GUARDIAN FOR A DAY
S Peter Davis
All characters (C) SEGA, Archie and SP Davis 2004.
Used without permission. (Not that copyright law recognises this disclaimer as being valid anyway)
What was left of the heavenly sanctuary of the Floating Island drifted silently toward the dawn somewhere south of the Westerican mainland. Upon it were visible the scars of a warzone; the once lush paradise blackened by fire and destruction. This is what remains after a direct assault by the forces of Dr Ivo Robotnik - something barren, something close to death.
The Floating Island, however, was not dead. Its guardian would gladly attest to its resilience. Though Robotnik had laid it to waste with his machines, had stolen and destroyed its Master Emerald and sunk a third of it to the bottom of the Mobian ocean, a spark of life had remained with it, and had grown.
The world was not the same as it had been before, after the great War of Chaos that had torn across the continent. Robotnik was gone, now. Sonic the Hedgehog was gone, too, and his friend Tails had even fled. Robotropolis had been crushed under the heel of the Arack Empire, and a monster, the ancient Echidnaen equivalent of the Devil himself, had emerged from the underworld to wreak destruction upon the globe. But though the world was a different place, now, the wave of death had not claimed the Floating Island. It was growing back. Spring had come around and brought with it new foliage for the trees and shrubs. Animals were replenishing their numbers in the wildnerness, birds once again chirped in the trees. The legacy of this ancient island would live on. The Master Emerald had been returned and restored, and life would go on.
Knuckles the Echidna, Guardian of the Floating Island, chiselled away at a stone altar he had constructed for the great green emerald that sustained the island's flight. For hundreds of years, the Master Emerald had been hidden away in the darkness, protected from the world, locked underground. From now on, it would be proudly displayed in the open, the sunshine gleaming on and through its brilliant green surface for the first time in centuries. It was a brave and deliberate act of defiance for Knuckles. A sign to the spirits of his ancestors that the unfathomably important duty of guardianship had not been wasted on him. One echidna, alone, and he had protected his island from armies and monsters, brought it back from the brink of destruction.
He built the emerald's altar on the site of another, ancient altar he had uncovered once before, quite by accident. Overgrown and forgotten under a thick patch of jungle, the old altar had clearly served as the Master Emerald's resting place at a time long forgotten. How long ago had it been moved to the secret palace below the ground? Hundreds of years? Thousands? The altar had been eroded almost to nothing, but Knuckles had rebuilt it stone by stone. Seven pillars arranged around a circular shrine, upon which the great emerald now stood. The jungle had been burned away during the war, and now the altar was bathed in sunlight, as Knuckles imagined it had been once before.
The echidna kneeled at the base of the shrine and tapped relentlessly at it with a hammer and chisel. He was inscribing into it a long series of pictures and heiroglyphs detailing the history of the Master Emerald and the Echidna civilisation. Most of the story had been printed on the walls of the Hidden Palace, but Knuckles' contributions extended further - the work of which he was most proud was a large fresco representing the single most important event in Echidnaen history, the abduction of almost the entire civilisation, which he now knew to have been the work of a cold and imperialistic alien race that called itself the Black Arms. Since then, only a small number of echidnas had been left behind to guard the island and its emerald. Knuckles was a direct descendent of this line. The story of his people had been notably slower in the time since the Black Arms invasion, but enough had happened to justify his authoring a new chapter. The War of Chaos was an important milestone, and it was the last tale he had to inscribe, at least for now.
As he chipped away at the stone, a wind suddenly picked up. So involved was he in his work that he barely noticed it. Dust and fragments of stone chipped off the altar flew into the echidna's
face, and when he reacted, he lost his grip on the sheet of paper on which he had sketched the blueprint for his work. It blew away into the trees.
"Great," Knux mumbled. He jumped to his feet and persued the paper, which had come to rest in a tall oak, caught on a branch. Knuckles saw it, dug his knuckle spikes into the trunk and began to climb.
"Man, is it windy today." He climbed and climbed, tearing strips of bark off and leaving deep punctures in the tree. "Sorry tree," he said.
With a great deal of athletic prowess, the echidna jumped onto the jutting branch and, after judging that it was strong enough to bear his weight, climbed his way along. Of course, his movement caused just enough of a jiggle in the branch to dislodge the sheet of paper, and it
went flying off into the trees again.
"Aaaagh, drat it!" Knuckles cried. He jumped off the branch and spread his arms in a glide. None too smooth a glide, either, as the wind was really causing him strife, and there were a lot of trees to avoid. He lost visibility, and when it returned he found that he was dangerously close to gliding straight off a cliff.
Knuckles let out a shriek, and glided around back to the trees. Making sure he was above solid soil again, he dropped.
"Should have remembered there was a canyon there."
Looking through the trees, he noticed a wooden bridge leading from one cliff face to the other. It was one of those unsturdy, rotting plank bridges tied with rope, which are so common in situations like this. And, lying on one of the ropes in the center of the bridge was the renegade sheet of paper.
Without thinking twice, full of masculine conceit and hormonal poor judgement, Knux mounted the bridge, and began to strafe along it, very slowly. It wobbled around dangerously in the wind. The sheet of paper flapped.
"Easy, easy," he whispered, afraid that anything above a whisper would somehow cause his painful demise.
At last, he reached the middle of the bridge, and reached out (slowly, ever so slowly) for the altar blueprint. His hand pinched around it, and he pulled it away from the rope.
"Phew," he sighed. "Made it without a hitch."
As the hand grasping the paper came down, the blades on his knuckle spikes cut the rope, which made an ominous snapping sound.
"That," he exclaimed, "Is not good."
He turned and bolted back to where he came from. The sounds of ropes snapping and coming untangled could be heard behind him. He was so close! But before he could quite make it, the bridge fell sideways, dumping him off. He grasped onto the planks with one hand, just as the snapping sound began to be heard from the other rope.
"This is going to hurt worse than that time I ate that chicken at room temperature," Knux assured himself.
The entire bridge, only fixed on one end, went freefalling into the canyon like a swinging vine, a screaming echidna attached to the loose end.
Knuckles was slammed into the cliff face at a high speed and stuck there a moment in the impression his body made in the soil. He made a pained little coughing sound as his body slid down to the rocky ground below. The sheet of paper delicately floated down and landed atop his head.
"I got it," he choked.
The figure stared through the bushes at the guards with the vigilant stillness of a stalking predator. The sentries had no suspicion, and he figured it would be easy as pie to get into this village, should he decide to make his entrance that way - undetected, invisible. Stealth was, after all, his purpose in life. Stealth, and speed.
But no. He would wait a while, and announce himself fully. Given his appearance, there was no chance they would turn him away. His journey had been so long, his search so exhaustive, that he could not risk conflict. Things had to be handled very carefully, now.
Silently, he watched, and waited.
Amy Rose stared out over the expanse of the Great Forest as the sun fell upon the morning mist. She rested her head in her callused hands and wished she could walk through the forest just one more time, feel the dry leaves of autumn crunch underneath her feet. See some kind of colour again, real colour, rather than the spectrum of gray, brown and black that defined the Arack Empire.
"No daydreaming allowed, Ames."
She turned around and found the familiar form of her only friend standing over her. In a past life she had befriended many, but inside the walls of Terantulopolis, even one friend was a virtue that few of her kind were ever blessed with.
"I need to look out once in a while, Mighty. It's all that keeps me sane. Besides you, of course."
Malcolm Armadillo, Mighty as to which he was jokingly referred, flicked her gently on the nose. She twitched and giggled a little.
"C'mon, we've got a lot to do," the armadillo said, "It is a well known fact, Miss Rose, that the Arack Sector Council's evening meals are seasoned with the ground-up bones of lazy waitresses."
"Oh come on, that isn't true," Amy scoffed.
"Oh?" Mighty asked, "Well, do you wanna be the one to find out?"
Amy laughed and then sighed, the humour in her face melting away like a snowflake on warm skin. "I sometimes wonder," she said, "Whether that might not be a comfortable alternative."
"Oh, hey. Come on, don't think like that. Don't even joke about it. You believe we're getting out of here some day, right?"
"So you always tell me."
"It'll happen, you just keep believing it, 'cause it will. Now, let's get back to it. They might not eat you for being lazy, but they sure will make your life a lot worse than it is now."
Mighty was an impressive chef with a long résumé of very impressed, very rich clients throughout Station Square. He had been employed by the extremely high-class Sippmayr Hotel, which most members of the hospitality industry considered more of an honour than an occupation, and for the last two years of Station Square's existence, he had managed his own resteraunt specialising in a number of original, entirely gluten-free dishes. After the War of Chaos had destroyed the city, Malcolm Armadillo had been one of hundreds of unfortunate refugees who had unwittingly fled south only to fall into the web of the newly mobilising Arack Empire. Now he made food for the Aracks; Amy didn't know what went into the gray, oily substance that the spiders ate, and she never asked. The fact that he tried to avoid telling her was evidence enough that she didn't want to know.
There was an important meeting today in the central spire of Terantulopolis' government complex. Five Sector Lords from neighbouring colonies had gathered at Spinster's invitation to discuss matters that neither Amy nor Mighty were privy to. They were only here to do precisely what they were here to do, serve food and keep invisible. Purpose was integral to the Arack way of life, any other information was released only on a need-to-know basis, and they definitely did not need to know.
But Amy found that she learned a lot more about the inner workings of the Arack machine than she had ever expected. It was through meetings like these that she tended to overhear quite a bit of sensitive information, and being that her job was to be invisible, she doubted the spiders themselves ever thought twice about how much she really knew. Whether or not they were aware of it, they would no doubt remain unconcerned anyway, for Amy was not allowed to leave the city. Whoever claimed that knowledge was power obviously didn't live in an Arack city.
Mighty and several other chefs dished up the food (if food was an accurate descriptor) and the waiting staff promptly assembled to serve it. There were fourteen waiters, of which Amy was the only female, dressed in identical dark grey uniforms that she thought looked like vacuum-cleaner dust bags. None of them looked upon Amy with any fondness, and spoke to her only when absolutely necessary. She thought it was fascinating that sexism survived even in the situations that should serve to bring mobiankind together.
Neatly and orderly, the waiters brought the main course out to the ornate meeting hall where some of the most powerful figures in the most powerful empire on Mobius were gathered together.
The spiders met in the very top of the tallest building in Terantulopolis, the Stabilimenta Spire. Because the Spire was in the precise center of the city, the whole of Terantulopolis was visible from the windows around this domed hall.
Lord Saddam Spinster sat at the head of the huge table, before five other spiders whose names Amy did not know. They were talking politics, so at first she didn't pay much attention to the conversation as she worked.
"I would say that, all things considered, the establishment has been a success," Spinster said, "Quite a bit of work has had to be done to restore the city to a livable state, naturally, but under my leadership the people have been prompt and enthusiastic about the restoration effort."
"I have heard that there has been some degree of trouble with insurgents," another spider said.
Spinster scoffed. "Ah, yes. I think you'll find the rumours regarding insurgents have been vastly overblown. There exist a number of small, poorly-equipped and organised terrorist cells in camps scattered throughout the forest, apparent remenants of the old kingdom of Mobitropolis. Even after we liberated them from Ivo Robotnik, they refuse peace until they have one of their own on the throne. It will take a more direct display of strength to disperse these 'Freedom Fighters'."
Amy realised what they were talking about and almost spilled a glass of wine. Her heart skipped a beat in her chest as she composed herself - spilling wine on an Arack Sector Lord would be a very bad move.
"It matters not," Spinster continued, "We have taken steps. The insurgency is being eliminated at this very moment. Our War Scientists have formulated an exciting and revolutionary new weapon for this purpose. We'll speak about it later, but now that our meal has arrived I feel it is time to get down to business."
Amy maintained her composed exterior, but inside her mind was racing. He just said the Freedom Fighters were being eliminated. Right now, while I'm feeding these people, they're sending some kind of exciting and revolutionary weapon to kill my friends. So heavy were the implications of this that she almost didn't hear what Spinster said next, but his speech only grew more terrifying.
"As you know, I wished to discuss with you all the strategies for Arack expansion into the continent of Westerica. My city of Terantulopolis is an important political foothold, and I have many exciting ideas about the future of the Webb in the area. I have some of the best scientists in the entire empire here, working on new-"
"You always were a gloater, Spinster," another Lord snapped, "Get to the point."
Spinster was a little taken aback. "Uh, right. Very well. We have developed plans for a defense complex, a fully integrated colony larger than anything ever conceived before. It will secure our dominance on this continent indefinitely, and help to enforce our authority from ocean to ocean. The secret is that this colony will be built above Terantulopolis, in a position overseeing the entire continent."
"Built above the city? How?" somebody asked.
"The secret," Spinster replied, "Lies with the discovery of a land mass to the south, out there in the ocean. An island, but an island that actually floats above the water. A floating island."
Someone laughed. "That's a fantasy."
"It's a fact. We don't know how it works, but it is undeniable that this land mass exists. We also strongly suspect it is uninhabited, but if it harbours people then it is hardly a problem. I have organised an operation to inspect the island immediately to discern its nature, and if possible to bring it back here. When we have completed our studies and learned to control it, we can begin to build upon it. Such a marvellous colony will make our empire an invincible force in this region. The enemies of the Webb will be silenced forever."
Amy finished serving the spiders and hurried back into the kitchen, sick to her stomach and afraid to hear any more.
"Three broken ribs, one arm fractured in two places, knee twisted out of joint, bleeding from the head... It doesn't sound like you're fine, Knuckles."
"Yeah, what do you know?" The echidna waved his left arm in expression and winced in pain.
"The medical degree hanging om my wall says I know more than you," Dr Quack assured him with a sigh. "It's a good thing that you were found as quickly as you were, or the situation might conceivably have been a lot worse. Now stop moving, or I swear to God I'll pump you so full of morphene that you'll be in bed singing 'I'm a little teapot' for the next three months."
Knuckles screwed up his face but didn't talk back. Threats are always empty when you're trussed up in bed like an asylum patient.
A curious echidna head appeared silently in the doorway, and Knuckles' expression lightened slightly. He owed Sagittarius a lot, but quite frankly he would have been happy enough to see anybody right now, if only for the reprieve from being left alone in a room with Dr Horatio Quack.
"How you doing, Knux?" Sage asked in a whisper as he softly entered the room.
"I'm Knuckles the Echidna," he replied, "I laugh in the face of injury."
"I dunno, you looked pretty close to crying when I found you."
"Sage, can you kindly inform the good doctor here about the Guardian's Sacred Pledge? The part that states that the Guardian is never to abandon his duty to the Master Emerald, even for the sake of his own health and wellbeing?"
"Go ahead," Quack replied, "Get up and walk. When you came here your knee was bent to a ninety-degree angle, in the wrong direction. The only thing holding your shin to your thigh is a branch and about sixty percent of our ration of bandages for this quarter." The doctor held up an empty syringe and pulled back the plunger. "I do have the power to give you an embolism, you know."
"Well how long do you expect me to lounge around here?" Knuckles demanded.
"If it was up to personal preference, I wouldn't be able to get rid of you fast enough, but unfortunately we're going to have to put up with each other for three weeks at the very least. You won't be able to so much as change position until those ribs are healed over, and even then it'll be six weeks before you can start lifting mountains or tossing train carriages or eating glass or whatever tough-guy activities you're anxious to get back to."
"That's nine weeks!" Knuckles shrieked, "You want me to stay here for nine weeks? You understand that's about nine weeks longer than I can afford to leave the Master Emerald unprotected."
"Look, I'll bring in a rock from outside, I'll paint it green and set it on your bedside table, and you can play guardian as much as you like. If anyone breaks in to steal it, you can throw it at them and kill them."
