The sky turned sapphire, then aquamarine, then just a hint of pastel green, then deep violets. Reds. Oranges. Yellow. Then sunlight came across the horizon in bands that arced across the entire world above, drifting down ever so slowly down to meet us. When it struck the water it hit our eyes at the same time, and the world became one gigantic star of gold, casting its radiance all around us, encasing us in a spectral field of bright power and soft shadows. There in the heart of it, in the midst of the sparkling waters, was a figure standing on the lake. Lost in the blazing sunlight dancing on the still water, all we could see with our paws over our brows was that it was a silhouette of a female mouse holding a sword.
My master exchanged a single glance with me. The mighty rush of adrenaline was written on his face. I could smell his delight. This was one of his oldest stories come true. The oldest story. Before his very eyes stood the Lady of the Lake.
Transfixed by the divine beauty of the moment, my master stepped out onto the lake. I almost moved to stop him, but the lake held him. He walked on water out to the center. Dawn stood still for us. Time did not intrude on our sacred moment.
When he reached the center, he knelt before the Lady. I saw, with eyes that should not have been able to see that far, my master take the sword Michael had cast into the lake months before. I saw him turn around, tears streaming down his face, and the Lady vanished back beneath the golden surface of the water. Undoubting, he walked back to me on the shore, where time resumed, and suddenly the sun was well above the horizon. In his hands he held the legendary sword.
His face was set in an enlightened peace, streaked with tears drying in the sun. He held the sword out to me and I held it. It looked like a perfectly forged piece of metal. No marks upon it whatsoever, and the blade was so sharp one could not see an edge on it at all.
The instant after I touched it my powers went into high gear. The earth shifted around me and I saw the spirit plane overlapping the material one. I felt and saw the power of the lake and this place. The sword burned with ethereal, white flame. I looked around and saw angels - the same angels that had guarded the safe house, here at the lake's edges, guarding us with drawn weapons of fire, haloes shining above their perfect heads. Perhaps they had been guarding us the entire time, the whole trip. And this was why there was no enemy here. Our quest truly was holy. No evil could touch it.
I looked back at the golden blade. I felt my mind focusing on the sword and then everything went away.
I was seeing a battlefield. The death tolls were outrageous on both sides. Smoke drifted across the burned fields. Sounds of clashing weapons and dying animals were everywhere...It was so real!
I forced myself back to reality by rejecting the offer from the sword. I did not want to see the future. I knew that's what it was. The sword had activated my prescience. I knew now that my dreams had also been forms of possible futures. Many of my waking visions had. All this time I had been waiting for my prescience to "show up" when it had been with me all along. I now knew, for certain, what it felt like. But I didn't want it. I didn't want to see more terrible things. I forced my mind out of the trance, and came back to reality. My spirit vision cut out altogether. I guess the blade didn't intrude upon one's soul without permission. Fine by me.
"Squibble?" my master asked. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, okay." I said. I looked down at the legendary sword. It was calm. No white fire.
When I hefted it I felt unearthly balance, and lightness. I halfheartedly swung it at the dead remains of a bush beside us. Though the root of that bush was over an inch thick, it cleft through as if it were not there, and sank deep into a rock on the other side. I gritted my teeth and made a "whoops!" face, and drew it out. The rock fell in half; the blade was unscathed in the slightest.
My master whistled right along with me; the same pitch of impressed awe in stereo. I handed the sword back. Clearly he was still shaken up. His paw trembled.
"Squibble..." he stammered.
I inched closer to him, careful to avoid the vorpal edge of that mighty blade. He seemed reluctant to tell me something. I put my paw on his armored shoulder.
"Master? What is it?"
"The Lady...of the Lake, Squibble..." he whispered. "It was..it was Tree." He looked at me with new tears. "It was your momma."
Shock ran from my heart down through my toes and fingers, stinging like electricity. I didn't know what to think. I didn't have much time to think.
There was a sound behind us, much too silent to be anything large, but it was. It was an owl.
My master spun with the blade, and it made just the most dangerous whipping-through-air sound you could ever want to hear. That sound made it seem as if we were lucky the very atoms in its path were not cloven in twain, and an atomic blast the result. As for me, I had my slingshot loaded and drawn in a mouse heartbeat.
