Down in Serena, the night brought no relief of sleep for Vector. He couldn't sleep, and paced the floor of his room while Ellie's avatars prowled the village outskirts, both sides puppets set in motion by her black hands.
Vector had broken his bones before; he relished the chance to bust a few skulls in the name of all he thought was good, and of course the crooks hit back. His scales had grown hard from fistfights and just plain in-fights with Espio. But this new pain could not be shrugged away. It was a mosquito hovering around his face; a tiny, gnawing nuisance that irritated his ears and prickled his skin, and it grew; the volume dialing louder and the itch spreading until it left him squirming with claustrophobia. This is your doing!
He wondered if this was punishment from God - a kidnaping in return, a poison made all the more potent in its aging three years.
Red dawn rose, and Eleanor made no contact. Nothing but a pestering insect hum; no reply but static. Rising for breakfast summons, he tried to hide his bloodshot eyes from Miss Vanilla, but the mother was watchful as a predator hawk. "Mr. Vector you look terrible," she exclaimed, and guided his dizzy lurch to a kitchen chair. "You look as though you haven't slept a wink!"
He had, actually, collapsing only for exhaustion, but sleep - and dream - were no sanctuary. The instant his eyelids had droped, the Nightmare of blue steel caught his throat from behind, and he replayed that horrible battle, every kick and claw. "I dreamt 'bout Carnival Island last night." That much he could confess. "Y'know, it's like the memories get woise tha further away ya get. First few days after, it was all fuzzy - like watchin' a lousy video. But now," he shook his aching head, "I can picture it all poifect. Nightmare gets stronger."
He paced aimlessly through the village that day, all the while listening to his radio headset and scanning for his guards. The wild, shapeshifter queen "Rouge" made good on her threat and sauntered through Serena to enforce the borders of his prison. Sometimes she was an iron wall trenchcoat clomping at the borders and lifting her hat brim to catch his eye in her red coal orbs. At others, she presented herself as a bare-bones hedgehog, hands pocketed as she slunk about like a disease. Mosquitoes, all of them - hovering too far to catch, but close enough to make their pestilence known.
Serena the prim, angelic refuge of nature lived no more. This was the wild country of jungle, and the mountain natives he bartered with were cannibals.
At the heart of the mountain chateau, Espio's throat was dry and pasty with spit. The chameleon thirsted for the cool relief of water, not out of dehydration - he wasn't a Furry; his scales didn't sweat and waste fluids - but because his voice was dry enough to crack.
"What else, kid? Did I tell you about how I left home?"
All his comic books and hobby magazines stressed silence and detachment to achieve the perfect calm of meditation, and right now he felt so stupid for ever believing they might work. There was nothing - nothing - that was going to help him, and every breath he managed was a miraculous roll of a roulette wheel just waiting to fail. He wanted to scream and thrash and claw for life while his skin pigments flickered out of control.
And he couldn't. Because the instant he lost his poker face the boy took it as license to abandon all hope. If he breathed too fast, Charmy got worried and thought he was suffocating and started crying. If he startled at a sound, Charmy echoed his jump with ten times the fright. Bad enough the boy was a helpless brat hiding behind adults, but what happened when the kid figured out those grown-ups were helpless ...
So Espio made it his mission to lie, and fake serenity. And to distract his own panicky mind he found himself reciting his innermost stories to the boy, all to stave off terror.
" ... so my father said that if I didn't want to go to school I should just get out of his house; that he wouldn't have an "uneducated" son lying around. So I left. Hung with friends or wherever I found."
"'Cause you didn't wanna go to school, Espio?"
Charmy frowned. "That's kinda dumb, Espio."
He made the kid spill his stories too - just to keep the wheels in motion. Dumb stuff like his favorite kiddie books or what sort of stupid music he listened to. The kid had lots to say about flying - how fast he could go; how his wings worked - and would calm down if he talked long enough.
Thus the day dragged out its bloated hours. Air chilled and sky dimmed for black night's rise, and Charmy scooted against his leg - touch, the only assurance they had of each other when there was not a lightbulb to see by. Charmy drooped into sleep but Espio kept on guard. All day the house had rattled and shook with slamming doors and hurried foot thuds: percussive chanting for the preparation of some wickedness. Two floors of distance had muffled the tribal beat, but now the sounds grew, like a heartbeat rising with terror, while a halo of light seeped through the stairwell.
