Chapter 1: The Valley

Morning had finally come.

The first rays of the dawning sun were trying to drive away the dampness. The leaves were shedding their dew and beginning to warm themselves in the golden light. But down below, down at the base of the woods, the air still clung with chilling moisture.

Something was leaning against the base of a particular tree, something wet, cold, tired, and very, very annoyed.

It was a rat, a male rat. But it was not your average kind of rat.

First of all, there was its size. There are many urban legends about huge rats. This one put them all to shame. Almost as big as a rabbit and draped in a shaggy gray pelt it was an unnerving sight, with long claws and a feral expression.

Surprisingly, its most surreal aspect had nothing to do with size and appearance.

The rat wore clothes.

Standing on its hind legs it was covered in a medieval style olive tunic and draped in a voluminous black cape. Judging by the creature’s expression the garments were failing in keeping cold and moisture at bay. This rodent was not in a good mood.

The very final touch of the bizarre was that the creature also sported a weapon. A weird hybrid of pole-axe and spear made from a metal that almost looked black, it fit the rodent’s paws perfectly. In a way, it mirrored the animals’ impression of a barely contained violent incident.

It scanned the underbrush.

With eerily cold eyes the rodent took a good measure of its surroundings simply by moving its head. There was no twitching of the tail or movement of the body. The head swiveled slowly and economically in the manner of a professional guard.

After having surveyed the area a few times the rat accepted the fact that no one would try to ambush it. What a disappointment. It was so aggravated with its current dampness that it really could have used some senseless violence. There was nothing like some vented aggression to relieve both stress and warm the bones. Alas, nobody seemed to be willing to oblige.

A few uneventful moments passed.

Finally, it raised its head towards the distant canopy, inserted two fingers around its impressive incisors, and gave a shrill whistle.

High up in the branches another rodent, a mouse, heard the call and peered down at the forest floor. A young, crème-colored female, this specimen was clothed as well, in her case with a simple poncho of sky-blue. While the rat on the ground exuded an air of aggression the mouse almost glowed with innate cheer. She lived life to the fullest no matter what.

As she made out the distant shape of the rat below the mouse, Cynthia Brisby by name, put both hands to her muzzle and called back,

‘I am okay, Brutus! Just a few more minutes and I am done!’

That being said the smaller rodent shifted back onto the branch, leaving her brooding counterpart on the ground to his foul mood. She still had some samples to take.

Right in front of an old break in the branch Cynthia had left her satchel, a large tan bang with a wide strap she could sling over her shoulder. She resumed rummaging inside, making the bag’s contents jingle with the sounds of glass on glass. The mouse and rat team had been at their task for many hours and almost all the collection vials were full. So, it took a while to find an empty one and the cork that went it.

Humming as she searched a small shout of ‘Aha!’ heralded her success. Next, the mouse removed a set of tweezers from the satchel and shuffled closer to the broken stump. There, in a small crevice, grew a tiny innocuous orange fungus, shaped like a prickly orange. Careful not to touch it with her paws Cynthia aimed the tweezers.

‘Gotcha!’

In one swift movement she dropped the sample from the tweezers into the vial and pushed in the cork, careful to get an air-tight seal. Then she admired it a while, holding the vial in front of her eyes. This was going to be a good day.

***

This was going to be a good day. At least, that was what the weasel believed when it silently slunk from the tree’s upper trunk unto the branch with the mouse on it. Finally, after many aggravating attempts, this little morsel would fulfill its destiny, as breakfast.

It moved slowly. Cynthia, now busy re-arranging the vials in her bag, was completely unaware of the predator’s presence. The weasel began hunching itself up, coiling for the pounce. It waited, waited for just the right moment.

And then it leaped!

The mouse ducked.

The weasel could not believe it. Seconds, mere seconds before its jaws were about to taste the rodent’s delicious flesh the mouse suddenly had jerked to the side and vanished. The impossibility of it all struck at it, but not as hard as the branch stump, which connected with its cranium. Then, all remaining thought was interrupted by the pretty lights.

