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The first whizzing bullet overhead caused Ella to startle and lose her grip on the bear. Aric reached for her as she slid, mouth open in panic, but unable to scream. Kyle twisted suddenly, causing Deke to lose his grip. Deke tumbled into Aric, who was hanging on with one hand, and they both went flying and tumbling onto the ground. Kyle was already gone from view, although they could hear him crashing up the hill through brush, encouraged on by Gran and Dish.
Aric cupped his paws and shouted, “Ella!”
“Over here!”
They found her hiding under the brown remains of a bracken fern. She motioned for them to be quiet before they all embraced in a group hug. “Men coming,” she whispered. The mice scooted as far under the bracken as they could. They shivered.
Boots scrambled up the hill.
“It’s gone, Hank.”
“Shit. It was a big bear, too. Could’a filled my freezer with sausage.”
“You got a bear tag? Because all I have is a buck tag.”
“No, I ain’t got a bear tag. Not worth tracking him. But there was something funny about him. Looked like there was something on its back.”
“You’re seeing things. And now you’ve alerted every damn buck within a mile that we’re hunting here. Let’s go back to the rig and drive on around the point. Maybe it’ll cross the road up there – that’s the direction its heading. We can cover it up with a tarp.”
“Okay. Sure hate to miss out on a fella that big. I know who makes good summer sausage.” A boot stopped just inches from where the mice held onto each other.
“C’mon. I ain’t climbing no hill.” The other pair of boots was already headed back down the slope.
The boot before them turned toward them, and the other boot just missed Ella’s toes. The hunter followed his friend back down the hill, snapping twigs and muttering loudly about how much he hated how his knees hurt. The mice sank to the ground, and exhaled at the same time.
“Whew.”
“We lost Kyle and the others, though.” Aric sniffled.
“Maybe they’ll come back looking for us.”
Ella looked at Twerp. “No, they won’t. They just got shot at. They won’t know the hunters aren’t following them, or even where we fell off. We’re on our own.”
A miserable silence engulfed the trio.
A misty rain began to fall, adding to their despondent mood. Ella put the hood up on her hoodie, but neither Aric nor Twerp wore a hoodie. “We can’t just sit here, she said. We need to follow the map in our heads, and hope we can make it to wherever we’re going. Maybe Horace will fly by and find us, and we could ride with him.” She forced a smile.
“Not likely.” Aric grabbed a pebble and threw it. “Screw it. Let’s march.”
“I’m sorry I fell off and made you fall, Aric.” Twerp sniffed.
“No, that was a good thing. Ella fell first, and I was trying to reach for her. Better its all three of us together, than just Dork out here on her own.” Aric lightly punched his best friend’s shoulder.
They stayed to the low growing plants as they started hiking again. “At least the rain should keep the crows at bay.”
“What about raccoons?’
“I think there are a lot more things to watch out for than just crows and ‘coons.” Aric studied their surroundings as best as he could. They stood four inches tall, at most, he thought, and couldn’t see much further, except for general impressions. “I wish we could find some ten penny nails or some human discards we could make into weapons. My barbecue skewer was awesome.”
Ella led by her nose and whiskers. “We’d probably have to stumble right over the top of an old campsite or pioneer dump. I don’t think the odds are in our favor.”
“’If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.’” Twerp quoted a nursery rhyme his grandmother used to say to him.
“’If turnips were watches, I’d carry one by my side.’” Ella laughed. “Did you guys know the original jack o’lanterns were actually carved turnips, not pumpkins?”
“I hate turnips.”
“Turnips sound wonderful to my mouse taste buds.” Deke tripped. “OUCH!” The other two turned around and came back to help him up.
Deke brushed himself off. “Sorry.”
Aric was looking at what Deke had tripped over: a short strand of barbed wire. He held it up. “This could be very handy.”
Ella and Deke crowded close. “Think there’s more? Why such a short piece?”
“There could be a fence here, and we wouldn’t know it because of our eyesight,” Aric replied. He was scavenging around, working his nose. “Maybe some fence staples or something.”
“What are fence staples?” Deke nosed the ground. He came up with a two-pronged piece of galvanized steel that just fit into his paw like brass knuckles might. “Will this work?”
“That,” Aric said, “is a fence staple. A new one, at that. Find another one and you’ll have a two fisted weapon.”
Ella held up a short piece of wood with a square nail jutting out one end. “I think this will be handy. Old nail. Did our prayers just get answered?”
“Or our wishes. This Kitsune might be nearby?”
They peered around, trying to see into the mist. Nothing moved.
Aric , Ella, and Deke marched in the open now, their weapons held at the ready. They sometimes jogged, hoping to make better time. The mist let up, and the sun came out, causing the earth to steam where the sun touched it. The steam was worse than the rain, as it created a low fog. Their tummies were growling, their clothes were wet, and despite the weaponry, their spirits began to sag. They had no idea how much ground they had covered, but they knew it couldn’t be as much ground as Kyle could cover. They hoped Kyle had turned and started to follow the mind-map. They hoped he had not continued uphill, and across the road where the hunters were waiting. They hoped they would find shelter and food.
Ella was climbing over a little hill in the ground when everything gave way. She disappeared into a hole with a sudden squeak.
Aric and Deke ran forward and peered down. She was sprawled in a large tunnel, her nail-on-a-stick next to her. “Ow,” She moaned.
“Boomer hole,” croaked a nearby voice. “Nasty creatures.”
“It’s a boomer hole. We gotta get you out of there!” Aric yelled down to his sister.
“That’s not so hard,” she answered. “I can climb out. It’s just it’s dry, and smells unused. I thought we could sleep in here.”
“Oh, no, no.” A large toad crawled forward from under some large, brown leaves. “You must not do down there. Boomers are evil.”
“Um, Ella, there’s this frog up here that says whatever lives down there is pure evil.”
“Toad,” the toad corrected. “They eat mice.”
“Frog? A talking frog?” Ella looked around. The place certainly seemed deserted. She tried to remember what she knew about frogs. “Okay, I’ll climb out.” She used her nail on a stick to help herself up.
“What eat mice?” Deke stared at the dark, lumpy form.
“Boomers, of course,” The toad replied. “I can show you a place to stay the night, if you need one.”
Aric helped Ella out of the hole. “The fro- er, toad, says he can show us to shelter.”
She dusted herself off and turned around, looking for the toad. It was large, lumpy, and blended in with the world around it. It’s eyes were yellow. It seemed to smile, and it croaked, “My name is Veneno.”
Ella felt a shiver run down her spine. “No, I think we’ll just continue on our way. Nice to meet you, Veneno.”
“Vennie, for short.” The toad hopped around in front of the trio. “I’d really like to be your friend.”
“No, I think we really should just go.”
“What’s wrong, El?” Aric shifted his weight and looked from toad to his sister. “I could use a place to sleep, and Vennie is offering us one.”
Ella shook her head. “No. We need to get going up the hill, or we’ll miss the rest of our gang. Nice that you offered, Vennie.” She waved at the other two to follow her up.
“Wait, I thought we were going d- “ Deke caught himself. “Yeah, you’re right, Bellwether. Up we go.”
Aric stared at his sister and friend. “Okay guys. Sorry, Vennie.”
“No, I am sorry.” The toad jumped and landed in front of Ella. “I cannot let you go.”
“How are you going to stop us?”
“Um, El… There’s, like, a line of red-bellied salamanders surrounding us.” Aric slowly turned around, surveying the danger.
“Great. You’re not very nice, Vennie.”
The toad blinked.
The three mice backed into each other as the salamanders advanced. The teens moved in a circle. Aric grasped his barbed wire strand. “Guess we’ll have to fight.”
“Fight?” The toad almost laughed. “Mice can’t fight, except with their teeth.”
“You have bad eyesight, toadie,” Aric swung the barbed wire strand, catching a newt with a barb. It screamed.
Ella waved her stick threateningly. Deke jabbed with his staples, trying to look brave.
“Dork! Give me your stick!” Aric handed his barbed wire to her. “You can handle that better.”
Deke swung wide at an advancing newt and poked its face with a staple. It hissed in pain and backed rapidly up.
“What are you doing?” the toad croaked. It leaped upward as Aric swung down with the nail. Aric followed it, this time swinging the nail sideways. He caught the toad in the eyeball. It screamed, and thrashed. The newts all disappeared backward, hissing angrily.
Aric brought the nail out and brought it down hard on the toad’s head. The toad splayed out and kicked a few times before dying. The mice, horrified at the turn of events, backed into the base of a tall Douglas fir tree. Deke recovered first.
“I think we better scram. That was a familiar, and his wizard is bound to be on the way.”
“Uphill,” Ella said. Together, the three mice pushed upward, still carrying their weapons. They were no longer tired.