The floor collapsed; red light issued forth like the hot blast of a furnace, and the Red Queen returned, rising through the illuminated floorboards on her mechanical arms and legs. Ellie had very appropriately kicked her long legs over the robot's minuscule headpiece, assuming all those vital functions. The wiry hedgehog pursued closely, matching the goliath's every step like a connected appendage.
"Mmm, Two am. Time to wake up, honeybun." Her night vision must have been exceptional to catch Charmy, still drowsy. She'd brought no light except the eyes of her steel body, but the soft white of her fur shone a spectral blue. Her tube-top was a radical hot-pink, and she seemed to be playing with some sparkling trinket looped around her neck.
One set of her fingers snapped impatiently; another hand waited for the hedgehog to toss her the comm-wire. "All right, let's get this over with."
"Wake up, Leatherhide!"
Vector had positioned himself at the edge of his cot for just this moment. Shaking himself out of standby he jolted to his feet, wobbling from the sudden rush of blood through his head. "Uh ... yeah?" It was a pretty lousy response, but his brain was still waking itself.
"Well, I was going to give you your little pests back, but if you'd rather sleep -"
"No! Wait, ahm 'ere! Ahm listenin'!"
"You have all of my personal effects?"
The photographs of her in the chateau; the diary Espio had found, and even an odd picture of a young Rouge with Grinder and his brother - Vector had placed them all neatly in a knapsack, and checked them with paranoid frequency to make sure Charmy and Espio's lifeline hadn't vanished. "Gat 'em." He broke for a yawn. "How're we gonna do this?"
"Go to the town square with the center fountain. They're setting up a sound stage for the spring festival. I'll be waiting for you."
"Charmy 'n Espio - lemmie hear 'em; I wanna know de're okay."
She gave an unamused snort before switching off. "I won't be waiting long."
He rushed for the door, flipping the knapsack flipped over shoulder. He had to stop and fight off a sudden bout of vertigo, darn it - why had she picked such an awful hour?
The Queen's face reared back in disbelief. " ... he's actually coming." The disbelieving laugh on her face was aimed for Espio. "My God, you must grow stupid just being around that freak! Ah well." Ellie tossed the comm wire over her shoulder, into the darkness. It wouldn't be needed any longer. Her jaded eyes looked over her two incarnations, apparently judging that even one of her was overkill.
"Shadow," she selected. The atelerix could not be seen, and when summoned forward his legs betrayed no sound, but Espio could sense the darkness ripple with the specter's movement. "There won't be any trouble getting rid of him, will there?"
"As good as dead," whispered the darkness, igniting an orb of violet flames to prove his word. "Chaos Control!"
Once their eyes recovered from the violet flash-burst, Charmy was howling. "You said you wouldn't hurt Vecter! If he gave you yur stuff back, you'd let us go!"
"Oh believe me, I'm throwing you two out as soon as possible." She leveled Espio a smile. "He's cute until he starts yapping, isn't he?"
Espio tried twisting his eyes to the rear window, to the outside where Fathead was being hunted. "You can't do this," he whispered.
Ellie looked down. "You don't get it, do you?" She narrowed her eyes and sighed, weary with all these explanations. Her fingernails tapped the metal drum that was her seat; the robot twitched, at the ready. She snapped her finger - Omega raised his arm and reconfigured his claw into a gatling gun. She snapped again - Omega retracted the artillery for a flamethrower. Snap - rockets. Snap - snare guns. Snap - knives.
Omega selected grenade launcher and leveled the cannon for targeting. Ellie looked both reptile and insect in the eye to ensure their comprehension. "I can do anything I want."
The weapon's black maw stared Espio in the face. The chameleon squeezed his eyes. "Let Vector go, he didn't do anything!"
"Oh?" Ellie pet her goliath and put her toys away. "I'm still missing a very precious item." The conversation was over; the mechanical half of her body was turning for the trapdoor exit, leaving Espio alone in darkness with an unbearable ringing rising through his skull.
He threw his head up and yelled after her. "He didn't take your gem, I did!"
