RMCA Fiction: The Mouse Knight III: Conversations with a Mouse: Chapter 18: A Hero's Last Stand

RMCA Fiction:
The Mouse Knight III: Conversations with a Mouse

Cutter Hays

Chapter 18
A Hero's Last Stand

Kippy and his faithful companions made it to the lab just ahead of the army. The car full of fans stopped and the door opened.

"Can't we keep you?" one girl begged.

"Ahhh, don't really want to be kept, thanks," said Kippy. "Besides, we've got many mice to rescue, remember?"

The girl nodded, eyes full of tears at having to leave Kippy and his two squires (or so he told the humans). But she and her six friends understood, and they took a picture of the three mice waving at the camera before driving off.

Kippy watched them go.

Knifey stood on his hind legs and sniffed the air.

"Knifey!" he said.

"I smell it too," Kippy said. "The storm is coming. And with it, the army. We have only a few minutes to put an end to this war before it starts. This is your last chance to stay out of this mess, fellas."

Knifey shook his head as though trying to clear his ears of water. Feeder slowly shook his, even though his whole body was trembling at the thought of what might happen.

"So be it," Kippy said, and squeezed under the entry door to the building.

Minutes later and behind them, a bus stopped in the parking lot and opened its doors. The army disembarked. Jim thanked the driver and the bus slowly left, once Jim gave the okay that no creatures would be crushed under the tires.

Percival was already organizing the troops with great expertise.

"Ranks and columns," he commanded. "The halls are eight feet wide. We will fill them, with the Knights in front. Front line shall be those bearing armor and weapons. Rat Cavalry, chew through that door!"

The rats began their work.

Inside, Steve had disentangled himself from the broken chair and was following Warcom down the hall.

"Don't hurt them!" he yelled after the madman.

Warcom fended him off, driving him back with the captive snake. "I'm going to do worse than hurt them, you moron," he said. "I'm going to execute every one of them!"

Behind the man with the snake-weapon, Steve saw Kippy, Knifey and Feeder cross the adjoining hall and stop right there, in plain sight, just before the lab door.

Feeder saw the cobra and couldn't move. Any second Warcom would turn and see the mice in the hall. Kippy and Knifey dragged the terrified mouse to the door, but had nothing to climb with, and couldn't reach the number pad - even if they had the combination.

"Enterprise!" Steve yelled at Warcom.

Warcom made a confused, angry face at his senior scientist. "What!?" he said. "Have you gone nuts?"

Steve almost burst into uncontrollable nervous laughter at that one - a madman asking him if he'd lost it.

"Yeah, pretty much,' Steve said. "The numbers simply got to me, I guess - all those sick and dying mice."

It wasn't lost on Kippy that Steve had given him the combination. He slapped Feeder before the cobra could turn and stare the rodent into a heart attack. Feeder recovered and looked at Kippy.

"I'm sorry," Kippy said. "But don't lose it on me now! I need you!"

Feeder whined an apology as Knifey frantically pointed at the snake.

"Booster throw," Kippy said. The mice cupped their hands for Kippy's feet as he ran at them, stepped up, and leapt. He went three feet. Not high enough.

"You turned traitor," Warcom said. "You betrayed me and this company!"

Steve shook a fist at his former boss. Anything to keep his attention. "Yeah, I turned Injun," Steve said with pride. "I mailed the letter to the government telling them about your Nazi operation here," he lied. "I'm responsible for everything!"

"It's just too high," Kippy said. "You guys are too little and weak. No offense." He went down on all fours and stared at the floor, frustrated. "I'm just too heavy and slow."

Suddenly he saw the feet of Feeder and Knifey back up out of his view, and a pair of brown paws, cupped to take Kippy's foot, replaced them. He looked up into the eyes of his brother, Fleeter.

"Oh, thank the MouseGod," said Kippy.

Fleeter wore a sword, and robes. He was the Knight everyone had claimed he was, his face set and determined, but grinning like the boy he had been in the field. And he was kneeling before Kippy, cupping his paws to send his brother up to the number pad on the door handle.

Kippy knew there wasn't a moment to waste. He backed up, got a running start, and hit his brother's paws at full field mouse speed.

Up, up he went - sent by the coiled strength in his legs and his brother's massive boost. He landed on the very edge of the keypad, struggled like mad to achieve a grip, and clambered over the side. He wasted a second with a glance at Steve.

Warcom approached Steve with the serpent. "You did that?" he seethed. "To me?!"

"You bet, butthead," Steve bared his teeth and prepared to dodge the cobra. "You didn't give me a raise for three years."

Kippy jumped on the numbers. 1-7-0-1. The door clicked red and opened.

Warcom heard the click. He spun.

"Go, Kippy!" Steve yelled, and brought up a chair leg he had held behind his back, aimed it at Warcom's head, and let fly.

Fleeter shoved the two white mice into the lab and raced to catch Kippy as he jumped off the number pad. At that very moment, the cobra struck and hit the moving chair leg, ripping it out of Steve's hand. The main door at the end of the hall cracked open at the bottom, and Percival yelled "Chaaarrrrge!"

'Chaaarrrrge!' (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

To his horror, Warcom saw hundreds of rodents flooding into the main hall and flowing toward the lab door.

Fleeter caught his brother and they ran for the back end of the lab. "He's coming!" Fleeter yelled. "Get out of sight!" He turned, slammed his cloak aside, and drew the Sword of Spritely.

Warcom realized he couldn't overpower Steve to get past him, and there was only one other way. He ran into the lab, shoving the great cobra into the shocked faces of the armored rodents who were also making for the door. Most of them skidded to a halt right there. To them, Mandallo was a dragon, straight out of legend.

Percival brandished his sword high over his helmed head. "Onward! Stop for nothing!" he cried. Stompy grabbed the spear from a Knight next to her and hurled it with all her strength at Mandallo's head. It glanced off his scaled hide. In return, his strike ended the lives of three Knights by missing Percival. The Knight Lord and four others made it through the door just as Warcom spun and slammed it shut.

