Back at the prison, two Feds showed up in black suits. They spent an hour interrogating everyone. Most people had never even seen what hit them. One person said he swore he saw a mouse laughing maniacally as it tossed a tiny grenade.
"You drank too much," said the man.
"No - I'm sure it was this brown, insane little mouse!" the man said.
The woman lowered her glasses and stared the prison guard in the face. "Drank too much."
The man swallowed. "Yes sir...Ma'am! Way too much."
A guard came to the agent with a small piece of paper no bigger than two inches square. It said 'Chek out de labb' in tiny writing.
"It was left on the front desk, Sir," said the guard.
Outside, the man turned to the woman.
"Fitzgerald will go where? Not back to the house."
"To get his mice. Where else?"
"Of course. The note. Do you think..."
"Don't be absurd, Melvin. Mice cannot write."
"Nothing surprises me anymore."
They got in their black car and headed toward the lab.
Even with the wonderful company of Steve, it was hard being in the lab. Kippy hated the cage still, more than anything, and spent his days looking forward to his time out at night. He had met all the other subjects, but he didn't become close to any except Feeder and Knifey, who tagged along on his heels always. They were used to Steve by now, but were still lab mice. If Steve reached for Kippy too quickly he risked being stabbed by Knifey and scaring Feeder off the edge of the table.
He wanted out. He had come to understand Steve's dilemma, but he was going crazy being kept in that cursed place, listening to the sounds of suffering and pain, smelling death and rot and chemicals. Steve wanted to let him go - Kippy could sense it - but he feared Warcom and the loss of his job greatly. More than that, however, Steve believed that a mouse could not survive on the outside without human help.
"That's absolutely true," Kippy admitted. "For most mice. But I was raised as a field mouse. I can make it."
"In the city?" Steve asked.
"I can make it back to the field," said Kippy. "I promised the tribe I would return."
"It's too far," Steve said. "You'll never make it without help."
"That's not true!" Kippy said.
"Kippy, it's over forty miles," Steve said. "It was a miracle the first Mouse Knight made it. Summer would be over by the time you got there - if you got there."
"How far is forty miles?" asked Kippy, shocked.
Steve explained it by taking distances the mouse could understand. "See from here to the wall? A single mile is over a thousand of those."
Kippy looked down at the ground. Knifey and Feeder mimicked him because that's what they always did out of respect.
"Steve, I'm growing older. How long have I been here?"
Steve rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Ummm. A month and a half."
"You know how long mice live?" Kippy asked.
"Two years, and that's generous," Steve said.
"Field mice almost never live that long," Kippy said in desperation. "Most of us get one season in the sun. One season of happy times. Then the cold, starvation, disease or predators kill us." A lot of my family won't be alive next summer. I'm wasting my life away in this rotten, stinky place! I want out!" He hopped about to make his point. Knifey and Feeder hopped also.
Steve thought deeply. A month and a half. To a mouse that was like two years to a human. Two years in jail. His heart fought him. He wanted to keep Kippy. Not keep him to own him or make money off of him, as most would have done, but to keep him safe - to know he was well fed and warm, not sick or in pain. He felt the weight of awful guilt heavier than ever on his shoulders. He was responsible for Kippy being unhappy. In the end, that decided him. He loved the mouse, and could not let his own fear keep Kippy miserable. And for Kippy, such a happy mouse, to display frustration enough to shout and hop... it must have been building for a long time.
"Kippy, I love our talks. I really like you. If you want out, then go. I can't keep you here anymore. But I can't let the others go. Take Feeder and Knifey and go free. I'll even give you a ride back to your field."
"You promise?!" Kippy exclaimed.
Steve looked down at his feet. "I don't want to lose you, little guy, but yeah. I promise."
"The Mouse Knights will come to rescue all these mice, you know," said Kippy.
"They haven't yet," said Steve.
Kippy wondered why. But he said, "They will."
"Okay by me - then it won't be my fault. More power to them."
Kippy climbed onto his hand with Knifey and Feeder. He didn't think they would survive in the field, but he couldn't leave them here. Maybe he would find a good home for them somewhere. Steve was on his way to the door when the lock light above the doorknob turned green from red.
Someone was coming in at five in the morning! A bit early, but what if it was Warcom?
Steve gently put the mice in his lab coat pocket and went to answer the door.
Just before he took hold of the handle, the door swung open.
Steve waited, but no one was there. He frowned.
Kippy, inside the white of the pocket, smelled something.
Something took hold of Steve's pant leg as two huge rats in blood red armor swung from a rope above the doorway right into Steve's face. One stabbed him in the forehead before they slammed into him. The thing holding his foot held fast. He went down with the two armored rats on his face. One was biting his nose. He twisted so he wouldn't land on Kippy and the others, and hit the floor hard.