The owl raised its wings to protect itself and stepped back, crying, "I am an old man! Do not hurt me!"
We recognized the owl who had taught Nemo. We lowered our weapons immediately.
"Apologies, mighty lord," my master said. I could hear the new strength in his voice. I looked at him in wonder. He even looked younger. He stood straighter. His fur had shine to it. His ears had no droop at all. "You surprised us."
The owl hesitantly lowered his wings. "You surprised me as well," his voice boomed in the empty air. "As well as what I saw."
"You saw?" I said, putting away my slingshot.
"I live in yonder tree," he said, pointing a wing toward the oak on the other side of the lake. "I saw."
We stood in his presence a moment. Of course. The tree. Neither of us had thought of it with all we had been through.
Finally, he said, "I have the sheath for it. Michael gave it to me to hold. It has waited in my den for you to come."
"I would appreciate it, great one," my master said with a bow. "Because no earthly scabbard will hold this edge."
The owl knelt its head down low to the ground. I looked at my master in alarm.
"Sir," my master said, "you mean us to...to..."
"Get on," the owl said. "I can not harm you while you bear that blade, and in no case would I desire to."
I broke out in the shakes. We were about to get on an owl...and be taken to its lair! Oh, no one was going to believe this.
My master nodded, and though smelling strongly of fear, he mounted the Owl's neck and crouched behind his head.
"Coming, Squibble?" he said, half in glee and half in terror.
I shook my head. "Uhhh...No. Nope. I'll wait for the next bus, thanks."
"Get on, knight," the owl's voice echoed across the lake. "I will not harm you."
"Not that I don't trust you or nothin," I said, "but the old instinct thing dies hard, you know?"
"You are advanced enough to overcome it," my master called to me. "Come on! How many mice get this honor?"
"You mean...more than once?" I gulped.
"You have the almighty sword of chop-anything, master! It's easy for you to say!"
He looked at the sword, then down at me. He tossed the sword.
Both the owl and I dodged wildly, even though his toss was accurate. No way was I going to be accidentally chopped by that metal lightsaber. Oops, sorry, Squib - I was aiming for ten inches to the left, but I cut off your tail by accident...so sorry...
I went over to the sword, buried to the hilt in a rock. I looked at it, then back at my master. We both grinned hugely.
"Draw it and be a mighty hero, Squibble!" he called.
I drew the sword from the stone. It slid out easily. The owl eyed me hard.
"No bright ideas, mouse," it said.
"I'm not in the business of being called owlslayer," I told it. "You have been an honorable ally."
"Don't even so much as drop that thing on me," he said.
I looked up. I felt no fear. That sword was cool.
"I won't," I told him.
Slowly, I climbed up the soft down of his feathers to my master. I handed him back his sword.
"We don't have much time," the owl said, and lifted off.
I sank my teeth into my master's cloak and my claws gripped onto anything I could find. The ground became small. Fast. From the air, we flew over the lake, and I knew my master was thinking the same thing as I was. This was what Mike saw as he fell.
The owl took us up, up, and more up, circled once, then descended (too rapidly for me) into the tree. He landed gently along a thick branch next to the center of the tree. A natural hole in the wood was there, and the branch was covered in bones.
Glancing at each other in that silent telepathy that I shared with him, my master and I got off the owl.
Without being asked to explain, the great bird began.
"Nemo has gone into the Fields of Fate a second time," he said. "By himself, to find the tribes named for him."
"Oh no!" my master said. "Why did he do that!"
"He knows why," the owl said, gazing upon us. I don't know about my magic-sword wielding master, but that gaze freaked me right out of my mousey skin. "And he knows best," he finished.
My master nodded.
"The time comes," the owl whispered, though to us it was like a strongest wind. "Gather your scabbard and belt. We must be going back to your house."
I wanted to ask why, and the owl turned to me and said, "Because the war begins, mouse. Your respite is over. Now it is into the flames. The flames of war, and greater ones."
"Is there no way out of this for us?" I asked, not knowing why.
"Not unless you wish to surrender your holy quest," he said.
"My holy quest?" I chirped, as if I held the sword, "I don't even know what it is!"
