CHAPTER 1

The space around her was black; almost-invisible wisps of vapour streamed past, too fast to be natural. No stars, no stars at all. The air smelled dusty and chilled her right down to the bones. She sensed that she was travelling at incredible speed. The wind made her ears flap hard against her skull.

The tumbling wrenched her limbs and made them hurt. She didn't know what was happening or where she was going, but she hoped it would all end soon.

Her long tail whipped in her slipstream and the sword scabbarded at her waist tapped against her hipbone. Spreading her wings wide to try and control her flight, she faced the way she felt she should go and made one, really strong wingbeat, her teeth bared, her eyes narrowed.

Ahead she could see a light. Angling the feathers on the leading edges of her wings, she tipped herself toward it.

xXx

The Knothole Freedom Fighters enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine as they helped Bunnie plant seeds into small brown pots. They sat a short distance away from the rabbit's house on the grass beside her vegetable patch. Among them, Princess Sally Acorn sat with Tails. The little fox was only five years old, just a cub. She sat with him facing outwards from her lap so that she could supervise him and make him feel involved in what was going on around him. He watched in open wonder as Sally pointed to Bunnie planting carrot seeds and explained in terms he'd understand how they'd grow.

Bunnie caught the princess' eye and smiled warmly at her, relishing the task of bringing Tails up. It was in Bunnie's nature to nurture things, Sally knew. It made her feel animal again - something the rabbit needed to balance the recent and still-raw trauma of her part roboticization.

Everybody was taking it easy. There was going to be a party in Knothole that evening, a humble but lively community festival, and they were all saving their energy for it. Even Sonic. The usual stuff would happen: lots of talking, music and dancing, eating - of course - and for the villagers who were old enough, drinking. These easy-going parties helped to define Knothole: warm, relaxed, but most of all close-knit. It kept the villagers' spirits up to have these get-togethers and they happened once every season without fail: spring, summer, fall and winter.

Sally looked around at her friends and comrades. Antoine, the coyote she'd known ever since she could remember, scooped soil into pots for Bunnie to use, preparing them with meticulous care. She watched as he used a stick to scrape the soil perfectly flat on one more before lining it up with the others. Then he sat back and surveyed them with pride: they stood in a row like dutiful little soldiers.

Sonic, on the other hand, never had any interest in gardening, or any work like it. In fact Sonic and Antoine sometimes argued over stuff like this. Antoine said that Sonic was careless; Sonic argued that Antoine was a sissy.

Sally's opinion was that the hedgehog had too much energy: he was always impatient to be on the move. That said, he was very sociable and had chosen to be with the rest of the gang despite the gardening. He sat a few feet away (leaning slightly awkwardly against a tree trunk because of his spikes) and read a comic, occasionally chuckling or muttering encouragement to one of the characters on the pages.

She offered a secret smile in his direction, but he was too involved in his comic to see. Her friend, Sonic. She looked away again.

Rotor sat puzzling over a notepad full of calculations and diagrams. He'd been working on a plan to build the hardware for a portable computer, and he'd be finished soon. As she watched he scratched his cheek. Sally had a decrepit computer in her hut. She'd been writing the software on it and would eventually load it onto the machine Rotor was building. The new programme, they hoped, would enable the Freedom Fighters to hack into Robotnik's system undetected.

The walrus looked over at her. "Sally, do you think we should add a toggle option to function 277?" he asked, his voice high and clear, an aural equivalent of the summer's day. Sally mulled the idea over as she teased the hair on Tails' head.

"Yeah," she answered. "Why not?"

"Cool," he replied. He looked back down to his notepad and shifted the pencil in his hand to scratch his cheek again, pausing a little longer to feel the fine whiskers growing there.

Sally rubbed at Tails' arms and kissed the back of his head gently, then looked around at everybody else. This was her family. And what a strange family it was! Orphans mostly, they'd stayed together since Robotnik had taken over huge swathes of Mobius when they were five years of age. Except for Antoine of course, who'd been eight or nine and Tails, who hadn't even been born. She watched the fox cub as he crawled over to Bunnie and put soil into a pot at the rabbit's instruction.

