Review Replies!

Shadow Huntress: Aw, glad to hear it! :) I do try to make each update worth the wait. I also have a soft spot for bats (it's kinda cool when a mammal can fly :D) and I always liked Rouge's mature (meaning here, she often acted more calmly and calculating than the other characters! :p), tough style. I do like the Knuxouge pairing (I think they're a lot more hilarious together than Shadow and Rouge as a couple, they have this wonderful treasure hunter and guardian/thief rivalry going on between them) and I always enjoy writing Shadow and Rouge enjoying a quiet friendship moment together, just 'getting' each other in a way the more light-hearted characters might not quite be able to. In this chapter she has a few scenes of her own, hope you like them :) Thanks for the lovely thoughtful comment!

Crazy Female LEPrecon: Glad you liked! :D I really love all the different relationships between the Sonic characters, all so different in their dynamic. The ones characters have with Rouge definitely have a different edge to it altogether, and I also really enjoy writing her with Shadow when they're having some downtime and a moment of camraderie that is rare for both characters in their life. Thanks for the wonderful review, hope you like the new chapter! :D

Some Random Tosser: Aw, thanks! :D I try. Though I have a feeling I'm taking a few more liberties with the level design by now, but as long as it's a good story, ya know? :)

Serein: Well, I do have a few fics where I write Shadow in a romantic pairing, but I think in this one he can definitely be read that way :) He does have mutual respect for Knuckles, he grudgingly concedes that Sonic isn't a complete and ineffectual airhead :p, and he cares far more for his friendship with Rouge than he'd want you to know.;)

AngelofGrace96: Eyup, I have a few more of those still to go! ;) No worries about it gettign crowded, believe it or not, there is actually a reason for each and every character to show up! One more level to go until the grand finale!

Arctic-Starflowers: Ahah, another Rouge fan? Hope you like the new chapter, then! :D

SonicDude87: ahaha, I had to chuckle at the quip about Tails' chief role in Sonic's life. XD (though mind you, I actually see Sonic as the kind of person who'd never be able to have patience enough for most series nowadays, either he couldn't deal with cliffhangers or he wouldn't be able to keep the characters straight in his head XD) Thanks for the comment!

silverheartlugia2000: hmm, yeah, it doesn't look good, does it?^^° Let's see what the new chapter brings...

Lanydx: Hah, yeah, I actually do have my own headcanon of what Rouge's childhood might've looked like (I had fun writing it out in chapter 7 of 'Advent of Equinox' if you're interested). She might expand some more on her view of stories in this chapter :) As for Shahra's freedom, weeellll...read on and find out! ;)

BlazePyro: woah, mega review incoming! :o Hah, yeah, I've played (and replayed, for this fic) SatsR quite a lot by now. My main drawbacks were that I would've preferred full 3D animation for the cutscenes, I like the art style of the clips, but if I wanna look at still images of Sonic I'd read a comic, yanno? The plot was...alright, I think? The characterization of Sonic in the story book games is quite good. I was mostly completely bummed that the guy who looked like Tails wasn't Tails but rather "Ali Baba". Like, what? I would like my Sonic story to have Sonic characters in it, c'mon! XD It was mostly to rectify that mistake why I wrote this fanfic, actually...as for the flame arrow, yeah, I thought the drama of that was WAY underplayed! I wonder whether they originally planned to do more with it in the story. I do my best to reply to most of my reviews, no worries. The reason why the Pokemon crossover isn't in the crossover section is mostly because the crossovers don't show up in the respective archives and seriously, who would go LOOKING for a sonic/pokemon crossover? I'll move it to the crossover section when it's finished, though :p

Server lock: Noooo, they're having FUN trying to dodge pokeballs, I promise! ;p Amy is a character who can be incredibly annoying when written by certain writers, but I usually try to make all my characters somehow likeable or enjoyable to read. IIt helps a friend of mine has a soft spot for her, so it makes it easier for me to see her good qualities :)

Lone Garurumon: ahahaha, I admit I took some inspiration from Terry Pratchett for a few of those curses ;) As for Rouge's childhood...well, I have a personal headcanon on what it could have looked like, if you're interested, she tells her backstory to Shadow in chapter 7 of 'Advent of Equinox'. I always thought there was a story there :p I admit Solomon talking in all caps was another bit of inspiration from the Discworld books, but I also have to laugh at the idea of him shouting the lines XD

tolu ogunyemi : here you go!

