he'd have been about 40.
Still young. Yeah.
On the eve of the last day, the field mice pointed over a hill that I recognized. Somewhere right near where I was standing had been the spot of my final collapse during our original quest. I had fallen and could not rise. That was when the spirit of Bigfat came to me in a hallucination (or was it?) and told me to keep going. The house had been over the very next hill, and a line of bees had led us to it. I had been ready to quit just before I won the final mile. I never forgot that. Almost everyone quits just before they make it. That's when things are the hardest.
"Thank you," my master said to me, standing there in the stillness and fading light.
"For what?" I asked, looking over the horizon and lost in memory.
"I never thanked you," he said.
"Saving my life. Carrying me all that way. Finishing my holy quest. Not giving up."
"Oh...that," I said. "No big."
"It was," he said, turning to me. "It was a big." His face was serious, staring right at me while my eyes soaked in the landscape.
"Well, maybe," I said.
He licked me. "It was as big as it gets."
I blushed and came out of my trance. He had gotten my attention. I giggled and smiled.
"I realized just now that I had never thanked you. Sorry," he said.
"Nobody's perfect," I joked, grinning.
"I thought you always said I was!" he accused, and ran after me when I fled, laughing. "My entire reputation was built out of your mousey gossip about me!"
The raven tipped its wing to us and flew off. The field mice had vanished back into hiding. The other soldiers followed close behind, one carrying Scratchy. We raced all the way to the house in good spirits to be home.
That was, until we got to the door.