Advent of Equinox by Skyblaze, Taranea
FeatureSummary: Post-Unleashed. An unexpected eclipse once more triggers Sonic's change into the werehog. Only this time he is joined by Shadow, who faces his own transformation. The balance between Light and Dark is broken once more as the Gaia spirits choose their avatars.
Categories: Sonadow Characters: Sonic x Shadow
Genres: Adventure
Warnings: Blood
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 12 Completed: No Word count: 64756 Read: 208577 Published: May 02, 2010 Updated: August 19, 2016
Story Notes:
co-written with Taranea.

1. Shadow on the Sun by Taranea

2. Chapter 2 - Hitting the Sky by Taranea

3. When Darkness Falls by Skyblaze

4. All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Part 1 by Skyblaze

5. All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Part 2 by Skyblaze

6. Chapter 6 - Fly in the Freedom by Skyblaze

7. Between A Rock and A Hard Place by Skyblaze

8. Creatures of Darkness, Creatures of Light by Skyblaze

9. Chapter 9: Snowbound by Skyblaze

10. Chapter 10 - Unlikely Allies by Skyblaze

11. Chapter 11 - Light Killing Shadows by Skyblaze

12. Chapter 12 - A Race Against Time by Skyblaze

Shadow on the Sun by Taranea
Advent of Equinox

Advent of Equinox

by Skyblaze & Taranea

Author’s notes – There is Gen a version of this on ff.n on Taranea’s account, but this is the slash version. Hope you like it!

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Chapter 1: Shadow on the Sun

The air was dusty with the smell of late summer. The sun was high overhead bathing the forest and the broad, grassy plain with intense warmth.

A breeze swept across the plain, the grass bowing before the power of the wind as it got stronger, followed moments later by the whip-crack sound of a sonic boom as a super-fast blue hedgehog whipped past at somewhere around mach 2.

Sonic smiled as he enjoyed the day. The planet had been peaceful of late, after the disaster with Dark Gaia over a month ago Robotnik had been quiet - no doubt licking his wounds and cooking up a new plan. After the megalomaniac scientist had single-handedly upset the balance of Mobius’ life force, two beings called Light and Dark Gaia resting within the planet, and thereby caused Sonic to turn into a sort of wolf-creature as soon as the sun went down, (a result stemming from the hero being infected with said Dark Gaia), Sonic supposed Eggman would need at least a couple of months to recuperate. So the Hero of Mobius had been left with nothing to do except save the occasional feral pet cat from a tree...

Well. That, and the house-cleaning duties Tails had recently tried to impose on him, which usually meant that it was the blue speedster himself hiding up in trees. But otherwise, this extended vacation worked just fine for him since it left him with lots of time to chill out, hang with his friends and, of course, spend a lot of time just running.

He looked up; grinning as he raced the puffy white clouds sailing across the deep blue sky like one could on a late summer’s day – with the exception that Sonic was usually winning at this game. It was a good day. Warm, sunny - perfect for just enjoying life and taking a break from the ever-attendant weirdness that was his life. The curse that had plagued the dark hours was gone, the Chaos Emeralds were back to normal and the planet was back in one piece. Everything would seem just like it had before, except for the ring with the shiny blue-green stone that he now wore on his wrist, his reminder of Chip - of Light Gaia - and everything he had gone through. Back then, Sonic had met Chip shortly after being transformed for the first time, when the mighty being that was Light Gaia had taken the form of a small, flying Mobian mouse…thing and lost his memory of who he truly was due to the upset of the balance.  Together, they had restored the planet until Chip had remembered his identity and after the battle with Dark Gaia returned to sleep at the planet’s core with his counterpart, leaving Sonic this bracelet to remember him by.

A chill wind suddenly blew across the plain, making Sonic shiver. He paused, slowing down a little as he felt a strange, almost sick feeling grow in his stomach. Maybe he was pushing himself too hard - it had been awhile since lunch and his metabolism needed a lot of fuel to keep running. Chilli dog-shaped fuel, if its owner had anything to say about it. He stopped by a large tree, settling himself down under its large, spreading branches and watching the dappled light dancing on the ground as the sunlight filtered through the leaves.

The green gem on his wrist began to glow feebly. Sonic stared at it, wondering at first if it was merely a reflection of the sunlight, but that thought was dashed when a sudden icy chill gripped him, the light from the gem growing brighter. A sudden wave of darkness swept across the grassy plain, and Sonic thought he heard a soft voice whisper to him;

"I'm sorry, Sonic. I wish there was another way…"

Intolerable pain struck him as all his muscles seemed to cramp at once, the agony of a thousand razors slicing into him as his skin constricted, then burst like an overcooked sausage. His bones shifted, creaking and snapping as they re-aligned themselves into their new shape. The sensation of dozens of tiny needles dancing across his flesh as his fur grew uncontrollably, his jaw hanging open in an expression of unbelievable torture that quickly twisted into a feral snarl as his even, white teeth extended into sharp fangs.

He screamed, but even his scream altered as the terrible transformation went on, becoming the bell-like howl of a wolf. His eyes and muzzle pointed towards the sky and he could see the dark disk that covered the sun in an eclipse.

Finally, it was over and Sonic collapsed onto all fours, panting and shaking with fear and pain. The previously bright, sunny plain was bathed in a silent, unnatural twilight. He looked down at himself, seeing the sharp claws and muscular arms of the wolf.

"No…" he breathed, and the word came out in the deep, bass growl of his night-time self. "Not again."

He looked up again, desperate to see the sun. He panted, green eyes staring at the haloed disk that hung in the sky, begging for it to move, to end the bizarre madness. Praying that this was a dream, a nightmare…

The black blot across the sun moved, uncovering the yellow-orange orb in the sky and once the sunlight began to race across the grassy plain, chasing away the sudden darkness and chill, Sonic felt himself shifting back to normal. He breathed deeply, trying to flow with the transformation as much as possible and not fight it.

When the sun had returned, and everything once again seemed to be as normal as it ever was, Sonic almost relaxed until the sound of a shrill scream of pure agony reached his ears. A shriek of almost unnatural, animalistic pain. But something about it seemed so familiar

Quickly, he levered himself to his feet, his ears twitching as he tried to pinpoint the source of the sound. Another tortured scream rang out and Sonic took off after it, forcing his aching, trembling muscles to co-operate. He ran until he found a dip in the gentle rolling grassland.

The screams had stopped now, subsided into a kind of low, desperate moaning of the sort expressed by someone who was still in massive pain despite the source of the agony being gone.

Arriving at the source of the sound, Sonic stopped dead.

In the centre of the low dip sat the dark figure of Shadow the Hedgehog. He was curled up on himself, though unable to do as he obviously wished and completely roll himself into a ball as hedgehogs in great distress instinctively would. His hands looked strangely distorted, bent into talons that had torn completely through his white gloves; the tips of them plunged into the soft earth.

The grass around him was wet, spattered with a fine spray of dark red blood that dripped silently down from the torn flesh on his back and from the huge black bird-like wings that now adorned his shoulders, protruding all the way down along his spine between his quills. He was trembling violently, every spasm sending more small drops of blood splashing down onto the grass, the wings glistening wetly in the returned sunlight. Thin trails of crimson liquid were still running down the otherwise pristine black and white feathers whose angel-like appearance belied the abominable and violent way they had come into being.

"Shadow…" Sonic gasped in horror, the pitiful picture the other made for cutting deep into his heart.

The black hedgehog snapped his head around, deep red eyes looking blank for a moment before they focussed and Shadow recognised who he was looking at.

"Go away…" he tried to growl, but it sounded more like a hopeless bark an injured and severely weakened wolf might give who knows he won’t be able to fight this adversary. 

Sonic stepped closer, "No way, Shadow. I wanna help you," he said, green eyes expressing only honest concern.

Shadow glared at him, "How can you possibly help this!" Sonic's eyes widened as Shadow's voice came out in a strained, almost screechy tone as though he had a bad case of laryngitis. Shadow put a hand to his throat, his ears pinned back to his head in horror, "What's happening to me?" he whispered.

Any thought of laughing at Shadow's predicament immediately vanished from Sonic's mind. He remembered how scared he had been when he had first transformed, it had only been by concentrating on Chip's predicament that he had held his own very real terror in check - but then, focussing on other people's problems did tend to distract you from your own.

"Shadow," Sonic began quietly, "I know what you have to be going through right now and I promise I'll help you however I can."

Shadow frowned, "How can you possibly know what I'm going through?" Shadow tried to growl, despite his altered voice forcing him to speak in a whisper, the intensity of his frustration still came through, "Just look at me, faker!" he hissed.

Sonic snorted, "If I'm right, just wait until nightfall. Then you'll see, believe me."

The two hedgehogs regarded each other for a long moment. Shadow's eyes were full of conflicting fear and curiosity. But then Sonic's gaze was drawn to something he hadn't noticed before…

"Shadow, where did you get that?" Sonic asked, pointing to an object around Shadow's neck. It was a sort of collar made of a dark metal, with a gem of a deep amber colour hanging from it to rest on Shadow's chest. It reminded Sonic strongly of the bauble Chip had worn, which now rested on his wrist.

"Huh?" Shadow asked, looking down. He raised his arm to take the object in one claw-like hand, moving it so it sparkled in the sunlight, "I have no idea." He sighed in frustration, "I don't know how I even got here. Last thing I remember was being in Westopolis - asleep."

Sonic raised an eyebrow. "You were sleeping in this late?"

Shadow shrugged, making the feathers on his large wings flutter, which sent an odd feeling to the pit of Sonic’s stomach.  "I was up late helping Rouge in the club last night."

Restraining himself from making any of the multitude of jokes that popped into his head, any of which would probably have prompted Shadow to try and rip said head off… Sonic glanced up at the sky and made a thoughtful humming noise.

"Well, faker, if you do have any idea of how to “help” me,” – Shadow pronounced ‘help’ in a way that it made it very clear that he knew the blue speedster’s way of ‘helping’ people usually involved freak adventures, explosions, abused amusement parks and a ridiculous amount of thumbs-ups, and that he wasn’t looking forward to any of it – “Where do you propose to start? I don't really want to stay like this," Shadow demanded impatiently as, very slowly, he attempted to stand up, checking himself every often so the extra weight on his back didn't make him lose his balance and fall back down again. Which would not have looked very dignified, considering he’d end up on his backside and in front of Sonic he was determined that wouldn’t happen.

"Maybe we should go see Tails? He'll probably know something about that eclipse - and maybe he can even tell us something about that new necklace of yours?"

Shadow considered this for a moment, and then nodded, "So you believe the eclipse is responsible?"

Sonic shook his head, "Nah, but it might have somethin' to do with what's going on. I didn't think we were due an eclipse any time soon. Let’s go," he replied, turning around and lightly jogging off, speeding up gradually when he heard the distinctive sounds of Shadow's jet shoes just behind him.

After a few moments, he heard a peculiar stutter in the ‘swish-swish’ noise of Shadow’s shoes, which almost let him turn around to check up on the other, but then the smooth noise resumed again, and Sonic relaxed - until it happened again a scant second later. Sonic glanced behind just in time to see Shadow’s feet fly up off the ground, sending him tail-over-muzzle straight into the soft earth, coming to lie on his stomach, skates in the air and wings askew.

Sonic braked, jogging back to where Shadow was. The Ultimate Lifeform was gingerly getting back up again, brushing off the dirt and grass where it clung to his fur, quills and feathers with a deeply irritated look on his face. He could feel a blush trying to creep onto his muzzle because of this undignified display in front of Sonic, but told his cheeks very definitely that if they would only so much as try to redden, he’d personally use his new claws to tear at them.  

“What happened, Shads?” Sonic asked, quickly looking the other hedgehog over for injury. A small grin tugged at his features and he couldn’t resist adding: “Finally ‘stumbling’ across the fact that I’m obviously the faster of us two?” 

“Drag,” Shadow responded tersely, not remotely amused by the comment nor the pun. 

“Huh?”

Shadow controlled his temper with an obvious effort, “Wind resistance. The wings are creating too much drag; it’s knocking me off balance.” He ruffled his feathers as if to underline his point and Sonic had difficulty not thinking of this picture as just too cute before he could remind himself that this was Shadow he was talking about. As in, homicidal, yes, cute, no – kind of way.

“You could try actually flying,” Sonic suggested, finding himself wondering how that would look despite himself.

Shadow glared, “Are you kidding? I just barely got these things – I have no idea how to actually use them.” In fact, I’d probably fly straight into the next goddamn *tree*,  he thought, but didn’t say aloud. The blue hedgehog was acting way too relaxed about this whole issue and the last thing Shadow wanted was for the other to have another reason to crack some inane joke.

Sonic folded his arms thoughtfully, idly tapping one foot on the ground as he did so. Then a slow smile crossed his face, “I think I’ve got an idea. Be right back.” The blue hedgehog dashed off, leaving Shadow standing there, his frustration slowly mounting until Sonic arrived back less than a minute later carrying a length of soft rope.

Shadow stared incredulously at the cord, then up at Sonic.

“No,” he said firmly.

Sonic’s grin didn’t move, but only became wider until he looked like a particularly spiky Cheshire Cat. (But then again, after everything that had happened today, Shadow wouldn’t be at all surprised if the blue hedgehog had turned invisible next. In fact, a part of him wished he would).  “C’mon, Shadow. I can’t carry you with those wings in the way and I don’t think you wanna try using Chaos Control right now.”

Shadow’s eyes narrowed dangerously, “I am not a kite.”

Sonic shrugged, his irrepressible grin still firmly in place, “It’s either this or walking.”

Shadow ground his teeth, faced with a choice between a rock and a hard place – or rather, a choice of sacrificing his dignity completely or trying to run and crashing into said rocks. Repeatedly. “Fine,” he snapped.

“Heh, knew you’d come ‘round.” Sonic grinned as he cheerfully tied the rope into a surprisingly secure harness-like arrangement around Shadow’s waist and torso, using the opportunity to give the wings a quick, curious brush with his hand as if he himself couldn’t believe they were actually real. Shadow could feel the skilled fingers of the blue hedgehog dancing over his upper body, feeling slightly awkward with his arms spread out to the side so as to allow Sonic access. Nevertheless, the hero of Mobius obviously knew what he was doing as he’d even tied the rope in a way that it wouldn’t rip over one of Shadow’s sharp back spines, a tricky thing that most villains who’d sometimes tried to tie either Sonic or Shadow up had often forgotten…only to pay the very painful price quite soon later. But the blue speedster only finished his task quickly and efficiently, giving a light tug at the rope coming out of the knot at chest height, at which Shadow scowled faintly.  He knew this was necessary, but it still meant it looked like Sonic had him on what was basically a very elaborate leash. 

“Right, whatcha waiting for?” Sonic grinned. “Open up!”

Reluctantly, Shadow spread his wings wide for the first time, his new appendages catching the sunlight, the white feathers scattered here and there seeming almost incandescent under the midday sun while the black feathers and the red-tipped pinion feathers provided an interesting visual counterpoint. It was a strange feeling, moving these new muscles…

“Ready?” Sonic asked politely as he took hold of the rope. Shadow wasn’t quite sure why it still sounded more like a threat to him.

“Just get on with it,” the winged hedgehog said through clenched teeth.

Sonic started to run, pulling Shadow along with him at first, but then the resistance from the wind got stronger and stronger until Shadow rose ponderously into the air where his quills fluttered in the breeze like a wind-sock.

“This is humiliating,” he grated, words drenched in enough disdain to drown a small mammal. 

Sonic just laughed, “Ah, relax, Shads! Maybe you’ll even get to enjoy it! Look, I’m sure this trip to Tails will just fly by – geddit?”

And with the barely-audible sound of Shadow’s disgruntled muttering (and very pointed opinions on his sense of humour) in his ears, Sonic set off for the Mystic Ruins and his little brother’s workshop, the slight dread he had felt when thinking about what night time would bring more than tempered for the moment by the sheer awesomeness of having the first Shadow kite in the world.

 

To be continued…

 

Chapter 2 - Hitting the Sky by Taranea
Chapter 2: Hitting the Sky

“Wheeeeeeeeeee-!”

“Will you stop enjoying this?! “

Shadow the Hedgehog was not in a good mood.

This day had started with complete amnesia, violent sickness, and a head that felt like it would split in three (which was worse than just two) any moment. But contrary to your typical hangover, Shadow had also woken up with giant wings. To add to that, right now he was being pulled along like a (very spiteful) kite by none other than Sonic the Hedgehog, the fastest thing alive and - in the Ultimate Lifeform’s opinion – also the most annoying one.

“But Shads, it is fun!” the blue speedster retorted at this point, only cementing Shadow’s view further by suddenly swerving wildly to the side in his high-speed dash, causing the black hedgehog to make an abrupt half-turn.

“Hyaaaaaak!” Shadow screeched in surprise, again grabbing at his throat in shock at the unfamiliar, bird-like sound escaping from his mouth. “Cut this out or I swear I will drag you out to sea,” the black hedgehog hissed, pointing threateningly at the expanse of blue ocean below the cliffs they were racing along. Sonic below him seemed to turn just a little bit more sky-blue in the face for a moment, but at least appeared to acknowledge the Ultimate Lifeform’s demands this time around.

“Chaos, calm down. Was jus’ trying to make this more exciting, you didn’t hafta jump straight down my throat for it,” the blue hedgehog defended himself,but at least once more running in a straight line.

Shadow scrunched up his snout, a little bit appeased even if by no means entirely placated. “Hmph.”