The next thing the weasel heard was the wind, the gentle wind. As its mind cleared it remembered that there had been no wind this morning. Looking up at the receding image of a crème-colored mouse gazing at it from a branch that kept getting smaller and smaller the wily predator began to grasp the situation.

It was falling. There was nothing it could do about it. It had lost its breakfast, it had a headache, and it would very soon have a backache as well. Yet there was something that it could do. It decided it was as good a course of action as any. It started to scream.

As soon as the weasel started screeching the mouse startled from her amazement at watching her foe tumbling away. Stifling a small gasp she threw her satchel over her shoulder and began climbing down the tree’s trunk. Slipping and sliding down the trunk might have been a more apt description. With a look of rising dread the tiny rodent skittered down the bark muttering with apprehension,

She had forgotten about Brutus. Having a weasel dumped on the rat’s head would not be a good thing. Yet even halfway down the tree Cynthia knew her hopes were in vain. The sounds of fighting, snarling, and destroyed vegetation filled the cold air. The weasel had landed. And judging from the growls and screams coming from below her large rodent companion had finally found an outlet for his pent-up aggression. The mouse hoped she was not too late.

Just as she skittered to the trunk’s base she could see that Brutus had pinned down the predator by sitting heavy on its back and his pole-axe raised ready to split its skull.

‘Brutus! Stop!’

The rat froze in mid-swing.

He blinked its huge, cold eyes a few times, breathing hard, as if coming out of a dream. The weasel, wisely, did not move a muscle. The mouse took the opportunity to race to the combatants’ side and gently touched the heaving rat’s arm.

‘Let him go. He’s had enough.’

Still breathing hard Brutus glared at her, at first in anger and then confusion. The young mouse nodded to the weasel.

‘Promise you won’t hunt me anymore?’

Knowing how perilously close it was to have its head skewered the pinned creature nodded violently, all the while trying its best to give a sheepish grin. The pointed teeth spoiled the effect a bit. Cynthia, smiling entreatingly at the rat herself, spoke softly.

‘See? He promised. It’s okay now, you can let him go.’

After a few more moments of staring at his smaller companion in disbelief the rat rolled his eyes towards the sky and shifted his bulk off the prone predator. Not even looking at the defeated enemy Brutus sulked away with the mouse in tow.

Having narrowly escaped with its life the weasel got up and looked back at the retreating rodents. It sat down on its haunches, checking itself over to make sure all its various parts were still in place. Tilting its head from side to side, it debated whether a quick pounce could turn the tables on the two retreating rodents.

As if the weasel’s thought had been spoken out loud Brutus swiveled around and pointed a clawed finger in its direction. The rat’s eyes were opened wide and radiated so much rage that the predator stumbled backwards and then scrambled away through the underbrush. With the weasel gone the rat continued shambling quietly next to the mouse. Brutus decided he would brood a bit. The mouse, in turn, tried her best to avoid his gaze and look sheepish.

Truth be told, Cynthia did feel bad about having dropped a weasel on her friend. But she did not necessarily feel bad for the more obvious reasons. She had known Brutus long enough to know that nothing short of a wolf would worry him. And even those tended to stay away these days. No, the rat was upset because his job was to protect her. And if that weasel had gotten to her, he would have failed. If there was one thing Brutus took seriously, it was his duty.

Watching him sulk through the corner of her eye while they trotted across the forest floor was something she could not do for very long. Cynthia could be extremely patient, but not when it came to people acting like grouches. She sighed and waved her arms to her side.

‘Look, I knew he was there the whole time. I could feel his greedy smile halfway up the tree.’

Brutus looked back at her and raised a finger, first to the side of his head, then pointing up a random tree. Then he put both hands next to his body in a gesture of helplessness. The mouse tried to cheer him up.

‘Don’t worry about it. He never got me before and he never will, you know that.”

The rat snapped a finger next to his head with an angry expression. Then he pointed over his shoulder back to where they had come from, then up a tree again, and finally he tapped gently at the side on his temples. Cynthia, who had learned how to read the mute rat well during their friendship, rubbed her chin thoughtfully.

‘I admit it. He is getting craftier. Waiting up in the tree for me was a new one. But you don’t actually believe that he figured out you are scared of heights.’

