In the darkness of the vast office the occupant’s fingers tapped a glowing green square on the polished table. When touched the icon light up and receded into the depths of desk’s surface.
‘Good evening, sir.’ The mechanized feminine voice intoned.
‘Set up recording for a status report on the Retrieval Protocol.’
It had been a long day of work, but the figure in the towering chair did not let his fatigue rush his usual procedure. A mere moment after his command the mechanical speaker replied.
‘Set up completed, sir. Ready to record on your mark.’
In the shadow of the seat’s curved back the occupant nodded to himself.
The voice waited a short while and then relayed the information for the night’s log entry.
‘The specimens’ progress appears to have halted after their arrival in the city. The received data also shows that three of the specimens have separated from the main group. From the location of the bait animal we estimate that it and the remaining two specimens are close to the area of the last retrieval operation. We will monitor for the return of the separated specimens.’
The speaker’s hands folded in front of his face, a strange green glow reflecting from his eyes, which was the only visible indication of his features in the gloom. When he next spoke a tinge of concern entered his report.
‘If the three separated specimens do not rejoin the main group within 48 hours of the last information transfer, we may have to send an active retrieval team to search the sewers. I will not allow them to be lost again.’
A short pause ensued, as was standard procedure.
‘Save and encode the entry.’
The female voice gave the expected response.
‘Entry saved and locked. Good night sir.’
The mouse behind the mask had set the needle gun on the bench next to him. Somehow, the tension and sense of intimidation the figure had radiated before slowly ebbed away, leaving the seated rodent looking small and huddled. As it had done in the past, the name she shared with her departed husband had once again allowed Mrs. Brisby to form a rapport, where moments ago there had been no hope for resolution. Their captor, or rescuer for that matter, gazed at the three mice through the circular glass lenses hiding his eyes. They were able to hear his breathing from the two protective vents in the front of his mask, where nose and mouth were hidden. For a few moments neither knew what to say. It was the now resigned looking shape of their keeper that broken the silence.
‘I know the name of a Jonathan Brisby.’
The raspy, youthful voice had lost its edge. Now it just sounded weary and unbearably exhausted.
‘He was my husband.’
The cowl nodded.
‘So the rats managed to survive after all.’
Mrs. Brisby exchanged a glance with her children, unsure how to proceed. Both Cynthia and Timothy could only shrug, their confused expressions echoing their mother’s. Through his glass lenses the seated mouse picked up on their uncertainty.
‘Jonathan Brisby and Thomas Ages were the two mice who managed to stay with the rats that helped us escape so long ago.’
Timothy’s expression light up in understanding and he took a step forward.
‘You’re talking about the rest of the mice, the six that got lost in the ventilation system when the rats escaped NIMH.’
Once more the hooded shape nodded.
‘The first six, yes; the air swept them away, pulled them down. Then, they caught on a grate, a filter of some sort. They were stuck there for hours, the wind pressing on them, making it impossible to move. Then, the ventilation shut down.’
All three Brisby mice had now closed in around the one in the heavy coat, bringing their lantern with them. As Cynthia, who held the lamp, approached the slumped shape suddenly winced in pain and nearly fell of the stone bench. Mrs. Brisby and Timothy instinctively rushed forward to support the slipping figure. But whatever discomfort the hooded shape felt it was not enough to overcome its training. As the two mice closed in gloved hands grasped the discarded pistol once more, pointing it straight at Timothy’s head.
Mrs. Brisby, who stood a little to the left of her son, drew a deep breath and raised her hands with the palms open.
‘Please, we mean no harm.’
Slowly, the gun was lowered again and placed on the bench once more. The hooded shape slumped even more, head downcast. Then, soft sobbing sounds became audible and the mouse began to tremble. Their mysterious captor was crying.
Cynthia placed the lantern on the ground and drew near her family and the stranger. Her mother very slowly seated herself next to the distraught figure, noticing for the first time how fragile and weak it looked when one got passed the heavy protective clothing. Carefully, Mrs, Brisby put a soothing hand on the slumped shoulders. He did not flinch. Rather, the heaving intensified. Then, unexpectedly, the masked head turned and leaned into the older mouse’s lap, like a child running to its mother for comfort. Beneath the mask the tears had to be running copiously now.
Timothy and Cynthia took a seat on the other side of the bench, putting a calming hand on the crying mouse’s back. All fear had left them, to be replaced with compassionate sorrow. Whatever the individual in the coat had suffered, it must have been terrible. The crying subsided, replaced by deep breaths, slowly calming.
Finally, the head raised itself. It was impossible to tell with the mask whether the unexpected emotional breakdown had embarrassed the cloaked stranger. The fact that he did not make an effort to push them away, but turned his covered face from one to the other, studying them from behind the inscrutable glass lenses, gave the impression that he did not care about embarrassment. He pointed a gloved finger at the lamp.
‘Can you turn that down so that the wick barely glows?’
Cynthia removed her hand from the others back and walked over to the lamp, adjusting the oil control so that the wick would emit only the faintest light possible. Once done, she remained there and looked back at the group.
The hood nodded.
Without further explanation the mouse removed his right glove.
