Author's note: this story is an adaptation of "The Seven Samurai", by Kurosawa Akira. In the games, Sonic, et al are shown as being much shorter than normal people. For the purposes of this story, assume that they're of average height. The swordplay would be strange otherwise.


PROLOGUE


The little girl trembled in fear.

Her mother had brought her along with this caravan. Even the little girl knew that "caravan" was too much word for a procession like this. A couple of carts, a handful of people, with one of them called a "guard" in exchange for a discounted fare, that was what passed for a caravan these days. It was how the scum of the planet groped from place to place.

The little girl had been scared of it at first. It was new and strange, and many of the new and strange things she'd seen in her short life had been bad. Scared though she might have been, she hadn't known true fear until the four highwaymen attacked.

The guard never stood a chance. His rusty short sword and self-taught technique were hopelessly inadequate. The highwaymen killed him mercilessly, right in front of the little girl, searing images into her mind that stayed even when she closed her eyes.

Her mother had hugged the little girl tightly to her bosom, then, and the little girl had squeezed her in return. The little girl heard people screaming, and some of the screams stopped suddenly. She tried her best not to understand what that meant. But though she could close her eyes, she couldn't close her ears, and she knew what was happening.

Then they grabbed her mother and tugged her along. The little girl followed closely. Soon they were lined up, along with a couple other survivors, beside one of the carts.

"They probably don't have more than a silver half-coin amongst the whole lot, boss."

"Yeah, but some of them are worth more than a silver just as they are. We'll pick the best and kill the rest."

"Hey, that rhymed! You sure are clever, boss."

"Shut up and get a good look at them."

The highwayman started with the little girl. She turned and buried her face in her mother's dress. The highwayman's rough, calloused hand tore her away. "Mommyyyy!" she screamed. Her mother couldn't move, though. The highwayman's other hand held a sword that was still dripping red.

"Well, aren't you the cutest thing?" the highwayman said with a leer. His breath smelled of garlic and tobacco. The little girl's whole body tensed, as if receiving an electrical shock. Survival instinct told her to do nothing that might antagonize this monster. "I think we got a winner here, boss!"

"Women and children always fetch the highest prices," was the thoughtful-sounding reply.

"Looks like the mother got rode hard and put up wet," said the highwayman. He made a lewd gesture with his hips. "Still, I suppose it'll be easier if we bring her mother along with her."

"You've got it backwards, idiot. It'll be easier if it's just the kid. Otherwise they'll demand all sorts of special treatment." The boss' pitiless gaze fell upon the mother. "We'll keep the kid. Kill the mother."

"Sure thing..." "No!" "Mommyyyy!" "Hey, is this the road to Akemo?"

Four voices chorused at once. It was the last that drew everyone's attention.

It belonged to a figure that was walking up the road from where the caravan had come. He was pulling on white gloves. He wore blackened leathers and red shoes. His skin- no, fur, the little girl realized with a shock- was bright blue. His face had an easy-going, self-assured smile. His eyes were green and unblinking.

"What if it is?" demanded the boss highwayman. "Scram, this is none of your business."

The blue figure chuckled. "Yeah... I thought we might disagree about that."

"You asked for it. Kill him!"

It wasn't until after the figure had drawn his sword that any of them even realized he was carrying one.

For that matter, it wasn't until after the sword had completed its swing that the first highwayman knew the swing had begun. And he only knew that the swing was complete because the sword had to exit his body to finish its motion.

The second highwayman shoved the little girl aside to let him grasp his sword with both hands. It made no difference. Twenty paces separated the first and second highwaymen. The blue figure covered the distance in the time it takes to blink three times. The highwayman's defense never materialized. The blue figure's sword slid easily in, just as easily back out. The highwayman was dead before he hit the ground.

The little girl couldn't take her eyes off of the dead highwayman. She stared at him even as the blue figure cut down the boss highwayman and scared off the fourth, who fled, dropping his weapon and stinking of urine.

The little girl had seen more death than a person of her age could be expected to stand. This, though, was the very first one that didn't bother her. This man was going to kill her mother, and now he was dead. All the other times she'd seen someone killed, it had been senseless, pointless, evil. This time she couldn't help but think that the blue figure was right.

"That's a wrap," the blue figure said to himself, wiping his sword off. "You guys might want to hustle to Akemo. It's one hill and a bend away. If you hurry you can get there tonight. Oh..." he reached down to the boss highwayman and used his sword to cut a small bag away from the boss' belt. It jingled gently. He tossed it towards the feet of the little girl. "Take this and split it amongst yourselves. You'll need it."