21,375 words

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“Hello.”
Kyle’s basso voice startled Ella from her dream. She wanted to keep the dream, but it dissipated like mist off a fence in the early morning sun, leaving her somewhat unnerved and lost. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. It was morning, she could tell that by the grey light inside the little cave. Following the direction of Kyle’s nose, she made out a large snowshoe hare just ender the ledge, nibbling of leaves, and working its nose. One ear was cocked toward the bear.
The other mice stirred, and still the hare didn’t speak or move away. It continued to eat, the eye on the right side of its head watching them. It chewed and sniffed and watched.
“Um, hello,” Ella said.
“I tried that,” Kyle reminded her.
“Maybe it’s just a hare.” Gran stretched lazily.
“No,” Ella said. “Kitsune. Welcome to the cave.”
The rabbit seemed to smile. “Good morning, Ella Peabody. You are developing your talent, I see.”
“I was hoping to see you today,” she confessed.
“Ah, yes. You followed my instructions well. Making friends with the deer mice was an unusual strategy. Now, you have located Kyle.”
“You knew about me?” Kyle wondered. “Isn’t kitsune an Animé fox?”
The hard turned its head so it could see Kyle with both eyes. “Japanese cartoon. Quaint. Kitsune predates cartoons. I can be fox, human, or other. Today, I have chosen the hare. I have also come to warn you.”
“Me?” Kyle’s eyes widened.
“All of us,” Ella said, patting the bear’s nose. “Kitsune has warned us before.”
“Yes, all of you. You have followed the stream and you have met Kyle. This was my intention. Kyle has good magic, and a good heart. Ahead of you lies trials: I do not wish you to continue down this stream, for that journey would be pointless. You must now turn, and leave the stream behind. Beware this path: there are dangers lurking out there that are greater than the family of raccoons, or the teasing crows. You must keep your wits about you at all times.”
“Where are we going?” Gran asked.
“Impetuous Gran. If I told you where I was sending you, and you were captured by our mortal enemy, you would tell him what he wants to know. I am directing you toward what will set us all free from this tyranny, but you must trust me.”
“But how do we know where to go?”
The hare smiled, showing yellowed teeth. “I am sending a map to your primitive brain. Should you become separated, you will all have the same map inside your head, and, being animals, you will be able to follow that map. If plans should change, I will find you.”
“There’s a chance we could get separated?”
“A very strong one, yes. This is a dangerous mission you are on, to restore the balance of magic and non-magic.”
“Why can’t we just find the stolen talisman and return it?”
The hare shook its head. “That would be one way to restore the balance. You must remember: the talisman that was stolen was stolen first from someone else. It must be returned to the original owner before persecution can be halted and balance restored. That is all I can tell you now.”
“What about our parents? Aren’t they in that old warehouse?”
“Ella, I only sent you down the stream to meet Kyle. You drew conclusions. That is dangerous. That old building is what it has always been: an empty eyesore. Your parents are being taken care of, and are not in any immediate danger. Your father has asked me to relay a short message to you: ‘What does not belong is the key’”
“What does not belong is the key?”
“Yes.”
“What about Kyle? Can he come with us?”
“Of course. That is why I sent you to him. There will be others, but there will be some who are not as they seem. Be careful. Now I must go. It is hunting season. I must quit this hare as quickly as possible. Safe travels. Trust the map in your head.” Kitsune turned and crawled out from under the ledge and past the huckleberries. They listened as he thumped away at a hare’s pace.
The mice climbed onto Kyle’s back and headed out not long afterward, but not before dining on the left-over huckleberries and snowberries in front of Kyle’s little den. They headed somewhat west by southwest through rhododendron thickets and fir thickets. Challenging their skills to hang onto Kyle’s coarse brown fur.
“What did he mean – there’s no one in the detention center?” Dish rubbed a paw across his nose.
“He said I made an assumption, because the deer mice showed me there the stream came out. I assumed that was where we were going, when all the while, he only wanted us to find Kyle.”
“Or me to find you,” rumbled Kyle.
“Right.”
“Now where are we going?”
“I don’t know. I think he did that on purpose, to protect us. We’ll just know when we get there.”
Kyle turned to the left, following a more open trail.
“We’re just supposed to trust hat was really Kitsune?” Gran asked. “I thought he was a fox or Mr. Nagasaki.”
“Should we be out in the open like this?” Billie looked skyward.
“Pretty sure crows won’t mess with Kyle,” Deke replied from his post.
“Easier walking,” Kyle grumbled. I hate rhododendrons.”
“Why was Mr. Nagasaki so worried about hunting season? He was a rabbit. There’s no set season on rabbits. It’s year round.” Dish glanced over at Ella.
“He could be shot any time. So, if someone’s out here with guns, they could be hunting him.”
“Yeah.” Aric was sitting up, riding the bear like a cowboy. “But they’d be hunting elk or deer. Or…” He looked down.
“Or what?” Ella and Dish looked back at him.
“Bear.”
“Kyle! Get out of the open! We have to stay in the thickets!”
A whizzing, spiraling sound whistled up the ridge toward them, splitting the air over Gran’s head. Another round hit a tree in front of Kyle’s muzzle, spitting bark and pieces of wood outward. The birds and chickarees went silent.
“RUN!” Everyone screamed. “Uphill! Into the rhodies!”
Kyle lurched forward, putting the tree between him and the whistling bullets, and made three great leaps into the cover of the rhododendrons. Gran was clinging to fur close by his ear, yelling, “Uphill, uphill! Stay in the brush! Turn left on those rocks! Slow down! Down the rocks! Don’t leave tracks. Hurry!”
Billie and Dish had grabbed each other and were clinging to the fur behind Kyle’s shoulder. “We need to slow down, guys, and think of an escape plan before those men climb the hill.” Dish squeezed Billie’s shoulder.
“Right. At the bottom, hide behind that big Douglas fir. El will have an idea.”
Kyle made his way down, careful not to step off of the round rosks that made up the edge of a talus slope, hidden under vine maple and old rhododendrons. He plastered himself against the big fir tree when he reached it. “Ok, what now?”
“El?” Gran looked back.
Ella, Aric, and Twerp were gone.
19645 words – jdp