Warcom locked the door from the other side with the old fashioned deadbolt. He turned and saw Kippy running with his friends to the other side of the lab. Rage turned his face beet red.

"Your fault!" he screamed, and charged forward, sticking Mandallo out front. As he passed the field mouse who had stood his ground, he lost three of his toes to the Vorpal Sword. He screamed and crashed into the side of the lab table.

Outside, Steve tried every combination he knew of. Rodents swarmed everywhere, waving weapons, squeaking and clacking teeth. He brought his mind to bear on the lock only. The lock, not the rodents, he told himself. The lock - not the rodents! But no combination he knew worked. Warcom had thrown the deadbolt.

"He's in there with Kippy!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "Somebody do something!"

But they couldn't chew through this door. It was made of steel.

In the dark lab, Kippy stuck out like a sore thumb with his two frightened friends. Warcom cursed and spit, but did not fall, and did not let go of Mandallo. He gazed daggers down on Fleeter, who stood in the center of the floor, holding the sword. Kippy and his friends, looking back at the fight but running straight forward, slammed into something solid and cold. They fell, scattered. When Kippy looked up, he saw the shadow of a mouse as black as darkest night, with burning coals for eyes.

The four that had come in with Percival had spread out across the room, ready for battle. Stompy, Squibbette, Branch, and Ghost surrounded the man with the snake. Even Branch now held a weapon. Percival himself glanced at Kippy and was suddenly riveted on the shape at the back of the room.

"The Shade!" he screamed.

The others shot their eyes over to Kippy and the apparition standing over him. The Shade bared its fangs and hissed - like a snake - at Kippy, who reacted in stark terror.

Knifey attacked. He was swatted up and away like a bug, and landed twelve feet away in one of the open cages near the top of the wall, lost to sight after a dismal cry. To Kippy's astonishment, Feeder actually stepped between the dark shape and him, without hesitation. It didn't last long, but Feeder actually tried. One strike of the Shade's claws and Feeder was sliding across the slick floor and into the wall with a thud. The Shade turned its fiery gaze to Kippy. Kippy felt something at the very back of his spirit jump in recognition. He began scrambling to get away, spinning to run back toward his brother, who was running toward him.

"Percival!" Squibble cried from his cage.

Percival located the ancient prophet, and ran to the cage front, which was on the lowest level - right by the floor.

"Sire!" he exclaimed, seeing Squibble's terrible condition.

"The Sword!" Squibble said with great effort. "This is your chance! Avenge my master!"

Warcom was limping toward Kippy, who was backing up into the face of Mandallo without knowing it. The Shade relentlessly stalked him step for step. Just as Warcom shoved the cobra forward to devour the white mouse, there was a flash of brown and Kippy was gone. Neither snake nor man saw Fleeter move. The Shade looked up at Warcom, sizing him up, and Warcom met the Shade's eyes.

Fleeter whisked his brother to Percival.

"I owe you again, bro," Kippy told him.

"You knew you would," Fleeter grinned.

"Fleeter," Percival said seriously, "May I have the Sword?"

"Isn't it supposed to go to Kippy?" Fleeter looked at Squibble. Kippy saw Squibble for the first time and realized with shock that the old mouse was suffering from Rg-51. He knew the signs all too well.

"Not yet," Squibble said. "We must survive this first. Percival is the greatest swordfighter in the land - he was trained by his father."

Fleeter handed the Sword to Percival, who held it like the master he was. The tip flashed and the lock fell from the cage door. Squibble was free.

Warcom roared as if possessed and turned on the mice. He laughed, deep and twisted. He saw he was surrounded by seven mice. One with a sword that had maimed his foot. He stopped laughing. Mandallo turned and faced them.

"Don't look into his eyes!" Squibble shouted.

Not one of the Knights gave in to his paralyzing stare - all looked at Warcom or the floor.

"You can't escape here," Warcom told Kippy directly. "You're trapped with the other dying rodents." His voice sounded... ruined, as if his throat were torn to pieces. It was horrible.

Steve backed up as the two mice rigged the door. They ran a spool of cord out from the lock, twenty feet.

"HA HA HA! BOOM! Boom boom!" chirped Clyde. Two Mouse Knights put up their tower shields in front of the demolitions expert.

When he realized the mouse had a tiny detonator box and was pulling the lever up, Steve ran back to where the other rodents had gone.

The door exploded into shards.

Smoke and debris filled the lab. At the other end of the hall, the gnawed door finally collapsed under one of Jim's kicks. The rest of the army poured in. A momentary silence covered everything as the army paused by the door into the dread lab.

In the smoke, everything vanished. The mice lost their sense of smell. Everyone was literally blind.

"Kippy!" Steve yelled.

"Tell him to stay away from the black mouse! Its bite is death worse than the serpent!" Squibble said.

"Steve!" Kippy answered. "Stay away from the black mouse!"

"What black mouse!" Steve yelled, coming into the room with the sounds of many rodent feet. He moved slowly, setting his feet down over the space of several seconds, so he wouldn't catch anybody underfoot.

The smoke was thick - visibility was only a few inches. Kippy felt panic. That... thing was somewhere in the mist! The mice by the cage huddled close, Percival extending the Sword before him.

"It won't face the Sword," Percival said. "Stay here."

"I have to help Steve!" Kippy said, and tensed to vanish, but Fleeter held him.

"No," Fleeter said. "It is a demon, Kippy. It cannot be beaten by teeth or claws."

In the dark smoke they heard the sound of cage doors opening. All of them. All at once. Squibble moaned, "Oh, no." Everyone felt the room turn sour, as if the air had suddenly gone bad.

Slowly, the smoke cleared.

Warcom stood by the lab table, still as a statue. Every cage door on the wall was open. On Warcom's shoulder there stood the Shade. Warcom's face was expressionless. He had no pupils. His skin had gone pale. Mandallo writhed madly, trying to escape the stick.

"Knights!" Percival yelled. He was about to say something more when the sounds of mass movement filled the room.