He began to walk away, exiting their lives as suddenly and inexplicably as he'd entered them. "Wait!" called the little girl.

The blue figure paused for a moment and looked over its shoulder. "Yeah?"

"Who are you?"

The figure chuckled as if she'd just told an amusing joke. "I've been called a lot of things. I've been called a miserable rodent, a hated hedgehog, and plenty of nastier things besides. And I've had people call me hero, savior, and legend. Some guys tried to make me a peer. But you don't care about any of that." He grinned at her. "Between you and me, I don't either. A name's just something people call you. With me, what you see is what you get. You already know who I am.

"But if you need a name, I suppose you can call me what my friends call me."

"What's that?"

"They call me..."


ACT ONE: GATHERING


Growing rice on a large scale is back-breaking work when you have only the most basic tools. The only way to make it work is to throw people at the problem. That's what the village did. It threw almost its whole population into the rice paddies. They grew enough to feed the village, most years, and not much more.

Not that the whole population of the village was anything remarkable. It was tiny, a speck on the map, if anyone was making maps those days. No one was. Not long before there had been maps, maps that showed the whole world, maps that updated themselves daily or even hourly. But those maps were gone, and most people were more concerned with survival than with making new ones.

The farmers in the village didn't need maps. They knew where the next village on was (barely bigger than theirs) and they knew the vague direction where the largest town in the area was. That was it for geography. It didn't concern you a whole lot when you rarely walked further than the last rice field.

The main concern was always rice. That's what was concerning the farmers when the bandits showed up. By the time the farmers noticed the bandits coming, they were already past them and moving into the village itself.

Ten of them, armed with all manner of swords, spears, and bows. They rode on horses and wore armor. Those possessions represented so much wealth the peasants could barely fathom it.

And they had a robot.

It was what they called a "Silver Man", a robot design once common world-wide. It was humanoid, to be sure, and about human-sized, but it hovered just above the ground instead of walking. Its original armament had long-since deteriorated. The bandits replaced it with a simple spear. With its strength, it was liable to shatter the spear as completely as anything it struck.

The bandits barged into the largest inhabited building in town. "We wanna speak to your elder!" the leader shouted.

The villagers gathered in the town square, at a safe and respectful distance from the bandits. Wherever the robot looked at any moment, the peasants hid. They didn't want to be in its line of vision if they could help it. The bandit leader was shouting at the village elder. It went on for only a few minutes, but to the villagers, every minute in the company of armed men was like an hour.

The idle bandits kept their weapons handy. They had developed a taste for intimidation and were very much in practice. From time to time one of them would give the peasants a withering stare, or take some practice strikes with a weapon, or growl. The peasants would shrink away, and the bandits would laugh. It never got old.

Finally the bandit leader emerged. "And get it right," he shouted back. "We wouldn't want anything bad to happen to this village. Not that anyone would miss it," he added to his comrades. "A little piss-hole like this? Ten of them could disappear and no one would ever know."

The bandits laughed as they mounted their horses. The crowd pulled back into the huts to make way, so that the bandits couldn't even pretend someone was near them. The bandits rode off, pausing only to spit in the direction of the villagers.

The town elder put everyone back into the fields to finish the day's work. It kept them from asking what had happened. That night, though, once the whole village had gathered, there was no such obstacle.

"They've raised their tribute demands by a third," he announced.

"No, sensei!" "They can't!" "But why?" The voices mixed together, one talking atop the other.

The elder—they called him "sensei" because he was a teacher once, though the school was long-since a crater—raised his hand. The people quieted. "Ichiro," he said, "if we pay that much, what will happen to the village?"

All eyes turned to the corner of the room. A small man—less built than his fellow villagers, and with skin less sun-darkened—was clicking beads on an abacus. Every click echoed; every click was a death threat.

He stopped and stared at the beads. Dread filled the heart of his fellows as he avoided speaking. But he couldn't not-answer forever. When they started to murmur, he announced, "We will survive the winter, but only by eating most of our seed crop. In the spring, we'll only be able to plant half the usual crop. By next winter we will all be dead."

Clamor reigned.

Subsistence farmers accept certain hardships. You accept that there will be a bad flood, or a drought, or something, and you squirrel away everything you possibly can. If nothing bad happens this year, it's just waiting to happen next year. Occasionally you have to dip into your seed crop, and then hope you can stretch until the following harvest. Hunger was always hanging overhead. It was just how life worked.

This was too much.

One of the men stormed into the middle of the room. Kenji was his name, and he had a reputation as a firebrand. Despite it, once someone else repeated his arguments with a cooler head, they usually were adopted.

