WELL. It only took me (at best) three months, or (at worst) nearly three years! This story has been gagging for an update for so long and — if anyone's still here, heh — I am so happy that it is finally getting one! I said I'd finish it and I fully intend to (definitely before I die. Hopefully quite a bit before then!).
Endless thanks to: Dr. McJiggleNuggets, Emeraldalex123, SonadowStories, Guest, suicuneluvr, SonicFanFlame, Guest and Fanfictionfan26! You guys rock! And thank you to Twin-books and Samantha's Library, who sent beautiful PMs!
Dr. McJiggleNuggets - It may take centuries — even an eternity! — but I will not give up on this story! I've had writer's block for about three years now, which is dreadful, but I've been editing previous chapters and it has sucked me back into this story! So, there are a couple more chapters to go and I am on fire and ready to write them! Thank you for being so patient and supportive! :3
Emeraldalex123 - Aww, that is so sweet, thank you! Another one has finally arrived and I'm hoping for another one to be written and posted soon! Fingers crossed! ;D
SonadowStories - Hehe, I couldn't let Shadow die, even I'm not that mean ;3 OOOH ALL I WILL SAY IS THAT YOU SHOULD CONTINUE READING THIS CHAPTER ;D Silver knows Maria because he heard "someone" whispering her name in the library, so he just kinda connected things :) Heh heh...;}
Guest - I know! It's very much a rarity! xD But here is another update and, hopefully, the gap between this one and the next one will be much shorter!
suicuneluvr - Oh my gosh, that is so so so lovely to hear, thank you ever so much! I'm glad that I managed to create a chilling atmosphere! ;D Maria's backstory is so sad and heart-breaking — I'm so glad that you think I've done it justice, in my twist! :3
SonicFanFlame - I know exactly where you're coming from — Maria is very much at the centre of things, but she's entirely innocent in this situation :3 I very much hope that you'll enjoy how more ends have been tied up in this chapter and there's still some more things to focus on in the next chapters ;D Thank you so much for your support!
Guest - I actually cannot express how much your review made me smile and just ridiculously happy for the rest of the day — it was honestly something that inspired me to surge on and get this freaking chapter out as quickly and as best as I possibly could! :D I am SO flattered by your support for my story, especially since you don't often review and the mystery genre isn't something that you often view! I can't take credit for the three timelines — that was inspired by the TV show Marchlands, which I think you would very much like — but gahhhhhhhhhh I honestly can't voice my gratitude for your lovely words! You are so kind and I VERY much hope you enjoy this chapter! :3
Fanfictionfan26 - Oh my gosh, that is so sweet. It is so lovely to hear that from someone — thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
The Thirteenth Hour
"W-Who are you?!"
Knuckles stared at the girl who had just barreled into the room, as Rouge clicked away from the file on Maria Robotnik. The echidna glanced over at Rouge's baseball bat, just in case things got ugly — Rouge was proof that girls could be just as dangerous as guys — but he tore his gaze away when he heard the girl breathlessly sobbing.
She was heart-breakingly sweet. He'd never been good at guessing people's ages, but he'd wager a guess that she was around twelve, maybe thirteen. A short blonde, with bright blue eyes, though they shimmered through her tears, and her dress matched the shade perfectly. The girl clutched at the skirt, as she sank to her knees. Rouge immediately shot out of the chair, as Knuckles cautiously stepped forward.
"Are you oka—?"
"Please, you have to help her!" The girls' hand dove into her hair and clutched at her head, shaking with cries, "H-Help her, but he's not a bad p-person! I-I don't know w-why he's doing this! He w-would never hurt anyone...!"
Knuckles was lost — he knew that she was talking about something urgent and important and they needed to go, quickly — but deciphering hysterical speech was never something that he'd been good at. Rouge marched forward and bent down to her level, grasping the girl by the shoulders and remaining rational.
She asked, "Who's hurt? What happened?"
"I w-went into the laboratory to s-see Grandfather and s-she was just lying there—!"
"Who was lying there?"
"T-This girl — a cat with purple f-fur..."
Knuckles managed to share a glance with Rouge, before he said, "With golden eyes? Wearing a school uniform?"
"Dammit!" He snapped, grabbing the baseball bat and dashing towards the door, "Rouge, get a move on! We need to find her!"
Rouge silently held her hand up to Knuckles, warning him to stop, as she stared at the girl, who's tears showed no sign of drying, "What's your name?"
She furiously blinked, with the bottle-blue eyes and long lashes, "M-Maria Robotnik. My grandfather is a professor. Professor Gerald Robotnik."
Instead of letting it slip to the floor, Knuckles grasped the weapon even tighter and tried to show no recognition. If this girl was related to that...that...nutcase, should they really be trusting her? Rouge seemed to think so, as she helped Maria to her feet, and there was nothing to suggest that Maria even knew about Gerald's activities — quite the opposite, in fact. Knuckles was ready to bet that Maria had absolutely no idea.
"Okay, Maria—" Rouge blew out a breath of air and the echidna wondered if she was as calm as she appeared. Probably not, "—we're completely lost in here. But I bet you know your way around here pretty well, huh? Can you take us back to that laboratory?"
"Y-Yes, of course!" Maria straightened and looked at Knuckles, "I can take you there."
He nodded, gesturing at the door, "Then lead the way. We're right behind you."
"What the hell is this place?"