Raising his gaze to the sky again and shrugging Brutus stated his uncertainty. Then, a shadow crossed over the mouse’s own face. There was something else she had not considered, something that finally raised a specter of doubt.

‘How would he have known that I would go up on that tree? I mean, I’ve never been on that one before. He’d have to know that the fungus only grows up there and that would be… nah!’

Cynthia shook her head and snickered,

‘He can’t be that smart. He’s a wild animal, not civilized, like us.’

Speaking with exaggerated theatrics in an effort to lighten the mood she waved her paws graciously at her companion. She would get him to smile yet. But now it was Brutus turn to look thoughtful rather than upset. He turned his head back towards the distant woods and scratched the side of his head in wonder. But there would be no answers coming from that direction.

Slowly, the woods gave way to open grass, tall and bright. Rat and mouse were following a small path of trampled ground now, bisecting the grass blades in a wide swath. Finally, the path ended at the base of a huge fallen tree.

This tree had not fallen by accident. Nor was its position in front of the path coincidence. No, this was one of the first signs of civilization to be found this far from the Colony.

The tree trunk was not rugged. Its base had been cut smooth and held two huge circular gates. More than five feet tall from the ground the door would have once been able to open wide and allow the passage of some sizable equipment, at least, sizable when compared to its rodent designers. Now the grasses had encroached thick on the sides, only allowing for the small rat-sized door embedded in the larger right-hand gate to be opened.

As Cynthia and Brutus reached the trunk the rat fished out the key for the door and began unlocking it. The mouse spent a few moments looking at the thriving plant life.

‘If Justin ever wants us to lug something big in here that grass needs to be cut.’

Pulling the small entrance open her partner shrugged and, with practiced theatrics, bowed to Cynthia to enter the tree. For all his grumpy demeanor Brutus did have a sense of humor.

Adopting a fake tone of snobbery, the mouse strutted inside.

‘Why, thank you my dear. Don’t forget the luggage, will you?’

As soon as the door had been opened, glowing lights inside the hollowed tree turned on. Walls had been carved smooth and paneled with wrought brass. The members of the Colony always tried to blend their sense of aesthetics with the functional, and this hollowed log was no exception.

The huge rat closed the small door behind him and followed his companion down the light tunnel. The passage was wide, much more than would be necessary to simply allow the rodents’ passage. As Cynthia and Brutus strolled onwards the cavernous structure revealed the reason for its size. Shining in the glow of the electric lamps hung around the passage walls stood an enormous bird cage. It rested on a circular platform in the tunnel floor, composed of three heavy, brass-lined panels. From above, the cage was connected with strong cables to dark recesses in the ceiling.

As she passed the birdcage the mouse flicked a finger at the metal, making it ring.

‘Think it still works, Brutus?’

The rat grabbed a hold of one of the cage’s bars, rattling it and nodded emphatically. The Colony might not have thought about cutting the grass outside recently, but when it built machinery, it made sure it lasted. The cage had served well during the colonist’s move to Thorn Valley, acting as a heavy-duty elevator, moving heavy equipment to the valley below.

Behind the improvised freight elevator another man-made item came into view. This time the cavern lights revealed a fire-red motor-cycle helmet, resting on a similar smaller platform. As with the birdcage, the helmet was connected with a cable to some sort of winching mechanism far above. Apart from the cable only a small set of rodent-sized stairs leading up the visor hinted to the device’s function.

Brutus stepped to the helmet’s side and with one deft movement unlatched the visor, which swung up on well-greased springs. The dim light of the tunnel revealed a semicircular row of cushioned seats inside. This was the colony’s personnel elevator, installed after the move had been completed in case anyone ever needed to access the cliff wall again.

Climbing up gingerly, Cynthia wasted no time in making herself comfortable and securing a set of small safety straps. Her rat companion, on the other hand, remained outside and peered at the mouse with uncomfortable suspicion on his face.

‘What?’

The mouse tried to sound as if she did not know what Brutus’ hesitation was about. The bigger rodent pointed an accusing finger at her, held out his hand in a horizontal plane, only to drop it down suddenly while making a “whoosh” sound whistling through his teeth.