“Okay, I’m sorry…” Sonic was looking up at him once more, his expression now apologetic and Shadow actually had to raise an eye-ridge at this unexpected development – right before the mischievous sparkle returned into Sonic’s eyes and the blue hedgehog continued, “…if I ruffled your feathers, that is.”

Shadow wistfully imagined he could already dive-bomb that hedgehog like an actual bird of prey.

“Go and get yourself blunted, faker,” he grated instead, choosing a hedgehog insult where an avian attack was not available. Sonic snickered at the reproach, but didn’t argue further, instead focusing entirely on the path ahead again, which was fine with Shadow.

The black hedgehog so far had covered it up fairly well, but on the inside, he was just starting to freak out a little. He had woken up in a pool of his own blood. Had woken up as a freak.

Well.

Had woken up as more of a freak, probably, but still…

What had happened? Shadow racked his brain as to his adventures of the previous night. Nothing too far out of the ordinary, certainly – but wait, hadn’t he started to feel dizzy at the end…? He’d been sick a month ago as well, and reckoned it was a bit of residual illness. So he’d simply went to bed and then there had been nothing but darkness and feverish nightmares until the sun woke him…to a nightmare that was real.

A sudden gust of wind shook Shadow from his musings and the black hedgehog had to flap his wings hastily and clumsily to not lose balance. It was an energy-consuming task and one that he wasn’t all used to yet – how on Mobius did Rouge make this flying business look so easy?!

“Are we there yet?” he asked of his blue-furred guide and the azure hedgehog glanced up briefly.

“Almost. See Tails’ house up ahead? I’ll try to slow down, you try to land without breaking a leg of yours…”

Shadow’s mouth narrowed into a thin line as the Ultimate Lifeform attempted to comply – images of alighting birds were dragged out of his memory and he tried to imitate them, angling his wings a bit more steeply to stop his forward flight, bringing his legs below him again, jets switching on automatically for stabilization…

In the end, it looked by no means very graceful, black and white pinions jerking back and forth while the black hedgehog’s arms flailed wildly and it was probably his rocket shoes alone that let him land right-side-up at all, but at the very least he had managed to land on his feet and one knee, and that was something. Shadow straightened up, his gaze daring Sonic who had waited and watched to comment. Black wings on his back flapped once more before folding themselves neatly against his body, an almost unconscious movement, it seemed. Sonic raised an eyebrow but for a change refrained from saying anything, just waving a hand for Shadow to follow.

“Well, that seems to have worked. Come on, Tails’ house is just up these stairs,” he said, skipping up the staircase dug from stone that would lead to the place where the hero of Mobius and his kid brother had fought the Egg Hornet more than three years ago, Tails’ workshop-cum-house and the runway for his planes right next to it.

Shadow followed slightly less bouncily after having torn through the strips of his harness, the texture of the feathers feeling strange against his fur. What on Mobius could have caused this mutation? Part of him desperately hoped Sonic was right and the eclipse had caused this, (and therefore it could be somehow remedied) but another part of him worried it wasn’t due to external influence at all. Was it another freakish Easter egg his creator Professor Gerald had (knowingly or unknowingly) placed in his genetic code? Used some bird DNA in his search for the Ultimate Lifeform and the cure for Maria?
Maria… what would you think of me if you saw me like this?

“Oy! Come on, Shads, you’ve got wings, not a perambulator! Hurry up!” Sonic called, looking down at the slowly ascending hedgehog. Shadow gave a scowl in reply, wondering whether it was just him or the blue hedgehog was even more impatient than usual today.

“Tails! Hey Tails! Tails, open the door!” The hero of Mobius was banging at the kit’s workshop entrance now while shouting with all the volume and rudeness only the bestest of friends (and possibly bailiffs) were allowed to employ.

“I’m coming! What is it?!” the fox’s light voice was heard and there were a few clangs from the back, suggesting he’d dropped something (and a few curses, suggesting he’d also picked something up…) and then finally there were footsteps and the door was yanked open by a slightly oil-smudged nine year old. He looked at Sonic with curious blue eyes. “Hi, Sonic! Is anything wrong?”

“You bet there is! It’s Gaia, Tails, it’s happening again, the transformation and everything, and this time it’s got Shadow as well!” the blue hero waved his arms wildly, not caring how much sense this might make to anyone but him. Tails frowned.
“What do you mean it’s got Shad…oh.” The fox’ lips formed into a small perfect circle as he for the first time beheld the form of Shadow, the black hedgehog finally having climbed the last of the stairs.
He was silhouetted sharply against the sunlight and not for the first time, Tails was rather forcefully reminded that what people defined as ‘physical law’ did not seem to exist in the same universe as Sonic did. (Tails had a private theory that physical law had once existed on Mobius, but as soon as Sonic was born it gave up and went to go run a bar or something.)

“Are you quite done gawking now?” Shadow growled at the small kit, not appreciating anyone staring at him ever since having grown up as the primary object of fascination surrounded by scientists aboard the space colony ARK. Tails immediately flinched.

“Sorry! I mean, er, do you want to come inside?” the little fox offered, ducking his head between his shoulders slightly, namesakes swishing nervously as he gestured for the Ultimate Lifeform to enter. Shadow was glad that even though his wings had measured almost five feet in wingspan when he had spread them, folded on his back they were quite compact. The tips were just a little bit higher than his head, the pinion feathers level with the backs of his knees which meant he could at least pass through the door without problems.

Inside, he looked around. It had been more than a year since he’d last been to the fox’ place, but not much had changed. The house was mostly one giant space – Tails apparently believed in the open-plan look. The ground floor was split into a bit of living area and kitchen as well as a huge workshop while sleeping places, bathroom and balcony were on the first floor. The main laboratory, where Tails conducted his more expensive and complicated engineering feats, was built into the basement, both for security and safety reasons, (since ‘Complicated’ usually meant ‘various things going boom’…). Right now the fox looked at the stairs leading down to the lab a bit insecurely.

“So, uh, if you want to head down so we could do some tests-”
“Not so fast, kit,” Shadow interrupted. “Your blue friend here thinks this nightmare has something to do with the eclipse today. What is that about?”

“The eclipse?” Tails repeated, his young mind once more focusing on today’s events after the shock of seeing a winged hedgehog had passed. “Well, actually, that was weird, yeah. They’ve been talking about it on the news – some strange object passed right in front of the sun and then just disappeared, nobody has any idea what’s going on. Some say it was a sort of meteorite that has now crashed into the sea somewhere, GUN’s in a frenzy trying to find out what on Mobius it was or whether it’s even hit the planet. And trying to squelch the rumours and conspiracy theories, of course,” the fox added. He reached out with one gloved hand to pick up the remote and turn on the TV. It showed mostly pictures of Westopolis, a military spokesperson being interviewed while in the background the usual people who liked proclaiming the apocalypse were shouting a bit.

Shadow stared at the screen; a chill going through him as the television displayed a wire-frame diagram showing the trajectory the ‘unknown object’ had taken in order to blot out the sun. Something felt very wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it…

“You guys wanna watch this? I’ll get us some drinks,” Sonic said, tearing Shadow from his thoughts once again as he headed past the other two into the kitchenette where he started to rummage around in the fridge. “Shads, you like Coke?”

“I have wings sprouting from my bloodied back, hedgehog, and you ask me whether I have a penchant for a caffeinated soft drink?”

“What, you want Red Bull? I mean, come on, it’s not like it’s gonna make it worse. You want ice cubes as well?” Sonic continued, unperturbed, meanwhile opening three cans. He nearly dropped the third one as Shadow was all at once snarling in his face, though.

“DO YOU THINK THIS IS A JOKE, DAMMIT?!” the black hedgehog screeched and for the first time, the smile actually dimmed on Sonic’s face, emerald eyes blinking in slight shock as he faced his panting, snarling black double, crimson eyes glaring and wings slightly ruffled in agitation. Sonic slowly placed the drink on the counter.

“…no. No, I’m not, Shadow,” he said, swallowing and folding his ears against his head as he realized that the other was apparently more upset about this recent development than he had thought so far. A part of Sonic had the impulse to lay a hand on the other’s shoulder or to comfort him, but he realized with a pang in his chest that the other would probably just push him away. But Sonic really wanted to help him…
“Look, I’m sorry. I mean, I’ve been through this before, but I guess I’ve forgotten how terrified I was at the beginning. It’s gonna be okay, Shadow. We’ll find a way to fix this.”

“You keep saying you understand what I’m going through,” the black hedgehog replied with a frown. “I still don’t understand what you mean by that.”

“What?” Tails asked. “Where were you when the planet broke apart four weeks ago?”

“Is that what actually happened?” Shadow asked back, slight surprise on his face. “I thought I’d made that bit up in my fever. I was feeling horribly sick last month and spent an entire week dead to the world. Did the Doctor try to take over the world again?”

“Yeah, bit like that,” Sonic replied, raising an eye-ridge. Robotnik had indeed upset the planet’s lifeforce and indirectly caused Sonic to transform into a werehog at night after a failed experiment to defeat Super Sonic. Mobius had remained a planetary puzzle until its hero had managed to defeat Dark Gaia and with the help of the Chaos Emeralds restored to world to its proper shape again. “I had been wondering why you and Rouge weren’t around anywhere while everything was going to heck. So you were sick, eh?”

“For some reason, yeah,” Shadow grumbled, the entire thing just becoming more complicated by the minute in his head. “Rouge took care of me while I was out. Don’t think she had any more time to deal with the Doctor’s craziness back then, either,” the black hedgehog said, before then actually snapping – or trying to snap – his talon-like fingers. “Rouge. I should call her. Maybe she knows anything about the eclipse from GUN by now…” Shadow strode back into the corridor and picked up Tails’ phone from the little table outside.

Calling Rouge would actually be a good idea. She was the closest thing Shadow had to a friend - not that either of the two would admit it - while they lived together, occasionally worked together and had saved each other’s lives a number of times. Shadow idly wondered what the bat might say when she found out that the Ultimate Lifeform had just become the tiniest bit more like her…

“He hasn’t got any idea what happened to you?“ Tails whispered to Sonic quietly as the other hedgehog was busy dialling around the corner. The hero of Mobius gave a shrug.

“Don’t think so. Am not entirely too keen on him finding out about it, either, to be honest,” he said, briefly rubbing the back of his head and gazing at the ceiling. “Couldn’t beat him in a race for starters,” he gave a slightly lop-sided grin, “Then again, it’s not like I’ve got a choice. During the eclipse I transformed briefly, so he’s gonna find out about it as soon as that damned moon comes up tonight anyway.” Sonic heaved an uncharacteristic sigh, ears drooping and quills deflating. It was clear the blue hedgehog was looking forward to neither the pain the forced change brought with, nor the other complications. Tails chewed his lip, large unhappy blue eyes indicating he very much wanted to help his older brother, but by then Sonic had already cast a glance over his shoulder and called out to their most recent house guest again.

“Hey! Shads! You’ve got her on the line or what?” he shouted toward the corner. There was a click of the receiver being replaced before the black hedgehog appeared again, his mood seemingly not improved.

“No. She’s not at home, maybe they’ve got her investigating right now. That, or she’s out shopping on a two wings discount,” he added dryly, causing a slight chuckle on Sonic’s part. The Ultimate Lifeform crossed his arms. “So, before I go to Westopolis and hunt down either her or GUN myself - thereby making Elephant Man look like a sideshow attraction in comparison - what can we do here?” he asked, looking from Sonic to Tails in a way that indicated he wasn’t placing much confidence in either of them. Tails cleared his throat, his namesakes swishing nervously as he tried to speak.

“We-ell, first, I’d try to analyze your feathers to see whether they in fact have anything to do with Gaia. We should also take a look at that necklace of yours,” he said, his gaze wandering upwards to the orange bauble that looked so similar to the light blue one Sonic wore on his wrist. “And then…and then…” the fox kit seemingly had to swallow before he could bring himself to utter the next sentence to a foreboding Shadow’s face.

“Ho-how about…flying lessons?”

xxx

Even this late into the afternoon, the air around the Emerald Shrine held a dusty chill. The island was hanging high up in the atmosphere – higher than the Guardian would usually take it, which accounted for the dry cool. But he had his reasons.

Knuckles paid no mind to the weather as he knelt on the cold stone platform, his hands outstretched in supplication as he chanted an ancient prayer, his violet eyes focussed on the light that glinted of the perfect facets of the Master Emerald. Breathing slowly and evenly, he sank bit by bit into a deep, meditative state, allowing his mind to drift and seek out the connection he had with the Master Emerald.

He rarely did this, since the power wasn’t meant to be used lightly. But something was horribly wrong, he had known that since the darkness had swept across the sun, leaving everything in twilight. There had been nothing natural about that eclipse, and that had worried him enough to seek the wisdom the Emeralds.

Images began to form in his mind. A burning cobalt flame that danced with ever-bright light, which Knuckles recognised after a moment to mean Sonic. The echidna just barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes – typical of the blue hedgehog to be caught up in this. The parade of images continued, flooding into his brain ever faster and letting him sink even further into meditation in concentration, both Guardian and Sacred Isle floating high in the sky and far from the reach of the surface world, unaware of any drama unfolding below.

xxx


Flying lessons.”

The tone in which Shadow uttered the phrase was comparable to someone pronouncing the words ‘Baby pancakes’. The black hedgehog scowled even more when he became aware of his blue doppelganger having trouble to hide his laughter at his reaction.

“I think that’s an awesome idea. We can film it and blackmail you for all eternity.”

There was the cold sensation of a gun pressing against Sonic’s temple ever so subtly.
“I think I have mentioned that I am slightly upset about recently having mutated, hedgehog,” Shadow explained calmly, but nevertheless with a certain undertone that suggested it was a bit like the calm you might find in outer space – quiet and serene only because you wouldn’t even get the chance to scream when you died. The hero of Mobius swallowed.

“Yes. I, uh, suddenly remember. Sorry. Hey, why don’t I go and call Knuckles to find out whether he knows of anything weird going down at the moment?”

“Maybe you should do that,” Shadow agreed and the blue speedster vanished around the corner as soon as the gun had stopped touching his head. Shadow sighed and sheathed it again within his head quills.

“Damn,” he muttered. That blue lunatic of all people had to find him…

“Errr…please don’t shoot in my house?” Tails roused the Ultimate Lifeform from his pondering by nervously raising a finger. Shadow gave him a somewhat weary glare.

“Then tell that idiot to behave himself. But it doesn’t seem like I could pull the trigger with these claws, anyway…” he grumbled, again looking at his transformed hands. Sonic hadn’t noticed, but it did seem like guns were another option that had been taken from him…Shadow gnashed his teeth together to stop himself from uttering another few choice swearwords.

“I think we should worry about that later,” Tails said, trying to regain a bit of his confidence. “For now we can run the tests I’ve talked about and while the computer’s calculating, maybe we can help you get used to your new form,” the fox kit suggested, at the same time leading the way down to the lab, Shadow following reluctantly. Ever since his time aboard the ARK he had taken a strong dislike to laboratories of any kind, especially if he was supposed to be the subject of experiments in there.

“You and the faker both seem remarkably relaxed about what’s happened to me,” Shadow stated as they descended the staircase and Tails switched the lights on to reveal a quite spacious room. It was filled mainly with one computer and various peripherals, but also tools and a smaller working bench as well as medical equipment and a stretcher bed, indicating that perhaps this room also doubled as a sick bay whenever Sonic or anybody else had gotten hurt on their adventures. Shadow folded his arms and leaned against the wall somewhat awkwardly, having to fold the wings on his back out of the way to be able to rest comfortably.

Tails cast a glance over his shoulder while he booted the computer.
“Well...like I said, it’s not the first time we’ve witnessed a transformation like yours. But I guess Sonic should probably tell you about it himself.”

“Hm,” Shadow commented, now frowning at the floor and his rocket shoes, the last thing on his body that still seemed to be unharmed from this morning of madness. He was still shaken up about what had happened to him, even if he took care not to let it show too much.

“Please don’t be too mad at Sonic for joking around like he did. That’s just how he is. And besides, I think he was actually trying to cheer you up,” the fox said at this point, childlike blue eyes blinking at Shadow even while the Ultimate Lifeform still refused to meet the other’s gaze.

“Well, then somebody better tell him he’s doing a shoddy job of it,” he replied instead offhandedly, but with bitterness still lacing his tone, almost succeeding in hiding the not-quite lie contained in his words.
Because, actually, now that he thought of it, it was correct that Sonic’s flippant manner had annoyed him, but at the same time it had also prevented him from losing it or breaking down…Shadow was suddenly reminded that a lot of other people finding him in that ditch, soiled with blood and shivering, would have probably freaked out and descended into panic themselves. Yet Sonic – even if all the while cracking inane jokes – had automatically offered his assistance and at least come up with the beginnings of a plan of action.

“I, uh, I’d need to take some test samples of you now,” Tails was waving a hand in front of Shadow’s eyes to attract the Ultimate Lifeform’s attention again. “Is that okay?”

“What do you need?” Crimson eyes snapped back into focus immediately, letting Tails swallow. Why couldn’t this guy look a bit friendly for once?

“Some feathers, mostly. A chip of your talons couldn’t hurt, and maybe some blood. I’d also like to take a look at your pendant, but that can wait until later.”

“Right. Go ahead, then,” the black hedgehog replied, his own desire to know what had caused his transformation greater than his dislike of once again being prodded and poked in a laboratory. Tails nodded, using first a sort of scalpel-like knife to carefully cut away a thin scrap off one of Shadow’s black-clawed fingers, his small hands remarkably steady and careful. Tails put the sample into a small air-tight container and set it aside, returning a moment later with a rather foreboding-looking set of tweezers.