The hand within was young, but strong, covered in the most downy white fur any of the Brisby family had ever seen. One was able to see the light pink skin underneath. The masked rodent held his hand in the direction of Cynthia and the lamp as if testing something. Then, he nodded once more and removed the left hand glove.
Mrs. Brisby and her son drew back a bit as the stranger cautiously unbuckled the belt of his heavy coat and undid the buttons beneath. Cynthia walked back to the bench to get a better look. Soon, the hooded coat with its many pockets fell to the ground. Underneath the mouse was seen to wear belted pants and the strange boots they had noticed earlier. His upper body was revealed now and showed the same snowy covering of fur and light skin as his hands.
Finally, carefully, the downy hands began opening the straps that held the mask in place behind the mouse’s ear. Once loosened, the hands tenderly held the mask and in both hands and removed it.
The mice from Thorn Valley gaped.
Their presumed captor was young, probably the same age as Mrs. Brisby’s youngest daughter. Like the rest of his body, Brendan’s face and head were white-furred and gave the impression of being light-sensitive. His features were well-molded for his age and showed he would grow up to be a handsome mouse. But it was his eyes that shocked the others the most. Like his fur and skin, there was no pigmentation to be found in either iris. In the weak glow of the lamp the strange pupils, as small as pinholes, reflected in a ghastly reddish color. He truly did look like a ghost.
Mrs. Brisby leaned a bit forward, her right hand raised cautiously to Brendan’s face. He did not move but allowed her to gently touch his cheek, still wet from the tears he shed moments ago.
‘What has happened to you, child?’
A sad smile crossed the colorless rodent.
‘The same thing that is happening to you.’
Her hand drew away as if stung, her eyes going wide as Brendan continued.
‘When I drew you from the canal and dried your bodies, I saw the blight on each of you.’
His gaze went from Elizabeth to each of her children. The grief in the colorless eyes was overpowering.
‘Soon, you will all be like this, never able to feel the light again.’
Cynthia stood up, hands clasped in front of her nervously.
‘Where are the others, the ones who built this place? Did this… disease kill them?’
Now it was the downy-furred mouse’s turn to look confused.
‘No, nobody died. This blight… it just makes light unbearable. But we adapted, just kept all light very low.’
Timothy looked at the other doubtfully.
‘We were told that this thing was supposed to kill us in the end. You say it doesn’t? Then where is everybody?’
The bare-chested mouse looked at his own hands.
‘I don’t know. This whole mess started over six months ago. That’s when the discoloration first showed up. We didn’t worry about it then. But then two months later it spread so fast that we had to change our way of life. That was hard. But we got used to it. Low light wasn’t that bad.’
‘So,’ Mrs. Brisby ventured, ‘you have been like this for months?’
The white mouse nodded emphatically.
‘What happened to everybody else?’
‘Do you know about the Staggs?’
The older mouse felt a lump form in her throat. She and her children did not like where this conversation was heading. But Elizabeth nodded nonetheless.
‘My parents told me,’ Brendan explained, ‘that back when the first six managed to finally get out of NIMH they tried to follow the trail the rats had left, but lost that trail in the human’s garbage dump.’
Cynthia sighed appreciatively.
‘In that smell you wouldn’t be able to follow the scent of a skunk.’
A rare smile crossed the blighted features of their host.
‘There were only six of them, so they had to hide and scrape together some food and shelter.’
‘Must have been scary,’ Timothy mused.
‘And lonely.’ Brendan added, ‘Over time they made friends with whatever mice they could find. Since they had become so much smarter, the wild mice in the waste heaps were glad for their help. Many married wild mice. Then they found out that whatever NIMH did to them was passing on to whoever they were close to.’
A finger pointed at Mrs. Brisby.
‘You and the rats have probably figured that out as well.’
All three mice from the distant colony nodded agreement, but waited for the other to continue his story.
‘Soon there were many of us mice, all intelligent. We decided to move into the sewers, to build a home where humans would not look for us. We felt that one day NIMH would try to find us again.’
Cynthia’s mouth dropped open.
‘Didn’t the mice from the garbage dump know about the sewer rats?’
‘Oh, they knew alright.’
The smile on Brendan’s features returned.
‘By that time we had managed to make weapons and torches. The Staggs used to fear fire like the plague. We went down here until we found a place in the sewers far from where any human workers ever went, a place where the people from HIMH would not expect us, but close enough to places where we could… get things to build our home.’
Timothy gazed at the distant ceiling.
‘Like the lamps and such. How did you get electricity?’
The down-covered shoulders shrugged.
‘The humans run so much power underground, what little we needed they would never notice. Once we had built this place we made our own electricity from gear we took from humans.’
Trying not to let her unease show Elizabeth tilted her head as she looked at the lonely mouse.
‘Didn’t it bother you, having to steal?’
Brendan shrugged again
‘We had to survive. We were afraid to move too far from here. Plus, most of what we took was thrown away by the humans anyway. But two years ago, something changed.’
All three travelers drew closer once more, their interest peaked as Cynthia asked another question.
‘The sewer rats changed. There were always a few trying to sneak into our colony. They lost their fear of fire pretty quick, but they never had a chance against our Guards.’
He patted the needled-pistol with his right hand.
