I woke two days later. I felt better. The past several days were a blur in my frazzled mind. I don't remember what was real and what was not. I had many strange dreams, all fading away like the twilight colors at sunset as soon as I opened my eyes.
I was in my cage, in my nestbox. It smelled mostly like Favorite. I thought of her and remembered she had been sitting there, listless and depressed when I had come home. Then, like a ton of bricks, it hit me that my mother was dead. I remembered everything, and my heart sank into my stomach. I felt sick and my eyes began crying without my permission.
Slowly I crawled out of my nest box, lethargic and sad. It was almost dawn of some day or other. Favorite was still sitting in that same spot I had left her days ago. It didn't even occur to me to ask what was wrong. I just got disgusted and left my cage immediately. On the way out I saw someone had left all my things at the foot of the ramp that led into and out of my cage. My armor, sword, helm, shield, backpack, side pouch and all the pills I had collected. Someone had also left a brand new, empty journal book and several tiny pencils - humans have some use for them, I suppose, but they're so small we can use them kind of like a large stick, so we do. There were also a few stacks of carefully cut drawing paper set on a thin board with homemade clips on it, just like the students at the Atelier used. Small sprigs of bamboo had been cut to mouse-pen size and the ends sharpened and split in the middle, making me crowquill pens - a new medium I hadn't tried yet - and with them was a bottle of black ink small enough for me to carry around. Someone had gone through alot of trouble to do all this. I was used to pencil tips and makeshift ball-point pen ends.
I looked back at the food dish. Favorite looked up at me imploringly, maybe hoping for a grooming or a kind word. I saw the dish had millet and cheerios in it - very special goodies. And the cage had been cleaned.
Favorite had a pathetic look on her face, like someone begging for a treat. But she didn't move, and the treats were right next to her, so I climbed out off the cage and went on my way across the house. I didn't know why it bothered me so much. No mouse likes a lazy mouse. Maybe that was it.
The house was quite empty. And quiet. It wasn't yet time for mice to be going to bed, and I wondered where everyone was. I scurried down the hall and into the back room, the human's bedroom. Nemo's cage was there, and so was his nasty girlfriend. She was busy stuffing her face with pellets and ignored me. I didn't like her. But hey, Nemo hadn't gotten to choose his girlfriend - the human chose for everyone when he went to the ranch or the shelters. Rarely could we come along. If he took Nemo to the ranch and Nemo picked out his own girlfriend, it might kinda give our secret away, and it was a good way to pick up diseases. So I guess she was the kind human's best try at picking for a chinchilla. I wondered if Nemo liked her.
I climbed down a mousehole and into the basement. There were many mice there, almost everyone. Hundreds of mice, all standing in formation or busy doing fighting drills. Almost twenty of them were in armor. Several were in lesser armor, carrying spears or other weapons, and wearing colored sashes with stripes on them (to denote who their teacher was and their rank in the class, I guess...I used military ranks, they used colored sashes). The more stripes, the higher the rank I guessed from the looks of it. The floor was alive with movement and the yelling of sergeant mice training recruits. In the middle of it all was BJ, teaching his famous fighting class. There was so much happening it was hard to look at. I wondered what the human thought of all that stuff.
Scratchy was down there, teaching with BJ - and his sash was purple! The color of royalty. It had seven stripes on it. No one else had even five. BJ had made him an assistant teacher. If anyone had taken the runt as a squire he'd have to wear those colors - the colors of his knight, but no one had, unless BJ... nahhh... no way.
When I was seen at last all the activity around me stopped. Like when the gnarly guy walks into the saloon in an old Western and all the music stops...everyone turns to look at him. It was so comical I almost squinted my eyes and said, "Dying ain't much of a livin', boy." But I knew no one would get it.
So there I was, being stared at by all kindsa mice. Most of whom knew me already, or should have anyway. It was a strange moment. Finally, I broke the tension by smiling and waving stupidly. Everyone went back to what they were doing. I left the way I'd come. That was just too weird.
Out back, more mice were training. My master was teaching swordfighting with Percival at his side. High up on a hill, overlooking the training camp was Nemo, and next to him a tiny, sitting, robed figure that could have been Branch. I was going to head up there when I was accosted by mice.
"Hey - it's Squibble!" one said.
"Hey Squibble - tell us about your pilgrimage!"
"Yeah they say you went insane!"
"Did you have to kill lots of things?"
"Someone said you died and came back to life."
I stopped and held up my paws.
"What?" I tilted my head at them and demanded.
"Yeah...they say you're a prophet now, like Nemo."
"Ummm... no." I said.
"They say you got your butt handed to you by Percival!"
"Yep," I confirmed.
"They say you can see the spirit world," one chirped.
"Sometimes," I said.
They all fell silent.
"Really?" one asked after a long silence.
I nodded. "Yeah."
"What does it look like right now?" one asked.
I looked around. My vision had returned to normal, thank the Mousegod.
"I can't do it all the time," I said.
"Oh yeah, I bet," said one smarmy mouse in back. If it was One-Ear, I'd bite his rump clean off.
