_"Are you still sleeping?"_ A kind voice echoed about my ears.
I blinked in an elegant image of rice paper walls intricately painted with red and white cherry blossom flowers.
"Ugh." I involuntarily let out. The walls swam around me as I sat up.
"Hey, easy. Rest a little to give your body time to readjust," said the kind voice again.
Firm hands assisted me into a sitting position. I saw I had been lying on a futon in a small room lined with tatami mats.
A subdued light was cast around the walls like a paper lantern. An intricately designed night table of bronze material was the only other piece of furniture in the room.
"Very lucky my masters had discovered you when they did. That juxtapositioner's lair was trapping human prey."
"Huh? Ju-ta what lair?" I mumbled, still feeling out of it.
"Or could it be that it wasn't satisfied with its trappings?" The voice mused.
"Um, where am I?" I gasped when I saw a man with a mouse's head kneeling before me.
I say man but that wasn't quite right. His skin shone with a metallic bronze tone, not a strand of fur was in sight. One eye was covered with what appeared to be a leather monocle patch. The other eye was an iron cog with a diamond in the center. He wore a no collar, full body uniform of lucky red and dragon gold cloth.
The corner of my eye caught a swift shadow that went flying for the mouse-man's monocle eye.
"Ugh! What is this demon?!" The mouse-man cried out, his arms flailing randomly about the air to throw off the eight-legged insect.
_"You hurt Freend. Me protect Freend."_ An innocent and deep voice spoke in my mind. It felt familiar and reassuring.
"Small Cap!" I called out to the great huntsman.
"It's okay Small Cap. I think he doesn't mean any harm." I beckoned for him to come to me.
"Yes, yes, as the boy says, I mean you both no harm. " The mouse-man threw up his hands with a surrender.
Small Cap eased himself off the eye and scurried up to my shoulder.
"I'm so glad to see you." I gently patted the top of his head with the tip of my finger.
"Wait! Did you say that you were going to protect Freend?" I looked to Small Cap.
_"Freend me protect."_ The deep voice confirmed in my mind.
"Woah! Is this for real?" I almost fell backwards. "You spoke Small Cap?"
"Aah, of course, being trapped within the juxtapositioner's lair has drawn out your ability to communicate through shared telepathy. A rather common side effect of that demon's power," informed the mouse-man.
"Wait one minute! Lemme get this straight." I sat upright. "You're saying Small Cap and I were trapped in a demon's lair that gave us the power to talk to each other?"
"Quite." The mouse-man's bronze lips lifted with a smile. Fine silver whiskers twitched animatedly.
"I am Forneas. An animachine built to care for the human race. Pleased to make your acquaintance." He introduced himself with a cordial bow.
"Okay," I responded, still unsure of everything.
Nevertheless, I decided to trust his word on meaning no harm. He was kind and I was alive. Yet where the hell was I? The place felt foreign and bizarre.
My thoughts scrambled back to the last memories of my brothers. They lingered on Pesti's crying face.
"Pesti! My brothers! Please tell me you know where they are?!" I erratically begged Forneas.
"Ouch!" I winced, calmed down by the stinging slap to my cheek.
"Sorry young human. I detected elevated hysteria from your biorhythms. My data recommended the slap treatment to the cheek," Forneas explained with an inappropriately cheerful voice.
"You really aren't human." I deduced of his make-up.
"Of course." Forneas seemed proud of the fact.
"Why a mouse head?"
"All humans like cute creatures do they not?" he replied matter-of-factually.
I could hardly argue with that askew logic, so shrugged off the answer and returned my focus to the important fact that I was in a strange room with a mouse-man-machine identified as Forneas.
The persistent mental imagery of my home being burnt down made my stomach churn and head droop with sorrow.
My home being ransacked and destroyed felt like a nightmare. I didn't want it to be real. Every time I denied the images as fact, my heart throbbed painfully against my chest.
"It can't be." Tears poured down my cheeks as I remembered the last time I had seen Bulldog alive.
"My family." My voice trembled through my tears.
"We together Freend." Small Cap's voice was considerate but also sad.
"WHY!?" I sobbed pitifully, punching my outrage into the tatami mats to make my knuckles bleed.
"Grieve as much as you want boy and small creature." Forneas tenderly stroked my heaving back.
I released all my emotions until I had exhausted myself.
Forneas carefully bandaged my bloody hands and cleaned the mess I had made on the mats.
Not sure how much time had lapsed when I heard the door open and a real man had entered the room.
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