“Little mouse lives!” the big face reared back and giant claws ripped through the air, culminating in a clap just above Elle’s head. “I saved little mouse Eric!” Another clap, and a roar that nearly deafened the mice.
“Whoa!” Aric pushed himself up. “What!? Who?” He looked from Ella to the now grinning mouth of putrescent breath. “Gawd! Your breath smells horrible! Who are you?”
The face retreated. “Sorry. No toothbrush.” A paw the size of Texas covered the mouth. Beady eyes looked down from the darkness of the hulk. “”I’m Kyle. Kyle Beezer. Nice to meet you mousies.”
Twerp was the first to find his voice. “Kyle? Kyle Beezer? From Mr. Giles‘ history class?”
The eyes blinked. “I don‘t remember any mousies in history.”
Twerp shook his head, “No, I’m Deacon Smith.”
“Oh. Deacon… Deke? Wait. Is that you, Aric Peabody?” The face loomed over Aric, again.
Aric raised his paw. “Kyle. Do.Not.Breathe.On.Me.”
“Sorry. Again. But – Aric! Little Deacon! I was so lonely! Where’d you guys come from?”
Ella raised both of her paws. “STOP. Who are you, again, and what are you? How did you get here, and why did you save us? We get to ask first.”
“Oh. OK.” It sat in the water. “Kyle Beezer. I’m a bear. It was the first thing that popped into my head when the men in white coats came to my house. A big bear that scared them, and I ran into the forest. I’m just lonely.”
“Why did you save us?”
“Oh. That. I saw little raccoon slap little mousie into the water. It made me mad. Made me remember pushing little Deacon’s face into the toilet and I felt bad. I had to save the mousie. I didn’t know it was my friend, Aric.”
Aric coughed again and sat up. “Ow. My head hurts!”
“Because you’re bleeding,” Ella scolded. “Maybe your bear friend can give me a leaf out of the water to put on it.”
The bear brought up a paw, with a leaf of late watercress dangling from it. “Like this?”
“Perfect.” Ella snatched it and applied it to the side of her brother’s furry face. “Can you hold it there?”
“How bad is it?”
“Not too. But we should probably find shelter soon.”
Twerp had advanced and was looking up at the bear. “Kyle, I didn’t know you were a wizard.”
“I didn’t know you were, Deke. You have a lot of friends.”
“Well, I grew up here. You just moved there. And they’re not really friends…” Twerp paused. “They’re sort of family. That’s Ella, Aric’s big sister. And her friends, Billie and Gran, and Dish. We just grew up together. They call me ‘twerp’ instead of my name.”
“That’s mean,” the bear answered.
“I know. But, after awhile, I almost forget they’re being mean. You know where we can hide for awhile? Rest up? Talk, but not out here in the open?”
“No.”
“Rats.” Twerp missed his own rodent reference. “We need to hunker down, out of the open.”
“Well…”
“Look, dudes, we just need to get off of these rocks and somewhere downstream before daylight. We can’t be caught in the open like this.” Gran over came his fear and stepped forward. “Think you can help us out, Kyle?”
“Which one are you?”
“Gran.”
“Well, sure. What do you want me to do?”
“Just walk along the stream with us until we find a place you can fit into, and we can join you. Then we’ll talk.”
“Like a den? ‘Cause I found a cool den. It’s down stream a little ways.”
“I thought you said… Nevermind. Yes, like a den. Let’s go.”
“Remember, we walk a lot slower than you can, because of our size, you know. Oh – and because Aric’s wounded.” Twerp waved his paws dramatically.
“You could just get on my back and hang onto my fur, and I’d give you a ride there.”
“You don’t have clothes on?”
“I wouldn’t be a big scary bear if I was dressed, would I? Oh. You guys have clothes on.” Kyle added that as if he had just noticed. “Is this gonna be awkward?”
“You’re a bear. No.” Ella shook her head. She was both irritated and worried. Aric kept the cress pressed to his wound, but he also wasn’t talking. It wasn’t like Aric to not talk.
It was agreed that the mice would climb onto Kyle’s back and hang onto his fur until they reached the den he had spoken of. It was with some difficulty that they got Aric on and situated, but one he was on, he grasped a tuft of coarse bur hair with his right paw and said, “Let’s do this.”
Kyle’s rolling gait and wide back made for an interesting ride, as well as the branches and bushes he barreled his way through. He was surprisingly quiet as he walked along, except when he stepped into the water and splashed. His passengers were too awed, tired, and exhausted by the terrifying raccoon encounter to say much. They passed the trip in silence, the night now dark and moonless. Finally, Kyle stopped and said, “Well, this is it. I’ll sit down so you can just slide off, and then follow me in.”
‘This’ was a small, dry, cave under a ledge, a few feet from the stream, but blocked with huckleberry, snowberry, and nettles. Kyle went in first and curled up near the back of the shelter, making room for the mice. Ella grabbed some nettle as she passed. She put the milk of the broken stem on the little blisters that formed on her paw to stop the sting, and then made Aric sit down while she applied more of the milk of the nettle to his wound. The bleeding had slowed, but the nettle stopped it.
“It’s a narrow gash, but nothing that will need stitching,” she announced.
“I want to sleep,” Aric whined. He walked away from her, and picked a spot against Kyle’s chest. “Don’t roll over, Kyle.”
Kyle looked at the rest. “So who’s leading you guys?”
“I am, Gran said.”
“Well, Gran, Twerp, and I are,” Ella said. She shot Gran a look that silenced any protest he might have put up. “Aric is our warrior, but you can see he got pretty hurt.”
Kyle nodded. “Are your parents held prisoner, too? Do you know what’s going on?”
They briefed the bear on everything that happened thus far, skipping a great many details and concentrating on what Kitsune had told them (without mentioning the fox).
“In short, we’re following the stream and we think it will lead us to the detention center. Then we’ll form a plan.”
“Pretty weak,” Gran added. “It’s just, we don’t know what we’re up against.”
“So, someone stole a talisman?”
“Or something.” The mice looked at each other. They hadn’t mentioned the magic wands that Gran carried, and while they didn’t believe those were the pilfered item, they wanted to guard them. “Something magic.”
“And this is why the government is coming down on all wizards? Seems like it must be a pretty mad wizard high up to do that, and not a non-wizard. Revenge and all.”
“We don’t know.”
“Do you think there’s more like us out there? I mean, if I thought to turn myself into a bear, and you guys turned into mice, couldn’t there be others?’
“We’re hoping so,” Ella replied. “We’re hoping we meet up before we get to the detention center. But we really don’t know.”
“Mice storm the Bastille.” Kyle chuckled. “I love history. We just need little pitchforks and hoes and torches.”
“Maybe a guillotine.” Twerp scratched his nose. He met Ella’s stare. “We just studied the French Revolution in history.”
“I know what the Bastille was.”
“We could use Aric’s barbecue skewer,” Gran sighed.
“Barbecue?”
“He stole it out of our back yard garbage. Then he used it to piss the crows off. We made him leave it when we met the deer mice. You can guess how effective it would have been against those raccoons.”
“Look, guys, I’m getting sleepy. Maybe we can brainstorm after a nap.”
Gran looked at Ella, “Twerp has a point. It’s been a long night. My mouse body likes to sleep and eat. Can we think later?”
Ella sat down near Kyle’s big muzzle, her back to the cave wall. She watched her friends snuggle up against the warm bear. Kyle didn’t close his eyes, but looked ate her. “You’re the real leader.”
“I’m the bellwether. Gran’s a natural leader, but Twer- er, Deke – is the mouse of action. He’s really smart. What about you, Kyle? Where do you think you fit in?”
“I’m the big, brawny friend that everyone thinks is dumb because he’s big and brawny. I think we need to find out how many more of us there are, and what we’re up against at this detention center, if it is even that. I think Dish may be right about going to his parent’s cabin. I could probably get us there in a day’s travel.”
“We’re supposed to follow the stream.”
“Why?”
Ella stared into the eyes. Kyle was just Kyle. He wasn’t pretending, she thought. She wanted to tell him about Kitsune, but…
“Okay, if you can’t tell me, can you tell me why all of you have to go? Maybe Deke and Dish can come with me, and we’ll go to the cabin.”
“Is it that important to go to the cabin?”
“That’s where Deke said he sent everything that was magic that was in the attic. I dunno. It’s weird, but…”
“But you feel like there’s an answer there. I know. I do, too. And I feel like you’re trustworthy. It’s just that… “
“I get it. You’re supposed to go downstream.”
“If only I had some direction…”
“Yeah.”

