Ki had expected to see her father in the luxurious office. Instead it was her six sisters, all looking very sad and sorry for themselves. Talia, Alya, Mirrah, Yusirah, Kalila and Naveen. They stood quivering at the back of the room, behind a desk littered with messy paperwork held down by a dark stone paperweight. Their eldest, Naveen, was dressed in a western suit. She glared at her troublesome little sister, warning her to keep quiet. Two guards stood in the corners of the room, their feral fur spilling over the ragged clothes.
It had been many months now since she had personally seen any of them. They were a matched set, minor physical differences setting them apart. Ki noted with satisfaction she was now taller than Alya, the third youngest. Still, the sight of all of them held captive under armed guard felt like a punch to the gut; this was really happening, a coup was really underway.
“I understand the flock of you are actually quite dysfunctional,” Jackie began, “So there we have something in common. I’m ready to be… diplomatic, on behalf of our similarities.”
“You do talk eloquently for a third-world patsy,” said Ki, radiating superiority. The smirk did not drop from Jackie’s face. She nodded to somebody behind her, and Ki did not have to turn around to know who.
Her elder sisters whimpered as the wolverine leant down so his elongated muzzle was beside Ki’s ears, which flattened.
“YOU’RE GOING TO LEAD ME TO THE HOUSE OF ETERNITY. OR, WE CAN OBSERVE HOW WELL CATS LAND FROM LONG DROPS.”
One of the guards grabbed Naveen, dragging her to the window. Talia and Alya burst into tears. Ki felt a flicker of anger towards them – how did this disgusting beast know she was Gyasi? Because one of them had broke down crying and told them everything.
A cold pit snuffed the hot irritation. As much as she disliked Naveen, she couldn’t let her be thrown out a window – they had to be thirty feet off the ground. The alternative meant leading Ringo to the single place on Mobius she had been assigned as Gyasi to guard.
“What could you possibly want with the Gyasi?” she queried, heart suddenly beating quicker.
“No!” shouted Ki, taking one step forward, but the guards took no notice of her. Jackie swooped in, grabbing her arm and twisting it behind her back. She watched through tears of pain as the desert cats lifted her sister and –
The sound of crashing glass distracted them all, including the guards. The carnage continued for several seconds. The dirty hackles on the back of the wolverine’s neck rose. Ki, again, had to marvel somewhere between terror and awe at his appearance. His lips curled in rage to reveal curved, razor-sharp teeth.
“HOLD THEM HERE.” He growled. He stomped outside, plaster and stone crumbling as he shoved his way past the narrow doorframe.
From afar, Ki heard a familiar voice jeer, “You’re such an idiot, Ringo!”
“The hell..?” whispered Jackie. Ki felt her grip relax ever so slightly.
In a snap second she tossed her head back. The back of her skull connected with Jackie’s nose with a sharp crunch. Dazed, Jackie stumbled back.
Ki had just seconds. She dove forwards, grabbing the odd paperweight and hurled it at the guard manhandling her sister. It struck him in the head. Naveen recoiled as the man instead tumbled out the window.
The final guard cocked his weapon. Terrified, and out of weapons of her own, Ki sprinted towards him.
She silently thanked the thousands of hours of training she had suffered when her fist connected with the man’s throat before his finger reached the trigger. Gagging and unable to breathe, Ki knocked the weapon from his hands and put him out of his misery with a brutal elbow to the side of his head.
“Ki’assa!” screamed Alya, clutching her sisters. Cold defeat plummeted into her stomach as Ki whipped around, sure to see the weasel aiming her long sniper straight at her.
But she had fled.
“What?” Ki shook her head: prioritise. She turned back to her sisters. “Are you unharmed?”
“They have Father!” sobbed Talia. Ki knew their father had fled, but their was no time to correct her. They all flinched as screams suddenly broke out from downstairs, followed by a deafening roar.
“What was that?” squeaked Mirrah. All but Naveen and Ki shrieked in fright as silver blurs sped past their windows. The screams downstairs got louder.