"I can't stand this!" he shouted. "We're out there slaving away, day after day, just to get enough to feed our families. Then these… bandits… just take it? Take what we've sweated blood to make? Take food from the mouths of our babies, our parents? No! It's too much!"

"The bandits come every year," said a defeated voice.

"They always leave enough for us to get by."

"You heard Ichiro," said Kenji. "They won't leave enough this time. They mean it. They'll take everything. They'll bleed us dry!"

"You know they will!"

"You heard 'em, they'll destroy us and think nothing of it!"

"I won't take it anymore," said Kenji. "I've had enough. I kept my quiet before about the bandits ("Not very well!" shouted a heckler), but… no, I won't let our babies starve! Enough is enough!"

"Kenji, everyone agrees with you," said Koji. He often played the role of moderating Kenji's arguments. Originality may not have been his strong suit, but he had no enemies. "We all heard Ichiro. But so what? The bandits are a natural disaster, like an earthquake. You have to suffer it and move on."

"Bandits are NOT an earthquake," Kenji said darkly. "You can't fight an earthquake."

There was silence for only a moment. Then people understood what he meant.

"No!"

"Fight? You're mad!"

"They're bandits!"

"They'll kill us all!"

"We're dead anyway!" said Kenji, tears forming in his eyes. "We're every one of us dead if they have their way! At least… at least if we fight, then we'll die quickly, instead of starving… and maybe we can drag a couple of bandits to hell with us…"

Some of the villagers kept shouting warnings about the bandits and the terrible things they did. But others kept quiet, or murmured about how Kenji might be right.

"Kenji," said Koji, "how would we fight? We don't know how."

Kenji turned to the elder in desperation. "Sensei can teach us, can't you, sensei?"

There hadn't yet been a subject that sensei couldn't talk about, but there's a first time for everything. He shook his head. "I know nothing of fighting," he said. "I wasn't part of the wars."

"Then what'll we do?" said Koji. "If we try to fight, the bandits will kill us. If we do nothing, starvation will kill us."

Sensei lowered his head. "There may be a way after all."

"What?" said Kenji, speaking for the crowd.

"Hire warriors."

Murmurs. "You can hire warriors?" said Koji.

"Sure. The wars destroyed cities and technology, but there are still a lot of people out there who know how to fight. When the governments collapsed, a lot of soldiers were left without jobs. Why do you suppose there are so many bandits? But there are others, too. Mercenaries, bounty hunters, rough types of every description. They've spread everywhere as they look for work. If you want to learn how to fight, hire some warriors to teach you."

"Where can we find them?" asked Kenji. No warriors but the bandits had ever come through their village.

"Head to Akemo. It's a good-sized town. There are sure to be plenty of warriors there."

"But how do we hire them? We have no money."

"Then we won't offer them money, obviously. Offer them what we have—our gratitude, a warm, dry place to sleep, and three meals a day, all the rice they can eat."

Kenji saw some of the peasants, including Ichiro, muttering at this. "Idiots! If we kill the bandits we can keep the tribute! Warriors can't be more expensive than the bandits."

Others nodded. This was the only way, surely. It was the only option with even a prayer of survival.

"Who will go on this mission?" said sensei.

"I will," said Kenji, automatically.

Koji looked at Kenji and sighed. "I suppose I will, too."

Sensei nodded. "We need one more."

Seiji looked at his wife, at their newborn daughter. He was a large man; he could have held his daughter in one hand. His voice had never been anything but small, and sparingly used. He decided this was a time to use it. He walked before sensei. "I'll go," he said.

"No!" said Ichiro. "Seiji is our best farmer, he does the work of any two of us."

"Is there any farming he can do more important than this?" asked sensei. "If we don't send three, the mission can't succeed, and if the mission doesn't succeed, we die."

No one contested sensei.

"Pack tonight," said sensei. "Take as much rice as you can carry. You'll need it to feed yourselves and the warriors you find. Trade some of it for a place to stay."

They nodded in response. "How many warriors should we get?" said Kenji.

"As many as you can find," said sensei. "Realistically, if we can get five, we might have a chance. Just remember, you must return before the stalks of rice bend their heads. Any later and there won't be time to prepare the village before the bandits return."

Another round of nods.

"This is our only chance to live through this," said sensei. "We're all counting on you. I wish you all the luck that's left in this rotten old world."

So it began…


Their world was much like ours. Up until a brief time before this story, it had enjoyed great prosperity, technological achievement, and widespread peace.

Then came the Eggman Wars, where a madman used robot soldiers and technomancy in a bid for conquest. He failed, and died in the attempt, but he so crippled the world's economies and industries that repairing the damage was impossible. One government after another fell, while others waged war on each other to try and stay afloat. World trade shut down. Infrastructure failed. New battles sprung up worldwide, each one adding to the devastation. Precious technology was lost, either destroyed in endless conflict or picked apart by scavengers. The world entered a new dark age.

