Shiva and Thor
Pet stores had a notoriously bad reputation among the rodent community. Mice, rats, and other small furry animals were routinely ignored, abused, or caused some form of damage by employees that were too young, too stupid, or too uncaring to do things right. They sold for 99 cents and not much more, while 99 percent of the time they were destined as snake food. The cages were cramped, unclean, and almost every day at least one point the food and water ran out. This wasn't just one pet store, mind you. This was the majority. There are rare gems of stores where the helpless rodents are treated to clean cages, space, or toys, but it was a rare thing. When one came across a place that treated their snake food with any measure of kindness, it was often because the animal rights people had painted their store windows or the Humane Society had come down on them for complaints. Sometimes they were sued, but their lawyers were demons from hell, and no one had the money to compete legally with the big corporate stores anyway, much less for a few rodents. (Few hundred thousand that is.) Yes, by and large, the pet stores sold unhappy, sick animals that were doomed to a death of terror and pain. If one were to complain (and it often happened), the manager would spout all kinds of lip service, practiced and polished, to get you off his back and out of the store without another annoying lawsuit. If he felt particularly disgruntled that day, he would simply tell you to buy something or leave. This wasn't just one store - this was a pattern. No one gave a care about rodents. The huge, loud, biting bird in the corner, unfriendly to all, got top attention because it sold for a thousand dollars. An entire cage full of mice might be allowed to die in a horrible manner if the weather turned hot simply because an employee couldn't be bothered enough to move them to a cooler spot (say, out of the direct sunlight in the front display window), and no one was paying attention anyway.
Sound harsh? Go visit the local pet store. There are plenty of places that don't partake in this atrocity of animal abuse, but there are plenty of places that do.
One of the places that did existed on the corner of Mandate and Order streets, downtown. The Manager was named Spike McOrley, and he was not ignorant, or stupid. He did not give one rat's ass, literally, about his rodents, much less whether they were happy or sad, as a customer was claiming they might be. He forcibly moved the lard encased housing of his black soul to follow the disturbed customer who had seen these "sad" rats in the restroom.
They were not only sad, they were dead. They had been placed in the bathroom and forgotten when someone came to clean it with vicious liquids. The rats had all been poisoned to death by sheer ignorance.
McOrley didn't care. "We'll order more," he said, and turned a blind eye to the mess someone else would clean up. "That's the fifth time this month."
However, the customer was appalled at this act of callous indifference, and she knew people. She knew someone who knew the owner of Loved Pets down on 5th street. And they cared a great deal about rodents there. So word traveled, and the name of McOrley got to the owner of Loved Pets, who was a lovely woman by the name of Johnson. Miss Johnson then picked up the phone and called a number she disliked to use.
Word got to another, and others...and then finally, to certain terrible agents of justice.
"Do you have the brain?"
"Check. Check the blood too."
"Let's trash the place."
"After you, good Sir."
McOrley came home and the lights didn't work.
He leaned back to peer at the neighbors. Their lights were fine. The other side neighbors also. Odd. He shrugged. Probably a breaker, he thought. He put his briefcase down behind him and went for the kitchen, where he hoped the lights might work.
And tripped over something heavy in the middle of the hall. His face came down in a clumsy, bent fall that smashed his nose against the tile floor. He gasped and sat up. He thought it might be broken. Groping for light, feeling the oozing blood dripping down his face and hands, he searched for anything that might light the damn house.
Why was there blood on his hands? He hadn't touched his face!
McOrley was a practical man, and not lent often to panic. He forced reason and rational to serve him, and calmly rose to his feet and went the twelve steps to the kitchen and flipped the light switch.
Instead of light, the living room burst into flame.
His head turned of its own accord, and without wanting to, saw the nightmare lying in the center of his hall.