"Vengeence!" Screamed Shiva as he aimed one of his swords at Steve's eye. A hammer struck Steve in the side of the head so hard he saw stars.
Then there was a blur and Shiva had no swords. Thor had no hammer. The only rodent in sight was a trembling, pathetic, white mouse - sitting a yard away out in the open staring at them in horror. As they gazed at Feeder, a tiny ball of gnashing teeth with a knife came out of nowhere and flew into Thor's face. Thor screamed and dodged backward, hearing the ringing of several rapid knife hits to his helmet. He reached up for the rabid creature trying to maul him, but Knifey flew from his head, missing Thor's eye with the tooth by millimeters.
"Knifey!" the tiny warrior cried. "Knifey Knifey!" He landed, spun on a dime, and attacked Stompy, who had just set down the rope she had used to anchor Steve's back foot to the floor. When she saw the armed mouse flying at her, she balled up her fist, and floored Knifey with one punch. Knifey skidded to an unconscious halt five feet from Stompy.
"Knifey night!" said Stompy.
Then she was falling. Falling! Someone had tripped her so fast she couldn't even see them. She fell on her back and without a second in between, Kippy was on her belly with one of Shiva's twin swords aimed at her neck.
"Kippy!" Stompy said.
"Leave the human alone," Kippy yelled to the others. "He's our friend!"
Kippy flung the sword at Thor. The blunt side caught him with a clang behind the legs and toppled him off Steve's face. Then Kippy was on Shiva.
Now Shiva, Thor, and Stompy were the powerhouses of the Knight Kingdom. They were terribly strong and ferocious. But they were not fast. Shiva struck and spun - kicked and tried to bite - but nothing could hit the little white lightning ball. To Kippy, these huge behemoths were standing still. When Stompy joined in she was a bit faster, but it was like a chinchilla racing a snail. In short order, Kippy had beaten the snot out of the three mightiest Knights of them all, and suffered not one scratch for it.
The three warriors lay in a heaving pile of armored rodent. Steve picked Kippy up and got to his knees. He crawled over to Knifey and picked up the limp form, still clutching the tooth. Feeder was nowhere in sight. He had fled.
"I told you," Kippy said. "This human is not a bad man!" He rattled his tail at the Knights.
"Fastest little punk I ever did see," Stompy said, gasping for breath and nursing a black eye.
"Dear brother, I do believe you've just been bested by a mouse!" said Thor.
"That would be we," said Shiva. "He kicked your ass too."
"Kippy," said Steve, "are those what I think they are?"
"Yes," Kippy said in English. "Those are Knights."
"They would have killed me - or at least blinded me..." said Steve, looking down at his little defender with watery eyes.
"Definitely killed you," said Thor.
Stompy slapped Thor's big side. "He can talk!" she exclaimed, staring up at the mouse. "He's talking to that human!"
They all gazed in wonder at the miracle mouse until a door slammed down the hall. Footsteps approached.
With no moments left, Steve grabbed the Knights up in his arms and fled back into the lab. He locked the door behind him just as someone began punching in the key code to enter. Steve, his arms full of living proof of intelligent rodents, fled into the back room and locked the door.
Kippy had never seen the back room, but it was where the failed experiments were kept. There were mice without eyes. Mice without legs. Mice and rats deformed in terrible, painful ways. Tubes stuck out of some and wires were permanently grafted into others. It was hell. They had stepped into the lowest plane of the abyss.
The three Knights could not move. They had never seen anything like it. Even all Kippy had seen did not prepare him for it. Pain and suffering ruled here with an iron fist. Steve himself had not been to the back room since he met Kippy. Such specimens were supposed to be euthanized and disposed of, and he thought they had been. These animals were forgotten and dying slowly. Many had no food or water. Others were dead and rotting in their cages. This was where the hopeless were put and abandoned. It was a nightmare to behold, and Kippy could not imagine what it might be like to exist in it.
Outside, Warcom's voice echoed. "Steve?" Paused a moment. "Steve are you here?"
Steve cringed. His life and career as he knew them were a moment from being over. He had left the lights on. Kippy went to the door and peeked under it. Shiva joined him, eager to tear his eyes from the horror filled cages in the room with him.
Warcom had come into the lab, blind to the tiny war hammer that lay on the floor just inside the door.
Warcom looked about, walking down the row of cages. He looked in the bathroom. He even checked under the tables. When he was certain there was no one about, he casually strolled over to the wall and picked a mouse out of its cage, seemingly at random.
With no warning, he swung the mouse by its tail and smashed its head into the side of the metal lab counter. The mouse died. He looked at it for awhile, then showed it to the others.
