The third horseman gave us no time at all. He was, in fact, waiting right outside the door the very next day. It was one of our own knights, come back from a long pilgrimage. We had thought he was dead, for no mouse had ever lived that long out in the wilderness. He looked half dead, and at first we thought him a zombie, but the protections of the angels still held, and he had used the last of his strength fighting the zombies to get back to his dear home. He was covered in bites, and his armor was decrepit and in tatters. He had no sword, and no squire. He said he had lost both long ago - the sword to enemies and the squire to the heat. He was bedraggled worse than we had been in the last five months. I've never seen a mouse so bad off. Many mice were holding his wounds shut, including One-Ear, their paws on deep, ugly gashes and festering sores. His face was burnt by something. His rear leg was broken badly, and had been for weeks. It had gangrene and was useless. His front legs were both torn up, and his left shoulder looked broken. He had a giant lump encasing his left side and shoulder, immobilizing it. It looked as if mice had tried to chew around his arm to remove it. He was covered in massive scab tissue, and he had lost too much blood. One of his teeth was broken and his tail was missing entirely. He had no ears. One eye was out. The sheer courage it took this crippled mouse to reach us, over the wall, past the trench, through the hordes that must be out there somewhere, was staggering. We had no words for it. We tried to help him, but he died shortly after reaching us. He was only half aware of anything, and his last words were, "Thousands...too many...."
We didn't need to guess what that meant. It meant the enemy was massing an army, somewhere near enough to the house that this knight had seen them, and it cost him his already hard-won life. Maybe he had been captured and tortured. Later, we did not blame him for anything. He had not known what evil they had planted in his dying body. He just wanted to come home. See his friends. Have a nice meal and be warm in his old bed. Animals in pain or trauma always return to what they know, and this mouse was lucky enough to know something other than an existence run by cruelty. He died in his bed. That much, at least, he had earned.
We were planning hard what we might do against this army and the black mouse when, a few weeks later, the first few mice became ill. Their breath was labored, and they grew weak in a very short span. Normally, mice will cover up symptoms of illness, for in the wild, if they did not, they would be lunch. By the time one can tell a mouse is sick, it is often near too late to help. The kind human did not know this, and knowing no better, took the four sick mice to the vet. I shuddered to think of his vet bill, but he was a responsible owner. He knew the job was going to be expensive when he took it.
He came back with three bodies. The mice had not lived long enough to be saved. By the time he got back, more mice were sick, in just under three hours. He had left one mouse body with the vet for a necropsy - that's where they take the mouse apart to find what caused them to die. It was a good idea, but the results would be slow. No one cared much for mice.
Nemo, me, and the high council were not blind to what was coming. In a house where normally everything was pristine and clean for the animals, this was not normal. Within two days there were thirty sick mice. We knew something was up - this was not the result of the refuse we had lived in when the human was gone. This stank of evil. This was foul.
We asked the human to buy Echinacea and goldenseal and put it in the water supply. Our human had been told by the vet that antivirals might help, and had given him some, but he simply had not enough time in a day, even if he didn't have to work, to treat all the sick mice. At first he tried, but the numbers grew overwhelming. BJ told everyone to avoid contact, rest alot, and eat plenty - all the things that might increase immune systems, but the bug, whatever it was, continued to grow. By October near Halloween, half of everyone was sick, and 75 mice had died. The human was running himself ragged trying to figure out what to do, and was clearly almost powerless.
I asked for a copy of the county vet reports, the necropsy, that came a week after the first incidents and the human gave them to me. Reading them, I realized that I understood some of it. My chemistry and biology studies had paid off, and now I had access to even more books. I began immediately spending most of my waking hours learning - as fast as I could. I still did my chi gung, and still trained with Nemo in my sleep, where I was learning to send my soul far from my body and see what was going on in other places. My goal was to reach Branch in China, but so far I couldn't see it happening. Wasn't even close.
Heide would stop by once a week and say hello to everyone, but on hearing of the plague, she stopped coming over. She could not risk her own animals, and everyone understood. The last we heard, she and a friend named Mary Ann were using the money to create a rat and mouse club that would have the power to shelter and rescue rodents. We had their phone number now, and the human replaced his phone with one light enough that if we had to, with the help of the rats, we could use it. Heide told me if the safe house was ever in need, to call and chirp three times loudly into the phone. Help would come.
But no one could help us against the disease. With my chi I was able to temporarily stave off its effects from one or two mice, giving them a chance to fight it and live. I did this with my daughter, and Stompy, who fell ill near Halloween, and remained that way for some time. Stompy, having not regained her former weight yet by far, was doing quite poorly. She did not want to die by illness, but in combat. I had to agree with her. The death our people suffered from the plague was a horrible one - it amounted to choking and suffocating because of fluid in the lungs, but only after losing their minds. Apparently the virus, or whatever it was, melted lung tissue into mush and the brain couldn't get enough oxygen. Mice would convulse and spasm like my poor momma did, but it wasn't as quick. It took a long time, and they died in pain and terror.
I hated the black mouse more than anything in the entire world, and I studied without rest trying to beat his stupid third horseman. And, of course, from doing that, I expected to get sick, but my chi gung carried me through. What a coward this evil was, to attack us through such diabolic, insidious means! Why could he not face us? I desired to duel with him more than anything. Before, I had been afraid, but now I didn't care. I wanted to have just one chance to pay him back for all the damage he'd brought to us, to this house and our families. It was a merciless lesson in the nature of evil, which is not, as most would guess, the evil one sees on TV. Real evil either acts good (and we believe it), or will not show itself until it's too late.