“This is probably going to hurt a little…” the fox announced, trying to remain steady. This was his area of expertise, even if Shadow looked less than pleased at the prospect of basically getting one of his feathers torn out. The black hedgehog was about to protest when they were both interrupted by a familiar, bouncing tread on the staircase.

“Bad news, guys, can’t reach Knuckles either. Either that eclipse sent him into total paranoia mode and he’s standing atop that Emerald with a giant baseball bat right now, or… well, that first idea sounds pretty likely, actually. We should check up on him later. Not that you’d have any trouble getting up there, huh?” Sonic announced, favouring Shadow with another grin (even if noticeably keeping out of his dark doppelganger’s reach).

“Sonic, if you don’t want to swallow that soft drink can of yours square, I suggestAH!”

“Sorry!” Tails looked a bit sheepish as Shadow whirled around with murder in his eyes, glaring at the fox now holding a small, black feather in his gloved hands. The kit tried an unconvincing grin. “It seemed like a good idea. Look, I even got blood of you all in one go, right? I mean, please don’t kill me.”

“Let up on the kid, he meant well.” Sonic placed a hand on the black hedgehog’s shoulder. “Here, I got you your drink.”

“Fine. You get that one for free,” Shadow declared with a side-glance at Tails, having to remind himself the fox was doing this as a service for him. He finally took the offered beverage from Sonic as well, his anger toward the other having abated a little. Damn if those eyes of his wouldn’t look so sympathetic all the time…

Shadow tried to concentrate on something else.

He took a sip from his drink, snout slightly crunching up as he was less than fond of the sickeningly sweet taste. No wonder the hedgehog was so high all the time if he drank nothing than this sugar-in-a-can.

“Well, how about we go up now and see about your flying capabilities while we wait for the results? Not trying to sound pessimistic here, but if this is all caused by Eggman, we have to be ready for combat soon as possible,” Sonic pointed out. “Plus, if this was a video game, we’d totally need a tutorial!”

“If this were a video game, I’d return it to the store and shoot the developer,” Shadow muttered under his breath, once again wondering which birth defect could have hotwired Sonic’s default state to permanent unnatural enthusiasm. Aloud, he said: “Okay. Let’s try this,” while heading back for the stairs, the other two following as the machines whirred in the background.

It was strange. Even though he usually preferred the indoors, having been raised aboard the confines of ARK for all of his childhood, now he actually found that a part of him was suddenly yearning for the outside, the wide, open skies, blue and inviting…

Shadow firmly stopped that mental train of thought, privately hoping it would derail violently and every flight of fancy riding inside it would die a horrid death. Ugh…

Wait, ‘flight of fancy’? Was his subconscious plotting against him, now? He had enough with Sonic’s puns without his inner monologue joining in.

The trio of Sapients emerged from Tails’ house, stepping blinking into the sunlight. Sonic clapped into his hands. “Okay, cool!”

He paused.

“So, uh, how we gonna do this?”

Shadow felt a bit like calling the entire venture off.

Fortunately, Tails stepped forward. “Well, I think at first just try what comes naturally. If you need help taking off, you can try flapping your wings while running, that’s how I first managed to fly. And if everything else fails, we can always push you off the roof.”

“Great,” Shadow replied insincerely, but still moved a bit away from them, knowing that if he were to move his wings, he’d need more space. Slowly, he spread his new appendages, feeling strange unfamiliar muscles shift in his back…

He beat his wings for the first time.

And the resulting wind pressure almost knocked him over backwards.

Stop laughing.”

“I’m not, Shadow, honest,” Sonic tried to convince him rather unsuccessfully while grinning as if he was trying to separate the upper half of his face. In truth, he was really trying his hardest not to - if only, oh if only the otherwise always so aloof and frustratingly collected ‘Ultimate Lifeform’ weren’t so flustered and cute as soon as he felt the situation was not under his control anymore...Sonic had to do an abrupt mental double take as he wondered whether he had really just applied ‘cute’ as a label to the guy who had held him at gun point not ten minutes ago.
Chaos. The last time I had to deal with this werehog stuff, I at least knew I was staying *sane*.

“Maybe you ought to try the running approach first. It gets easier when you’ve done it a couple of times,” Tails interjected at this point, interrupting Sonic’s thoughts, the blue hedgehog by now hoping that the sudden heat he could feel on his cheeks stemmed from the sunlight and not something else…

Shadow inclined his head, not looking at the blue hedgehog. “Right. I can’t run too fast in this form, but I’ll try.” His skates flared into hissing life as the sand below them was scorched and the Ultimate Lifeform now hovered over the ground. Shadow pushed forward, feeling the aerial resistance push against his wings, but refusing to fold them; he’d need to make use of that very force to eventually take off. Scowling at the novel difficulties, Shadow just poured more power into his jet shoes, moving his feet in the graceful skating motion that so far had been his primary mode of transport but could be no more. He was accelerating steadily along the runway in front of Tails’ house, acutely aware of the wind brushing against the underside of his wings, knowing he’d have to brake, turn, or take off soon or else he’d fall down the cliff he was heading toward. Shadow leaned forward as he usually did when acquiring speed, and he could feel how that aligned his wings more effectively with the flow of the air past him, started to carry him…Shadow beat his wings for the second time. And took off.

Yes!” He couldn’t help but give a rare, wild grin for a second as his feet left the ground and nothing but thin air supported him – before crashing right back to the ground.

“No! Dammit!” Shadow cursed, barely managing to come to a juddering halt before he would have skated right into the ocean below. Sonic, and a second later Tails were at his side in an instant.

“Shadow! You okay? That looked pretty good!” Sonic offered him a genuine smile and a thumbs-up. “Just try not to fall into the sea,” the blue hedgehog advised sagely, a small shudder indicating just what kind of relation the hero of Mobius had with said element.

“I won’t.” Shadow waved him off. “I got to take off, but couldn’t stay in the air. I need to be able to move my wings faster.” He moved past them to try again, and both Tails and Sonic couldn’t help but share a smile – neither of them failing to recognize just how similar Shadow’s attitude was to Sonic’s own at times.

Unaware of any friendship conspiracies behind his back, Shadow merely shot off once more, this time managing to flap his wings sooner than during the first attempt, but still not able to actually remain airborne, the ground always coming up to meet him before he could rise any higher. He tried again and again, but even if he managed to beat his wings twice, and once even thrice before dropping down again, in the end, it was still rather frustrating. Plus, the sheer size of the wings was starting to take its toll on his yet unaccustomed muscles. Scowling, Shadow turned around to walk back to the other two – at which point he noticed that Sonic was lying on the floor beating the cement with his fists and Tails biting down on his lower lip to desperately hide his giggles.
“Anything funny about me?”

Shadow asked the question without yelling, but its tone was the verbal equivalent of a rocket launcher being directed at you. Sonic was still convulsing with laughter on the ground, but at least Tails did not seem to have an immediate death wish and tried to give an explanation.

“N-no, but…you know, you jumping, wildly flapping your wings, falling down and fl-fl-flailing, and ru-running around,” the kit started, having trouble to speak clearly in between giggles, “Sonic said it…it looked a bit like…like...a chicken…”

At which point both hedgehog and fox howled with laughter again and Shadow for a moment wished Doom’s Eye was here again so he’d have an excuse to blow up the planet.

“Right. This is pointless. I’m leaving to find Rouge,” the black hedgehog instead replied coldly, turning around without gracing the two Mobians with so much as another look. Sonic instantly sobered up.

“No, wait!” The blue hedgehog jumped to his feet, his form blurring as he zipped in front of Shadow, barring his way. “I’m sorry, please stay. We can try something else. I promise I won’t laugh anymore.”

“I’m not some form of cheap entertainment, hedgehog,” Shadow glared at him. “Get out of my way.”

Sonic’s face fell, and for some odd reason Shadow briefly got the strange impression he’d actually hurt the other. Sonic looked away.

“I…you’re not. Entertainment, I mean.” He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry if I’ve actually upset you. I didn’t mean to. It’s just…” The tip of his shoe scuffed the ground briefly and he folded his arms. “It’s just that this transformation business is pretty grizzly. And yeah, scary. Even to me,” he said, now very definitely not looking at Shadow but the black hedgehog could see the white-gloved fingers of the other digging into the peach-furred arms as the hero of Mobius was obviously uncomfortable with the subject matter. He also wondered whether he had imagined the lightest flush in the blue hedgehog’s face for a moment…

“When I’m joking around, I’m just trying to deal with it, see? That’s my way to stay sane. Yours is, I dunno, being grumpy all the time,” Sonic shrugged, emerald eyes briefly meeting slightly narrowing crimson ones, still wary and apologetic at the same time. “But what I’m trying to say is, I really, genuinely, want to help you. And I’m in the same boat as you, so you’ll probably have enough opportunity to make me suffer later,” he added, looking none too thrilled at the prospect. He finally met Shadow’s gaze. “Apology accepted?”

Shadow exhaled slowly.

“Fine. One last chance. But I’m going to expect a full explanation of your part in this situation soon.”

“Sure! Later, I promise,” Sonic agreed eagerly, emerald eyes lighting up like a miniature sunrise once more. “Now how about we get you on the roof?”

xxx

“This doesn’t look very safe,” Shadow commented. He was also staring at the 30 feet drop below them, imagining himself on the ground looking a bit like the dead feral pigeons one found at the side of motorways.

“Nah, it’ll be alright,” Tails insisted, hovering in front of him, namesakes spinning in their familiar motion, “If you fall, I’ll catch you. Besides, both you and Sonic have managed worse jumps, so this should be an okay height to start with.”

“Hnh,” Shadow replied non-committally, still wondering why he was doing this at all. Beside him stood Sonic, totally at ease at the edge of the roof, eyes momentarily closed in bliss at the ocean breeze ruffling his fur in the sunshine, almost appearing as if he was enjoying his last day alive and had to soak up every minute of it. For a single moment, Shadow almost envied the other hedgehog’s complete lust for life, and that was one moment too long. Shadow shook his head at those nonsense thoughts and instead tried to focus on the task at hand again.

“Okay.” He spread his wings. “Here goes nothing.”

Shadow leapt.

And almost crashed into the ground 10 metres in front of the house, had Tails not caught him by the wrist beforehand.

“Gotcha!”

“Damn,” Shadow hissed as he was carried back to the roof and the waiting Sonic, annoyed with his lack of coordination.

The blue hedgehog shook his head. “Tsk-tsk, Shadow…I think you need some heroic assistance to show you how to fly.”

“Oh yeah? And pray tell, where is that coming from while Rouge is out?” the black hedgehog commented acerbically. “You certainly can’t fly unless challenged by megalomaniac canaries.”

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Sonic sighed in mock-hurt, before rapidly wagging his finger. “But hey, you keep trying, I’ll just get something.” The blue hedgehog jumped down onto the balcony and disappeared inside, leaving the two others alone.

Shadow exchanged a look with Tails, who shrugged; it basically implied that he didn’t know either what his insane older brother was up to now, but didn’t consider it to be too great a source of worry.

“Well, okay, why don’t we try this again,” Tails said instead, “From what I know of aerodynamics, your main problem was that you try to upright yourself too much. Try to fall more horizontally.”

Shadow raised an eye ridge at this gem bit of advice, but didn’t say anything in return. The bit of gliding he’d managed beforehand had been a start, at any rate. He stepped toward the edge of the roof again, this time flapping his wings even before his legs pushed him off. The result was a slightly nauseating lurch as gravity battled the air supporting him, but Shadow refused to give in, giving a second, third, fourth wing beat before he once again lost his balance and started to tumble head over heels toward the ground. Tails managed to catch his ankle.

“Hey, that was pretty good!” the fox called down to the upside-down black hedgehog. Shadow was about to reply, but then something caught his eye and effectively stopped that thought.

“Is that the faker on your house roof again?” he asked, squinting against the sunlight as he tried to make out the figure while he still dangled. Tails tilted his head, the fox’s expression torn somewhere between confusion and amusement.

“Yes…”

“And is he wearing a bed sheet around his neck?”

“Uh…yes…”

“And can you tell me why the hell-?

By the Power of Greyquill, I am Captain Mobius! …or something!” Sonic shouted at this point, raising a fist toward the sky.

“What the – seriously, did someone drop him on his head or-?”

“No…” Tails managed.

“Hey, Shadow! Having fun dangling? Here, lemme show you how a real hero flies!” Sonic called – before launching himself off the roof.

“Fly me back,” Shadow dead-panned to Tails still holding him. “Now I’ve got to learn how to fly simply so I can dive-bomb him and his silly cape at some point.”

Sonic meanwhile had spun in the air and landed gracefully (thereby tearing the sheet over his back to shreds) and was now racing below them.

Tails sighed. “And those were my favourite sheets… I really hate it when he’s hit the caffeine.”

“To infininity and beyond!”

“Right.” With a supreme effort, Shadow managed to beat his wings while still suspended in the air, thereby instantly destabilizing Tails with his sheer mass, who had to let go.

“I’ll show you which one of us can fly!” Shadow shouted, finally released and for the first time, Sonic stopped – and was, frankly, a little awed.

Wow…

Shadow could feel the sun burn into his black feathers as he had spread them wide against the sky. His upside-down start had meant that he immediately slipped into the right position – and now he soared. His shadow passed over a wide-eyed Sonic’s face, his chest expanding as he breathed in for another powerful wing beat, for the first time gaining height all by himself.

“Way to go, Shadow, you did it!” Sonic cheered from below, the black hedgehog barely able to hear him over the rushing of the wind in his ears and the roaring of blood and adrenaline in his body.

Below him, he almost couldn’t believe how the landscape flitted past, the experience dizzying, terrifying and exhilarating all at once. He had flown before, of course, either dangling from Rouge’s hands, riding his Extreme Gear, or enveloped by the power of Chaos, Super Shadow reigning supreme, but this
Shadow had trouble not to break into another uncharacteristic feral grin, the experience of actually supporting oneself in the air against the forces of physics far greater than he had imagined. His arms spread to his sides for better balance, wings once more cutting through the air like fins through water, air currents dancing tingling along his wing tips…

“Shadow, watch out!”

“What?!”

Tails was suddenly flying alongside him, eyes wide and pointing at something.

“You need to turn!”

“Turn? How do I-?!”

It was at this point that the Ultimate Lifeform crashed into a poplar.

xxx

“Uh…”

Shadow’s world was very blurry, very painful, way too bright and filled with not enough ice packs.

“I think he’s coming to. Believe me, Tails, we hedgehogs have thick skulls.”

“Yes. I think I’ve noticed.”

Two voices began to make themselves heard, both familiar (even if the second one was loaded with just a little bit of uncharacteristic sarcasm).

Something large, blue and curious loomed into his view.

“Hey, Shads. Waking up?”

“Un..fortunately…” Shadow managed, gnashing his teeth and forcing his body to sit up despite his pounding headache and a fair share of bruises. “What actually happened?”

Sonic shrugged. “You hit a tree, dude. Before that, you looked mighty cool, though.” He grinned.

“So I did, apparently.” Shadow managed, making it purposefully unclear to which statement he was replying to. Especially since a little something had just done a bit of a flip inside his body when Sonic had told him he had looked ‘cool’…
That crash must have hit me harder than I thought. Since when did I care about compliments, exactly?

Shadow briefly rubbed the side of his head, before raising himself with the help of the poplar and then standing on his own two feet, nothing seriously hurt or broken. A sudden irrational fear overcame him as he briefly wondered whether his new, more fragile appendages might be damaged, but was able to expand them with ease, a few bent feathers the only result of his fall.

“Do you want to try again? Or should we head inside to see whether the tests have produced anything?” Tails asked, blue eyes evidently surveying the black hedgehog for more than external damage.

Shadow inclined his head. “Let’s go back. For more flying lessons I’d rather wait until I can reach Rouge and not Captain Bedsheet.”

“Okay,” Tails simply shrugged, by now knowing better than expect Shadow to give thanks for his help. And, of course, Sonic immediately took offence at his ‘awesome costume’ being ‘dissed’ and so the usual bickering resumed until they were back at the workshop and Tails pushed the door open.

“Right. Another round of drinks for you guys before we head down, or-?”

The young fox and the two hedgehogs fell silent as soon as their gaze fell onto the still running television. Onscreen, the news reporter had changed to a male one and it still showed pictures of Westopolis – but now the reporter’s voice was frantic, and the pictures were full of fire and smoke.

The building of the city bank was burning and had a large, gaping hole in the side, the street and sidewalk torn up as if a rocket had crashed and exploded in there. In the background, GUN vehicles were rushing toward the site and soldiers swarming the premises. The news anchor was trying to be heard of the background din as he seemed to be shouting something about what had been stolen or what was being stolen – it wasn’t easy to tell – but then finally, something of his garbled speech made it through to the ears of the staring Sapients in Tails’ living room.

“-fortunately, GUN has arrived, sending in –rrrkhzt- bravest and finest to combat the -kzzzht – and here he is – Shadow the Hedgehog!” he declared and at the same time, the unmistakeable shape of the Ultimate Lifeform appeared onscreen – wingless, clawless, but toting his signature gun.

Sonic could suddenly feel Tails grip his hand tightly enough to hurt.

“Sonic…if that is Shadow, then who is this?”

To be continued…
When Darkness Falls by Skyblaze
Advent of Equinox

Advent of Equinox

 

Chapter Three - When Darkness Falls

 

“That isn’t me.”

 

Every word sounded like it was ground to powder as it came through Shadow’s tightly clenched teeth. Tails was staring at him as though he expected the winged hedgehog to flip out and kill everybody at any moment.