"See?" he said, grinding his teeth. "We're better than you, you little vermin!" Then he tossed the dead mouse into the trash. "Mice with wheels and toys," he spat in disgust. "Wasting expensive medicine and employee time on making them feel better! Bah! Rubbish! Sheer stupidity! This charade is quite over."
Right by his foot and just under the eave of the cage row was Feeder, shaking violently with eyes as wide as they could be. Kippy grimaced when he saw his friend. He started to squeeze under the door.
Shiva held him down. Kippy was trapped halfway under the door and couldn't even turn around to beat the rat up again. He watched helplessly.
Feeder was fighting his instinct to run, but it was no good. He bolted for the back of the lab.
Warcom burst into rage and yelling obscenities. He jumped at least three feet.
He was scared of mice!
It made sense now. Kippy understood. Warcom was nothing but a cowardly bully...scared of mice.
The bully chased Feeder all over the lab, trying to step on the terrified mouse. He threw things - he smashed things. He lobbed glass beakers at Feeder and cursed up a storm. When Feeder finally had managed to hide under something unmovable and vanish, Warcom went back to the wall and began flinging mice out of their cages and dashing them to the floor where they lay crippled or dying, victims of Warcom's insane angst.
Warcom finally got a hold of himself and realized he was destroying his fortune. He balled his fists up and squeezed his jaw muscles until his face turned red, then he growled loudly and stomped out of the room, cursing mice. Again he failed to see the hammer.
"You're not even going to tell me that human doesn't deserve to die," Shiva said to Kippy.
"No," Kippy said, his eyes full of tears for the poor mice. "That was the bad man."
"He's going to blame that on me," said Steve. "We have to get you out of here," he said to Kippy.
Kippy was staring at the walls of sick and broken rodents in the back room. Despite the darkness, he could see them perfectly.
"Not just yet."
He turned to Shiva. "You have to kill them."
"Say what!?" exclaimed Shiva.
"Look at their suffering!" Kippy said. "They're in pain worse than death - someone stuck them back here to die and didn't even kill them. It's monstrous. You and the other are warriors - do your duty and put them out of their misery."
"They aren't armed!" said Thor. "It's...it's not honorable!"
Stompy was sticking her nose into a cage where a mouse was missing its back half. It had tubes sticking out of it that leaked excrement. It couldn't move. Its eyes were dried open for lack of tears. It's mouth hung open. It was breathing.
"Do it," said Stompy.
"You do it!" they shouted together in panic.
"I don't use a weapon," Stompy said. "You have weapons to end their lives swiftly and mercifully. Do it now."
"Hell no," said Shiva. Thor stood by his brother.
Stompy turned to Kippy. "You beat them in a fair fight. By the laws of chivalry, they have to obey you now."
Kippy eyeballed the Rat Knights. "Is it true?"
The rats clicked their teeth at Stompy. "Yes," grumbled Shiva. "It is."
Kippy pointed at the specimens. Over two hundred of them. "Get going. We have an hour before dawn."
The brothers looked at each other in horror.
"Aren't you the famed Death and Destruction?" Stompy said. "Do what you're best at - fate has chosen you."
Shiva and Thor did not move.
"You are warriors. Send them to their rest!" Kippy yelled.
Shaking and unsteady for the first time in their lives, Shiva bent down and picked up his swords. Thor picked up his spear.
The task took the full hour. They held their weapons over the heads of the doomed animals, and those who wished for death nodded sadly...those that did not, they spared. Some rodents went quietly, others shrieked and others sobbed. Shiva and Thor were grim machines of fate the entire time. They did not speak. They did not stop. They killed every animal that asked. The others they left to their own fate. Almost all of them asked.
Afterwards, they were pale, trembling, and silent. Their eyes were empty and looked at nothing. Their armor was just a slightly different shade of red than it had been. Stompy wondered what the terrible act had done to the rats, but there was no question it had been the right thing. The room was still and dead now. It was time to go.
Right outside the lab building by the door was a running hot rod with a gorgeous blonde at the wheel. She winked at Steve as the doctor stared dumbly at her. Then there was a blunt object at his back and a voice said, "Don't move, doc. Hand over the rodents and no one gets hurt."
Steve put his hands up and said, "You'll have to shoot me first."
"So be it," said Jim.
"No - he's another Kind Human!" Kippy shouted in English.
Jim stared wide-eyed at the white mouse on Steve's shoulder. His face drained of blood. "S...Spritely?"
"No - I'm Kippy," Kippy said. "This is Steve - he helped us out of there! Don't hurt him!" Knifey brandished his weapon and prepared to sacrifice himself to jump on Jim. Feeder hid in the lab coat pocket and shook.