She stopped. She looked back, unleashing so many emotions with the lift of her lidded eyes: shock, fear, anger; then her heels dropped to the floor and her long legs pounded forward with more force and volume than the robot Omega had ever pressed into the ground. Espio was very suddenly shrunk to an insignificant worm while Ellie Slater looked down into his inches-away face, her upper arms arcing above her head like mantis scythes.
She dropped her regal height, pinning her talon over his shoulder and pressing her foot onto his thigh. He gasped, not from the shock of contact, but because the toe of her boot was a sharpened knife.
"Where?" she demanded, furious in her blunt growl, leaning her weight further into his skin. His breaths came short and panicked.
"My arm," he blurted while her toes wiggled deeper, digging for his arteries. "Left arm - inside a pouch of skin, it's there!"
Three limbs grappled to his face like sucker-pad tentacles: his neck, his shoulder, his arm - she clamped them all into place, taking the nail of her remaining palm to draw a cut through his silver tape bonds. Her breath shook to see the hidden treasure; quickly crushing the jewel in her fist, she thrust it tightly against her chest, shuddering with equal parts distress and relief. "Oh, my baby," she cried, hugging the ruby tight with all four arms. "My beautiful, beautiful baby."
But everything motherly about her vanished when those cold, green eyes looked upon the little chameleon, still panting from his wound. Still clenching her prize with murderous strength, Ellie wrenched her boot out of his flesh, suddenly disgusted at the slightest contact.
"There - you've got it! Now call your man back, please!"
Ellie was suddenly more interested in stroking her wonderful little ruby, raising it close to her face and offering reassuring little coos to her child. "Hey!" Espio shouted while she and her second-third turned away. "HEY!"
The attic trapdoor slammed shut, sealing Espio in darkness. The flames in his leg had been slow to register, but now he screamed.
"Espio, are you okay, Espio? Are you oka -"
"NO! NO, I'm not okay you little brat!" His breath had trouble catching up with his rage. "I try and do one good thing for you ingrates, and what do I get?" He could only look down at his bleeding leg, "I bet I can't even walk now! Just - just shut up, Charmy. Shut up!"
A half-dead moon still glowed over Serena, but even with a full disc Vector would have remained blind and helpless, trailing his claw across the burrow wall like a cripple leaning on his crutch. His shins had banged so many chairs, but by some luck Miss Vanilla was undisturbed. Now outside and slouched in the doorway, he needed just one last moment to shake his head clear of sleep, slapping his face and jump-starting his eyes with the jolt of a flashlight beam.
He waggled the torch of light across the ground and dragged himself after its path. For Charmy. For Espio. His heartbeat was gaining speed; the detective instincts he'd trained were beginning to note details: the cricket chirp, the pinprick stars; the valley walls howling with the cry of a wolf -
For a mere second, the clouds released their hold on the moon; shadows grew tall and formidable, stretching from trees, from the cottages, and from the blade wraith glaring atop the burrow roof.
The only battle cries were Vector's; the creeper leapt without a grunt and pounced on the crocodile's back, hooking arms and legs around his scaly torso like clamps. Silver wire whirled in the night and dug into Vector's throat.
"Huu - !" Vector's body spluttered and stumbled in the valley of Serena, but his mind was yanked three years into the past. Come and die, hissed the voice of the impenetrable darkness, crushing the air from his body once more. Vector clawed at his throat, trying to tear away the bony hands dug down like a layer of skin. "Meta - son - "
The black creeper perched monkey-like on his back content itself with a haughty smirk. "Chaos control," it hissed with the assassin's voice, spreading a static charge through Vector's entire body. Vector forgot the crushing force at his neck; too freaked at seeing his arms, and his snout suddenly ripple like green water! He was growing taller - and thinner! - tail to tonsil, the electric pins were stretching him thin as taffy, shuttling him with rollercoaster speed towards a purple light and a black, pinprick hole at its core!
And then the pins released him into the snow. White, frozen water swallowed up his ankles and wind clawed his scales. At every horizon he could see the black night - the mountains guarding Serena had been torn down like curtains, and the valley soil had been swept from under his feet. Vector stood on the pinnacle of the Blue Mountains, and on every flank and front the icecapped pyramids stretched to infinity.
The shock of being lifted from valley floor to mountain top gave a delayed reaction to his choking pain. Ellie's avatar put its elbow to his head and forced Vector down on hands and knees.