Give or take a few months she, Sonic, Bunnie and Rotor were all around twelve but despite that, they acted as if they were different ages. They had a confident 'older' brother, Sonic. He was brash, outgoing and a natural leader. Then there was the quiet and studious 'younger' one, Rotor. He thought a lot and had some very good ideas, but he wasn't comfortable leading. Between them - ironically, seeing as he was the oldest - there was the 'middle' brother, Antoine, who always felt he had to prove himself but wasn't quite sure how. Whatever he did, he wanted to get it absolutely right: he expected no less of himself. He didn't like making mistakes but they happened a lot. As if to prove her right, Antoine accidentally knocked over one of his pots. He made a big show of being irritated with himself and putting it right, gathering the soil up and brushing away the mess with his hand.

Then there was the baby of the family, Tails. And Bunnie, the caring big sister who always knew how to cheer the others up. In fact, she'd been there for Sally more times than she could remember. Bunnie's roboticized limbs didn't slow her down at all, not like everyone had worried they might. They actually made the rabbit incredibly strong - physically. What they'd done to her mentally was a little more complicated. And definitely not yet straightened out.

That just left Sally, and with that thought the princess' smile faded. Everybody had their places in the group, but who was she? She wasn't the big sister that Bunnie was: she worried too much. And she was no mother. But she also refused to be helpless. Where did that leave her?

As she struggled to keep the sadness from her face she vaguely noticed Rotor scratch his cheek again.

xXx

The party reached full momentum in no time. Knotholers young and old stood around chatting, eating and drinking. Over by the trees Dr. Draftwood was, as always, surrounded by a group. He regaled them with a story, something to do with a pizza party he'd once held. The group, of a range of ages, were rapt and a chorus of laughter floated over from them. Sally smiled: the doctor had a good way with people. He always seemed to enjoy social gatherings and at this one, as always, his easy nature went down a storm.

Earlier, a Knotholer from the opposite end of the village had borrowed Sonic's guitar and played it, and the villagers had danced and sang. He - an anteater of some obscure kind - was resting now and enjoying a well-earned drink, but soon he'd start up again. He had a good sense of rhythm and she looked forward to hearing him again.

The atmosphere was light and easy. Laid-back.

Sally caught up with Bunnie and listened in on a conversation about the rabbit's future plans for her garden. Off to one side, Sonic and Antoine were bickering about something, although she wasn't quite sure what. Ease and tension; equilibrium and irritation. This was community life and all together, Sally felt comfortable in it.

But somehow this night, the princess didn't quite feel settled. Her thoughts from earlier kept on coming back and scratching at her consciousness like a hungry creature digging around for food: Where do I fit in? She sighed quietly to herself. She didn't know.

Bunnie's infectious laugh pulled Sally back to the present. "Uh huh," the rabbit continued in her husky, yet lively voice, "So Ah wanna try those again this year, but this time Ah'm gonna..." Sally continued nodding even as her ears swivelled away. Something new was happening, judging by the sudden hush of the people. Was the anteater going back on stage again? She stole a quick look in his direction. No. He was still drinking, his long-furred tail curled artfully around his ankles. But he too had stopped.

Then Sally realised that something had to be wrong. The other Knotholers were all going quiet. Even Antoine and Sonic had stopped fighting: Antoine's eyes widened and he craned his neck to look over Sonic's shoulder with an unbelieving expression. His jaw opened slightly but he didn't speak. He blinked heavily as if to re-adjust his eyesight. Sonic, looking puzzled, turned to look. Sally followed suit.

She could never have missed it. There, beyond the edge of the village but walking closer, was a creature Sally had never seen before - not this individual, and definitely never this species.

The most obvious thing about it was its strange colour: a vibrant pink, so bright it left after-images in Sally's eyes. Species with brightly-coloured fur or plumage weren't unknown. Hedgehogs were bright enough. And now, here was another colourful animal.