Knuckles looked as though he'd been stung. "Do you even know what the Master Emerald is? Do you even have an inkling as to why it's as important as it is?"
Quack snorted. "Nope. Do you"
"I-... no-... you-... what-... you-..."
"Knux, you're in no shape to perform your duties right now," Sage interjected, "Even if you could get back to the island, you'd still be lying in bed with broken ribs. Nothing's gonna change that."
"That's not the point, Sage, I took an oath to guard the Master Emerald, irrespective of injury or disability. I can't just up and leave, for the sake of my own soul I have to know that I did everything in my power to ensure the island's safety and the safety of the Emerald. I fell down, it was my own stupid fault, and I can't let it affect- for pete's sake why does my arm hurt so bad?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, weren't you paying attention?" Dr Quack asked.
"There's gotta be a clause," Sage said, "The Guardians must have realised that there are some situations when they're absolutely powerless, they must have some backup plan."
Knuckles sighed. "I'm tired. This psycopath stuck me full of I don't even know what. I'm gonna take a nap and think about this."
"Oh, what do you know," Quack said, "There really is a God."
The Freedom Fighters, having lost their original home and a large degree of their number to Robotnik during the War of Chaos, took no small precaution in ensuring that the second incarnation of Knothole Village was even more difficult to trace, whether by air or land. Sophisticated radar jammers had been installed (a technology borrowed from the city of Station Square before it was destroyed) to ensure that devices used by an outside force to scan the Great Forest for large inhabited areas saw nothing in the area of New Knothole apart from a whole lot of ordinary forest. Likewise, visibility from above had been limited as much as possible. The village was protected under a canopy of trees, and the huts and other constructions were all covered in bark and leaves, as close to the appearance of the forest floor as could be managed. Outposts were built in trees as far as two miles out from the village, with mobians on guard constantly so as to alert the village by radio of any suspicious activity. A complete evacuation could be called in a heartbeat if the Arack Empire sent an army in to flush them out. One of the benefits about fighting spiders was that they were ridiculously poorly trained for forest warfare. The Freedom Fighters were serious about their secrecy, and only rarely did anyone or anything slip beneath their radar. After the war, homeless refugees from Station Square and other places had been common, but all were treated with some degree of suspicion despite their claims of displacement. There were places set up for the survivors of the War of Chaos, and New Knothole was not one of them. After all, the danger of spies and assassins wasn't simply directed against robots anymore. This time, the threat was mobian. This time, anybody could be an enemy.
Despite the danger, most of the Freedom Fighters considered New Knothole to be a kind of forest fortress, a safe haven, perhaps one of the last safe havens on Mobius. What they were yet to understand was that it was a dire mistake to underestimate the Arack Empire. It was a lesson they were soon to learn.
Bunnie Rabbot wasn't aware she was being watched while she ran after the soccer ball. With a swift kick she hammered it back toward the makeshift goal. Streak the Cat moved to block it, but when the ball collided with his shins it bowled him over like a tenpin. He fell on his face with a grunt.
"Oh good grief!" he exclaimed, "Do you really think it's fair to play this game if your legs are made out of stainless steel girders? I mean, it's like playing baseball with a cannon!"
"Stop ya whinging, Sparky," the rabbit replied, "If you can't stand the heat, get ya cute li'l toosh outta the fire."
Streak picked himself up with a grunt and dusted himself off. "I really wish I could understand a single word she said."
Rotor the Walrus countered Bunnie's advantage by upholding his title as the greatest goalkeeper in New Knothole, blocking her shots again and again. Their rivalry on the field was the most important war in the village short of the one that was actually being waged against Terantulopolis.
Sally and Sagittarius sat on the sidelines and observed.
"This game seems a lot less exciting without Sonic and Tails," Sage commented.
Sally sighed. "Yeah, it seems almost normal." Without Sonic's ridiculously fast mode of play, and Tails constantly realising new and creative ways to cheat, it came dangerously close to seeming like a real soccer game. The thought of this sent her into nostalgia mode, and she changed the topic of conversation as quickly as she could. It had been a while since she had thought about Sonic, and she didn't want to start down that road again now.
"How's Knuckles?" she asked.
"Oh, he's fine. Cranky old Knux is taking a nap at the moment, it looks like we're gonna be graced with his endearing presence for quite a while. You could kill an elephant with the cocktail of drugs that Quack had to put into him just to get him to stay in bed." He laughed. "You know, he might have worked himself to death if I hadn't found him. He's not too happy about me going to the island so often, but the number of times I've showed up unannounced just in time to help him out of some bind..."
"It's not healthy to be so alone," Sally said, "It's not natural. He sits on that island and guards that rock every day of his life. It's so sad, his people would never have wanted this for him. A few weeks away from the thing might do him some good."
"Or not... He's crazy with worry about it, and he's only been away from the island for a few hours. It's the only calling he has in his entire life. Without it, he feels... he feels like there isn't a place for him in the world. He feels like a waste of space, a failure. He'll find a way to see to it that the emerald is safe, even if he has to set up cameras and watch it remotely."
"Well, if he needs the resources of the Freedom Fighters, he's got it. He's helped our cause enough times, even though he's not in a position to need our alliances. I hope he understands how much I appreciate that, how much we all do. I'll see to it personally that he gets fixed up and back on his island just as quickly as possible."
With a thunderous roar, Rotor hammered the soccer ball into the air with a spear-dive, blocking an almost certain goal. His team cheered and raced to slap him on the back as the ball flew past everybody and left the playing field so far behind that it might have gone into orbit.
"Great defense!" Sage screamed, leaping into the air, fists pumping.
"He's lucky to have you," Sally said, "Knuckles, I mean. I'm sure he's pretty unbearable sometimes, but I think it means a lot to him to have another... you know... of his kind around. I can see that you're like family to him. You're very sweet to help him out as much as you do, even though he tends to boss you around for it."
"Nah," Sage replied, "It's just an elaborate ruse. One day he really is going to kill himself, next time he falls off a cliff, or maybe the Master Emerald will roll on top of him or something. I just wanna know that, when it happens, he'll will all of his stuff to me. What other reason is there to befriend cranky old people?"
Sally laughed. "Would you really want to inherit all that responsibility? Guarding a rock every day of your life?"
"Who says I want to guard the darn thing? I'll sell it and buy myself a palace made entirely out of hamburgers. Now that's comfort."
Bunnie ran after the soccer ball as it bounced away into the forest, the laughter and the jeering of the team fading behind her. That's one heck of a shot, Rotor honey. The ball had flown right past the border of the village and into the deeper forest, bouncing off rocks and rolling down gulleys. The rabbit, her heavy robotic limbs ill-suited to such dirty work, grunted as she crawled through the foliage looking for the thing. She'd show that walrus a thing or two when she got back, she'd show him a thing or two about this game-
The ball flew toward her from the shadows and she caught it with a shriek.
Bunnie's heart pulsed harder as she stood in silence, holding the ball steady in front of her, afraid to move or drop it in case it was haunted and attacked her again. But it wasn't the ball that she was really afraid of, it was who or what had thrown it to her.
"Who's there?" she asked, "Is that one of you guys? How the hoo-haa did you get down here so fast...?"
The silhouette of a mobian stood before her, and even as she spoke she could clearly see that this wasn't anybody she had been playing with. Whoever it was stood dark against the shadows, as dark as the shadows themselves, as though a part of them. The figure, slowly, carefully, stepped into the light, and the first she saw of him were his eyes. Unmistakable green eyes. The shape of his body. His spines. His face.
"Sugar-hog?" Bunnie rasped, in awe of the presence of what must surely have been a spectre. "Sonic?"
A sharp plop was the only sound to disturb the tranquil silence along the narrow river that ran through the Great Forest. Big the Cat parked his substantial frame on a soft tuft of grass along the bank and cast his lure into the water that ran with a slow, steady current toward the Mobian ocean.
Big, recently displaced by the War of Chaos that ravaged the continent, was one of the few refugees who had been allowed to settle among the Freedom Fighters in New Knothole. He had family, here, after all. His cousin, Streak, formed the other half of an equation, the two cats having always completed each other in mind, body and spirit. Big was slow and slow-witted, but calm, polite and dignified. Streak was more intelligent and much fitter, but had a tendancy to be rash and tactless (Big always liked to say that Streak's feet spent more time in his mouth than in his shoes). There were only two friends in the entire world who Big needed to get through his lazy days, one was Streak and the other was his pet Froggy, the very large Speckled Marsh Frog who stayed with him always.
At this very moment, Froggy lay silently beside his friend in a muddy patch, expanding and contracting his throat sac with each breath. Every so often he croaked quietly to remind Big that he was still there. The cat had been a little overprotective of the frog since the monster Chaos had ripped the world apart looking for him.
They two of them had sat here for an hour, and would have sat for an hour more, or longer. The actual catching of fish wasn't the biggest appeal of this activity, it was just as good to simply sit and ponder, but then it was rare for him not to catch a fish. Big the Cat was very, very good at fishing. Streak figured he could cast a line out in the middle of the Crux Desert and pull a bass out of the sand.
Inevitably, the rod began to jerk and bend in the water. Froggy hopped into the air and croaked a long, excited croak, and Big pulled himself onto his haunches to reel in his catch.
A small piece of paper, one of Sally's redundant old documents, was tacked to a tree past New Knothole's border, and painted on it was a pattern of three circles, each set within the other. It flapped slightly in the breeze, but had enough tacks through it that it barely moved.
Fifty meters back from it, a young echidna stared at the target over the top of an arrow shaft, lining it up with expert precision, manipulating his years of intensive training on the Chaos Isle. In the back of his mind he measured wind velocity and direction, air density and humidity. He slowed his breathing to the level of deep sleep, his heart rate dropped and he muted all external stimuli. It was just him, the arrow and the bull's eye. Nothing else existed. He was the arrow. The arrow answered only to him.
Sagittarius spun around and let the arrow fly about seventy degrees to the left of the target. It whizzed through the air in an instant, its deadly sharp point cutting through the air like the air didn't even exist, and hit somebody with a sickening thwock.
The echidna shrieked and dropped his bow to the ground, his hands flying to his head. Luckily it took him only a moment to realise that the victim of the arrow's wrath had been a very large fish, and the fish was already dead.
Big the Cat looked at Sage, looked at the arrow, looked at Sage again, looked at the arrow again. Not a single word passed between them for what might have been almost a minute. Sage simply stood with his teeth bared in shock, both hands grasping at his quills. Slowly, Big took the shaft of the arrow in his hand and wreched it out of the fish.
"Hey, little buddy, that sure was a nice shot, ya sure have been improvin'. Gives me a real good idea, too. Shish kebabs!"
"Big!" Sage shrieked, "Don't do that!"
The cat appeared confused. "Why? You don't like shish kebabs?"
"No! I mean, sure! I mean... what? No! Don't sneak up on me when I'm practicing! Do you even have any idea how close you were to being a shish kebab just now?"
Big shook his head in defeat and sat down. He produced a small knife from the pockets on his belt and began scaling the fish. Froggy hopped about and croaked.
"Oh, man," Sage sighed, "I can't believe that happened. My uncle trained me every day for over a decade, why am I still so crappy at focusing?"
Somebody else had approached the scene. Dr Quack stared with expression resembling contempt at Big and his fish.
"I hope you're going to wash that before you eat it," he said.
"Hey, Doc," Sage said, "How's Knux doing?"
"Captain Furious wants to have a word with you. He won't speak to me, dunno why, must have something to do with me threatening to lace his coffee with strychnine. I'd appreciate if you could come talk to him so he can go back to sleeping."
Sagittarius picked up his bow and arrows and walked back toward the village, wondering why Knuckles would want him hanging around, particularly as he was already cranky enough. He himself was put out of spirits by his abysmal failure at hitting that target, and his mind lingered on it. How much longer would it be before he could compete on the same level as his peers on the Chaos Isle? It wasn't as though he hadn't been trying.
Knuckles appeared fairly calm when Sage entered the medical hut, and Sage resisted the urge to smile at the sight of the elder echidna trussed up so thoroughly.
"Close the door," Knuckles instructed, and Sage did so.
"How you feeling, Knux?"
Knuckles snorted. "Like I got hit by a comet. Listen, Sage. I've been thinking about this situation, and I've been thinking about what you said. About there being loopholes in the Guardianship Pledge."
"There are no conditions placed on the duties of Guardian, according to traditional law. A Guardian cannot simply get someone to "island-sit" for them for a few weeks while he goes off on holiday."
"You're not on holiday, Knux, you're very badly injured."
"Will you let me speak?"
"It doesn't matter that I'm injured, the Guardian's job is to guard the Master Emerald with his life. I could be in a coma, and the law of my people would require me to have my unconscious body strapped to the Master Emerald as a shield, if it would help even a little. There's no vacation, no sick leave, no quitting. The only release from Guardianship duty is death, end of story."
"Well, that puts you in somewhat of a troublesome-"
"Besides his duties to the Master Emerald and the Floating Island, the Guardian does have another job to do, and one where he gets to use a bit of his own discretion and judgement. It is necessary at some stage in his life for the Guardian of the Island to train an apprentice. This apprentice will become the next Guardian upon his master's death. Understand?"
"There are several conditions upon which an individual can be selected Guardian's Apprentice. First, they absolutely must be a full-blood, male echidna. Full-blood, like a hundred percent."
"So I'd figure."
"Second, the candidate must be older than fifteen years old, and at least five years younger than the Guardian. Third, he must be declared sound of mind and pure of spirit by seven witnesses."
"Finally, he must be willing to recite - and live by - the Guardianship Pledge. At that point, the Guardian's Apprentice becomes inexorably linked to his master the Guardian, and the link can only be broken upon the death of either party, or in the event that the Apprentice commits an act of betrayal against his master during the period of his apprenticeship. That handy little clause prevents a lot of the nastiness that went on in the old days, including killing the Guardian to speed your rise to power. An Apprentice who betrays his master can never be Guardian."
"Why are you telling me all this?" Sage asked.
"Because," Knuckles replied, struggling to prop himself up in bed with a wince of pain he tried to hide, "Once the candidate recites the oath and becomes Apprentice, he effectively adopts the duties of Guardian. It forms a Dual Guardianship. As part of his training, the Apprentice is permitted to be left alone on the island without his master's guidance for up to a few weeks at a time. It usually happens later in the Apprentice's training, but under exceptional circumstances it isn't unheard of for the Guardian to leave his Apprentice in charge of his duties for a while."
"Wow," Sage said, "It's a pity you don't have an Apprentice, or else your problem would be solved."
Knuckles squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Think carefully, Sage. How many echidnas do I know around here? How many people do you suppose would fit the criteria?"
"What, besides-" The penny dropped like a gunshot. "Oh- Knux... wait a minute, you're not saying-"
"Sagittarius Echidna, I'm asking you formally if you will consider the position of Guardian's Apprentice to the Master Emerald and the Floating Island. I'm asking if you will take the Guardian's Pledge and accept the duties and responsibilities that come with the position of Guardian's Apprentice, and whether you are willing to undergo training to accept the position of Guardian upon my passing."
"Knux! You've gotta be delirious or something, the extent of my guardianship experience is minding your sandwich while you're in the john. Why me?"
"I'm twenty-three," Knuckles said, "My father was thirty when he chose his Apprentice, but then, he didn't exactly have an army of candidates to choose from. My grandfather didn't even think about Apprentices until he was fifty-five, and even then he chose my father anyway. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Guardian's Apprentice is his first born son. Believe me, you're not exactly the most conventional choice. I have no family, nor do I have much hope of ever having one. You're six years younger than me, you're a guy, and you're pretty sane by most standards. I'm going to need an Apprentice at some stage, and I really need one now, so I might as well kill two birds with one stone, bite the bullet and ask you."