 

Sonic seemed to recover first, “Any idea who it could be, Shads?” the blue hedgehog was privately wondering if Shadow now knew how he had felt when the Ultimate Lifeform had first shown up – identity theft was no fun at all.

Of course, the question here also was who really was the real Shadow. Was it the one who actually looked like it, or… Sonic’s eyes briefly flitted over the form of the winged hedgehog before him, saw the taloned fists clenched with suppressed rage and knew he had already made up his mind. Those red eyes were filled with that burning fury he’d already witnessed before, and then there had been that moment when Sonic had found him, curled up and shivering – and the hero of Mobius was sure no clone could have faked that brief flash of fear and pain brought on by scarred memories he’d seen in the gaze of the other.

 

And even if he is a clone – he certainly thinks he’s the real Shadow and as such, he deserves my help. I swear, when I find out who did this…

 

Shadow met Sonic’s stare as if he had heard the other’s thoughts. The blue hedgehog wondered for a moment whether there even seemed to be the tiniest bit of relief  in it that Sonic was not about to question the other’s identity…

  

Shadow’s forehead creased in thought, “The Doctor - he had some… copies of me,” he said, somewhat hesitantly. Inside his head, thoughts and emotions were already tumbling over one another in the haphazard fashion of a tornado, tearing at barely-healed inner wounds like a tempest at the unprotected houses of a defenceless village.

 

Shadow stomped down on it hard.

 

That isn’t me. I won’t allow it to be.

 

He had been down that road one time too many already. He knew he was the real Shadow, even if he had woken up with those unnatural wings on his back. This was simply a copy. Had to be. Shadow’s clawed fists clenched even harder, the points of the talons now almost drawing blood as they dug into the skin of his palm.

 

I. Am. All of me.

 

Crimson eyes blazed as he held the emerald gaze of the other, daring the blue hedgehog to make a suggestion to the contrary. But there didn’t seem to be the slightest suspicion on Sonic’s part… Shadow swallowed, wondering where that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach could suddenly be coming from.

 

Tails piped up at this point, ears having pricked forward at Shadow’s words, “Copies?” the kit asked, “Like clones?”

 

Shadow shook his head, “I’m not certain if they were clones or robots.” He wasn’t about to divulge the fact that he’d been concerned for a while that he himself was actually one of those copies. They didn’t need that kind of information, and Sonic certainly didn’t need more ammunition.

 

Sonic snorted, “Sounds like ol’ Eggman’s style. He’s got a thing for robot doubles.”

 

“So what do we do, Sonic?” Tails asked, looking trustingly at his big brother, the years seeming to fall off him as all signs of his wisdom and ability as a scientist and engineer seemed to drop away to reveal the young child he still was.

 

Sonic just shrugged, “We go check it out,” he replied easily.

 

“How do you propose ‘we’ do that, Faker?” Shadow challenged him now only focused on the task at hand anymore as soon as he’d been able to rid himself of his other doubts, “I can’t run there and I still don’t know how to fly with these damn things.” The only other solution he could think of was Chaos Control – and he wasn’t sure he wanted to try using his Chaos powers in this state; the results could be unpredictable, ranging from a simple backlash to possibly even ending up in another dimension entirely.

 

“That’s easy, we take the Tornado.” Sonic replied brightly, flashing a grin at Shadow, whose expression darkened. Sonic was still treating this so… casually, in a way that almost offended Shadow. He didn’t find this in the least bit funny. He was just barely suppressing a terrible urge to find this impostor and grind him beneath his foot. How dare someone take his name and his form?! HE was the Ultimate Lifeform, not this inferior production-line copy!

 

“Um…” Tails shot an apprehensive glance at the glowering Shadow apparently not quite convinced that he was who he claimed to be, “If it’s ok, I think I’ll stay here and supervise those tests.”

 

Sonic nodded, “Good idea, bro. We could use that info,” he said lightly, privately thinking that this was for the best. One of these Shadows had to turn out to be a fake, and no matter which one, he knew he didn’t want his kid brother anywhere near a possibly homicidal Ultimate Lifeform, copy or not. 

 

Tails visibly relaxed and rushed over to one of his workbenches, digging through the piles of gadgets and random circuitry scattered around until he retrieved a small black device which he handed over to Sonic.

 

“Here, Sonic. We can use this to keep in touch! Just clip it to your ear and we can talk anytime you want.” And I can tell you as soon as the results are through whether this Shadow’s the real one, his eyes seemed to add, even if it was obvious from his demeanour alone. The black hedgehog pretended not to care.

 

Sonic did as he was told, the small device looking a bit like a large black insect perched inside Sonic’s ear to Shadow’s jaded eyes.

 

“Cool.” Sonic smiled, ruffling his brother’s head-fur playfully. Unlike Tails, he wasn’t particularly worried about the venture. Strange as it sounded even inside his own head, he trusted Shadow. He had no concerns - until night fell, anyway…

 

“I’ll let you know what the tests results are as soon as I have them, Sonic!” Tails promised as his brother smiled and headed down the stairs to the hangar.

 

“Wait just a minute, faker,” Shadow said as he started to follow Sonic down the stairs, his wings brushing against the walls as he did so, “If Tails is staying here, just who is going to fly the plane?” he demanded as he stepped through the lower door.

 

Sonic turned back to him, a mischievous glint in his eyes and a huge grin on his face, his teeth shining brightly in the dimly-lit underground hanger, “Well, duh – I am!”

 

Oh,’ thought Shadow, ‘That’s what your life flashing before your eyes looks like.’

 

Shadow stood frozen in horror as Sonic calmly went over and hit a switch on the wall, opening up the skylight above them then proceeding to do… some sort of pre-flight checks on the plane.

 

“You… you have to be kidding me,” Shadow protested weakly, “Do you even have a pilot’s licence?”

 

Sonic glanced at him, his expression half puzzled and half amused, “Well, sure, Shads. I’ve had a pilot’s licence since I was thirteen.” And was flying way before that, too, except that’s nothing any authorities need to know about.

 

Shadow blinked at him in surprise, Sonic’s trademark grin re-appeared, “Hey, the Tornado was mine before Tails came along – didja think I wouldn’t know how to pilot my own plane?”

 

From anyone else, that statement might have sounded gently mocking, but from Sonic’s mouth it was a strange mix of pride and genuine curiosity. Shadow’s form lost some of its tension, his feathers slowly smoothing out again as he tried to assume a pose of indifference, “I never really thought about it.”

 

Whatever Sonic’s reply might have been, it was lost in the sound of the Tornado’s engine as it roared to life and the loud noise of the hydraulic lift as it propelled the two hedgehogs and the plane upwards to the surface.

 

Shadow squinted in the sudden brightness of daylight, watching as the cluster of palm trees leading up to the cliff bent obediently out of the way to leave a long, smooth runway.

 

“Hop in, Shadow.” Sonic smiled, gesturing towards the back seat. Hesitantly, the black hedgehog approached the blue-painted bi-plane, he ruffled his wings, realising with dread that there was no really graceful way he was going to get into that narrow seat in his current… condition. With a sigh, he poured power into his jet shoes, grabbed hold of the edge of the seat and managed to pull himself up, inelegantly tumbling into the chair. He managed after some effort to right himself and proceeded to twist this way and that, trying to tuck the large, recalcitrant wings into the narrow space behind him.

 

“Everything ok back there?” Sonic asked over his shoulder and Shadow could just hear the amusement dripping from every word.

 

“Just peachy,” Shadow growled, his tone daring the blue hedgehog to make a comment and give Shadow an excuse to feed Sonic his own sneakers.

 

“Ready for take-off!” Sonic announced brightly as the engine noise rose from a hum to a roar and began to slowly taxi down the runway, gaining speed as it went, the cliff-edge rushing up to meet them until the plane tipped over the edge and began to fall towards the ocean. Shadow’s fingers briefly dug into the fabric of his seat but then Sonic did something with the controls and the plane levelled out and began to climb. It rose ponderously until it was sailing through the clouds, the landscape below them skimming past. Shadow actually found himself relaxing as the cool breeze whipped through his quills and his feathers. Sonic had actually managed to shut his mouth for two minutes, and so it was… peaceful. He looked down to watch the sun reflected on the rippling ocean waves. A fierce urge to be able to do this under his own power swept over him and he suddenly couldn’t wait to find Rouge and learn how to do this properly, to soar like this, finally free…

 

He tore his gaze away from the dancing light over the ocean surface and searched for something else to occupy his thoughts. This sudden yearning wasn’t natural; it wasn’t him, this need for the sky, for open spaces. He needed a distraction.

 

Unfortunately, the only distraction available up here on a plane cruising at 10,000 feet was Sonic.

 

Shadow had never been an expert at starting up a conversation, but usefully their current situation provided him with a helpful opening, “So, if you have a licence, why don’t you fly this thing more often?”

 

“Hmm?” Sonic replied absently, fiddling with something on the console in front of him, “Well, Tails enjoys it way more than I do, it's kinda slow for me. An' Tails made loads of weird modifications to it; I don't even know what some of this stuff does, so I’m flying just on compass and air-speed indicator,” Sonic explained, gesturing vaguely towards the instruments.

 

That triggered a vague memory in Shadow’s mind, something he remembered reading about long ago, “Dead reckoning? You’re navigating by dead reckoning?” Shadow demanded, disbelieving. That involved mathematics, relatively complex mathematics at that, he had seriously trouble believing Sonic was capable of it. After all, the hedgehog usually seemed incapable of even understanding the simple equation of Highway + Incline = Not Intended For Skateboarding.

 

“Well, kinda. I’m used to figuring out how fast I’m going, and I know roughly what direction I need, so the rest is just making sure I take bearings every so often.”

 

The matter-of-fact tone completely threw Shadow, making him almost want to entirely re-assess the blue hedgehog in the cockpit.

 

“There is one thing that makes piloting the Tornado completely awesome, though,” Sonic commented, cutting into Shadow’s thoughts.

 

“What’s that?” Shadow asked curiously, wondering if he was going to get another insight into the blue hedgehog’s mind.

 

“This!” Sonic replied, suddenly pulling the stick back and sending the plane into a loop-de-loop that had Shadow yelping and clinging to his seat, his claws digging into the leather and plastic, Sonic’s crazy laughter ringing in his ears.

 

Scratch ‘re-assessment’. Think ‘Assassination’.

 

A short while later, long after they levelled out and Shadow regained his composure somewhat (after first venting his spleen at the crazed blue hedgehog at the controls, threatening, among other things, to stuff and mount his dead body as a hood ornament on the Tornado’s nose…) the city of Westopolis loomed into view over the horizon and Sonic set the plane into a long, shallow dive.

 

“Almost there,” Shadow commented, the muscles of his wings tensing up almost unconsciously at the thought of what would await him at their destination. 

 

“Yeah,” Sonic replied, glancing apprehensively towards the western horizon where the sky was just starting to turn orange, “And the sun will go down in an hour or so.”

 

Shadow glanced at him curiously, noticing the sudden tension in the other hedgehog’s shoulders, “So?”

 

“… it’s nothing, Shadow. No problem.” Sonic replied, a trace of uncharacteristic hesitation in his tone, “Hold on, we’re coming in to land.”

 

The rubber plane wheels screeched as they struck the concrete floor of the empty building lot where Sonic had brought them down. Shadow scrambled out of the seat and jumped down, his wings catching him slightly and slowing his fall, making him feel oddly light on his feet for a moment. He looked around. They were on the outskirts of the commercial district. The Bank wasn’t far away, even in his altered state he could make it there quickly.

 

“We’re not far,” Shadow said tersely, black ears twitching for any sounds out of the ordinary. 

 

“Lead on, Shads,” Sonic said with a gesture, apparently curious as to what the black hedgehog’s plan was.

 

Shadow shook his head, irritation crossing his face again as he felt the weight against his back, “I’m too slow like this,” he said and almost bit his tongue off. He couldn’t believe had just uttered those words, and to Sonic of all people. Sonic, oddly, said nothing, just stared at him, his eyes half amused and half sympathetic. Shadow looked away, “Go on ahead and have a look around. I’ll follow as fast as I can.”

 

“Okay, Shads,” Sonic said with a thumbs-up, “I’ll circle the perimeter and check back with you if I can’t find that other Shadow. See ya later!” He turned and shot off, the backwash of air making Shadow’s wings fan out. The Ultimate Lifeform moved to follow at a considerably more sedate pace when he heard a noise.

 

A faint ‘swoosh-swoosh’ that was very familiar to Shadow’s ears, since up until earlier today, he had heard it every time he ran anywhere.

 

He turned and his eyes widened when he found himself looking at… himself.

The copy was racing towards him, the bottom of his – its – rocket shoes glowing deep red, body leaned forward as it skated smoothly, arms and legs in perfect synchronisation. The movements were achingly familiar to Shadow, almost as natural to him as breathing.

But, despite the perfection of the motions, there was still something very wrong. The copy’s eyes were cold, empty of any intelligence beyond a kind of animal cunning, filled instead with a dreadful purpose.

 

I knew it. Shadow thought, feeling the cold knot of apprehension inside dissolve as that particular doubt was cast aside once and for all, but another formed almost simultaneously. This… thing moved as perfectly as he himself, and he was seriously incapacitated… why did Sonic have to run off now of all times?!

 

Shadow was almost tempted to hit himself as soon as he caught himself feeling worried about a fight and hoping for the blue idiot’s assistance of all things.

 

The clone had slowed down now, its gaze narrowing as it regarded Shadow, eventually stopping. Shadow automatically dropped into a defensive stance, wobbling slightly when the weight of his wings once more knocked him off balance. He growled and the clone cocked its head to one side as if assessing him, its eyes glittering icily, calculation in their garnet depths.

 

Shadow tensed as he saw the clone’s weight shift. He gathered up the ambient chaos power in the air as the clone leapt suddenly towards him with deadly grace. The winged hedgehog thrust out a hand, channelling the violent, deadly power of chaos through his palms and shouted;

 

Chaos Spear!”

 

Nothing happened.

 

Shadow didn’t even have time to cry out his surprise before the clone crashed into him with stunning force. Moving with the momentum, he managed to avoid the worst of it, shifting his centre of balance to toss the copy over his shoulder in a smooth judo throw, the movement so automatic that Shadow momentarily forgot that the other hedgehog would hit his wings before it hit the ground.

 

One of the clone’s hands grabbed the top of one of his pinions as it began its descent, fingers wrapping around, digging roughly through the feathers and into the fine membrane of skin. Shadow shrieked the terrible echoing screech of a bird in agony as he felt the bone bending under the weight of his clone, pulling him backwards as the fingers tore into the delicate flesh. Shadow half turned and reached back with one taloned hand to slash at the arm that held him. He was rewarded with an animalistic hiss of furious pain as the grip on his wing was abruptly released, allowing him to stumble forward slightly. He regained his balance, backing off quickly to re-assess his options.

 

The clone was glaring at him, greenish blood dripping from the wounded arm but otherwise showing no particular sign of distress, bared teeth glinting as fiercely as his eyes in the bloody glow of the setting sun. Shadow, on the other hand, felt his mind in turmoil. None of his usual tactics were applicable here. He had no Chaos powers, he couldn’t use his gun and even the most basic attack in the form of a simple spin dash was denied to him in this form.

 

He snarled in frustrated rage as the clone began to move in for another attack. His right wing was throbbing with unaccustomed pain; he could feel warm blood as it began to seep into his feathers. He held his wings as still as he could to avoid jarring them any further. The copy closed slowly in on him, moving like a large predator that was only further excited by the smell of its victim’s wounds.

 

With no other options available, Shadow did the only other thing he could think of; he turned tail and fled further into the abandoned industrial estate. The red-orange light of sunset bathed the empty concrete ground as Shadow lurked, taking refuge in the deep shadows cast by the evening light underneath an old, rusted fire escape, desperately trying to think up other options. For only the second time in his life he was involved in a battle where he had no idea what to do.

 

The sound of metal on concrete reached his ears and he turned to see the clone’s eyes glinting with reflected amber light. Shadow braced himself, ignoring the pain from his wounded wing, fully prepared to go hand-to-hand with this creature if he needed to. He was the Ultimate Lifeform! He was NOT prepared to lose to this thing!

 

The copy charged at him, jet shoes hissing over the ground. But then, Shadow suddenly felt a rush of wind as the air was simultaneously pierced by both an attack and a high-pitched, female yell:

 

“DRILL KICK!”

 

A white-booted foot met the clone’s head with impressive force, knocking it bodily to the ground, the gemstone it had had concealed within its quills bouncing away to land on the concrete with a faint ‘clink’.

 

“I’ll take that!” The female Mobian said as she landed, snatching up the gem and gazing at it admiringly. She placed one booted foot on the clone’s chest, “You gonna behave now, sweetie?” she asked the semi-conscious clone mockingly.

 

“Thank you, Rouge,” Shadow said softly, still hiding within the gloom.

 

Rouge’s head whipped around. She stared into the darkness, her body tensing up when all she saw was a pair of red eyes in the shadows.

 

“Shadow…?” She asked cautiously, her body still poised for an attack. “C’mon out where I can see you, Shadow,” she coaxed, though her body language still didn’t match the tone of her words.

 

Slowly, reluctantly, Shadow stepped out of the darkness and into the fading orange sunlight. Rouge’s eyes widened when she saw him. Shadow braced himself for a barrage of questions, but Rouge simply pursed her lips speculatively and began walking in a slow circuit around Shadow's altered form, stepping over the clone still twitching weakly on the ground, one hand reaching out to lightly trail across the feathers as Shadow tried hard not to squirm. “Not bad, Shadow,” she said with a smile, “I like the new look - but what happened?” She glanced down at the clone’s still from, “And I'm taking a wild guess that the bank job earlier was him and not you?”

