CHAPTER 13 - Feast of The Five
It all happened so quickly, Ziro had to pinch himself a time or two just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. One moment the squad was surrounded by spearheads and the very next they were being hoisted onto the shoulders of dozens of Liwan maidens, carried into town and heralded as heroes.
For some reason, the squad’s presence had turned the entire village of about fifty or so into a frenzied state of enthusiastic chaos. Everywhere you looked, mice were busying themselves, gathering firewood, preparing food and setting tables around a great fire pit.
“Is it just me,” Demo muttered, as he caught up with his friends, “or is everyone in the tribe a doe?”
“Yeah, where are the bucks?” Streak wondered.
“I’m sure they are around somewhere,” Ziro reasoned, “Probably further out in the wood, protecting another harvest.”
“Well, they sure made a big fuss about seeing us,” Streak boasted, “We’re a pretty big deal around here, huh?”
“Yes...expected even,” Nighshade noted, as he stroked his whiskers.
“Somebody must have tipped them off,” said Demo. “How else could they have known we were coming?”
“Liwan scouts? They might have spotted us earlier,” Magenta offered.
“Perhaps,” Nightshade considered the idea. He wasn’t too keen on the implication that someone had seen him coming. He always took extreme caution to stay low and unseen, “Still, I get the impression they’ve been expecting us for much longer than that.”
Ziro agreed, “Either way, I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.”
As he spoke, a pair of attractive Liwan maidens dressed in white lilies approached the squad.
“Please, follow us, the elder would like to speak with you,” one of the mice said, giggling at Streak. He smiled back.
They led the squad into a small hut near the edge of town where their leader was waiting to speak in private. Demo climbed out of his XR suit before joining the others inside.
The leader was a natural beauty. Ziro had to catch his breath. The striped patterns across her fur added a mystery to her features, perfectly framing her eyes like dark mascara. She was still wearing the red cloak but now a green maple leaf rose from behind her head, tied around her brow with a woven stem giving her the distinct appearance of crowned royalty. She lowed her head in acknowledgement of the squad’s arrival. Ziro returned the gesture.
“Welcome,” she said. “I am Mele, Dame of Liwa. We are honored you have come.”
Ziro fumbled over his response, “I’m Com-commander Ziro and this is my squad,” Ziro said, introducing his team.
“Hi there,” Demo stated, waving somewhat dumbly at the introduction. It was clear Mele had the full attention of every male in the room. Magenta wanted to puke.
“You have fought bravely, warriors. Long have we awaited your arrival to our village.”
“About that,” Ziro asked, “how did you...”
“Know you were coming?” Mele finished Ziro’s sentence for him. “By listening to the stars.”
At this, Magenta rolled her eyes. She had heard about mice like this. Deranged fools, who put their faith in the writings of the skies. They were simpletons, in her eyes, who failed to see the very technology they shunned was what protected them from extinction.
Mele noted Magenta’s disbelief, “You doubt the stars?”
Magenta replied in as diplomatic a tone as she was capable of giving, “No offense, but I trust my blaster. I’ve never seen a star kill a beast.”
“And yet here you are in our time of need, are you not?” Mele asked.
Magenta had no response. There was no point in arguing with the silly logic of stargazers.
“There is much to discuss, of course,” Mele continued, focusing her attention on Ziro, “but first you will be our guests for tonight’s feast. A celebration is in order for your arrival.”
“Of course, “ Ziro replied, accepting the offer.
“Good,” Mele smiled, “In the meantime, if there is anything we can do to make your stay more comfortable, please don’t hesitate to ask. It is truly a pleasure to have you here.”
“The pleasure is ours,” Ziro said with a slight bow.
With that, the crimson-cloaked leader bowed and left the squad alone in the hut to freshen up in preparation for the feast. Magenta was the first to speak.
“You guys are pathetic, you know that?” She said, shaking her head.
“What?” Demo questioned. “We were just being friendly.”
“You know, I think I could get used to having field missions like this,” Streak said, throwing himself onto a plush seed sack that was nestled in the corner of the room. He snagged a ripe cranberry from a bowl beside him and began munching on it. “Did you see the way the way those two in white were smiling at me.”
“They were laughing at your fur, sap skull,” Magenta said bluntly, pointing to the syrup-soaked mess atop Streak’s head. He had almost forgotten about it. Scrambling to his feet, Streak searched for a mirror in hopes of making himself more presentable before supper.
“Come on, Magenta, you have to admit it’s nice to be treated like heroes for a change,” Demo said in agreement.