The piano wire reeled back into its wristlet spool, freeing Vector's throat. The clamp-limbs around his chest slackened their grip while the wraith stood up on its quarry's back, and dismounted - casually, as if descending a footstool. "Hmph," it grunted, unimpressed. Against the black night it was impossible to pick out the spiny, inky creature - only the glow of a purple bauble, tossed playfully from hand to air set the beast apart from the darkness.
Vector flashed out his tazer and fired. The shot was dead-center for the wraith's back, but it sidestepped; before the cord could even drop into the snow it jumped - or rather, it burst - into Vector's face with a purple blast. The whine of sliced metal followed an upward swipe of its arm, and the barrel of Vector's tazer spun into the snow.
Three flashes of purple light - three kicks at his left, right, back - Vector collapsed, the speed of his defeat earning him a haughty snort from the creature. "Pathetic," it sneered, bending to slice the knapsack from Vector's snow-planted body.
No more than ten seconds - ten seconds to spring a trap and beat him senseless; ten seconds and his heart was already dimming from the cold elevation - tacka, tack ... tack. Vector's eyes followed the mammal and its black coat of fur, now suddenly so familiar, so obvious -
Its dismissive voice, its cool walk - those were Ellie's; implanted like keepsakes in a time capsule, traits in a child. It was an empty vessel Ellie had filled to the brim with her id, her arrogance and her desires. But this beast hadn't been hers to begin with - he'd seen it on television countless times (how could he forget) - the Doctor's black hedgehog! And the shape and motions were too similar for coincidence: this was The Nightmare. Those same hooked spines, those same bone-thin hands now robbing his body; those same red eyes and face set for an expression of cruelty. Maybe it was a different model; blue traded for black, with some fancy artificial skin; but it was still the servant of the Robot Lord.
Tackatackatacka. He let the wraith remove Ellie's trinkets; let it walk away and dismiss the beaten Leatherhide; let it raise that emerald over its head like a violet beacon and call out "Chaos -"
Vector plowed the beast from behind, shoving them both into the flash of light.
The scream from one so close proved a killing blow for the honeybee. His eyes watered and his voice howled in warbling stutters. "I wu-wanna go hu-home, Esp-io! I wu- want my mommy!"
"I don't care, kid! Not listening!" though it was very well impossible to do anything but. The howling was grating. "Kid, look, just - just shut up. No more tears."
"I wu-want my mommy!"
"Will you shut up? You don't have a mommy anymore!"
And it was silent. And the price weighed heavy. The kid, still sniffling, had him pinned by the eyes.
"Nothing," Espio cringed. "I didn't say nothing."
Vector had no sensation of the distance they traveled, only that when the light launched them from teleportation like riders on a playground chute, the tackle meant to faceplant the wraith in the snow sent them flying down Mount Fang's slopes.
Screaming in a ball they tumbled, crushing each other in turns. Vector came out first, slamming into a fallen log; the hedgehog skidded further into the dirt and the emerald continued without either of them.
"NAH!" The wraith wailed and crawled after its treasure - until its ankle snagged, caught in Vector's green claw. A quick yank pulled the creeper into the air, easy as a burlap sack. "Gatcha shorty!"
The upside-down beast swiped its arms and clawed cat-like, but its limbs proved too short, its body too small to reach. It struggled with a growing claustrophobia, no longer calm and haughty - the power tackle down the mountain seemed to have jarred the composure from its head - it growled, it hissed and its eyes lolled back into its skull; the little gasping breaths came closer and faster together until it sounded like a dog's pant. The thing finally shrieked and locked fiery eyes with Vector.
The attack came swift and savage, kicking its free leg to its chest and launching a jet of fire. "Wuah!" Vector dropped the flaming garbage; it flipped mid air to a crouch, pausing its descent a half-inch from the ground. The shoes, Vector realized, weren't just fancy booby traps - the thing was floating on the hot air from its soles!
The creature barred its fangs and settled down to business, first tossing the knapsack from its back, then clicking its heels to spring-launch sickle blades from the sides of its shoes. It was all animal now, back hunched and spines raised like a hunting cat. Its nostrils twitched with breath but it made no sound - sliding above the ground without need to tamp sticks and stones as Vector did, it could literally disappear - out of sound, and in the darkness, out of sight!