 

“Good guess,” Shadow replied, his casual tone matching hers in the way he usually talked to the female bat he lived and worked together with, “But you weren’t just guessing, were you?” he asked, and couldn’t quite conceal a small undertone of something akin to hope in his words…had one of the few people on the planet he’d like to call his friend actually recognized him?

 

 “Of course I wasn’t, Shadow,” she replied, before a small smirk tugged at the edge of her mouth to reveal the tip of a fang. “After all, I see your scowling face day in and day out at my club. I knew this had to be the real you - even if you do look like you’re about to star in a nativity play,”

 

The black hedgehog relaxed just a bit, “…thank you. To answer your questions, I’m not sure exactly what happened yet, either. Tails is still doing tests. Sonic speculated it might be to do with that strange eclipse.”

 

Rouge raised an eye-ridge, “Sonic’s with you?” she asked, surprised.

 

“I sure am!” A cheerful voice said from behind them. The relentlessly cheerful hedgehog jogged over to them, waving amiably to Rouge.

 

"Hey, Rouge!" Sonic said, "What did I miss?" he asked, before suddenly noticing the clone on the floor. “Oh. Quite a bit, apparently….”

 

"I could ask you the same question," Rouge said, setting one hand on her hip, she gestured towards Shadow and the clone, "Care to explain what's going on?"

 

"Well, I can't help you much with Shadow's evil twin over there," Sonic said easily, pointing to the copy, "We came here to check that out. As for Hedge-hawk over there…" he grinned at Shadow, who glowered darkly, "Well, we think its somethin' to do with that Eclipse, similar to what happened a month ago."

 

Rouge gave Sonic a curious look, “You mean all the earthquakes we had? The land splitting apart? There’s been nothing like that this time. Besides, I don’t see what this has to do with Shadow’s new look. Or with this.” She held up the Emerald she was holding to show it to them. The gem still looked perfect, a flawlessly cut sapphire crystal, but it looked… odd. The Chaos Emeralds usually glowed with their own inner fire, but there was no radiance from this gem; the only light that shone through its perfect facets came from the wan radiance of the last rays of the sun and the dull glow of the orange streetlamps that were slowly flickering to life around them.

 

“What happened to the Chaos Emerald?” Shadow asked with some concern. If the Emeralds were affected, that might just explain why his own powers were short-circuiting.

 

“It happened last time,” Sonic explained, “There was somethin’ about the balance between Light and Dark Gaia going out of whack.” Sonic blinked, then looked more closely at Shadow, “Hey, Shads, you’re hurt!” the blue speedster reached out, stepping forward to inspect the wound. Shadow recoiled, backing away.

 

“I’m fine,” the black hedgehog said through gritted teeth.

 

An uncharacteristically hard look came into Sonic’s eyes, “C’mon, Shadow, stop makin’ this so difficult for both of us, huh? Let me help you,” he insisted, ignoring a faint snort from Rouge in the background, indicating the bat knew that the proud black hedgehog would let himself be helped by anybody as soon as pigs flew – but, then again…

 

Shadow struggled against the urge to retreat, knowing it would be hopeless – he couldn’t outrun Sonic now. His breath quickened. He felt helpless, and it was not a feeling he enjoyed and he certainly didn’t want to feel like this in front of his rival and one of his tiny collection of friends. He despised feeling vulnerable. Shadow stood frozen, his mind and body torn by conflicting impulses as Sonic slowly approached.

 

“Easy, Shads,” Sonic said calmly as he drew in closer, his tone akin one of an experienced handler approaching a hurt animal, “I just wanna see how bad you got hurt.” Sonic’s gloved hand touched his wing, and he twitched. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the entire thing, until he felt Sonic’s other hand, gently patting another part of his wing in a gentle, soothing rhythm. His body seemed to relax, the calming strokes against his feathers relaxing him as Sonic inspected his wound.

 

“Doesn’t seem too bad,” the blue hero reported as he slowly drew his hands away, carefully smoothing the bent feathers back into place. Shadow opened his eyes, regarding the other hedgehog, confusion in his ruby stare. Whatever questions were implicit in Shadow’s eyes, Sonic ignored them, instead turning to stare out across the city, “Though I don’t think you’ll need to worry about it for too much longer,” Sonic said, nodding towards the horizon, where the last slivers of the sun had finally vanished beneath the landscape.

 

"What are you talking about, Fake-" his caustic question was interrupted when he felt a sudden ache in-between his shoulder blades. The ache quickly turned into a mildly burning, itching sensation, Shadow writhed, trying to be rid of the uncomfortable feeling. The amber-coloured gem around his neck glittered, then burst into a sudden brightness the illuminated the entire area. Rouge and Sonic looked on with goggle-eyed expressions as a strong wind rose, twisting and swirling around Shadow, tugging and pulling at his wings and quills as it grew more intense, blowing like a miniature whirlwind.

A sudden burst of black and white feathers obscured the black hedgehog from view and the phantom winds subsided as quickly as they had arisen, leaving Shadow standing there, gasping and wingless, looking as he had before this entire mess started.

 

There was dead silence for a moment before Rouge took a breath and said;

 

"What the HELL was that?"

 

"As soon as we figure it out, you'll be the first to know!" Sonic replied, his tone superficially cheerful as usual, but Shadow could just pick out some kind of dark undercurrent to the words.

 

Shadow and Rouge looked at the blue hedgehog, who was apprehensively scanning the sky, "What are you looking for, Sonic, UFOs?" she asked with a smirk, curious about this slightly odd behaviour - peculiar even for Sonic.

 

"The moon," Sonic replied, tension clear in his usually relaxed voice.

 

Rouge and Shadow exchanged a puzzled look, "It's Autumn and we're on the west coast, Sonic. The moon won't rise for another half hour or so, yet."

 

The tension seemed to ooze out of Sonic's form and he smiled at them suddenly, "Heh, that's good."

 

"Why? What aren't you saying, Faker?"

 

"Nothing, I… hey! Where did that copy go?"

 

"What?" Shadow demanded, quickly looking around, "Damn!" Shadow cursed, "It must have escaped when you two were gawking at me."

 

"Hey, don't blame us, Shads. Your personal bishie wind was pretty distracting…" Sonic said with just a trace of a grin. Privately, of course, he couldn’t help but marvel again at the unfairness of the universe – if he had gotten a transformation scene like this, it would probably end up looking like an exploding ball of fur, which wouldn’t be half as cool.  

 

Shadow, oblivious to this, rounded on him, holding up his left hand with the tips of his fingers exposed through his torn gloves, glowing yellow-gold with Chaos Energy, crackling faintly in the cool evening air, "My what?" he demanded in a dangerously quiet voice.

 

Rouge stepped between them, holding out her hands to separate them, "Now, now, boys," she chided, "Fighting amongst ourselves won't help anything."

 

"Hmph. Fine," Shadow said shortly. He lowered his hand, staring at it and flexing his fingers curiously.

 

"Something wrong, Shadow?" Rouge asked.

 

He frowned, "When I was… changed… I couldn't use my Chaos Spear. I'm not sure any of my Chaos powers were working in that form," he explained, "I was wondering if it was connected to what seems to have happened to the Emeralds, but my powers seem to be functioning again."

 

"Hmm," Rouge said thoughtfully, her own black wings flicking in contemplation.

 

"Maybe it’s a trade-off?" Sonic suggested, "You get some other cool stuff at the expense of not being able to use your Chaos abilities?" There was an odd certainty behind the suggestion that made Shadow suspicious. Sonic definitely knew more than he was saying, which was unusual for the talkative hedgehog. Getting him to speak up had never been a problem before - quite the reverse in fact. Sonic had a secret, and while he had managed to keep the actual secret safe, concealing the fact that he had one was quite outside Sonic's capabilities.

 

"I fail to see exactly what advantages those chaos-damned wings gave me," Shadow growled back.

 

"Oh, relax, Shadow," Rouge said, lightly tapping him on the arm, "I'll give you a few flying lessons and then you'll see!” Glancing over at Sonic she added: “Has he tried flying yet?”

 

“Uh-huh. Went straight into a poplar,” Sonic replied, sounding disproportionally cheered by that fact. 

 

"Yeah, assuming I'll even need them, now," Shadow snapped, folding his arms and directing a death glare at the blue speedster. He wondered briefly whether Sonic would be quick enough to dodge a Chaos Spear if he threw it right now

 

"Trust me, Shads, this isn't over yet." Sonic said in a strangely grim tone, immediately snapping Shadow out of his imagined revenge scenarios "So, what now? What were you even doing out here, Rouge?"

 

"GUN sent me, of course. Speaking of that, I better report in," Rouge said, "Commander Bennett will want to know what happened over here."

 

Shadow cocked an eye-ridge at her, "They put Bennett in charge?"

 

"Sure. After Graves made such a mess of the Black Arms incident, he got kicked upstairs and Bennett was assigned to replace him as Field Commander."

 

"Hmph," Shadow grunted, "We might actually have someone marginally sane to speak to for once."

 

"With GUN that sure makes a nice change," Sonic agreed, not having forgotten being chased down a city hill by a giant truck crashing through cars, fire hydrants and the occasional stray cat.

 

"You two boys want to come along?" Rouge suggested, "Shouldn't take too long, and my report will be more believable if you're there to back up my word," she smirked, "We wouldn't want GUN troops chasing you both down again, do we?"

 

Shadow rolled his eyes, "Fine," he said.

 

Sonic just shrugged, "Sure. Then we can head back and hear what Tails has to say about those tests."

 

“Follow me then, gentlemen,” Rouge said, taking a few quick jogging steps and then leaping into the air ahead of them. The two hedgehogs followed, Shadow reflecting somewhat resentfully on how Rouge made it look all too easy.

 

How come she can even lift *off* with wings about a tenth the size of mine?

 

It didn’t take them long to find the GUN soldiers stationed around the bank. Commander Bennett himself was fairly easy to spot – a tall human with dark hair and a slightly laconic air about him. He casually exuded a calm authority while all around him soldiers and police were swarming around, investigating the scene of attack, trying to chase away reporters and attempting to tentatively patch up the gaping hole in the wall - all the while having to deal with terrified citizens (not a few of whom seemed to forget their terror as soon as Sonic came into view and started shouting for autographs instead…). All three of the sapients were glad that at least the Commander provided a bit of a serene spot amongst the chaos. 

 

For the first time that Sonic could remember, dealing with GUN was fairly easy. There was none of the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality he was used to (and none of the half-the-size-of-a-human-deserves-half-the-respect-of-a-human shtick, either…). Instead, Bennett listened quietly to Rouge’s report, asking for occasional points of clarification from Sonic or Shadow. The black hedgehog himself again answered much more sparsely than the blue speedster, privately wondering whether there would already be GUN’s scientists poking away at him if he had showed up in his earlier state.

 

When they had finished, Bennett folded his arms thoughtfully, “Hm. This could be a dangerous situation. If Doctor Robotnik is behind these attacks, then we need to be on our guard. I’ll inform GUN Central to be on the lookout for similar incidences. You’re correct that Robotnik does have a history of creating robot duplicates, and that’s enough of a security risk all by itself. I assume he will be your next port of call?” he asked, quirking a dark eyebrow at Shadow and Sonic.

 

“That was the plan,” Sonic replied easily, who actually hadn’t thought that far ahead yet but knew that at some point he’d have to deal with Robotnik again anyway.

 

“After we’ve done a little research, yes,” Shadow clarified with a slightly exasperated look at Sonic, whose ‘research’ usually only extended to ‘Where is that base, again?’ and not much further.

 

The GUN Commander nodded, “Then, if you don’t mind, I’d like to assign Rouge to act as liaison. She can keep GUN informed and can supply you with any intelligence we have about the situation.”

 

The three sapients exchanged a look. Rouge grinned and gave a half-shrug and Shadow nodded fractionally. Sonic smiled at Bennett, “Ok, sure.”

 

Bennett smiled, “Then I wish you all luck. We’ll try and keep Mobius safe while you’re busy.”

 

“I appreciate that.” Sonic smiled, taking the human’s larger hand in a firm handshake and giving him a thumbs-up with the other.

 

“I’ll join you boys in a minute,” Rouge said, “Just need to file that report and finish up a few things.”

 

The two hedgehogs nodded and turned to leave, running easily through the darkened streets back towards the Tornado. They paused for a moment when they reached the plane, Shadow was frowning, flexing his hands.

 

“Somethin’ wrong, Shads?” Sonic asked.

 

“It feels strange to have my fingers working again,” Shadow replied absently. “That, and my gloves are completely ruined.”

 

Sonic glanced over at the dark, star-speckled sky, hesitated briefly and then sighed. “Here, you can borrow mine for a while,” Sonic said, peeling off his own white gloves to reveal a set of surprisingly delicate fingers and offering them to Shadow.

 

Shadow could only stare. Most sapients didn’t wear much in the way of clothing, and since the little they did wear tended to be more for effect than practicality, what they did wear had acquired a strange kind of significance. Handing over one’s gloves was a highly symbolic act of trust, even of intimacy. Shadow hesitated, “Are you sure?” he asked, reluctant to take them.

 

“Yeah,” Sonic said with a wan smile, pushing them into Shadow’s hands, “Not gonna need ‘em in a minute anyway.”

 

Shadow frowned, “What is that supposed to mean?”

 

Sonic closed his eyes, tensing as if expecting a fight. He stepped away from Shadow and opened his eyes, a look of something very much like terror flickering across those emerald eyes for just a moment.

 

“This,” Sonic said as silvery light washed over the cracked concrete.

 

Tendrils of dark smoke seemed to wrap themselves around Sonic’s form. His muscles tensed up, bulging impossibly, veins throbbing with rapid pulse-beat. Sonic dropped to his knees, his face contorted into a grimace of intolerable pain even as his mouth began to distort, his teeth growing longer and sharper as they took on the aspects of a predator. Shadow looked on in horror, again not knowing what to do as Sonic writhed, the sound of creaking bones exploding in his ears. Shadow felt frozen, unable to do anything other than look on helplessly while the hero of Mobius’ hands turned into massive, monstrous paws. Moonlight bathed the thick shaggy pelt of fur that had sprouted over Sonic’s body as the altered hedgehog crouched, hunched-over and moaning as the transformation finally came to an end.

 

“Sonic?” Shadow asked, dumbfounded.

 

“I told you,” Sonic - or this new, bestial Sonic – said, even his voice dreadfully changed into a low, gravely bass. He looked up, a feral gleam briefly flashing across his eyes before he seemed to recover himself. “I told you I wouldn’t need those gloves.”

 

To be continued…

 

Author's Notes - Just to let you guys know, Taranea and Skyblaze will be attending this years 'Summer of Sonic' convention in London in August. If any of our readers is also going, please feel free to come over and say 'hi'. Skyblaze will be dressed as Blaze the Cat (in the company of Shadow). Taranea may well be dressed as Maria.

Hope to see some people there.

All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Part 1 by Skyblaze
Chapter Four: All the Strange, Strange Creatures

Chapter Four: All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Part 1

 

Shadow stared.

“…Sonic?”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” the (former) blue speedster quipped – though Shadow couldn’t help but think that there was just a bit of that usual cheerfulness and attitude missing now. And that wasn’t even taking the strange, growling voice into account. The black hedgehog blinked, trying to wrap his head around the idea that apparently, Sonic had transformed just like he had today. But not into a hybrid with wings…

The Ultimate Lifeform cocked his head.

“…so at night you become a bear?”

“No! I’m a wolf!” Sonic snapped, apparently slightly offended at the species confusion. “Or at least, something like that. But I didn’t go around calling you a cockatoo, did I?”

“No, you went for increasingly cringe-worthy bird puns instead,” Shadow agreed matter-of-factly, slowly walking around the dark body of what had up until now been the fastest thing alive. Back in his childhood, he and Maria had read each other stories about all sorts of mythical creatures and there had been a fair share of them about werewolves – only depending on the author and the intended audience whether the creature in question was a human turning into a wolf, or an unfortunate lupine Mobian going through the unimaginable horror of changing into a six foot tall furless monkey each full moon. Either way, Shadow remembered a huge part of the comedy in both versions had usually involved the frantic search for pants.

Sonic himself of course hadn’t been wearing any and it didn’t seem like he would need to in his new form either. He was taller now than before, perhaps standing at almost five feet of height if his stance hadn’t let him slump forward a little, hands on the floor and knees bent. His colour had turned much darker, royal blue having changed to a midnight that seemed to blend into the night sky. The only exceptions were his belly and the tips of his quills which he had kept, which had turned as white and as pale as the moon. The same also went for his now large, viciously clawed hands – where the cuffs of his gloves had previously been, a ring of white fuzz was covering the transformed hero’s wrists, thinly-pelted pastel-blue palms and fingers almost letting it appear as if Sonic was merely wearing different garments. Only his eyes had stayed exactly the same, now seemingly glowing only fiercer than before when contrasted with this dark and sombre new form. Shadow had finished his little inspection of the changed speedster (which had let Sonic feel only a little bit awkward) and came to stand in front of him again. Sonic actually looked a lot more fearsome now, and that wasn’t even taking the canines poking out of the edges of his mouth or the extreme muscles having piled onto his arms and torso into account. He also stood a little bit differently, crouching, his arms longer now than before and clawed hands digging into the soft night earth beneath their feet.

Feet…

Reminded of this very crucial aspect, Shadow then actually turned his gaze downwards. He raised an eye ridge.

“Apparently, your shoes transform, too?”

