The Kind Human's name was James. Being in jail had thoroughly frustrated Jim out of his head. It was federal jail, no less, where they made the pretense of giving you more rights than the hardened criminal type jail. Still, he knew that no one but a bunch of really smart mice and rats knew he was here, and they didn't even know what a jail was for the most part. He had let them come and go at will. The government had his friends, and were doubtless abusing them and maybe even killing them. His home had been destroyed, his freedom taken without good reason (there was no law against what he did for the critters), and he was fairly certain that the men in black would come any minute to "dispose of lose ends." He was furious. He would have done anything to protect his babies. Now he was powerless.
Just a human in a cage.
After banging his head against the wall (literally) and biting the bars (he had seen mice do it, it seemed as good as any other idea he'd thought of, but he cracked two teeth) he gave up and slumped into depression. He wouldn't answer questions about his animals when asked. He hadn't been offered a phone call. He hadn't seen the outside of the metal building he was trapped in yet. He was doomed. He was sure of it.
One day (or night, he wasn't sure which) a man and woman came in to see him. They both wore spotless black suits and had the aura of authority about them. They stopped just inside the door and motioned him to follow them outside.
Jim looked up at them and laughed. "I knew it. The X-Files."
They yanked him to his feet with the help of two guards and brought him down a long hall and two stairways to an empty white room with a table and chairs. They sat him down.
"Where am I?" Jim asked.
"You're still in the city," the woman said.
"We're going to give you an incentive to talk, Mr. Fitzgerald," the man said.
"Give me back my house and my pets?" asked Jim sarcastically.
"No, but it does involve your freedom."
"Anything's better than staring at the wall."
Jim eyed them suspiciously.
"You had plenty of them at your house," the man said. "All kinds of books."
"I like to read," Jim said.
"Books on science, astronomy, chemistry, feudal warfare, modern warfare, advanced mathematics, engineering, computer science."
"Reading, writing, and English, too. Did you miss the little ones - The Mouse and the Motorcycle? Best of the lot." Jim said.
The man pursed his lips. "What were you teaching those mice?" he asked.
"What mice?" Jim asked, wide eyed.
"The seven hundred or so we found at your house," the man said.
"Hmmm. Must have been an infestation," Jim said.
"If you're difficult about this," said the woman, "we can be difficult as well."
A moment of silence followed. Jim said, "What did you do with them?"
"We're studying how it is they can read," said the woman.
"Because they're smart," yelled Jim. "Smarter than you. Whoever is 'studying' them is going to cut them up and kill them to find out how they tick! You're killing my pets!" The agents looked at each other with blank faces. Jim continued in a rage, "You had no right to come into my house - you had no right to take those animals! They have sentient thought, you jerks! That means they have rights - like you or I - you can't just experiment on them - what is this - Nazi Germany?!" He slumped back in his chair, out of breath, glaring at the two with hatred.
"I assure you they are perfectly fine," the man said. "No one is going to hurt them."
"Oh, that is so much bull!" Jim said.
The woman put a piece of paper on the table. Jim read it - it was a government contract.
"They aren't allowed to hurt them, Mr. Fitzgerald," she said. "But as far as rights go, they haven't any. They're animals. There are very few laws protecting them."
"They're sentient, thinking beings," insisted Jim, speaking slowly as if to children. "They can suffer, and they are suffering, I assure you! I feel it. You know, I trust you - and whatever group you hired to experiment on my babies - about as far as I can throw crap in a phone booth!"
"So you won't tell us how you taught them to read and write?" the man said.
"I didn't teach them anything," Jim said. "They taught each other. I only went out and bought them the books, got them set up on the internet. Gave them a warm, safe place to live - until you came along."
The man clearly didn't believe Jim.
"You know, the subjects of the books you had in your house could mark you as a terrorist," the man suggested.
"Oh, okay," said Jim. "A bunch of mice and rats are going to destroy the world - go tell that to your superiors, McCarthy."
Then the door opened. A tall, gaunt man entered. There was a large, jet black mouse with evil eyes on his shoulder. It stared right at Jim. He felt goose bumps cover his flesh.
"What's with the spook?" Jim asked.
"What spook?" the woman answered.
"This vampire here," Jim gestured. "He was at the house too. Him and that creepy mouse."
The man and woman looked at each other.
"I think you have mice on the brain, Fitzgerald," said the man. "There's no one working for the FBI with a mouse. And we are alone in this room."
