Hopper’s Destiny CHAPTER ONE
LA ROCHA’S JOURNAL—FROM the Sacred Book of the Mus
I, the mystical and revered La Rocha, look down now upon the remains of the once-prosperous city of Atlantia. It has been a fortnight since the battle—a mere two weeks, yet it feels like two thousand years. Below me the city smolders. The factories no longer produce, and the streets no longer bustle with Atlantia’s fortunate citizens, who so recently went about their business, blissfully secure in the guarantee of safety and prosperity.
Safety purchased at an unspeakable cost.
The rats who dwelled here were not directly to blame; they were ignorant to all of it. But then, if they never thought to wonder or investigate, do they not share a fraction of the guilt? The Atlantian citizens only knew that their emperor, Titus, had arranged a peace accord with the feral cats that provided the rodents with comfortable lives and untroubled minds. They never bothered to ask the true cost of that peace.
Now the city is overrun with the refugees who would have been sacrificed to keep the ferals from preying upon Atlantia. These were mice and rats and squirrels and chipmunks found wandering in the subway tunnels by Titus’s soldiers and offered up to the feral queen in exchange for peace. These are the ones who were liberated from Titus’s death camps and have now taken up a precarious residence behind Atlantia’s once-impenetrable walls.
The rebels acted in good faith when they liberated the camps, but the results are grim. It must be said: they did not think far enough into the future. They were so determined to end the tyranny that they never considered what would happen in the aftermath. Such small crusaders are they! Such high hopes they had! And I count myself among them.
When this rebellion began, long ago, the goal was for all creatures to coexist in peace. A true peace in which we would aid one another, regardless of our species, as we struggled against the daily strife that comes of being tiny and hunted, or far from home and hungry. Of being loved once and then forgotten, turned out, abandoned. For this is the condition of the poor souls who find their way here, to the belly of the earth.
At the heart of this campaign was the belief we could learn to refrain from preying upon one another. Alas, I see now that this may have been too much to hope for. Because I have come to understand that even in the presence of justice and fairness, nature overrides all. Hunger must be fed, and nature has designed us so that such instinct and need can rarely be entirely quelled. I have learned that there is no evil in the true course of nature, there is only what must be. We form a living chain, from the enormous humans who dominate the upland world to the most humble creatures among us—rodent, insect, reptile.
The so-called peace that Titus brokered was self-serving and entirely against nature—animals were taken randomly from this life before nature deemed it their rightful time. There is no denying that to each of us who walks or hops or crawls or slithers upon this earth or under it, there will ultimately come that moment when we must bid our farewells and breathe our last breath. But what form our exit will take is for nature and destiny, not government, to decide. Nature determines what will come and when it will come, and how. That is the great mystery of being.
Titus upset that fragile balance by attempting to outwit nature, and now all that he twisted and manipulated must be repaired.
Below me the blare of a horn rips through the smoky silence. I recognize it well. In the past the rebel Firren would use this horn to summon her Rangers in a secret call to arms. Now the horn is a warning, and the few rodents who have been scurrying amid the city’s shambles—looting, scavenging, begging—scamper off hastily to conceal themselves behind crumbling walls.
“Incoming,” a guard’s voice bellows. “Ferals approaching. Seek cover!”
I watch in horror as one young mouse, who has been hauling a wagon filled with rotting food scraps, freezes in his tracks in the middle of Atlantia’s town square. My heart breaks to see him trembling and unprotected there in plain sight. I wish I could run to him, or at the very least shout out a command for him to run away. But to reveal myself would wreak even more havoc on this forsaken place. I must bide my time and do what I can from the shadows.
Two feral cats stalk into view. They are new to the tunnels, I am sure, for they still have a sense of upland scruff about them. They must be recent additions to Felina’s ranks; I can see in their eyes that they remember daylight. And this makes them even more dangerous, because beneath their hunger lurks the need to prove themselves.
The larger of the two felines is reaching out to slam one heavy paw down on the cowering mouse, when from the corner of my eye I spot a flash of silver, a blur of blue and red.
She is here! The rebel warrior. With her she brings a royal heir.
And a Chosen One.
He is the smallest among them, this Chosen One, but he is first to attack. Sword drawn, he barrels toward the startled cats, crying out in a familiar call: “Aye, aye, aye!” He swiftly delivers a warning cut to the larger cat’s hind leg. As the cat yowls and sputters, the petite rebel in her silver cape catches hold of the other villain’s tail and sinks her sharp rat teeth into it. The bitten one hisses and roars.
Now the royal heir steps forward, brandishing a dagger.
“I’d really rather not kill you two,” he says. “There’s been far too much bloodshed already. But I will if I must.”
The larger cat licks a trickle of red from his leg and speaks with an upland accent. “We gotta eat,” he says in his own defense.
“Well, do it elsewhere,” says the Chosen One. “These citizens of Atlantia are under our protection.”
“Citizens?” The cat snorts. He shifts a yellowy glance toward the refugees, who peek out from their hiding places. “They ain’t citizens, they’re squatters. Rodent rejects. They’re feline food.”
At that the Chosen One raises his sword. “Not while there’s breath in my body, they aren’t!”