Sage snorted. "Bite the bullet? Thanks for the vote of confidence, Knux."
"Look, are you going to take the job, or aren't you?" Knuckles barked.
The younger echidna felt about six inches tall, as though the world was collapsing in on him and he wasn't strong enough to stop it. Knuckles had just dropped the bombshell of the century on his head, and managed to tack a few classic insults onto it before mailing it off.
"Can I think about this please?" he asked, "I mean, it's a big call."
Knuckles rolled his eyes a little. "Sure. Think it over. Just keep in mind that, if you say no, I'm going to have to crawl back to the Floating Island, broken bones and all. I literally have no other choice, here."
"No pressure, then."
Sally stood over the hedgehog as he rested in absolute silence, looking up at her from where he sat on an overturned log in the outskirts of New Knothole. Several other Freedom Fighters stood around her - Bunnie, Rotor, Streak and others - as she stared at him, her mouth agape. All had expressions of shock and worry written across their faces, but none moreso than their leader the Crown Princess.
"Sonic," she tried again. Louder, slower. "Son-ic."
The hedgehog looked up at her with no expression at all. He was calm, completely emotionless, at least on the outside. He blinked and said nothing.
"Is it even him?" Rotor asked.
Sally shook her head. "Who else is it going to be?"
The hedgehog's spines were jet black, with occasional streaks of red. Not a speck of Sonic's trademark electric blue remained, not a trace. But colour notwithstanding, the hedgehog bore too close a resemblance to Sonic for it not to have been him. It was true that his features seemed a little older, but nobody could be sure whether this wasn't merely the side effect of some kind of torture that had hardened his face. And whatever had hardened his face had also hardened his attitude - Sonic the Hedgehog, the larrakin, always smug and chipper, was as calm as a grazing cow while he looked up at Sally, his hands folded neatly in his lap.
"Oh, Sonic," she said, "What have they done to you? What in heaven's name have they done to you?"
Sonic stood up and merely walked past her, without offering her even a second glance. There was not a glimmer of recognition in his eyes, not a speck of emotion or relief at being home again. He just walked away from her, as though bored. The other Freedom Fighters parted as he moved past him, nobody willing to touch him. It was almost as if it was believed that he would electrocute them on contact. Touching Sonic would be like touching a ghost, and some of them were still convinced that was exactly what he was.
"So what's your theory?" Rotor asked as the hedgehog walked away soundlessly.
Sally shook her head, and made an effort to hide the tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.
"To lose him without a word... to wake up every morning knowing I've lost him, to spend months thinking he's dead and gone... and then to find him again, to find him like this..." She sniffed and sighed.
"What could do that to a person?" Rotor asked, "He's completely vacant, it's like all the lights are on, but... I've never seen anything like this. What could have turned all his spines black like that?"
"I intend to find out." She watched the hedgehog enter the village, milling about like a bored child. "I intend to find out exactly what - and who - has affected him. And I intend to make it right."
"Big, buddy, I really don't think that frogs photosynthesise."
"What's that gotta do with anything? I didn't say anythin' about any potato-synnersisin'. I just wanna know if Froggy's doin' that thing what plants do, like, to make food or whatever."
Big and Streak were standing in the forest and looking down at Froggy, who was sitting completely motionless in a patch of sunlight.
"Just because he's green doesn't mean he can convert sunlight into chemical energy, Big, that's the most outrageous claim you've ever made. He's just sitting there because he's cold. Plants and animals aren't even remotely similar. Besides, he eats flies, doesn't he?"
"Yeah," Big replied, "But I saw this plant once that ate a fly. It landed on the plant and the plant snatched it up and ate it, just like Froggy! I got this theory, see, about Froggy lovin' plants so much as he does, maybe it's on account'a they're his relatives!"
"Cuz, you're making my brain cry," Streak said, "Stop it. Look, isn't that Sage?"
Sagittarius was sitting alone, leaning against a tree and looking inquisitive, and Streak decided that whatever he was pondering, it probably wasn't about the similarities between frogs and plants, and therefore it could only be an improvement on the current conversation. The cats walked over to the echidna, who gave a half-hearted smile upon their approach.
"You look kind of bummed," Streak said.
"Yeah and sad, too," Big added.
"Hm? Oh, no," Sage replied, "I'm not sad, I'm just... I'm kind of in shock. Knux just dropped the bombshell of the century on my head, and I'm not sure I can handle it."
Froggy croaked and bounded into the echidna's lap. He expressed distaste, but decided not to offend Big by rejecting the slimy animal's offer of comfort. He ran his fingers down the frog's back, and Froggy seemed almost hypnotised by it.
"He asked me if I'd be his apprentice... I mean, not just any apprentice, he wants to make me his Guardian's Apprentice, the heir to the Floating Island."
"That's pretty heavy," the smaller cat said, "Why now? When he's all busted up in hospital?"
"That's just the thing, if he has me as an Apprentice, then he can send me to look after the island while he's recovering here. The only thing is, once I say yes to this, there's no going back. It's a permanent spiritual contract, I'd be locking myself into becoming Guardian some day."
"And you don't want to be?"
"I really haven't thought about it before, like, at all. I mean, I'm not even from the Floating Island, I've never considered myself in the running. This has come out of the blue. And Knux is so bad with his impulse decisions... what happens when he gets better and realises he doesn't want me as Guardian's Apprentice? I'm not exactly qualified for the position. He'll have to train me from scratch, it's going to be an intensive job. A heck of a big thing to lock us both into just because he's in a bind."
"Well, then tell him that," Streak said, shrugging. "Let him know you think it's a mistake."
Sage frowned and looked up at the sky, as though searching the horizon for the island that was Knuckles' entire life - the island that Knuckles had asked him to make his entire life.
"That's just it, I-... I'm thinking about it, and I'm not exactly rejecting the idea outright. I kinda get the feeling that it might be nice to do something like that. I mean, I'd have to hang around grumpy old Knux a lot more often than I do already, but he's a good bloke once you get to know him. It'd be good to know that my life has some kind of direction for once, and who knows? I might really get a passion for it, the way he has."
The frog jumped out of his lap with a ribbit, apparently remembering some urgent business he should be attending to.
"There's more, too," Sage continued, "I don't want to go back and tell Knux I'm not up to this. It'd only reaffirm his view that I'm too immature to have anything to do with serious echidna business. I feel like I want to do this, to show him that I have what it takes. If I could convince him that I'd make a decent Guardian some day, he might stop talking down to me, might even take me seriously for once. I feel like this is a great opportunity to earn his respect." He chuckled to himself. "Me. Guardian of the Floating Island. Would you ever have imagined it?"
"I don't like processed food," Knuckles said, "Good grief, is this all you people have to eat? You live in the forest. We're surrounded by nature, why do I have to eat this prepackaged crap? It's covered in chemicals, it's been frozen and refrozen, been put through machines, hacked up and stuck together again, and you've probably overcooked it so as to drain out whatever taste still remained in what can only be described as the by-product of something that might once have been food."
Dr Quack placed a plate of food on the sidetable next to the echidna's bed. "Well, I'll put it this way," he said, "You can eat this crap, or you can starve. And when you're lying in bed, clawing at the sheets, screaming and dying of starvation, with a plate of food three inches from you, I'll be standing here laughing. Laughing, and kicking you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have another patient to attend to. Apparently."
"Hey, where are you going?" Knuckles demanded, "How many medical emergencies do you have in this little village?"
"Too many to justify not getting paid."
As the doctor left the medical hut, he almost walked into Sagittarius, who was about to enter.
"Sage," Knuckles said, "Good. Come in."
"Oh, sorry... I've interrupted you during dinner..."
Knuckles followed his glance to the food cooling on the sidetable. "You want it? Have it. I'm not hungry."
"Nah, that's okay." Sage took a deep breath. "I've been thinking about what you said."
"And I've decided... I've decided to do it. Heck, how hard can it be, right?"
He saw a wave of sheer rage wash over Knuckles' face, and backtracked quickly.
"I mean, of course it's hard, I know it's hard, it's very hard. If it wasn't, then you wouldn't be lying in bed with your ribs broken, right?" He laughed and scratched his head.
"You're sure about this," Knuckles said, "You do realise what you're doing. There's no going back if you change your mind, not ever. This is for life. It's an extremely powerful resposibility you're taking on, and it's going to be a long, hard road. There's years of training, and it's going to be hard on you. I'm going to be hard on you."
"Yeah. I get that. I'm ready, Knux. I want to do this."
"Absolutely. One hundred percent."
"Close the door."
Sage did as he was instructed, and the inside of the hut fell into darkness.
"So when do we start making this happen?" he asked.
"Right now," Knuckles replied, "In an hour, you'll be my Apprentice."
"Whoa..." Sage's eyes bulged, "That quick? I mean, don't you have to get, like, a bunch of people to say I'm sound of mind and whatever else?"
An expression that Sage couldn't read flashed over Knuckles' face that almost looked like guilt, but it was soon covered up by the much more familiar expression of frustration.
"In light of the circumstances," he said, "I'm willing to overlook some parts of the traditional process. You're not changing your mind, are you?"
"Oh... no! No, not at all."
"Then come here, beside me, and get on your knees."
Sage hesitated at first, but didn't want Knuckles to think that he was chickening out, so he did as he was asked. He approached the elder echidna's bed and dropped to his knees.
"I was only six when I did this with my father," the Guardian said, "He died two years later. I was only an Apprentice for two years before I was charged with the full responsibilities of Guardian. I hope to have longer than two years to train you, though, I doubt that'll be quite long enough. I'm going to repeat the Apprenticeship ceremony now, as well as I remember it."
Sage closed his eyes and gulped, his mind racing. What was he doing? Was he really about to accept the responsibilities of millennia of ancient echidna tradition?
"I'm about to recite the Guardian's Pledge," Knuckles continued, "The sacred contract that will bind us together permanantly as Guardian and Apprentice. Sagittarius Echidna, repeat after me..."
The black-spined shadow of Sonic the Hedgehog stood in the courtyard of New Knothole, caught inside a tight circle of shocked onlookers. Just about every mobian in the village had gathered at the news that Sonic had finally returned after months of unexplained absence. But something had ruined him. No longer the boastful and friendly young hedgehog, he now stood with a deadpan face to match his colourless body, looking without any visible interest into the crowd of spectators. Nobody could rouse a word from him. If not for the fact that Sally had his eye contact, it might not have been unreasonable to think that he didn't even know they were there.
"Sonic," she said loudly and slowly. He looked her directly in the eyes, unblinking, and did not respond. It drove a dart of anguish into her gut. "I've brought Dr Quack here, okay? He's just going to take a look at you. Whatever is wrong with you, we'll figure it out and we'll fix it. Don't worry, okay?"
The hedgehog blinked.
"Well well well, the intrepid hedgehog returns," Quack said, "And with a new style, too, I see. So what seems to be the problem here?"
The hedgehog turned to him and simply stared.
"Okay," the doctor said, "Do I get a hint? Or do I have to guess?"
"He hasn't spoken a word since he came back," Sally explained, "He won't talk to anybody, he just walks around, I can't even tell whether he recognises me, or anybody."
Quack sighed and opened his medical bag, rifling through it. He withdrew an ophthalmoscope and used it to look into the hedgehog's eyes, one after the other. "Well, he appears to be completely conscious. His pupils are normal, none of the usual signs of mental trauma. There may have been a blow to the head or something like that."
Sonic submitted to the examination without protest, simply watching the doctor go about his work with no more than mild interest.
"Without any real idea what I'm looking for, this is kind of like a needle in a haystack situation," Quack explained, "There are literally millions of things that can go wrong with the mobian body, and we don't even know them all. I'll take a blood sample and have a good look at it, but-"
The moment he reached into his bag and withdrew a syringe, the hedgehog produced his first facial expression. He appeared distressed and angry, and slapped the doctor's hand away. The needle flew through the air and embedded itself in the grass.
"Sonic!" Sally exclaimed.
"Oh, that's fabulous," Dr Quack snapped, "Another thoroughly uncooperative patient. Well, you know what? That's fine, that's just fine. Stay a zombie."
"I'm sorry, Doctor," Sally said, "Do you have any idea what's wrong with him? Any theory at all?"
"Well, if you want the honest truth, I don't think I can help him. It seems to me that what he needs is a psychologist, not a GP. My professional medical opinion is that, physiologically, he appears completely normal, so far as he'll allow me to check. As far as I can tell, he's nothing more than a healthy hedgehog who's decided not to talk to anybody. His reaction to the needle shows that, mentally, he's perfectly responsive."
The hedgehog had reverted to his unemotive, blank state, looking about the village with all the expression of somebody looking at an empty field. Sally gazed into his eyes, powerless.
"Oh, Sonic," she whispered, "Please speak to me. What have they done to you?"
Sagittarius looked over the village of Knothole for the last time, his bags packed at his feet and his bow slung over his shoulders. The butterflies in his stomach were having a stag party and it was just starting to get rowdy.
"What am I doing?" he asked nobody in particular. "There's no instruction manual for this, how the heck do you run an island? All by yourself?"
Of course, Knuckles had bashed his ears for several hours on the finer points of running an island all by himself. And there was a manual of sorts, if one counted the notebook full of copious notes that the Guardian had scribbled down for him, unwilling to trust Sage to remember even the most trivial of details. Piece of cake, right?
Sure, if the cake is full of rocks.
"If only I could just have him up there for a day, just to help me get the gist of this. Just to help me get the hang of it. Darn it, that's the least I'm entitled to, an apprentice is still just an apprentice." He sighed. "I'm going to need some help."
As though fate had been listening to his plea, and because God has a sense of humour, Sage felt a warm, wet plop on his foot. He looked down and saw Froggy staring up at him with his usual nonsentient expression of one part apathy and two parts boredom.
"Hey, Frog," Sage smirked, "Say, how would you like to be the Guardian of the Floating Island?"
Froggy puffed out his throat sac, held it for a moment, then decided better of croaking and slowly let it deflate.
"If the answer is yes, say absolutely nothing."
The frog shifted his body, trying to find a comfortable position on the echidna's foot.
"Great!" Sage exclaimed, "The job is yours. You start today."
Froggy made a low gurgling sound in the back of his throat, and with a powerful thrust of his back legs, he leaped a good two feet into the forest underbrush.
"Fine," the echidna snorted, "I know how you feel, I guess."
The ground thudded underfoot, and he knew that Big was approaching. Big was the only person he knew who you could feel before you could see, and you could see him from a fair distance.
Streak followed closely in tow, and Sage was quite suddenly taken by an idea. He might just be able to solicit some help after all, given gullible enough company.
"Heya Sage, good buddy," Big drawled, scratching his head with one dinner-plate sized mit, "I don't suppose you happen to have seen-"
"Froggy?" Sage interrupted. Big spoke so slowly that many people tended to finish his sentences for him, if the point was predictable enough. One tries to be polite, of course, but politeness doesn't extend far beyond patience a lot of the time.
Big cut off mid-sentence and had to pause to regather his thoughts. "Yeah," he said.
"He's over there," the echidna said, pointing to the large green frog sitting in the underbrush, staring at them with his large, beady eyes. "Say... what are you guys doing for the rest of your fortnight?"
"I'm guessing that you mean besides eating, sleeping and praying for God to send me some videogames?" Streak asked. "I can always double-check my little black book, of course, but I'm pretty sure I don't have anything on for a while."
"That's great!" Sage said, a little too enthusiastically, and Streak cocked a suspicious eyebrow.
"I'm gonna go fishin' tomorrow," Big said, as though that were a revelation.
"How would you guys feel about a holiday?" the echidna asked, beaming like a salesman on commission.