Rouge was glad that Knuckles was holding the bat, rather than her. If she had it, this entire shithole would have been smashed into a million pieces by now. Her breath caught in her throat, as the echidna approached the hooks on the walls. Some of the instruments were scattered but, thankfully, the horrendous-looking ones were unmoved. The room and its contents disgusted her — she approached the metal table instead, though it didn't make her feel any better, really.
She touched one of the shackles and opened and closed it, experimentally. They were rugged and Rouge pictured them to be painful and cutting. Fairly worn, the metal was cloudy — she couldn't decide if the patches were rust or dried blood. She opted for rust, because that made her feel less sick, but it didn't exactly comfort her.
Maria had remained near the door, keeping her head down, clutching her hands and entwining her fingers. Knuckles faced her and she swallowed before responding, "Grandfather works in here. He doesn't let me down here ever but, sometimes, I...I hear things. When I walk past."
"You live here?" He sounded incredulous. Rouge hadn't thought about it, until now, but she presumed that this must be Maria's home. It sickened her, almost as strongly as this room did, but in an entirely different way, "In this place? H-How?"
"It's not too bad. Grandfather teaches me all that I need to know and we have constant supplies. It's very big — it's called the ARK. But I know that I'll never be able to leave here."
Knuckles went to ask why and then stopped himself, "Oh. The disease."
"NIDS, yes. It's alright — it doesn't affect Mobians, so you don't need to worry. But I would never want to risk hurting another human by being in contact with them..." She shook her head, adamantly, before raising her chin and saying, "Please, we need to get going! I'm worried about Grandfather and your friend! They went through that door—" She pointed at the end exit, "—but I don't know where after that, because I went the other way."
"Knuckles, look at this!" Rouge called him over, gesturing wildly at the head-end of the table. He followed, obediently, with Maria on his heels. The three of them leaned close together and stared at the purple hairs strewn across the surface. They were nestled together and there were too many for it to be mere loose hairs — they had been removed. By what, none of them were sure.
Maria covered her mouth, "They belong to the girl...!"
"Who knows what that sicko did to Blaze!" Knuckles eyed up Maria and heaved out a sigh, "I'm sorry. I know he's your Grandfather, but he needs help, because whatever he's done to her—!"
Startled, both Maria and Knuckles watched as Rouge swiped up the abandoned phone on the workbench, which had been slightly obscured by papers. She began to dial a number into the black, rotary phone with a set look on her face. Knuckles couldn't name the expression, so he asked, "Rouge, what are you doing?"
"I'm calling someone. This is way out of our hands. I don't care how much trouble we'll get into — Blaze is in danger. We need someone who knows what they're doing."
"W-Who are you calling?" Maria ventured, timidly.
"There's this government organisation for things just like this. GUN — Guardian Units of Nations. They'll be here right away and they'll know what to do. I've been going about trying to apply there for work, so I remember the phone number off the top of my head."
"GUN?" Knuckles sucked in his cheeks, as if he tasted sour, "Rouge, I don't know about this. What I've heard about them isn't good. They'll ransack this place and what about Maria—?"
"They know what to do, Knuckles! I don't care what you've heard — we can't let anything happen to Blaze! Are you going to be able to check this whole place out and locate her, before something happens? No, you're not — but they are, so just accept it, okay?!" Rouge sighed, glancing at Maria, with the phone still pressed against her ear, as it rang, "We won't let anything happen to you. You're safe with us and we'll sort things out. This is the right thing to do, so—Oh. Hi. This is GUN, right? Listen, this is an emergency, so I need you to—"
Knuckles turned his head away. He hated feeling so useless, but he was wiling to accept it if it meant that Blaze was safe. But he honestly didn't like the sound of any of this. The brash and merciless outlook of GUN had become well documented in recent months and so he really couldn't stand the idea of them forcing themselves into — what seemed to be — Maria's home. And he knew that Blaze would hate the idea too.
"Knuckles?" With her hands clasped behind her back, Maria stared up at him. Rouge was still talking on the phone, "May I ask...why were you, Rouge and your friend here?"
A lump formed in his throat. Her grandfather seemed to be her entire world — he was all that she had. If Knuckles told her the truth, it would break her. She was a sweet kid. He just didn't have it in him to do that.
"We, uhhh, we got a bit lost. In the woods. So, while we were tryna find our way out, we came across the entrance to...this place. 'Thought we might find a phone or something in here, ya know? Guess it wasn't such a good idea after all..." That was about as convincing as when Tikal tried to say that she hadn't drunk the last of the milk.
Dubiously, Maria turned away from him. He wanted to reach out, clasp her by the shoulder and tell her that it was all going to be okay. But it wasn't and she would know that, soon enough. She probably already knew it.
Rouge returned to them, after slamming the phone down onto the receiver, "They're on their way."
"Great," He snapped back, clearly frustrated, "That'll be swell. I can't wait. In the meantime, before the SWAT team with their guns and their bombs and their weapons arrive, what should we do? Sit around the campfire and tell stories?"
"You're so close to getting your ass kicked, Knuckles," She seemed to have forgotten about Maria, as she pushed past and squared up to him, "What else could we have done? Nothing! This is how it has to play out, if we want to actually be alive by the end of it! You're not a fucking hero — get used to it!"
"That's rich! You're the one who's forgetting that these are real lives! These soldiers — yeah, soldiers! — don't just storm in, grab Blaze and make everything okay! There will be casualties. They could mistake any one of us — they might even shoot Blaze! You can't just—!"
BANG. A gun shot. Whoever was using it was close.
Sonic hadn't fought for his life in a long time.