“Err…” Sonic growled in his bass, before also looking at the larger, darker, and most of all spike-studded monstrosities he now wore. “Yeah, I think so. You know, I had been wondering about that.”

Shadow nodded, looking serious. “I see. Then we might be faced with the possibility of your shoes being Weresneakers.”

“Wait, what?” Sonic asked back, the question coming completely from left field and he had to stare at Shadow for one or two moments – before then actually feeling his lips twitch into a smile as he realized the other had made a joke.

Sonic chuckled. “Right. Didn’t think you’d have a sense of humour, faker.”

“I had a feeling I might need to develop one if I was to work together with you,” the black hedgehog’s tone was dry, but not unfriendly. In fact, Shadow had seemed to Sonic a lot more relaxed ever since his wings had come off (well, as ‘relaxed’ as a Person Of Mass Destruction like Shadow was ever likely to be…) but it wasn’t like the blue speedster could blame him. He wasn’t particularly happy about being stuck as a wolf until morning either. Sonic had always at least been able to feel totally at ease in his own body and that it once again felt so different, was already beginning to unnerve him again…

Shadow at this point slowly raised a hand, a flash of uncharacteristic curiosity in crimson eyes. Sonic blinked, roused from his ponderings to notice the movement just in time.

“Can I…feel your pelt?” the black hedgehog asked, just before already letting his fingers brush over Sonic’s new, dark coat.

“Uh, sure. If you want to,” Sonic replied superfluously, feeling a bit taken aback, but not that much – after all, the very first thing he’d wanted to do after seeing Shadow’s transformation had been to grab at those shiny feathers to see how they felt, too…

Just like Tails and Rouge, actually. Though I think Shadow would still make for a better petting zoo exhibit than me. ‘Mr. Monster’ alright…

Before his train of thought could go any further, though, Shadow’s gloved fingers were already running through the fur on his shoulder down his arm and sending a shiver down Sonic’s spine. In a sudden odd moment the blue hedgehog actually felt a pang of slight regret as the other removed his fingertips from his fur again after only a couple of seconds, a light frown on his features.

“Even your coat is as coarse as a lupine’s. It seems your transformation affects you more thoroughly.”

“Huh?” Sonic replied intelligibly, having briefly to fight the strange urge of crouching in front of Shadow to be petted some more before he could work out a sensible reply.

 “You think so?” Sonic asked, briefly rolling his shoulder. “When I was roped into this shape-shift gig for the first time, things were a lot worse back then …maybe that’s why.”

“Yeah, you still haven’t actually told me much about what was really going two months ago, either,” Shadow replied, simultaneously crossing his arms with Sonic’s loose gloves in front of his chest. “What exactly caused this back then? What happened?”

“Well…apart from the planet becoming a rubix cube, you mean?” Sonic answered, lips twitching. “Not that much, really. Me and Chip – he was sort of the incarnation of the light half of the planet’s life source, Gaia, but he looked like a really weird flying mouse - had to travel to all continents and collect the Chaos Emeralds and…put some temple tablet pieces back together so the Emeralds could be recharged, I think,” he said, looking a bit as if he himself wasn’t too sure about the logic of it all. But then again, he was Sonic, and this ‘logic’ thing in his opinion was mostly there to concern other people. “And then we fought the planet life force’s dark half - who looked just a little bit like Iblis, if you ask me…”

Shadow held up a hand to forestall the torrent of words, “Stop. Stop. This isn’t helping at all - you’re just giving me a headache.” The black hedgehog sighed. The dark-furred werehog just made a rough chuckling sound, using one of his massive paws to scratch himself behind one pointy-tipped ear as he did so.

Shadow shook his head, “I’ll just ask Tails when we get back. He might manage to be a bit more coherent.”

“Maybe,” Sonic shrugged. “I’d wager Knucklehead would be able to tell us something, too. But of course he had to chose now of all times to be away. He should get a damn answering machine on that Island of his…”

Shadow wondered why he had even bothered to ask when he really should have known better; the Ultimate Lifeform had so far considered the blue speedster as at the most capable of the attention span of a kitten in a yarn shop when all of the bundles were shiny.

“Hey, boys, ready to – wait, is that you, Sonic?” Rouge’s voice interrupted the two males, the albino bat cutting off her greeting in surprise. Sonic, briefly cringing at her exclamation, turned around.

“Hi there, Rouge,” he said with a slightly lop-sided grin, “Yeah, might’ve forgotten to mention that. Sorry.”

“First a hedgehawk, now it’s a werehog,” the female treasure hunter replied, smiling faintly with one of her incisors showing. “You boys sure are full of surprises today…”

“Actually, ‘werehog’ doesn’t make much sense as a denomination,” Shadow pointed out, his heritage of a family of scientists leaving him unable not to say it. “‘Were’ is simply an old word for ‘man’, and since Sonic doesn’t seem to have grown noticeably pinker since he changed…” he trailed off and Rouge raised an eye ridge.

“So what? We’re supposed to call him a ‘Hedgewolf’?”

“Perhaps a ‘Hogwolf’.”

Rouge shook her head. “No, ‘Wolfhog’ sounds better. Or a Wolfhedge?”

“That sounds like some sort of lycanthropic garden plant. No, how about-?”

Guys! How about simply ‘Sonic’?!” 

Both black hedgehog and white bat turned toward the blue hero who looked at them a bit like the owner of a house who had just found out he had employed Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as renovators. Rouge actually seemed slightly sheepish for a moment.

“…yeah. Sorry about that. You transformed for the first time now, too?”

“No, I had actually already turned into a…wolf…” Sonic said, stretching the last word a bit for emphasis with a pointed look at Shadow, even though the Ultimate Lifeform acted a bit like Teflon in regards to glares, “…about two months ago as well. I’ll probably change back at first sunlight.”     

“If you say so, honey,” Rouge replied, her training as an agent at least letting her take this unusual information in stride just as when she had first discovered Shadow’s new form. “I’ve finished up at GUN, by the way. We’re heading to the fox kit’s place now?” 

“Yeah,” Sonic confirmed, inwardly glad the older bat wasn’t making as much of a deal out of his transformation as others might have. Then, something occurred to him about going back.

“Um. Does any of you know much about flying planes?”

“What?” Shadow asked, “Why – oh.” The black hedgehog fell silent as the blue hero’s finger pointed at the Tornado still standing where they’d left it on the parking space.

“I don’t fit into the pilot’s seat anymore, but we have to take it back with us, otherwise Tails will never let us hear the end of it,” Sonic said. The little fact that he also had very little chance to run all the way back to the Mystic Ruins in his new form so quickly didn’t need to be mentioned, in his opinion.

“Hm. I suppose we could try Chaos Control now that I have my powers again,” Shadow said, at the same time walking over to the two-tail’s prized private jet, Rouge and Sonic following, the latter seemingly moving only a little awkwardly with his new overly long arms. Shadow briefly wondered how well Sonic would be able to fight in this new form.

“Ready?” he asked instead when they had reached the machine, one gloved hand braced against the side of the plane, the other arm with the Emerald stretched forward, so the other two Mobians could lay their hands on it.

“Chaos…CONTROL!”

And, in what was probably one of the more embarrassing moments in the biography of the Ultimate Lifeform, absolutely nothing happened.

 

xxx

 

“Right, so we have to find another solution. Since the Ultimate Lightshow this time didn’t work,” Sonic commented pleasantly sometime later, ignoring the disgruntled growl from Shadow’s direction.

“It wasn’t my fault. The Chaos Emeralds are obviously drained again,” he stated, still not looking at anybody right now.

“Sure, Shadow. Nobody is blaming you,” Rouge cooed, petting his arm a little. The bat thought she at least had to make some attempts at appeasement (since she had giggled considerably longer at Shadow’s brief perplexed expression earlier). The black hedgehog hmmphed.

“But we still have to get the Tornado home,” Sonic pointed out, undeterred. “Rouge; haven’t you ever learned how to fly?”

The bat put a hand on her hip. “Honey, I’m a spy and treasure hunter. My business is conducted mostly in government buildings and museums at three in the morning and I hardly tend to arrive in a jet plane for that.”

“Okay, okay, I see your point,” Sonic replied wearily. “Shadow, what about you? Never steered any flight crafts before?”

Well, there was the time I had kidnapped an extraterrestrial flying manta ray and was standing atop it in an apocalyptic thunderstorm while aliens tried to shoot me down…

“…no, not really.”

 Sonic’s shoulders sagged a little, and for some reason that sight compelled Shadow to at least add: “Except for flight simulators aboard the ARK.”

“Eh, close enough. Climb into the pilot’s seat, I’ll give ya directions,” Sonic replied cheerfully, all at once brightening up again. Shadow blinked.

“Wait, what? You want me to fly that thing now?”

“Sure,” Sonic nodded. “It’s easy, Tails has installed a bunch of stuff for situations like this, in case he got incapacitated in aerial combat or something like that. Hop aboard,” he said, already climbing into the more spacious backseat with slightly more grace than Shadow previously had. “Come on, you’re not afraid, are ya?”

“Your attempt at reverse psychology is pathetic,” the black hedgehog stated flatly (even if Rouge was rather sure she had seen his quills bristle just briefly…). Nevertheless, he did climb on board himself, sliding into the pilot seat with ease and letting his eyes roam over the controls. Seeing Sonic fly so effortlessly before had made him actually a bit curious…

“See, it’s easy,” Sonic’s voice came over his shoulder. “You fire up the engine by flicking those three blue switches on your left. Make sure the aerofoils are set to ‘takeoff’ position – that’s the little yellow lines on the right there, just above the compass. Ease off the brakes with the stick on the right of your chair, and then pull back on the main joystick. The auto-pilot can do the rest.” The blue-furred hero looked down the side of the plane. “You coming, Rouge?”

“No offence, hot-shot, but I’d rather make my own way there. I trust Shadow with a lot of things, but not operating heavy machinery. Did he ever tell you what he managed to do with the waffle iron?”

“I thought I had made myself clear that that had been an accident,” Shadow growled, black ears twitching as he thought he could clearly hear a throaty chuckle from the backseat. Sonic once again pushed his pointy muzzle over his shoulder and gave him a grin.

“No worries, I’ll believe ya. And I think we’re ready we’re ready for take off. Rouge, we’ll see you back at Tails’ place?”

“Sure thing, tiger – or wolf, in your case,” the white-furred female batted a turquoise eye lid at the transformed hero, before taking off in a near-soundless beating of black bat wings. She disappeared into the dark midnight sky quickly; an ability inherited from her feral ancestors which had apparently survived the changes evolution had put her species through marvellously well. Shadow knew Rouge flew fast, and while she would not be able to keep up with a jet, she shouldn’t arrive much later. He briefly wondered what his top speed might be if he ever learned to use his wings correctly…

“Oy! You falling asleep in there? Get her in the air!” Sonic snipped his clawed fingers and brought Shadow back to reality. The black hedgehog blinked.

“Yes. Starting the plane.” He quickly reached for the switchboard. “This one first, right?”

“Uh, no,” Sonic said, “This one was the rocket turbo I told you about, rememb-”

That was about as far as he came before the plane shot off screaming.

 

xxx

 

Far higher in the heavens than the two hedgehogs travelling in the jet plane, Angel Island and its Guardian still floated silently through the skies. But despite the serene appearance, the images the Master Emerald showed the last of the echidna were anything but peaceful now that night had fallen…

 

He saw darkness, blood and pain. The moon bathing a landscape as a wolf howled mournfully into the silent night. The moon seemed to turn into a bright blue gem and fell from the sky. The sun raced to take its pale sister’s place, burning away the darkness as the high-pitched screech of a hunting bird rang out across the land.

Then a black blot appeared in the centre of the sun, expanding slowly until the sun was consumed in dark, inky corruption.

 

The bird and the wolf both shrieked as if they were both in the grip of intolerable pain and overwhelming loss. The ground began to buckle, then seemed to shatter like glass... 

 

Knuckles cried out, snapping violently out of his meditative state and breaking the connection. He fell backwards and lay for a moment on the cold stone, his muscles trembling. He closed his eyes, breathing hard as though he had just run a foot-race against Sonic.

 

Shaken, he decided that perhaps it would be best if he just lay here for awhile. After all, who didn’t need some peace and quiet now and then…?

 

To be continued in Part 2…

 

 

All the Strange, Strange Creatures, Part 2 by Skyblaze
Chapter 4 – All the Strange Strange Creatures, Part 2

Chapter 4 – All the Strange Strange Creatures, Part 2

 

The plane! Bring the plane under control again!”

“How?! What do I need to do?!”

Sonic and Shadow were shouting at each other as the black hedgehog gave his utmost to hang onto the controls and Sonic was busy trying to get a clear view of what the other was doing. The Tornado was roaring across the sky like ET’s bicycle on steroids and Sonic was only glad they at least weren’t flying over inhabited area at the moment.

“Let go of the stick!” Sonic screamed from his back seat. “I’ll fly!”

“How can you fly from back there?!”

“Like this!”

“Wha- your ARMS! What happened to your ARMS!”

“NevermindmyarmsletmeattheCONTROLS!”

Shadow didn’t reply anymore, but instead sunk back into his seat, staring, but trying to calm down again. Sonic had just…turned to rubber…the black hedgehog twisted his head to see the face of the other on the back seat, but the two big, dark-blue furred arms had suddenly tripled their length and were now snaking over his backrest to give the term ‘backseat driver’ new meaning as Sonic brought the plane under control again. Shadow had trouble to stop staring, even if he wasn’t sure why stretchy limbs should freak him out after he himself had just grown new ones only hours ago. His left hand also unconsciously went up to rub the fur ridge on his right shoulder that would never lie really smoothly and Shadow took a deep breath. He had seen stranger forms of body weirdness. This was relatively small fry compared to the rest.

The remainder of their flight was also rather calm compared to their explosive start. Shadow restricted himself to reading out the displays of the instruments to Sonic while the other steered the plane from behind, long limbs moving to the side of Shadow. The Ultimate Lifeform felt a bit odd to be framed by the two thick, muscular arms encircling him from both sides, but it wasn’t that uncomfortable…there was a chill this high up in the air, yet Sonic’s thick fur radiated warmth when it brushed against his own shoulders. Shadow could feel himself relaxing a bit, only unconsciously registering that it might not only have stemmed from the temperature and the fact that Sonic was flying the plane smoothly now, but also from the feeling of being almost held safe in someone’s arms for the very first time…

“Why didn’t you do this from the very beginning?” Shadow asked when they had nearly reached their destination only a short while later. The blue-furred limbs jerked a bit, almost as if Sonic had just shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t like it much. It feels like your bones turn into chain links inside your flesh. It adds extra reach to my attacks but I avoid it when I can.”  And also it lets me feel like even more of some sort of freaky monster, he added in his mind but didn’t speak out aloud. No need for Shadow to catch a faceful of wangst this early in the evening.  

“I see,” the black hedgehog merely replied when Sonic brought them in for their landing, his tone not betraying whether he had caught on to the hero’s thoughts.

“Hold on tight,” Sonic instructed as the plane finally touched ground and the two hedgehogs bounced in their seats while the transformed Mobian wrestled with the controls to bring it to a halt. It screeched to a stop at the very edge of the landing strip in front of Tails’ house and the little fox was already opening the door to greet them when the two mismatched shapes climbed out of the Tornado.

“Sonic! Shadow! Did everything go - oh. It happened again, then?” he asked with a sympathetic smile as he jogged toward them, stopping when he could finally make out Sonic’s noticeably bulkier shape dropping to the ground with a thud! instead of landing gracefully as he usually would.

“Yeah,” Sonic replied with a growl and sigh. “We did manage to catch Shadow’s clone, though.”

“Ah. Good,” Tails nodded, before shooting a hesitant glance at the now wingless black hedgehog standing next to them. “So this is in fact the, uh, the real…?”

“Always have, always will be,” Shadow replied coldly, crossing his arms in front of his chest, crimson eyes glowing in the darkness like red-hot knives. “That faker didn’t stand a chance.”

“Great, happy to hear that,” Tails replied in what Sonic recognized was a just slightly too high-pitched voice along with a smile bordering on a muscle spasm. Clearly, his little buddy was still a bit uneasy around the deadly serious hedgehog. Not that Sonic could blame him…

“Yeah, we managed to get the Emerald it had stolen, but it escaped after a fight with Shadow,” the blue hedgehog explained as they made their way into the house, Shadow pointedly not looking at either of them when he was forced to remember the fight that could have gone so badly if Rouge hadn’t shown up…

She needs to teach me how to fly and battle. Urgently.

“So, any results from the tests?” Sonic asked as they filed into the living room. Tails nodded.

“Yeah. Shadow is definitely affected by the same condition as you, except the energy signatures I collected off him have the exact opposite values. So, if you are contaminated by Dark Gaia, he is afflicted by Light.”

“Okay. Anything new on the eclipse from today?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. It is kind of strange that they haven’t even been able to find the object that blocked out the sun, though…I couldn’t reach Knuckles so far, either, by now I’m getting worried. Especially since the Chaos Energy field of Mobius is going haywire.”

“Yeah, no kidding, pixel brain” Sonic replied. “Even the Emerald we recovered from Shadow’s clone is about as dull as a conversation with Knucklehead on a good day,” he said, pulling forth the gem from Shadow’s quills with another reach of suddenly elongating arms, causing the Ultimate Lifeform to first flinch forward and then snap at him in protest.

“Hey!”

“Yo, relax,” Sonic ignored him, instead holding the blue Emerald out to Tails. “See? No light in it anymore. Led to a pretty amusing Chaos Fail earlier.” The transformed hero grinned. 