‘But then they started to wear clothes and make weapons. Only a few did that at first, but then it was as if every rat in the sewers was able to think as we do. If not for the weapons we had they would have overrun us. They even started to use strategy. We had to booby-trap all the tunnels and train everyone for Guard duty.’
Mrs. Brisby leaned closer once more, her face etched with worry.
‘You mean the sewer rats got smart like us?’
‘Yes, they became more and more like us. We were wondering if maybe us living so close to them had something to do with it, but we never figured it out.’
Timothy cringed and drew his hands into his lap.
‘Great! On top of the sewers being filled with huge monster cannibal rats, we now have smart monster cannibal rats.’
‘Timmy!’ Cynthia scolded, ‘Let him finish, please.’
Her mother urged Brendan to continue, despite her fears of where his story would go.
‘So the Stagg rats got all the other mice that lived here?’
‘Oh no!’ the downy mouse exclaimed, ‘They never managed to get through. Eventually, about the same time this blight started, they stopped trying altogether.’
Once more, all three members of the Brisby family shared their surprise. All of them had expected the tale to conclude with the descendants of the Mice of NIMH having been captured and killed by a horrendously altered horde of monstrous sewer rats.
‘No,’ the white mouse shook his head, ‘the Staggs had nothing to do with it.’
‘Then what happened?’ Cynthia wrung her hands nervously.
Brendan looked up the crème-furred female with shy embarrassment.
‘I was just finishing up my Guard training. But I kind of have a bit of a rebellious streak. Sometimes I just need to get away from all the hustle and bustle to think.’
That elicited smiles from both Brisby children and a whimsical smile from Cynthia in particular.
‘So,’ their host continued, ‘while scouting I found this neat little hidey-hole that was outside of our usual scouting range. I secretly took a few blankets, books, and a lamp there and whenever I just needed some –away time- I would go there.’
He looked down at his down-covered hands.
‘Once the blight had covered us all, that was more often. About a month ago, after I had spent a night there, I came back to the colony because I had Guard duty the next day. But when I came back…’
The mouse’s wide, red-glowing eyes were filled with pain.
‘Everybody was… just gone, I don’t know where; as if all of them had suddenly packed up and left.’
‘Or maybe they were taken,’ ventured Timothy, drawing angry looks from his mother and sister.
Again, Brendan’s head slumped.
‘You are right. There were signs of struggle, broken furniture and so forth. I even figured out where the attack came from.’
As he looked back at the other three mice and saw their questioning glances he simply turned his face to the ceiling and pointed a finger upwards. The Brisbys followed the other’s gaze and Elizabeth finally voiced the question on everyone’s mind.
‘What is up there?’
When everybody had lowered their heads and was looking at each other again Brendan gave all of them the strangest of expressions, deep-rooted fear and a cynical smile mixed into one.
‘We built our colony, where we knew the human scientists would never expect us to. We built it underneath NIMH.’
Justin’s mind was reeling.
Jenner’s oldest daughter bodily dragged him up a small tunnel, over carved steps and sloping ground. With his hands still bound behind his back he had no chance of overpowering her. Actually, he doubted he would have been able to if he had the use of his hands. He remembered Dora, back before her mother had taken her three daughters and left the Thorn Valley colony. Back then she had been the equivalent of a teenager. Justin recalled her always having been subdued, because of her size, which had been prodigious even at a young age. He guessed it was more difficult for a female to he so large compared to a male like Brutus. In hindsight he thought he understood what had caused her psychotic transformation. The death of her father, probably being teased about her size, and then the persecution of her family by imbeciles like Verilla, all would have contributed. When their mother made the decision to come here, Jenner’s place of birth, Dora must have felt that she finally found a place where she could fit in, literally. Tell someone that they are a freak long enough and they will believe it.
Suddenly, Rapta dragged him upright and, rather than pulling him behind her, started shoving him instead. That was a welcome change. This way he had at least a measure of control over the amount of bumps and bruising he was going to receive. He might even be able to find enough breath to talk.
A hard hand slapped his face.
‘Not my name anymore.’
Justin spat out blood and tried to make the bells in his head stop.
‘Rapta, I’m sorry. I should have stopped Cedric and Verilla. I should have…’
A hard shove into the small of his back made him slam into the tunnel wall.
‘Save your words for mother. You will not be able to lie to her.’
In the dark of the passage her eyes were glowing scarlet red as her face spread into a vicious grin.
The male decided he would wait to plead his case. At the pace she pushed him he had a difficult time catching his breath, much less thinking clearly. Maybe her mother, Victoria, would be a more amiable audience.
Thankfully, both rats soon reached another curtained-off doorway. Here, the towering female stopped and wrapped on a small metal gong hanging on a nail in the wall. A few moments later a young female voice called out.
‘Jenny, it’s me, Rapta. Is mother awake?’
‘Yes, she is,’ the voice replied, ‘is something wrong?’
Justin felt sick as he saw Rapta look at him with a cruel smile.
‘Nothing is wrong, Jenny. We have a guest. You will never guess who it is.’