Cold ice crept up his spine as Jim turned to look at the tall man and the black mouse. The pale man in the jet black suit was almost smiling, but his flesh wouldn't stretch that far. Jim felt his jaw clench.
Jim cocked an eyebrow as the mouse squeaked. A wretched, ugly sound compared to the mice he had heard. There was something very frightening about that animal. The tall man turned back to the room, a blank expression on his face, as if he were dead. He gestured across his neck.
"You had your chance at being cooperative," the male agent said to Jim.
"Go to hell," said Jim.
"You first," said the man, and he smiled for the first time. The smile was one of great satisfaction.
They threw the Kind Human into the pit. It made his previous cell seem like a lost paradise. There was no toilet, no sink. Just floor and a bad smell. And Cockroaches. Lots of them. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he would eventually have to eat them, and he had always wanted to avoid eating bugs.
But then he got a better idea.
At the house of the Rat and Mouse Club, Percival had arrived with Fleeter. They and the others there greeted each other with grooming and licks, then got down to business. The humans sat down to watch with reverent fascination. Stompy and Squibbette nodded to the field mouse they had met once before. Fleeter was feeling far more friendly than last time, and smiled at them.
"One human and one mouse desperately need our help," Stompy said.
"We cannot abandon the Kind Human," said Squibbette. "He needs us now, after dedicating his life to our cause."
Branch said, "We are ready to break Kippy out of the lab. The team is set. It will be the Rat Knights and Stompy."
"I'm going after Kippy!" shouted Fleeter immediately.
Percival looked at the field mouse. The only one of his kind at the entire meeting.
"Even your great speed would not save you in that place, Fleeter," said Percival. "You are not a trained Knight. You do not know the ways of humans. You've never even seen a mouse trap. You don't know what mouse poison smells like. That place is designed by humans to keep mice in. You would be a liability. I'm sorry."
"No way are you stopping me from going after my brother," Fleeter said. "He's going to need me."
"Squibble foresaw all of this," Percival said. "And he has a grand plan, which involves Kippy. I have only been told a small part of it. Kippy will be okay. You would not serve him or yourself by going and getting caught or killed."
"Squibble said we could try out for Knighthood," said Fleeter, trying hard not to get mad. "And afterward, if we made it, we might go back to the field. Kippy would claim his reward, and we could represent the field mice as Knights. That's what's going to happen. I'm going to rescue him. If you don't want to make us Knights, fine, but I am going after him."
"Slow down, Fleeter," said Squibbette. "You and Kippy would make fine Knights. But there's training involved. It is only given to the just and the deserving. Squibble was my father. He must have known you would make Knighthood if he named you. And what reward did he promise Kippy?"
"A walking stick," Fleeter said, tired of talking.
The remaining rodents in the room went quiet, even Shiva and Thor. Branch approached Fleeter, who decided he'd maybe said something wrong.
"A walking stick?" asked Branch.
"Yeah - a heavy thing wrapped in cloth. He used it to help him walk. He wasn't a spring mouse, you know. It's not a big deal, but to our tribe it will symbolize..."
"The Sword of Spritely!" Stompy interrupted.
"About this high? And wider near the top?" Branch asked Fleeter, holding a hand up to his chest.
Fleeter nodded. The rodents became more agitated. Fleeter was worried. Nemo made a noise from his massive cage which occupied most of the north wall.
Branch and Percival helped the ill Nemo into the hands of a human who placed the crippled chinchilla in the midst of the group. He stood before Fleeter.
"Once Spritely passed away after the Great War," Nemo said to all in attendance, "he left a metal sword to his squire Squibble. He left a letter that told Squibble the sword was magical - forged by supernatural means. He had been given it at the lake in the field where his friend Michael fell. He said it was very powerful. Squibble did indeed use it in battle, and although it performed flawlessly, he claimed it was too powerful for him to wield as it was meant to be. Percival and others tried to use it, but its true power eluded them as well. So Squibble saved it, hiding it from that day forth, and no one knew where it was. It might be what he was planning to give to Kippy. But it can only be properly used by one pure of heart."
Fleeter was speechless.
"It's an artifact," said Shiva, sounding reverent. "All the other weapons we use are mostly plastic. Enough against animals and other small creatures. Some of us have found metal weapons from toys or other human made things, and even some armor we have is metal now. But there is no comparison. That sword was not made by humans. It was not made at all. It simply has always been. In this age, the Mouse God decided that a mouse would carry it. Once, long ago, it was the humans. This time it's mice. It could change everything. It would give us a chance against The Shade."