His dog was still and bloody on the carpet. His cat was hanging upside down from the chandelier. Blood was everywhere. The walls were torn apart, the furniture was gnawed to pieces and the TV was smashed in. Every picture had been tossed off the bookshelves and every book torn. Random kitchen items were imbedded into the walls and doors of the house and every liquid the refrigerator once held had been strewn about. And now the living room was on fire.
There, in the center of the yellow flames, were two huge rats. One was gnawing on a bloody brain (looked about the size of the dog's) and both were wearing red suits of armor with horns in place of their ears. They held weapons that looked like long spears and they were foaming at the mouth. Behind them on the large open wall of the living room, written sloppily in a reddish brown thick goop, was a single giant word: Vengeence!
Reason and Rationale quit on McOrley without notice, and fled out his open mouth. He tried to scream. He really wanted to scream, but he couldn't manage more than to wet his pants. He shook all over. He now wanted to run. One of the rats pushed the brain aside, never taking its eyes off him - as if it had seen a better meal for certain. The foul demon creatures hopped, twisted and wrongly convulsed their way toward him, hissing and spitting like the infected vermin they were. One bite and he would be put down! He saw it: The Doctor... "I'm sorry, Mr. McOrley. There is no cure. We're going to have to put you to sleep. Now, you'll just feel a little pinprick here..."
He found his voice and his legs all at once. He uttered a primal, echoing scream of pure terror, turned for the door, and tripped over the dog again. Face first into the doorstop he went, and knocked himself out cold. His last thought was that something had grabbed his leg. The monsters had him.
"Oh, I hate it when they do that!" said Shiva.
"He's too big for us to drag," said Thor. "Hey Rover - get up."
The dog got up in obedience to the infamous Rat Knight. "Uhhhh... my name's not Rover, actually..." it began.
"You're name is whatever I say it is, Ketchup for Brains" snapped Thor. "Drag his worthless carcass out of this burning house and get yourself scarce."
"Yessir," obeyed Rover. He did as he was told at once.
"And come down from there, stupid! Your job's done."
The cat disentangled itself from the chandelier and took off running without a word.
"Heh heh heh. I love it when a plan comes together," said Shiva. He gave his brother Thor a high four and they left the house to the flames.
Shiva and Thor were not just Rat Knights. They were the first Rat Knights. Their late father, Michael Mousefriend, had been a rat of legendary reputation. The twins had grown up feared and respected from day one. They trained every waking moment, much like another mouse we know, to be the mightiest they could be. The stories said that at the age of four weeks they trashed their first cat. Two weeks later their first dog. They learned to read at seven weeks, and then it was all over for the enemy. They had superior technology, tactics, and planning. They had every natural enemy of rodentkind fleeing before them by the time they were weaned off their mother's milk. So they needed a new challenge.
They became human hunters.
They took contracts, and they weren't cheap. For a price, you could have any cruel, callous, or just plain stupid human suffer the wrath of the dark angels. When it became clear to the animal world that the twins were actually succeeding in their new profession, their names skyrocketed past their father's reputation and took orbit. Nothing challenged them. They had taken out hawks, dogs, cats, snakes, and people. Nothing that moved on legs, wings or belly would cross their path. And, perhaps the best part was that they loved it. They were the gunslingers no one would dare to draw a gun on. They were the swordfighters no samurai would fight. Behind their backs they were called Death and Destruction. They loved that too. It made them snicker in evil delight.
They came home to their ratcave and checked the internet. There was an e-mail from the RMC. It was marked urgent.
They both skipped the evening meal (the brain from the grocery store hadn't tasted very good - it had been for effect, like the fake blood and all). Eyes riveted to the screen, they read their mail.
Dear Shiva and Thor,
Stompy and Squibbette have called a gathering of all Knightkind. Shelter house raided. Animals taken by the government to lab. Squibble missing. White mouse he was seeking taken with the others. The Shade seen. Help. Meet at the RMC house in town ASAP.
"Holy incisors, Thor! A crusade!" said Shiva, his head perking up and his ears against the back of his sleek, golden head.