Mice were coming out of the cages. Maimed, sick, whole, even dying ones. None of them had any expressions. None of them had pupils. Their eyes were blank. Possessed.

Squibble's group was pressed immediately into their cubicle by the zombie horde. Stompy, Squibbette, Ghost and Branch were cut off from the rest and each other. The army that had just come in the door had two choices - retreat or engage. They sought Percival's voice in the madness, hoping for a command decision.

"It's the Shade," Squibble said. "It's controlling every ounce of hate and resentment in this room. They aren't themselves. They know not what they do."

Percival held up the Sword of Spritely. The zombies would not approach it.

"Defend yourselves, men," he commanded. "But do not take their lives!"

The black mouse hissed through Warcom's mouth and the possessed horde attacked everyone. Unlike zombies in the movies, these moved as fast as mice. The battle was joined. The lab filled with the sounds of war.

The Army of Percival was already on the defensive.

Steve and Jim found themselves amongst thousands of rodents fighting for their lives. With no way of telling the good from the bad, they stood perfectly still.

"We have to reach the Shade!" Percival said.

"Go!" Squibble said. "I am protected by other means!"

Percival looked at Squibble and wondered if he had gone mad. But the old, sick mouse met his eyes and smiled confidently. "Go, Percival. Go with valor!"

Percival raised the Sword above his head and waded out into the fray. Fleeter and Kippy went to join him, but Squibble held Kippy back. Fleeter did not realize it until he was in the middle of battle, fighting mice off Percival left and right. His speed alone was preventing their deaths, for the zombies had no qualms about taking the lives of their foes. He could not go back for Kippy now. His path, and Percival's, had been chosen.

"What!" Kippy exclaimed.

Squibble held him with iron strength. The look in the old eyes was one of urgency and crisis. Kippy stopped and held still, staring into those wise old eyes.

"Master," said Squibble to Kippy, "I need your help now."

"I'm not -" Kippy began, but stopped before the piercing gaze of Squibble.

"Do you trust me, Kippy?" Squibble asked.

Kippy nodded, a bit afraid.

"Relax, Kippy," Squibble said. "Relax, look into my eyes, and listen to me." He did not blink. It appeared to Kippy that his fur started to glow pearly white at the edges. "You are sleepy. Your eyes cannot remain open. I am going to count to three..."

Percival felled mice and rats with the flat of the steel blade. Fleeter rammed them, bit their legs, tossed them aside. Slowly, they made their way toward the giant and the dragon the giant controlled.

Across the room, Stompy floored mouse after mouse with her great fists and powerful punches. Her borrowed sword rested in its sheath, undrawn. In crisis, she had gone back to what she knew - her weapons of choice. A pile was growing around her of unconscious mice.

Together, they barely held their own until Squibbette fought her way to them. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

Branch, who was no warrior, could not hold the masses off for long, despite the Mouse Fu he had learned in China, and went down under them just as Ghost reached him. Together, they barely held their own until Squibbette fought her way to them. It evened the odds greatly, but they were surrounded as far as they could see or smell. The rest of the army was all the way across the lab and being driven back, for they could not slay the possessed animals.She was a tank. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

"Here!" Stompy yelled, and they strove their way toward the titan mouse but to no avail. The crowding zombies would not budge. Seeing this, Stompy began moving toward them with purpose, straight through the enemy as if they weren't there. The zombies could not penetrate her armor. She was a tank. Nothing could stand before her. She walked over them all until she had reached her friends. Together, the four fought back to back against the tide of teeth.

Mandallo held his venom and strength, his eyes fixed on Percival. The Shade would not let that sword touch him. He had taken command of the snake as well.

Steve and Jim were watching their shoes rapidly tear away in tiny pieces. The carpet of battle beneath them rose to their ankles, then to their shins, then back to their ankles. Blood began to flow everywhere - theirs and that of hundreds of rodents. Not one inch of the lab floor was visible any longer. It was entirely fangs and fur, moving so rapidly no human eye could track the individual fights. If they moved they would squash hundreds of mice and rats, but the skin was being torn from their feet by teeth and claws. Bleeding, they gritted their teeth and held still.

"Help!" Jim yelled.

The humans watched with astonishment as Knights fought through the battle to surround their feet. The trained mice put their backs up against the humans bloody skin and held their ground against the enemy. The pain stopped.

The Army of Percival was being shoved back through the lab door and into the hall. The mice around the feet of Jim and Steve suddenly found themselves alone in their defense, yet they did not abandon their post. Stompy and her gang watched their approaching help fall back. Percival's progress slowed, then stopped. The enemy was too many. The Shade's hold on them too strong.

"Forward!" Percival shouted. "Do not retreat! Drive forward, I say!"

But the thousands were pushed back and back, into the hall. The possessed began to pile on top of each other to attack the remaining defenders from above. Mice began to go under. Squibbette took hits that breached her armor. Branch was bleeding badly, lacking armor entirely. Ghost was near death, but would not fold. The terrible battle raged to a crescendo, and the doom of the Knights appeared certain.

Outside there was a thunder crack. It shook the entire building. The lights in the hall went out, and darkness would have enveloped the entire war zone but for the light of... fire!

The fire Shiva and Thor held in their hands.

They stood at the edge of the doorway, and the possessed horde would go no farther. Their fear of fire was greater than the mental hold the Shade had on them.He loaded it with a piece of corn from the floor of the cage... (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

The battle stopped. Shiva and Thor wore their full array of blood red armor. Helms. Shields. Weapons. And flame. They walked step by step toward Percival, and the crowd parted before them. Their eyes burned at the Shade like laser beams, their mouths were curled in snarls. Their faces alone would have stopped an entire army. They were Death and Destruction, and they brought the fires of Hades with them.

As Percival stared back at the twin saviors and the hundreds parting before them, the Shade took action. Mandallo fell downward with all its power onto the pair of Knights.

Even for Fleeter the moment was close. He shoved himself and Percival back at the same time. Mandallo's great snout struck them both, and the Sword flew from Percival's grasp toward the cage wall. Both mice went down, stunned from the monster's head connecting with them. Warcom raised his foot.