"What is this Shade I keep hearing everyone whisper about?" Fleeter asked. "It seems that everyone fears it."
"With good reason," Branch said. "It is said by some that it is the only mouse to betray its own kind. Some say it went to the humans and convinced them that a book written as fiction actually had truth to it. Perhaps it was the Black Mouse that brought the humans down upon us, but the rumors are wrong about one thing. It is no mouse."
Shiva and Thor shuddered in unison.
Fleeter's face was drawn tight in horror.
"It's a demon," Percival continued. "From the Pit of Hell and no less."
"Yeah... right..." said Fleeter in denial. But the group had gone still. Dead serious.
"It is a thing of the damned," Stompy said with a grim set on her face. "It had killed more Mouse Knights than you could shake a stick at. It caused the Great war."
"It was also the only evil thing to escape the Great War," Percival said. "I pursued it to the ends of the earth, but it vanished, into nowhere. I was forced to stop searching. While it lives, there is no end to its evil. It must perish."
Squibbette nodded. "It has powers," she said. "Like a few of us do, but greater than any of us except Nemo. It was The Shade that dealt the mortal blow to Spritely himself - from behind."
Fleeter gasped. "The coward!"
Percival nodded. "It would not face the blessed blade he held. Had it not been for that dark creature, my father might live today." He lowered his head. "And I failed to avenge him."
Shiva and Thor, in a rare gesture of compassion, put their arms around the Knight Lord.
"Hey, he slipped out of our grasp as well," Thor said.
"He is behind all of this," said Shiva. "He must be destroyed."
Everyone nodded. "We must have that sword," said Percival. "We were so close. If only you'd said something earlier."
"I had no idea," Fleeter said.
"Exactly what Squibble had in mind," said Branch. "And now no one knows where he is. We cannot ask him what he meant to happen. He may have gone after The Shade. I hope not, for if he did, he is no match for it."
"You must go back and fetch the sword for your brother," Percival told Fleeter. "I am sure of it."
Fleeter, suspecting a sneaky way of re-routing him from saving his brother, rattled his tail.
"Nothing can stand before that weapon," Squibbette claimed. "We need it. And Kippy might be the only one who can wield it. If my father thought he could, he might be the one."
Fleeter looked around at everyone staring back at him. They all expected it of him.
"It's what a Knight would do," Percival told him. "No one knows the way but you. Your chief will give it to no one but you."
Fleeter hung his head down. "All right, I will go. But I will be too late to save Kippy - the journey is too long. It will take me most of my life!"
The rodents laughed.
"That's what humans are for," Percival said. "Remember how we got here?"
"You will be back by tomorrow."
"Can you remember the way?" Squibbette asked the field mouse.
"From the house I can," Fleeter said.
"You must go at once," Percival said. "Bring the sword back to this place. It is your holy quest."
"Only Knights can take Holy Quests," Fleeter said.
"Fleeter," said Percival, "What's good enough for Sir Squibble is good enough for me." He glanced around at the group of Knights. They nodded in agreement. Percival strode across the circle of rodents and stood before Fleeter. All the Mouse Knights now surrounded the field mouse. They all drew their weapons, as if of a single mind, and knowing what was coming. Percival drew his last. He stood an inch away from Fleeter.
"Kneel, Fleeter," he said.
Fleeter obeyed at once.
Percival's sword touched him on the shoulder, and went from shoulder to shoulder three times as he spoke.
"Fleeter, in the name of Spritely, Michael, and BigFat, I make you a Knight." The group saluted with their blades. "Rise, Sir Fleeter, and recover the Holy Sword."
Fleeter swallowed and nodded again, his eyes bugged out and his mouth hanging open. He was a Mouse Knight!
"We'll worry about the training later," Percival said, smiling. Everyone applauded, including the humans, who had never been witness to the sacred ceremony before now. Fleeter was patted on the back by all, and shook hands. He felt lightheaded.
They wrote a note to the humans and Amanda agreed she would take him on his important mission. That very hour he was in route to the house, but what happened to him there, and why he or Amanda failed to return the next day, remained a mystery for some time.
Once the new Knight was on his way, the rodents turned to other matters.
"We don't know where the Kind Human is," Stompy said.
"And we cannot rescue him until we know," Percival said. "So that team will be on standby until we find out."
"What do we do about the real problem?" Stompy said.
"You mean rescuing all our people - the lab and the research?" asked Branch.
"Yeah," said Stompy. "It's not going to stop. If they find out mice can really read we're toast. It's really gonna hit the fan then. And that's what they're trying to find out. They've got enough of us to do it."