"A cause for which we must answer!" said Thor, striking a heroic pose.
They busted up laughing. Then quickly fell serious.
Thor nodded. They growled at the air.
"Better pack heavy."
"Real heavy. He's not getting away this time."
They avengers of rodentkind ate a leisurely dinner of fried chicken and Chinese (you figure out that part) and donned their heavy armor. They picked up their metal twin pronged spears (actually corn on the cob holders, but they did the job). Shiva sheathed his twin scimitars and Thor tied his war hammer to his belt. They put on their horned helmets, their heavy boots, their bags of tricks went over their backs. They fastened their cloaks on last, which bore their crest: A giant rat fist crushing the world.
They exited the ratcave and made their way to the bus stop, where they had told the driver (not in so many words) to wait for them every evening for at least five minutes, whether they showed up or not. They seldom did. But he was there anyway. What a good human, they decided.
They might even give him a treat.
Two hours later they were at the base of operations for the Rat and Mouse Club. There were hundreds of rodents, but only two Mouse Knights. The Rat Knights entered proudly, chests puffed out, weapons over their dangerously wide shoulders. They smiled. They smirked. They were here. Everyone could relax.
Next to Stompy and Squibbette was an old, tan mouse. He wore robes and carried a book under one arm. Behind his ear was a tiny feather he used as a pen. The rats paused and looked about. Sure enough, sitting on the lap of one of the three humans in the room was a thin, worn-looking chinchilla with a sapphire coat.
The rats lost all composure and bent down to one knee each. Their chins dropped to their chests. In reverence, they saluted with one hand forward and open, the sign of submission and greeting among the Knights.
"Nice to know you still have some humility," said Nemo. "Well met, boys."
"Hail to you, ancient sage. We did not expect you." Thor said, looking up. After a quick glance at his brother, Shiva raised his eyes also. But that was all.
"I foresaw this event," said Nemo, his voice shaking with fatigue. "As my two apprentices did also."
"Squibble is not to be found?" Shiva asked.
The rats glared at the old mouse. Branch was the son of Spritely and Tree, the most revered rodents of them all. But he was a wizard. The brothers didn't like what they couldn't understand. "How's it going, sorcerer?" Thor asked.
"Isn't that obvious, Bull-in-China-Shop?" Branch answered with a Chinese accent. "Poorly."
Thor was about to reply with wit when Shiva stepped on his foot. That mouse was powerful, the blow said. He's really been to China. Hold your tongue.
Branch narrowed his eyes at the brothers. If he had been human, he would be Caucasian. He went to China in his youth on an airplane at the suggestion of his master Nemo, thinking they would surely turn him away. But the Chinese mice let him into their temple in Tibet when they heard how far he'd come. He was the first mouse to decipher the I Ching and bring it back to the mice in America. He had spent two years there in Tibet - his entire lifetime - deciphering scrolls, learning ancient magicks, and practicing Zen wisdom. It was his magic, cast all the way across the globe, that tilted the great war in favor of the army of light. Magic no one said was possible in the modern age. All of this he had brought back. He was a living legend as much as any Mouse Knight, though he did not bear the title.
Furthermore, He and Nemo were just about the only things on the face of the earth Shiva and Thor feared. They... knew things. And the brothers knew that the sages didn't approve of their self-proclaimed holy war on humanity. Still, the Rat Knights made no pretensions. They would not stop for anyone, even the prophets.
"Why were we summoned?" Shiva asked Stompy.
Now Stompy liked the brothers. They were of like mind. She shuffled up to them and patted them on the backs of their thick metal hides. "Nice ta see ya too, men. Nice ta have ya on the team! Gotta have the big guns, ya know."
Shiva was instantly suspicious. "What's going on," he demanded, peering sideways at Stompy.
Stompy got serious. "Didn't the letter explain it?"
She eased closer and peered back, unintimidated. She grinned. "All our people have been taken to a lab. The Kind Human is in jail. The humans are onto us. The Shade was seen at the site of the raid."