DEV: Oh Gott, ja. Ich hätte zwar auch noch Spaß daran gehabt, ihr ein paar mehr Flüche in den Mund zu legen, aber insgesamt bevorzuge ich doch die Mobian-Versionen der Charaktere :p Ich freue mich auch immer, wenn es eine Szene her gibt, eine genuin ehrliche Seite an Rouge zu zeigen, außer Shadow sehen die vermutlich die anderen Charaktere nicht oft ;p Die Amy Szene hatte ich schon vor Ewigkeiten geschrieben, aber nie ein Level gefunden, wo sie gepasst hat, deswegen hat's mich ziemlich gefreut, dass sie endlich hier zu Ehren kam. Und jaaa, wir steuern auf das Finale zu, ich bin auch schon ziemlich Feuer und Flamme (hah) Night Palace zu schreiben, das war eh schon ein ziemlich...sphärisches Level, ich denke, da können noch mal ein paar coole Beschreibungen und Metaphern rein :) FALLS Sonic nicht zuerst schlapp macht, hahah...wie immer vielen Dank für den fantastischen Kommentar! :D

Strawberry r Kitty: Nope, you're not alone, I do try to treat Knuckles with respect (most of the time) and try to show his serious, mature and protective sides when possible. I definitely don't like portrayals of him where he's made to be a complete idiot. In this story, there's going to be undertones of Knuxouge (like the flirting they have going on already) but it likely won't be a main story point. Mostly subtle, like the faint Sonamy going on. I don't think there's an official backstory for Rouge, but I actually do have my own headcanon of what Rouge's childhood might've looked like (I had fun writing it out in chapter 7 of 'Advent of Equinox' if you're interested). Glad you like the literary puns and the story theme of the fic, I had fun coming up with them all! Hope you like the new chapter and thanks for the nice comment!

Sturm and Drang: Glad you liked it! Hope you enjoy this one, too :)

YumeTakato: Thanks! :D

karygarcia21: No worries, here you go!

Guest: Weeeell, I actually do have my own headcanon of what Rouge's childhood might've looked like (I had fun writing it out in chapter 7 of 'Advent of Equinox' if you're interested). It does explain a few issues she might have with happy fairytales, but I think she would have liked sparkly treasures either way!


Last time on Burning Arrow, Wildfire Heart...

Well, Sonic and his companions have managed to find King Solomon, the ancient king who once defeated the Erazor King, and want to ask him for advice on how to defeat him again. The slight spanner in the works is that the King is a bit...dead (but hanging in there!), so before he can tell them anything, the crew has had to assemble his bones and defeat the thieves in his palace. Fortunately, they're now also helped by Rouge, even if the bat appears to have serious resentment toward the idea of fairy tales in general. With their mission a success, King Solomon is about to unveil the truth about their adversary...

Chapter 40: Stories After Dark

…AND MANY SUCH SPIRITS WERE DRIVEN TO MADNESS, WORKED ALMOST TO DEATH TO BUILD THIS PALACE TO ME. IT IS MY FAULT THEY BECAME THE MINIONS OF ERAZOR DJINN SO QUICKLY AND DESPERATELY WHEN HE STARTED HIS REBELLION, Solomon spoke, his uncanny voice carrying in the catacomb.

His skull looked grim for a moment. I SUPPOSE IT IS FITTING I WAS MORTALLY WOUNDED BY THOSE I SO MISTREATED, EVEN IF HIS REBELLION DID FAIL.

