"So this, at long last, is the famous Kippy," said Percival with a smile on his furry face. "He does look very like my father, but younger."
The little newcomer was surrounded by Mouse and Rat Knights. Well over forty had come to the RMC house so far. From there they were due in short order at the Old Kingdom for the grand convocation Stompy and Squibbette had started a month and a half ago. Word was it was filling up already. Kippy was to be the guest of honor - the main event. He was sniffed and groomed by dozens of mice, all older and of greater stature than he - and yet they revered him as if he were someone else. He didn't understand why, and he was worried about what he was going to do or say that these rodents thought so important. So he sat there still and shy when Percival introduced himself. He didn't even know who Percival was.
"Kippy?" Squibbette said.
"Yeah?" Kippy answered.
"Are you okay?"
"Culture shock, isn't it?"
"We're sorry for the hurry. We've waited too long as it is, and we need to address the gathered masses. After all, we called them together."
"What for?" Kippy asked.
"To help us rescue our family in the lab," Squibbette said.
"Half of them are dead," Kippy said quietly.
The near mice, the inner circle of the Knightdom, lowered their heads. They suspected they had waited too long. Now they knew for sure.
Shiva and Thor looked at each other, blank-faced. Whatever telepathy they shared was lost on the others.
"Even now we are at a loss of how to proceed," Branch told Kippy. "We were hoping you could tell us."
"Because I've been there," asked Kippy, "or because I'm supposed to be someone else?"
"Both," Branch said.
Kippy twittered his whiskers in agitation. "I'm not this great hero you think I am," Kippy said. "I'm a little field mouse who accidentally learned to talk to humans, and there's only one I really like talking to."
"Is all this too big for you?" Nemo asked.
"We're sorry," said Nemo. "Why don't you relax and not worry about who people think you are or anything like that. Expectations can be very heavy on the soul. We like you just as you are, Kippy."
"Really?" Kippy asked.
"Yes," Nemo smiled. Kippy liked Nemo's gentle face.
"Okay. I'll... I'll be over here," Kippy said, and went over to the food bowl. Some of the Knights went to join him but Nemo waved them back.
"What's wrong with him?" Stompy asked.
"Shock. Drugs. Maybe more," said Nemo, who shook as he spoke. His breath could be heard across the room. He was fatally ill. Everyone knew he would not recover now. But he had insisted on attending the meeting. "He really is a field mouse. Despite his color, his upbringing was that of a simple, happy life. We've done him a great disservice dragging him into all this."
"Didn't he ask to be dragged in? He was coming to the house to be trained," said Ghost.
"And Squibble's message?" said Branch. "We are all sure Kippy is the one."
"Squibble wasn't wrong," Nemo said. "Kippy is the spirit of Spritely. Now that I have seen him, I am sure of it. Squibble would have been just as sure."
Everyone sat still at that.
"But we cannot force him to become great," Nemo went on. "Perhaps he reincarnated as Kippy because he wanted to live a simple, uncomplicated life as a mouse."
"This is Spritely, the first Mouse Knight we're talking about here, right?" Stompy said as though Nemo's words were a joke.
"If Kippy is to do greatness somehow," Nemo said, "We cannot help him or hinder him. It will happen on its own, if it is meant to."
Everyone nodded. Shiva and Thor, seemingly tired and blank-faced, turned and left, walking armed and armored out the door, toward the Old Kingdom.
"What's the matter with them?" A Knight asked. Stompy told them.
Long silence followed. One could feel the compassion in the air, but none had the courage to offer it to the Rat Knights, so dread was their reputation. Branch felt it was ironic that when the rats finally needed someone, it was not in battle, and it was not the help they thought they would ever need.
"Their souls are deeply wounded," Branch said. "Only time will tell who the new Shiva and Thor will be."
"That's a bit frightening," Squibbette said, and many rodents shivered.
"Treat Kippy well, and don't pester him about fate or duty," Nemo instructed. "Let him be the happy mouse that he is. His spirit will do the right thing. Count on that."
Everyone nodded. Nemo's word was law.