The last time was probably when Manic had gotten involved in a pretty rough circle of thieving. The gang hadn't taken it well when Manic told them that he was reformed — Sonic had arrived in time to see one of them give his brother a nasty black eye. They'd escaped from the group, battered, bruised and bleeding, but they were alive and that was when Manic had decided to move to Lilliwell.
This time, there was something hollow about everything, though. Usually, he'd experience a rush of adrenaline — running at high speeds, smashing through these robots and watching their remains shatter into the walls like glass — that would cloud his mind and lift his soul. Running was his drug. Why wasn't it working?
Sonic dropped down from the ledge and rolled across the floor, tucking his arms in until he moved into a crouch and he held his hands out for balance. Alarms were screeching like war sirens, hot in his ears.
This was insane.
The blue hedgehog started to jog through the long, stretching corridors of Robotnik's lair, keeping an eye out for any approaching threats. He breathed deeply, telling himself repeatedly to keep calm, keep calm, everything's fine, just keep going— but he couldn't get the image of Amy out of his head. Who was she? Was that the ghost that killed all those people? Who hurt Tommy? Who killed Shadow?
No, she couldn't be. He sensed nothing but pity and panic from the pink hedgehog. She couldn't have done it.
Lost in his thoughts, Sonic looked up and gasped, skidding to a halt. In front of him was a crossroads of corridors, leading left, forward and right, all looking identical. The low rumbling of approaching robots was starting to echo from the walls. A cold sweat lingered on the back of Sonic's neck — if he made the wrong choice, he might run into a hoard of armed robots. He couldn't guarantee that he'd get away unscathed.
"Come on, which one is it...?" Sonic mumbled, glancing between the paths, hoping for a distinguishing feature.
A blur of yellow passed in his vision, at the end of the left corridor.
Frozen, Sonic sucked in his breath and slowly turned back towards the mouth of the west corridor. His lip quivered at the sight of a short, yellow fox with two tails and a grubby pair of sneakers. Blood seeped from his limbs at a distance, like patchwork squares on a quilt — his expression was wide-eyed and searching. He waved his hand in Sonic's direction, not once breaking their stare, frantically imploring him to follow.
"This way," A voice whispered in Sonic's mind.
He's dead, his mind whispered back.
But, in that moment, the honesty in the kitsune's eyes flooded Sonic's heart and he found himself striding towards the ghost, unerringly. His walk progressed into a run and his sneakers pounded against the floor.
Tails — the name soaked into his brain, weighing it down — turned and disappeared behind the corridor corner, silently guiding Sonic and setting a path for him to tread.
Without another thought, Sonic followed.
They twisted and turned through a maze of corridors, with the blue hedgehog frantically chasing after the tips of two tails which curled around corners, willing his legs to propel him forward, faster. Eventually, Sonic skidded to a halt and stared up, glossy-eyed, at the entrance to a huge control room, with computer panels and machines and flashing screens and barrels of toxic waste and ominous glass tanks and exposed wires.
"Whoa..." Sonic muttered to himself, twirling on his toes as he spun to take the whole room in. After a brief pause, his eyes trailed towards one of the computer panels that was hooked up to a large screen.
He zipped forward, "This tech has gotta have a map of some kind. If I can just find it, then I might have a chance of getting out of here alive."
Sonic determinedly started to type and was just scrolling through the files when something cold was pressed against his back, between his shoulder-blades.
"Step away from the computer."
The blue hedgehog gritted his teeth and raised his hands, taking a step back as the robot kept its machine gun carefully trained on Sonic's body. Triumphantly, Dr Robotnik slunk out of the shadows, in a grand entrance, with his hands raised above his head and a grin stretching across his face.
"You drugged me," Sonic said, flatly, before glowering, "Not cool. Not in the slightest."
"Perhaps not. But in the world of scientific miracles, sacrifices must be made," Robotnik clasped his hands together, straining to move towards the control panel and musingly analysing the security cameras which he enlarged onto the screen, "Your friend Sonic was an example of that."
Sonic ground his teeth together, "I told you, Egghead, I'm not Shadow. Shadow's dead, okay?"
"I know for a fact that that is not true, you impudent pincushion. One intriguing aspect of immortality is that you are unable to die, so don't bother attempting to wriggle your way out of this one!"
"Immortality? What are you talking about?"
"Do you truly have no idea?" Robotnik snugly folded his arms and tauntingly began to stoke his moustache, "Hee hee hee! Oh, this makes everything so much more interesting! Does the year '1967' mean nothing to you?"
The blue hedgehog frowned, wondering why that sounded familiar, "...The death of those two kids? How do you know about that?"
"Because those two children's deaths weren't accidental — they were gateways to something much more game-changing."
"They were kids—!"
"As I said, some sacrifices must be made," He strode forward, approaching Sonic, who was distinctly aware of the robot's gun which was still precisely trained on his back, "It feels cruel not to fill you in on the whole story, Shadow, when you are so heavily connected to it."
Sonic shot an unimpressed look at him, in response, "Enlighten me, then."
"My Grandfather — Gerald Robotnik, an incredible scientist in 1967 — had a granddaughter living with him. My cousin, Maria Robotnik. The records show that she had an incurable illness called NIDS and he couldn't face the thought of losing her. He began to experiment to search for a cure and this required human subjects, obviously."
"Yeah, obviously, if you're a psychopath," Sonic spat back.