"Right," Sonic said, casting a side-glance at Shahra, who was obviously trying to keep her face reverent and impassive with an effort. Sonic remembered the stories of the general cruelty towards djinns and genies that she had told him about. It seemed that had been true even for figures generally presented as wise and benevolent as Solomon.

"So you're saying he…killed you?" Amy asked, swallowing.

OH YES. AND THEN CONDEMNED ME TO REMAIN BOUND TO MY MORTAL REMAINS, TOO, Solomon said. IT WAS HIS LAST CURSE BEFORE I SEALED HIM A THOUSAND YEARS AGO. OF COURSE, NOW HIS POWER IS EVEN GREATER THAN THEN, NEARLY GODLIKE…

"We fought gods. So far we're leading four to zero." Shadow looked at King Solomon, non-impressed. "How do we seal him again?"

"Yeah, he's gotta have a weak point, right?" Tails piped up. "Like, they always do. Is it the eye? It's really funny how often it's the eyes, actually," he nodded sagely at the skeleton.

King Solomon's skull somehow managed to convey the expression that he was raising an eye brow.

…YOU ARE CORRECT, ALI BABA. AS MOST SUPERNATURAL BEINGS, HE HAS A WEAK POINT THAT THE STORIES TELL US. ERAZOR DJINN IS A GENIE OF THE LAMP.

"Oh," Amy's eyes widened. "Like in Aladdin?"

AH, YES; LIKE IN THAT MOST FAMOUS TALE OF ALL THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, Solomon nodded while Rouge rolled her eyes as the conversation was veering toward the topic of fairy tales again, HE HAS ESCAPED THE LAMP THAT I SEALED HIM IN BY THE POWER OF HIS HATRED. IF WE HAD THE LAMP HE BELONGS TO, WITH THE POWER OF THE SEVEN WORLD RINGS ONE CAN SEAL HIM AWAY AGAIN…FOREVER.

"So, find that lamp, huh?" Sonic scratched his ear. "Okay. We can do that."

AH. YET ONE PROBLEM REMAINS. RETURNING THE STORIES TO THEIR ORIGINAL STATE REQUIRES GREATER POWER THAN WE HAVE. IT WOULD TAKE A MIRACLE.

"So, one lamp and one miracle. Gotcha." Sonic nodded, then grinned. "Well, leave it to me. That's why I'm here, after all - story of the Legendary Hedgehog, right?"

King Solomon didn't reply for a moment, seemingly taken aback by the flippant reply. When he did speak again, it was with a more sombre undertone, his words grave.

YES. UNDOUBTEDLY, YOU ARE THE LEGENDARY BLUE HEDGEHOG…SPEAKING OF GREAT DEEDS, DESPITE THE GREAT CURSE THAT HAS BEEN PLACED UPON YOU. He leaned forward slightly, the pale light in his eyes becoming sharper as he focused on the small hedgehog figure. Sonic seemed to tense up under his stare, but not taking a step backwards.

YET I CAN SEE IN YOUR EYES THE GRIM FATE THAT MAY AWAIT YOU.

"S-Sonic? What grim fate?" Tails asked with a worried undertone, wide blue eyes focused on his older brother. Sonic snorted.

"Oh man, gloomy much, your Majesty?" he rubbed a finger under his nose "Quit staring already, you're giving me the creeps!"

"A great curse - does he…does he mean the fire arrow, Sonic?" Amy had also drawn closer and was now looking slightly scared, despite the non-chalant attitude of the blue hedgehog. In the background, Knuckles and Shadow were watching the proceedings with blank faces, Shadow making a slight hand gesture that stopped a confused Rouge from opening her mouth.

Amy swallowed and continued, "I mean, in the palace Robotnik said it was getting smaller and, and," she drew a slightly hitching breath, "Sonic, is something wrong with you?"

"Oh man, Amy, Tails," Sonic rolled his eyes, giving both the little fox and the pink hedgehog a slightly exasperated stare. "I thought I'd told ya that this hedgehog is faster than any curse can work, didn't I? I'm fine."