Knifey viciously stabbed at random mice that got too close to Feeder, who was cowering in a corner. Half the size of any other mouse, Knifey had managed to hold off the entire place so far.
"Knifey Knifey!" Knifey yelled. Stab. Slash. "Knifey!"
Stompy came undaunted and grabbed the little mouse from behind, holding him up in the air by his weapon arm. "Knifey, it's not right to attack everything on sight, understand?" she chastised the tiny rodent.
"Knifey?" Knifey queried.
"No knifey." Stompy said.
"Knifey," Knifey sounded disappointed.
"Yeah, well, knifing things at random is a bad thing to do, you little psycho."
"Knifey..." Knifey tried to squirm out of Stompy's grasp, but her hold was firm. "Knifey," Knifey said in surrender at last.
She set him down, ready to move her great bulk rapidly if the little nut should begin slashing again, but Knifey had given up. He went and sulked behind Feeder, who was trembling at the very sight of a mouse as big as Stompy - his head down, his body crunched up to become as small as it possibly could.
"And you," Stompy said, "Get a pair."
"P-p-pair of what?" Feeder cried.
"Pathetic," Stompy sighed.
"Yes, ma'am," Feeder said in a weak voice.
Shaking her head, Stompy returned to the circle of Knights.
"No Squibble," Stompy said. "He would have been here by now."
"Something's gone terribly wrong," Squibbette said.
"We have scouts out everywhere looking for him," Percival said. "Fleeter has not returned either."
"Fleeter?!" Kippy exclaimed, and in a flash he was over to the group from the food bowl. Stompy blinked and rubbed her eyes. "Where is Fleeter? What's happened to my brother!"
Percival put a hand on Kippy's shoulder. By the look on his face, Kippy could tell it wasn't good. He felt his stomach sinking.
"Sir Fleeter was sent on a mission of dire importance, Kippy," he explained. "His ride eventually came back, but the humans intervened. We do not know his fate yet."
"What mission?" Kippy demanded.
"He was sent back to your field," Stompy said. "To recover an artifact that Squibble gave your chief. It's been weeks since we've heard anything from him. It doesn't mean he's dead. The way is far..."
"He's not dead!" Kippy blurted. "He's too fast to get dead!"
Some rodents laughed. Squibbette put her hand on Kippy also. "You're right, Kippy. That's why he was sent. He's the fastest there is."
"Wait..." said Kippy. "You said Sir. Sir Fleeter."
Percival smiled. "Yes."
Kippy's eyes widened. "He's a Knight!?"
Kippy's eyes watered up. "Oh, Fleeter! You made it!" He turned to Percival, desperate. "We have to help him! We can't leave him."
"It's out of our hands now, Kippy. He will come back if he fulfilled his mission."
Kippy grew disturbed and shuffled off to a corner where Knifey and Feeder huddled away from the crowds.
"Well, so much for not burdening him," Stompy said.
"This is an awful mess," Ghost said.
There was not one disagreement.
As the humans were packing up animals and preparing to depart for the Old Kingdom, just a few blocks away, they opened the front door.
Light shone in on everyone. All activity froze.
Outside, the house was surrounded by police and black cars. There were white vans and men in yellow suits with red sticks.
"Get Kippy out!" Commanded Percival with a loud voice. "Everyone run for it! To the Old Kingdom! Every rodent for themselves!"
Chaos took hold as mice and rats raced for the exits, only to find them blocked by boards or men with gas.
The Knights completely surrounded Kippy and drew weapons. Kippy's heart tripled its pace. The air became noticeably colder and he had never been so scared. For some reason, fear had his gut in an iron grip. Knifey stood in front of him with his knife, ready to give his life for his friend. Feeder trembled violently and could not take his eyes off the door. All eyes followed his.
Silhouetted in the bright doorway was a terrible shadow. The shade of a man and a mouse. A black mouse with red, burning eyes like hot coals.
"Shiva! Thor!" Screamed Percival, but no answer came. The rat brothers had departed.
"O, Mouse God, help us," Stompy shook and wished for the first time in her life that she had a weapon.
Percival gritted his teeth against his ancient enemy. He banged his green plastic sword against his metal shield in salute and strode forth to his certain doom.