But what was it?

Something else puzzled Sally: it - scratch that, she, it was definitely a female mammal - was plainly a cross of more than one species. Hybrids were extremely rare on Mobius, although the occasional tigron or mule was known to exist. Sally frowned with confusion: this creature was neither. The approaching female had a feline look but also a canine one. Part wolf, Sally decided. She was part wolf. Perhaps part cat too. A lioness, perhaps? She tilted her head. No, she decided, noting the curvature of the newcomer's nose. A cougar.

The wings folded against the pink creature's back only added to the confusion, with a vengence.

The female had a haughty manner and looked loftily around at her audience as she narrowed the gap. On closer inspection Sally felt her muscles tense: the female had a belt about her waist and bands around her elbows, wrists and just above her knees. Each held a dagger. Sally didn't like this. The newcomer was armed and that put Sally instinctively on edge.

Stranger still was what was happening in the air around the hybrid. Sally couldn't quite work out what she was seeing. The visitor was surrounded by points of white light. They grew from her body, and when they reached a certain size they fell off her. Apparently they were lighter than air and floated on the eddies caused by the creature's walk. They didn't last long though, and after a few seconds evaporated into nothing - almost creating a twinkling effect. Sally wondered what kind of power this female had.

"Where did she come from, Sally-girl?" Bunnie whispered quietly to her.

"I don't know, Bunnie," she replied and took the rabbit's uncertainty as a cue to find out for herself. She closed the gap with the visitor and introduced herself: "Welcome," she began with a friendly, but slightly reserved tone. She'd make a point of sounding friendlier once the newcomer had stated her goodwill. "My name is Sally Acorn. What brought you here?"

The newcomer looked straight at her and froze for half of a second. The hybrid's eyes were transparent orbs of blue. She looked Sally up and down and then smirked. Sally suddenly felt aware of her scrawniness compared to the hybrid's perfectly-shaped, enormous breasts, enviable waist and toned limbs.

The silence stretched out. Quite a lot longer than was polite. But Sally kept quiet and waited for the newecomer to talk.

"My name is Starla Mirage Brighteyes," she replied as if she was announcing the king or queen of Acornia. Her voice resonated more loudly than Sally's - probably due to her bigger chest capacity. Many winged creatures had loud voices for this reason. "I need to stay here. I don't have anywhere else."

Sally was taken aback for a moment: she hadn't expected the visitor to put herself across so strongly or, if she were honest with herself, with such little tact. Sally had been hoping to conceal the fact that this was Knothole: it was a secret refuge, after all. But it was also Sally's philosophy to respect all life and she could see no immediate reason to send this stranger away, beyond the disturbing weaponry.

"We have a couple of empty huts here Starla," she said diplomatically, thinking ahead. I want to know more about this girl, she decided and began to suggest a meeting in private so that they could discuss where Starla had come from and why she was armed. "But I'd like to suggest first that we-"

"Where are they?"

Sally's ears pricked up in surprise. Didn't Starla think it would be wise to be polite, right now? Surely anybody approaching a stranger with weapons would think so? And in these troubled times, when a Mobian so badly needed protection from Robotnik's raids and patrols, didn't it pay to treat your potential host with respect?

But still, the pink female was't being actively hostile so Sally gave her a kind response in the hope that she would feel more at ease. Perhaps Starla - understandably tense - might relax and be friendlier then. "I'll take you to one of the huts in a little while. But I'd like to talk with you fir-"

"Is anything okay, Sal?" Sonic asked behind her. The hedgehog approached and stood by her side. Sally relaxed a little, grateful for his support. Then something happened Sally wasn't expecting: at the sight of him Starla's attitude changed completely. She smiled and flicked her long, pale pink hair, sending beads of light cascading over her shoulders. The movement irritated Sally in a way she couldn't quite define.

"Hi! My name's Starla," she said again, but this time addressed herself only to Sonic, and in a happy, cutesy voice. "I'm lost and tired and hungry and I need somewhere to stay," she pleaded, looking at Sonic from under her lashes.