Streak's other eyebrow hitched up. "A holiday?"
"Yeah! Feel like getting away from the tedium for a little while? Doing a bit of travelling?"
"Well, sure!" the cat replied, and for the first time noticed Sage's suitcases. "That would be grea- waaaaaait a minute, does this have anything to do with this Floating Island gig you've got now?"
"Uh, well, yes."
Streak put his hands on his hips and frowned. "Would we have to do any work on this holiday?"
Sage blushed. "Well, think of it this way, you'll have something to do."
"And this is the Floating Island, which means I'll be taking a break from the untamed wilderness to go have a vacation in the untamed wilderness."
"Oh, no! It's tame wilderness."
"Are there any leeches in this tame wilderness, Sage?"
Sage scratched his head. "Yeah but they're unusually big ones, which means that you'll notice them before they, you know-"
"I'm gonna have to reschedule my fishing," Big said, forlorn.
"No way!" Sage exclaimed, "You can fish on the island! There's plenty of fish there, kinds of fish you've never even seen before! Huge fish, as big as... you! And they taste like three flavours of ice cream!"
Big looked as though his eyes were going to burst out of his face like air-compressed ping-pong balls and pummel the echidna, who felt a compulsion to shield himself from just such an eventuality.
"Oh boy!" the cat bellowed, "Hey Streak! Ya wanna go, little guy?"
"Don't let him sucker you in, big guy. He's sly, sly like a fox."
"Aw, come on," Sage pleaded.
Streak sighed. "Am I going to regret this?"
"No! Well... yes, probably. But on the bright side, at least you'll have some different trees to look at, for a while."
"Point taken," Streak replied, "I'm in."
"Great! Go and pack some bags, I'll wait up for you."
"Wait a second, does Knuckles know about this?"
Sage laughed. "What, are you kidding? Knux would kill all of us if he knew I let you on the island without his permission!"
"Oh, I see. Well then, what are we waiting for?"
The Floating Island was like a giant nature reserve in the air. There were no cages besides the "barrier" of freefall at its edge. It was also, as far as anyone could tell, the only place on Mobius (or off of it) where four distinct, diverse climates existed on the space of a single island. From the side it looked like a spinning top, the tall peak of Red Mountain like an obelisk in its center. Its surface was about two fifths temperate forest, two fifths tropical jungle, and one fifth desert (although much of the desert portion was now on the bottom of the ocean, thanks to Robotnik). The peak of the mountains were always high in the stratosphere, and iced with a thick layer of snow. The ancient echidnas had been such fabulous engineers that they were able to learn the features of geographical zones and simulate them in a small area. Part of the Guardian's duty was to maintain them.
Sagittarius flipped through the book of notes that Knuckles had compiled for him, frowning. "I tell you what," he said, "I don't know how other islands survive without a Guardian. I didn't realise how many jobs there were to do. How does he ever have any time for anything else?"
"Well what's the first thing?" Streak asked. He was looking about the forest, but looked decidedly unimpressed by it. Just a whole lot more trees.
"Well, it seems like the most important thing is water control," Sage replied, "The climate depends on the water, if there's no water everything dries up, but if there's too much, everything drowns. There's like a dam and pump system set up that collects the water and keeps it flowing around, otherwise it would all fall off the side of the island. But after a heavy rain the rivers flood, so we've got to always be checking the water levels. If there's too much, then we purge. And we've got to redirect the rivers depending on the weather."
"We redirect the rivers?" Streak asked.
"Yeah, there's all ancient aqueducts and things set up around the island. But it's old technology, we can't just flick switches, we have to use a bit of muscle. I guess that's where Goliath is going to be useful." He motioned toward Big, who was chasing squirrels and looking confused as to why they were running from him.
"Also," the echidna added, "Knux has given me a whole bunch of gardening duties and stuff like that. He's been replanting the island by hand after ol' Eggman tried to blow it up. We've gotta go around spreading seeds and pollinating things - what are we, bees?"
"That's great," Streak said, "Because, you know, I enjoy gardening almost as much as I enjoy chopping firewood with my face. Are there any fun duties, like cutting down stuff?"
Sage shook his head. "Knux told me, 'it's not a fun job and you shouldn't expect it to be, and that's good because it's a very serious responsibility, and after a while it will become second nature and you'll develop a passion for it.' Something like that."
"In other words, after you do this for twenty straight years you'll hit a point where you don't hate it quite so much anymore."
"Yeah, something like that. There is this other thing Guardians have to do, that involves piloting the actual island around, but Knux wasn't too keen on me doing it, he said maybe I should leave that alone until he's well enough to do it himself."
Streak cocked an eyebrow. "Piloting the island? You mean, like, flying it?"
"Yeah. Altitude control, velocity, angle, that kind of thing. He says it's on a good setting right now and there's no real need for me to change it, barring a hurricane or something. He reckons it might screw up the climate a bit, but it's better than me crashing it into a beach or something."
"He really doesn't trust you a whole lot, does he?"
"Well, he wasn't too keen on the idea of me being Guardian in the first place, but here we are."
Streak frowned and crossed his arms. "You shouldn't be a doormat, you know. You're gonna need to know how to do this stuff eventually, right?"
"Well you might as well give it a try now, prove to him that you're up to this. Come on, just dip your toes in, live a little. Besides, I want to see you pilot an island, just once."
"I dunno... I guess there's no harm in just... practicing."
"That's the spirit!" The cat turned around. "Hey Big! Come on! We're going to fly an island!"
Bunnie Rabbot looked at Sonic up-close, and he stared back at her, with little to no recognition showing on his face. He had been wandering about the village, investigating everything and everybody, as a health inspector might investigate an establishment. He still spoke not a word, made no attempt to communicate to anybody.
"Sonic," Bunnie said, "Can you talk, sugar-hog? Do you even know who I am?"
He frowned at her and looked her up and down. Was he deciding whether or not to say something? There seemed to be a conflict in his eyes, or perhaps it was just her imagination.
She took his hand, and to her surprise he offered it willingly.
"Sonic... You're the hottest topic in town right now, did you know that? Everyone's wondering where you've been, what you've done, what you've seen. We thought that you had been killed, we thought a monster in the forest-"
The blackened hedgehog, streaks of dark red running beneath his burned spines, held out his other hand for her. She hesitated, and then offered him her other hand, the metal hand at the end of her robotized limb. Sonic seemed interested in this, caressing both of her hands softly with his thumbs, looking from one to the other, flesh to metal, metal to flesh.
"Tails isn't here," she continued, "He- he left the village, he left after you never returned." She decided better of telling him that this had been her fault, that Tails had been stolen away by a travelling con artist, and that she had been the one sucked into his fanciful lies and who had pulled the strings necessary for him to be able to take Tails away. There was no telling how Sonic might take news like that in his current state of mind.
What saddened her the most was that Sonic didn't seem to care. His best friend in the world was missing and nobody could guess at his condition, and he was more interested in looking at Bunnie's hands.
She fought back a tear and pulled away her flesh hand so that she could touch his spines. Outwardly, he looked as though he had been burned from head to toe, but if that were so, then it was likely his spines and fur would be more than blackened, but burned away. Where his skin was visible, there were no signs of burning or injury. But what injuries might he have sustained under the surface? Had his vocal ability been damaged or removed entirely? Had he been deafened? Had he heard even a word that she had said? Was that the reason he did not react to the news about Tails?
Forlorn, her eyes drifted downward, and she spotted his feet for the first time. When Sonic had disappeared, he had been wearing the shoes that Tails had given him, his favourite pair of red sneakers. Now, his feet were inside a grotesquely bulky pair of shin-high boots, with what looked like machinery embedded into them. Something heavy and metal protruded from each heel, and his feet looked like they were clamped into them in such a way that she couldn't see how he could take them off.
"What are those?" she asked.
Sonic didn't reply. He passed one final glance over her half-robotized body, then turned and walked away with those bulky boots thudding in the grass. Nevertheless, he seemed very adept at walking in the things, which looked too heavy to be practical. Whatever they were, he hadn't found them in New Knothole.
"I've never seen anything like this," Streak said, awestruck. His face was bathed in a deep green light, which reflected in his eyes. "And I've seen a lot of crazy stuff."
"It's pretty," Big added.
"Yep," Sage said, "That's Knux's baby, all right. The most important thing in the entire world, even more important than grouching at people."
The Master Emerald shone brilliantly upon its altar at the top of a hill overlooking much of the island, a regal shrine of concentric circles of white stone, surrounded by a fountain and covered in runes. Sage could see a pile of tools left strewn about below a half-carved mural, and it was very unlike Knuckles to just leave a mess lying around like that. This must have been what he was doing at the time of his accident.
"This thing flies the island?" Streak asked, unable to tear his eyes from the enormous jewel on the pedestal.
"Yeah," Sage replied, "Knux has explained it to me a few times. The emerald itself exerts some kind of force that balances out gravity, makes it resist the pull of Mobius. Everything around it kind of absorbs the same power. The whole island is rich with this substance, it's in the soil, in the rocks. The Master Emerald balances and centralises the power so that it can be controlled, piloted. To control it you need... there, you see those?"
Arranged in a circle around the emerald shrine, each at least ten metres from it, were seven other large emeralds, though they were much smaller than the Master. They were placed on pedestals that looked like they were set on tracks.
"Those are the Super Emeralds," Sage explained, "They, like, supplement the power of the Master, make its influence stronger. If you want to make the island rise, you move them all closer to the center, closer to the Master. If you want to descend, you pull them away. If you want to steer in a particular direction, you move some of them closer and pull some of them away. That kind of thing. That's how it's all done. But it's not as easy as it sounds, you've gotta know just how to do it right, or else you might flip the island upside-down or something."
"So, what, these emeralds are some kind of bona-fide antigravity device?" Streak asked.
"No, little guy!" Big interjected, "He's sayin' they make things float and stuff!"
Sage shrugged. "Knux calls it gravitational buoyancy. I dunno how it all works. It makes things fly, so as long as it's on the island, the island won't fall on anyone's house."
Streak approached the giant emerald, wary. "So, if you touched it, would you fly?"
Sage cocked an eyebrow. "Huh?"
"Well, its power flows into whatever touches it, right? So it stands to reason that if it can make a whole island fly, it can do the same to a person."
"I don't know, Streak," Sage replied, "That sounds like the kind of thing that Knux usually refers to as a bonehead idea. I'm getting visions of having to have his fist surgically removed from some new orafice."
"Well, he ain't here," Streak said, "Since when have you started listening to Chuckles the Echidna, anyway?"
"Since I became his apprentice, I guess."
"Well, don't you want to try and gain a deeper and more profound understanding about how the island and its intricacies work?"
"Not at the risk of my own life. Why don't you do it?"
"Uhh... I'm afraid of heights."
Sage sighed and looked over the emerald. It wasn't often that he got to approach quite so close to it, Knuckles was more protective and sensitive about it than anything else in the world, so in a way it was like an opportunity he may not have again for a long time. How often he had wanted to touch the surface of this ancient, beautiful enigma, feel its smoothly carved sides, find out if it was cool or warm to the touch, and if he could feel its energy course through his body. He had never considered the possibility that it might give him the power to fly like the island itself. Had Knuckles ever mentioned such a thing? It might be years before the Guardian considered him worthy of such an honour as to touch the sacred Master Emerald.
"All right," he said, "Just in the name of curiosity. I'll touch it, but just for a moment."
He slipped the brown leather glove from his right hand, and slowly reached toward the emerald. The two cats behind him stared, silent and motionless.
One finger pressed against the luminescent surface, then three, and then he closed his eyes and cupped his whole hand over the jewel.
Surprisingly, the emerald was as cold as ice. It felt like pressing his hand against a glacier wall. It tingled a little, and he thought he almost detected a mild vibration. He felt a tickling sensation over his whole body as all of his fur stood on end, as if by static electricity.
"How does it feel?" Streak asked.
"It feels like... like static. I'm a little light-headed, but otherwise..."
"No, wait a minute, wait a minute," Sage said, "Maybe I just need more surface area. Maybe if I touch it like this..."
He removed his other glove with his teeth, and leaned on the emerald with both hands. All of his hair and spines stood on end as though he'd had a bath and blow-dried his entire body.
"Hey, you're all funny lookin'!" Big reported.
"Not much is happening," Streak said.
Sage was disappointed. The Master Emerald, such a forbidden and mysterious treasure, might as well have been any ordinary rock. He wondered for a moment why generations of echidnas valued a big shiny thing with a lot of static charge enough to make such a big deal about it.
He started to back away, but the extra push he gave against the emerald was enough to shift its position. With a dull cracking sound, it leaned a few degrees away from him.
"Whoops," Streak said.
"Argh, did that just move?" Sage asked.
"Yeah. A little. It's kind of on a slant, now."
Sage took a walk around the emerald to inspect it. The jewel was indeed standing askew on its altar, though not by much.
"It's not that noticeable," Streak said.
"Oh, Knux will notice," Sage replied with a snort, "He probably knows how many blades of grass are on this island. We've gotta fix this, or else he'll know I was touching it, and then... well, the rules of apprenticeship forbid me from killing him, but they don't say anything against him killing me, so let's straighten this thing up a little."
He moved to the other side of the emerald and heaved it the other way.
"Looks heavy," Streak said.
"Yeah, well how about helping me?" Sage asked, straining.
"I uh... I'm not sure I wanna touch it."
The echidna let go of the emerald and glared at him.
"Okay, okay, let's have a go, then."
The two of them stood under the emerald and heaved with all their might. Unfortunately, it was even heavier than it looked. Their combined strength did nothing to shift it.
"Heavens to mergatroid, Sagittarius, how did you budge it in the first place?"
"I guess it must have been precariously balanced. Come on, we have to try harder."
"I can't try any harder, I'll get a hernia. I've got a better idea. Hey Big!"
Big had lost interest in his silly friends and was instead chasing dragonflies with Froggy at the base of the shrine. He looked up just as his pet lashed out his tongue and snapped the insect out of the air.
"Give us a hand with this, will you?" Streak smiled and turned to the echidna. "Big's really strong, you wouldn't even believe it. I saw him flip a car, once."
"What's a car?"
"Never mind. Hey Big, come over here. There you go. Can you fix this up for us? It's seriously heavy."
"Uhh, sure, lil' buddy," the cat drawled, "No problem."
Big crouched on one knee as though to pray, wrapped his massive arms around the emerald, braced his feet, and heaved.
He flung the Master Emerald into the air like it was a beach ball. It came down about a metre ahead of them, crashing against the steps of the shrine, flinging chunks of rock around with every impact. It landed in the fountain with a mighty splash, bounced out, and began to roll down the hill.
Absolute silence fell over the three as they watched the emerald tumble away. After a moment, Big snickered.
"Oops," he said, "Oh man. I thought you said it was heavy."
Sage clapped his hands over his ears and shrieked so loudly that the birds flew from the trees.
Knuckles woke with a start, sweat running down his face. He yelled out.
Dr Quack, who had been working on some kind of document, jerked his pen across the page, startled. He put a hand across his eyes and sighed deeply, a heavy black line marring the document.
Princess Sally had been standing beside the echidna's bed, and put a hand on his clammy shoulder. "Knuckles! What's wrong?"
"I have to get back to the Floating Island!" he exclaimed, "Sagittarius doesn't know what to do, he's never even attempted something of this magnitude! I'm a failure in the shadow of my forefathers! I've gotta go protect the Master Emerald!"
"You're not going anywhere, Knuckles. The island is going to be fine. You've given Sage plenty of instructions, and I've given him a radio so that he can contact the village if there's anything he's unsure about."
"There's so many things I forgot to tell him! What if a storm front develops? He can't navigate that! What if there's a tidal wave?"