Almost as if there had been no interruption at all, Robotnik continued, "Those two children were the last two he used for experimentation. A nasty little incident happened involving three local teenagers and my grandfather was charged. There's not a lot on what happened to the girl, Maria, after that. But it's what she inspired that is truly important."
Disbelievingly, the blue hedgehog shook his head, "Just how messed up are you, to say—?!"
Slowly blinking his eyes open, Sonic peered at the whirling, brick dust that was slowly dissipating from the huge hole that had been blown through the side of the control room's wall. In the mist, a dark figure was standing and waiting for the chaos to die down, eyes trained on the robot and its gun, which was still angled towards Sonic.
"What the blasted—!" Robotnik rounded on the intruder, fuming, "What have you done to my wall!? Who are you!"
The figure stepped forward and Sonic felt the life drain out of him.
Amy tapped her finger against her lips, something of a nervous tick for her. Maria was close by, also watching, but she remained perfectly still. She didn't even look like she was breathing and then Amy began to wonder if that was even possible for the ghost.
The girls shared the same worry. Silver was leaning against the trunk of a tree, with his head in his hands. He'd woken up a few minutes ago but, as soon as he had opened his eyes, it was apparent that he did not want to talk. He seemed to be replaying what he had seen in his mind and Amy was concerned by the look of guilt on his features.
"Will he be okay?" She asked Maria, who then broke apart her clasped hands.
The girl dressed in blue mulled it over, still watching Silver in concern, "Eventually. Remember, he went through the same thing as you, Amy. It's a very disorientating experience. I was surprised that you recovered so quickly."
Amy shrugged, "Who knows? But I think Silver went through something worse than I did. I've never seen him like this."
Both of them responded with silence and they straightened up when Silver got to his feet, approaching with a heavy frown. He regarded them, separately, with a strange expression that Amy couldn't read. She didn't know this person, "Maria, I'd like some more answers. Now."
"I know," The blonde's eyes flickered towards Amy; she didn't feel comfortable with this side of Silver, either, "I'll try to answer your questions as best as I can. But, Silver, maybe you should tell Amy—"
"Was Blaze hurt?" He snapped.
Amy could barely breathe for the tension. She wondered who Blaze was, but Maria's silence interrupted her thoughts and then Silver stormed in the other direction, throwing his fist against tree bark. Amy winced as he punched, twice more, and then she stepped forward to grab his arm. She pulled him away, expecting resistance, but received none and noticed tears in his eyes. Moving him closer to Maria, the pink hedgehog embraced him and gently stroke his quills. He'd always seemed so much taller than her; now she realised that she wasn't far off his height.
"I'm sorry, Silver," Maria offered, approaching. She herself seemed morose.
He took a shaky, deep breath, before softly asking, "W-Why did he want her? How could he do that to her? She looked so...so...!"
"I don't know. I really don't. Silver, if I knew how he could be capable of such a thing, then maybe I could find some peace," Maria's voice broke and she covered her mouth, tears spilling over, "But he did it for me and now I am trying to amend it. I just want them to rest, to be free—!"
Amy turned, "Who?"
Maria seemed to be struggling to breathe between chokes. She pressed her back against a tree — a different one from Silver's — but copied him and slid down to the floor, hugging her knees close to her chest. The bark looked awfully painful, especially to be sliding against, but perhaps Maria didn't feel things like that anymore.
She just managed to remain coherent, "I-I-I w-was dying...incurable d-disease...a-a-and Grandfather tried to h-help, so he t-took them. A-As test subjects! I-It was all my fault!"
"It wasn't! Maria, you didn't do anything!" Both Amy and Silver now crouched down beside her, as Maria broke into sobs. Her face was covered by her hands and hair.
"It w-was! Because he then t-took C-Cream and T-T-Tails!"
Silver felt the names wash over him. Cream — Maria had been about to tell him who this Cream was, before Amy had opened the music box and that Cream was somehow at the center of all this. Tails was a new name for him, however. Amy bit her lip and thought back to the night in the hotel, when she'd seen the ghost girl — could that have been Cream?
"Maria, what happened to—?" Amy ventured to ask, but Silver shook his head with a grave expression and she quietened. He was right. Whatever had happened, they had a very clear idea of the outcome.
"Did this happen on the 16th of June? Is that what the date means?" Maria managed a very shaky nod to Silver's question and so he stared at Amy with round eyes, "So, the texts were really from...?"
"Tails and Cream. They've been trying to tell us what happened to them. But we weren't listening — we were too busy running around trying to find a link between the victims!"
"T-There isn't a link, Amy," Maria raised her head and, although she wasn't certain, Amy thought that the sobs might have lessened, "T-They're all randomly c-chosen, but they're all smart a-and kind. C-Cream was trying to t-talk to them, so that people w-w-would know what happened..."
"But why did they die? If she was just trying to talk to them?"
"P-Poisoned by the radioactive substances from her...body."
Amy closed her eyes. She wanted to scream. Everything was so complicated and unbelievably messed up. Could that have really been it? No foul play? This spirit world was impossible to grasp, "Why now? So, from what we know, Sonic and Shadow's time — 1994, right? — had the same thing. But they must have stopped it! Why is it all happening again?!"
"S-Someone caused her unrest..."
"How could that happen?"
"I-I don't know."
Suddenly the ground thrummed and began to shake. Silver threw out his arms and managed to retain his balance, but Amy wobbled and landed on her back. She looked up at the sky, past the trees, and gasped at the black cloud of smoke, trickling through into the forest.
The grey hedgehog frowned at her, worried, as the shaking subsided, "Amy? What's wrong? What is it?"