“You’re positively begging to be impaled on a Chaos Spear,” Shadow informed him flatly, his hands on his upper arms briefly enveloped by crackling emerald flames. Tails privately wished Sonic would have the good sense to rile the Ultimate Lifeform up somewhere away from his more expensive equipment.

“Guys, please, not here,” he sighed, taking the power gem from Sonic at the same time. “I’ll put that into the locator I built, with it we can pin down the coordinates of the other six.”

“First of all, do you have any explanation as to why this is happening to the Emeralds? And some more information about the ‘Gaia Energy’ I keep hearing about will be helpful,” Shadow held the kit back before he could vanish.

“Hey, I tried to tell you!” Sonic protested, looking a little injured.

Shadow rolled his eyes, “Please, Faker, I’ve come across Dadaist haiku that make more sense than your attempts at explaining this.”

Sonic pouted, which looked… on second thought, Shadow didn’t really want to think about what it looked like, because the phrase ‘kicked puppy’ would inevitably end up in there somewhere.

“Ok,” Tails began, “You know how Chaos Energy is present in all living things?” Shadow nodded, while Sonic looked like this was apparently news to him, “Well, living things generate Chaos Energy – some more than others. But Chaos Energy doesn’t keep them alive; it’s just a natural consequence of their life-force.”

Shadow grunted. “Speak for yourself,” he muttered.

“Anyway, Gaia Energy is the life-force of the planet and since the planet is, in a sense, alive, it also generates Chaos Energy. But like with people and plants and everything else, if that life-force is disrupted, the Chaos Energy contained within it is also disrupted. My current theory is that when the Gaia Energy is disrupted, it looks for other hosts to store itself.”

Shadow considered this, absorbing the information. Sonic mostly looked a little lost, “All right, so we are currently playing hosts to a portion of the planet’s life-force. So what about the Chaos Emeralds?”

“Well, current theory is Chaos Emeralds somehow tap in to the Chaos Energy of the planet, acting as focal points. They’re tied together somehow. I think the Master Emerald is an exception, but until we can contact Knuckles, I can’t say for sure. But I’m guessing that re-energising the Emeralds will help re-balance the Gaia Energy, too.”

“Okay,” Sonic nodded. “That means we can go hunting for them tomorrow. Sounds like a plan.”

“We also need to find the Doctor’s base,” Shadow stated. “That clone was most likely his work and he might be making more.”

“Can do both,” Tails assured him. He turned to head down to the lab, but stopped. “Oh yeah, one more thing. About your wings…”

Shadow raised an eye ridge when the two-tail didn’t continue immediately. “Yeah?”

“They’re…you’re…well, I studied the feather and compared your shape and colouring to that of feral birds. It seems like you’re a…” he gave a small grin. “…an Elanus caeruleus, a Black-winged Kite. No wonder Sonic could pull you along so well.”

And with that, the two tails had disappeared downstairs so quickly he couldn’t even hear the ensuing growl and inevitable giggling of his older brother above.

 

xxx

 

“Fine,” Shadow grumbled later, drumming his fingers on the table. Sonic had suggested they grab a bite to eat since they hadn’t had anything all day and now the two mismatched rivals were sitting at the dining table in Tails’ kitchen, while the young fox was rummaging through the pantry trying to find anything actually edible. The Ultimate Lifeform didn’t usually require such mundane things as basic nutrition, of course, but the transformation earlier today had left him feeling rather drained and hungry. Still, at the moment he also felt rather restless.

Tails poked his head over the open fridge door. “Shadow, what would you like to eat?”

“Food.”

“Try it with some Cheerios, Tails, and he might lighten up a little,” Sonic’s voice came from the other side of the table, immediately followed by: “No wait, on second thought hold the cereal. The way he’s looking at me now would probably let the milk curdle.”

The fox briefly rolled his eyes at the unhelpfulness of hedgehogs in general, but was interrupted by a knock at the front door.

“Hey, boys! Anybody willing to let a girl inside?” Rouge’s voice called out and Tails quickly complied, the small kitchen actually getting quite crowded by now, especially with Sonic the Werehog taking up more space than usual. Well, they should probably be glad that Shadow at least was wingless at the moment…

“H-hi, Rouge,” Tails greeted her as he opened the door, trying hard to be polite and actually look at her face when she smiled at him. To the nine-year-old fox, she was actually a little scary, though in a different way than Shadow.

“Hey there, cutie!” The female gave him a dazzling smile, bending slightly forward and ruffling his head fur. “My, you’ve certainly grown a little since I last saw you, huh? Though probably not as much as your hedgehog friend, I suppose…” she said, striding through to the kitchen swaying her hips and carrying a sports bag, Tails, now actually blushing a little, hurrying behind.

“What’s that you brought?” Shadow asked as the bat pulled up a chair.

“Just a few things. GUN equipment for the mission to the doctor’s base, stuff to help you fly tomorrow, a couple of my things, clothes, and your toothbrush.” 

“My toothbrush?” Shadow raised a bit of an eye ridge, while Sonic already had to snort again at the slightly incredulous expression of the Ultimate Lifeform. The bat nodded.

“Sure. I figured we’d be staying here overnight, and we both know you have terrible morning breath.”

“I do not!”

“He has, take my word for it,” Rouge winked at the two other Mobians in the kitchen. Tails was snickering behind the safety of the fridge door, while Sonic’s lips twitched in faint amusement – but at the same time the blue hero couldn’t help but suddenly wonder why he felt a surprising slight sting at the easy manner in which Rouge was able to tease the black hedgehog and the familiarity between the two that resulted from Shadow basically living at her place. Were they actually…more than friends…?

“So, can you tell me what you eat? Shadow refuses to,” Tails piped up. The question was not an entirely unreasonable one. Because of the hundreds of species of Sapients on Mobius, diets could vary wildly; both in personal taste as well as what the Mobian in question actually was able to digest. The average human supermarket was able to fulfil about 90 percent of anything the three feet tall and fluffy population could want and for the rest either specialty or simply pet stores were usually sufficient. However, there were also always the usual exceptions and while Tails had felt pretty certain he would be able to cater for Shadow who was just another hedgehog, he had little to no idea what to give a bat.

 Rouge pursed her lips.

“Got any wine?”

“Uh, no, I actually don’t have any alcohol, I don’t like it that much…” the little fox rubbed his two tails together, a bit embarrassed, but the white treasure huntress just smiled.

“That’s okay, kiddo. I’ll just have some juice and fruit. Tall, dark and stripy over here won’t appreciate anything apart from cherries anyway, so you might just give him whatever you’re cooking up for you and blue boy. He says there’s nothing his stomach couldn’t hack in any case.”

“Okay…” Tails nodded. That sounded simple enough. “I was going to maybe have hamburgers for us. That fine with you?”

Shadow grunted in what could have been consent if interpreted benevolently, and Sonic nodded.

“Sure, sounds great. For me, hold the burger bun, though. And the salad. And mostly everything apart from the meat.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Tails gave a little knowing smile. Sonic’s usually balanced and/or fastfood-inclined tastes had shifted definitely toward the carnivorous end of the food spectrum the last time he had turned into a wolf. He usually also liked his meat barely flame-kissed when that was the case, but Tails still made it a point to make sure it spent at least a minimum time in the pan. He was pretty certain lycanthropy did not protect from salmonella and a werewolf with the runs was probably the last thing they needed…

“You not eating anything apart from fruit?” Sonic asked Rouge while the burgers were frying in the pan and the bat had already helped herself to some peaches. He leaned on the table a bit and gave a small grin that he knew usually let him look quite charming but was probably more along the lines of ‘All The Better To Eat You With’ in his transformed state. “Don’t tell me you’re on a diet.”

“Me? No way, I’d rather keep the volume of my…curves,” the bat replied, apparently changing what she had been about to say at the last moment after she had shot a quick glance at Tails still in the kitchen. She winked jokingly flirtatious at Sonic who was a bit startled, but soon lapsed into an easy grin himself, feeling relaxed that even his horrid appearance apparently still didn’t make him a completely hideous monster if at least Rouge behaved normally around him. He also shot a quick look at Shadow to see whether the black hedgehog seemed in any way disapproving of her behaviour toward him, but the Ultimate Lifeform was staring off to the side and didn’t seem to care for any of the antics at their table.

“Burgers are done!” Tails announced, carrying the pan over to the table. The blue hero could already feel the characteristic saliva of the wolf pooling in his mouth but tried his best not to drool when the meat was placed before him and the delicious smell hit his sensitive nose. It was only another aspect of his transformation – it invaded his psyche and even changed his food preferences – that he didn’t want to think about or be reminded of.

“You sure you don’t want one, Rouge?” Tails asked as he distributed the food among their three plates. The bat shook her head.

“No, thanks. I’m not that great with beef or bread,” she excused herself, taking another sip from her apple juice. “Fruit, chicken, dairy and a few vegetables is mostly all I can take. That and the occasional insect treat, of course,” she added, gesturing elegantly with her hand.

“Oh,” Tails said. “Well, we do have some of those, a dried crickets and mealworm mix, Sonic sometimes adds them to his cereal…”

“Yup, makes it extra-crunchy,” the transformed hedgehog informed the bat happily through a mouthful of burger, ignoring Shadow (who had grown up solely among humans and had been raised on canteen food) twitching slightly in the background.

 “Tastes fantastic, Tails, thanks a bunch,” Sonic said, licking over his muzzle as he had successfully wolfed down the last burger. He stretched on his chair.

“Alright, who’s in favour of hitting the hay?”

“Already?” Shadow frowned, finally opening his mouth. “Shouldn’t we be doing something instead of wasting our time sleeping?” 

“Well, a few of us actually have mortal needs like that, yes,” Sonic replied. “Besides, what would you actually be doing now? The computer’s running a search for Eggman’s base and the rest of the Emeralds and we really shouldn’t move out before you haven’t learned how to properly deal with your bird form anyway.”

The black hedgehog scowled, not used to Sonic actually making sense and also not happy to be reminded of his own weakness. And now to spend the only few hours of darkness that let him be his agile, powerful self in unconsciousness…?

“He’s right, Shadow,” Rouge agreed, briefly rubbing over the reluctant black hedgehog’s shoulder. “We need to be well-rested if we want to take the doctor on tomorrow.”

Crimson eyes closed as the Ultimate Lifeform briefly inclined his head.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Good choice,” Rouge nodded. “So, Two-Tail, where can we sleep?”

Sleeping arrangements were quickly sorted, with Sonic giving up his room to Rouge in a slightly unexpected act of chivalry. Tails had likewise retired to bed, leaving Sonic and Shadow alone in the living room.

“What about you?” Sonic asked, directing a questioning glance at Shadow. The black hedgehog shrugged.

“I don’t particularly care. Anywhere’s fine,” he replied disinterestedly, but Sonic briefly thought he could also sense the other’s discontent at his situation for a moment.

As if the hero of Mobius couldn’t fully emphasize.

I’m sorry, Shadow…

Sonic disliked spending time in his shapeshifted form just as much as Shadow did and now he had argued (even if with good reason) that they spent the night at the house so he would be able to sleep and forget his problems until the sun would chase them away…but thereby also letting Shadow’s wings reappear. No wonder the black hedgehog was even gloomier than usual.

The rational part of Sonic’s brain insisted of course that Shadow had been through much worse and was more than capable of just sucking it up and get on with stuff, but there was also another side – Sonic once again realized that yes, he actually felt a bit sorry for the other and would like to cheer him up.

“Tell you what, you can have the couch. I’ll take the floor.”

Red eyes blinked, for the first time actually making contact, staring for a moment, almost as if the other wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

“…thank you.”

The words sounded a bit rusty, giving the slight impression that the black hedgehog had been trained a long time ago to say them but had never bothered until now. Sonic gave him a clawed thumbs-up.

“No worries. Come on, I’ll get us some blankets.”

Shadow followed the transformed hero through the house, catching the sheets Sonic threw at him while digging through the drawers of a cupboard at the stairs. He felt a bit oddly, hardly having been accustomed to kindness or hospitality before. Shadow once again looked at the form of Sonic rooting through the laundry, briefly realizing he wasn’t at all sure how he actually felt about the other at the moment. It certainly didn’t help that the hero of Mobius seemed to oscillate between genuine friendliness, lunacy, bravery and annoyance warranting Cruel and Unusual Punishment on a regular basis. But right now he had offered Shadow (and Rouge) the only other two sleeping opportunities in the house without a second thought just to make him more comfortable…

“There ya go,” Sonic indicated the green couch standing in the living room he had led Shadow back to. It was right next to a low sofa table, a fireplace and a bookcase – Sonic briefly left the room again and Shadow studied the titles of the tomes with faint curiosity.

The Arabian Nights, Knight of the Wind, Beyond Prophecy, The Legend of King Arthur: The Fall, Artemis the Fowl, which was the book series about that criminal bird boy geniusthe little fox was a fantasy nut. Who would have thought.

Shadow sat down on the sofa, stretching out tentatively. Black ears perked up when Sonic re-entered the room, carrying two pillows under his arm, one of which he tossed to Shadow.

“There. Try not to get too many spines stuck into the couch, Tails already threatens to have me de-quilled whenever he sits down on it and gets poked.” 

“Right,” Shadow replied dryly, taking the cushion and pulling the sheet over his body. “Where are you going to sleep, anyway?”

“Carpet,” Sonic stated simply. “It’s rather soft and one of the advantages of my current form is that I don’t actually seem to mind,” he added, edge of his mouth briefly twisting in sardonic gallows humour. He lowered himself in front of the couch onto the cream-coloured rug, actually having to resist the urge to turn once in a circle before lying down.

“Good night, Shadow.”

“…good night.”

“Try not to think about tomorrow too much.”

“Now that you reminded me, faker, it will surely work.”

Sonic chuckled. “Good point. In that case, then, try to think about tomorrow and imagine how we’ll crack that Egghead wide open.” He reached for the remote and switched off the lights.

It didn’t make much of a difference to Shadow, since the Ultimate Lifeform could see in near darkness, but it sure didn’t take long for Sonic’s body to succumb to sleep as soon as the lamp had been extinguished. The black hedgehog briefly looked down at the unconscious form of the hero on the floor after he had been staring at the ceiling for a while, noting with slight curiosity how Sonic had curled up more akin a feral dog than your standard sapient Mobian (of course, not that that was saying much. Shadow so far had encountered quite a few things when it came to sleeping positions, including Rouge hanging upside down from the ceiling, Espio curled around a tree limb and of course himself, waking up as a tight, spiky ball after a nightmare that had involved Doom’s Eye wearing a Maria costume and chasing him through the ARK demanding that he ‘Kill all the GUN soldiers for cake’. Rouge had suggested he should get his subconscious checked afterward).

Shadow looked at the hero sleeping on the carpet again, hearing his strong breathing and watching his flanks rise and fall with that rhythm. Sonic’s face was turned away from him, tugged in between his paws and the pillow. It looked almost…

The Ultimate Lifeform shifted a bit on the couch so he now lay on his belly. He wondered…a hand stretched down again and briefly brushed over the midnight pelt, dextrous gloved fingers at first tentatively, then more boldly stroking over the fur, which felt smooth and coarse all at once. Shadow couldn’t even explain to himself why he was doing this, only that Sonic felt…curiously warm…

Chaos. What am I even *doing* here? Shadow shook his head while pinching the back of his snout, simultaneously retracting his hand. I must be going insane. But then again, I DID turn into a bird today, so I might actually have reason to this time.

He rolled onto his other side on the couch, trying to finally fall asleep and closed his eyes, deliberately avoiding to think about what he had just done or why. But when he succumbed to his own exhaustion a few minutes later, emerald eyes were still staring straight ahead, the hero of Mobius yet quite unable to believe that Shadow had just petted him…

 

Xxx

 

Shadow screamed when the agony came.

“What?! What’s going on!” Sonic was on his hands and knees instantly, having been jolted awake by the explosion of noise, the scream quickly turning into a tortured screech even while the blue hero still tried to get his bearings. He was in Tails’ living room on the floor, his hands were digging into the soft carpet he had been lying on, the arms supporting him were slim and peach-furred again, hands slender and bare and non-clawed, the light of the sun having already spilled over the horizon…

The sunlight.

Sonic’s head twisted around only milliseconds after being startled awake and wide emerald eyes immediately filled with distressed sympathy as he beheld Shadow who had been sleeping on the couch. The black hedgehog was also on his hands and knees, face contorted into a mask of pain, midnight fingers clawing into the couch pillows in anguish as talons burst forth, shredding glove, pillows and flesh alike. Shadow was pressing his face into the sofa now, trying to muffle his howls and screeches as even his larynx was violently forced to transform. The Ultimate Lifeform was crouching like somebody in supplication, but there seemed to be no mercy forthcoming. Sonic could see his back arc and buck in muscle spasms, quills flexing arhythmically in pain and panic, until finally, the wings burst forth from the black-furred back and another ragged scream was torn from tan lips. To the horrified blue hero, it looked like a distorted version of a fast-forwarded video of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon for the first time, but the image in front of him was infinitely more awesome and terrible to behold. The black and white wings grew from his back as if they were magic, unfolding and jerking until they hit the ceiling, flapping while half-formed and trailing feathers everywhere, powerful and untamed and cruel and wild.

Sonic had no idea how long the procedure had lasted, had only been able to stumble backwards and slide away on his behind and hands, but then it was finally over, the shining new wings collapsed limply to the floor and over the backrest of the couch, half-covering the panting and exhausted body of the Ultimate Lifeform that lay twitching on the sofa. Sonic stayed sitting for another moment, stunned, only listening to the laboured breathing coming from his dark-look-alike before he actually managed to pick himself up and walk over.