"I'm sure that he can handle-"
"You!" Knuckles pointed across the room to Dr Quack. "I need more pills. Lots more pills."
"Yeah, I hope you choke on them," the doctor replied, and sorted through his medication cabinet.
"Sage is looking after your island," Sally said, "Please let us look after you. It's better to leave him with the island for a couple of weeks than to hurt yourself much worse than you are now, and wind up never being able to do your job properly again. What would you prefer?"
Knuckles took a cocktail of pills from Quack and began to swallow them like candy.
"I just have a bad feeling, that's all," he said, "I shouldn't have been so stupid to hurt myself like this in the first place."
"What's done is done," Sally replied, "We've got two people badly hurt, now, and it's easier for us if everyone's a willing patient."
"Who else is hurt?" the echidna asked, lying back down.
"I was just coming to tell you, actually. It's- it's Sonic."
Knuckles sat up again, wincing at the pain of having done so. "What?"
"How long has he been here?"
"He arrived just after you did. Just strolled into the village like he never left. Except... he's changed. Knuckles, it's like he's had a lobotomy or something, there's no recognition in his eyes, hardly any life. He walks around like he's in a dream and never speaks to anyone. Whatever they've done to him, it's made him unrecognisable. It's turned his spines as black as the ace of spades."
"What? Are you sure that's even Sonic?"
"If it's not, then it's his twin. His face, Knuckles... his eyes. Sonic doesn't have any relatives."
"What I mean is, you're sure it's not some kind of trick. You know how many times Robotnik has sent some android spy into your midst."
"Robotnik is gone. Besides, we have security precautions against that, now. Metal detectors. He's clean, the only metal in his whole body is in his shoes. They've done something to his feet, as well, but he won't let us inspect him."
"Be careful, that's all I'm saying," Knuckles replied, "This sounds weird to me, and I don't like it. If I could only get out of this bed..."
"Back to that again. You can't get out of bed, Knuckles, but I appreciate your concern. We'll figure this out soon enough. And don't worry about the island. It's all taken care of."
"I sure hope so, Sally. I sure hope so."
"Of course it is. Everything's under control."
"This is a disaster!" Sage shrieked, "This is a complete disaster!"
The Master Emerald lay at the base of a cliff, half buried in a pile of gravel. He dug frantically in the rock pile to little avail. A few chunks of gravel hit Streak in the chest as he approached behind the echidna, and held out his hands to shield himself.
"Okay, it's a bit of a situation."
"This is all your fault!" Sage shrieked, pointing at him, "You and your gargantuan cousin! Touch the emerald, you said! What could happen, you said!"
"Hey, you're the one who touched it- What was that?"
"What was what?"
"I thought I just felt the ground move."
Sage noticed it too, now. A vague sensation of vertigo, as though they were on a boat drifting over waves.
"It's the island," he said, clutching his head, "The Master Emerald balances the island, if the Master isn't stable then neither is the island. It's out of our control until we get it back on that altar, I just hope it doesn't tip over or crash or anything. If it does, I hope we die on impact, 'cause it'll be better than what Knux will do to us."
"It's starting to get dark," Streak said, squinting at the sun above the horizon. "I'd say it's about five already."
"A quarter to six," Big corrected.
Streak sighed. "Well, thank you Mister Sundial."
Sage looked down at the once brilliant Master Emerald, its smooth and luminescent surface now marred and dulled by dirt and dust. It looked kind of pathetic like this, lying on its side and covered in gravel. He tried to imagine the face that Knuckles would be pulling right at the moment. This was probably his equivalent of taking the idol of someone's deity and flushing it down a public toilet.
"Okay look, the island's stopped moving," he said, "It seems to have stabilised itself, it just got a bit jarred. The emerald hasn't moved that far from the shrine, really, so maybe if we just... if we just let it rest a while. And then, tomorrow morning we very carefully move it back to where it's supposed to be. And then clean it up, and never, ever go near it again."
"Right, sounds like a plan," Streak replied, "So. What's for dinner?"
"Dinner?" Big reiterated, his ears propping up like antennae.
Sage looked around as though he expected a platoon of butlers to arrive from some direction. "Actually... I don't have a clue what Knux does for food around here. He's never invited me over for dinner."
"He probably just goes out and kills something," Streak replied, "There's a smorgasbord out there."
Sage shook his head. "Knux is a strict vegetarian. More of a fruitarian, actually. I think he just grazes all day on berries and crap."
"You should have pointed that out on the travel brochure," Streak said.
"Well... We don't have to live like that. I mean, nothing's stopping us from going out and killing something, right?"
"Now you're talking! Hey, go get your bow and arrows, we'll have ourselves a good old-fashioned hunting trip, do some healthy male bonding, out in the wilderness."
Sage's brow hardened and he stammered nervously. "Uh, sure. Yeah, great idea."
A half hour later saw the echidna and the two cats crouching in the forest, Sage holding his bow out ahead of him and gazing over the shaft of an arrow that trembled slightly in his hand.
A rabbit nibbled on a patch of grass a fair distance ahead, oblivious of their presence. Its fool black eyes stared into space and its ears lay flat against its back as it enjoyed its feast of grass and weeds.
"That's it, my delicious friend," Streak whispered, "Enjoy it while you can. For soon you shall graze in the bunny afterlife. Strike, Sagittarius! Strike true!"
"Hang on a sec," the echidna snapped back, "I have to line up the shot, it's a very intricate sport, it takes a lot of patience and a lot of skill."
He pulled back on the arrow and held it in silence, a single droplet of sweat trailing down the length of his snout.
After a moment, Streak said "We've been looking at the rabbit for fifteen minutes, Sage. I'm really getting hungry for that rabbit."
"Well, just wait a bit longer, I have to get this right."
They crouched for a few minutes more, the white creature a beacon at the end of the arrowhead, Sage holding the arrow steady, then giving it slack, then pulling it taut again.
Suddenly, Streak's stomach released a loud growl, and Sage, startled, released the arrow. It struck a tree near the rabbit with a muffled thwock. The rabbit snapped erect, sniffing at the air madly with its ears like radar dishes above its head, and then bounded away.
"Aw, man," Streak mumbled, "All that suspense, and it got away."
"Sorry. I got distracted by your stomach."
"Yeah, my stomach, which was distracted by the fact that my dinner was eating better than I was. What's the problem? Does it really take that long?"
Sage sighed. "No. The truth is... I'm just not very good at it. And I know that's silly, I mean, my uncle could strike down a bird in mid-flight, and he trained me intensively all through my youth. I know everything I have to do, it's just that I'm no good at it. To tell you the truth, I've never really been that good at anything."
Big scratched his head in thought. "I think maybe what you're doin' wrong is after you pull back the stringy bit you gotta let go of the arrow. That way, I figure maybe it'll like fly through the air like."
Sage looked at him, frowning. "Wow, hey, thanks Big. I'll be sure to try that next time."
"Hey, you know more about it than I do, I'm just sayin' what I'd do, the only worry I guess is concernin' which way it's gonna go."
"So what are we going to do about food?" Sage asked, leaning against a tree.
"Well," Big replied, "I got an idea."
"I think he's had enough ideas from you today, big guy," Streak replied with a wink.
"Really? 'Cause I was just thinkin' I know where we can get some food, just so long as you can tell me whereabouts I might be able to find a river."
Two cats and a Guardian's Apprentice feasted on fish that night. Sage had been embarrassed about how easily Big had procured a meal for them, but it served to remind him that it was poor form to make fun of the gentle giant for being dim-witted. He knew more about surviving in a situation like this than Streak and Sage combined.
They slept soundly in the shelter of a deep cave, a bonfire keeping them warm through the night, but sleep didn't come easily to Sage. He lay awake, listening to Big's heavy snores, and thinking about the imposition that had been laid on him today. He was going to be the Guardian of the Floating Island. He had taken an oath to it, had sworn on the spirits of his ancestors, and that was a binding contract. This huge, green rock that he had been unable to handle for even a single afternoon was going to become his life obsession after Knuckles died, and every day up to that point was going to be concerned with training. He would probably have to quit the Freedom Fighters as well and move here to live. That was a frightening concept, he liked the island and he liked Knuckles, but had anyone suggested he spend every day here, he would have laughed it off.
What frightened him most, though, was that he knew the Guardianship brought with it a life of seclusion and isolation. For Knuckles had been the last, and then he had found Sagittarius, and upon Knux's passing, Sage would be the last. He could return to the Chaos Isle in the hope of finding a wife with whom to carry forth the echidnaen legacy, but who would want to leave their family for a lonely existance on some flying dirt clod? Sage had set out in the hope of finding an epic adventure, and he had found that with the Freedom Fighters, but the Floating Island wasn't an adventure, it was a duty, and it would be his duty for life.
That made him realise a much more prominant issue - his acceptance of the apprenticeship meant that he could never again return to the Chaos Isle. Though he had found a life here, he had always subconsciously assumed that he would one day return to his homeland. Staying here forever had never really been something he had thought about. Now that it was set in stone, it hit him hard.
What have I done? he asked himself, This is huge. I've sold my life to this island and this giant emerald, I can't even shoot a rabbit to feed myself. What's worse is knowing how Knux is going to feel after he realises what a huge mistake he's made.
The cool breeze whistling through the mouth of the cave soothed him, and the bonfire crackled and spat. It was colder here on the island, so high in the heavens. Sage wriggled closer to the fire and drifted off to sleep wondering whether contracts bound to the spirits had an escape clause.
In the morning, Sagittarius awoke before his friends and took a stroll along the rocky shore. He was relieved enough to see that the island hadn't crashed during the night, which was a good enough start to his first day as substitute Guardian.
The beach of the Floating Island wasn't an ordinary beach, as it did not end in water. No waves lapped against the shore. In place of a sea was a free-fall that ended in the middle of the Westerican Ocean, and almost certain death. Understandably, Sage opted to stay close to the inland.
The world looked different from up here. Sage sat for a moment and looked out over the rim of the island to the horizon, far below. He could tell that he was looking to the north, because there was a dark shadow of land along the rim of the world. That was the direction of home - at least, his former home. Knuckles was there, resting while Sage took up the reigns of his new profession. Of course, should Knuckles learn that he had been playing kickball with the Master Emerald, it wouldn't be a particularly comfortable life for him here. Although he knew that Knuckles couldn't possibly drag himself out of bed to make it here any time too soon, Sage figured it was probably safest to rectify the emerald situation as soon as possible.
As he stared out over the rim, however, an anomoly caught his eye. There was a black shape protruding from the beach, that might have been a huge rock if not for the unnatural, streamlined shape of it. Then again, wind erosion could have strange effects on a rock formation, especially up here.
As he walked toward it, the shape began to intrigue him more and more. It seemed there were pipes leading from the thing back into the shrub. The shape itself cut off the entire beach, rising from the sand far inland and extending beyond the edge of the island into free space. It curved in the way that only something mobianmade does. It wasn't until he fully approached the object that he saw it for what it really was - metallic, something engineered. A machine. It seemed to make a dull buzzing sound deep within its chassis.
This was just bizarre. He had never seen anything remotely like this on the island before. What purpose could it possibly serve? He was prepared to believe it was some kind of debris left over from the War of Chaos that Knuckles simply hadn't been able to remove, but when he ran his hand over the smooth metal surface, he found that the machine was vibrating deep inside. Whatever it was, it was operational.
On a whim, Sage climbed onto a tall rock formation so that he could see over the construction and further along the beach. In the distance, at least three more of the machines grew out of the ground like black, humming monuments.
"What's this thing?" Streak asked.
"That's just it," Sage replied, "I don't know."
The strange black machine whirred deep inside of itself, under its thick chassis. Having searched the entire construct, Sage was confident that there were no openings of any kind, no compartments, no switches, no buttons, no words.
Streak put his ear to the metal and listened to the sound of it deep inside. Its humming provided no clues to its purpose.
"You know what it looks like to me?" he asked, "Some kind of great big aircraft engine. Like they have on the wings of planes. I bet there's a fan turning inside."
Sage stared up at the machine that towered over them. "What would an aircraft engine be doing here?"
"Well, it is a flying island, Sage."
"Yeah but it doesn't need engines, the emeralds keep it afloat."
"I don't know what else to tell you. What else could this be? It didn't fall out of the sky."
Sage's reply caught in his throat. It did indeed appear to be some kind of engine. And the whirring inside could very easily have been the gears for an enormous fan which couldn't be seen from on the island. But the island's flight was in no part mechanical, Knuckles had always made that clear. The ancient echidnas had harnessed a grand technology before their demise, and there were machines on the island that even Knuckles admitted no knowledge about what they did or how to operate them. But the emeralds had been at the heart of their technology, they did not use such cumbersome techniques as rocket engines when they had emeralds that could do the same job much better.
Then again, there was wisdom in what Streak said. What else could they be? They had some purpose.
"Here's an idea," Streak added, "Maybe they're for backup. You know, in case the emerald fails somehow. You know how often this whole place falls out of the sky, Robotnik alone has taken the emerald twice. Maybe old Knux just doesn't want to take any more chances."
That made enough sense for comfort. "Yeah, you're probably right. That reminds me, though, we have to get to work fixing the Master Emerald. If we can start right away, we might be able to get it back to the shrine by noon."
Streak smiled. "Hey, now you're even starting to sound like a Guardian."
"Ugh. I hope not."
The Master Emerald still lay in the gravel pile where they had sacreligiously left it overnight, trying to shine through the thick layer of grey dirt covering it. Big was standing nearby, and Froggy was sitting atop his head.
"Hey, guys!" Big exclaimed, "Did you see the little black guy scurry past here? I was followin' him but he got away."
"That's great, cuz," Streak replied, "So what are we gonna do about this emerald? Does Knux have any tools lying around here, like a shovel or anything?"
Sage snorted. "What would Knux use a shovel for? A lawn ornament? Have you seen the way he digs with those claws of his? A shovel would slow him down by a factor of ten."
"Well, that's a pity, because we don't have claws. I guess we're gonna have to get our hands dirty, huh? Some holiday this is turning out to be."
"I never said this was going to be a holiday," Sage replied, kneeling down to dig through the gravel.
"Yes you did. Those were actually your exact words. Your exact words, Sage."
"Yeah maybe. But, if I lied to you, then it's your own fault for believing it, not mine."
"He's got a point, little guy," Big added.
"No," Streak said, "No, that... doesn't... make any sense..."
"Hey," Sage replied, shrugging, "If you're gullible, then it's my right- no, my responsibility- to take advantage of that. It's completely out of my hands."
Big was nodding. The frog on his head bobbed up and down, looking alarmed.
"Let's just get the darn emerald out of the freakin' pile already," Streak snapped, and joined Sage in clawing at the gravel.
It took twenty minutes, Streak and Sage digging and Big pushing, to make the Master Emerald budge. With an effort, it shook loose and rolled free, almost crushing Streak in the process. Sage was worried for a moment that it was just going to keep going and roll off another cliff, maybe off the side of the island and plop into the middle of the ocean, but it came to a stop, albeit upside-down, much to his relief. Then it was just a matter of rolling it up the steep hill that led to the shrine. Being that Streak's somewhat overblown estimate of the emerald's weight was approximately four hundred thousand tons, it was mostly Big who bore the duty of emerald carrier.
"Hey," Sage said after a few minutes, "That doesn't really make any sense."
"What doesn't?" Streak asked.
"Those things on the beach," the echidna replied, "Those machines. You said they might have been backup engines, in case the emerald fails. But that doesn't really make any sense, when I think about it."
"Well... who built them? Not Knux. He wouldn't know where to begin. He doesn't have the knowledge or the capability."
"Maybe they were always here. Like, his ancestors built them."