They all laughed. It made me mad. It reminded me of the bully mouse and his lunatic Gestapo.
"Don't laugh at me!" I yelled. They kept on laughing. They were used to good ol' pushover Squibble, who always laughed with everyone, ignorantly unaware that they were laughing at him. Well, those times were over.
"I can see things," I said. "I'm not lying!"
More laughter. The more serious I got, the harder they laughed. It was absurd. They were insulting my dignity.
"Hey - predict the future like Nemo does!" one of them said, clearly not believing in supernatural powers at all.
"Okay," I said. They all fell silent. I looked right at the mouse who had just spoken and stepped up next to him. "You're going to be in pain for days."
What I said just registered when I bit him right on the face. Hard. Something crunched under my teeth and I followed it up by hitting him twice and kicking him in the throat. Gasping for breath and horrified, the mouse leapt a foot in the air and vanished toward the house. I laid into them all, snorting and stomping and calling them idiots and disrespectful cretins. I bit, kicked, flung them and hit them. They had practice weapons, I had nothing, but none of them fought back. They were too busy trying to get away. They screamed and yelled, dropped their weapons and fled.
"Aiiiieee! He's gone insane!"
"He's trying to keel us!"
"He's a loon!"
"With really strong teeth!"
Then I was alone in the back yard, at least for a radius of about ten feet. Huffing and puffing, I spat on the ground and rattled my tail. My eyes were bloodshot and my jaw ached. But I had shown them!
"NEVER make fun of me!" I screamed after their running butts.
Then I sat down hard. I felt like crying. Some of those mice had been my friends. Of course, I didn't know who were my friends anymore. They were plotting to hurt me, maybe even kill me, a few months ago. Now they all thought I was insane. That would explain the looks I got in the basement. Squibble, the first great Mouse Knight's faithful squire, goes on pilgrimage, and comes back loony. They'd all shake their heads and make tsk tsk noises and look at me funny when I passed by. Insane mice were tolerated about as well as lazy mice.
This was not the reunion I had in mind when I came back. This sucked.
I saw a glow approaching me and looked up to see my master and Percival coming toward me. But I was seeing them in spirit-vision. Their halos and auras were bright white and white-gold. Around my master's nose though I saw red mist, like something trickling out of him when he breathed. His hurt lungs, I thought. The combined radiance of both mice made me squint my eyes. The hundred or so students they had been teaching were going back inside for the day. Lessons were over. Dawn was almost upon us. My spirit vision faded away.
"What was all that, Squib?" my master said. He was wearing his armor and holding his sword. So was Percival.
"Nothin." I stated.
He looked at me sideways. It used to make me laugh.
"Nothin?" he imitated me, trying to get a chuckle out of me as it used to, but again it reminded me of the bully mouse doing his Squibble-is-so-stupid dance and it made me angry. I knew he was trying to be nice and gentle with me, but fury took hold in my damaged soul.
"Nothin!" I yelled suddenly, popping to my feet. They both jumped back in alarm. "Nothin! Nothinnothinnothin!" And I ran off.
Well, so much for a nice reunion with my beloved master.
Frustrated and confused, I went and scrabbled up onto the bed of the human, and ran all over his blankets for awhile. Until he felt me and woke up, of course.
"Squibble!" he said, grabbing me roughly. "You know no one is allowed on the bed when I'm sleeping!" He took me back to my cage, petting me, and put me next to Favorite. She hadn't moved.
"I'm really sorry about your momma," he said to me. "And I am very happy to see you back home after leaving you in the city - that scared me pretty bad, little mouse. It was like Nemo all over again. Let's not do that again, okay?"
I thumbed my nose at him for ruining my good time but I doubt he noticed. When I turned around Favorite was giving me that pathetic look again.
"What!" I chirped at her. She looked sadly away. I grabbed a Cheerio and vacated the premises one more time. By this time I was pretty livid, and sure enough, here came runt boy Scratchy and his perfect timing, climbing up to see me. He was still wearing his purple sash and had something in his mouth, and I didn't want to know what it was, for surely it was something that was going to anger me further. I knew I'd kick him or worse, so I lit out the other direction and made a foot long jump between shelves to avoid him. Then I flew down the ramps to the floor and ran back across the living room and down the hall again, determined to climb on the bed now that the human was taking a shower.
If you tell a mouse they can't go somewhere, or can't do something, it's a sure way to make that mouse determined to do that very thing. Mice are like that. And I was a very stubborn mouse. So - to the bed it was. I'd show that human!
But when I got up there, Nemo was perched at the top of the great cliff-of-blanket waiting for me.
"Gonna run on the bed!" I said.
He stepped aside. "Okay," he said, "but I thought we had an appointment."
I stopped and got that startled look on my face mice get when they hear something funny.
I peered at him. "Reely?"
"Yes, you said you'd let me teach you some powers."
I kinda remembered that. "Did I now?"
"Well, it better not be boring, cause I'm all into not being a bored mouse."
"It won't be," he promised, and vanished into thin air.
My eyes got all round. I sniffed and sniffed, but that chinchilla was gone!