18438 words

Aric woke up refreshed. He stood and stretched. He could hear frogs and crickets, but not the sort of chorus one hears in the springtime. Something splashed in the stream outside: several splashes, like something walking through the water. He hurried to the hole in the tree and lifted one of his rocks. The heavy scent of elk musk floated into his nose and filled his mind. He sighed and relaxed. He listened as the elk passed and thought how amazing it was that his ears could pick up that there many were by the grunts, farts, splashes, and hoof beats. Cows and calves, spikes and bulls. He knew this, not from the smells, the sounds, or even his terrible night vision: he knew this from the Novembers he had spent hunting with his father.
He felt sad. His dad was in some place, held prisoner, accused of being a ‘practitioner of magic’. No doubt, he was separated from his wife, Aric and Ella’s mother, who was also accused of the same thing. They were white collar professionals. High school sweethearts. Active in the PTA, the city council, and the library. They voted, and not always for the same candidate or issues. They argued. They loved their kids unconditionally – even when Deka and Aric had accidentally set Deke’s mother’s shed on fire, they had loved him.
He felt a paw on his shoulder. Ella slipped her arm under his. “What’s out there?”
“Just elk. You think about mom and dad, El?”
“All the time.”
“Do we have a plan?”
She took a deep breath. “Well, Gran and Dish thought we could go to Dish’s family cabin, and we could regroup and form a plan from there. But we’re days from there in our present size, and we’re not even headed that way.”
“We aren’t?”
“No. The deer mouse who was my friend, he showed me where this stream goes. There’s a big white warehouse-sort of building. He couldn’t see it in the way we see things like that; he just knew about the concrete foundation and the parking lot and stuff that a mouse would see. It’s huge in his mind. And he was definite about the white.”
They stared out into the darkness.
Someone moved next to Ella. Dish leaned against the other side of the entrance. “I might know where we’re headed, then, and why. It sounds like the old ShopMart warehouse building. The foundation is white concrete, and the rest of the building is cinderblock painted white. My dad was day-shift manager there until they closed a year ago. It would be a good place to hold prisoners.”
Ella and Aric looked over at him. “You think Kitsune is sending us to the warehouse?”
“Well, he is the one that said to follow the stream, and if the stream ends where your mouse friend believes it does… Yeah.”
“What can we possibly do to help them in the form we’re in?”
“We still have some magic wands. And some time to plan. Surely, we aren’t the only ones who were smart and ducked out before we were arrested. Heck, how did Kitsune avoid capture?”
“I wondered that, too.” Gran was up. “How do we know we can trust him?”
Ella rolled her eyes. “He’s Mr. Nagasaki, for crying out loud. He may be freaky and all that, but he is still my favorite librarian, and a very kind man. We have to trust him, like we trusted the deer mice.”
“That was scary, just so you know, El.”
“I know, Gran. It was freaky. All those pheromones and images, and their language. I didn’t know mice had so many sounds, or that they sang love songs to each other, but there we were, and here we are. And they’re still singing ‘peace, love, and harmony’.”
“You’re going all freak on us, El.”
“Thank you, Billie. Yes, I am. I acknowledge that there is magic involved in this <pauses for applause>.” She waited.
Someone clapped. Another one clapped. Billie said, “Go on.”
“It’s maybe psychic ability or something. No one trained me how to be a wizard or witch or whatever I am. Twerp turned us into mice by magic. But it wasn’t by magic that Twerp realized our cell phones were tracking us or that Billie got us out of the basement. Gran got us out of the yard and as far as the woods here. Kitsune appears and tells us to knock off the magic tricks. We get waylaid by nature, and nature saves us. Now we’re here, and we have an idea where we’re headed, but no plan.”
“I have an idea.” Twerp waded into the discussion. “We wait until we get to where we are going to form a solid plan. We have to assess the situation. See who is guarding our parents. Look for allies. We act like the mice we are: one moment at a time.”
“No way.”
“We’ll get killed.”
“Suicide.”
“Wait,” Twerp added. “How many millennia have mice survived? And how far into the future do you think mice think?”
“Exactly!” Ella pumped her fist upward. “For once, Twerp gets my vote!”
The others grumbled for a moment. Aric raised his own voice, “Look, we’re mice. We can travel in the dark. I vote we keep following the stream until we find food or shelter again.”
“Hold onto the tail in front of you,” Gran said. “That way, noone gets lost.” Heads bobbed in agreement.