"So it's Armageddon," Thor said, delighted.
"We must kill them all," Shiva said flatly.
"Now just a cottin-pickin minute!" Squibbette interjected. "No one is going to kill them all. Squibble would be ashamed!"
The Rat Knights stiffened. They sat up. Squibble had been their godfather. He had raised them. Taught them to fight. They had been on more missions and adventures with Squibble than with anyone. They each had a deep built-in trust of that elderly Knight. And Squibbette, Squibble's daughter, knew it.
"What would Squibble have done?" asked Thor, challenging the skinny mouse.
Squibbette lifted her chin. "He was already doing something," She stated. "He has been working on the problem of human discovery and lab research on rodents for the last year and a half of his life!"
Shiva leaned in to Thor. "We knew he was working on something," he whispered.
"That's because it requires tact," said Branch. "Something you Klingons lack most of the time."
Shiva growled. Thor shot back, "We have so many tactics, mouse. You've never seen a rat with half as many tactics as we have!" Shiva shook his head and shoved Thor aside.
"I don't know this illiterate moron," Shiva claimed.
Branch smirked. "Squibble had had many of us working on parts of this grand plan, gentlemen," he said. "For a long time. What do you think the tithes are for?"
"Ours or the others?" Thor asked, squinting suspiciously again.
"All of them," Branch said. "World wide."
"Well ours is too much, wizard. Sixty percent is a darn hard tax," Thor said.
"It's not tax," said Branch. "And the causes it goes to are well worth it. What do rodents need with money?"
"We get people to buy us things," Thor said.
"Dangerous, pointy things mostly," said Shiva.
"Well, the tithes are for more important things than that," Branch said.
"What exactly does it go for?" asked Shiva. "That's a big mystery to everyone who pays it around here."
"Squibble could answer that for you," Branch said. "IF you trust him, that is, because I don't know."
The Rat Knights shut up. Stupid wizards. Always knew what to say. So darn smart. Shiva and Thor were exceptionally smart rats, but in the prescience of genius like Nemo and Branch, they seemed simple. Neither of them liked it.
"Fine, but The Shade dies - on sight - no ands, ifs, ors, or maybes!" Shiva exclaimed. Thor crossed his arms in agreement.
"Absolutely," said the peace-loving Branch. "No question."
All the Knights nodded their agreement. The Shade was far too dangerous to tolerate. Memories came back to some, and faces took on frowns.
There was a long pause. Changing the subject, Thor whispered to Stompy, "How's the old chinchilla doin?"
Stompy whispered back, "He's still sick. Nothing seems to be working. And he can hear you, you know."
Thor snapped a glance up at the anemic chinchilla with his huge, radar-dish ears that were aimed at him, despite a small droop in their shape. Nemo smiled kindly. Thor lowered his eyes and head.
"The note mentioned a great summoning of rodentkind," Thor said.
"The note was correct," Nemo said. "Stompy and Squibbette have begun the great summoning. It will take many days for the animals to gather in the Kingdom below the city. We must be patient."
"Where is Perky?" Thor said. "Has he returned?"
"He has not," Nemo said. "Ever the vigilant Knight." His entire life he gave to his quest. But if the shade is here, he cannot be far behind."
"What's the plan then?" Shiva said. "We haven't got all day. We have places to wreck and rodents to avenge."
Branch motioned to the humans and they produced a map of the city. Everyone hopped onto it.
"This is where the lab is," Branch said. "The mouse we need to rescue is named Kippy. We learned this from the field mice. They raised him, and apparently he's already something of a legend in the field."
Shiva and Thor shook their heads.
"Nah," Shiva said. "Suicide. Rats and Mice breaking into a top security facility run by the government to contain rodents. We're invincible, but not stupid. Not happening."
"Haven't you broken out of one before?" Stompy said.
"Yeah," said Thor, "Which is why we know busting into one is stupid!"