“Robotnik robots!” exclaimed Ki. The Mad Doctor, was he here? “You need to tell me everything you know, were their robots when you were captured?”
She had barely finished when sounds of gunfire erupted from downstairs. Alya, Talia, Mirrah, Yusirah and Kaliila, scared out of their minds, grabbed onto Naveen in absolute panic. Ki was scared herself, but she could not stop from rolling her eyes. She wouldn’t get anything out of them. She strode for the door.
“Where are you going?” asked Naveen, voice a few pitches higher.
“Take the weapon that guard dropped, make sure when he wakes he cannot hurt you –
“I am going to lock you in here. If anyone comes in” –
“Ki!” Naveen demanded. Eyes hard, her voice commanded authority. In spite of herself, Ki stopped and allowed Naveen to look at her. Neither girls’ blazing gaze relented.
“What are you doing? I will not see you hurt” –
“Our family is hurt! I am not alone – that Spagonian boy, Sonic – I don’t know how he came to be here but he is. He’s downstairs, and I think he has a history with these people that may benefit us. I need to see.”
“No, I forbid you! Ki!”
Ki had already slipped out the door.
Nyx brought his temper quickly under control. Taunt failed, Shadow waited for the monster’s next move. His back faced the trickling waterfall. He estimated he was a good twenty feet from where the thin stream levelled out beneath.
Shadow thought it was his eyes tricking him at first. The sliver of the green emerald embedded in Nyx’s forehead began to produce a sharp white light. Though small, it stung Shadow’s eyes to look at.
“What’s going on?”
Shadow truly did not know. Nyx did not move, but the light became harsher.
Then overwhelming. The pain in eyes escalated to almost unbearable levels.
Unable to see, Shadow’s parry did little to affect Nyx’s charge. A fast and powerful bat to his arms flung the emerald from his grip.
Sensing unknown danger, eyes tightly clenched, Shadow forsook the emerald and quickly dove backwards and over the steep cliffside.
Unable to see, he landed roughly, bouncing several times across rough, rocky surfaces as he slid uncontrollably down the muddy slope. It would have broken the body of a human. Through black lids Shadow just saw, and painfully felt, a wave of stinging white light pass overhead as he landed. He kept his head down, protected by his arms and the natural surroundings. He knew that whatever that light had been, it was a hundred times deadlier than the fall he had taken.
‘Dammit! Rouge, I dropped the emerald!’ He backed into the cliff wall, opening his eyes carefully. No damage, no fire. The environment was as still and sticky as before. He peered up to see no sign the light had ever existed. He cursed himself; that had been humiliating. His taunt had backfired terribly.
Nyx had not come after him. Shadow supposed the fall would probably kill most creatures, did Nyx assume this was true for him?
It was Rouge, but she sounded…
“Are you hurt?”
She sounded as if she spoke through clenched teeth.
“I-I think so. I can’t open my eyes.”
“Stay put, I’m coming up” -
“No, just shut up, and listen.”
Sharp squeaks and thuds reverberated through the mic. Shadow assumed she was removing it. From the bottom of the muddy cliffside, ankle-deep in the stream, Shadow peered up again. Light pollution blocked out most of the stars. On the tops of the trees he could perceive a faint, ethereal cyan glow.
Shadow was about to ignore Rouge’s command when not one voice, but two, filtered through his earpiece.
Rouge did not need to see with her eyes. Her excellent hearing meant she ‘saw’ every sound and could associate an action to it.
She lay in the mud beneath the shrubs, half submerged. There was a terrible, crippling pain in her eyes that had seemed to come from nowhere. She had been what she had considered a good distance from the short-lived hostility between Shadow and the creature, and hidden beneath a small, muddy cove and sheltered by loose, tangled roots for good measure. She had been poised to snatch the emerald or flee depending on the situation – most of all she was protected from any wildly flung spears. Which was why the sudden blinding pain was unforeseen and inexplicable. She could not open her eyes. It burnt as if somebody had poured scalding oil over her face. That she had not made any sounds of distress was impressive. Still, Nyx had not yet taken to the skies. Which was why she outstretched her ear-pierce to the top of the cove, trying to transmit any valuable intelligence to the only other member of the team who might be able to act on it afterwards.