"If that were true, then they can't be what we think they are. Or they don't work. Remember, this island has fallen twice since Knux has been Guardian."
"Then maybe they're something else. I dunno. Ask Knux sometime."
Froggy spontaniously leaped from Big's head with a loud ribbit, and Big let go of the emerald to chase his pet. "Froggy!"
"Big!" Sage screamed as the Master Emerald began to roll down the hill again. Big got under it just in time and held it in place. "Uh, sorry."
They rolled the emerald to a place where it could safely be released on a level surface, and rested. The shrine was in sight, much to everybody's relief.
"Knux shouldn't have built the friggin' thing on top of a hill," Streak said, "He deserves to get it knocked off and have it roll away. I bet he's done it himself a dozen times and he just hasn't told anybody."
"He didn't pick the site," Sage replied, "It's where the emerald sat hundreds of years ago, before the echidnas moved it underground. It's traditional."
"I say screw tradition. Get with the times. Why does the thing have to be so heavy, anyway? Isn't it ironic that the very thing that makes this whole island float weighs as much as a-"
"Hey, wait a second," Sage interjected, "Ssh."
Sage was clearly agitated, and looked around as though an invisible enemy eluded him. Streak couldn't figure out what he was looking for until he finally spoke.
"The island is moving."
"Huh? Whatever gives you that idea?"
Sage looked up at the sky, as though trying to plot the island's movement against the clouds. "You can't feel that?"
Streak found that there was indeed a very vague sensation of movement, only slight, but just enough that he could pick it up through his feet.
"Maybe the breeze is blowing the island, you know, like wind in a sail," he suggested.
"Yeah, maybe," Sage replied, "Except that it's moving toward the wind."
He was right. The feeling of movement was growing stronger, and it was definitely against the wind. Now that he noticed it, Streak found it really quite nauseating.
"Well do you think the emerald is making it unstable again?"
"I think this is different. Something's wrong, something's very wrong."
"Wrong like how?"
Sage looked sullen, panicked. Streak didn't like being on a floating island with someone who looked like that.
"Listen," the echidna said, "I think we need to roll the Master Emerald down the hill again."
Streak laughed. "What?"
"Remember the cave we slept in last night? Put it in there, hide it, out of sight. Keep it safe, okay?"
"Safe from what?"
"I just have to check something. Take the emerald!"
Streak began to protest, but Sage was already gone. He sprinted away as though some urgent appointment had occurred to him.
"Hey..." Big said after a moment, "Hey, little guy... I think this island is moving!"
Streak sighed, and sat on the Master Emerald. His fur bristled with charge. "Well," he said, "He's the Guardian. Come on, let's hurry up and turn this morning into a complete waste of time." He looked at the shrine, just a few minutes away, now, and frowned.
Sage's fears were dishearteningly confirmed as he stood atop a hill looking out over the rim of the Floating Island. The machines were operating.
He knew it before he even saw it, a heavy whirring cacophony muffled from within thick iron. The wind was much stronger near the beach, and when he finally saw the machines, there was no doubt that they were somehow responsible for it. The technology was alien to him, but he could see what they were doing. The assertion that they were rocket engines was somewhat correct - however, instead of pushing, they seemed to be pulling. The reverse boosters were stirring the wind in some strange way, perhaps creating a vacuum in between, that sucked or pulled the whole island in the direction they were facing.
Sage looked out over the horizon to the north and saw that the sliver of land was thicker, greener, closer than it had been before.
The Floating Island was being hijacked.
At this point, the most pertinent question on Sage's mind was why me? The Floating Island wasn't exactly a hive of activity. He hadn't, for example, been asked to take the throne of Mobitropolis for a while. Just pilot an airborne dirt clod and make sure it didn't crash into anything. He'd been Guardian for a day, and it was the very day that all chaos broke loose.
What was worse, he already had a fair idea about who was responsible for this. The nature of the technology in itself was fairly distinguishing. But if he was right, it was going to be a much worse day than he had anticipated.
Streak and Big finally managed to roll the Master Emerald into the cave; it took much less effort and time to get it down the hill than back up it, and when Streak looked back in the direction from where they had come, he groaned in frustration. No doubt they would be going back there again eventually.
"Well, that's that," he said, duting his hands off. They left the emerald in a discreet corner of the cave, in an effort to hide it, although it was largely a pointless endeavour; the whole cave was lit up by the gem's radiant green glow. They rested, and Froggy hopped about in victory, as though he had the gall to think he had been any help.
"Hey, there he is!" Big exclaimed.
Streak took little notice, assuming that he was talking about the frog, but he looked up a moment later to see his cousin milling about outside the cave, scratching his head.
"What's up, big guy?"
"It was the little black person!" Big replied, "I saw him again! Where'd he go?"
"The odd little guy I saw before. I think he's a gnome or somethin', 'cause he's always working."
"Big, it's not a good idea to smoke things you picked out of the garden, okay? Where are you going?"
"I think he went through here!"
Big was trying to squeeze through a gap between two shrubs, but his girth made it difficult. Streak tried to peer through to see what the big deal was.
They stood atop a rise that provided a very good view of a field in a deep valley. The field lay on the outskirts of a region that Knuckles called Mushroom Hill, and for good reason - it was covered in hundreds of brightly-coloured mushrooms and toadstools of every kind. The grass was so long and the fungi so plentiful that Streak almost missed it at first, but there were people in this valley. A gathering of them.
"Hey, look!" Big exclaimed, "Lots more gnomes!"
"Big, get down!" Streak almost shrieked, "Those aren't gnomes! Oh man, do you know who they are?"
The larger cat shook his head.
"They're bad guys, cuz. They're Aracks."
There were perhaps two dozen spiders in this field, working hard on projects unknown. They toiled as only Arack workers did, relentlessly and as co-ordinated as oiled clockwork. A couple of strange contruction vehicles shambled around indelicately on mandiblax legs, crushing giant mushrooms underfoot, carving out chunks of the valley as they went.
"Oh, this is most assuredly not good," Streak said.
"Those gnome guys, they're the guys they're fightin' against back in Knothole!"
"Right you are, big guy. The question is, what are they doing here? As far as I know, Knuckles hasn't ever antagonised the Empire, he's kept pretty much to himself."
"Maybe they just wanna take stuff."
"Very astutely put. I think we ought to find Sagittarius."
Squit Is'sus was the Chief Imperial Consul of Terantulopolis, a haughty and pretentious bureaucrat with a well-tailored suit and a characteristically excessive ardour for protocol. He overlooked the development and retrieval project on the land mass that had recently been christened Spinster Island in honour of its discoverer. As dozens of patriotic Arack countrymen toiled their hands raw for the cause, Squit scrambled and scurried around the action. He carried a clipboard in one hand, scribbled on it with another, and held a bullhorn with another, with which he occasionally shouted a command to the construction crew.
A loud beep sounded over the clamour of the activities around him, and Squit used his remaining free hand to reach inside his coat and pull out a telephone. The red light on the side signified that this was a call direct from the Greatspire.
"Is'sus," he said into the phone as he accepted the call.
"Please hold for His Supremacy the Sector Lord of the Webb, Lord Saddam Spinster."
There was a short patch of silence. Lord Spinster was of course one of the few people in Terantulopolis important enough to be able to call someone and then put them on hold.
"Squit," at last came Spinster's abrasive voice, "How fares our island?"
"All progress is running smoothly as always, my Lord," Squit replied, "Inversion thrusters have been installed and activated. The island is moving, but... uh..."
"Well, we seem to be running into a few minor complications involving power supply. Now, the projected estimates were accurate, but there is an unforseen difficulty."
"What kind of difficulty?"
Behind Squit, a large whirring machine groaned and struggled. Several spiders ran to it and began flicking switches.
"Well," Squit said, "There is some kind of interference on the island, a force that is somehow counteracting our power generators. I can only assume that the unknown force is originating from whatever it is that makes this island float in the first place. It is resisting outside efforts to move it."
"I have a reputation to live up to, Squit," Spinster replied, "The Primelords will surely have received word by now of my plans, and they expect results! I can't be let down on this, I can not."
"I understand, my Lord."
"So how can you fix this?"
"Well, sir, I believe we will need to locate the source of this interfering energy source, and deactivate it, so that our own technologies might replace it."
"Very good. Do that! And don't fail me!"
The phone went dead. Squit put it away and left to persue the new goals that had been put forward for him. This was, after all, the Arack Empire. There was no problem that could not be solved when you could do four things at once.
Sagittarius trembled as he watched the Aracks build their horrid constructions upon the pristine Floating Island. It was a horror that offended and terrified him, and yet he could not look away.
"What are we gonna do?" Streak asked him.
"You're asking me?" Sage's voice was barely louder than a whimper.
"Well, yeah. You know more about this whole Guardianship thing than Big and I do. What do your notes say?"
Sage shot him a perplexed glance. "They don't say anything about this, mate. Do you know what this is? This is the Arack Empire. In less than a week, this entire island is going to look like downtown Terantulopolis. They're pulling us toward the mainland somehow, Lord only knows where they're taking us. We're in a little far over our heads, here."
"Well, maybe we should tell Knux-"
"I can't tell Knux that through the course of a single day I've managed to lose the whole island to the Aracks! Nobody in history has failed this spectacularly at any task whatsoever! Do you understand that? I've broken a world record in failure! If Knux doesn't die from the four simultanious heart attacks that this is going to give him, then he's going to get out of bed no matter how injured he is, just so that he can hunt me down and torture me to death!"
Big approached Sage from behind and laid a heavy, consoling hand upon his shoulder.
"Don't worry, lil' buddy!" he said, "Breakin' a world record in failure, well, that's actually a kinda success! I mean, it ain't like you're some kinda small-time failure."
"You need to not speak for a while, I think," Sage replied.
"So, what are you gonna do?" Streak asked, "If we can't tell Knux, what other options do we have?"
"Here's what I'm thinking," Sage replied, "I'm going to panic. Like, fully go just completely nuts with sheer, mindless panic. Then, I might commit suicide. What do you think about that?"
"Uh. Well, it's a plan of sorts, I guess-"
"So let's put that one out there as a possibility, let's mark it Plan C for the moment. Now... do you have any others?"
"Well, alternatively we can just hide in a cave like three miserable, spineless cowards."
"You know what? That one works for me."
"Excellent. Problem quasi-solved."
Two cats, an echidna and a large green frog retired to the cave at the base of the mountains where the Master Emerald hid, and Big assisted the retreat by moving a large rock over the entrance. Now they were enclosed, shrouded in the brilliant green luminescence of the emerald.
"Now we just have to wait for the Aracks to go away on their own," Streak said, and offered an uneasy laugh.
"Aww, this is a catastrophe!" Sage exclaimed, punching the wall with his fisted knuckles, "It wasn't supposed to happen like this! It wasn't-"
He was cut off by the sound of loud static. It came from the radio that Sage had brought with him, lying amongst the rest of his luggage beside the burned-out campfire of the previous night. A voice spoke out.
"Sage? Sage, come in? Can you hear me?"
Sage slapped a hand over Streak's mouth, although the cat hadn't been speaking, and his pupils shrank to pinpoints as he trembled. "It's Knux! Oh no, it's Knux!"
"I'll get it!" Big declared.
Knuckles the Echidna lay propped up in bed with his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. He looked up and gave an insincere smile when Sally rapped softly on the door.
"How're you feeling today?" she asked him.
"Fine. It only feels like I was hit by a bus, rather than a truck. That's an improvement."
She snickered under her breath. "That's good, I suppose."
"I'm just thinking about the island. I mean, as usual. I'm hoping that everything's going smoothly up there, and I know it probably is, but I'm concerned. Sage can be a dunderhead sometimes, and he doesn't always like to admit it. I've got this... uneasy feeling. I've learned to trust that feeling."
"Well, why don't you give him a call?"
Knuckles sighed. "Because I don't want to make him think I don't trust him. Trust is a very important part of the Guardian and Apprentice relationship. I'm hard on the kid - I mean, I have to be, because he's a dunderhead and I've just put him in charge of my island - but all the same, he has to learn how to sort out his own problems. It's a big part of the job."
"I'm sure he's doing fine," Sally replied, "But he might appreciate a call. Just to remind him that he's not all alone up there. It must be a pretty lonesome old job."
"It sure is." Knuckles contemplated a moment. "Maybe I will. Just, you know, a courtesy call."
"It'll help your peace of mind, at least."
Knuckles nodded, and reached for the radio that had been placed beside his bed. "He's probably not even anywhere near it, he's probably too busy. And so he should be." He switched the machine on and spoke into it. "Sage? Sage, come in? Can you hear me?"
Nothing but static on the line for a few minutes.
"Yeah, no answer. I guess he's fine, he's-"
A voice cut in through the static, an enthusiastic "Hello!" Knuckles frowned and looked at Sally through the corner of his eye. That didn't sound like Sage's voice.
Knuckles paused again. It was a deep, slow voice. It sounded a little like Big the Cat, as a matter of fact, but that wouldn't make any sense, unless Sage was having a party up there. He had a brief image of that flash through his mind, and decided it was just to painful to bear thinking about.
There was a sound almost like a struggle from the other end, flashes of static interjected by fumbling and bumping, for several seconds. Then a voice that was clearly Sage's came through.
"Sage? Is someone else there with you?"
"No! Just me."
"Was that you who said hello a moment ago?"
"Yeah, but I was... I was yawning, you see. You know how your voice goes deeper when you try to speak when you're yawning? That's all that was. Sorry. Man, I'm just so tired from all the work I've been doing here on the Floating Island."
"Well, that's great, Sage. I'm not trying to check up on you or anything, you understand, but I just thought I'd give you a call to find out what you think about the job so far. Sage?"
"Everything's going just fine, Knux. Wow, I'm kinda surprised about how much work is involved, but it's pretty smooth sailing and I think I've got a handle on it."
There were more fumbling sounds, and some static. Knuckles thought he heard two voices speaking, but that was unclear. Impossible, if Sage was there alone. The younger echidna's voice came through the radio again after a moment.
"Ha ha ha! Sorry about that, I, uh, dropped the radio!"
"You're there alone, Sage?"
"Yeah! Nobody here but me. Kinda lonely, actually."
"Well, okay. Just as long as everything's going smoothly. Let me know if you have any questions, okay? The radio is right here by my bed."
"Sure, Knux! Everything's great, but I'll let you know."
"Okay. Keep up the good work, Sage. Take care of my island, okay? Bye."
Knuckles switched the radio off. "Ha."
"There, you see?" Sally asked, "He's fine."
"I guess so. Well, that puts me at ease."
"How is everything with you, Sally? How's Sonic?"
Sally seemed to wince a little upon the mere mention of the name. "No further insight," she said, "We gave him a room overnight and he accepted it... He just won't speak."
"Why don't you send him in to see me?"
She shrugged. "He's not really open to suggestions. He does whatever he wants. Quack is trying to brainstorm some series of treatment we can try, but he maintains that the problem is psychological rather than medical, and there isn't much hope for him agreeing to be helped. He-" She paused, straining. "They've done something to his feet, Knuckles. He won't let us look too closely, but something's been installed, grafted, into his feet, like some kind of machines."
"If somebody has changed him somehow," Knuckles replied, "And then let him go to return here, then there's some reason for it. If I were you, I'd want to make sure that Sonic is still your friend before I let him have free reign over Knothole."
"He's still Sonic. I'm not going to abandon him if he's hurt and he needs me."
"Be careful, Sal. That's all I'm saying. Be very careful."
"Yeah. I understand."
They booth looked out the open door into the village, where the shadow of Sonic's former self wandered speechlessly.
Sagittarius groaned and leaned against the cave wall. "He's checking up on me! He knows I'm not cut out for this."