Cynthia sighed.

‘Alright, I promise not to touch the release this time.’

Still cautious the rat ducked inside, stowed his weapon against the wall, and strapped himself in as well. Once settled, he leaned back and closed his eyes. The mouse watched him for a while. Finally, Brutus swallowed hard and nodded. In response Cynthia grabbed one of the levers jutting from a primitive instrument panel and pulled it halfway down.

Far above in the hollowed tree’s dark recesses gears were beginning to grind as the winch stretched the cable until the crash helmet hovered an inch over the platform it had been resting on, revealing a second cable attached from below, which vanished into a hole in the floor. Then, the ground opened up in three triangular panels, allowing blinding sunlight to spill into the cavern dimness. Below, the bright depths of ThornValley waited.

The grinding mechanism above began to lower the elevator on its guiding cable. As always, the view was breathtaking. Descending slowly the helmet’s visor gave a clear vantage of the valley’s entire expanse. Cut by the Thorn River eons ego, Thorn Valley lined the bottom of a cliff ridge that millennia of weathering had first chiseled from the stone, and then filled in halfway again by erosion. Far below, trees, meadows, and even flying birds could be seen.

One of the two passengers apparently had no interest in the view.

His teeth and eyes clenched, Brutus’ fur was beginning to be drenched in perspiration. This was the worst part of their many trips to the Valley’s borders for him. Watching her companion sadly, the small rodent wondered at the irony of it all.

A member of the first generation to be born to the Rats of NIMH after they had settled in their first home, Brutus had always had a reputation for being fearless, fearless and scary. Few of the other colonists knew that the large rat was far from being without fear. True, there was no creature, no matter how much bigger than himself that he would not face in defense of his charges. No matter what the perils of his assignments, he did his duty. Only one thing stymied his valor: Heights. Actually, depths would be the more precise term. Brutus had no problems looking up a tall tree or cliff. Yet when it came to the matter of having to look down one or the other, his guts would immediately turn to stone.

So here he was, sitting in a gently descending, comfortable means of transportation, not a breeze in the sky to jostle the taught guiding cables, but with his muscles wound so tight they looked ready to pop out of his fur.

There was only so much of this Cynthia could take. At their current rate of travel it could take fifteen minutes to reach the valley floor, fifteen minutes of pure agony for her friend. She eyed a second lever, smaller but colored a bright red, on the mechanical panel. Gazing from it to Brutus and back again she made up her mind. This ride was going to be painful for Brutus, no matter what the conditions. That was beyond her control. But she could do something about the duration.

Remembering her promise, the mouse opened her bag and rummaged around inside. Despite his terror the sound of jingling glass caused Brutus to open an eye a fraction. When he saw her retrieve a cleaning cloth from her bag to cover her hand before she grasped the red lever, both his eyes snapped open in horror.

Too late. Cynthia, her hand covered in cloth, yanked the red pull downward, hard. A signal went through the guiding cable’s innards to the winch above. A halting screech from the mechanisms stopped the elevator’s descent. It was followed by two loud snaps. The rat’s e

muzzle opened slowly in a silent scream.

Then, the elevator dropped.

A journey that would normally take about fifteen minutes was shortened to a few seconds as the crash helmet hurtled towards the distant ground. Both rodents had their behinds raised off their seats, held in heck only by their safety harnesses. Brutus’ spear rose from the floor as the rat gazed at it in utter horror. The outside world was a blur.

Surprisingly, the elevator slowed gradually. Safety measure inside the winch kicked in just as the helmet cleared the tree-line of the valley, returning the passengers to their original speed. Rat and mouse slumped back into their seats and the pole-axe dropped unceremoniously to the floor. The only thing that did not change was Brutus’ wide-eyed face of terror, muzzle still gaping, eyes looking nowhere.

The elevator followed the guiding line to a huge tree stump nestled in a meadow between Thorn Valley’s blanket of trees. Just as the helmet appeared to land on the stump’s strangely smooth surface, the same unfolded outwards in three wooden panels lined in metal, like the opening of a mechanized flower. Inside a deep shaft, three times as wide as the elevator cabin, led straight down into unknown depths. Just as with the transport station atop the Cliffside the vertical shaft was illuminated by small lamps set in ornamented walls.