Then the rebel plants her hind legs and rests one ready paw on the handle of her sword. She makes no other move, just waits with coiled fury. The ferals sense immediately how very much she’d enjoy plunging that blade right between their eyes. The royal heir simply crooks a grin and spins his dagger between his claws in a showy gesture. The message is clear: he, too, is prepared to fight.
Then the little warrior draws himself up; the words he speaks are ground out between his tiny mouse teeth. “Be gone,” he orders. “Or die.”
The ferals hesitate only a moment before turning to run back the way they came.
From my perch above Atlantia, a feeling swells up within me, a warm sensation that prickles along my fur. It is pride. And hope.
Now the Chosen One rushes toward the quivering victim, who is still huddled in the middle of the dusty square; he sweeps him into his arms.
“It’s okay,” he says in a gentle voice. “They can’t hurt you now.”
The mouse wriggles free and regards the hero with a sneer. “Of course they can! Don’t you see? We’re doomed. You’ve solved nothing. You’ve failed!”
With that, the mouse runs off, leaving his cart behind.
The Chosen One turns to his friends, his eyes moist and his whiskers twitching. They know that the mouse’s words ring with the prevailing sentiment of all who still dwell here. The suffering rodents feel no gratitude. They give no credit to the Chosen One and the rebels for trying; instead they place blame for falling short.
With the weight of this knowledge pressing heavily on my heart, I bow my head and slink away.
As Hopper watched the last of the crickets spring away from the palace, he was reminded of the one that had played a delightfully impromptu concert for him on that first dark day when he’d awoken and found himself in the tunnels. A lifetime ago, it seemed.
At the height of the rebel invasion this writhing swarm of insects had, at Firren’s command, attached itself to the sprawling palace and transformed it into a prison, where the emperor Titus had been contained these past two weeks. Hopper had not seen Titus since the bugs had sealed him within the beautiful palace, but he could imagine the craggy old rat at turns pacing in fury over his imprisonment, then dissolving into weeping fits, grieving the loss of his city and mourning the end of his regime.
And maybe—just maybe—lamenting the wickedness of his death deal with Felina.
Today the crickets had been relieved of their duties; they had been ordered to take their leave by Firren, who now stood before the palace with Hopper and Prince Zucker.
Hopper was still smarting from the insult delivered by the mouse in the town square. The resentment in those little black eyes stung more than any battle wound Hopper had endured. Did he really deserve such contempt?
As he looked around at the waste and the chaos, it was hard to be sure that he didn’t. Most of the grand buildings of Atlantia had been stormed by rodents desperate for shelter. Some had been set ablaze and were still smoldering. The stalls and carts of the market were toppled and broken, and the streets were filled with litter of all sorts. Nearly everything of value had been stolen, swept out of the city in the exodus, and the rodents who remained cowered in their hiding places or crept through the city with frightened expressions on their gaunt faces.
Zucker, who always seemed to know what Hopper was thinking, laid a gentle paw on the Chosen One’s shoulder. “These are confusing times, kid,” he said softly. “You did what you had to do. We all did.”
Hopper sighed. “But we never expected this.”
“I’m not sure what we expected,” Zucker admitted. “All we knew was that those refugee camps had to be eradicated and Titus had to be stopped.”
“In that regard we’ve succeeded,” said Firren.
Zucker grinned. “And now, like after any good party, somebody’s gotta clean up.”
Hopper shook his head. “It wasn’t a party.”
“I know, kid. I’m just trying to inject a little levity.”
Hopper supposed he was grateful for the prince’s attempt at lightening the mood. He was not looking forward to what was about to happen.
With a deep breath he focused his gaze on the tall, wide doors of the palace. A moment later the soldiers Bartel and Pritchard appeared from inside, pausing at the threshold. They were young, sturdy rats, impressively decked out in the uniform of Zucker’s private guard—purple tunics embroidered with a silver Z over the heart. In a way it was Hopper who had first recruited them to duty when he’d enlisted their assistance in retrieving a wounded Zucker from the tunnels.
“Come along,” Bartel called over his shoulder. “The prince, the Chosen One, and the rebel leader await.”
There was a slow shuffling sound as Titus emerged from the palace. When the disgraced emperor stepped into view, Hopper’s breath caught in his throat. Even Zucker, who had more reason than anyone to harbor a deep, unrelenting anger toward the old rat, had to look away.
This once-formidable rat sovereign, who mere weeks ago had sat upon a gilded throne and ruled a prosperous underground kingdom, was little more than a shriveled shadow of his former self. His broad shoulders were hunched, and the heft he’d once carried was gone. He seemed deflated, a sack of wrinkled skin and bones.
“Didn’t they feed him in there?” Hopper whispered to Zucker.
“They tried.” The prince gave a grim shake of his head. “He wouldn’t eat.”
Even at this distance Hopper could see that Titus’s eyes no longer burned with keen intellect; now they were sunken, vacant, and afraid. His paws trembled, his whiskers drooped. In places his fur had gone from iron gray to dull white. Worst was the pinkish welt of a scar that snaked across his face. If it had been unappealing before, it was downright ghoulish now, standing out from the sagging flesh of his snout more than it ever had before.
“Step lively,” Pritchard said. “And mind the stairs.”