She heard, as she hoped Shadow would hear, Nyx’s next careful words.
“Maia. Are you there?”
A pause. A whimper. And then a scramble.
“No! Maia, it’s me! Look at yourself, look at what we’ve done.”
The other voice was female. Young. Like a child’s.
“You can solidify if you try, I am sure. You are energy now.”
“Energy..?” The girl paused again. Fear imbued in her every word she whispered, “What on earth are you?”
“Like no other soul devised. I was consumed by Subject 6. And reborn with abilities beyond imagining, albeit divided. Maia, the sins of the past are mine and mine alone. But I can undo the past.” He laughed. Disbelief. “The things I have seen. The pain I have suffered. You would not believe a word.”
He paused. Rouge could hear him lick his lips. “Maia, I can undo this. I can stop it. I just need to get back” –
“No! What? You want to go back!?”
“Please, I know you’re confused and unsteady right now. But it won’t be like last time.”
Maia sounded more than unsteady. Her little voice shook until it was barely legible. “W-we… we destroyed… dear Lord we destroyed everything. Everyone! Agh…”
“What is it?”
“I can feel… God, I don’t know what it is. Things – over there and over there. Like little lights.”
“It’s ok, I know what it is.” It sounded as if he smiled. “You’re about to discover a very great gift. Tell me where they are.”
Rouge snatched back her mic, and snapped into it, “Take them out, now!”
Shadow really didn’t need the prompt.
In a single bound he leapt to the top of the waterfall. What he saw was shocking, but not enough to deter his aim or intention.
Nyx knelt next to a little human girl made of white-cyan light. She was not solid, but transparent. Wide eyes framed by straight, silvery hair that collected near her waist. The cyan emerald was anchored near her ankles.
Face twisted brutally, Shadow tapped into the rage. He felt the electric furor surge up his veins, clouding his vision red and jolting his heartbeat.
Shadow roared, “CHAOS… BLAST!”
But Nyx reacted as if he knew what was coming.
“No!” shouted Shadow, but the incredible searing beam had been expended. A roaring explosion of heat and energy concentrated in a wide, circular beam had left a single, devastated streak of destruction through the rainforest. Fire sprung from the edges of the impact zone.
But Nyx had evaded the blast. And taken the emerald. By the next second Shadow had leapt to the canopy, but he was much too late. Nyx had disappeared into the night, the emerald was gone.
A sick feeling in his stomach as he relived the exact second he had dropped the stone to save his own skin, Shadow dropped back to the ground.
“Dammit. Rouge, I lost it. Where are you?”
“Over here… To your right and down the slope. Small cove.”
Shadow cursed again. Rouge could not take flight after him, he could not contact Redfreid until their homeward-bound transportation, whatever it was, arrived. He remembered accusing Sonic of irresponsibility while with Fang at GUN HQ for losing an emerald, and felt the brittle grip of hypocrisy.
Shadow dropped down the slope. Barely a foot below was a tiny cove formed by the stubborn roots of a large tree that loomed overhead. The earth was muddy, in places almost a liquid.
Rouge emerged from the cove covered in mud as if she had been laying down in it. Her face was screwed up in pain.
“Are you ok?” he said, helping her stumble out. She appeared injured but no wound was visible.
“I can’t see!” she hissed, “I don’t know what happened…”
Shadow thought of the stinging he had felt in his eyes after the white light.
“It was an attack, I felt it too – can you open your eyes at all?”
“No… no, it’s too intense.”
He pulled her back up onto higher ground and out of the mud. When the earth was flat and solid Rouge went down to her knees, both hands clutching her eyes.
“Is he gone?”
“Yeah.” Shadow growled, not even bothering to watch the sky. He had another problem to solve. “He’s gone. Our problem is you right now.”