There were shadows out this night, making the world seem haunted and eerie. The woods were not quiet. The stream burbled, a coyote howled from a long distance away. Something chattered in the dark. Occasionally, they heard the thud of a larger animal’s hoof step. A wind came up, making the trees creak and groan eerily. Once, they heard something soft go “thump-thump-thump!” nearby, right before a large rabbit nearly landed on top of Billie and Dash.
They all screamed, and the rabbit startled. It reared up as if to crush them, turned on one hind leg, and hopped noisily off. Ella thought she heard it mutter, “Harumph!”
The scent of rose hips drew them to a bush, and they paused to eat, taking turns being sentinels. Aric found a fresh twig he could wield as a club, and Gran commandeered a similar piece of wood to use as a walking stick (to probe dark spaces, he said).
Ella spent her turn on sentry duty, trying to listen to the sounds and to see if she could pick up and pheromones or thoughts from other woodland creatures. It didn’t work: if there were creatures out there, they kept their thoughts to themselves. She heard an owl hoot somewhere, and wondered if it was Horace, but she was afraid to reach out to him. She hoped it was him, and that he was safe, and – mostly- that it wasn’t some stray non-familiar owl on the hunt for mice.
They headed back downstream after eating. Gran took the lead without being asked, with Dish behind him, Ella and Billie, followed by Twerp. Aric preferred bringing up the rear, now that he had a weapon again. The stream circled the tip of a rock slide, and the mice were forced out into the open to climb over the rocks. There was no whispering, only the sound of their shoes on the stones, an occasional grunt as they hefted themselves over a rather large stone, and their rapid breathing. Dish tripped on a trailing blackberry vine and bumped his nose.
Gran turned and helped him up. He caught Ella’s eyes as he did so: she was looking at something behind him, and emitting a cold scent of fear. Gran looked into Dish’s eyes and saw them go from tired to fearful. Slowly, Gran turned around.
Three sets of eyes glowed back at them, green in the moonlight. The shapes came a little closer, smelling of garbage and grinning widely. Sharp fangs glowed white in the night. A black hand splayed on the white rock – so very human like! – and Gran could just make out the unmistakable black mask of the raccoon leader.
“Ra-raccoons don’t eat mice. Do they?” He squeaked.
“P-p-pretty sh-sh-sure they d-d-do.” Ella squeaked back.
One of the raccoons, a smaller one, ran up the rocks to a position above the six mice. Another waded out into the stream below them, chattering as it did.
“Wh-wh-wh now?”
“Use your stick to hit ‘em in the nose!” Aric shouted. He was waving his stick over his head like a bat.
“Stick to-to-gether,” Ella ordered. “Circle.”
“So we look bi-bigger than we are!” Gran grabbed his stick and backed into Dish, who backed into Ella and Billie. They grabbed hands with each other until Aric was the only one not in the circle. He had his back to the circle, waving the stick in a threatening manner at the small raccoon that had now circled around and was inching forward from the back, still grinning. The large raccoon sat on its haunches and made a trilling noise that hurt the ears of the mice.
The smaller raccoon charged, and the mouse huddle moved closer to the larger raccoon – except Aric. He lashed out with his club, only to have it snap in half when it encountered the raccoon’s nose. The raccoon raised a black hand a slapped Aric, knocking him end over end into the water, where the other raccoon was waiting.
“Help!!!” Aric screamed.
Ella just screamed.
Something roared. There were splashes and the raccoons squealed in terror. The raccoon in the front of Gran did a one-eighty and dashed into the darkness. The raccoon on the rocks scrambled upward and over the rocks in the same direction, never glancing over its shoulder. The raccoon in the water dashed up out of the creek, straight past Gran, showering them all with water, screaming raccoon curses as it fled in the direction of its elder.
The splashing continued for a long moment afterwards as something very large and very black moved closer to the frightened mice. So big and black, that it blotted out the sky when it rose up out of the water,
Ella was sobbing. “Aric…Aric…”
A long black nose with very large, sharp, canines and horrible breath gently dropped something on a flat rock between the mice and itself. Something tiny and still, in a green sweatshirt, skater shoes, and torn jeans.
“Is this Eric?” The nose at the end of the snout and above the cavern of rancid breath gently nudged the still form.
Ella didn’t think. She acted. She ran forward and grabbed her brother’s body, turning his head to face her. He had a small gash on the side of his head, above his left eye. Ella gasped inward with a sob.
Aric suddenly vomited water all over her. “Buhack!!Hack! Hack.” Cough, sputter.
“You’re alive!” Ella squealed and hugged him.
“Leggo, Dork. Lemme breathe.”