That would be very soon.
As the world outside our contaminated house grew cold, we knew fear. What if it killed us all? It very well looked like it would, and the safe house would be no more. Why was evil winning? Why was this happening to us? I fell into bitterness and most were ahead of me in despair. Only the highest among us held out - my master, BJ, Nemo, those mice. Percival had not succumbed yet, but my master's other daughter and my sister, Leaf, died of the deadly illness. She died in her sleep, thank the Mousegod, in peace. Now he had only two sons left to him. And me.
Percival took to pacing and his chi gung grew extreme in the moves. He hated the black mouse also, for he respected the same things I did: courage, valor, honor. He had lost both dear, gentle sisters to the enemy now, and seen many of his friends pass away. He could not fight back. He had no way of venting his rage upon a visible enemy. His wrath, when it fell, was going to be terrible. By the time his temper burned past his unbelievable willpower, it was much worse than BJ's. In this alone, he differed from his father. My master was gentle and soft spoken unless roused to great ire. Percival was the same, but once his anger was unleashed, he had no upper limit. Over the weeks that the plague fell upon us, his eyes grew redder and brighter, and if anyone would mention the black mouse, he would spit and leave. I began to worry, and Nemo confirmed it, that as much as our bodies were being assaulted, our minds and souls were under attack as well. Despite the quarantine, some mice fled the safe house to certain doom outside, though they knew they would never be let back in. The safe house was closed now, to all. We free mice, who had all been rescued from cruel cages, were again caged. The vicious irony ran deep. I imagined the enemy laughing at us. He had to be. I squinted, rattled my tail, and studied harder.
I had no other scientist mice to bounce my ideas off of, except Nemo. I wish I had the owl to talk to, who would certainly be able to help, but now the outside was off limits more than ever. I found the twisted truth quite cold that as soon as the human had built walls to keep our enemy out, we had been shut in.
Nemo helped me with my studies, but before long, I had gone beyond his knowledge of medicine and chemistry. I asked the human for more books. Specific books that were listed at the ends of the ones I had for more study. He brought them. When I desperately needed a break, I would paint or draw, which never failed to refresh me. How I loved being lost in the world of creation. It was pure. I could fashion any reality I wanted, or explore my own deepest feelings and thoughts. The latter was often disturbing, so most of the time I drew pictures of the black mouse getting his squidgy face kicked in, which Percival loved. He had several hanging all over his cage, and he let no one chew on them at all.
On Halloween Eve, we heard coyotes howling outside the house. They sounded wrong. Their voices were thick, as if strangled, or filled with fluid. Their noise, normally beautiful and enchanting, was now haunted and broken. We all felt chilled to our bones. The demon was growing stronger with each passing day. Now he had taken the wild dogs. He had giant monsters.
We all knew we had to do something, but we were barely managing to stay alive. We were losing this fight. Good was losing. It wasn't like the stories. Not at all. It wasn't fair. I spent many a minute gazing upward at Bigfat, scowling and showing him my teeth. Boy, when I got up there, I was gonna bite his ear so hard!
The human quit his job, and supported by Heide's money, stayed at home constantly to help as many mice as he could. The vet came over several times and took samples from dead mice. He said he'd never seen anything like it. The disease tried to change normal tissue into something else, and the result was catastrophe. He said he couldn't even locate an actual virus. Doctor Bausone was ultimately cool, though, and did not condemn our house or report us to the human authorities as he was obliged to. He liked mice, and he was on our team. Besides, he claimed it had not spread outside the house that he knew of, and for that we were grateful. He knew what horrors we would endure if the government or the normal people found out what was going on. Perhaps that had been the black mouse's plan all along, for our vet to report us and we would all be taken away, to die lonely and alone in test cages, sick and dying for science. I gave the black mouse, wherever he was, the bad finger. Doctor Bausone is one of our angels, demon. You can't have him.
He would turn over all the reports from their research to the human, who would in turn hand them over to me. I had him ask specific questions of the doctor that had Bausone giving him strange looks indeed.
"Becoming a vet, dude?" He would say, half joking.
"Rocket scientist," the kind human would answer, and they would laugh.
Don't laugh too hard, humans. I'll start on rocket science next.
Over the weeks I got slow results. It was not a virus. It was something else. Some kind of thing that passed from one mouse to another, somehow, but it wasn't a natural virus, that I was sure of. Nothing in nature was this cruel or this thorough. Nemo agreed, but what to do about it?
By November half of us were dead. Squibette and Stompy had recovered with my help, but they would be a long time in healing. Through the direct intervention of the human's drugs and Nemo's powers, none of the inner circle had fallen ill yet besides those two, but Artemis and Aphrodite were now sick. The backyard was nothing but a giant graveyard. The kind human was a frazzled wreck, running himself ragged, ignoring his pain. And finally, the inevitable happened.
One day I left my tiny lab (yeah, I had one now, thanks to the human) to speak with my master but he wasn't in his cage. Thinking nothing of it, I walked down his ramp to go see if Nemo had seen him, and saw him lying prone on the floor, three feet under the ramp. He had fallen!
I raced down to find him gasping for breath.
He was sick.