The accusatory tone was not missed by Rouge who made an effort to stifle her small cries of pain.
“I can hear. It will have to do.”
“You may be a bat but you do not have echolocation. Can you hear trees?”
“Enough, Shadow, you’re not helping.” snapped Rouge. He bristled in response, but it was not worth bickering. But Rouge got one last jab in there, possibly deserved.
“That Blast of yours would have been seen. We need to get out of here.”
“Ah, this mythical transport option…” he cut off as he spotted something beneath Rouge’s wing, like a shadow, shift ever so slightly. Then its little black head and tinier red eyes peeked out from over the ridge of her wing.
“Rouge, what the hell is that?”
“Where on Mobius did you find a chao?” said Shadow, momentarily distracted. He knew chao developed from infancy on some kind of spectrum depending on their treatment from baby to adult. This one was black as night, had sharp, pointed teeth and tiny, though admittedly adorable, red eyes on his bobble-face. He was small enough to be enclosed in the palm of his hands.
“He’s just a little baby.” Rouge dismissed the conversation, “I took him off a Pirate earlier. We need to move down to the coast. You’re just going to have to help. Take us back to the same shoreline.”
Eyes still clenched shut Rouge stood, wings spread wide and low for balance. Her annoyance at having her wings clipped equalled Shadow’s frustration at their hindered mobility. He resigned himself to a crawling pace, and tried to stave of the pressure incumbent in the knowledge that as they started back downstream the Black Fleet would be closing in.
The trip was mostly back downhill. After two minutes it was clear Rouge would be unable to open her eyes anytime soon. They sped up their cumbersome journey slightly when Rouge took Shadow’s word on blind faith that no obstacle lay in her path and glided downhill, Shadow sprinting below her to guide her away from incoming terrain. They had little time to discuss the strange scene they had witnessed, and the revelation of the ethereal girl, Maia, impossibly anchored to a Chaos emerald. The rescued baby chao had taken refuge holding onto Rouge’s wing.
They were only halfway down when Rouge announced she could hear incoming engines, most likely MagnoThermals. The canopy above was too thick for Shadow to see anything, so he continued. The pressure was mounting – how were they getting off the island?
“Rouge, if you’re keep something for dramatic effect, now would be a good time to share it.”
Somehow, they made it to the shore without encountering a single Pirate. Free from the canopy, however, Shadow could see the blue glows of MagnoThermal engines descending on the jungle-island’s mountainous peaks. They could not hide forever.
“I think I can hear it…” murmured Rouge.
“What?” questioned Shadow – if he concentrated, he could only hear an odd whistling, as if something heavy was swiftly cutting through the air.
An enormous crash of steel and water bombarded his senses. He instinctively grabbed two Chaos spears – but there was no point. The sudden tsunami of water was already on top of them.
Shadow grabbed Rouge just as they were swept away by the first furious wave, driving them both back up the shore in a single sweep. But the water receded, and they were left lying exhausted and soaking at the treeline.
Shadow forced himself back to his feet, dragging both of them to cover.
It was a Black Fleet ship – it had landed in the bay, its MagnoThermals off for stealth, much like a plane would on tarmac. This one was small and built for speed, a corvette, probably only manned by twenty people. Like all ships in the fleet it had an angular design, and its MagnoThermals were in-built to the sides of the curved steel hull as much as into its concave base. Its sails were modified from a traditional ship to most efficiently sequester solar energy and to have almost no wind resistance while flying.
But it appeared alone.
“Agent Shadow!” called a voice, a United Federation voice, from the deck, “It’s ok, it’s us! Be quick!”
“You!” Knuckles boomed. Espio hissed his distaste, warned him to be quiet, but Knuckles found it difficult to listen. Fury suddenly licked at his heart. He spluttered for words, and shouted with rage, “You’re alive!? You’re supposed to be dead!”
Fang didn’t say anything, just looked at him guardedly from under his grubby hat.