Sally felt something in her belly clench tight. She looked at Sonic for his reaction.

Sonic went slack-jawed and then recovered himself. But he looked nervous suddenly. Nervous and... grinning. He coughed out a laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. "Ah heh, I guess you can stay here a while," he said with uncharacteristic bashfulness. Sally was astonished: she'd never seen him act like this before. She looked back at Starla. Starla's expression was still troubled with a maiden-in-distress sadness. She looked imploringly at Sonic as if he hadn't yet solved her problem. Sally felt as if she'd turned invisible.

The hedgehog stammered out a second answer: "Hey! I tell you what - I'll show you the best hut now and, uh, then you can come back and get somethin' to eat?"

Starla made a quiet clucking noise of agreement which made Sonic lead her toward the cluster of huts. She looked Sally up and down with contempt, tossed her hair again and strutted off after the hedgehog, her hips swinging carelessly. Sally turned to watch the two disappear among the main cluster of huts, vaguely aware of Bunnie inching closer to her from one side. She looked at her friend, suddenly feeling worried and forgotten.

"Starla Brighteyes, huh?" Bunnie echoed. Sally looked dumbly back at Bunnie, unsure of whether the rabbit was as impressed as Sonic had been. "Isn't that a porn star's name?"

Sally let out a sigh of relief: so Bunnie had felt the hybrid being obnoxious, too! Was it right to talk like that behind the girl's back? Well, what harm can it really do? "Maybe!" she replied with a grin and the two shared a companionable giggle that almost shook loose that tight ball of worry in Sally's chest.

Almost.

xXx

Sonic knew which two huts were empty: firstly there was the broken one full of cobwebs over on the east side of Knothole. It was a little too close to the river since a small landslide about a year ago and since then it had got mouldier and mouldier. The other one wasn't as big but was much better, and set up with blankets, curtains and a bed in case of visitors like Starla. That was the one he led her to, explaining all of this on the way.

Sonic felt strange around Starla. He could feel a tingle in his flesh when he looked at her. There was something about her that he liked, but he wasn't sure what or why. Obviously he didn't like her that much - girls were okay, he guessed. But they way she'd looked at him when she'd asked for shelter had been cute. He looked around at her as they walked and was rewarded with a smile. She twirled one lock of pink hair around her finger and shook the rest of it back, showing off her soft and pale throat, and it was as if she did it just for him.

Soon they came to the hut and he opened the door. "Well, here it is," he chirped, moving to the middle of the room and spreading his arms wide in demonstration. She looked up and around, then wrinkled her nose and shrugged. Then, as Sonic watched, she walked over to the mattress and sat down on it, looking at him in a lazy, almost-shy fashion again. Something in the way she stroked the bed suggested he should sit next to her, and he did.

"Thank you for helping me, Sonic," she said in a low voice. He felt suddenly nervous, as if her attention on him was too intense. He looked away from her to stop it from happening. He didn't know what she was trying to do but it made him feel weird. As he tried to think of something to say to break the silence, she shuffled closer to him and tried to kiss him.

This was all very new to Sonic: he'd never kissed a girl before. He turned to face her but as her breath billowed warmly in his face, he backed off. He felt strangely guilty without knowing why. He looked at the ground, trying to put together a sentence in his head to get him out of the situation. It was time to get out of there.

"Uh, no problemo," he blurted and got up to head toward the door. "You... comin' back to the party?" he asked, trying to change the subject.

She looked disappointed but seemed to get over it, and slithered back onto her feet to follow him.

TO BE CONTINUED...

DISCLAIMER: "Sonic the Hedgehog" and most other characters and situations in the following story are copyrighted trademarks of Sega Incorporated, Archie Comics and/or DIC Productions. Permission to reproduce this specific material may be granted by the author so long as you email first. © 2012 Velvet D'Coolette. The Bookshire Draftwood character © David Pistone.