"Whoa!" I said. I looked around for him cautiously. "Whoa," I kept saying when I found no trace of him. I skulked low to the blanket surface all over the place. No Nemo.
Then I saw him over by his cage. I ran over there, down off the bed, and up onto his little table.
"How'd you do that!" I chirped.
"Do what?" he said innocently.
"Be all gone an' stuff!"
"Oh," he said casually. "Was I gone?"
I rattled my tail. "Don't work me over, mister chinchilla! Tell me how you did that!"
"Why?" he asked.
I perked up and looked as though I'd heard something again. "Ummm..." Cause I wanna do it, I thought. Hmmmm... "It was kinda cool," I said. "Not extremely impressive, mind you, but amusing."
"Oh, indeed," he said.
"Yeah. Like that. Indeed."
Suddenly, Branch was sitting next to me. I jumped half a foot straight up. "EEEEE!" I squeaked.
When I landed, I tried to swat him and succeeded. "No do that!" I quipped. He snickered. They both looked at me. Nemo raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah, okay," I said.
"Okay what?" Nemo asked.
"It might be ...kinda cool if...maybe you could, sorta, possibly...teach me a thing or two."
"Please." Nemo said.
"Well, since you insist," I said.
"You say please," he said. Branch folded his arms.
I sat still. I was considering grumbling when Branch put his arm around me. "Bro," he said, "Nemo is sought after all the world over. In some places they consider him a god."
"Reely?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "The sapphire gene is almost extinct now. There will soon be no more sapphire chinchillas left." I began to pay attention. "Of course, it's not the gene that makes him wise. He's special, like our father is." By that he meant my master, of course. Yeah. Special. "Nemo doesn't just teach anyone. Last month we had a delegation from China here asking him to teach them."
"China! " I blurted. "Mice from China?"
Nemo nodded. Branch said, "Yes. He taught them all for as many days as they could go without food. It turned out to be seven days, and he had to make them eat then because they were willing to starve to death to learn his lessons. Then they returned. They invited me to come study at their monastery in Tibet. I think I want to go."
"Wait," I said. "Mice came here from China, and you starved them?" I said to Nemo. The chinchilla frowned.
"No," Branch said. "You don't understand. It's part of their practice to meditate and do away with worldly things that interfere with enlightenment. Nemo was honoring that."
"Kinda against the point, don'tcha think, if they keel over from hunger?"
"No, it sharpened their senses and they remembered everything to the very word that Nemo taught them. They were grateful."
"They were hungry!"
"Squibble, other mice think differently. Field mice have a whole different set of beliefs than us. Are they wrong?"
"No, they're just weird."
"According to rumor, you're the weird one around here," Nemo said. "Supposedly you've gone off the deep end."
"Stupid gossip," Branch said, defending me.
"Mice love to gossip," Nemo commented.
"Yeah well, I think I know whose fault that is," I said, gritting my teeth, "and when I find him, he's gonna pay."
"My point was," Branch went on, "that you must open your mind to new and different things if you want to study with Nemo, which is an honor and a privilege beyond measure."
"Yeah, well, he asked me to study. I didn't go to him."
"All the more honor!" Branch exclaimed.
"Squibble, what do say you give me a week to impress you," Nemo said. Branch let his jaw hang open at that. Nemo had probably never said that to anyone in his life. "If by the end of the week you aren't impressed, you can do whatever you want to do."
"I can always do whatever I wanna do," I said.
"Great wisdom," Nemo said. "You are teachable."
"I have a teacher!" I said.
"Your master?" Nemo said. I nodded vehemently. "Why don't you go see what he says about it?"
"Okay," I said. I looked at Branch. "Are you really going to China!?"
He nodded slowly. "Mom's death affected us all, brother. It was very sad. I have nothing more holding me here anymore. I'd love to keep studying with Nemo, but he says I've learned all I can from him for what I want to do - now I must go learn from the Chinese mice."
"What is it you wanna do - Kung Fu like Kychwang Kain?" I said, excited.
"No. I want to do magic."
I paused. Looked around. "MMM. Rabbit from a hat?"
He shook his head, a bit upset. "No, no. That's prestidigitation - parlor tricks. Easy stuff." He pulled a piece of millet from my ear.
"Whoa!" I said, and ate it. "Can I have another?"
He did it again. I macked that one too.
"What, you got a pocket full of millet or something?" I asked. He chuckled.
"Something like that. But the point is, no matter how good it looks, it's fake."
"Reeely? I couldn't tell."
"No one can, except the trained eye. But it's still fake. I wanna do real magic! Really real. Change the weather - throw lightning and fireballs - all that cool stuff!"
"Yeah!" I chirped. "You're my brother alright. Cool stuff!"
He nodded and put his hands back into his sleeves.
"Hey," I whispered. "Meanwhile, can you teach me about prestidation? Especially with millet?"
He smiled at me. I liked him. "Okay," he said.
And so we stayed up all day, and he taught me magic tricks. I got the hang of them right away. They were cool. Somewhere in there, Nemo went to bed. Pretty soon, everyone was in bed but us, and we were pulling Cheerios out of hats.