"Which we won't be for long if we keep yacking on down here," Knuckles interrupted flatly, stepping forward and cutting the conversation short. He turned to King Solomon. "So, with this lamp and a 'miracle'" – he somehow managed to indicate quotation marks, a not unremarkable feat for someone wearing boxing gloves – "we can seal Erazor away again. Where can we find him and this lamp?"

WELL. The skeleton cleared his throat. I AM HESITANT TO PUT THIS UPON YOU, BUT AS YOU ARE THE LEGENDARY HEDGEHOG, WILL TELL YOU THIS. YOU CAN FIND THE ERAZOR DJINN IN HIS HIDDEN PALACE FLOATING IN THE HEAVENS, SHROUDED IN ETERNAL NIGHT. I DO NOT KNOW THE WHEREABOUTS OF HIS LAMP, BUT I SUSPECT HE MAY KEEP IT THERE SO NO ONE CAN LAY HANDS ON IT.

"In his hidden…but how are we supposed to find that, or even get up there?" Amy blurted out, before adding, "And if anyone suggests rocket-powered carpets again, I'm going to launch them on one first."

Shadow shrugged. "We'll simply leave that part to the Doctor. He has had some time here now, devising a way to detect this palace and engineering a more adequate flight-capable craft shouldn't take him more than a few hours."

"Good call," Sonic nodded. "So, a stop by the Palace and then off to Cloud Cuckoo HQ it is, then."

"Yeah! Although we'll probably have to wait until sundown," Tails piped up, thoughtfully. "I'm assuming 'shrouded in eternal night' means that his palace travels around in the sky, so he should come right to us when it's dark. Probably around midnight, by story-logic," he nodded.

"Well I'm ready to knock story-logic and all related nonsense right out of the sky," Rouge muttered. "I'm in. Let's go?"

IT SEEMS LIKE YOUR WARRIORS ARE READY. WHEN YOU GET TO THE PALACE, HOLD THE WHITE WORLD RING UP THE GATES AND THEY WILL OPEN, Solomon said with some approval in his voice. UNTIL THEN FAREWELL, BLUE HEDGEHOG. SHOW ME THAT YOUR PART OF THIS LEGEND CAN COME TRUE.

"Alright, thanks for the help," Sonic flashed him a small grin "So now it's time I make a legend for myself! Let's go, guys!" he called out, waving a hand toward the exit and leaping down from the stone pedestal of the throne, Tails and Amy following without a second thought - if not with entirely carefree, then at least with hopeful and determined expressions. Shadow and Knuckles exchanged a glance and leapt after the hero. Rouge, still frowning, followed them as the last one of their troupe, batwings flaring as she took to the air.

King Solomon looked after them as they were running toward the doorway, the first and last living creatures that had entered his tomb for a millennium returning toward the daylight above. He sat down on his throne again, pale glowing eyes focused on the last glimpse of blue fur and red flames leaving the throne chamber.

YET I SENSE DEATH APPROACHING…

xxx

"Um, is…is this…what is this?" Rouge asked, glancing hesitantly (and slightly wide-eyed) into a pot Sonic was stirring.

"Excuse me?" The blue hedgehog raised an eye ridge at her. "This, obviously, is only the finest chili this side of the Arabian sea."

"Errr…." Rouge hesitated again. "So…you mean…this is food-?"

"If you don't like it, you're welcome to share Knuckles' roast-roaches," Sonic managed to reply without actually separating his teeth, leaving Rouge to giggle and flash him a grin.

"You know what, big blue, maybe I will. Don't give up, though – I think it's sexy when a guy knows how to cook," she winked, and strode off toward where Knuckles indeed was sitting in front of another camp fire a few metres away, carefully impaling an assortment of collected desert cockroaches on a few sticks, currently regarded by a wide-eyed Tails and Amy torn between revulsion and horrible fascination. Shadow was currently on his way back to the palace to tell the Doctor of their plan and requirements – Sonic tried not to think too deeply about whether Shadow's offering to do so had had anything to do with Sonic actually slowing down because of the fire burning its way to his heart.