A bare 15 years cost the planet 500 years of technological progress. The world's population fragmented, loyal only to their neighbors, and loosely at that. In their death throes, national governments fielded huge armies. The survivors of those armies outlived their nations. Unemployed, possessed of no skills except fighting, they dispersed into the countryside. Some turned to banditry. Others searched for work.

A few of them even found some…


Once, calling Akemo a city would have been stretching the term to breaking. In this era, though, it certainly qualified. And to the naïve eyes of Kenji, Koji, and Seiji, it was larger than life.

There were so many people! They stood on the market corner for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes (they had no way of telling time) and never saw the same face twice. Not just human faces, either. The last years before the wars, and the wars themselves, had produced a variety of humanoid creatures of varying colors and species. The peasants had only seen one or two such creatures previously; here, while not common, they were far from rare. It was just one more thing that helped send the peasants into complete sensory overload.

Everywhere there were horses and people and animals and carts and sights and sounds and smells and yes warriors and none of them looked like they would fight bandits for three meals a day.

They spent a while standing there, completely overwhelmed, attracting the occasional curious stare from passers-by. Eventually Seiji came to his senses. "We need to get money," he said. "And eat."

They knew he was right. They suspected the money-changer cheated them, and were correct—he'd put a different set of weights on his scales when he saw them approach—but they were without recourse. They took the money and got the smallest room in the cheapest inn they could find. The innkeeper, expecting to haggle over the rate, set his initial price outrageously high, but this maneuver was beyond the peasants, and afterwards the innkeeper was too embarrassed to lower the price.

It was good to have a place to hide from the cacophony outside. Still, all they had to do was close their eyes to see their friends and families toiling in the fields while they were here in the city. They just had to idle their minds to imagine what would happen if the bandits got wind of their intentions.

Before long they were out on the streets again.

It had seemed so easy, talking about it: just go to the city and hire warriors. But that involved actually talking to the warriors. And that turned out to be a lot harder than you'd think.

As Koji pointed out, these were the sorts of men who hurt other men as a matter of course. How angry would they have to get to beat up a couple of peasants? Especially when they so rarely noticed peasants, as peasants and warriors so rarely had anything to talk about…

They'd arrived shortly after noon, and with one thing and another the time had fled. Seiji said, "We have to at least ask one warrior today."

They nodded in agreement. Finally Kenji saw one that didn't terrify him. He was of average stature, and carried a fancy-looking sword at his waist. His expression was benevolent. "Warrior, sir?" Kenji said, reaching out ahead of the man.

"Hm?" He stopped. "What is it?"

Kenji's brain abandoned him. "M-m-m-my village, sir, is… is…"

"Speak clearly, man, speak sense!"

Kenji yelped. "Sir, my village… b-b-bandits…"

"Bandits? Bandits you say? Oh, I know all about bandits."

"You do?" said Kenji, nearly fainting from relief.

"Oh, yes," he said, chuckling. "They robbed me on my way here. No one's safe, eh? That's why I carry this sword now."

Kenji's heart plummeted. "So you're not a warrior at all?" he said.

"No, but if you mistake me for one, they might too, ha ha!" The man barged on, laughing at his own cleverness.

The peasants went back to their room and ate pitifully small helpings of rice. They seasoned it with tears of frustration and hopelessness.


The next day the peasants were determined to ask more warriors. They'd seen so many, after all. Surely some of them would be willing to help. Surely some of them were that desperate.

They took station at a crossroads near the market. Egging each other on, they found the courage to ask a dozen warriors for their help. The results were not encouraging.

"Psh! Help some peasant scum-hole? You're not worth dying for."

"There are how many bandits? Sorry, I'm not into suicide."

"A payment in food? I have some pride left!"

"You presume to hire me? Get out of my sight!"

Those were the ones who deigned to answer. The others brushed the peasants away like they were flies.

When lunchtime came, Kenji had a brainstorm. "Let's cook some extra rice," he said. "Then we'll offer it to warriors to get them to talk to us. I bet more of the warriors would listen to us then. And who knows? Maybe a full belly will get them feeling sympathetic."

Koji shrugged without conviction, at a loss for better ideas. Seiji looked at their rice supplies. He'd taken it upon himself to be the distributor of their food. His rationing was harsh, but neither Kenji nor Koji dared contest the matter. "We have to be careful," he said, softly. "If we get as many warriors this afternoon as this morning, it'll cost us a whole day's stay here."