Kippy swayed back and forth, as if asleep, as the Sword skidded to a halt at his feet. Squibble reached into his robes and pulled out a very old and well used slingshot - it had been repaired many times over the years, but it was solid. He loaded it with a piece of corn from the floor of the cage, pulled it back with all his strength, and let fly.

The missile slammed into the Shade, and he plummeted off Warcom's shoulder to the ground.

The possession left everyone. Warcom blinked. The hordes were zombies no more. Mandallo drew back in shock. The Shade got up from the floor, unharmed, its gaze on Percival. The floor rapidly cleared, leaving behind bodies of those fallen.

Percival drew his plastic sword, all he now had, and saluted the Shade. The Shade drew two black, metal, lightless blades and saluted back. It grinned.

Percival drew his plastic sword, all he now had, and saluted the Shade. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

"For my father!" Percival shouted, and charged. Fleeter charged. Stompy, Squibbette, Ghost, Shiva, and Thor charged. The entire cast of Knights at the door charged - nearly a hundred of them. Warcom could only watch as he backed up to the cage wall, disoriented. The entire floor was empty except for the Knights running at full speed for the Shade, which stood its ground and waited, crouched low and assuming a fencing posture.

Fleeter reached it first, and for the first time in his life, was slower than something. The Shade twisted aside as Fleeter's bite closed down on nothing. Then the Shade brought his swords down on Fleeter in a devastating double cut, one to the arm and one to the leg. Fleeter squeaked in pain. The blades burned like fire, and the cuts were deep. He felt a rear foot go into his ribs and heard them break as he sailed through the air and away, defeated.

Ghost and Squibbette reached the demon next. Squibbette performed a flawless lunge as Ghost leapt in an arc down on the shadow, cutting with all his remaining strength. The Shade effortlessly dodged Squibbette's thrust and parried Ghost so hard he slammed head first into the floor. The Shade's red eyes blazed as it pressed its advantage on Squibbette, fencing her up against the lab table where it met the floor. Squibbette could not hold out - the Shade was much too fast. She took a blow to her armor that shattered the lobster shell across her back. Her shield splintered under the next blow. Her helm rang as she took a strike to the head. She swung desperately at the Shade's unarmored neck, and the plastic sword snapped on contact. Only then did she realize she was completely outmatched. In her gut she felt death's hand reaching for her as the Shade pulled both swords back for the last blow.Stompy hefted the evil creature well over her head and yelled... (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

Ghost had pulled his wounded body from the ground and brought his blade down on the specter with all his might. His sword snapped also, right between the Shade's pointed ears. It saved Squibbette's life and cost him his own. The Shade turned and cut him down viciously in two simultaneous strokes. Squibbette, weaponless, struck the monster on the back of its neck with her best Mouse Fu chop, then fell to the black blades as they turned around. She took two hits to her torso, still partially protected by armor, and hit the floor rolling to get away from the terrible foe.

Then something moved the Shade for the first time. Something grabbed it from behind and lifted it off the floor. Stompy hefted the evil creature well over her head and yelled, "Shiva - Thor - NOW!" and sent the black thing spinning into mid air.

"Burn, sucker!" Shiva spat.

Shiva and Thor lowered their metal torches and hit the triggers.

Flame poured out of the nozzles and arched six feet to swallow the Shade whole. Warcom, Steve and Jim's eyes almost popped out of their skulls. Mandallo recoiled from the heat. The Rat Knights kept the flamethrowers on top of the black, burning shape as it hit the ground. They strode towards it never once letting up on the fire. They increased the jets until the fire was bright blue. They stalked toward their hated enemy until they were within half a foot and their own fur was smoking. Both brothers had their lips pulled back across gritted teeth, their eyes squinting against the heat and light. They burned the Shade for a solid sixty seconds. Then Shiva nodded to Thor.

Thor pulled out a machine gun and emptied its magazine into the black, flaming shape. The room exploded with the sounds of rapid fireworks while both armies stood transfixed at the destruction. He slapped another magazine into the weapon, never taking his finger from the trigger while Shiva let the flames die and dropped the torch to his side, grabbing grenades. He pulled seven pins and rolled the explosives into the fire. Both brothers sped backward, Thor still firing.

Where the tiny gun had sounded like the popping of fireworks, the grenades sounded like M-80s. The area was again covered in the smoke of spent gunpowder.Thor pulled out a machine gun... (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

"Eat that, butthead!" Thor hissed.

"For Spritely!" cursed Shiva.

The rat brothers backed up into Percival, who stood ready to continue his charge. Stompy joined them, huffing and puffing. Branch limped over and fell into Stompy's arms. The old mouse was gravely injured, but would not take his eyes from the smoke. The army of Knights advanced right to the edge of the smoke, dangerously close to the demon but refusing fear. The entire room waited to see what the smoke would reveal when it cleared.

The Shade was still standing.

"That's just ridiculous!" Stompy cursed.

The army of the Mouse Knights lost most of its morale then, and began to inch backward as one giant company. Percival grimaced. Squibbette dragged her bleeding body over and held onto Stompy.

"Don't do it, Percival," said Shiva. "It's indestructible."

But rage had taken Percival's heart. He remembered being there - at the brink of victory, with his father...

The battle had already been won. The enemy was dead all around their feet. The flags that filled the sky were theirs. The father and son were the last standing, cut and bruised, armor torn and broken, stained with the blood of many creatures, but they stood.

Then, from nowhere, a blade as black as night shot right past Percival and into Spritely's back. The first of the Knights gasped, a deep, terrible sound, and fell to his knees. The magical sword that had blazed in combat went dim and slipped from his numb fingers.

"Father!" Percival screamed, and spun to cut down the honorless cur that had ended the most precious thing in his life, but nothing was there. The black mouse stood ten feet away, smiling through jagged teeth.