Ziro couldn’t disagree. He was enjoying every bit of it as well, especially the attention he was getting from Mele.
A gentle rap at the door disturbed his thoughts. Ziro opened it to find the pups Streak had helped rescue staring up at him with eyes full of wonder. He invited them in.
“Is it true?” Toli, the spotted one, asked boldly.
“Is what true?” Ziro asked in return.
“Are you really the warriors who are really going to rescue our dad?” Tal asked.
“Why, is he in trouble or something?”
The two mice nodded their heads in unison. Toli explained further, “The Pestilence took him four seasons ago with all the other bucks in our tribe. We were just pinkies then or they would have probably taken us too. Nobody knows where they went. But mom says you’ve come to help us find him. You are here to help, right?”
“Yes, we’re here to help,” he said confidently. Already the two pup’s faces brightened as if it were the first hope they’d ever had of seeing their dad again.
“Oh, we brought something for you,” Toli said, motioning for his brother to join him outside. A moment later the two mice returned, bringing with them a bucket full of sap.
“Great, more sap,” Streak said sarcastically. The last thing he wanted was more of the sticky stuff on his fur, but as the bucket neared he spotted something submerged in it. It was the mini drone he had kicked into the sap bucket during his daring rescue of the pups. It wasn’t moving at the moment but its eyes flashed dimly every few seconds as if counting off a timed slumber.
“Where did you get this?” Ziro asked anxiously.
“The forest, but just don’t tell our mom. She doesn’t know we...”
As if on cue, the pups’ mom called out in earnest through the thin walls of the hut.
“Tal, Toli,” her voice stern. “Where are you?”
“Coming mom,” Toli shouted. Then, he turned to the squad and smiled. “We gotta go. See you at the feast?”
Demo replied enthusiastically, “Wouldn’t miss it!”
The two pups scurried out of the hut and straight into the arms of their mother who was waiting just outside. She grabbed them by their ears and pulled them away harshly, scolding them as she went.
Alone again, the squad eyed the submerged bug in a bucket. It’s eyes flashing on and off again.
“Can I poke it?” Demo asked.
“What? And start a fire fight inside the hut?” Magenta pointed out. “Not a good idea, boom boy.”
“I was just asking,” Demo said, “So, where do you think it came from?”
Nobody knew, but there was a bigger question on Ziro’s mind, “It’s not where it came from that we should be concerned about...it’s who,” he said.
“Who indeed,” Nightshade pondered. Staring through the sap he marvelled at the construction of the robotic being. The overlapping metal panels allowed for the beetle to move freely beneath is protective shell yet could roll tightly into a ball when needed as well. It was quite an engineering feat. “Whoever made something this intricate would have to have direct access to a star shard.”
“But I thought the mice controlled all the shards of the starfall,” Streak reasoned.
“As far as we know,” Nightshade explained, scratching his chin.
“Are you saying it’s possible there are still more undiscovered shards in Megiddo?” Streak asked anxiously.
Nightshade nodded, “Anything is possible.”
The team sat in silence pondering the implications of their new discovery. If it were true it could change everything about the war. Controlling the shards is what gave the mice an advantage over their natural enemies. It was the shards that had granted them the knowledge they needed to power their machines. If beasts gained control over the shards as well...if they could harness the power of the machine as the mice had...there’s no telling what they could be up against. The outcome was far too horrible to think of.
“We’d better tell the Colonel right away,” Ziro said. “Shade, did you get any footage of these things in action?”
“Up until we ran for cover,” Nightshade replied.
“Good, send it to Black. Tell him our cover was...unavoidably blown...” Ziro said, looking at Demo. The big mouse shrugged sheepishly. Ziro continued. “Tell him that we’ve captured one of the drones and made contact with the Liwans.”
Nightshade entered the report into his communicator and sent it off as requested. Almost immediately a message was returned. It read simply:
“MISSION COMPLETE. STAY WHERE YOU ARE. AWAIT TRANSPORT.”
Ziro was surprised the Colonel had replied so quickly, especially considering his ineptness when it came to technology. He couldn’t tell from the vagueness in the Colonel’s response if their mission had been a success. All he knew for sure at this point was that their fun was over - they were going back to the academy sooner than he had hoped.
Before they had time to discuss the Colonel’s response, the mice dressed in white lilies returned to usher the squad to their places near the head of the feast table. And what a feast it was. Dandelion salad, stewed mushrooms, baked scarabs, stuffed grubs, a sharp wedge of cheese, blackberry cobbler and a tall acorn cup full of frothy honeydew brew. It smelled delicious, far better than anything the squad had been served at the Academy.