He was unable to hide his shock, "It looks like it's coming from the direction of the village."
"What could have happened?"
Maria steadily got to her feet. Her eyes had dried and there was a fierce emotion glowing within them, "Someone is attacking Lilliwell. We need to get there, quickly."
Silver held his hand out to Amy, who gratefully took it, as he tried to grasp this news, "Who's doing this?"
"Someone related to my Grandfather and I."
"A relative. How do you know that?"
"I don't know. But I can feel it," Maria ducked her head and turned her gaze off into the trees. A light breeze picked up the ends of her blonde hair, raising them like wisps of smoke. She pressed her lips together and swallowed, "Who knows what the rest of my family is capable of?"
The gun fired again and Blaze ducked her head, throwing her hands over her ears, as she sprinted up the stairs.
They creaked, when she reached the seventh step, as Gerald placed his weight on them too. He was old and she was light on her feet — but she had no idea where she was going and was dodging bullets. The odds weren't entirely stacked in her favour.
Blood pounded in her ears and the back of her throat ached in a cold burn. Blaze's mind went astray, back to when she was strapped on the table, and recounted how that hammer had simply flown from the wall — just how had it anchored itself, in such a way that it freed her? The lavender feline had no doubts that it was caused by something unnatural, but she didn't pause to ponder what.
And those eyes. The golden ones that belonged to the silver hedgehog, who had suddenly appeared, when she'd leapt down. Who was he? What was he doing there and how had he come to be there? It was only for a second, but she was certain — he had been there. Who was Silver the Hedgehog?
The metal stairs had lead her to a walkway bolted onto the ceiling with steel rods and she took a sharp right. Her hands hovered over the rails, as she ran, and were ready to grab on, should she trip or fall or become horribly aware of where she was.
Her eyes were glued to the floor. The walkway was compromised of metal grates, laid down one in front of the other, and she could look straight down. The ground seemed miles away and to slip would send her tumbling down to a cracked skull. Blaze shuddered in horror, but kept running. Gerald was far speedier than he looked. He was close and the gun was still flailing about.
Underneath, on the ground, the room seemed to be a testing facility. Ominously gigantic metal barrels, containing bubbling liquids, a positively radioactive-green colour. Dotted about between them, there were glass tanks. Some were empty, save for clear liquids, but some had...things in them. She couldn't see, from up there, and for that she was selfishly grateful.
Then she looked up and dug her heels into the metal. The walkway ended in a horrible drop, without a protective rail, above an open tank of suspicious goo. Blaze cursed and lurched towards the left rail, feeling bile rise in her mouth. Her fear of heights intensified.
"There's nowhere to run," The Professor's voice was wheezy and Blaze gripped the rail, turning her head. Gerald held the gun at eye level, immovable, prompting the feline to step away and move backwards, towards the drop.
"You killed them," Surprised by the sudden tears in her eyes, Blaze attempted to stomach her fright, "You killed Tails and Cream. They're dead because of you. Where are they? Tell me. Tell me where they are. Tell me!"
"I did it for Maria. My poor, dear Maria. I couldn't stand to watch her in pain. How could I just accept it, when the doctors diagnosed it? NIDS is such a rare disease, with such little research conducted for a cure. What use is my knowledge, if not to use it to save her life? With a little time and dedication, I know I can find something that would not only save Maria, but potentially cure so many other diseases..."
"And how many test subjects would you need? How many children would need to die, for that to happen?" Blaze's right cheek felt wet and she swiped at it. Tears, "Does Maria really want this? Does she even know?"
Gerald's eyes had clouded over — evidently not, Blaze bitterly thought — and he was distracted. She thought about trying to disarm him, to pull the gun out of his hands, but knew that she might be shot in the process, if she made one false move.
"What the hell is she doing up there?!"
"Grandfather! Are you there?!"
"Knuckles, we have to get her down—!"
"She's scared of heights, she'll never—!"
"Rouge, what do you expect me to do?! Glide up there?!"
Blaze switched off and tried not to listen to their frantic suggestions. Rouge's voice openly wobbled now, as she welled up, and Knuckles grew louder and louder when he was worried.
"Little cat, did you say farewell?
See her tears pour, hear his yell,"
She scrunched her eyes shut, for a moment, as a whimper rose in her throat. Blaze had confided in Rouge and Knuckles about her acrophobia — the mere sight of heights made her stomach drop and her head spin — though she didn't like to talk about it. However, she was deeply aware of it now and clung to the railing with fierce terror.
But she was now forced to take small steps back, as Gerald grew closer with the gun, and the idea of the drop made her feel physically sick. She wanted to cry, but tried to pull herself together.
"I don't want to do this to you, but you leave me with no choice," The Professor must have heard the shouts of Rouge and Knuckles, so he must have known that the girl — Maria — was there, too. He pretended to ignore her and wouldn't take his eyes off Blaze.
"P-Please, don't! D-Don't do this, don't—!" She rocked back on her heels, instead of moving.
"You know too much! You got involved and incapacitated my assistant and now—!" He flew at her, possibly reaching for her, possibly going to shoot. Blaze went to move and slipped — she crashed against the walkway's floor, rolling with momentum, and the lower half of her body dangled off. She clung to the ledge.
"BLAZE!" Rouge and Knuckles both screamed, on an equal scale of terror. Maria was openly sobbing.
"—You're trying to stop me from helping Maria," He crouched in front of her, holding the gun, but pointing it away. Blaze wriggled, face streaked with tears, but she couldn't scramble up. She could feel her grip slipping and her arms were growing tired.