Branch held him back. "Not now. Kippy first!" Branch said. The hate blazed in Percival's eyes. How he wanted to destroy that vile creature with all his heart! He took mental hold on his willpower - all of it - and used the genes provided by his father to think his way out of the trap.
The room's balance suddenly tilted madly, and the temperature rose thirty degrees. All the furred heads in the room turned to see Nemo, frail and shaking, rise up on his hind feet and reach his paws - and his formidable mind - out toward the Dark Mouse. To the rodents, the room became a spectral cascade of colors and lights on Nemo's side, Blood red darkness and terrible lightning-like veins on the side of the Demon. The undead man who bore the Evil Shade halted in mid step, as if frozen. The psychic pressure in the room spun upward rapidly until all ears were splitting, all heads throbbing in pain.
Percival looked desperately at Nemo. The old chinchilla was facing the Shade in a desperate battle of wills, and while he did so, the devil mouse could not advance. Nemo's sick, frail body shook and swayed. He was the only thing holding the demon off of them, and it didn't look like he would last. Percival and Branch exchanged dire expressions.
"His sacrifice must not be in vain!" Branch screamed.
"This way!" Percival shouted, and headed for the back room. The humans were way ahead of him, and when the horde of armored Knights reached the trap door to the basement, Jim was holding it open already.
"On me!" he said.
The mice leapt onto Jim's clothing and long hair. With sixty some rodents clinging to him, he descended into the basement. He looked up at Amanda and Tracy. "Hold them off as long as you can."
Tracy nodded. "You got it."
Below the house in the cellar was an old sewer grate. The house had not been bought by accident. The sewers led right to the Old Kingdom. Jim lifted the hundred pound grate in one swift motion. The rodents OOOed and AAHHHhed, marveling at the human's incredible strength. Stompy was offered a sword by one of the Knights, which she took with shaking hands. Once upon a time, she would have been offended at such a gesture, having made her entire reputation by fighting bare handed, but now things were clearly different. Without hesitation, together the rodents and human vanished down the hole.
"What in the MouseGod's name are we going to tell all those rodents?" Stompy said, huffing and puffing from the escape as she rode in the Kind Human's hand. "We have no answers!"
"I have half an answer," Percival said to them. "And I think I can piece together the rest from what I know of Squibble and my father." He glanced around at his tiny round table. "Do you trust me?"
As one, they all said yes.
He was cut down by the spinning back heel of Tracy's boot. The next agent went down with a fist to his jaw, and the next, before he could reach for his gun, was sent flying out a window.
"No warrant!" Tracy yelled. "Bad!"
In a flurry of blurring moves, she rendered three more grown men helpless with Kung Fu. Then tranquilizer darts hit her in the back and she was headed to the floor, using the last of her energy to avoid any furry bodies. To do it she had to land face first, and so she did.
Everyone else raised their hands in surrender.
Of the Black Mouse there was no sign, but his rotting man-steed lay in the middle of the hall, face down, never to move again. And on the floor in the middle of the living room next to Tracy lay the still, crumpled form of a sapphire chinchilla.
In the Old Kingdom beneath the streets, the great meeting of rodentkind had begun. The grand hall was a monstrous cavern underneath an active hotel basement. It has once been the basement itself, long ago. It had heat, running water, and food aplenty in the kitchen upstairs, where the humans were friendly to rodents. It had not been abandoned when most of its inhabitants went with Spritely to the shelter house to live with the Kind Human. Some mice had stayed behind, to guide future rodents in need of help to the proper places. The Ancient Mouse King, BJ, had made the Old Kingdom into a halfway house for mice and rats that needed help on their way to a better place. Thanks to the humans and the RMC, the animals of the Old Kingdom did not lack for anything.
The main hall, which spanned hundreds of feet between cement foundation pillars, was barely big enough to contain those who answered the grand summons.
The mice came. The rats came. The cats, dogs, birds, lizards, ants and bees came. They came at the summons of Stompy and Squibbette. When they heard that Percival arrived they came to see the son of Spritely, the Lord of the Mouse Knights. The cowardly among them came because they feared what Shiva and Thor might do if they were found absent at the first holy summons ever to be made in the history of the Knightkind. The massive army of rodentkind had come with poor weapons and makeshift armor - the peasants gathered by the lords of the land for a great war. But Percival had other plans.