"Kippy is Spritely reborn," said Branch.
The Rat Knights and the Mouse Knights both turned to Branch with looks of frowning astonishment on their faces. A long moment passed.
"Say what, mouse!" Shiva exclaimed.
"Word!" Thor exclaimed. "You're giving us voodoo droppings? Can't you come up with a real excuse for us to kill ourselves?"
"Sentence!" Branch said, actually raising his voice a bit. The Knights drew back and put their paws on their chests in submission. They had never seen Branch upset, even mildly, about anything. Branch flung a paw about the air. "Paragraph! Essay! Term paper! Entire darn novel!" The rats and mice all looked at him in horror. Then Thor recovered.
"You know, that's not bad slang, dude. Maybe there's hope for you yet."
"He is Spritely reborn," Branch insisted.
"Oh, well!" Shiva rolled his eyes. "Why doesn't he just get himself out of there on his own then... and bust the place up while he's at it?"
"Because he doesn't know who he is," Branch said softly. "That's how lifetimes work. We're not supposed to remember others while we're here - it would miss the point."
"Okay, Kaichwang," said Thor.
Branch sighed. "Fine. No voodoo. Squibble has foreseen that Kippy is going to do something for all rodentkind that is on parallel with what Spritely himself did." Pause for effect. The Knights were listening. "But Nemo has felt the spirit of my father come back to earth. We cannot afford to be without him. Especially now."
The rats thought it over. They looked at Stompy, who nodded. Squibbette nodded. They nodded at each other.
"Right. Okay, we're in. We trust your vision of doom or whatever it is."
"Its called prescience," Branch said. "Nemo and Squibble have it. I don't. I just turn people into frogs." He squinted at them for effect. Bull's-eye again.
"Hey man, we're in, okay?"
"What do you want us to do?"
"Bust in and rescue Kippy."
"You gonna bust us in there with your magic?" Shiva asked.
"Sort of," Branch said, confident. "Squibble left us this note." He produced a piece of canvas robe, about an inch square, and threw it down among them. It said ncc1701.
"More voodoo!" shouted Thor.
"No," Branch said. "It's the code to get into the lab. Squibble knew."
"How do we get out of the lab?" Shiva asked.
"That might have to be voodoo."
The rats turned their head aside in disgust.
"Sheeesh! No escape route at all? Bogus!"
Even Stompy looked worried.
"No choice. Kippy has already been there for weeks," said Branch.
"So?" Asked Thor.
"They are testing a drug on rodents they think are Mouse Knights," explained Branch. "It's a dangerous mutagen."
"Great," Squibbette said. "Mutant mice."
"It can do a lot of things," Branch continued, "most of them bad. The most likely effect is death. After that, brain damage and nerve dysfunction. But the most terrible thing is that the humans don't really know how it works at all. They're trying to prove that mice have super intelligence and can read. If they do that, we're all finished. Every last one of us. Do you think they're more likely to ask us to help them solve their problems, or kill us out of fear and envy?"
The rats were silent. They hated the very idea of scientific research on their kind. They felt the humans should use their own children for a while instead of the small furry ones they stole. They looked at each other with that silent telepathy again. This was a holy quest after all. They had always wanted to do this. No one had ever had the guts. It really was the ultimate mission, combined with the chance for revenge against an ancient enemy.
"We are so in," said Thor. Shiva nodded his head. Squibbette and Stompy put their hands into the center of the circle. The giant gauntlets of the Rat Knights came down on the paw circle in the ancient tradition of brothers (and sisters) in arms. They would fight as one.
Then donut-shaped oat cereal rained down among them.
"YES!" shouted Shiva.
They sat right down, all of them, even Branch, and began munching their hearts out.
Kristin, Mary and Tracy looked down at their little friends with amusement. Their hands were full of cereal.
"What do you suppose they were talking about?" Kristin asked her fellow club members.
"I have no clue," Mary said. "But they sure love Cheerios."