"BLAZE?! Please, hang on, we're getting up there! We're going to help you, please, just hold on—!" Rouge's voice was growing distant and she wanted to call them back, she wanted them to be with her. But the effort would have sapped her strength and she couldn't let go — she mustn't let go.
"Grandfather, help her!" Maria was the only spectator and Blaze briefly wondered what must be going on in her head, right now. She must be terrified. Then the feline's mind wandered back to the dissection room — those beautiful golden eyes. If she fell, would he be there to help her? Or was he just an image from between life and death? She didn't know and it pained her, not knowing.
Blaze slid down, as her grip lessened. Now only her forearms were holding her up and gravity was working against her. The insane side of her mind wanted to look down, to see where she would end up, but she wasn't that brave and couldn't do it. Instead, her eyes were shut.
The walkway wobbled slightly and she could hear feet running across the metal. It groaned with the extra weight and the ledge sank down. Blaze tried not to think about it snapping off, but she couldn't help herself.
Someone stepped on her metal grate and the whole thing juddered — she lost the grip and then fell.
"Down, down, down you go,
To rest where the dead things grow."
Sonic felt his knees threaten to collapse, but the gun barrel at his shoulder blades kept him firm. He searched his throat for something to swallow, something to say — but there was nothing. He made a whimpering sound and blinked to check if it was real.
"Let him go, Doctor," Shadow ordered, cocking a handgun and holding it with a frightening serenity, "This is not who you are looking for. Let him go or I will shoot you."
How could you do this to me?
"Oh, don't tell me. The sidekick?" Eggman glared. There was a grouchy pout on his face, as he barked at the ebony hedgehog, "Go back to playing dead — I'm busy."
Shadow fired a warning shot, letting the bullet whiiiish past the Doctor's ear, narrowly missing, and making his point quite clear, "My name is Shadow the Hedgehog. I won't say it again. Let him go."
You were dead.
"That is Sonic the Hedgehog. You should check your records more thoroughly: how could you get a DNA test wrong? Or did you instead go ahead without a test, straight to torture-first-ask-questions-later?" Shadow spat out the last part. He seemed strangely liberated.
"Quiet! This is none of your business!"
You left me. Alone! You left me alone!
"Capturing my friend in my name? Imprisoning him, torturing him to the point of insanity? Pointing a gun at his head—?" He wriggled his free hand, as if he'd lost the feeling in it. Something caught in Shadow's throat and anyone else might've thought that he'd gotten choked up, "—all because you thought he was me? All of that is my business."
"You have no idea what's going on here. Either of you! You're stumbling around the edges of something that is far greater than you can understand. Did your precious village not tell you of what went on here, on the very ground that you're standing on? Of course not — they're as guilty as I am," Eggman chuckled to himself, stroking the bushy moustache with gleeful triumph.
"I highly doubt that," Shadow's gaze flickered towards Sonic, who hadn't uttered a word. Instead, the cobalt hedgehog blindly stared at the floor, feeling his heart reconnect and shatter, a thousand times over.
"Well, I haven't got the time to stand around here all day. It appears that we have a stand-off!" Eggman slapped his hands together and rubbed them, eagerly, "What's it to be, so-called Shadow? Will you shoot me? Okay, go on then, be quick — because, seconds after that, you'll see your blue friend's brains splatter across the floor!"
Unfazed, Shadow curled his finger around the trigger and directed a look at his catatonic companion, "Sonic? Are you alright?"
The robot, with the weapon still at his temple, tightened its grip. Sonic remained limp.
I will never forgive you.
"Trouble in paradise? Well, it seems your heroic rescue mission isn't quite so appreciated, as you intended. Perhaps the blue rodent has finally seen the light?" Hearing this, Shadow snarled at Eggman, who waved his hand in confident ease, as a response, "Come now. No need to be like that. It seems that I need to rid this place of a certain pesky vermin."
"The only vermin is you!"
"Was I the one who led you on a merry dance with what really happened? As I've been telling Shadow, or Sonic, or whoever he is — my grandfather conducted experiments here, many years ago, and the consequences were unfortunate. But, what he was researching, it could change everything! A cure for every known disease, or perhaps even immortality! The possibilities are endless—!"
"And people have died because of it," Previously, Shadow had held the gun with a single, unshakeable grip, but now he clutched it in both hands, peering down the barrel, "I presume you have heard about the ghosts? You're not stupid. You've pieced it together."
Eggman paused for a moment and chewed over his words, "Yes, well, as I said, it is unfortunate. But you're currently appeasing them, aren't you? It's all a minor detail in a much bigger scheme! Don't look so disgusted — if you truly are Shadow, then you're not as pure as you like to believe."
"You know nothing," Crimson eyes flickered towards Sonic, who looked vacant, but his ears pricked up and he was evidently listening to every word.
"I know everything. The military files are a lot easier to hack into than they like to admit. The GUN file on Project Shadow is a real page turner. Shall I read you an excerpt?" His grin glinted in the harsh light, "Perhaps not. A touchy subject for a mere laboratory experiment, isn't it?"
The gun was far less smoothly held, "What are you babbling about?"
"GUN dealt with everything regarding my grandfather in 1967. They cleared it all up, no questions asked, and paid Lilliwell's establishing leaders to keep quiet. They still are! Ask your precious Lord Bartleby. But Gerald Robotnik's research is a goldmine! How could they destroy something that might lead to such knowledge? They continued it in secret and ended up with a prototype who they named Shadow.