The blade wraith dashed close, nothing but strips of red lightning. Vector panicked; he fell into memory, the light-speed moves of the Nightmare overlapping this new foe, so while a living shadow charged for a hit, Vector reacted to the blue, skeletal mech lunging its foot at his chest.
Vector shut his eyes and dived aside. The darkness sailed past, and there was no telling who was more surprised.
The animal-wraith charged again: left kick, side slash, axe kick. Vector, still dizzy and three years behind, stepped aside from blows he'd seen repeated time and time again in his dreams. The wraith, abandoned to its feral eyes, couldn't comprehend the lucky misses, but Vector realized his advantage: Ellie's little puppet, this black hedgehog of the Robot Lord - it moved, and it fought exactly like that assassin mech!
And when the next charge came, Vector could barely keep back his hooting laughter! Knife-edged kicks and slashes whipped through the air, and he knew every pattern from the starting charge. He sidestepped, he dipped back, and then he treated the creeper to a bash from his fist!
This was no mammal, and far from a brute animal - it was a machine! A machine built to enter battle and unleash its pre-programmed attack patterns! And it was so red-hot steamed, it couldn't realize how bad it was gonna hurt! Vector snapped up the wraith's wrist and chucked his half-sized attacker like a discus. A tree exploded into wooden shrapnel.
The beast rose slow, and dizzy - weary but still panting furious beads of sweat. Vector stepped into defense, fists high and set for the next charge. The wraith scowled, and some new algorithm must have clicked into its brain - it took a step back, letting darkness spread over its sickle spines. It stepped again, throwing a black mantle completely over its body. Vector blinked, and it disappeared.
Shoot! That thing did better camouflage than Espio! It wasn't running; no, the yowl of a predator wolf just then seemed to underscore that point. The machine still had a job to complete. Just one mystery for the master detective - where would the blow come from?
Charmy couldn't leave the slip-up alone. "What's wrong with my mommy? Is she okay? ... You know where she is, Espio, tell me!"
"ALL RIGHT!" You win kid. Too many pains clawed for his attention, enough to break three years of washed hands. Now, anything to shut up that helpless, agonizing pleading ... "I wantcha to think back to Carnival Island, okay? You remember all those egg-shaped capsules dumped around? Well that's where the Doctor stuffs all the animals he's gonna put into his robots."
"I don't get it."
"Don't you know how he ..." Espio chided himself. "Course you wouldn't. Vector wouldn't let you hear how he makes his robots. The Doctor, he sticks little animals inside, like living batteries. They say he puts mammals and humans into the really big ones; skyscraper size, but for regular war-mechs, what he's really after is the small stuff: flickeys, chao." Espio swallowed. "Insects."
Charmy's eyes opened wide to the vision of a new, dark world. His face spun away. "NO! You're a liar Espio!" He was jittering and trying to hide. "You're lying t'me!"
"The mechs got away with a lot of those capsules, that day," Espio continued. Half or whole, what difference did it make? "But the ones they left, the ones still full ... when G.U.N. came ..."
"LIAR!" Charmy screamed the mantra over his tears. "LIAR LIAR LIAR!"
"Kid, I'm -"
"STOP TALKING!" Charmy howled. He was thrashing on the floor, all to escape the voice. "Charmy -" "STOP IT, STOP!" The boy's fists were trapped; all he had left were his teeth, and they sunk into Espio's leg where words could not. "AAH!"
"Liar," the boy cried. "You'rE all liars - you an' Vecter, an everybody. Liars ..."
Charmy collapsed on the floor, a dead little thing without hope.
A wolf continued its howl through the valley, calling out the hour of the hunt.
Where was it? Every whisper of tree and leaf was suspect, but useless! The wraith was invisible, undetectable vapor - no sight, no sound, and out there, embraced by blackest element, it circled Vector for a moment of weakness.
I'm a detective, Vector repeated. He had to keep collected - this was a mystery in miniature. He had to find his target. Smell - no good, just his own blood. Sound - Vector threw his infernal headphones into the forest, squinting his eyes to focus.
Beth. He could hear Beth, chiding him: The Red Queen was a name invented by the tabloids after a panic attack. She's just an urban legend.
No - no, she was wrong! Rouge was truth!
The media ate it up and spewed out some trash about a super-villain who could melt through walls and locked doors...