The curtain was drawn aside and an average height female rat, silver grey in color wearing a rather traditional dress stepped out. Back when she had still lived at the Thorn Valley Colony Jenevieve had been a young teenager. Now, her deep, dark-green eyes looked out from an endearingly adult female face that could only be considered beautiful. And in her gaze was utter bafflement. But her expression quickly darkened. Where her oversized sister was definitely terrifying there was something even more chilling about the utter hate radiating from the face of such a beautiful creature.
He took a step back. Even Jenner had never managed to put so much disdain into his name. It literally choked his breath and he felt impelled to take a step backward, which elicited a chuckle from the huge female behind him. Rapta put a hand on Justin’s shoulder and dug her claws in.
‘Yes, Justin has come to visit with mother. Can you get her ready?’
Jenevieve stepped towards him, her green eyes boring into him. She hissed.
Turning on her heels she stomped off through the cordoned doorway, leaving Justin and his oversized captor behind. Rapta dug her claws in even deeper and chuckled.
‘If you think Jenny has a problem with you, just wait until you meet Sarah again. She is an even bigger fan of yours.’
A few minutes later Jenevieve, her gaze not an iota friendlier, reappeared, drawing the curtain wide. She motioned Justin to enter, which was punctuated by another powerful shove from her sister. As he stumbled into the chamber beyond he could not help but feel transported back to the Thorn Valley Colony. The room could have been any set of living quarters there. Furnishings, carpets, lamps and all the vestments of civilized living were present. These were obviously private quarters, a meld between a sitting room and library. It felt strange to see hand-copied books on shelves in a world where Justin would have only expected savagery. Yet traces of that savagery could still be found. The light in the chamber was supplied by the ever-present skull-lamps, which appeared to be a staple of Stagg society.
As Rapta pushed him forward he saw three large armchairs waiting at one end of the room, next to another cloth-covered archway. The chair to the left was occupied. It took Justin only a few moments to recognize the youngest of Jenner’s daughters.
Sarah was about as tall as Jenevieve, but her fur was of a darker color, more similar to her older sister, but of a more regal bluish hue. It appeared Jenny had been the only one of Jenner’s female offspring to develop into a standard concept of feminine beauty, by rat standards. Where Dora-cum-Rapta was freakishly oversized Sarah appeared almost waif-like and thin. Her head looked overly large for her skinny body, which was clothed in a tightly laced bodice and dress. Huge doe-like brown eyes gazed at him with a now familiar disdain. The impression was of what humans liked to call ‘gothic’.
In front of the three armchairs was a simple wooden stool. The clawed hand still clenching his shoulder pushed Justin down to sit. Since he was seated lower than the chairs, the situation allowed Sarah to glower down at him while he could feel the leer of her looming sister behind him. Jenevieve, on the other hand, walked along the walls of the chamber, doing something curious. One by one, she put a red cloth over each oil lamp, dimming the ambient light until only an unearthly ruby glow remained. Justin’s insides clenched. The room looked and felt like an insane version of hell. In the wavering light Sarah seemed like wraith with glowing eyes.
Once the last lamp had been dimmed Jenny approached the curtain leading to yet another room. She slipped inside and shortly reappeared, leading another clearly female rat of comparable size by the hand.
Justin cursed the gloom. He was certain that this had to be Victoria, widow to Jenner and mother to this odd trio of harpies. Yet he could not clearly make out any details of his former nemesis’ wife. He guesses she was wearing some sort of full-length dark dress. Victoria’s head was covered by a hat, medieval in style, ending in two points. A dark veil covered the face, which Justin remembered to having been of a very light tan color. Together with the red light this gave the impression of a dark demon being guided into his presence.
Victoria, letting go of her daughter’s hand, seated herself in the middle chair. Jenevieve took the one to her right, while Rapta remained at his back, her strong hand still grasping him dangerously close to his throat.
The voice came as a tired rasp.
He looked at the dark silhouette that he assumed had to be Victoria’s face.
An awkward silence filled the gloomy chamber.
Then, the frail female voice turned upwards.
‘How did he get here, Rapta?’
In an uncharacteristically warm voice the looming rat answered.
‘He came to us, mother, of his own accord.’
Again silence. Then the veiled form leaned forward in her chair, hands grasping the sides for support.
Without warning, Rapta’s other hand grasped Justin’s hair from behind, yanking it backwards so that his throat and open collar were revealed.
‘The Blight is in Thorn Valley, mother.’
Victoria issued a drawn-out hiss and got up from her chair. In his twisted position Justin was even less able to see details of the dark shape as she approached. Only when her hands drew near did he see more than an indistinct blob. He wished he had not. Since her departure from Thorn Valley Victoria had let her claws grow out long, longer than each finger, and colored them in purple. This gave her thin-limbed hands the appearance of long-legged spiders intent on digging their sharp feet into his flesh. Thankfully, the jab of pain he expected did not come.
The sensation of the clicking claws opening his collar even more and the drawing near of the dark, horned visage were bad enough. Victoria’s head was so close Justin could swear he felt her breath on his neck. Then, slowly, did she use her free hand to remove the black veil from her face.
Justin had felt that at this point he was beyond being shocked. Apparently, he was not. The face he remembered so well was both the same, yet hideously different. He was unable to tell for sure in the dim light, but the fur on Victoria’s face looked downy and much thinner than it should have. He could see pale skin reflect the red light of the room behind the hairs. Worse than that, were her eyes. Her irises had lost all color and what was visible of her tiny pupils reflected all light in an evil red. Victoria wore the face of a ghost.