16790 words

 

Aric was the furthest from the duo and he called out, “They’re hypnotizing us. How can you be sure they are safe, Ella?”
“Drop it, Derp,” she said without looking back. “They’re talking to us. Can’t you guys hear them?”
One of the deer mice came forward, its nose twitching. Ella knelt onto all fours and let her whiskers touch the other mouse’s. It squeaked audibly, turned and scurried back to its mate before pausing to look back.
“It wants us to follow it. It wants to take us to a safe place, away from the Caw Birds. They came because they sensed our fear, and they didn’t know who we were, but they can only feel peace and friendship from us, so they’re offering us a place to hide.”
“You know all that from touching it’s whiskers?” Gran sounded doubtful.
Ella ignored him and followed the mouse. Billie followed her. Gran came in third, then Dish, Twerp, and, last, Aric. The second mouse faded back into the fern.
They didn’t have to go far: the mouse led them to a boulder under which was a crawl space, it ducked into the crawl space, and Ella got back on all fours. “Oh, boy,” she said. “We get to go spelunking.” She followed the mouse under the rock.
“It’s a mouse hole,” her voice came back, muffled and distant, receding.
Billie looked at Gran before she, too, got on all four. “No more mean birds,” she said before she disappeared under the rock. Gran shook his head and followed. Dish looked back at the other two. Then he, too, got on all fours and scurried under the rock.
Twerp looked at Aric. “Sorry, bud. I think you gotta leave your weapon behind. We’re going into friendly territory now.” Twerp disappeared under the boulder.
Aric threw his skewer to the side and muttered, “OK, but if El is wrong…”
The second deer mouse entered the tunnel behind Aric, blocking off all light.
The tunnel smelled earthy. Here and there, something brushed past Ella’s face, but since the mouse ahead did not startle, she did not. She could smell the mouse, and feel its pleasant thoughts. Happiness. Peace. Friendship. Welcome. It seemed to be talking, but its voice was very high pitched, and she only caught bits of the words – more like images in her mind, than actual words.
This was home, the mouse was saying. We all live together down here. We have many ways out. Caw Birds can’t get to us. Family is here (Ella saw naked baby mice sucking on their mother’s teats). Sleep. Rest. No fear. Happy. You friends. Smell good. We show you path.
The tunnel passed by other openings, and sometimes there was a whiff of something else up those tunnels. The mouse showed her a picture of the creature, and she decided it was a vole. How interesting, she thought. They dropped into a larger room amid high pitched voices and excited chatter. They were in the main chamber, where the baby mice were, and the mother mice, and several older siblings. The mice were busy sniffing, cuddling, and touching each other’s whiskers. So many came at her, that she felt like she was in a very crowded room, with no room to turn around. She felt frightened, and wanted to scream or run out.
Images flashed in her mind. She was picturing words, directions, orders, conversations. Her mouse touched whiskers with her again. It wanted her to keep following, to not linger in the big room. Ella called back, “Guys! Can you follow my voice?”
“Coming!”
“Wow, so many of them!”
“So nice. So friendly.”
“Following Dish’s tail.”
“I’m right here!” Aric’s voice brought up the rear, and they were in a narrow tunnel again, this time, running slightly uphill.
The mouse ahead didn’t seem fazed by the pace, but Ella’s front paws were getting tired, not to mention how her toes felt in her boots. She was panting with exertion when the mouse turned suddenly straight up. Ella followed, her boots making little purchase on the tunnel walls, She heaved herself upward, while Billie yelled from behind.
“Geez, El! Enough with the dirt in the face, Girlfriend!”
“Sorry!”
They came out under a flat piece of tin. The rivulet gurgled merrily a few feet away (yards, by Ella’s view, but she knew it had to be feet). The deer mouse was busy picking rose hips off of a wild rose, hanging upside down to do so. It was humming happily.
Aric was pushed up the tunnel by the second mouse, who kept sending him happy thoughts. Tumbling out into the bucolic scene of his friends eating rose hips and happily humming, Aric stood up. He wanted to be angry, but such peaceful feelings came over him: peace. Love. Happy. Family. Food. Aric knew he was hypnotized, but the sweet aroma of rose hips filled his nostrils, and he reached for one. It was like biting into a chocolate covered pomegranate seed. The energy seemed to go right to his belly and his head.
“Mouse cocaine,” he muttered as he gnawed his way happily through several rose hips.
Sated, Ella dropped down beside a stone, under the shelter of thick, round leaves. Aric dropped beside her. “They left, you know,” he said.
“I know.” She patted her tummy. “They were very nice.”
Gran dropped down on the other side of her. “Weird that I don’t even question their motives, isn’t it?”
Dish, Billie, and Twerp joined them. Billie giggled and said, “I wish I had my phone. I’d post on social media with a photo of Dish hanging from a wild rose bush: Just crawled through a mouse house with naked babies and feasted on rosehips. Life’s so good.”
“Attacked by rabid crows,” Aric added. “Not LOL.”
“Really?” Ella laid back. “I think I would just post something about being so darn tired.”
“Dear Evil Person: We have Kitsune on our side.”
They all chuckled.
“Don’t mess with house mice. Deer mice come to the rescue.”
“#deermiceheroes #underground tunnels #followthestreamlet.” Dish let out a long breath. “Probably a good thing we don’t have cell phones and can’t let the enemy know where we are.”
“If only we knew who the enemy was.”
“What now?” Twerp burped contentedly. “I could use a nap.”
“They showed me a place not far from here. Isn’t it weird that I could see the pictures they sent me?” Ella stood up. “They didn’t even notice we were wearing clothes.”
“Didn’t they think it was weird, us having shoes and all?” Gran fell in beside her as they made their way along the creek, careful to stay under cover and stay alert this time.
“They thought it odd that we walked on our ‘back legs’ at first, but once in the tunnel, we were all equal. They were even going to let us stay in their nest, but I panicked. Claustrophobic, I guess.” Ella grinned up at Gran. “I’m not a good mouse, am I?”
“I don’t know, that was pretty tight back in there. I was beginning to panic, myself.” Dish offered up from behind them. “I wonder how long we were in their tunnels?”
They dodged a large banana slug. It smelled of something sickly. The air was crisp, and song birds few and far between now. They climbed over mossy rocks. Dish lost his footing once, and fell into a hole, but Aric and Billie helped him back out.
Ella found what she was looking for after what seemed like an hour: a blackened hollow in a tree that was mostly grown over by the tree and hidden by some low plants. The picture in her head matched, and she clapped her paws in delight. “Oh! A place to sleep! At least, to rest.”
“Should we set a sentry?” They were inside the tree, smelling the cedar and feeling the lightning-carved walls. Billie was doing what she did naturally: gathering bark shavings into a nest near the back wall.
“We don’t have a weapon anymore.” Aric picked up some boulders and hauled them beside the door. “I don’t know how far I could heft one of these if I had to fight.”
“Can we just hope noone saw us come in here?” Billie stood up and looked around at them.
“Most predators have a refined sense of smell, and they’d likely just follow our scent to us. But I guess mice just live life in the moment and don’t worry about predators much…” Ella’s voice trailed off. She didn’t have an answer.
Twerp dropped down into the nest. “I’m claiming first sleep.” He curled up and was snoring promptly.
“Well, I guess that’s it. We nap, and hope noone follows us.”