"We need to band together now more than ever," he addressed the gathered masses. "We are in dire need of help in this crisis, and we can ill afford to be without any part of our strength."
Over four thousand rodents were packed into the main hall of the old place. The king's throne was placed on an old coffee table above the throngs on which stood all the Knights of great importance that had made it out of the RMC house. Percival, Stompy, Squibbette, Branch, and Kippy. Knifey, Feeder, and the rapidly shrinking number of remaining Knights were just below the table on an elevated platform of wood. Bags of cereal "donated" from the kitchen were open in the center of the room and water was set out in bowls in corners that weren't used by litter boxes. One might think of this scene in chaos, and perhaps it would have been but for the presence of such Knights of awesome standing such as Percival and Branch. The crowd was respectful, silent, and hanging on every word of the only Mouse Knight to walk away from the Great War.
"It was inevitable that humans find out we could think like they do," he said. "And equally unavoidable that they would respond like the frightened apes they evolved from. But that is their only crime. When has one of you not bitten the ass of your friend in chase? Or the very hand that feeds you, thinking it was a raisin or the tasty food they ate for supper?" Many mice nodded. "Just as we evolved, led to the realization by my father, the humans are evolving also. We just need to find those humans. Like the very first of us found his dream - the Kind Human." He gestured to Jim, who sat on a dilapidated sofa against the wall, covered in rodents. Jim waved when all eyes turned to him.
OOOOhs and Ahhhs filled the room. Percival spoke eloquently, as he had been taught to do, from the precipice of the table above the masses. Behind him stood Branch. And behind Branch, Stompy and Squibbette cut grand figures against the dark background in their sparkling armor and drawn swords of bright plastic. Everyone was smiling at the charismatic presence of the legendary Knights. It was a magical sight to see.
"If we succeed," said the hero of the Mouse Republic, "they will defend us against their own kind. With ideas from us on how, they will stand. I am confident that there are more kind humans. Look around you. Some of you have kind owners."
Mice began to gossip, telling other mice of their lives, of humans, of their homes. Many of those present were domestic animals, or had been once. There were mixed feelings, but enough mice spoke for the humans. There were good people. The word spread through the cavern. Some people did treat their mice and rats with kindness. Percival's word was true and strong.
"They would do anything for us," Percival said. "We do not understand the extent of their love for us because we think we don't understand humans. But which of you mothers would not die defending your babies?" He paused for effect. All the mice nodded and the rats ground their teeth together in agreement. "We are their babies."
Many animals became watery eyed, thinking of their owners, of the humans who treasured them so.
Percival had made his point. The rodents were ready to trust the humans, but how, they asked. How?
"We go to them," Percival said. Gasps of fear and disbelief rose from the army. "It can be done!" he yelled. They went silent. "You were ready when you came here to try to kill beasts a thousand times your weight and size, though it would be hopeless. All I ask is that you approach them - the right ones - and try to convince them that we need help!"
Again, no one could argue with his logic.
"We have a list," said the Knight Lord. "We need volunteers to go to these places and approach these humans with written notes. Those who succeed will be written into the book of names." His brother Branch hefted the great tome above his head. The fabled book of names. The first name of the first page was Spritely.
Everyone volunteered at once.
When it was all over, only the core group and a few hundred Old Kingdom members remained. Three hundred rodents had been sent out as messengers to the Human Kingdom. Some journeys were far, some near. Some dangerous, some safe. Each were given notes prepared by mice that could write. The rest of the horde had been sent to the places of readiness, to prepare for the worst, and prepare others. Percival had ordered that the Knights wear their armor and weapons only at their own risk - for the humans would be looking for rodents that exhibited intelligence of any sort - and the risk was great. Not a single soldier who bore the grand title of Knight removed anything. They continued to wear the armor which marked their office, and did so with pride. It made Percival smile. So loyal, his people.
"Let's go," Kippy said.
The others looked at him as if he'd spoken Chinese.