One of her long-clawed fingers touched his neck, almost tenderly. The pinpoint pupils looked inside his collar and then drew back. Without a word Victoria put the veil back in front of her features and returned to her seat. Once her mother was seated Rapta removed her hand from behind Justin’s back so that he could look at his inquisitors more clearly.
A dry chuckle came from behind the veil. He could not tell what the female behind him was doing, but he saw both Sarah and Jenevieve look at their mother in concern. Even the sparse light of the covered lamps was unable to hide the wonder and fear in their eyes as their mother went into a small, nasty giggling fit.
‘So this is what it comes down to, Justin. We are all going to suffer the same fate. Soon, we shall all be forced to exist in darkness.’
Drawing on his inner reserves, Justin shook his head slowly.
‘There is a cure, Victoria.’
The veiled form leaned forward once more.
‘Is that why you have come here, a cure?’
Before he could answer Victoria exclaimed in revelation.
‘NIMH! You think there is a cure at NIMH, don’t you?’
Justin simply nodded.
Silence reigned for a while before Jenner’s widow spoke up again.
‘Now where would you get an idea like that, I wonder?’
When no answer was forthcoming it was Rapta who answered.
‘He didn’t come alone. He brought Brutus… and a strange female.’
Her mother’s head cocked in curiosity.
‘Strange in what way?’
‘She is no colonist. White, like a rat bred in a laboratory.’
A thin, long claw pointed at Justin.
‘Who is she? You will tell me … or I will send Rapta to ask her herself.’
Immediately enraged, the male rat growled,
‘Leave her alone. She has nothing to do with what is between us.’
‘Ah,’ Victoria cooed evilly, ‘do I detect affection in your voice? Yes, I think I do. If you will not tell us, Rapta has ways of making her talk.’
‘I’ll tell you,’ Justin replied quickly, anger mixed with anxiety now, ‘and I doubt you’ll like what you hear.’
‘NIMH has come back to the Fitzgibbon farm, digging up the house, the tractor, the mill, everything. They brought new rats to try and find us. Julia was one of them. She and the others overheard the humans. She knows what’s happening to us… and you.’
The spider-like hands folded in the dark shape’s lap.
‘And what is happening to us, Justin?’
The brown rat closed his eyes and sighed.
‘I am not a scientist, so this may not come out right. Julia said that the humans put something into us, together with what made us intelligent. It is supposed to be like a disease that will show up at a very specific time, like a time bomb.’
Jennevieve put a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp and Sarah’s eyes were glued to Justin now. He felt sure that even Rapta was breathing more rapidly now. Victoria, hands still folded, leaned forward again.
‘Why would they do that?’
Justin managed a shrug despite his bound hands.
‘Apparently, we are catching, like a disease. Anyone we get close to for a long time becomes smart like us.’
He rolled his eyes upwards at Rapta and gave a cynical smile.
‘You probably noticed how smart Dora’s Stagg boyfriend has become.’
The hand that had kept a grip on his shoulder quickly grabbed his throat, leaving the male to sputter and gasp for air.
She released her grip as if stung, but continued to glower behind Justin’s back.
‘I apologize,’ her mother mocked, ‘but she is rather fond of my son-in-law. And yes, his intelligence has become remarkable. It seems we are spreading what the humans have done to us very quickly.’
‘And that,’ Justin coughed, ‘is the reason for the time-bomb. The humans don’t like the idea of all rats becoming smart like them.’
Once he had regained his composure fully he sneered at Victoria.
‘Seeing how we behave now, I can’t really blame them.’
The veiled female did not speak for a while, but raised the palms of her hands and tapped them against each other in contemplation. Finally, she spoke again.
‘What else did this female tell you?’
A self-satisfied smile crossed his features, just for a moment.
‘That everyone that has been changed will die a slow and very painful death.’
That silenced the room. Even Ratpa’s growl died away. Sarah and Jenevieve looked at their mother for support, fear radiating in waves from them. Victoria, inscrutable behind her veil, remained motionless. Then, her hands still folded into a steeple, two fingers began tapping. Finally, she raised herself from her chair, motioned for her two younger daughters to guide her and nodded to her eldest.
‘Bring him. I need to talk to your husband.’
‘So they must have come from there?’
Timothy gazed up at a large steel door in the ceiling of one of the countless chambers of the deserted colony of the Mice of NIMH. This, according to Brendan, had been built as an access way to the upper sewers, specifically those leading to the laboratories of the human agency.
The entire chamber was round, the floor a wide circle where a large group of mice would be able to train whatever weapons they possessed on the single round hatch embedded in the center of the vaulted ceiling. In the middle of the room’s floor was a mechanism to raise a metal ladder up to the hatch. Without that ladder there was no means to reach the opening, or for anyone from above to reach the floor without a rope. As the enforced metal door was only large enough to admit a single rodent-sized animal it was doubtful any human would ever attempt entry here. In order for the mice from Thorn Valley to navigate the passages, their strange host had turned the colony’s lights back on, on a low setting.
There was a nod from Brendan as she spoke through his mask.