Spritely was dying a terrible death. He couldn't breathe. His lungs were filling with his own blood. It was coming out his mouth and nose. He spat and coughed, struggling to breathe, knowing it was hopeless. But his legendary will had the last word.

"Go!" he told his son.

Percival felt his body burn with hatred as he picked up the ancient sword from his father's feet. He raced after the Shade with all the speed he could summon. He chased him across the entire battlefield, shedding armor to make himself faster. At last, he stood without any protection but the sword in his hands, breathless, watching the Shade outdistance him with unearthly alacrity and vanish into the burning forest beyond the battleground. He stood there transfixed, glaring at the spot as if he would blast it to ashes with his eyes.

Then he remembered his father.

He raced back to the spot, but there was nothing. No body, no armor. Even his shield was gone. Percival called out his name over and over into the stormy sky until the clouds finally parted and soft beams of golden sunlight rained down on the field of the dead. Percival felt something of his father in that golden light, but sat down in the pool of blood where he had left him and wept for hours.

When night had fallen, Percival rose with a face of stone and pursued the Shade. To the ends of the earth, as he had claimed, he followed him, bent on revenge. But the trail stopped there, at the end. He had not seen him again until now.

And Percival would be damned if the creature escaped justice this time!

"Percival..." Branch began, but it was too late. The Mouse Lord strode into the wafting fog as everyone knew he would. Indeed, as he had to.

"Knights, charge!" Stompy commanded, knowing they could reach the demon before Percival. It was almost a hopeless command, but they had run out of options.

"No!" Percival shouted. He broke into a run.

The mass of the Mouse Knights waiting in reserve charged the Shade with everything they had. A hundred trained and armored soldiers, armed to the teeth, fell upon the monster all at once. Jim and Steve heard the sounds of things breaking, of animals dying squeaks, of desperate anger and grim determination. The Shade moved with unholy speed, cutting down Knights right and left. Bodies flew and blood spilled. Twenty Knights had fallen to the Shade when Percival plowed into him.

Blades flickered and flashed. Percival's skill managed to keep his plastic sword in one piece through ten strikes, but then it broke under the unholy strength of the Shade's blows. Tossing his sword aside, Percival grabbed hold of the Shade's throat with his teeth and ripped savagely. He swung his body as a weapon and beat mercilessly down on the black thing. His armor took hit after hit - he ignored them. His feet clawed. His hands tore. His teeth did not leave the other's neck. The two rolled and spun, turned and fell, gripped in the primal throes of mortal combat. The Knights surrounding them laid in with their weapons, striking the Shade squarely when the chance presented itself. Swords snapped like twigs. Nothing could damage that jet black hide. It was not of the earth, and Percival felt his strength dropping as he spent it too quickly, while the Shade seemed to grow stronger from the hate and fear.

The desperate fight lasted two minutes. A long time for a mouse fight - and Percival fought both bravely and with great skill. He parried blows with the shield on his back, dodged and hit his mark every time, but it didn't matter. The Shade was too fast, too strong, and much too tough. Even so, Percival smelled its foul blood and tasted the acid burning his lips.

"You can die!" he yelled in fury.

Then the Shade drew back a massive blow, and ran its blades through both of Percival's shoulders, cracking the armor and splitting bone. Percival fell, but did not let go of the monster's neck.

Knights rained blows down upon the Shade until they had no weapons left to send at it. Stompy pummeled the black face with her giant fists. It was like slamming them into concrete. Shiva and Thor yelled, "Incoming!"

The Knights fell back as the rat brothers heaved all their bulk onto the black mouse from the wall in a full leap. As they fell like meteors, Stompy yanked Percival out of the deadly path. A piece of the Shades neck came with him. The Rat Knights landed on the demon solidly, feet and teeth first - a blow that would have ended even the life of a dog or cat. They did not stop there. Shiva snapped a metal spear shaft as he thrust into the Black Mouse. Thor pulled back and swung his hammer into the Shade's skull, sending the creature spinning across the floor. They jumped after it, pouring blow after deadly blow into the Shadow. Thor smashed and smashed. Shiva cut with his twin sabers, finally snapping one of the Shade's own smaller swords in two. For a moment, it looked like they might take the advantage. The armies stopped moving backward and the smell of hope drifted in the air.

Then one brother tired for but a single moment, and the Shade planted a kick into Thor's stomach, driving the wind from him. The other black blade took out Shiva's left eye and removed one of his ears. Shiva did not falter, and continued to pummel his blades down on the evil mouse, but it was no good. The Shade reached out and bit each sword in half as they came. Thor recovered and drew his hammer back again only in time to see Shiva fall to a wicked slash across his side. Then the terrible black mouse opened its mouth...

And breathed fire.

Shiva and Thor felt their own medicine as the flames began to consume them. They felt this was the end. It was glorious enough, but they would not suffer their enemy to live! And so, instead of removing the flammable gas tanks from their backs that had powered their own fires, or trying to put each other out, or even retreating, they both bit deep into the Shade and held on. The tanks would go, and they would die, but the damned thing was going with them, by the MouseGod!

Steve literally leapt out of his tattered shoes and grabbed a beaker full of water. He turned it over upon the burning rats, and the entire fight was drenched. The fires went out. Then, taking advantage of the situation, he reached over the lab table and turned on the laser scalpel. But in the process of hitting the switch, the scalpel itself, attached to a long power cord, fell to the floor - almost on top of Feeder, who jumped. It wasn't big or heavy enough to have killed the mouse, but it would have hurt him. As the rodent glared up at Steve, he winced and mouthed an apology, pointing to the now active scalpel.

"Use it!" Steve said. Feeder's gaze drifted over to the pen-shaped tool and the big red button on its side.

Warcom watched, horrified, as the rats were slammed by something denied to his vision, one to the cage wall and the other to the doorway. Both rats were finished fighting. Thor was unconscious and broken. Shiva was bleeding badly and could not rise. Both were burned. The titans of ratkind had been defeated.