Well of course she was no ghost; she was more than voice or spirit - she was real, and that witch was bound by real limitations! Uncatchable Rouge had left the tiniest clues, the softest shadow of a presence that had brought Vector this far, this close. Think! What was this creeper's weakness?
Cid Wheeler's voice murmered from the darkness: A blade wraith is invisible, intangible; cannot be seen or heard unless they want you to sense them.
Vector's back was tingling. A cold aura! Think! A ghost. A machine. An assassin. Repeating itself. Hiding itself. It got Cid from behind; it got me from behind -
It's coming from behind!
Vector spun, and the darkness, the silence, the maddening absence of all sight and sound shattered like black glass under the crack of his fist. The blade wraith, the phantom thief - a third of Ellie Slater's black will - solidified into flesh and blood, returning to the land of the living in an explosion of pent-up colour and sound.
"WAAAAH!" The puppet shrieked and spluttered and clutched its face in red-soaked gloves. "Mha, mha fafth," it wailed, as if tasting pain and its own mortality for the first time. "Mha fafth!" Its fingers parted just enough to open a trembling, child's eye at the tormentor. "Yu, yu brk mha node. Yu brk mha noh-ohode!"
Was this the poor creature Ellie had possessed with her cruel will, cringing now like a beaten dog? Nothing but sticks and whimpering bones on its body. "Don't move," Vector ordered, taking one careful step forward. "I'm gonna tie you up, we're gonna dump you someplace where you ain't hurtin' nobody, then maybe we'll look atcha face."
The child's eye crushed to a laserpoint. "NAAH!" Its runny hands became fists and a concealed blade sprang from its wrist - a final stab of treachery that was Ellie Slater. Its hoverskates wove drunkenly; it couldn't even breathe, but the miserable dog swiped its arm blindly to finish the deed.
The knife lanced forward. Vector lunged for interception. Jaws first.
"Espio?" No one had spoken over the hideous, black ringing for such eternity. Espio was grateful to answer. "Yeah kid?"
"The Doctor. He has my mommy an' daddy."
"So they're with the Doctor."
"If they're alive, then yeah."
Impossible to see, but Espio sensed an affirming nod in the boy's grunt. Charmy spoke nothing more, but dangerous machinations churned the gears in his head.
A machine. An animal. Vector didn't care witch, but there wasn't enough person in this hedgehog worth salvaging. He stomped forward now for the broken doll, and it whimpered and backtracked in a crabwalk, one ruined arm cradled to its chest, two craven dog eyes tracking the approaching dragon-spawn now finished with forgiveness.
Even in retreat, even in submission the hedgehog was plotting, and its desperate eyes jumped at every little root and stone as a possible weapon to overturn defeat. Then its good paw groped around a sizable rock that glowed violet to the touch. Vector cursed his speed, the creature gave a skeleton grin and thrust the emerald up to the mangled cry, "kayuspeah!"
Vector hit the ground, rigid and crackling with the residual charge of purple lightning. A high, gurgling cackle filled his ears. A child's giggle twisted rotten at this delight for wickedness.
The mortal wraith raised itself, and the wolf singing all through the battle howled louder and closer than ever while the hedgehog raised its one functional arm, letting the violet glow and the snapping electrical stone throw light into its murderous face.
A shot rang through the dark.
Its eyes popped wide and terrified. The mouth once so insidious now quivered, and the hand of death trembled. The shadow fell, but Vector was spared impact by a broken gurgle - kayuscuntrl - and a snap-flash of violet starfire.
The detective was not left alone for long, joined by the electric whine of wolfsong, and a second predator prowling the treeline with a headlamp's glare. The hoverbike engine gunned off, and confident bootsteps trampled the ground.
"Nyah, whadda we gat 'ere?" Vector's nasal reflection hummed, reloading his shotgun over the crocodile's body. "I come all dis way huntin' fer the Ultimate, an all I get is evolootion's reject." Nack's snaggletooth leered ugly and his trigger-fingers danced merrily. The bounty hunter aimed his weapon.
"I ain't sorry the find yew, though, Leatherhide."
Panting from exhaustion, it was an effort to raise on his palms and nod back to his rival. "Same here," Vector coughed. "Wouldn't want any guy but you here right about now. Fang the Sniper, yer hired!"