‘The door was open when I returned. It is the only passage to the surface. Whoever, or whatever got into our home had to have come from there.’
Cynthia looked at their guide, who had donned his protective clothing once more.
‘How often has that door been used?’
‘We used to send a scouting party of four every few months. They would move into NIMH, first through the drains, then the vents, with grappling lines, and spend four days listening and looking.’
Mrs. Brisby rubbed her hands nervously, ‘Weren’t you afraid they would find you?’
The masked head turned to her.
‘We took precautions.’
‘Okay,’ Timothy argued, ‘but why go there at all?’
Another shrug from the hooded mouse.
‘The Elder Council decided it was necessary. Better to know what your enemies are up to.’
A she stood next to Brendan, Cynthia but a hand on his shoulder.
‘And you never heard of any plans of the humans to go after your colony, or ours?’
He shook his head.
‘Not a hint. We kept those missions up even after the Blight. I actually saw the last one leave not two months ago and return without any new intelligence.’
Timothy waved a hand impatiently.
‘Can you open that door from the outside?’
Behind his mask, Brendan shook his head again.
‘No. It is completely sealed on the outside. If the door needs to be opened it has to be from the inside. You can access a signaling panel from above. Once you type in the correct code someone stationed down here will turn on the outside cameras to see who wants to come in.’
Elizabeth’s head tilted to the side as she gazed up at the thick hatch and voiced the obvious question,
‘If that is the only way in and you cannot open it from the outside, then who let them in?’
The mouse in the protective gear slumped visibly.
‘I have wrecked my brain over that question. I can’t figure out how something from NIMH got inside that small door and then got everyone out again. If something unwanted does get in here there are flamethrowers worked into the floors and walls. The ground doors shut tight and everything in the room is burned to ashes. Nothing could get through here, unless let in.’
Cynthia turned to her mother, looking concerned.
‘I think Brendan’s right. Whatever took them did come from there.’
Now Mrs. Brisby stepped to the male mouse’s other side and put a comforting hand on his remaining shoulder.
‘You tried going after them, haven’t you?’
The lowered mask nodded silently.
‘I made it all the way through the upper sewers. There were tracks, of mice and something else. But there was no scent. Then everything just disappeared.’
Timothy pointed upwards.
‘They went into NIMH?’
Now the hooded head shook violently.
‘No, that’s just it. The tracks went off to the East, away from NIMH, and then disappeared. I actually went into the ventilation vents at NIMH. I stayed for a week, listening and looking for any trace of the others. Nothing.’
Gently squeezing Brendan’s shoulder Cynthia leaned closer.
‘Did the humans say anything?’
‘Not a word, like they had no idea what had happened.’
‘This,’ Timothy stated, ‘is beginning to creep me out more and more. Anyone else get the feeling that a lot of stuff here doesn’t add up?’
All eyes turned to him, questioning.
‘First we get those odd signs at the farm that don’t go along with Julia’s story and now Brendan here tells us that he hasn’t heard any humans from NIMH say anything about … well… anything.’
Noticing where her brother’s inquiry was going Cynthia shook her own head angrily.
‘Julia was not lying. You know I can tell.’
Raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture Timothy backed up a bit.
‘I know you do. But maybe there is more than one NIMH?’
That sent a shudder down his mother’s spine and she murmured,
‘But Julia showed us on the map. It was right where Justin said NIMH was.’
Timothy let his hands fall to his sides and sighed.
‘Then I am all out of answers.’
Surprisingly, Brendan issued a dry chuckle from underneath his hood. Even through the glass goggles the others could see a hint of camaraderie in their new friend’s demeanor.
‘On the bright side, that doesn’t make me feel so alone anymore.’
The Brisby family was once more at a loss, but their host changed thankfully changed the subject.
‘You must be hungry after that adventure you all had. Let me get you something to eat. Maybe we can figure something out once our stomachs are full.’
Nobody had left the Overlord’s throne room when Victoria, guided by two of her daughters and followed by Rapta leading the bound Justin, entered. Balak looked up with curiosity as the veiled female approached him deferentially. Julia and Brutus strained their bonds when Rapta shoved their friend unceremoniously back into their midst, which elicited warning growls from Drasta and Cassius. She then took up position to Balak’s right while her mother bent low in front of her to whisper into the Overlord’s ear. Nobody spoke as both captors and captives tried to hear what passed between Victoria and the Stagg master. Finally, Victoria stepped back with a small bow.
Balak turned his gaze to the three prisoners, his features unreadable.
‘It has been suggested to me that I might let you continue on your journey. It appears what you seek could help cure my people from the Blight.’
Then, the Overlord’s brows darkened.
‘But I would have to ensure that you will return here should you succeed and find this… cure.’
The crimson-furred rat’s muzzle spread into a nasty smile as he pointed a finger to Julia.
`You will remain here, as insurance.’
Justin attempted to leap forwards, but Drasta’s hands dug into his bonds, holding him in place.
‘I won’t leave her to you!’
Balak’s face turned cold.
‘The choice is not yours to make, Justin.’
‘How is he going to know what to look for? NIMH has changed since he was last there.’
Julia’s interjection had not trace of fear, which surprised her more than her friends.