He wasn't slowing down, was he?

"Did the thief princess not appreciate your food?" Shahra floated up to his side and was a welcome interruption to that thought process.

"Heh. She's a bat; probably prefers fruit and insects anyway," Sonic replied with a good-natured shrug. "No sense for hedgehog haute cuisine. Rabbit chili in this case – and this time definitely no plot bunnies," he added dryly, giving the chili another stir. Shahra had magicked up the pot and the contraption for it to hang it above the fire, while Sonic had hunted the rabbits, Knuckles had prepared them and Tails, Amy and Rouge had collected water, herbs and vegetables for the meal. Now, the camp site was set up near a small oasis and the desert around them lay peaceful beneath a glorious sunset.

"A good thing," Shahra nodded. "Though the Guardian also seems to prefer his own cooking to yours…?" she asked, nodding toward Knuckles' culinary preparations.

"No accounting for taste," Sonic shrugged. "Tails likes my stuff, though."

(Which was true. Although it had to be said that most people who had tried Sonic's cooking so far all agreed that the hero of Mobius was a stellar cook – or at least claimed that his food was probably intended for beings from another planet.)

"Ah, the Captain is back," Shahra pointed toward where a streak of black and yellow lightning came barrelling through the desert from the horizon, dissolving into a black-and-red-striped hedgehog at the edge of their camp site. Shadow walked toward where Rouge, Tails and Amy where crowded around Knuckles' fire, just too far away for Sonic to hear his words, but from the way he spoke and the others nodded merely seemed to relay that everything was going ahead as planned and Robotnik was working on their flightcraft now. Shadow glanced over briefly at Sonic, questioning, but the blue hedgehog merely gave him a small smile and gestured for him to stay with the others, indicating the chili would be ready soon.

Shadow nodded, turning back to the scene at hand – Tails seemed to have convinced Knuckles to let him try one of the roast roaches, but now seemed to have second thoughts, looking at the insect dubiously and was perhaps trying to figure out which way to eat it from (and/or whether it was potentially still alive).

The echidna seemed outwardly exasperated by this, while Amy was laughing at Tails' feeding attempts. Rouge appeared to be taking this as a cue to wander over to her, nudge her ribs and whisper something in her ear while casting a glance at Sonic and pinching at Amy's tube top slightly – causing Amy to blush a fierce crimson and gasp, shoving a giggling Rouge away from her.

Rouge, however, only giggled until Shadow sidled up to her, saying something as he gestured at the bat and the echidna, causing both Rouge and Knuckles to rear backwards, and Rouge to shout something and aim a kick full of sand at Shadow.

Who dodged.

And caused the entire wave of sand to land Knuckles' roaches.

"S…Sonic?"

"Hm?" Sonic only became aware of Shahra's presence momentarily, realizing he had been spacing out a little for the past minute, just watching his friends (who were by now all fighting a miniature sand-kicking war).

"Something the matter, Shahra?"

"I…I am just a bit unsure, are they...are they having fun?" she asked wonderingly, watching the little death match by the other campfire, consisting of five of the most capable fighters on Mobius, currently all engaged in posturing, death threats and aggressive sand attacks).

"Oh. Yeah," Sonic replied, feeling the smile he'd had for the last minute returning. Curiously, he was currently very happy with simply watching, not quite feeling the need to join in. The sandmatch seemed to be almost over, anyway, Tails and Amy having collapsed laughing, Knuckles trying to recover some roaches (and dignity), and even Rouge grinning and nudging Shadow (who was apparently finding it a bit difficult to return aloof-mode when all of his quills were still dripping grains at every movement).

Shahra shook her head. "I'm…I don't know if I will ever get used to such companionship. It looks so…wonderful."