"Well hang on there," Streak replied, "Would he have given you this job if he didn't think you could hack it?"
Sage shook his head. "He didn't have a choice. This was the only way that he could conceivably protect his island, and his island is all he cares about. I'm one of the few people on Mobius who fit the criteria for Guardian's Apprentice, and the only one he knows. It's not like he would have picked me in a billion years for this if he hadn't been in a bind." He grunted and slapped himself on the forehead, sliding down the wall into a sitting position. "And he's right, you know! I don't deserve this duty, I don't even deserve any duty! Everyone knows it, I'm a screw-up. That's why Sally won't let me sign up for military duty in the Freedom Fighters, she knows I can't hit the broad side of a barn with my arrows. I'm the only person on the face of Mobius without a single solitary identifiable skill. I mean, look at this, we're hiding in a cave with the Master Emerald while foreign imperialists steal the Floating Island. Knux wouldn't be doing this. I couldn't even handle the job of not knocking the Master Emerald off its pedestal."
"Well hey, look on the bright side. If we hadn't knocked over the emerald, then the Aracks would have it by now. So that turned out to be a good thing."
"Oh yeah, I'd like to take credit for that, too bad it was a total accident. I can't even say I knocked it off, it was Big who did that, and your idea. You guys make better Guardians than I do." He shook his head again. "What I don't understand is, didn't Knux see this coming? I mean, he knows what I'm like. I only make a situation worse. It would've been better to leave the whole island unguarded than to set me loose on it. Everyone should have known that."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Streak said, "People think more highly of you than you know. I mean, everyone spoke very fondly of you the last time Knux went around asking about you."
"Huh? He did what?"
"I mean, that time he was going around, asking everyone what they thought about you."
"What are you talking about? I don't know anything about that!"
"Whoops..." Sage and Big looked at each other. "Uhh, well gee. I figured you'd know what that was all about, nobody else does."
"This is ludicrous!" Sage shrieked, "Knux goes around talking about me behind my back? What a creep! What's he saying about me?"
"Uh, well, nothing bad, really. It was just a question he went around asking everyone. It was... hey Big, you remember what I'm talking about. What was the question he asked?"
"Um, he wanted to know somethin' about Sage's mind. He was kinda frustrated."
"Yeah, that was it. He was asking people whether they thought you were 'sound of mind and spirit'. When he asked me, I didn't know what he meant, so he asked me again under threat of physical violence and so I said yeah. It was real weird, but everyone seemed to think you're a pretty top guy."
"Wait, wait," Sage said, frowning, "That doesn't make any sense. When was this?"
"Just on one of his infrequent visits to the mainland. It might have been a month ago, or longer. I'm not sure exactly."
"A month ago?" Sage looked as though he didn't know whether to laugh or scream, and so he kind of did a little of both at the same time.
"What's wrong?" Streak asked.
"It's a part of the Guardianship criteria," Sage replied, "To become eligible, an Apprentice has to be declared sound of mind and spirit by seven witnesses. Knux told me that he was skipping that part due to the circumstances, but in actual fact he already did it, weeks ago. And you know what that means?"
Streak shook his head. Big nodded, then paused, then shook his head.
"It means that he already had me in mind for this job! Before he had his accident! That jerk, he's probably been trying to think up some way of asking me without swallowing his pride. Then this happens, and he finds a loophole - he gets to pretend that this is just an act of convenience, and he gets to keep treating me like mud instead of admitting he has any actual respect for me. Argh! That is so like him!"
"That's kinda funny," Streak said, choking back laughter.
"Yeah, so funny I could strangle somebody. But you know what? It takes a lot to gain Knux's respect. He won't even admit it to the people who win him over. If he really does repect me, then I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of finding out that trust is misdirected. That jerk, I'm going to make him say it to my face!"
"So," Streak replied, "Uh, what does that mean?"
Sage pulled himself to his feet and strapped his quiver of arrows around his back. "It means that these spiders are about to meet the exterminator!"
"Oh... oh dear."
Bunnie Rabbot sighed as she looked down the scope of the rifle braced against her metallic shoulder. She pulled back the hammer and focused on the line of tin cans placed along the fallen log about twenty metres ahead of her. There was silence in the forest, but for the occasional hoot of some bird establishing its territory.
She pulled the trigger and the gun kicked back, though her robot half braced her well and she barely felt it. The sound of the gunshot ripped through the air, scaring the birds into silence. The can stayed where it was.
"Drat," she pouted, and put the rifle down.
There was a pistol lying beside her, and she picked that up and held it a moment. She preferred a handheld weapon, something small and non-encumbering. She had studied and practiced them extensively during her work in espionage. Those days were behind her, though she had kept her skills with firearms up to a level that she found reasonable. She hadn't really needed it.
But now there was very little for her to do here, and her excess of spare time generated a need for some kind of hobby. It was a depressing need; boredom was inexorably linked to her sense of failure. Bunnie had lost the trust and respect of Princess Sally, had been served a humiliating banishment from the council of the Freedom Fighters, and lingered 'unemployed' at the bottom rung of the New Knothole societal machine. She was just a civilian, now. Some believed that Sally's judgement was too harsh, but times were tough, and she simply could not have turncoats among the elite. Bunnie had all but completely ignored her orders, and as a result, Tails had been lost. It was a mistake that weighed on her mind every minute of every day.
She aimed the pistol and squeezed off a bullet. One of the cans was shot from its position, and she lowered the gun, mildly satisfied. It was at least an attempt at satisfaction. Shooting practice was a means to clear her head, but also to hone her abilities. Today Sally was holding interviews among the more decorated villagers to fill the positions that Bunnie and Sonic had left wide open. In one of her better moods, Sally had told Bunnie that she couldn't reapply for her position, but that, if she showed enough ability, she could try to join the Freedom Fighter military. Anything, she decided, would be better than her current life.
Bunnie was about to take another shot when she sensed somebody behind her. She spun around, reflexes ready to shoot at a real target. She froze - it was Sonic.
The black-spined hedgehog glowered at her with a typical lack of emotion, and a chill ran down her spine, the likes of which she had never felt around Sonic before. Not in all the time she had known him. Her finger remained very steadily positioned over the trigger of the gun, and it hurt her to feel this way about him. All that was running through her mind was that she hadn't heard him, that Sonic had never been this subtle, this stealthy. He was too boisterous to sneak up on people. The distance behind his eyes was haunting.
"Sugar-hog," she said, faking a cheerful attitude as best she was able, though her voice carried a tremor with it.
Sonic just held out his hand, as though asking for something. Bunnie wasn't sure what he wanted, until he motioned with his eyes at the line of cans.
"What, you wanna have a go?" she asked, "Hey there, since when have you been interested in weapons?" She held the pistol out, and he took it. "Would you like me to show you how to hold-"
Sonic glanced at the cans and then back at Bunnie, and while their eyes were locked he lifted the gun and shot at the cans, one by one. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bunnie's heart caught in her throat - she never looked away from him, she couldn't seem to tear away from those abyss eyes, but she knew from the sound that each one of the shots took out a can. After six shots, he swung the gun around with lightning speed, aimed it right between Bunnie's eyes, and pulled the trigger again.
The world exploded into a plenitude of colours, and she dropped to her knees, shrieking once, her eyes squeezed shut and her head shielded by both arms. But even as she recoiled in the reflex of panic, she knew that she had only heard a click. When she opened her eyes, the gun was still aimed at her. The hedgehog's unblinking eyes watched her. And he spoke.
"Only seven in the clip," he said. "Sorry. I was showing off."
He grinned. His voice was deep, grainy, almost a whisper.
He never even looked, Bunnie's mind screamed, He didn't watch the cans, he hit every one.
"Who are you?" She wanted to scream the question at him, but it barely came out as a choke. Her nerve finally broke when she saw the way the sunlight illuminated his eyes. Sonic's eyes were green, but these were as red as embers in a soft breeze.
She ran from him, ran toward the village without looking back.
"Hey, don't you think we need some kind of plan before we go leaping into harm's way?" Streak asked. He chased Sage, who was running with his bow already loaded. They hid behind a rock, and Sage looked around for a good vantage point.
"Got a plan," he said, very matter-of-factly, "Shoot them all in the head."
"Well, it's good to hear that you're starting to think like Knuckles already, but there may be a flaw in this plan," Streak suggested, "Remember the rabbit incident?"
Sage frowned. "Right. Good point. Getting ahead of myself, perhaps."
"Well, what else?"
"Maybe if we make lots of noise, they'll just go away."
"Suggestion noted and ignored," Sage said, "What we need is some kind of sabotage. We need to cripple them. Stop this island moving."
"Right. And to do that, we need to...?"
"Find some kind of power source. They've gotta have a generator somewhere, something that's powering all this crap that they're building. And we've gotta blow it up."
"Are you planning on strapping some dynamite to those wooden sticks of yours?"
"Ye of little faith. We shall find a way. This island ain't going nowhere!"
The smile faded from Sage's face as he looked past Streak, and the cat turned around to try and see what he was looking at.
"Oh no!" the echidna exclaimed, "Look! The emerald!"
Several large, muscular Arack workers, led by a comparatively tiny secretary spider in an expensive suit, were milling about the cave in which the Master Emerald had been hidden. They seemed to know very well that something worth looking for was in the area.
"Oh, don't worry," Streak said, "I left Big to guard it."
"Wow, that really alleviates the intense attack of anxiety I'm feeling right now, Streak. Do you realise what will happen if they find that emerald? They'll have total control over the island! Limitless power!"
"Well, Big's got Froggy with him, so it's really more like double the protection."
"Come on. We have to figure something out, quick."
Squit Is'sus followed the pulsating dot on the monitor in front of him with great interest. The device located sources of power, and whatever it had found was almost more power than it was able to handle. It looked like he was standing near the core of the sun. The entire island was full of power, it was almost a giant battery in itself, but there was something on it that radiated an unfathomable energy, and whatever it was, it was inside this cave.
He found an opening and quietly entered, treading softly on all four of his feet, though he didn't really know why. On an island that actually floated in the heavens, anything was potentially possible.
There was an eerie green glow that blanketed the walls of this cavern, and Squit grew excited. There was more value to this island than the island itself, it seemed. A power source this concentrated could be extremely valuable to Terantulopolis, and such a find would do great things for his career indeed. He vaguely hoped that he wasn't being irradiated, but his equipment gave no reading as such.
A terrible voice boomed through the caves, and Squit scuttled back, darting his head back and forth. They were not alone here; they had been spotted by someone whose voice sounded like that of God himself. It echoed through the caves and sent a dart of fear through the group.
Slowly, a shadow crept from the darkness into the green-bathed caverns. An immense, fearsome being who seemed to tower over them.
When he came yet closer, they saw that he was just a really huge cat.
"You guys ain't s'posed to come in here," he said in a slow drawl, "I'm not s'posed to let you get the big emerald."
There was a frog on his head. He croaked.
"Who are you?" Squit demanded.
"Uhh." The cat took some time to come forth with the answer to this. Finally, he set his face in as hard a scowl as he could muster, which actually wasn't very intimidating at all. "I'm Big the Cat!" he declared, "Guardian of the Floatin' Island! An' this is my good buddy Froggy, he's a Guardian too."
Froggy croaked again, looking either completely apathetic or utterly clueless.
"Guardian of the Floating Island," Squit repeated, looking Big up and down with an air of pretentious authority, "We thought that this island was uninhabited. We declared it as such under the international laws of Terra Nullius."
"Well sir," Big replied, "I dunno what this terror of chicken nuggets is that you're yabberin' about or why it means you can come stompin' in here actin' all important like, but your crazy laws and stuff don't hold no ground with me sir."
"Well actually, they do," Squit protested. He was getting hot under the collar about this simpleton's refusal to recognise his authority. "You see, under code forty-three, chapter seven, line seventy-eight on the International Charter of Colonial Law, an uncontested claim of Terra Nullius, that is, uninhabited land, is a binding contract that grants ownership of said land and all minerals and contents therein to the claimant. Do you have a copy of the International Charter of Colonial Law, mister Cat?"
Big threw his arms into the air and flailed them about. "Well golly gosh darn crap, buddy, I haven't got like the foggiest idea what you're talkin' about, your mouth is movin' but like what's comin' out of it is all messed up and stuff, it don't make any sense."
"Well then I'm afraid you're just going to have to step aside and let us go about our business. As a trespasser on Arack imperial soil, I suggest you leave immediately or face arrest."
Squit pushed past him, and the other spiders aimed guns at Big, who certainly recognised what they were and held his hands above his head.
"You guys suck!" he whined.
Squit followed the glow into the caverns, and gasped when he found its source. "My, my, my!"
Bunnie burst into the meeting hall unannounced, cutting Sally off mid-sentence. The princess was shocked at first, and then enraged when she saw who it was who had interrupted her meeting. Another villager (a lemur who Bunnie recognised as Gaven Pricip, one of New Knothole's most elite guards) turned around and appeared mildly embarrassed at the intrusion.
Two other guards were hot on Bunnie's heels, but their expressions showed that they were clearly confused about how to handle this situation. After all, she used to be one of the Freedom Fighters' most senior personnel.
"Bunnie," Sally said, retaining her regal, authoritarian poise through gritted teeth, "You are no longer a member of my council. You have no authority or right to be here, please-"
"Sonic!" Bunnie spluttered. She knew that was the one word that might command the princess' attention, and it did. "Forgive me, Sally-girl, but I gotta tell you. That ain't the sugar-hog we both know. I know it looks like Sonic, but whoever it is, it ain't Sonic."
"What are you talking about?" Sally hissed. Her attention turned to her guest. "Sorry, Gaven." He waved it away.
"Sally, I've never seen anyone handle a weapon the way this guy can. He just shot six cans off a log without even lookin'. Sonic wouldn't even know what a gun looks like, let alone how to aim and shoot, that much I know. You don't get trained up in shootin' like that in less than a year, I'm telling you, that's not Sonic."
"Well, if it's not Sonic, then who is it?" Sally demanded, "He has Sonic's face."
"Oh, Sal," Bunnie replied morbidly, "He's got Sonic's face, sure, but he ain't got Sonic's eyes. You gotta believe that much."
Sally looked up to see the hedgehog himself standing in the doorway. All eyes turned to him, and silence dropped over the room like a heavy blanket. That was not Sonic's voice, it didn't even ring close.
"Who are you?" the princess whispered, "Who in God's name are you?"
The hedgehog stepped towards the doorway, but the guards who stood inside were unwilling to let him pass. He didn't seem concerned with them.
"My name is Shadow," he said. "I apologise for my deception, but I had to be sure that you were who you claimed you were. I came here to find Sonic the Hedgehog, not to impersonate him."
Sally looked like she was going to start crying, but she hardened her face, unwilling to show weakness and emotion in front of this stranger and fraud.
"You had better start giving me some answers," she hissed, "Some true answers-"
"You have no reason to trust me, and I have no right to ask for that trust," Shadow said, "I would hope that you are a wise enough leader not to trust me. I believe that you are. But after I inform you about who I am and why I am here, you will change your mind about me. There is an explanation for everything."
Gaven Pricip stood up. "Princess, would you like to do this another time, perhaps?"
Sally didn't seem to even hear him. She locked eyes with the bizarre Shadow... those eyes, those firey red eyes.
"I'm listening," she said.
And she did listen. As promised, Shadow explained all.
"They've got the emerald," Sage said, as he and Streak watched the Aracks gather around the cave like ants around discarded food. Strange mandiblax machines arrived on the scene, standing guard while spider workers investigated the cave. Several of them escorted Big outside, holding him at gunpoint, and the secretary in the suit appeared to lead the procession.