"Did you really never wonder where you came from? Or were you just force-fed lies about being an orphan from others? You're not an orphan and you never have been — your parents didn't die because you never had any from the start. Project Shadow was successful around twenty-two years ago — coincidentally, aren't you twenty-two years old, Shadow? — and you were monitored from the beginning. But you clearly did not develop any signs of immortality and someone pulled the plug on funding, shutting the project down. You were lost, sometime ago, in the care system."
"How can you know all this?" If possible, Shadow now looked even fiercer, shaking the gun at Eggman, as if to make him speaker quicker. Sonic had thrown away his pretence of not listening and was wide-eyed.
Eggman gestured at his computer, "Hacking does wonderful things. It's all here, every last detail, up until you disappeared. I couldn't believe it — I return to my grandfather's old base, ready to take a look at any physical papers that might still be here — and one of my robots photographs a hedgehog in the village. The photograph was in black and white — blasted electronics! — and it seems I took the wrong rodent."
"W-What..." Sonic had never heard Shadow stutter, but the ebony hedgehog's entire existence had been shattered, "What am I?"
"The Ultimate Life Form. Ugh, such an uppity title. You have an accelerated healing process and your immune system is the strongest ever known. I am yet to discover whether the project successfully replicated immortality, but I would guess not, as GUN would never let that slip out of their hands—"
Suddenly, the pieces slotted together in Sonic's broken mind and Shadow's hardened gaze suggested that he had already figured it out. Ever since they'd met, Shadow had been colloquially known as the "Ultimate Life Form". Finally curious enough and close enough to him to ask, Sonic picked him up on it. Shadow had admitted that he knew nothing about his family, only that he had been abandoned and left with a note saying that he was "Shadow the Hedgehog, the Ultimate Life Form" and referring to himself as such made him feel closer to them. But now Shadow had to face the fact that a family hadn't dubbed him as the "Ultimate" — a bunch of scientists, who barely gave him a second thought, had brought him into this world.
And all those scrapes that they'd gotten into together? They'd both come out of fights equally battered, but Sonic's cuts and bruises always seemed to last so much longer. He'd always wondered if there was something wrong with him — he'd never considered the idea that Shadow wasn't entirely natural.
Eggman shook his head and threw his hands up, "Chatting aside, I believe I have given you more than enough information, Experiment, and in exchange I intend to study your biological structure!"
"Do not call him that!"
Both Eggman and Shadow snapped their heads in the direction of Sonic's voice. The blue hedgehog dropped the robot's now unattached head on the floor and clenched his fists, as he leant down into a fighting stance.
Shadow was tempted to utter his name, but decided against it. Doctor Ivo Robotnik cackled, "Pathetic. So, what, you're no longer my bargaining chip? You'll never make it out of here alive and, even if you do, I will hunt you both down. And in the meantime, Shadow's information is neatly archived away, all within reach of a single click. You can't fight those odds, rodents!"
"It seems your victory is certain," Monotonously, Shadow congratulated him, to the undisguised shock of Sonic. The Ultimate Life Form tossed his gun down, carelessly, and paused, before slowly replacing it with a cigarette lighter.
"You have the perfect immune system and you use it by smoking? You're sickening, "Eggman rolled his eyes and turned his back, ever so slightly, "No matter. As you said, I am victorious and there is absolutely nothing that you can do."
The cobalt hedgehog narrowed his eyes, as Shadow made no grab for cigarettes of any kind. Not to mention, Shadow had never smoked in the time that Sonic had known him. He watched, in sudden terror, as the flame flicked into life, "No, I suppose not. I shall toss this away, then."
Sonic yelled, "SHADOW!" as the lighter was hurled into the air and landed in the dubious contents of a metal barrel, with the word 'flammable' printed on the side.
Lilliwell was smoke and ash.
Silver thickly swallowed, with a strange taste in his mouth, as he passed a tree where the flames were tapering out. Cinders clung to the edge of branches, having made their way through all of the leaves, and the bark was grimy, like charcoal. It creaked, threateningly, and he knew that it wouldn't take much for it to topple over.
Houses were in ruins, half-demolished, surrounded by bricks and wooden beams. The tarmac road was barely visible, lying hidden underneath the devastation. Ignoring the crackling of fire, there wasn't a single sound blowing through the village.
Amy stepped past him, covering her mouth with her hands. Silver wondered if she was trying to protect herself from the smoke, but she raised them and wiped her eyes, and he figured that it was due to shock, "How can it...? It was fine, not one hour ago!"
"I know," He whispered.
She turned to face him, lip wobbling, "We were too late. D-Do you think they're all—?"
"No, there has to be some..."
"There are survivors," A soft voice appeared behind him. Silver glanced over his shoulder, watching as blonde hair bobbed down, as an outstretched hand in a blue dress reached for the broken vase on the floor, cradling scorched lilies, "Many villagers escaped towards the city, unharmed, after the first explosion. Barely able to utter a whisper, the girl squeezed her eyes shut. Silver tried to stomach the settling pang of guilt resting in his belly, as she stared at him, "I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault, not in any way," Amy told her, "Don't think such things. Right now, we need a plan."
"You're right," Silver ran his gaze across the crumbling roof of one of the houses, stepping forward towards the gaping hole in the wall, resting a hand against the brick, as he peered in, "We'll need weapons to protect ourselves and then we'll have to locate wherever it is that—AHHHH!"