"Heh," Sonic stood up, brushing himself off. "they're not always like this, I can tell you that. Like, 'specially with Knux and Shads, there's enough times when we're actually fighting. But when we're not..." he smiled, and, just for a moment, green eyes shone like those of someone who was exactly where he wanted to be and knew it, "It's...really cool, yeah. They're all great guys, in their own way." He looked back at the group. Amy was just helping Tails stand again and noticed Sonic's eyes on her. She smiled at him, waving to come over.

"Sherazad- I mean, Amy…" Shahra cleared her throat. "...she really loves you, doesn't she?"

"Uh, well," Sonic swallowed abruptly, flustered. "I mean, she says so, yeah, but, uh, I mean, she's still a bit young, so…I mean, why? Do you…?" Sonic stumbled through the question awkwardly, not really sure where this was going himself.

"Me? Oh, no, you don't have to worry!" Shahra waved her hands, also looking embarrassed. "Just, the way she looks at you…I can understand her. Because…" her face turned wistful, her smile just slightly sad. "You sometimes...remind me of someone. They way you talk. They way you care...about things. About saving people," she said quietly.

"Someone...?" Sonic echoed, raising an eye ridge. He did remember suddenly the vision he had had a long time ago when Shahra had first rescued Tails, listening in to the genie's memories – of her loving someone, but then a cold, cruel voice wrenching her away…

"Just someone long ago," Shahra said with a slight, old smile. "Long gone now."

"Um, Sonic?" Tails' voice suddenly piped up next to him, and Sonic blinked, not actually having noticed his kid brother coming up the sand dune to stand beside him.

"Oh hey, bud, what's up? Won the fight?" he grinned down at him, but Tails shook his head, huffing a bit.

"Nah, Rouge did. I think she using her wings were kind of cheating, though…" he muttered as he shook his pelt again. "Ugh, I hate sand. It's coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere."

"You don't seem to mind it whenever you used to pounce on me when I was lying haplessly on a beach," Sonic pointed out with some amusement, but Tails only rolled his eyes.

"I did that when I was like four, Sonic, c'mon," he complained with all the world-weariness of nine-year-olds the world over, and only shoved Sonic slightly when the hedgehog still snickered. When Tails spoke next, though, his expression had turned more sombre.

"Are you...really alright, Sonic?" he bit lip. "Solomon was acting kind of weird around you..."

There was a moment of silence as Sonic looked at his kid brother for a moment, but then again shook his head and snorted.

"Kiddo, he was a pile of bones. Guys like him basically have 'acting weird' in their contracts." He reached out and ruffled the head fur of the little fox, right before giving the chili one last stir and then taking the pot from the fire. "I'm fine and now it's supper time. And after, I was thinking we should maybe liven this night up a little, seeing as yesterday it was a total snoozefest. Hey guys! Campfire party time!" he called out down to the others as he slid down the sand dune toward them.

Rouge and Amy looked up with interest (a definite contrast to Shadow and Knuckles' expressions, who were not both showing faint dread...)

"Yay!" Amy jumped up. "What're we gonna do?"

Sonic scratched his head. "Er. Well. First there's dinner and then…so war we've sung, we have told ghost stories, we've had a barbeque, so….ah-ha!" Sonic held up a finger, before turning around, "Hey Shahra! Can you magick us up a net? Because I think it's time for a beach volleyball tournament…!"

xxx

"I wouldn't have thought you'd play."

"Yeah, well. You were missing a sixth player." Shadow gave a smooth shrug. He and Rouge were currently sitting atop a sand dune slightly removed from the rest of the camp, the last of the Mobians awake after what had turned out to be an excitement-filled evening after all.

(The tournament, in fact, had gone fairly well – at least, after it had been voted that Sonic and Shadow were not allowed shoes, no one was allowed Chaos Spears, Tails and Rouge were forbidden to fly, and Knuckles and Amy had been kindly asked to stop making the friggin ball explode every time they got too into the match.

Unsurprisingly, Sonic had been captain of one team and Shadow of the other, and again unsurprisingly Shadow had picked Rouge first and Sonic (after a few innocent 'warm-up, honest' hammer swings in his general direction) had picked Amy and then Tails.