After a few more moments of gradual descent the helmet nestled comfortably on a circular landing platform in the middle of the shaft. The platform connected to a circular walkway lining the tunnel by four railed bridges, which in turn ended at two vaulted staircases leading upwards.

Cynthia waited for Brutus’ respiration to return to normal. A few short breaths and the large rat blinked his eyes as if realizing for the first time that the ride was over. He slowly turned his head towards the mouse, his face covered in a smoldering glower. Cynthia shrugged and gave a sheepish grin.

‘I didn’t actually touch the release, to be precise. Anyway, at least it was quicker this way. Better to pull the thorn out quickly, mom always says.’

Not waiting for Brutus to respond she quickly unlatched the visor, scrambled over the rim and across a walkway. The still befuddled rat picked up his weapon and followed, slowly.

Walking across the bridge was another chore. Since the shaft continued downward below the landing platform the two bridges were suspended in midair with nothing but gaping darkness below. The rat walked slowly, looking straight in front in order to ignore the depths yawning beneath his feet. He would get angry at the mouse later, but only after he had his footing on solid ground again.

Both rodents were being expected.

Standing at attention at one of the two exits was a brown rat guard. Only slightly less imposing than Brutus he was also fully clothed and armed with a spear. As both passengers made their way along the tunnel wall the guard's face broke into a wide grin.

'How was the ride?' he asked the still panting Brutus cheerfully.

The other raised a warning finger and glared menacingly at the guard.

'Come on, Sarge, ' replied the guard. 'Just trying to cheer you up a bit.'

Brutus gave a conceding sigh and shook his head. No time to get upset even more. He had to catch up with his young charge. But just as he was about to follow Cynthia up the staircase the brown rat called out once more.

'Sarge! The Captain told me to remind you that you're up for tonight's Chamber Meeting!'

This made the larger rat flinch. Brutus never understood why Philip, the current Captain of the guard, always agreed to have him represent the Guard at the boring administrative meetings. Brutus absolutely hated bureaucracy in all its forms, almost as much as paperwork. And to have a mute serve as representative could almost be viewed as a sick joke, almost. Right up to the point where Justin, the leader of the colony, probably had requested his presence personally.

Justin had been Brutus’ teacher, back in the day. He knew very well that the silent rat could be a most convincing communicator in his own way. Plus, Justin thought that the huge rat’s unsettling presence helped to spur some of the more self-serving members of the administration to watch their steps. The fact that Brutus scared the tails of a lot of them was an added bonus.

The elevator station was located deep beneath the forest floor and it took both mouse and rat several minutes of climbing stairs before they emerged from the hidden exit. The door was nestled within yet another tree stump facing a small dirt road. The path was quite level as it cut through meadows and woods. At times other roadways of the same type intersected it. They changed directions often but did so in the casual manner of people who knew exactly where they were going.

Yet at one crossing Cynthia suddenly hesitated,

'Can't we go down to the right here?'

Brutus shook his head with a disapproving scowl.

'Don't you want to know if the new dam works?'

Brutus' face brightened a bit. He had forgotten about the engineers’ latest accomplishment. After a moment's thought, he nodded approval. The two of them turned and took the path to the right.

After only a short walk the road reached the bank of the river Thorn, after which Thorn Valley had originally been named. As it had since the colony's founding, the river flowed smoothly but powerfully down its bed, the water speeding and surging as it squeezed through the narrow neck created by the valley's stone floor. But halfway down the valley a large beaver dam stemmed the river’s advance and created a sizable reservoir of water until the water was allowed to continue its path. The dam itself was a ramshackle, yet imposing construction. Many a naturalist would have been overjoyed at this apparent picture-perfect example of beaver craftsmanship.

Only that this damn had not been constructed exclusively by the water-loving mammals. The beavers did help, in a huge way. The rat engineers had decided early on not to reinvent the wheel and asked the local beaver population for help. Those had already constructed a smaller dam, which washed away almost every season due to the Thorn’s strong currents when the snow melted. With a promise to help them build a home that would not succumb to floodwaters the rats had assured the beavers’ cooperation and help.