"Go where?" Stompy said.
"Back to the lab to rescue the others!" Kippy declared.
There was a pause.
"We are going back!" Kippy said, half question.
"You must not," said an aged voice.
Kippy and the others turned to see the Ancient King BJ had come off his throne and limped down to the table where the inner circle gathered. Surrounding him were twelve huge guards, armored, and armed. The king still looked very fit and strong for his age - over two years.
The Knights all knelt. All the rodents did. Kippy knelt last, not knowing what to do.
"It is a trap now," BJ said. "It is the only place Squibble could be."
Kippy lifted his face. "Then we have to go right now!" he chirped.
Murmurs rose from the crowd, astonished at Kippy's tone to the revered king.
BJ just laughed. "We will go," he said. "But you must receive training. Mouse Fu. Sword fighting, like Perky here."
Only the King dared call Percival that to his face, for Percival was, indeed, the deadliest swordfighter in all the land. He could even out fence the Rat Knights. Percival bowed at the kind compliment from the King.
"Ridiculous!" Kippy stated. The crowd gaped openly at the youth's behavior before Royalty. "I'm going back right now - this very second! I have a human that will help me - those mice need out of that hellish place right now!"
BJ, annoyed at the lack of respect but patient and wise, calmly asked Kippy, "You have human help already?"
Kippy nodded and began to look desperate to be gone. The King took his time and said something to his guards, who went down from the table and over to the Kind Human on the couch, carrying a piece of paper and a short, thin pencil. The human read the note they scrawled, nodded, and went upstairs. Nobody did anything for a minute.
Kippy looked around to all the Knights, stupefied. "What is this poo! I'm going!"
BJ's own guards rattled their tails. BJ shook his head and scorned Kippy. "Patience, young mouse."
Kippy was about to tell the King where he could stuff his patience when the human returned with a remote phone.
Kippy looked at the King, then back to Percival.
"The number for the lab is 878-3121," Percival told Kippy.
Percival and Branch showed Kippy how the phone works, and he dialed at once.
Silence fell on the room. On the other end, a voice said, "Hello - Warcom Lab."
Kippy said in English, "Steve Stafford, please."
The other voice was silent a moment, then "Uh, yeah. Okay. One minute."
It was two minutes. All the rodents that could crowd around the phone were listening. A high-pitched, sinister voice came on the other line.
"I'm sorry, Steve is being held up at the moment. May I ask who's calling?"
"I'll wait for him - it's important," said Kippy.
"My what a tiny, squeaky little voice you have," said the other. Kippy's hackles rose and he shivered. "This wouldn't be Kippy would it?"
Kippy looked in panic at Branch. Branch gestured for him to continue.
"Well, yes, it is," Kippy said.
The other laughed. It sounded like a cheese grater on bone. "Well, that's just amazing. Why don't you come back and we'll have a nice chat?"
"What happened to Steve!" Kippy demanded.
"More importantly you might ask what happened to one of your precious Knights," the voice said. "A very old mouse, beige hair, wearing a lobster shell?"
Kippy squeaked in Mouse, "He's got Squibble!" The room exploded into rodent whispers and tails rattling.
"We need him," Kippy said to Warcom. Branch put his face into his hands.
"Tactics!" Percival hissed at Kippy. Kippy looked at Percival with wide eyes and nodded. He mouthed "Sorry" in Mouse.
"I know you do," the voice said. "But he's not in very good shape. We can turn him over to you if you come get him."
"What do you think I'm stupid?" Kippy said into the phone. "I may be a field mouse but I'm pretty sharp for my age. This is Warcom isn't it?"
"What tipped you off?" Warcom said.
"The cruelty in your tone," Kippy said. "Steve isn't held up - you did something to him, you pathetic excuse for a human. Afraid of mice!"
Warcom grew angry. He yelled into the phone so loud that everyone in the room could hear him. "Steve is done and so is your entire race, you little pest! Get used to slavery!" Then he hung up.
Kippy's face became a mask of sheer panic. He kicked the phone at BJ. "See! We have to go! We're going! NOW!"
BJ became angry - a thing that usually did not happen quickly.