Knuckles paced back and forth. Did he hit him, shout at him? Haul him to GUN?
“You know him?” asked Vector.
“Know him!” protested Knuckles, “He chased us all over the world! Then he was a Robotnik spy, then he – WE TRUSTED YOU!”
Fang flinched, Espio’s eyes flashed and Vector and Charmy exchanged awkward, bewildered glances, but Knuckles didn’t care. The pains of years ago flooded out.
“I thought you died in Robotropolis!” he hissed, “How’d you get out?”
Fang replied emotionlessly, “You could ask your mate, Sonic?”
“Even he would have left you for dead!”
“Obviously, he didn’t.” growled Fang.
“Ok!” said Vector, the angst possibly too much for him at this point, “You two obviously haven’t seen each other in awhile and have some catching up to do. But, if we can have some… civility, that would do well.”
Knuckles was not having it, and snarled at Fang as if he had spoken instead of Vector, “Oh yeah, because you’re the most civil person we’d ever known.”
“Ok, Knux!” reprimanded Espio, “So we take him to GUN. It’s not up to us to pass judgement.”
“Fine by me,” declared Knuckles.
“You could do that, but it wouldn’t do you any good,” said Fang, little inflection in his voice.
“Why?” responded Espio, flinging out an arm to stop Knuckled when the echidna made to stomp towards him.
“Because I work for them.”
It was a surprise for Team Chaotix, but Knuckles just flung his head and laughed.
“Of course you do – Trinity, wait till Sonic hears this one.”
“It’s true. I tried to stop Metal Sonic, didn’t I?” asked Fang, now with some strength in his voice, “Contact GUN – specifically you can contact my boss, Agent Shadow, he can vouch for me. I’ve…” Fang closed his eyes to sigh, before looking Knuckles in the eye, “I know this is difficult for you to hear. Given what I've done. But I've...” his eyes were downcast as he uttered the final word, “changed.”
This time Espio had to physically restrain Knuckles. Fang did not step back as the echidna swung madly from behind Espio’s shoulders, and was eventually flung back.
“THAT WAS FUNNY THE FIRST TIME WE HEARD IT!” roared Knuckles. Vector flung his arms wide in exasperation, but the joke had run thin on Espio. Noting the chameleon’s livid expression, Knuckles just snarled, “I don’t care, I will not travel with him!”
“Did I ask you to?” shot back Espio. “Return to Angel Island, I will escort him to Central City and confirm his story.”
Nothing short of enraged by being ordered back to his Island, Knuckles growled and stomped.
“Fine!” he eventually snapped. “You watch your back around that weasel!”
Temper out of control, Knuckles swung on his heel and stomped out of the car yard. He saw nothing but red fog until he was nearly three blocks away, high enough back up the mountain he could actually see over the rusting compound. Not that he wanted to. Sharply turning into an alleyway, he tried to breathe deeply in his solitude.
Fang was alive? But he had perished in Robotropolis – Knuckles had witnessed the awesome detonation of dozens of nuclear weapons plus millions of tonnes of volatile ring energy from an entire country away. It had wiped Robotropolis off the face of Mobius. It would have taken a miracle to survive –
Knuckles stopped in his tracks. Only two other people had survived that event. And if he had to pick one responsible for this travesty, it would only be –
Ki sprinted from the room, her heart pumping faster and harder than it had ever in her life. Screams of panic from below rose through the air like smoke. Below, one-hundred people were taking their chance to flee, but the only exit was the one they had come through. Meanwhile, Ringo strode straight through what was left of Asufzai’s three-hundred year old ceiling-high glass window.
“I will have your head for this, Pylon,” snapped Ki, not altogether sure she did not mean it. The crowd was quickly dispersing further into the building. Neither their captors nor Pylon could be seen. Nor could Sonic’s pale hedgehog friend. Through the mayhem she could see more robots condensing outside. Their legs and arms hung limp like wasps’ until they landed - loudly. Ki flinched with every one as their claws crushed anything beneath. This was sacred ground. Virtually nothing was less than two centuries old. They had protected their golden capital against six years of the Robotnik war and were now going to see it flattened during peacetime.