14954 words

The fox disappeared like a mist on a hot day. The mice stared at the spot he had been sitting, their mouths agape.
“What’s a bell weather?” Billie asked.
“Bellwether, one word. An indicator or predictor of something. I think he means I will instinctively be able to tell who is good or bad. I don’t know, though.” Ella wiped her eyes. “I’m really tired, guys.”
“We should at least cross the creek,” Aric said. “There’s a rock we can rest under over there.”
“You mean, wade?” Gran was staring at the water. “It’s really cold.”
“No, climb over on the rhododendron,” Ella suggested.
“Um, right. I guess I should go now.” Horace was still standing under the shelter of the rhodie. “You guys watch for corvids, okay?”
“Corvids?”
“Crows, jays, ravens,” Ella answered, automatically. “Enemies of owls and mice.”
“Right. Okay, Horace, it’s been cool.” Dish held up a fist to the owl. He took it down when the owl didn’t respond. “Maybe see you – you know where.”
“Yes, yes, I do. I think I can find my way. Follow the stream.” Horace blinked again. “Thank you.”
Twerp ran up and hugged the owl. “We’ll get dad out of jail, Horace.”
If the owl could have hugged back, it was evident he would have. He dipped his beak down to touch Twerp’s ball cap. “Yes,” was all he said.
“C’mon, guys, let’s go.”
Horace hopped out from under the rhododendron and lifted silently up into the air. He rose to find a roost for the day, camouflaged by tree bark. The mice scrambled across twisted branches of rhododendrons to the rock and fern protection on the far side of the stream. They found a dry spot filled with soft fir needles, hidden by fern fronds, and protected by the hard stone walls on two sides.
Aric took up a sentry post with his bamboo skewer aimed outward. The rest of the mice scurried around, creating a nest. Aric sighed. He jammed his bamboo skewer into the ground, point outward. He didn’t have anything for the other side, so he just hoped nothing would try to crawl in from that direction. He was getting paranoid.
Ella curled up next to Dish, with Billie and Gran on the other side. Aric and Twerp curled up at their feet. Ella hadn’t realized how tired she was: she scarcely closed her eyes and she was asleep.

She faced a centipede that had somehow grown large enough to knock on her bedroom door. It had a large set of mandibles in the front of its hard, roundish head, and a grouping of ocelli. It was poised as if to strike. I can’t see you, it whispered to her, but I know you are out there. I will find you. When I find you, I will kill you. All of you.
Aric yelled and came down on the ocelli – antennae that the centipede used for surrogate eyes- “Die! Die! Die! Leave my sister alone!!”
The creature reared back, it’s mandibles snapping. Twerp danced in front of it, mooning it. It poised to strike when Dish shoved a rock into its face. Billie came out of somewhere with a pair of scissors which she was using to cut off the centipede’s legs on one side. She was singing a song about how a centipede with legs only on one side was doomed to always walk in a circle.
Gran wrapped his arms around Ella and pulled her into the light. “Wake up, El. Wake up! We have to get moving!”