He was suddenly yanked into the house, disappearing from view. Amy cried his name, dashing after him, and skidded to a halt when she entered the remnants of the living room. Silver was sprawled on the floor in one corner, looking up in disbelief at his attacker.
Amy's mouth fell open at the sight of a blue waistcoat against brown fur and lovely, cropped red hair, "Sally?"
She spun on her heel, baby-blue eyes widening in recognition. Amy's own eyes grew, catching sight of the shotgun which was firmly gripped in Sally's hands, "Amy? What are you two doing here? We thought you'd left."
"We didn't. W-Where did you get that?"
Sally frowned at the gun, as if she'd forgotten that it was there. Mercifully, she lowered it an pointed it at the floor, "I grabbed it as I ran away from his robots. It was just lying on the ground. I don't know if it belonged to a robot or someone who lived here — it wouldn't surprise me, we had some stubborn old-timers who refused to give up hunting — but I needed to protect myself. They're strong. Really strong."
"The robots. Huge things with lasers and machine guns and... I'm guessing that you haven't run into any, huh? Lucky."
Silver deemed it safe to stand, as he approached the girls, gingerly, "What are they doing here?"
"They're being controlled by the guy who invaded. Eggman Nega," Her back straightened at their expressions, "I know what you're thinking, but it all just happened to quickly. We couldn't do anything. There were so many of these things and definitely not enough shotguns lying around and not enough people to wield them. We tried to hold them off, as best as we could, but it didn't do any good."
"How did you get away?"
"Mighty told me to get the others to safety. I went back, afterwards, to try and find him but it's been a wasteland. I don't know where anyone is."
"The town is a wasteland," Amy sucked her breath in, before darting forward and gripping Sally in a tight, teary hug, "I'm so glad you're okay."
Sally squeezed back, "It's really good to see you guys."
Silver glanced around the room, as the two of them gripped each other. Maria was nowhere in sight — presumably keeping out of view of Sally, as she'd only appeared to Amy and himself — and the whole place felt a lot colder without her, far emptier and desolate. Holes were blown through the brick walls of houses and a lot of furniture was in pieces. This Eggman Nega had really gone to town with the explosives.
"It's almost like he's trying to erase the site completely..." Silver muttered.
The girls pulled apart. Sally wiped at her face, determinedly folding her arms, "Eggman Nega? It kinda seemed like he was searching for something. At least, that's what it looked like, from the brief glimpse I got."
"Searching for something? Searching for what?" Amy asked.
Sally shrugged, "Beats me."
"It has to be something to do with the previous years. It has to be!" Mind racing, Silver turned to Amy, with wide golden eyes, "Gerald was trying to make a cure, right? What if he succeeded? What if Eggman Nega is looking for the blueprints for it?"
"No," Amy chewed her lower lip, "He can't have succeeded. He would have used it to save Maria."
"Okay, but what if he was close? Maybe Eggman Nega knows about it and thinks he can finish what Gerald started. Maybe take it ever further—" Silver straightened, "It's the only thing that makes sense."
Sally was now standing at the mouth of the house's entrance, disdainfully kicking a broken glass bottle out of her path, "Whatever he's here for, he needs to be stopped. We haven't got time to lose."
"You're right," Silver glanced down at Amy, who was nervously staying quiet, "Are you okay?"
"I think so. Just... how can we go up against a guy like this? We're just normal people."
Sally overheard her friend's concern and confidently cocked her shotgun, making a loud click, "We give everything we've got."
"I'm going to look after you. I promise," Silver bent down to pick up something, out of the rubble, and placed a comforting hand on Amy's shoulder, before passing the crowbar to her, "Just swing as hard as you can."
"I'll do my best."
Mighty slid across the gravel, face-first. Cuts decorated every inch of his bare skin and he hissed against the stinging bite of his wounds. Damn, he wished he hadn't sent all of the Chaotix out to take care of the villagers. Just one of them — even Charmy — would be helpful, right about now.
This Eggman Nega was a pain in the ass.
"Hee hee hee hee!"
"Why don't you..." The armadillo stumbled to his feet, with his vision spinning and ears ringing, "...just give up already?"
The man turned around in his flying pod, sporting a victorious grin. His green goggles glinted in the sunlight and his black-and-yellow overcoat flapped on top of his red jumpsuit. The white moustache stretched along with his smile, "Perhaps you should take your own advice. You're the one stumbling around, hoping that you might win by chance. I, however, will be triumphant!"
The two of them turned to face the shotgun-wielding chipmunk, who was staring at Eggman Nega's flying pod in disbelief. The shotgun was smoking, recently fired.
Eggman Nega laughed and reached over to pat the surface of his machine, "Bullet resistant metals."
Someone grabbed Mighty's arm and swung it around their neck. He looked over and blinked at the determined jut of Silver the Hedgehog's jaw, who was glaring up at Eggman Nega, keeping an eye on his movements.
Another person took hold of his other arm and Mighty glanced down towards Amy, "Mighty, are you okay? You're hurt—!"
"I am now, thanks to you three," He grimaced, as he shifted his weight onto his other leg, "Listen, you need to get away from here as fast as you can. He's extremely dangerous and—!"
"Too right!" Eggman Nega whipped a custom-made gun out into the open, cackling to himself, and began to fire it in Sally's direction. She leapt out of the path of a glowing ball of electricity, smashing against the ground and scrambling behind cover. Eggman Nega's sight trailed back to the trio, as the gun's sight landed on Amy, "Now it's time to dispose of you all. Starting with you."