"He's the boss," Sage said, pointing, "The yuppie."
"They're not going to hurt Big, are they?" Streak asked.
"I don't know. I hope not. It's not really their style, they're more likely to enslave him to a lifetime of hard labour."
"We're not going to let that happen. Come on."
The echidna and the cat sneaked around behind a natural rock formation higher in the mountains, where they were afforded a better view of the Arack colony. Sage peered through a pair of binoculars.
Deep in the Mushroom Hill valley, the Aracks had constructed what appeared to be a power generator. A huge battery with thousands of wires sprouting from it and dozens of spiders tinkering with it. There was some kind of crisis underway, something that they were having trouble with, but one thing that the Arack Empire was very good at was fixing problems.
"That's what we've gotta take down," he said, "They rely on their machines. Maybe they'll be easier to chase off when none of their machines work anymore."
"How are you going to knock it out?" Streak asked, "With arrows?"
"I guess so."
"Look at that thing, it's huge!"
"Everything has a weak spot." Sage looked through the binoculars again, scrutinising the construction. Finally, he handed them to Streak, and pointed. "There. See that vent? Near the top? Shoot a few into that and hopefully we'll clog a few gears or something."
"Yeah, I see it, but it's pretty small. How are you gonna hit it?"
"Well, the way I figure it, I've had so many failures that I'm due for a success."
"Wow, then it's foolproof."
"Ssh." Sage took the binoculars again. "Here they come with the emerald. What are they gonna do with it?"
Deep in the Stabilimenta Spire of Terantulopolis, on one of the uppermost floors, Amy Rose stepped nervously into the spacious office of Lord Saddam Spinster, carrying afternoon tea on a tray. What constituted afternoon tea for the Arack elite seemed to be a bowl of hot, lumpy gray mush like some kind of chowder, and some glasses of thick, undefined red liquid.
Spinster himself stood before the massive window that composed one wall of the room, staring out over the city below. His wife, Lady Renae-tel Bane Spinster, dominated the scene, standing by her husband's side.
Amy hesitated when she saw the Lady, and she knew she was trembling because of the sound of the crockery rattling on the tray. The difference, as far as she was concerned, between Spinster and his wife, was that Spinster himself was relatively harmless. Short-tempered and cruel, he was, but ultimately his bark was much worse than his bite. Lady Renae-tel Bane, on the other hand, was absolutely terrifying. It was too easy to imagine her sneaking up behind you in a hallway, biting your head off and sucking your body dry. She was the biggest mobian of any race that Amy had ever seen, and she couldn't help but wonder whether she grew to that size by eating the staff. Three-foot fangs curled out of her mouth and under her chin.
Spinster, in contrast, was shorter than Amy was. When he sat at his desk, his feet dangled above the floor. It was easy to figure out who was dominant in this relationship.
Renae-tel Bane turned to look at Amy as she entered the office, and stared at her (perhaps hungrily) as she approached. Amy tried not to establish eye contact.
"The Primelords will be impressed," Spinster said, "After I secure the aerial defence colony and eliminate the insurgents in the forest, the Empire's influence will spread right to the borders of the GUN. It's going to make me one of the most successful Sector Lords in the Webb, with that kind of reputation there's no way they can ignore my requests for reassignment. This project is our key out of this redneck country and back into civilisation, and not a moment too soon."
Amy approached him and he peered at her through the corners of his eyes. Yes, he seemed to be communicating, I'm talking about you. You and your filthy, uncivilised Quad bretheren. He reached out with one of his hands and grasped one of the drinks, sipping at it as he looked out the window.
Amy turned her head to see what he was looking at. There was something in the sky over the horizon, and when she squinted, she saw that it was the Floating Island. The island was rarely visible from the mainland, and she had never seen it from the Spire before.
"It seems the waitress is dissatisfied with the view from her living quarters," Lady Renae-tel hissed, "Perhaps if she was to stop loitering and do her job, she would be able to afford a better one."
Amy snapped out of it and put the tray down on Spinster's desk a little too fast. As per local custom, she averted her eyes and quickly went about her business. Deep inside, her heart was breaking little by little, and somewhat wished she had less knowledge of events in the outside world.
Several Arack scientists analysed the Master Emerald while Squit Is'sus observed. There was little consensus as to the nature of the emerald, beyond the fact that it generated an extraordinary amount of energy. More energy than could be measured with the instruments that they had on hand.
"You guys aren't gonna get away with this!" Big exclaimed.
"Silence, you!" Squit snapped, "The contents of Spinster Island, including the emerald, are the rightful property of the Arack Empire." He leaned in close to the Master Emerald, and saw his reflection swimming in the stone's green aura.
"Sir!" One of the spider workers called out for Squit's attention, "Energy levels are down to twelve percent! Inversion thrusters are failing, we can't sustain power to the island!"
"It's the emerald," he replied, fascinated. "It blocks our own output. The closer it is to the generator, the less the generator produces. Extraordinary."
"How do we reverse its effects? We can throw it into the ocean..."
"Dispose of such an invaluable artifact? Unconscionable. And unnecessary - this emerald produces more energy than our generators. We can simply harness its power instead!"
Sage frowned as he watched the Aracks through his binoculars. "What are they doing?"
"Here, let me see."
Sage handed the binoculars to Streak.
"They're putting the emerald into that machine," he said, "I think they're installing it into the generator, somehow. Will that work?"
"I have no idea. The emerald has near limitless power, but it doesn't work like a battery. The way Knux explained it to me, it's more like a transformer, it just filters the energies around it into a different form, kinda like how it absorbs gravity and puts it out as antigravity. I don't know what would happen if you tried to power a machine with it. If it works, they'll have more power than they'll ever need, and that's pretty bad."
"You sure do know a lot about this stuff. It's a good thing Knux picked you, after all."
Sage put the binoculars down and smiled. "Yeah. I guess I know more than I thought. I spend so much time up here, and Knux seems to enjoy having someone with whom to share his enormous repertoire of knowledge about crap that only he cares about. It's kinda like he's already been training me for this, for years."
"Well then, let's prove it hasn't all gone to waste! Let's save the Floating Island!"
"Yeah." Sage loaded his bow with an arrow, and pulled back on the string. "You know, I really don't have a clue about what we're going to do after this."
"We'll probably have to run down the side of the mountain, shrieking and shooting off arrows in a random and erratic fashion," Streak replied, "We're most likely going to die, but at least we'll die in a nice setting."
"Yeah. Well, I guess we won't have to deal with Knux after this. That's a plus."
He pulled the string back again, and gathered his focus. Remember your training, Sage. Be calm, take your time, the arrow is an extension of yourself.
The Aracks removed the fusion batteries from their generator, and installed the Master Emerald in its place. The moment this was done, the emerald glowed distinctly brighter. Its green aura intensified until it was almost white, and the spiders began to shout and scurry around in panic. Clearly they were playing with forces they didn't know how to control. Several of them fiddled madly with control panels, and somehow they managed to bring the energy down to manageable levels.
Be the arrow, the voice of his uncle whispered in his ear, You are the arrow, the arrow answers only to you. He slowed his breathing and focused.
Twang! The arrow let fly, but veered at the last moment. It hit a flat steel panel and snapped uselessly against it. Sage cursed, and ducked. Streak watched through the binoculars, but none of the Aracks seemed to have noticed.
"Okay. Okay, that's fine," Sage mumbled, and brought out his bow again. "Hit the vent, Sagittarius. You can do this, just hit the vent."
He closed his eyes a moment, tried to blank his mind. He saw Knuckles, shouting at him. He was useless. No - blank it out. Forget it. He saw the Floating Island hovering above Terantulopolis, covered in black and gray buildings and ominous Arack spires, shrouded in smoke. Blank it out. Ignore it.
Twang! Another arrow let fly. It fell short and again crashed harmlessly against metal. One of the spiders heard the sound and turned his head, but didn't seem to catch on.
Sage cried out a little too loud, and punched the ground.
"You can do this," Streak urged.
The echidna sighed and lifted his bow again. "Nothing to do but keep trying. Okay, Sage, focus. Focus."
He thought of the Chaos Isle, the tranquil paradise, his homeland. He had given it up forever, consigned himself to a different fate. But the Floating Island was tranquil, too. It was also a paradise, the most remarkable place on Mobius, and it was to be his. He had been charged with the responsibility of caring for this slice of heaven, but at times it seemed less like a responsibility and more of an honour. That was, after all, Knuckles' point of view. The echidnas were all but gone, but their legacy could live on. All he had to do was protect it. Save it today, and protect it always. Focus, Sage. Just focus.
This time the arrow sailed true, looked as though it would hit its target, but at the last moment a change in the breeze corrupted its flight. It fell short, and embedded itself in one of the generator's control panels.
Sage sighed and dropped his bow. "It doesn't look like this is going to happen, buddy."
"That's okay. Chin up, we'll figure something out."
"I guess we can only do our best, huh? I can't imagine what else Knux would do. It's not like he could just punch the whole shebang off the island, although he'd probably try."
"Wait a second, Sage. Something funny's happening."
The echidna looked up in time to see the Master Emerald's glow intensify again. It throbbed with energy, growing brighter and brighter, and after a few moments, the ground began to shake and the island began to fall.
"What is happening?" Squit demanded, amid the shrieks and shouts of the other Aracks. He shielded his face with three hands to block out the intense light from the emerald, and with the other he held his bullhorn up to his mouth.
"Fix this!" he shouted, "Fix it now!"
As the emerald throbbed, the island dipped. Squit's ears began to hurt from the change in pressure due to fast descent. The generator was draining the emerald!
"Uh-oh," said Big, "I told youse guys that somethin' bad was gonna happen..."
"This is all your doing!" Squit shrieked, "You and that ridiculous frog! You've sabotaged us! You'll burn for this!"
"Hey now, that's not very nice."
The emerald's glow was near unbearable, now, and most of the Aracks turned away for fear of being blinded. One of the workers finally discovered the source of the problem, and Squit barely heard the shout over the rest of the cacophony.
"An arrow! There's an arrow lodged in the output regulator controls! Output is climbing perpetually! I can't shut it down! There's going to be a meltdown!"
That's if we don't crash first, Squit thought, This looks like the end.
But then, just as quickly as the trouble had started, the glow of the emerald ceased. It shut off like a blown lightbulb, fell completely dead. When Squit dropped his hands, the Master Emerald was as ordinary as any other rock. Gray and extinct.
And yet, the descent of the island slowed, then stopped. The ground stabilised, again causing a sense of vertigo for those who stood upon it. There was absolute quiet in the air; everybody held their breath, looked about themselves and each other.
Froggy croaked loudly, breaking the silence.
"What is the status of the generator?" Squit asked.
"I don't know, sir, it- it seems to be dropping. Below zero, sir."
"Dropping below zero? How is that possible?"
The emerald's glow was returning, and with it, the ground began to tremble softly. There was no sensation of movement, however - it wasn't the island that was moving.
Big and Froggy ran away, but Squit made no effort to follow. He mind was too occupied with the queer sensation he was feeling. This lightheadedness. He blinked hard, shook his head, blinked again. He did feel lighter, like he was underwater. What was this? Had he been drugged?
Something strange hovered in front of his face. It took a moment to realise what it was - the cap of a mushroom. It spun slowly in midair, right before his eyes. He reached out to touch it, just to make sure it was real. The mushroom slowly rose above him like a helium balloon. Slightly delirious, he laughed. What a bizarre and magical island this was!
More mushrooms floated off the ground, as well as rocks and other paraphernalia, tools and debris. Squit looked around to see that the Aracks themselves were hovering in space, many in the grip of panic, thrashing and flailing in weightlessness. He looked down to see that he, too, had ceased to be bound to the soil. Everything that wasn't attached to the island was floating. It was as though God had flicked the gravity switch off. It only seemed to apply to this valley, though. Everything that existed within a certain radius from the emerald.
"We have to shut down the generator!" Squit commanded, but he already knew it was easier said than done. Nobody had much control over their movements.
There was a tremendous ripping noise, and the generator itself suddenly pulled from the ground, bringing with it a chunk of dirt. The machine rose into the air, and everything that was freefloating in its influence followed. Its energy flowed into everything that the Aracks had built on this island, and soon everything was being dragged out of the ground, every contraption around the valley, and the inversion thrusters on the beach. When there was nothing left to tie it down, the generator flew, or rather, fell upward. Screaming in terror, the spiders and their machines followed, until they were nothing but speckles in the sky.
"O-okay," Streak stammered, after a moment, "Can you explain to me what just happened?"
"I'm not sure," Sage replied, "I think the Master Emerald just saved all of our butts."
"Dude, that ranks up there as one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Serious, I don't get to say that just every day. That was so awesome that I don't even know how awesome that was."
Over the breeze, listening hard enough, it was possible to hear the sound of distant splashes. Minutes later, the Master Emerald landed in a pile of gravel and embedded there.
Three weeks later
"Ouch! Easy does it."
"It's okay. Road's a bit bumpy, my ribs are still a little tender, I guess. Thanks again for doing this for me, Sally, you're an angel."
"Oh, my pleasure."
Princess Sally pushed the rickety wheelchair over another rise, bringing the Master Emerald shrine into view. The stunning emerald glowed as radiant as ever over the island it sustained, and Knuckles felt an instant calm sweep over him at the sight of it. Oh how he had missed it... and yet, the holiday was doing him more good than he could have known. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he wasn't tense. Or at least, not very.
"There he is," he said. "Hey Sage! Hey!"
Sagittarius poked his head up, shocked, and then smiled. "Knux! Sally! Hey there! Wasn't expecting you!" He leaped down from the altar and jogged to meet his visitors. "How you doin', big guy? You're mobile!" He slapped Knuckles on the shoulder.
"Ouch!" the Guardian cried, "Yes, Sage. Please don't do that again."
"The place looks beautiful," Sally said.
"Yeah, Sage. Nice work. Any difficulties?"
"None whatsoever. The island's in ship shape, smooth as smooth is. The dams are regulated, everything's stable, everything's watered. I found your blueprints, Knux, so I've been doing a little work on your mural."
"You be careful with that," Knuckles warned, "I have a very clear design for that, I don't want it buggered up-" Sally deliberately elbowed the cast over his injured arm. "-Ouch!"
"No worries, Knux," Sage said, "It's all under control. You know what? I think I'm going to enjoy this job."
"Yeah," Knuckles replied, "Don't get too excited, it's a long and arduous... road... that... lies... ...ahead..." The Guardian was staring at the Master Emerald, frowning. "Say... that's funny."
"The Master Emerald. The north face... it's facing south."
"The north face? There's a north face?"
"Yeah... but it's facing south."
Sage looked up at the emerald, all of its sides identical to him. "Knux, I think you're wrong."
"Yes. Think about it... how would that even happen?"
Knuckles shook his head. "Yeah, I- I guess you're right. I have taken a few painkillers today." He threw the emerald one last untrusting glance, and then looked at Sage, who was grinning a little too enthusiastically. He pointed at his apprentice. "You need to get ready for your training. It's going to be tough. Got that?"
Knuckles sighed. "I need to go lie down. Home, Jeeves." He glanced at the Master Emerald again, and frowned.
Back in New Knothole, Streak the Cat lay on his bed (which he would never take for granted again) reading a paperback, when Big appeared in the doorway.
"Hey, big guy," Streak said, without looking around.
"Hey, little guy."
Big sighed. "Little guy, do you think mister Knuckles will let me be Guardian for a while?"
Streak frowned and looked up at him. Froggy was sitting on hid cousin's head, croaking dumbly. "Well, I don't know, Big, why don't you ask him sometime?"
"Hooray!" Big pranced away.
Streak slapped himself in the forehead, grunted, and went back to reading.