("A team comprised of a power, speed and flying type, each, huh? Say, this does remind me of something…" Rouge had commented, Knuckles mainly cutting her off with "Anyone about to spout anything about the 'power of teamwork' and I will end them.")

After that, though, they had played long after dark – switching teams up, switching Shahra in occasionally, trying to divide teams by age, gender and (when ideas had started to run out) pastel vs primary fur colours, the games slowly becoming more ridiculous in their imbalance as people gradually forgot the restrictions on their power usage. Tails and Rouge had at some point been batting the volleyball back and forth at 50 ft high in the air, more than one volleyball had disappeared behind the horizon after it had been hit by a piko-piko hammer, and the 'unrestricted Shadow vs Everyone' game had to be stopped after the black hedgehog had gotten a bit too into the 'Death To All Who Oppose Me'-Mode, but they had managed to extinguish the flames soon after.)

Now, Sonic, Tails and Amy were huddled up and unconscious in a small pile again, Knuckles either asleep or meditating, sitting crosslegged beneath a palm tree while Shahra was hovering near the camp fire, tending it and keeping watch.

Rouge elbowed the black hedgehog.

"Youuuu were having fun."

"Shut it."

"You shut it. You're enjoying my company, admit it." Rouge grinned at the scowling black hedgehog until he huffed and looked away.

"...fine. I admit I'm somewhat glad that you're here, too."

Rouge smiled.

"You and me both," she said. She tilted her head a little, resting it against the black hedgehog's shoulder. "Not sure what I'd be doing with the carebear-friendship troupe on my own."

"Probably shagging the echidna."

"OY!"

There was the sound of a sharp slap and a very uncharacteristic snicker from the Ultimate Lifeform.

"That's no way to talk to a lady!"

Shadow remained unperturbed. "That's what you like about me."

"…true." Rouge admitted wryly before her expression sobered again. She folded her ears against her head as she looked at the night sky. "Well. I like you more than this weird story world, anyway."

Shadow cocked his head. "Stories don't have to be all bad. Shahra told me one." He looked away. "It…it was a good story."

"Hearing something like that from you, I'd really like to believe it." Rouge sighed, looking down. "But I can't help but think of them as lies."

There was a bit of a pause. After a moment, Shadow finally turned to look at her "Are you...?"

"I'm alright," Rouge cut him off, shaking her head and standing up. "You can go to sleep. I need to stretch my wings some more and clear my head before I turn in."

"Right…" Shadow replied, but there was still a frown on his face as he watched as she rose, black membranes flaring behind her back and lifting his friend away into the night sky.

xxx

Two velvet slippers alighted near soundlessly at the entrance of Skeleton Dome. Leathery wings folded themselves as their owner walked forward into the darkness of the dead king's grave.

There were still skulls lining the path in near darkness, critters and shadows flitting across the tunnels that lead deep down below. But the figure walked with the assurance that the dark within the cave hid terrible things, and currently she was all of them.

xxx

"Solomon."

The skeleton looked up. In the entrance of his throne room stood a small, white-furred figure - the scantily-clad thief princess, the pearls of her clothing gleaming darkly in the shine of the torches. There was no mistake that she could definitely be called beautiful, but she was beautiful in in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, not up close.

And she was now striding toward him, with the same utter lack of deference and slow-burning fury in her movements she had shown earlier that day.

YES? Solomon asked cautiously.

"I am a bat," Rouge finally stepped out of the darkness, her turquoise eyes gleaming in the sparse lamplight. "My ears are sharp. I heard the last thing you said."

AH.

"And I want to tell you that this isn't okay. None of it is."

NONE OF WHAT?

Rouge's eyes narrowed. "This...story nonsense. The 'legend of the blue hedgehog'. You've got them all believing in it, and it's going to get them all killed."

THAT IS LIKELY. Solomon's voice was as calm as ever. AND?

"And?!" Rouge growled. "Listen, I know I'm not the most compassionate girl around, but even I can see that this is not right!"

WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE ME DO?