Oddly enough, it was Rapta, an oddly serene smile on her face, who answered.
‘Love is such a strong bond.’
Her gaze went to meet Balak’s and, for a moment, her smile was mirrored by him. Then he shrugged and waved at Justin.
‘What assurance can you give me that you will return if I do not hold the one you love?’
Again, before Justin could answer, Rapta replied.
‘We know where Thorn Valley is, my love.’
Justin and Brutus felt lumps in their throats. Each had contemplated arguing for their release and then simply abandoning the Stagg rats to their fate if they should succeed in their quest to find a cure. But the horrendous female’s train of thought put a break on their plans. The Overlord looked admiringly at his mate and then turned to his captives once more, his features bathed in cruel confidence.
‘Yes, we do know that. I think I shall release all of you to go on your quest. If you succeed, you will return here. If you do not…’
Balak slowly rose and stepped towards the three bound rats.
‘I will gladly spend the rest of my existence with this Blight as I send my clans to Thorn Valley. Once there, I shall ensure that everyone you ever cared about will be hunted down and killed, in an interesting and long-winded fashion.’
He stopped in front of Justin, looking down at the much smaller rat with amused contempt. A claw-tipped finger gently tapped the captive rat.
‘Whatever painful death this Blight may cause, it will be nothing compared to what I will allow Rapta to do to this precious colony of yours. Her inventiveness in the realms of suffering is quite breathtaking.’
Balak leaned down to look Justin in the eyes.
‘Do we have an understanding?’
The former leader of the Thorn Valley Colony fought hard to keep his composure. He simply nodded.
Satisfied, the Overlord nodded as well, his face returning to his cold neutrality. He turned and seated himself on the skull throne once more.
‘You will be escorted to the edge of my domain, the City of Ghosts.’
Justin felt unease spread to the two Stagg lords stationed behind him. Anything that would unnerve rats of such violent disposition was bound to be unpleasant. Balak, clearly studying the reaction of his subjects and prisoners alike, gave a humorless smile.
‘My warriors have tried to breach the City of Ghosts for a long time. None have succeeded, or returned alive.’
The agitation behind the bound rats rose perceptively.
The Overlord pointed at Brutus.
‘I know you will not leave your large friend behind, but it might be a wiser choice. He has Stagg blood, and I doubt the Ghosts will allow him to pass. You, my short friends, might have a chance.’
Now it was Rapta who bent down to whisper into the enthroned one’s ear. He chuckled in reply to the hushed question.
‘Of course I will.’
The Overlord smiled at Justin and his fellows.
‘I will have one of my most trusted followers accompany you, just to ensure my interests are served. Now, who amongst my subjects would serve me by venturing to the City of Ghosts?’
As Drasta and Cassius began fidgeting Balak’s smile widened. Apparently, the supreme master of the Stagg rats had fully anticipated his subject’s reluctance. Despite their newfound intelligence a degree of superstition seemed to remain with the sewer dwellers. Truth be told, the ominous reactions of their captors and references to a ‘City of Ghosts’ had an unnerving effect on the bound rats as well.
The scrawny, hooded servant had remained in the shadows during the exchanges. Bowing his head he stepped into the light of the skull lamps.
‘You will accompany these three to the City of Ghost and beyond. You will ensure that they will return here should you succeed in finding this cure.’
The grey hood bowed once more and Quaestor answered without hesitation or fear.
‘As you command, my Lord. I will not fail you.’
His master’s smile broadened even more, while it clearly made Cassius and Drasta uncomfortable. Having their courage upstaged by such a pitiful excuse of a Stagg rat was probably not something they would want their own followers to know about.
Waving imperiously to the two humbled Stagg Lords Balak rumbled,
‘Take them to the borders. All their gear is to be returned to them. Drasta, Cassius, you will return here. We will… talk.’
The alarm bells rang out just moments after Brendan had provided the Brisby family with some dry but edible rations. Apparently, in his solitary existence the lone mouse had not bothered with preparing food beyond the most basic necessity and the stocked supplies of the now empty colony would last him for a long time. The vast defunct commissary hall was depressing, the absence of the mice who had once shared meals here weighing heavy in the air. The blaring call of the alarm bell was almost a relief.
Brendan jumped up immediately, leaving his half-finished meal without a second glance. Mrs. Brisby and her children exchanged a few glances before they got up as well and hurried to catch up with their host. They did not want to be without Brendan’s guidance in this foreboding place. The colorless mouse, putting his mask back on as he ran, lead the group to a central chamber filled with monitors and strange lights. Timothy looked at the incredible arrangement of technological wonders, many of the mice’s own design rather than stolen from humans, with awe. Brendan went from circular screen to screen until he found what had tripped the alarms.
‘Four rats are coming down corridor seven. A big Stagg with three smaller ones… weird.’
‘Look! That’s Justin and the others!’
Cynthia’s joy light up the room as her mother and brother strained to see the grainy images on the screen in question.
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Brisby agreed, ‘It’s them. Thank goodness they are safe.’
Brendan’s masked face turned to face the brown mouse.
‘These are the friends you were separated from?’
She nodded, but Timothy added,
‘Except for that scrawny one in the hooded coat. Him we don’t know.’
The mask returned to look at the screen and nodded.