The final result was a true marvel. In exchange for their help the rats had asked to use parts of the construction for their own needs. The beaver family had agreed, since the strange rodents that had moved into Thorn Valley and created their marvelous colony already provided protection from predators to many of the local wildlife. In keeping wolves and other disruptive wildlife at bay the rats served others as well as themselves. Giving the mysterious creatures use of some of the dam seemed fair repayment.

It had been a matter of secrecy. Despite their remote and protected location, the Rats of NIMH, as the strange rodents with the human-like attributes now called themselves, could not risk discovery by humans. They had built their new home in a nature preserve but someone might still be able to spot a more obvious construction, through blind luck or sheer accident. In the guise of natural beaver dam the engineers had been able to supply on of their colony’s most dire needs.

The two rodents were able to traverse the dam easily. Winding between the more mountainous heaps of logs an almost level surface allowed an easy passage over the construction. Again, a tremendous design feat. Unless someone was to bend down to eye level with the damn, nobody would be able to discern the hidden walkway’s existence. From above it was just a jumble of sticks and wood.

They made their way until Cynthia bent down, a faint vibration teasing at her toes. She peered intently into one of the gushing water columns that exited the dam’s downstream side, where water levels were much lower than upstream. The mouse pointed into the clear waters.

'There!' she shouted towards Brutus over the breaking stream, pointing down to a silvery shadow as it flashed down the spillway below them. 'I knew it was large enough to let the fish through!'

The rat nodded in agreement. Making sure that the structure did not interfere with some of the other creatures and resources the rats depended on had been another important consideration. As Brutus caught the occasional flash of silver in the water his dour face cracked with a small smile. He'd come to like the taste of trout. After a few moments the large rodent turned to look up at the distant cliffs. Following his gaze the mouse chuckled and stood up again.

'Don't worry! I don't think anyone will ever come close enough to notice what we really built. You can’t even hear the turbines over the rushing water.'

As Cynthia turned to reach the other side of the dam, waving to a group of beavers resting on an artificial island composed of more logs, the rat just kept looking at the sky. It promised to be quite a beautiful day. Only a few clouds were to be seen, nothing that could really cause a shower. Then, Brutus' gaze froze. Up in the sky was something that was not supposed to be there. He turned and whistled loudly at the mouse.

Cynthia looked at the guard and then at where his finger pointed, her face fell and her heart grew cold.

‘Oh no,’ she swallowed hard, ‘the crows.'.

The small mouse immediately took off towards the opposite shore, running as fast as her small paws could carry her.

Brutus put his fingers into his muzzle and whistled at the mouse again, his face awash with confusion.

Stopping in mid-stride Cynthia turned and shouted.

'They're back way too early! Something's wrong! I've got to tell my mom!'

With that she hopped off the other shore and disappeared.

Brutus scratched his chin, shouldered his spear, and continued his walk to the other side, slowly, his mind lost in thought. He looked back over his shoulder at the distant sky once more and shook his head.

Cynthia was right. Something had to be wrong, very wrong.

***

The mouse was racing. She cursed herself for wanting to see the dam. The detour cost her twenty minutes, not to mention one heck of a side-ache. She sped along the dirt path as fast as she possibly could, not looking as she chose her turns. If not for her precious bag Cynthia could have made even better time by running on all fours. She felt stupid for not having handed it to Brutus. Now it was too late and leaving it behind was unthinkable.

Down the dirt road stood a large machine, at least it was large in rodent terms. Built from wood and metal plates that had been tightly bolted together it resembled a hand made toy tank; but only if someone were to overlook its huge size and somewhat tall mid section. It even had tank tracks. And in between those tracks two rats were busily cleaning out gears. A young female, dressed in a worker's apron, was climbing out from a panel at the front. She leaned over to look at a more elderly male rat in similar attire, which was busy oiling the sides of the contraption.

'Dad, I'm done. Should I check the grain-intake next?'

The older rat turned around.

'Please do. I'll be finished down here in second.'