"If we get even one warrior because of it, it'll be worth it," said Kenji.

They agreed. That afternoon they tried it.

The very first warrior they flagged down stared at the bowl of rice the peasants offered. "Sure, I'll listen," he said, though his eyes never strayed. He joined them on the corner. They gave him the bowl.

"…so, that's it," finished Kenji. "You'll have rice like that until all the bandits are dead. What do you say?"

The warrior was picking the last grains of rice out of the bowl with his fingers. "That was good rice," he said.

"So will you come with us, then?" said Koji.

The warrior set the bowl on the ground and turned away. "That was gooood rice," he repeated.

"But—warrior, sir! What about our village?"

No reply.

Kenji and Koji stared after the warrior. Their hearts steadily sank to about navel level. Seiji picked up the bowl wistfully. "That much rice would have fed the three of us together," he murmured.

"We have to try again," said Kenji. His voice was that of a drowning man telling his comrades they must swim.

Had word spread? Or was their luck simply that bad? For the rest of the day only seven warriors came by their corner. Three of them ignored the peasants completely. Two of them ate their rice, then declined to help. One of them got so angry at being offered food that he drew his sword and threatened to cut off their heads unless they showed him proper respect. They dropped to the ground. Only Seiji realized the warrior was just trying to get their rice while they weren't looking. When he grabbed to get their bowl back, the warrior sent it sprawling and fled.

"Coward! Thief!" Kenji shouted at the man's back.

"Kenji, help us!" said Koji. He and Seiji were sifting through the dirt to retrieve as many grains of rice as they could save.

"No warrior will eat this now," said Kenji as he squatted to help them.

"I would," said Seiji.

"Is this bowl yours?"

Kenji looked up. A friendly, smiling face looked back. It was the sort of face on which a smile is always at home. The face belonged to a pink hedgehog with enormous green eyes. She was clad in a formal red-and-white robe with overlarge sleeves. As strange as this vision was, what truly made Kenji's heart leap was what he saw tucked into her waist sash.

A sword.

It looked a little different from the others he'd seen, but he was not discriminating at this point. "Th-thank you, madam warrior," he said. His heart was pounding so hard he wondered that she didn't hear it.

"Do you need help with your rice?" she asked.

"N-no, we have it," he answered.

She nodded and smiled. "Have a nice day, then."

"Wait!" he said as she turned. "We do need your help. Just not with the rice."

"What do you need?" she asked.

Kenji thought he might cry at this unexpected kindness. "Madam, you are the first warrior to come to us," he said.

"Helping others is a warrior's duty," she said. "But I'm still in training, you see."

"Good enough for us," he said. "We need warriors, you see, our village…"

She was already shaking her head. "No, sorry."

"What? I don't understand."

"I'm still a student," she said. She reached for her belt. What Kenji had thought was an unusual sword scabbard turned out to be a wooden sword. "I'm on a journey of my own, right now. I'm looking for a good teacher. I can't help you as I am."

Kenji's heart stopped. "But—but, madam warrior, we'll take you, we need your help!"

She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry," she said, and walked away.

It was as if Kenji's emotions were being split by a prism. He'd felt elation, sympathy, relief, and joy in quick succession; now he quickly cycled through anger, frustration, sadness, and despair. The despair stuck.


"We can't have another afternoon like that," said Seiji. "That was too much rice for no warriors."

"I don't know how else we'll get warriors to listen to us," said Kenji. "Do you two have any ideas?"

They shook their heads.

"Let's try a different corner tomorrow. Maybe over by the taverns?"

Koji shook his head. "That just seems like asking for trouble. Think of all the grief we had dealing with sober warriors. Now imagine them drunk."

"The entertainment street, then?"

"If a warrior has money to burn on the entertainment street, why would he possibly agree to fight for meals?"

Kenji threw his hands up. "I don't know, I'm just throwing out ideas!" They sat for a moment. "What if… what if we just went home?"

The others looked at him with alarm. "Just… pretend this never happened, get home and get on with farming?"

"You know we can't do that," said Koji. "You were the one who showed us that."

"I don't want my baby girl to die," whispered Seiji.

"And if the bandits suspect we tried to hire warriors, they'll kill us just on principle."

Kenji bit his thumb. "But if we can't hire warriors here… it'll have all been for nothing… at least, at least then we'd have a couple of extra days with our families…"

None of them dared speak.

"In the morning," Kenji said, "I'll ask the innkeeper where we can find warriors."

They nodded. "That's as good a plan as any," said Koji.

They went to bed. But they did not sleep, not for a long time.


Next time: "...And They Called Him Sonic"