"No one will talk," Percival said. "The Knights are trained and sworn to secrecy."
"But we can't leave them there!" Stompy exclaimed.
"We won't," Percival said. "But we are between a rock and hard place. We don't know what Squibble's plan was. We only have a scrawled word on a piece of cloth."
"Did you know what he planned, Great One?" Shiva respectfully addressed Nemo.
Nemo shook his head. "Squibble's plan was years in the making. Spritely and he were the only ones who knew all of it. I know it involved the tithes, and the world of humans. I know that the plan was designed to solve this very issue - humans finding out about us. Beyond that, I cannot say."
Percival smiled at the old chinchilla. Even if he did know, he wouldn't say. And were that the case, silence would be the right thing to do. They had no choice.
"We must trust Squibble's wisdom, and Spritely's intellect," he said. "And remain ready."
At that moment, a messenger mouse came running into the room, sought Percival by smell, and dashed up to him. The messenger was bearing a small backpack with a cockroach in it.
Percival listened to the cockroach for a minute. The mice and rats were all paying close attention to the exchange. The humans noticed this.
The Knights all looked at Percival in expectation.
Heide, one of the RMC humans, leaned over to Tracy and said, "I wonder what they're planning to do?"
Percival ran over to the computer table, scurried up the leg and onto the surface. As the humans watched in awe he turned the computer on.
"I always wonder why it has that shape on the glass when it starts," Stompy said. "It makes me hungry."
"Breathing makes you hungry," Thor said.
"Piss off, psycho boy," Stompy said, elbowing Thor so hard he gasped for breath. Shiva snickered.
Once the computer had booted up, Percival did a dance on the keyboard. The humans crowded around the monitor.
Hello, Percival wrote.
The humans gasped and raised eyebrows.
"They can understand us?!" exclaimed Heide.
Indeed, typed Percival.
The women looked at each other in shock.
We might be needing help. Will you help us?
The women took a moment to compose themselves.
"Ahh... what kinda help?" Mary asked.
Probably the difficult or illegal kind, typed Percival.
The humans nodded at each other. "Yes, anything you need," said Tracy.
Thanks, the words scrolled. We love you.
The women all started crying tears of joy except Tracy, who smiled. Everyone reached for a rodent. Shiva and Thor were aghast.
"You'll pay, Oh Great Perky," Shiva told Percival as they were being stroked and petted.
"Oh enjoy it," said the mouse at the keyboard. "It doesn't get any better than that."
"Unless you're eating their heads," said Thor with a grin.
"Ummm... you're Percival, right?" Tracy asked.
Perky typed Yes.
"Ought to be renamed Muadib," said Stompy, enjoying being scritched behind the ears.
"We ah," Tracy looked around at her comrades and bent down to whisper to Percival, "We don't do that baby voice... um, the one we always talk you in... to ...make fun of you or anything, you know...." All the humans rapidly nodded their heads.
It's all right, typed Perky. We think it's very cute.
Tracy straightened up. "Well, okay then... good."
"Ummm..." Heide said, "So what are you all planning exactly?"
Percival grinned down at the Knights before he typed We're going to bust the Kind Human out of Federal Prison.
The humans all stood with their mouths open. Even though they were going to a different rescue, the rat twins went crazy.
"Yes!" yelled Shiva.
"Time to kick ass," Thor said, and hopped from his human's hand, ran over to his weapons, and held his two-pronged spear ready. Shiva joined him by drawing twin curved swords and spinning them in loud circles like helicopter blades.
"I worry that there's something wrong with those two," Mary said.
You have no idea, typed Perky.
Before leaving to rescue Kippy, Shiva and Thor made a detour. They sat hunkered in their cave with their computers and telephone. Thor madly typed as Shiva worked on calculations. Paper filled the room. It had taken years of their own effort to reach this point.
"Perky's all great an' everything," said Thor, "but it's a sketchy plan at best. It'll probably backfire. We've got their back."
"Plan B is happening," Shiva said.
"Almost done with the propaganda flyer," Thor said. "It's in rodent - the humans won't even begin to understand it."
"We got contacts?" Shiva asked.
"Check. Coming in from everywhere," Thor answered. "Over a million so far. Doubling by the hour. All willing and ready."
"He heheee," chuckled Shiva. "We are so over the top!"
"All they're waiting for now is the attack command," said Thor, sniggering as he hit the return key and sent the flyer he made to every domestic animal across the globe. He smiled wickedly.
"We could destroy the world."