"See here, young upstart," he said. "You are hailed by Branch and Nemo to be very important, but you will obey!" He smacked his own sword down on the floor. "That is a trap. We will not throw our numbers away like worthless seeds. We cannot win that battle - not with all our troops!"
Mouths hung open. Every eye was round.
BJ threw his sword aside and said, "That's it, you little twerp! You wouldn't know tactics if they bit you in the ass - and now they will!"
BJ lunged for Kippy. His guards and everyone else bolted out of the way.
Now BJ was known in the old Kingdom as the Ancient Battle Mouse. He himself had trained well over ten thousand soldiers. So great was his reputation that none even considered challenging him. He had defeated well over two hundred mice, and even some rats, in his time as a warrior. He had fought over a hundred battles. He had trained the soldiers of the Great War. He was brother to Spritely himself and had received every medal or award a mouse could get - many several times over. He had never been beaten. Not once. So when the mighty Battle Mouse went for Kippy, even Stompy and Squibbette beat feet to get out of the way with all haste.
BJ went for Kippy's neck to subdue him, but Kippy flickered and wasn't there. BJ hadn't slowed with age - the young mouse was simply too fast. BJ stopped, blinking. He had never seen such speed. It made him even more angry.
"You challenge me!?" he roared at Kippy, who stood ready to fight a foot away. Both tails beat in the floor like drums.
"I do!" Kippy declared. The room went wild as mice dashed to get away from the fight. The royal guards surrounded the pair of combatants. Percival and the others who knew Kippy surrounded the guards, unsure of what to do.
BJ flashed and drove at Kippy with his tight body, trying to bowl him over. Kippy dodged at the last moment, spun upside down, and bit deep into the inside of the King's rear leg. The King went down in one blow, crippled with a broken leg, bleeding badly.
The guards, stunned, took a moment to react. Then they all rushed Kippy, weapons drawn. Percival raised his sword and prepared to rush the group to save Kippy, but Branch held him back and smiled, nodding in Kippy's direction.
Kippy danced aside and slapped the weapon from a guard's hand contemptuously, as if insulted by the very notion that he might be touched by it. Every royal guardsman there outweighed Kippy by at least 30 grams - the weight of an entire mouse. They fell upon him all at once, and withheld no fury. Kippy blurred and spun, twisted and bit - the entire scene became one huge, rolling ball of fur. The noise of weapons, cracking armor, and squeaking mice filled the chamber. Jim moved to intervene with his giant hands. Again, Branch intervened, both hands raised up in a command to let the fight be.
In moments, Kippy had laid to waste every one of the King's guards. They lay on the ground, strewn about, defeated and demoralized. In a rage Kippy snapped a plastic sword over his knee and threw it to the ground.
"What happened to all of you!" he yelled in anger. "Once you would have thrown yourselves at any danger to do the right thing!" And with that he darted out the door. Knifey and Feeder followed as quickly as they could.
A few minutes passed before anyone moved.
"So much for Mouse Fu," said Stompy in awe.
"He sounded just like my father," Percival said.
Stompy helped the old Battle Mouse to his feet. He could put no weight on his broken leg. The tension in the room was thick.
"Shortest lesson in history," BJ said.
"What do we do, Majesty?" Stompy said to BJ.
"Don't ask me," BJ said laughing. "I'm not King any longer!"
Stompy sucked in her breath. By the law of chivalry Kippy had beaten the King in fair combat. It took a minute for the room to grasp it, so Percival helped.
"King Kippy," said Percival.
The room all stared at him in bewilderment.
"It took a peasant mouse to remind us of who we are," Percival said. "He is right. We have lost faith in our divine calling."
"If we go back there, it's certain doom," Stompy said. "No matter how many of us go."
"They said the same thing of my father's quest," Percival said. Stompy frowned and thought about it. All the rodents did.
"That mouse is Important," Branch said to the crowd. "They'll want him for sure. You can't let him go alone."
"He is our ace," Squibbette said. "Squibble knew it. We need him. Without him this war will happen, and we will lose."
"We have no chance of winning," one Knight said.
"It would be cowardice not to try," said Percival. "We must follow our King."