Near the center of the table, seated beside Mele was an old mouse in a black cloak. The mouse’s face was concealed completely, but Ziro couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched from beneath the hood. He felt a growing uneasiness building in his chest and looked away to avoid further contact.
When Mele raised her arms, the tribe fell silent at her command. “Tonight, we celebrate the fulfillment of the promise of the stars,” she proclaimed. “For four seasons now have we toiled under the oppressive shadow of the dreaded Pestilence. Forced to hide and watch as they’ve stolen of our sap, captured our bucks, and threatened our very existence in this wood. Many of our own have fallen, trying to save us from the plague of the Pestilence. Good mice...young mice...all of them lost but none forgotten.” The mood was heavy with grief as the Liwans recounted the nightmare they had been living for so long.
“But...” Mele said loudly, erasing the gloom from their faces almost immediately. “Today is the beginning of a new dawn. No longer are we alone in our fight. We have allies whose bravery in standing up to our enemies has sparked new hope in all of us. The long awaited day has come...tomorrow, these brave mice will rise up against impossible odds and free us once and for all from the entire horde of the Pestilence.” There was a great cheer and every eye turned toward the squad. Ziro’s jaw dropped. This was definitely not what they signed up for. He wanted to shrink away. Things were quickly getting out of hand.
Mele lifted her acorn cup toward the dazzling evening sky and the rest of the tribe did the same.
“To freedom,” Mele said in an proud voice.
“Freedom,” the tribe roared in unison, and the feasting began.
It was a tasty meal but Ziro couldn’t force himself to eat much of it. He was far too terrified to tell them the truth. They weren’t heroes, they were just a recon unit...on their first mission. A mission that was completed and soon they would be going home. Sure, other Mech Mice would be called into action eventually, but he knew how slowly the chain of command worked. It could be weeks or months before any real action could be taken. By then, the Pestilence would most certainly have had its way with the defenseless Liwans.
Throughout supper, the veiled gaze of the mouse in black kept constant watch on Ziro, reading him like a book, listening to his thoughts.
At the end of the feast the beating of drums began. Ziro and the team were given a front row seat by the bonfire as various groups of Liwans performed tribal dances to honor the sacred night. During the performance, Magenta leaned over and whispered into Ziro’s ears.
“You know you’re going to have to tell them we aren’t who they think we are.”
“I know, I know,” Ziro said, anxiously. “I’ll talk to Mele...tonight.”
“Good, because I’m starting to worry she might make you her king if we wait any longer,” Magenta joked warmly. “That would be awkward.”
Ziro laughed it off but then something struck him. Had he detected a hint of jealousy in Magenta’s voice when she said it? Nah, it couldn’t be, he reasoned with himself, Magenta didn’t get jealous. Besides, in order to be jealous she’d have to actually like Ziro and it seemed almost impossible to picture Magenta liking anyone. When this mission was done, so was she - that was the deal.
Despite his inner arguments, Ziro found himself staring at Magenta for a long moment while she wasn’t looking. Her eyes sparkled in the firelight as she watched the dancers perform. Suddenly, she turned back toward Ziro and their eyes met.
“What?” Magenta asked firmly, feeling a bit uncomfortable in the moment.
“Oh, nothing, I was just...” Ziro wrestled with his words, “I was just wishing there was something more we could do for the tribe, you know. It’s going to crush those pups when they find out we’re leaving.”
“What makes you think we haven’t helped them already?” Magenta asked. “We are Mech Mice, we do what we’re told. Battles are won by everyone doing their own part, for the greater good. That’s our job. We have to trust the system.”
“I know,” Ziro said, pondering the question, “I just think we have a lot more to offer as a team. I’m not ready for it to be over.”
“You know, you really worry too much. Just relax. You’ll get a second mission.”
“How can you be so sure?” Ziro asked.
“Because you’re a great leader.”
Hearing Magenta give a complement meant more to Ziro than anything. For the briefest of moments, all was right with the world. He was a proud leader of a squad of legendary heroes, a mouse who had accomplished something that mattered. It almost felt as though he had found his identity at last and then, chaos erupted.
Out of nowhere, a massive vehicle burst onto the scene, collapsing tables and sending Liwans scattering from its path. It was a Dragoon, a fiercely armored field transport used to deploy groups of Mech Mice to remote regions. It came to an abrupt stop and a ramp opened from its back revealing a squad of five. Just like that, Ziro’s past came crashing back on him in the form of none other than the Alpha team and his horrid half-brother Nitro.