"Anything!" Rouge snapped. "Just don't tell them how everything will turn out all right because it's a story!"

I HAVE TOLD YOU BEFORE. PEOPLE NEED STORIES.

"Yes," Rouge ground out. "I'm not stupid. You said that people like Shahra need...fantasies to make life bearable, even when it's horrible. But that doesn't-"

REALLY? YOU THINK THAT'S WHAT FANTASY IS FOR? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. Solomon rose from his throne and Rouge almost imperceptibly flinched, like she wanted to take a step back, but she didn't. HUMANS - AND I DO APOLOGIZE FOR THE GENERALIZING TERM - NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. TO BE ABLE TO FLY EVEN WHEN THEY DO NOT POSSESS WINGS LIKE YOURS, LITTLE BAT.

Rouge's lips thinned. "But – believing in fairy tales? In Prince Charming? In little feral mice that will sew you the pretty dress you wanted if you only hope hard enough?"

YES. Solomon nodded. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So later on, others can make us believe the bigger ones?" Rouge curled her lip in disdain.

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

"What?" Rouge's face screwed up in a frown. "They're not the same at all!"

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE GRAIN OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET-
Solomon waved a hand. AND YET WHEN YOU CAME HERE TONIGHT, YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME... SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point-"

MY POINT EXACTLY.

When Rouge only stared at the king in return, now looking more wrong-footed then ever, the skeleton seemed to relent a little, his voice becoming more kind.

THIS IS WHAT ERAZOR IS TRYING TO DESTROY WHEN HE BURNS THE STORIES, THIEF PRINCESS, he said. AND THIS IS WHY IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ALL THOSE STORIES, MYTHS AND LEGENDS STILL EXIST AND ARE TOLD, SO THE HERO OF YOUR FELLOWSHIP CAN BELIEVE HE WILL OVERCOME THE ERAZOR DJINN AND HIS DEADLY CURSE, SO HIS GENIE CAN BELIEVE THAT HE WILL SAVE THIS WORLD – AND SO YOU CAN BELIEVE THAT IT WOULD BE RIGHT AND FAIR IF THEY ALL LIVED.

"But...but...just believing in something doesn't mean it's true...!" Rouge tried to protest, wings rustling uncertainly on her back. Somehow, Solomon's skull seemed to give her the impression of a smile.

OH NO. BUT THAT IS EXACTLY WHY YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN'T TRUE. HOW ELSE COULD THEY BECOME?

xxx

Much later that night, black, furry ears twitched imperceptibly on Shadow's head as the sleeping bag next to him shifted when a slender body slid inside. Shadow cracked one eye open, a red sliver gleaming in the night.

"Back from your flight?"

"Hmm." Rouge grunted in reply, her voice pitched as low as his. Together, they had the sharpest hearing of their little group – that anyone overheard their conversation was unlikely. Shadow turned his head to look at his friend, one eye ridge quirked in slight amusement.

"It's been over an hour. I take it you had a layover?"

"Oh be quiet," Rouge grumbled, blushing faintly. "There was something I needed to check out."

"Was it Solomon's private treasury?"

"No, it wasn't."

There was a bit of a pause.

"...but maybe stories aren't the worst things to believe in."

The black hedgehog gave her a very rare, small grin. "Told you."

"Bite me."

To be continued…


Today, two years ago, an author named Sir Terry Pratchett died. You might not have heard of him before (although I probably mentioned him in an author's note before), but if you liked Solomon's and Rouge's conversation in this chapter, it's my favourite quote of his and I did lift that one almost verbatim from my favourite book by him, Hogfather. (It's not stealing if it's a hommage, right? Right?). I think I've said it before, but most of my writing style, humour, and outlook on life has been shaped by that man and the philosophy, ingenuity and sheer creative force he put in all of his over forty novels. It's said that a man may never truly die as long as his memory endures, so here's to another bit of immortality for him :p

Meanwhile, hope you liked the new chapter, are looking forward to the final leg of the journey, and if you read, please review! :D