Just then Cynthia, her poncho and bag flying behind her, ran by the two workers.

'Hi Hands! Hi Ratchet! Bye Hands, Bye Ratchet!'

Then she disappeared around a bend in the road.

The male looked at the female in confusion.

'What was that about?'

The younger rat shrugged, 'If she's in too much a hurry to talk then there's a problem somewhere.'

Looking at the path the mouse had just passed the older rat was at a loss.

'Oh bother!'

And that summed it up nicely.

***

The Oak stood alone within a sea of grass. Nobody knew whether it had grown up a solitary tree or had just outlived its neighbors. Over the long centuries of its life it had grown to immense proportions and now dominated the meadow. The trunk was so massive and compact it resembled a medieval castle, its huge branches forming ornate towers crowned with greenery. And through the tall grass six almost invisible dirt pathways centered towards the monumental tree.

Approaching the Oak Cynthia paused to relieve the pain in her side, her breath coming in deep, shuddering gasps. She desperately needed a rest but forced herself to keep going, though at a much slower rate. But as she rounded the final curve and neared the rugged bark at her enforced, more leisurely pace she was suddenly taken aback.

'Oh no!' she groaned.

The small portal, which was nestled within a cleft between dividing roots and usually open, was closed shut. The young mouse turned to look around, she knew better than to think she had the strength to open it by force.

'Hello! Is anyone there? I have to get inside, right now!'

There was no reply.

'Where's a rat when you need one?' muttered Cynthia.

Sighing she grabbed her bag and started to jump up the overhanging root arch, desperately trying to reach a particular and deceptively looking twig with her paw. After the fourth try she sighed, set the bag down and pulled out a length of string. Looping into a long, loose circle she swung it up over her head and it wrapped around the end of the small stick.

‘Gotcha!' she squeaked.

Then she pulled with all her strength until the twig snapped downward with a loud 'click'. Accompanied by the sounds of straining gears the heavy wooden panel between the roots slowly raised itself and revealed the entrance.

With a deep breath the mouse stuffed the string back into her bag and entered the sparsely illuminated passage. After a few steps she resumed her running. The small tunnel with its carved stairs soon joined others to form a huge cave within the tree. The wooden hall was followed by a shaft, which extended all the way up into the trunk.

This was the colony's Atrium. An immense wooden gate could be lowered between it and the entrance hall to seal up the colony in case of emergency. The Rats had painstakingly hollowed out the tree's core and most of its major branches without killing it to make room for their living quarters. To maintain the Oak's stability the inside had been lined by special brickwork. Only the internal walls had been carved out of the tree's natural wood. The system of rooms and caverns was extensive enough to reach far below the dense roots.

In order to make journeys from the top branches to the lowest levels of the colony more convenient the Atrium housed an elaborate staircase with multiple rodent-sized elevators.

The two large sentry rats standing guard at the boundary between the Atrium and the gate-shaft took no notice as Cynthia ran passed them. The sight of her bounding through the colony was something most rats were used to by now, but not all.

She leapt over the stairs and raced by an elderly rat lady in a formal council gown, brushing against her and upsetting her ornate headdress. The rat was clearly offended at the lack of greeting or acknowledgement.

'Little vagrant!' she snapped.

'Running around the hallways like that! No respect for her betters has this little brat. You wait until I have a word with your mother. I certainly won't tolerate... '

The lady's ranting continued long after Cynthia was out of earshot. But the mouse had other problems to worry about.

The stairs lead up to one of the many walkways, which lined the hall. Running by many doors Cynthia headed towards one decorated with sparkling green glass. Those were the elevators. Once there, she quickly pushed the round button embedded in the doorframe. It immediately lit up a bright red and a loud noise from behind the door hallowed the approach of the cabin.

Then everything just stopped.

All the lights within the Atrium suddenly went out. The sound of the elevator was replaced by the loud complaints from everyone present in the now completely dark hall. The colony's power had apparently gone down again. The dam, which provided the colony’s power, must have encountered yet another snag.

'This is just great,' complained Cynthia as she edged through the darkness towards another set of stairs. Now she would have to walk topside. This promised to be a day of running.


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