‘All other cameras are clear. Whatever this is, it’s not a trap or a distraction for an ambush.’
Without another word Brendan got up from the screens and went to a cabinet set into the wall. Gloved hands drew the doors open, revealing mouse-sized rifles made from some sort of plastic. Grabbing one for himself, he removed three more, handing one to each of the mice, who shivered and shrank back at the strange feel of the weapons.
‘Aim, pull the trigger once. Go for the eyes if you have to.’
‘They’re our friends!’
Cynthia wailed. The round glass lenses observed her coldly.
‘If it is them, they have nothing to worry about. If it’s a trick, I want to be ready. Come on.’
He led his reluctant charged out of the colony.
Their release had been even stranger than their capture. Drasta and Cassius, together with a large number of their followers, had led them through the sewer pipes that made up the Overlord’s domain and up towards the drains closer to the surface. This, apparently, was where the Staggs’ territory ended. Whether the sewer rats preferred a certain depth below the surface or whether it was some sort of superstition that kept them from venturing closer to the human city was never made clear.
The two Stagg Lords had been subdued during their journey. The verbal jibes and occasional bumps the former captives had encountered during their imprisonment were replaced by a worried distance. As soon as Balak had issued his commands, they had hurried to cut their bonds and return all weapons and gear to them. Rather than physically shoving them they were shown the way by pointing. Even the pace was slower, as if the Stagg Lords as well as their followers were in no hurry to reach their destination. Only the taciturn Quaestor, silently trailing behind Brutus, his face and thoughts hidden inside his cowl, appeared undisturbed.
At the intersection to a specific sewer pipe, Cassius and Drasta stopped. Quaestor turned his hood to face them and nodded, then led Justin along the drain by himself.
‘This,’ he ventured, ‘is where the Ghosts’ realm begins.’
Julia exchanged a look with Justin that showed a mix of concern and disbelief. After the rest of the Staggs had disappeared from view Justin tapped their guide’s shoulder.
‘What is this City of Ghosts?’
Quaestor looked at him with his yellowed eyes and a tired smile.
‘There is clan of mice living down here. Close to where we were told this –NIMH- is supposed to be. We have tried capturing them many times, but they have strange weapons. Nobody that came this far ever returned.’
A curious expression crossed Julia’s features.
‘Mice? Down here?’
The robed rat nodded.
‘Before I was born.’
‘Why do you call them Ghosts?’
Justin tried to keep the concern from his voice.
‘They have weapons that kill from afar. Most of the time, you don’t see them before they kill you, just like ghosts.’
The brown rat thought he saw a cynical smile cross the worn features of the robed rat.
Suddenly, a wall of red flame erupted not two feet in front of the group, issuing from walls, floor, and ceiling alike. Brutus pulled back his two friends by their collars, all the while trying not to drop his pole axe. Quaestor scrambled along quickly, trying not to trip over the hem of his clothes.
The curse had just passed Justin’s lips when a whispering voice, augmented by hidden electronics, called out from everywhere at once.
‘Stand where you are. Drop your weapons, raise your hands. Otherwise, you die.’
Justin, still held by Brutus, coughed.
‘You can let go now, Brutus.’
Once he had released the two smaller rats Justin cautioned.
‘Okay, let’s do what the nice creepy voice says.’
He removed his sword and, after Julia had followed suit with a vicious dagger provided from the Staggs, Brutus reluctantly did the same. Then, all three raised their hands, looking at the jittery Quaestor. The diminutive Stagg rat’s eyes darted back and forth, clearly close to panic. When they came to rest on the calm, if worried faces of the other rats he swallowed and nodded, raising his own arms high.
After a few breaths the rats were able to hear steps coming from both directions, small steps. Then, suddenly, one set of steps sped up to the hissed comment of the same whispering voice that had spoken before, only without the electronic amplification.
The approaching steps apparently did not care. A small crème-colored shape clothed in a light-blue poncho rushed into view and threw itself onto the rats, trying to hug everyone in one go.
Justin bent down to embrace the young mouse and lifted her high in the air, to the consternation of his friends and their Stagg associate.
‘Where is your mother? Where’s Timothy? Are they alright?’
‘Yes,’ a familiar female voice chimed in from the other side, ‘we are all fine.’
Lowering Cynthia to the ground the rats turned their heads from one end of the drain to the other as Mrs. Brisby and Timothy approached from one and an oddly clothed mouse with a mask stepped towards them from the another. While their mouse friends were all warm smiles and cheers Julia noticed that the cloaked mouse had some sort of weapon trained on them. Thankfully, Cynthia rushed to the odd rodent, gently pushing the muzzle of his weapon to the ground.
‘They are our friends. They won’t hurt you.’
All the while Elizabeth and her son embraced their rat friends in turn until the brown mouse reached Quaestor. The robed rat was now clearly tense, his thin frame taught as a spring, his hands still raised. Mrs. Brisby smiled at him and nodded.
‘We will not hurt you either. You can lower your hands.’
Looking from the three rats he was told to accompany to the strange assemblage of mice Quaestor slowly complied while the brown mouse, taking charge of the situation, gestured to her friends.
‘Come, follow Brendan, our new friend. Then, I think, we all need to talk.’