The Black Mouse rattled its tail in a gesture of defiance. It knew it was invisible to humans. It knew the cowering wretch against the wall with the snake was under his power any time it wished. Nothing could stand before it. The room was full of fear and hate. Victory was only a few moments away. It fixed its red eyes about the room, scanning for Kippy, who had been its true target all along. But once in a great while there comes a human - who so loves mice, that the spirit of the Mouse loves him in return, and they become one. This was why the Kind Human had been able to see the Shade in prison. And it was why Steve saw the demon now.

It was looking right at Kippy. And next to Kippy, Squibble stood with his hands on the shoulders of the little white one. And behind Squibble was a rat with a golden hood - and a very large mouse, both glowing with soft light. He turned his eyes back to the Black Mouse. He knew he beheld the enemy that his friends were trying so hard to destroy. It looked... wrong. Foul. And it was starting toward Kippy, who was in a trance. So Steve lifted his foot.

He put it down right on the Shade with all his weight.

He twisted the sole of his shoe into the lab floor. The army clearly saw their human making his strike for rodentkind. Cheers went up from thousands of animals. Warcom growled.

"OWWW!" Steve raised his foot as if burned by a hot coal. The Black Mouse had bitten him through his shoe. It hung there, teeth buried in his little toe. In revulsion, Steve flicked it away, but the damage was done. He felt sick immediately. The strength left his legs and he fell. Warcom giggled.

"It's bitten him," Squibbette said, panting. "He'll die."

Percival's arms were useless. He bled and gritted his teeth against the intense pain. "Not if we kill it first."

Stompy faced her old friend. "Perky," she said, "We have been beaten. Nothing can hurt it."

"Not so," said Percival, and turned toward Kippy.

Kippy stood in front of Squibble, ramrod straight, chest out, legs apart. He held the Sword in one paw.

Squibble put his nose next to Kippy's ear. "You know what to do."

Kippy laughed, a confident, older sound. "Squib," he said. "You worry too much. Have faith."

Squibble smiled broadly. "Yes, Sire." He took his place at his master's side. "Shall we... one last time?"

Kippy faced the Shade. "Indeed."

Kippy strode out into the empty floor with the stride of an old hero. Squibble came alongside him, chest out, slingshot ready, tail up - barely limping. There was a light in Squibble's eyes that made him seem young again to all.

The Shade's eyes grew wider, then narrowed to slits. It hissed and hopped in fury. Kippy stopped three feet from it.

"It feeds on fear, my people!" Kippy announced to the army. "Give it nothing! Not one drop I say!"

His voice sounded different than the happy-go-lucky tone of Kippy the field mouse. It was commanding. Charismatic. And quite familiar to the Knights. Shields, sword, and fists raised up in salute. Cheers and cries rose into the air. Their leader had returned.

The Shade's hatred grew even as its presence shrank.

"Do not hate," Kippy boomed. "Do not resent. Do not fear."

His people obeyed, and the Shade grew dim. One could almost see through it. And it knew its time was almost over.

So it charged. It came at Kippy and Squibble full force. Kippy did not take even one step back. He met it head on.

He met it head on. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

They clashed and steel rang. Light flared from the Sword in Kippy's hands. Darkness fought the light for ground. The Shade held back nothing. It pressed itself to full speed. Kippy matched it, blow for blow. At blinding velocity they fought the epic ancient battle of good versus evil. Every blow by the black sword was turned by the bright metal of Kippy's. Every kick, bite or tail lash was dodged. As weary as they were, the inner circle of Knights would not even blink. They dared not twitch a whisker lest they miss a single move.

Every motion was perfect on both sides. Kippy had suddenly become the most skilled swordfighter in the Kingdom. The steel moved like poetry in his grasp. His body flowed with it as one. The arcs and cuts were precise, as a surgeon's instrument. It looked as though the black and white mice were dancing at speeds denied the human eye. Squibble stood just outside the range of the clashing weapons, ready to move on an instant.

The battle moved all around the room. The mice and rats parted before it. It moved to the edge of Steve's face and he watched it through squinted eyes. The expression on Kippy's face he had never seen before. It looked... perfectly content. Indeed, the mouse might as well have been sipping juice, eating a cracker and watching TV. His face appeared outstandingly calm, a state of perfect grace. His mouth smiled ever so slightly.

The Shade was another story. It was sweating. Breathing like the bellows, fire blew forth from its nostrils. Its eyes blazed into a bright, hellish orange. It was exerting itself to its limit just to stay alive, barely evading the masterful strikes delivered by this mouse who was far too young to be so skilled.

"Father," whispered Percival, who had been trained by the hand that dealt such blows. Shiva forced himself upright, staring one-eyed and open mouthed at the display of flawless fighting. Every mouse and rat in the room was frozen in place, riveted by the duel.

As the fear in the room waned and the hatred was replaced by confidence and courage, the Shade grew weaker. It needed to hurt this deadly mouse against it - weaken its hope and confidence. And it knew how to do that. It fought back to Squibble and turned suddenly in a spinning move. But instead of dodging, Squibble lunged forward at the same time, and threw the rubber loop of his slingshot around the back of the Shade's neck. As the Shade ran its blade through Squibble's armor and body, the faithful Squire tightened his grip on the noose with the strength of two strong mice and one powerful rat. Squibble pulled the trapped Shade to him - their noses touched - and said, "Now, Master!"

In the second that all this took place, Kippy put both paws on the sword, drew back well over his shoulder, and sent the blade singing forward. The great blow severed the Shade's head from its shoulders, and it was finished.

Fleeter woke up at that moment. So did Thor, and Knifey, who shook his dazed head and looked down from six feet up on the wall. His knife was beside him, and so was another! By chance, he had been cast into Kippy's old cell. Gleefully, he held both knives, the precious remains of his father.

Kippy caught Squibble before he fell.

"Master..." Squibble choked. "I did... right?"

Kippy's eyes watered. His voice was soft and loving.

"Yes, my faithful Squire. You did right. As always."

"I die a hero!" Squibble half asked, half proclaimed.

"Yes," Kippy said. "Now come and let me take you home."