Jim took his finger out of his jacket, showed it to Steve. "No worries, mate." Steve breathed a sigh of relief as Jim looked at the rodents. "They're addictive, aren't they?"
Steve nodded. "This one is very special." Kippy hopped into his hand. "Promise me you'll take good care of him."
"He can talk," Jim said, amazed.
Steve nodded. "An effect of the drugs, but a rather unique one I'm afraid."
Jim narrowed his eyes. "Drugs?"
Steve shrugged. It was obvious he worked there. His face took on a pleading cast. "He'll be treated well?"
"Better than the mice in there," Jim said harshly. Steve looked down at the asphalt.
"Be nice to him," Kippy said. "He did his best."
"We'll be back for those other mice," Jim said. "I promise."
Steve managed a smile. "Knock and I'll let you in."
Jim smiled back, letting his anger go. "You're not so bad, dude."
"I'm Steve Stafford. Scientist and newly converted animal rights activist."
"Jim Fitzgerald. Rodent rescuer."
They shook hands.
Steve asked, "Can...can Kippy ride with me? I promised to take him back to his home in the field."
"We aren't going to the field," Stompy said to Kippy. "We have an appointment with several thousand mice who are all waiting to meet you, Prophesied One."
Kippy looked up at the humans. "I'm not going back yet," he said. "I'm going with these other guys. But you can drive me, Steve. I'd like that." Jim looked at Steve and shrugged.
Stompy gave Kippy directions to translate and then got into the car with Jim and the Rat Knights. Kippy, Knifey and Feeder went with Steve.
After the cars had departed, two black suited agents, one male and one female, strolled across the parking lot, and casually let themselves into the lab building.
Steve opened the door in dawn's light and saw the RMC house across a lush carpet of wet, sparkling grass. He took Kippy in hand and took him to the front door, which was ajar an inch.
"I'm worried for you, Kippy. I'm going to miss you, little buddy."
"We'll see each other again, Steve. I'm not going back to the field yet."
Steve was relieved. "What are you planning to do, Kippy?"
"These Knights have need of me - and I am going to meet their humans, and their leaders. Something must be done for rodentkind before humans really find out that Mouse Knights exist."
Steve tightened his lips in resolution. In for a penny, in for a pound.
"You can count on me," Steve said.
"Really?" asked Kippy, cocking his head to one side. "Your job, your life..."
"I'm on the wrong side of the war," Steve said. "I'm switching."
Kippy smiled. How Steve loved that cheeky smile.
Then the little mouse joined his friends, squeezing through the door. Knifey and Feeder lingered a moment to look up at Steve.
"Knifey!" Knifey chirped.
Steve waved. "Goodbye, Knifey, Feeder. Take care of Kippy."
Feeder nodded and then they too were gone.
Steve's heart ached to see them go. He remained there at the curb a good half an hour. Then he made himself start the car.
He went back to the lab to clean up as best he could Warcom's mess before the techs arrived.
It was four am. No one was about. All was dark. In Warcom's office the agents found one starved, very large King Cobra. They looked at each other. The woman took notes as the man snapped digital photos.
In the lab itself there was evidence of pizza and Star Trek. The agents marched up and down the wall, studying the mice. Most were still awake. They found the hammer and put it in a plastic bag. Then they went into the back room.
"Okay," said the man. "Now I'm surprised."
"Mortified is more like it," said the woman. "This is terrible. Just...cruel."
They took pictures and notes. As they were leaving a car drove up. Steve's car. The agents hit the bushes. They watched Steve unlock the door and go back into the lab.
Back in their car, they breathed a sigh of relief.
"We can't really take him in there, can we?" the man said.
The woman turned around to look at the back seat. Fleeter gnawed on the cage bars that surrounded him. He saw the humans looking back at him. He stopped gnawing and squeaked at them loudly. In an empty coffee cup next to the cage sat his backpack, robes, and the mighty Sword of Spritely.
"I'd feel pretty bad about it," said the woman. "Now that we know what's going on there."
"Well what do we do with him then?"
The cage door opened, and beyond it was the parking lot. Fleeter poked his head out, cautious and wary. The humans sat there, squatting next to the cage. They made no move to close the door or squash him. He stepped out onto the cold pavement as slow as possible, ready to dart at any moment.
The man smiled and emptied the coffee cup's contents onto the asphalt next to Fleeter.
"There you go, little guy."
Fleeter flickered - he had the sword. Then he turned into a blur headed for the lab door. He paused once when he had crossed the lot and glanced back at the agents. Then he squeezed under the door and was inside.
The man looked at the woman, who was stuck gazing at the door to the lab. Her mouth hung open.
"I know you want to believe," said the man.