The Spagonian boy was nowhere to be seen, but Jackie was.
The landing of the second floor swept across two thirds of the room; all but where the beautiful glass had once been. At the opposite end to hers Ki noticed Jackie slip out of a window and onto the stone canopy of the corridors bordering the outside courtyard.
Ki swiftly followed, keeping low behind the parapet – she did not want to rush into a confrontation, but it appeared a good vantage point to survey whatever Ringo was about to do next.
Heart seemingly stuck in her throat, she ducked under the window and peered outside to check it was clear. The drop to the roof was not large, and Ki would have landed silently if not for her shock at Ringo’s sudden roar.
She stumbled in shock, then ducked to the floor.
The roof was long and flat, with three small, squat spires running down the middle. The cream stone continued all the way around the rectangular courtyard. She was in the north-east quadrant of the Pyramid Kingdom. To the north was the Grand Ballroom, its dome still towered above. She imagined it was there the freed hostages would be converging. To the east a second courtyard as well as eventually the outer moat, to the south lay the Ptol Bank, as well as the rest of the Pyramid Kingdom. Nearly 500 meters away, the silhouette of the enormous Palace of Ra commanded the sky. To the west was the dividing moat between this quadrant and the north-western, a body of water twenty meters wide.
And surrounding the entire Kingdom were the towering skyscrapers of Shamar city, glowing with electric light that dimmed the stars.
This city was sacred, and straight in the middle of a high-density urban environment. How on Mobius did Ringo intend to get away with this?
Ki’s blood pounded faster with the sudden certainty that a coup was underway.
She crouched and quickly moved to the side of the parapet. Peering over, she could see perhaps a dozen tall, lanky robots dotter around the courtyard. They all faced in one direction – a figure standing languidly on the roof of the corridor perpendicular to hers. The electricity to the Kingdom had been cut off, there was only dim starlight to see with.
The massive wolverine stood out in the open, head and shoulders above the robots. The lashed an arm through the air, and the robots fired from both arms again. Instead of bullets, focused balls of shimmering air streaked across the courtyard, exploding whatever they touched on impact. This time, Ki watched as the figure atop the parapet disappeared, as if he had simply flashed out of reality. Then, one by one, the robots collapsed.
A noise closer to Ki made her turn. It was Jackie. Not twenty feet away she was setting up what appeared to be gun tripod, aiming it at the scene below. What if Sonic was caught by surprise?
Heart in her throat, Ki realised she had the element of surprise, and carefully moved out of Jackie’s line of sight.
Nearly directly behind her, flinching at the sounds of searing lasers and ripping metal below, Ki prepared herself. She would jab her once in the side to stun her, then hook an arm under her shoulder and leverage her head sharply into the parapet, hopefully rendering her unconscious.
‘Go, Ki, go!’ Ki leapt forwards, and within three strides she was upon Jackie - who promptly spun around, realised her vulnerability and dove aside, expertly breaking the leap in a roll. Ki was left to crash clumsily into the parapet, frozen in disbelief. She did not think to somehow disengage the sniper, backing away before she realised her error. Jackie turned to face her in a half-crouch, drawing small knives from her jacket.
“Scoot, girlie,” she snapped, brandishing the weapons.
Ki’s eyes darted the courtyard below. The robots stomped around, Ringo paced, and a blur of blue irregularly flashed into close quarters, leaving its robot victim in pieces. Bright balls of hot energy continued to batter the courtyard, fired from the arms of the robots. Ki did not like her chances of getting off the roof.
“Look, just… just leave.”
Jackie snapped like a whip, “I think sometimes when folks give advice they’re talkin’ to themselves.”
Startled, Ki didn’t say another word. But she stood her ground, taking a defensive stance. She wished she had anything that could stand in for her staff nearby.
Jackie shook her head, and said, “Have it your way.”
She lunged forwards, the knives blurs of silver.