"One... one moment, my Liege..." Squibble smiled. "Just one more thing."

"Then we will rest in paradise, my dear friend," Kippy said. His voice sounded... old.

"So cool..." said Squibble, sounding like a little boy again.

Kippy gently lowered Squibble to the ground as Squibble held his paw up in front of their faces and snapped his fingers.

Kippy jerked upright. His eyes were dazed. "Wha...Where am I? What happened!?"

In that moment of weakness, the coward chose to strike. The power of the Black Mouse was gone, and with it his last chance to avoid having to do the dirty deed himself, but it had to be done. That damned white mouse had to pay! Warcom dropped Mandallo. The snake's head landed with a thud right next to Feeder, who was holding a laser in his shaking hands. Warcom raised his foot, and jumped through the air to land on Kippy and Squibble.

Fleeter was gravely injured, and did not realize what was happening until the bad man was already in the air. But he was still faster than every other rodent in the room. It was left to him, and he rose to the challenge. His muscles knotted and cried out as he forced them to propel him forth - past Warcom, to his confused brother.

He slammed into Kippy, sending him sprawling across the room. He spun, and found Squibble's gaze directed right into his.

"No, Fleeter! Save yourself!" Squibble commanded in his most powerful voice.

In that half second, Fleeter knew he could not save Squibble and himself. He chose, without pause, and pushed Squibble out of death's grasp. Warcom landed right on top of Fleeter, and killed him instantly.

"HA HA HAAAA!" Warcom shrieked, confident that he had crushed Kippy at last. "What do you say to that, you little pest!?"

Kippy's face turned into a mask of horror and pain. For the first time in his life, he appeared truly enraged. He looked up at the monster that had crushed his brother, and answered. "Knifey, kill!!"

Knifey did not miss the moment. He fell upon Warcom's head with both knives, landed on the man's jutting nose, and stabbed him in the eye. Warcom bellowed pain and blood spouted out his eye. He smacked himself in the face to kill Knifey, but the tiny mouse had jumped from the falling human already, and was caught by Stompy.

Warcom teetered and staggered. He tripped over Steve, and came down.

Now there was a moment just as this unfolded that happened between two souls. Mandallo was hurt and dazed, unable to move in the moment he landed next to Feeder, who was holding the laser scalpel less than a centimeter from the serpent's exposed eye. And Feeder, who had picked up the weapon from the floor, had just been brought face to face with his deepest fear, and had the chance to end it by slaying Mandallo on the spot. He did not shake. He wasn't afraid. But neither of them had moved, and the standoff ended when Warcom landed with all his weight upon the Cobra.

Mandallo struck back out of pure instinct, and buried his fangs in Warcom's face, one of them sinking into the remaining eye. Poison was sent. Warcom shrieked and realized in his darkness what must have happened. He knew, with all the terror it could grant, that he was a dead man.

He rose, blind, and poisoned, and ran madly for where he remembered the door to be. He actually picked the right direction, but did not make it. Shiva and Thor slung out a rope between them, braced their back legs against cage bars and lab table, and tripped Warcom into the horde of rodents waiting for him. They parted as he fell, and then fell on him while he was stunned.

"NOO!" he cried, feeling the terrible vermin all over him. "NOOOOOOO!" They began to bite and tear.

"Stop!" called Branch, and the army obeyed. "He is dead already. Let him go."

They got off the man and he staggered to his feet, shaking from the venom in his blood, staggered down the hall. He felt the way to his office, reached for the phone, and tripped a third time over Steve's broken chair. He plummeted head first into the glass snake cage, and the glass ended his life. He died with his face buried in the sand he had never once cleaned out.

Back in the lab, Squibble was dying, the Shade was finished. Warcom was gone, and Steve was recovering. Yet there was the matter of a nine foot King Cobra to deal with. It rose, towering above the army, and unfurled its hood. Under its gaze, most of the mice were paralyzed with fear. None of them were in any shape to do anything, except Kippy, who was cradling the body of his dead brother. He gently set Fleeter's soft corpse down and with a sigh, took up the sword. He stood alone in the middle of the room, facing the serpent. Not much could faze him now. He felt numb. No fear came from him at all - he had been through too much. He was not smiling any longer. Steve held a lab tray in his hands, but Kippy waved him off. Every murine eye and two pairs of human eyes were locked on the tension between the great snake and the little mouse.

"Well?" Kippy said to Mandallo.

"Well what, mouse?" Mandallo answered, swaying side to side from exhaustion and pain.

Kippy looked Mandallo square in the eyes and frowned. "Friend or foe?" he said, holding the sword ready.

Mandallo saw just past this white mouse was the beige one that had brought the meat. He looked down at his side and saw the mouse that held the laser, standing confidently and without fear. But most of all, he saw Kippy, who had danced the perfect death upon the demon Shade. Mandallo felt a strange thing then.

"I have deep respect for you and your band of heroes," Mandallo said to Kippy. "It is friend."

Mouths that had closed reopened and hung there. The army as a whole stood in wonder. Percival squinted. This was Kippy speaking, and not Spritely.

"I'll be damned," said Stompy.

Squibble smiled.

"You and I have been here before, little mouse," said Mandallo.

"Is that right?" said Kippy.

"It is so. Long ago. I was different then, and so were you. We were... smaller. In many ways."

Tears fell from Squibble's face. More than anyone else, he realized what was happening. He had always wished he could have seen it the first time, long ago, and now he would.

"I do feel as if I know you," Kippy admitted upon realizing it.

"We share fates, Mouse Knight," said the snake.

"I am no Knight," Kippy admitted.

"Well we'll just fix that right the hell now!" Stompy exclaimed, drawing her blade and glancing at Percival.

"No," Mandallo said in his deepest voice. The rodents froze. The snake dipped his head down to Stompy. "May I?" the snake asked. Stompy looked at Kippy, who shrugged. Stompy nodded and handed him the blade, handle first, which he took in his giant mouth. As his fangs showed Feeder was very proud of himself that he did not faint.