"You will," the owl said. My master put a hand on my shoulder and went into the lair to find his sword belt. As he vanished into the darkness, I noticed that the sword glowed, as if carrying the sunlight with it.
"I've pretty much had it with that nonsense," I said to the mythical teacher of Nemo. He raised an eyebrow. "Just tell me what it is, okay!? Surely you know."
He shifted back and forth, looking around him, taking his time, finally closing his eyes. He sat like that for a minute or two. I looked into the hole my master had vanished into. An owl's lair! What if there was another owl? What if...
"Very well," the owl boomed.
I looked back. "Eh?"
"I shall tell you what your holy quest is."
"No way. Reely?"
"Well, cough it up, big scary."
He ruffled his feathers and growled deeply in his throat. I lowered my head in respect. "Sorry," I said.
"It is that which you desire most," he said.
I looked back up. "To be a great hero."
"No?" I asked.
"No. That's what got you into this mess. That is not it, though that is a byproduct of it, perhaps."
"Oh, well what is it then?"
"That which you desire most."
I was getting mad. I was about to tell him I'd spent more than half my mousey life listening to that kind of question-answer poo and to stop messing with my already-whacked head when my master came out of the den, a shiny, gem-studded belt around his waist with a beautiful silver and gold scabbard on it, and the sword in the scabbard.
"Are you ready?" the owl asked him.
"I am," he said.
The owl lowered his head again and my master clambered up.
"Aren't you gonna ask me if I'm ready?" I said indignantly.
"No," the owl said.
"Howcome!" I chirped.
"Because you are not," he said.
I climbed up the feathers to sit beside my master. His words chilled my blood.
"But in your case, it doesn't matter," he finished, and spread his wings to give us flight.
So we rode an owl. Not just any owl, but the owl. We rode him all the way back to the safe house. It took only an hour, maybe less. It was amazing. He didn't stop at the house, though. I thought he was gonna eat us after all when he passed it by. Far below, we could see the barricades and walls, the trenches and training grounds. We saw tiny specks that were our dayguard people, looking up at us. My master drew his sword, and it gleamed in the sunlight. Maybe they saw us. Then we were gone.
"Where are we going!" my master shouted into the wind, sheathing the sword.
"To gain you a small advantage," the owl said. We passed over hills and trees. We passed a small brook, and there on the other side of it we understood what our scouts had seen.
There on the other side of the brook was the enemy camp.
It was mostly underground, but no living thing would grow on that land. It was a barren patch of blasted earth. It had turned black. The forces that were outside were frightening in their strength. We saw monsters.
The mouse scouts who had seen the enemy had not lied. They had abominations. Dead corpses of coyotes, dogs, cats, snakes, hawks. But they no longer even looked normal, not even normal for rotting bodies. They were twisted. Mutated and wrong. Some had four wings, or five legs. Two heads. Mouths in the center of their ribs. Long, hook-like arms that belonged on crabs, or praying mantises. Horns where they should not be, and stinger tails like scorpions. Flesh peeled back, eyes rotted out, teeth much too long, sticking through their heads and lower jaws.
An army of monsters. I felt my master's body stiffen and smelled his panic.
How would we ever fight that?
By the time we got a good look, the owl wheeled around and headed back. Nothing unholy took off to chase us, and for that I was relieved.
When we got back to the house (much too soon - that dark army was almost in our back yard!) the owl floated down upon the front porch. The day sentries almost lost their bladders. I hopped off with my master, and he used his command voice. It shocked me after so many days of hearing only his true, gentle tones.
"Mobilize the army!" He commanded. "Summon the high council! We march at sunset!"
The sentries vanished inside, bellowing his orders to all. My master walked toward the mouse door and then stopped. He turned back to look at me. It was a deep look, full of profound sadness and joy at the same time. He smiled at me. I knew what he was saying. I love you, Squibble. We had a good adventure. It was probably our last, and it was worthy. I'll always treasure it.
Then his face returned to the forced warrior mask. I knew he hated that role. He turned and walked through the door.
I felt my stomach drop to my feet and beyond. That was the first time it really hit me. That was when it became real to me.
An army of demonic monsters waited just over the hill.
And we were going to fight them.
The last horseman had come.