“Wake up! El! Wake up! We have to get moving!” El’s eyes opened. She was under the canopy of the rhododendron, in the arms of Gran. She started.
“Centipede.”
“What? No? It’s just the sun is setting. We need to follow the stream.”
“In the dark?” She wasn’t quite functioning.
“We hold tails, remember? Aric is leading the first leg. We keep whiskers to the water. Walk carefully.”
“Oh, and there’s helicopters circling, tell her that.” Billie sat down next to El. “Yeah, they’re searching the woods. Guess the old fox was right.”
“Mr. Nagato. The librarian.”
“But only sometimes.”
“Right. Watch out for centipedes.”
“What? Nevermind. Let’s go.”
They hiked in pairs or single file, staying to the cover of the rhododendrons, sword ferns, dying bracken, and huckleberries. There were plenty of dried berries still on the huckleberries, which mice apparently liked, so they picked and ate as they went. The little stream provided water to wash down whatever they gleaned as they hiked.
There were relatively few creatures out: a songbird warbled a tune that echoed off of tree trunks. A busy wren scarcely gave them a glance, except to flutter out of their way with a mild chirp. A very lazy-looking brown and orange newt hissed at them, and they gave it a wide berth. Something jumped into the water, once, but none of them saw what it was, and no other threatening action was taken. The drone of helicopters circled overhead, before drifting away.
A yellow jacket wasp flew along the ground, looking for something. It ignored them as they tip-toed past, afraid to stir up such a large wasp. A late dragonfly, bright grey, landed on a delicate plant stem and watched them as they passed. It looked very mean and dangerous, but Ella assured everyone that it wasn’t hunting mice.
The world was strange here: the sky and tree canopy was too far off to see. Green was more a shade of grey than a color, but there were many shades of grey. Blues stood out. Yellow and brown were bright colors. They could all see better in the daylight, but they still bumped into twisted rhododendron roots, or yet another grey rock, with regularity. Sometimes, they tripped over the creeping blackberry vines.
Mushrooms were all investigated with eager noses.
“First time I ever liked a ‘shroom,” Dish mumbled with his mouth full of chanterelle. “And it not even cooked.”
“I wonder if mice get high on poisonous ones?”
Open spaces didn’t appear as open spaces to the travelers: from their perspective, they were crossing a maze of fir cones and downed tree branches. They climbed atop a fallen tree and raced the length of it, hopping to the next one, always keeping the little stream to the left of them.
They were foolish, of course. The cawing of crows should have sparked a warning, but they were laughing and running with abandon, unmindful of their size and appearance.
The first crow served to frighten them into tumbling off of the log they were on, by diving at them and flying away, caw-caw-cawing in corvid laughter. The tumble was painful, but not injuring, and Gran shook his fist at the bird.
The second crow came from behind Gran and snatched at his paw. It missed, but Gran tumbled forward, which set the crows off on another round of cawing hilarity. Two crows swooped in the third time, and one succeeded in grabbing Billie’s tail for a short moment, sending her somersaulting under a rhododendron.
Ella had ducked under a low log and saw where Billie had landed. “Everyone! Run for the rhodie! Run! Get over by Billie!” Something in her mind told her they would be safe – at least for now – from the cawing bullies. She dashed along under the log before making a short scramble to where Billie was sitting up, crying.
“What awful birds!” Billie sobbed.
The crows kept diving, and one even landed behind Twerp, hopping along and cawing loudly and pecking at his tail as he ran. “Ouch! Ow! Stop it! Ow!” The crow stopped only when Twerp ducked under Ella’s log and rolled into the space under the rhodie. Gran and Dish followed , their paws flailing as if they could ward the black birds off. Only Aric stood up to face the onslaught.
He ran a little ways forward, but when a crow dove, he turned and weilded his bamboo skewer, poking the sharp end upward as if to stab the birds. They stayed above his jabs, cawing and calling. He kept getting closer and Ella stood as close to the edge of the old rhododendron as she could, squeaking at the top of her voice, “Run, Aric! Run! Hurry!”
“Not. Before. I. Make. One. Pay.” Aric thrust his skewer up at the grey feet coming at his face. He hit something and the crow suddenly back-winged, cawing angrily. Aric made a mad dash for the rhododendron then, barely making it under the safety of the low canopy. The three crows landed on the logs and low branches, cawing incessantly.
The mice scooted as close to the base of the bush as they could before taking stock of their scrapes and bruises. Billie was still sniffling, but Gran had his paw on her shoulder, comforting her. Twerp retrieved his glasses from the edge of the rhodie, using a twig. He cleaned them on his t-shirt, muttering that they weren’t broken, lucky for the crows.
“How long do you suppose they’ll wait out there?” Dish peered up, but couldn’t see the crows.
“A long time,” Ella said, dejectedly. “Aric made them mad. Crows hold a grudge.”
“Well, so do I,” Aric snapped defensively. “They were out to hurt us or kill us.”
“Yes, they were. I’m not arguing, Dork. I’m just explaining how crows think.”
“You don’t think – sniff – those are – sniff – someone’s familiars, do you?” Billie wiped her nose with her paw.
Ella shook her head, “No. They are crows being crows. We were mice out in the open, and they saw what looked like a good sporting time.” She sat. “Now what do we do? We have to get beck to the stream, but if we try to cross back out of here, they’ll be right on us – unless we move in the dark.”
“I don’t want to wait until night,” Gran said angrily. “We can’t wait until night. We’re taking too long as it is.”
“Any great ideas, O great leader?” Aric was still holding on to his bamboo skewer. “Maybe we find a bunch of skewers?”
Gran glowered at him, “Cut the sarcasm, Derp.”
“Guys. We can’t do skewers, Aric: we don’t have anything to sharpen twigs, and crows learn. That means, they’ll be ready for skewers next time. They’re smart birds.”
“Mean birds,” Billie pouted.
Ella stood up. “Look, I need to think. Billie? Come with me?”
“Wait, where you guys going?”
“To think.”
“No, you can’t leave the whole group. We stay together. All the time. No one is safe on their own, if all six of us aren’t safe.” Gran as much as put his hands on his hips.
“O Great Leader has spoken,” Aric muttered.
Ella, who had her beck to the group, spoke softly, “Guys. I think we have a friend.”
Everyone lifted their heads and peered in the direction Ella was looking, but it wasn’t their eyes that told them what she meant: it was their noses. A pair of deer mice sat on their haunches just under a sword fern, kindness and gentleness emanating from them.

13490 words

I accidentally published this as a PAGE on my blog site, and I meant for it to be a post, pre-November. Oh well, I am publishing it NOW, six days into my novel-writing experiment:

“It is the 29th of October, two days before NaNoWriMo officially begins. I have my novel idea, and a brief outline. I will start writing – officially – on the first of November (Dia de los Muertas). I have chosen this year, to include my blog following on my daily writing. It is because of you that I have chosen my subject: She Didn’t Believe in Magic.

I will post all of my writing here, on my blog, and ask you – my reader – for constructive criticism (which I may, or may not, take). This is a leap of faith for me. I don’t like criticism. I’m shy. I tend to make decisions all on my own. But, by engaging you, my audience, I hope to create a short novel that is not only readable, but is instantly publishable. Maybe I will even pick up a book contract (we can hope/pray!).

I merely ask you to tune in and watch for my daily posts from November 1 through November 30. Comment, engage on social media, criticize. Correct my grammar. Do not hold back. Together, we can create a great YA novel.

I’m excited to do this. That’s a GIANT leap for this introvert. But it is true: I am excited to create with an audience. Please engage, and don’t worry about my feelings. I’ll get over it!”

I still want you to engage and correct my grammar, offer ideas, etc. For instance, I have already changed a paragraph and caught some typos in my posts. I want YOUR eyes on it, too. Tell me when I’m redundant, boring, missing the point (example: using the wrong vernacular for young adults of the 21st century).

I am making a lot of progress on my 50,000 words for November. This isn’t so much for ME, as it is for my fan base. ♥

~Jaci