With the sword in his mouth, Mandallo said to Kippy and the Knights, "Allow me."

Gasps and cries of wonder and astonishment filled the room.

"When I was vulnerable, you had mercy on me," Mandallo said to Feeder. "You may join him." Feeder looked at Kippy with eyes wider than the Grand Canyon. Kippy smiled and motioned him over.

"And you," Mandallo said to Knifey.

"Knifey?" Knifey said, shocked.

"Yes, little spitfire. You."

Knifey hopped over to his beloved friends holding both knives at his side.

"Can... can he do this?" Feeder asked Kippy.

"His first name is King," answered Kippy, somehow knowing.

"It's... it's incredible!" Percival whispered to the others. All eyes were wide, all hearts racing as they witnessed history repeat itself in the birth of a legend.

Mandallo lowered his head to the floor and set the blade of the sword gently upon Kippy's shoulder.

'I make you Knights.' (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

"In the name of Spritely, which all snakes know," he said, and moved the sword over to Feeder, "and the name of Courage, which all animals respect," he moved the blade to Knifey, who stood proudly, chest out and chin high, "and in the name of Love, the greatest loyalty there is," he backed up a foot and set the sword down. "I make you Knights. Live with Honor and Valor, mighty ones. Make your dreams come true."

The room burst into cheers and squeaks, clapping and hopping. Steve and Jim brought their hands together as well. Kippy felt tears running down his face, but could not place what emotion they belonged to. Stompy and the others limped, dragged, and crawled their way to Squibble. The Rat Knights did as well. The old mouse was almost gone. His eyes were glazed over, and he was smiling, as if in the company of old friends.

"I got to see it," he whispered. "I saw it."

Shiva and Thor held his head and body up off the cold floor.

"Hello, everybody," Squibble said. "So nice to see you all again."

"Uncle," Shiva said.

"Brother," Percival said. Branch lay his head on Squibble's, and gently groomed him one last time. It felt good to the dying mouse.

Squibbette was crying. "Father," she whispered. "I love you."

Squibble's breathing was slowing down. His smile was kind and content.

Percival summoned his will, caused his arm to move, and placed his paw on the prophet's shoulder. "Great one," he said. "We need to know your great plan. To deal with the humans. To prevent them from destroying us when they find out, which they certainly now shall."

Squibble was fading. His smile did not falter.

"Kippy knows," he said, and then became still. The smile never left his face, even in death.

All heads in the room bowed. Helms were removed. Swords raised in last salute. Squibble, the last of the first generation, was gone.

Branch saw light and chanced to look up. He beheld there an open sky, a beautiful sunset, and Squibble being led away by three figures. A tall rat, a fat mouse, and an old friend. He smiled then, the very smile that Squibble had left behind.

"He is home," Branch said.

Outside the lab, Steve sat cross-legged and held Kippy in his hand. All around them were the remaining mice and rats who had not beat feet for higher ground before the humans came. Mandallo sat on the hood of Steve's car. It was running, and warm. The cast of the inner circle made a half circle around the human. Jim had taken a carload of mice back to the house and Kingdom basement with Lorri's help.

"Well, it's all over," Steve said. "The company's dead, and I need to find a new job. Which won't be easy, considering how this one ended."

Kippy still held his dead brother. The Sword was hanging from a belt tied loosely about his waist. "Not so fast," Kippy said.

Steve looked at his friend in confusion.

"We need you to finish this," Kippy said.

"Kippy, the first board meeting is three days from now," Steve said. "That will finish things. Warcom held all the stock, and now he's dead. The company has nothing. No grants, no owner, no mice."

Percival stepped up. "I think we can take care of some of that." Kippy translated this for Steve.

"And Squibble took care of the rest," Kippy said.

"I don't understand," Steve said.

"For the last three years, rodents all over the world have been sending us money," Percival said. "Called tithes, after what you give to the church. Ten percent is standard."

"Unless you kick ass," Shiva said, his head bandaged up. "Then it's like ninety five."

"Imagine," Percival said through Kippy, "All the rodents of the world, gathering money. And sending it to us through a giant network. A nickel here, a dime there, sometimes bills."

"Sometimes lots of bills," said Thor, grinning.

Steve's eyebrows reached for the sky. "Yeah... but how much money can rodents really make?"

"Don't underestimate us, Steve," said Kippy. "Squibble invested it with the help of the RMC."

"The same Squibble that could foresee the future?" Steve said, amazed.

"Yes," said Percival. "With the wisdom of Nemo."

"How much?" Steve said.

Kippy paused, looked around at the rodents, back, and said, "a billion dollars, Steve."

Steve choked on his words. "A... a billion dollars!?"

Percival nodded.

"If every mouse in the world found a dime every week," Kippy said, "with so many of us on the planet, it would easily add up. And then of course, the prophet invested it in all the right stocks."

"Oh...Oh my god..." Steve gasped.

"We need one more thing from you, Steve," said Percival through Kippy.

Steve looked down at the billionaire mice.

"And it will assure you of job security for the rest of your life, I'm pretty sure."

Steve stared blankly at the Mouse Lord. "What...?"

"The board meeting will continue as planned," Percival said.

Steve was flabbergasted. "You... you have access to this money?" he asked.

Kippy smiled. "That was the only part we were missing. Only Squibble had the password to the accounts. We didn't know where or what the password was. And we didn't know how he planned to use the money."

Steve gestured impatiently. "And!...?"

Kippy climbed up to Steve's shoulder and said, "The password was engraved in ancient Hebrew, right onto the scabbard of the magical sword. It is your name. Steve Stafford." Steve's jaw dropped.

"He... he knew??!" Steve whispered in awe.

The mice and rats nodded, not surprised.

"He knew everything would happen just as it did, long before I was even born." Kippy said.

"But he died..."

"Just as he always wanted to."

"Such risks taken..."

"Every one of them necessary to the outcome."

"Which is...?"

Kippy gave his best cheeky grin and whispered in Steve's ear.

Chapter 19: The Last Battle