“Shadow…” he asked, tentatively, wondering whether he could pick up one of the wings and move it to see the other’s face without causing him even more pain. The blue speedster noted with some relief that at least there was a lot less blood on the feathers than there had been yesterday, hopefully indicating that Shadow’s body had gotten used to the transformation process somewhat. Upstairs, Sonic could also hear confused footsteps now, indicating that Shadow’s cried must have woken up Tails and Rouge who were now coming down to look what was going on.

“Chaos, Shadow, I’m sorry – I probably should have thought about setting an alarm clock or something instead of just waiting for the sun to pop up. It reached me first because I was closer to the window, but changing back usually never wakes me up. I was an idiot for not thinking that for you it would be the reverse. Are you okay?”

Shadow at first didn’t reply, but then a groan issued from beneath the wing. Sonic waited for another moment and then finally the pinion was slowly lifted aside – revealing the most cranky and dishevelled Ultimate Lifeform imaginable underneath.

“Worst. Morning. EVER.”

 

xxx

 

“Alright, Shadow! You’re ready for flying lesson number 2?”

“If I said ‘No’, would it help at all?”

So grumpy in the morning,” Rouge tsked. “Really, Tails even made us pancakes.”

“I…didn’t have a very good start into the day,” Shadow replied stiffly, ruffling his wings briefly. Sonic had told him that the pain of the transformation lessened with time, but the Ultimate Lifeform was still wishing he wouldn’t even have to endure it often enough for his body to get used to it. They were standing on Tails’ house roof again, Sonic and the fox both watching Rouge and the bag she had brought with interest.

“Now, I’ve read up on this,” the bat announced cheerfully. Apparently, one of the more important things is that if your wings are made from feathers, they need to be oiled up.”

“What?” Shadow looked at her a bit disbelievingly, but Tails only nodded.

“Oh. Yeah, that actually makes sense. My mode of flying is totally different, but now that you say it I think I’ve read about birds having to preen their feathers to be able to fly properly.”

“The hell? How am I supposed to do that?” Shadow asked, already feeling frustrated. If he had been born an avian Sapient, these would be things he would know about, but he didn’t. Chaos dammit, he’d like to see some of those birds trying to deal with a head full of untrimmed quills each morning…

Rouge merely grinned. “Don’t worry, sweetie, you don’t have to. We will.”

She showed him three cloths and a bottle full of sunflower oil. Shadow swallowed.

 

To be continued…

 

Author’s note: - Skyblaze here this time. Wow, over 80 reviews already? Damn. Thank you to all of our readers. We’re so glad you’re enjoying this story this much. Neither Taranea or myself ever dreamed this project would be this successful when we first started. Thanks to you all for reading.

 

Be sure to stay tuned for the next chapter, where there will be flying lessons part 2, plus the start of the great Emerald hunt – with a couple of new twists along the way.

 

On a tangent, if any of our readers keep an eye on the  ‘That Guy with the Glasses’ site, watch out for my name showing up there soon!

 

Chapter 6 - Fly in the Freedom by Skyblaze
Chapter 5: Fly in the Freedom

Chapter 5: Fly in the Freedom

 

"Ouch!"

 

The loud protest was not exactly dignified, coming as it did from the Ultimate Lifeform, but at the moment he felt he had good reason - as he was starting to feel like a plucked chicken.

 

"Stop being such a big baby," Rouge tsk'd as another black feather fluttered to the ground, "These bent feathers need to be removed, or you won't be able to fly properly."

 

Shadow growled. All in all, the entire experience was more than humiliating. He was forced to stand with his feet apart, wings outstretched and arms hanging down at his sides while Rouge, Tails and, worst of all, Sonic, swarmed over his pinions with soft cloths, coating his feathers in a fine layer of oil.

 

Strangely, though it was embarrassing, it wasn't all that uncomfortable. Tails and especially Sonic were being very conscientious about his new appendages and some of the contact verged on being actually pleasant - not that he would mention that to them, of course.

 

After what felt like an eternity, Rouge stepped back, inspecting his wings with a soft, speculative, 'Hmm'. "I think that should do for now." A wicked grin formed on her face, the tips of her fangs poking out in a profoundly unnerving fashion. "Now, time to try them out."

 

The look on Sonic's face clearly said 'This should be fun.' even though the blue speedster hadn't said a word. Shadow was also quite sure that the rest of the hedgehog's body language was roughly translatable to 'I'll laugh my spines off if you manage another pratfall', but inwardly swore that this time, he would stay clear of that cursed poplar.

 

"So, the roof again?" Tails asked. Rouge looked up at it thoughtfully, then nodded.

 

"Yeah, that should do the trick."

 

It was only by a monumental exercise of will that Shadow resisted the urge to facepalm.

 

xxx

 

"What am I doing up here again?" Shadow asked pointedly of Rouge, "You don't need height to get airborne."

 

Rouge gave a world-weary sigh and turned to the black hedgehog, "Shadow, I've carried you several times and you weigh a ton. You may have noticed that your wings are bigger than mine, that's because they need to be to even get you off the ground. I'm a bat; my species has had millions of years of evolution to make us light and maneuverable. You, on the other hand, are a genetically-engineered hedgehog with some added extras.”

 

Tails took a sudden, surprised breath, looking between the white bat and black hedgehog as they stared at each other, waiting for the explosion he was sure would come.

 

It didn't.

 

"Point taken." Shadow replied evenly, "Please continue."

 

Tails stared in astonishment for a second, and then looked at his brother, but all Sonic could was answer back with another shrug, also declaring that for him there were three things non-understandable in the universe, those including girls, quantum physics and black hedgehogs in general.

 

Rouge smiled at Shadow, and then held out her hands, "Well, you already know how to control those wings of yours a little, so I'll skip right on to the intermediate class." Shadow nodded in approval. "The air is sort of like water when you're swimming - it doesn't matter how deep the water is because you're only using the top bit of it anyway. And like in water, you need to start off by moving your wings in a circle pattern - that'll stir up the air around you and give you some lift. Watch."

 

She turned around to show Shadow her own wings and, true to her words, she moved them in an odd motion, the tips of them moving back, out and forwards again.

 

"See what I mean? Now, you try."

 

Awkwardly, Shadow imitated the motion, muscles unused to such action pinging slightly in protest, but the longer he kept it going, the easier it became. Wind stirred up around him, and he found himself automatically leaning forward to counterbalance himself as the air swirled. Tails had jumped into the air to avoid being knocked off the roof by the backwash; Sonic had just dropped into a half-crouch, his weight shifted forward so the rubber grips of his sneakers squeaked over the roof tiles, holding him in place. For a moment, Shadow caught Sonic's gaze, his eyes sparkled with excitement but there was something else hidden in those verdant depths, something Shadow couldn't recognise, the crazed blue hedgehog was grinning broadly, and - not for the first time - Shadow wondered why exactly he needed an audience.

 

Rouge nodded in approval, "Good," she said, "You're getting the hang of it," she complimented him, "But remember to keep your wings outstretched, or they won't catch the air currents properly."

 

"How exactly do I do that?" he demanded, a slight edge of frustration in his rough voice.

 

"Easy - imagine that your wings are like your hands - stretch them out like you would your fingers." She demonstrated by splaying her fingers wide like someone preparing to play the piano. Shadow frowned in concentration for a moment, then, with the sound of ruffling feathers, his wings spread further. He stood there in the sun for a moment, looking for all the world like an image in a stained glass window. Sonic took a sudden sharp breath at the sight.

 

"What's next?" Shadow asked calmly, ignoring the other hedgehog behind him and the fox hovering somewhere above.

 

"Oh, the next bit is the fun bit," Rouge cooed, "Move your wings like I told you, then take a run and jump off the roof - that should get you airborne."

 

Shadow stared, "…that was a joke." His words were a flat statement.

 

Rouge grinned.

 

The Ultimate Lifeform's genetically engineered heart sank into his jet shoes.

Sighing deeply, Shadow slowly, step by step, backed up to the far edge of the roof. Rouge and Tails were overhead, Sonic seemed to have vanished - he had probably got bored. He felt an inexplicable flash of hurt at that thought, that the blue speedster didn't even view him as interesting enough to watch. He quickly suppressed the traitorous feeling, though.

 

Dismissing everything else from his mind, he focused on the horizon. Once more he felt that odd yearning, the need to soar high up into the powder-blue skies. Remembering everything Rouge had taught him and all he had learned from the painful experience yesterday, he ignited his jet shoes and began to propel himself forward, his wings moving as he did so, powerful gusts of wind stirring up the dust and stray leaves in the air. The roof edge approached and he braced himself, his wings stretching out to their fullest extent as they sought to catch the air currents he had stirred up. For a moment, he felt he had failed but then…

 

A gust of air rushed across his feathers, he felt himself lifted, cradled by the wind as earth and sky rushed past. Astonishment and joy filled him as a single beat of his powerful wings lifted him higher.

 

He was flying.

 

"That was wonderful, Shadow!" Rouge's voice broke into his thoughts. He turned his head for just a moment to see the bat flying along beside him, her much smaller wings having to beat five times for every single beat of his.

 

"Thank you, Rouge," he said, and could feel a tiny, unaccustomed smile creep onto his face even as he said it. Then he saw what was up ahead, "How do I turn?" he asked urgently when he saw the trees looming in front of them not wishing for a repeat of yesterday's exercise.

 

"Use your legs like a rudder, shift them right to go left and left to go right and then just lean on into the turn. Watch me." Exaggerating her movements so Shadow would get the best idea, Rouge moved her legs to the left, shifting the rest of her body weight to the right so she swooped into a tight right-hand turn.

 

"Just like an Extreme Gear, then" he muttered, pleased that there was at last something familiar for him to use. Shifting his centre of balance was second nature to him, after all. With that knowledge helping him, plus Rouge's helpful example, he turned a smooth U-turn in the air, the very tips of his wings brushing the leaves on the trees.

 

"Rouge…" he said in a low voice, "This is…" He couldn't find the words to express how this felt to him, how wonderful it was now he finally had some control.

 

"I know, honey." She smiled back at him, "I know."

 

There was a noise somewhere behind him; he could hear it even over the roar of the wind in his ears. It was faint hissing whine that had a distinct electronic overtone, and it sounded vaguely familiar.

 

He banked left in a slow circle to take a look, and to his surprise he saw Sonic, balanced on his Extreme Gear, his trademark grin firmly in place as he followed along behind.

 

"Hey! Lookin' good, Shads!" Sonic said, almost shouting over the rushing wind.

 

"What are you doing, Sonic?" Shadow called back, startled to find that his altered voice carried better in these conditions than his normal one would have.

 

"It looked like fun, so I thought I'd join in," Sonic laughed, and then a slightly concerned expression crossed his face for a moment, "You don't mind, do ya?"

 

"Would it matter if I did?" Shadow said, though his tone lacked some of its usual bite.

Sonic took that as an invitation, sliding his board up so he was level with Shadow. The blue speedster slyly glanced at him, "Wanna race, Shads? It'll be just like old times."

 

"Even if we had any 'old times', Faker - which we don't - how exactly am I supposed to race you when I'm like this?"

 

Sonic's eyes sparkled in a truly infuriating way, "What's the matter, Shads, those fancy shoes of your broken or somethin'? All ya need is a little bit of thrust…"

 

Torn between the urge to laugh at Sonic's pathetic attempt to goad him and the urge to growl at the reminder about the state of his Chaos powers, he instead elected to do neither. His shoes were still functioning, requiring only minimal power compared to any of his other abilities so he easily had enough energy stored in his own body to power them for a decent length of time.

 

He focused the Chaos now, channeling it into his shoes, returning Sonic's grin with a defiant smirk as he released it, tensing his wings in preparation for the slight jolt.

 

As it turned out, 'slight' was not exactly the word for what he received.

 

A blaze of golden energy haloed him as he suddenly shot forwards at incredible velocity - almost comparable to his normal ground cruising speed. Sparks of yellow-orange fire trailed from the tips of his wings as he hurtled through the air. He couldn't even cry out, there had been no time for surprise. Even amidst his shock, he felt an inexplicable warmth fill him as the amber pendant around his neck started to glow brighter and brighter. Somewhere distantly, he could hear Rouge and Sonic calling his name.

 

Nearly panicking, he tried to damp the chaos power rushing to his legs, even as he almost instinctively pulled his wings up and angled them forward to act like air-brakes. As he corrected the flow, he realised that this wasn't Chaos energy, it was something… else. It was as wild and powerful as Chaos, but somehow hotter, more primal - more ancient.

 

Flapping his trembling wings slowly, he let himself drop back down to the ground, somehow managing to prevent his knees from buckling when he touched down, his heart hammering in his chest.

 

Rouge, Tails and Sonic all rushed over to him, the bat and the hedgehog babbling questions about the state of his health, while Tails was silently scanning him with some odd hand-held device.

 

Sonic blew out an explosive breath, "Chaos, Shadow, what was that?"

 

"It wasn't Chaos." Shadow muttered, still trying to maintain his usual impassive façade and failing.

 

"Huh?" Rouge asked, her brow creasing in a frown.

 

"He's right, guys," Tails spoke up, "That energy discharge we saw was Gaia Energy, not Chaos."

Sonic made a thoughtful noise, "Hm, yeah, you might be right. Sure didn't feel like Chaos Energy."

Shadow looked sharply at him, "Is this what you meant about getting something in return for losing my Chaos Power?"

 

Sonic smiled slightly sheepishly as he leaned against his Extreme Gear, which had been set end-up in the soft grass, "I wasn't sure what you'd get, but I figured you would get somethin'."

 

Shadow's eyes narrowed, "Because you did." he said flatly, referring obliquely to the weird extending arms the werehog had.

 

Sonic shrugged casually, an echo of something dark behind his eyes, "You ain't seen me fight as the werehog yet."

 

Shadow silently translated that to mean that there was more to Sonic's transformed state than a shaggy pelt and elastic arms. The two hedgehogs regarded each other silently for a moment, assessing each other, as if trying to seek truth from the other's eyes.

 

"Hey, fellas," Rouge broke the spell, "We going to finish these flying lessons or what?"

 

"Yes," Shadow said, tearing his gaze away from Sonic, "What do you have planned next, Rouge?"

 

The lessons continued, but all four of them were wary now. It fell to Rouge and Sonic to rescue Shadow from any aerial mishaps, since Tails was entirely focused on the scanning device he kept pointing in Shadow's direction. Rouge showed him how to manoeuvre in the air, how to dive, how to safely carry someone else - Sonic had been happy enough to be the demonstration model for that one, since he was used to having Tails carry him, and Shadow had many times the little's fox's strength, Sonic was in no danger of falling. They even had a little fun at some point – with all four of them now airborne, at one point the lesson dissolved into a game of aerial tag for a few, light-hearted moments, the four of them chasing each other around the powder-blue sky of the Mystic ruins, swooping, diving, sailing, gliding and laughing. Even Shadow (who probably viewed it less as a game and more as just another training opportunity) couldn't help but let his lips twitch more than once, his red eyes gleaming in a way that Sonic wondered could perhaps indicate an inner amusement. The game was fun for everyone – Tails was the most maneuverable and Sonic the fastest, with Rouge having the most experience and Shadow the largest wingspan and most power in the air. It ended when Shadow managed a gust of wind that knocked a surprised Sonic clear off his Extreme Gear, even if the blue hero merely went into a somersault and landed on the roof gracefully – and then Rouge declared that it was time for Shadow to learn how to use his wings in a fight.

 

The theory was fairly simple. They had set up a simple dummy-like figure on the ground. The thing was poorly put together since it had been assembled in haste - Tails had commented that it resembled a scarecrow or perhaps the monster-like puppets they had found in Robotnik's old base long ago when they had had to fight him because he had released Chaos from the Master Emerald. Shadow's job now was to do a swooping dive and slash at the dummy with his talons.

 

Easy enough in theory, but considering the run of luck he had been having lately, he wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't end up eating turf - or the scarecrow. Carefully, he circled his target, trying to feel the air currents as they flowed around him. He took a couple of deep, calming breaths, then he tightened his muscles and let his wings close slightly, causing him to dive down towards the ground at incredible speed. As he swooped past, at the last possible instant, he reached out with his taloned hand to swipe at the dummy.

 

There was a sudden blaze of yellow light as his claws impacted, a trail of gold fire following the path of his hand, slicing easily through the scarecrow and arcing down to burn four perfectly parallel lines in the grass.

 

Everyone fell silent for a moment as scraps of fabric and stuffing drifted through the air like snowflakes.

 

"Cool," Sonic said, finally.

 

Shadow slowly descended back to earth, his wings folding neatly onto his back. He glanced at his transformed hand curiously, "Interesting," he said quietly. It wasn't quite a Chaos Spear, but it was better than nothing.

 

"So, you and fly and you can fight, but can you crow?" Sonic said his eyes full of mischief as he brought his Extreme Gear in for a landing, hopping off it with expert grace.

 

Shadow narrowed his eyes, "If that's another bird joke, Faker, I swear I will…"

 

"It's a reference to 'Peter Pan', Shadow. Sonic's just trying to be funny. Again," Tails interjected before violence could break out.

 

"Hmph."

 

Sonic just grinned and turned to Tails and Rouge, "So, what now, team?" he asked, dusting himself off.

 

"Well, the readings I've got from the Emerald so far are faint, but it looks like there's one over in White Acropolis," Tails replied.

 

Rouge raised an eyebrow, "Coincidentally, that's also where GUN Intelligence placed Robotnik's last known location."

 

"Two birds with one stone, huh?" Sonic said, "Sounds pretty good. Are you guys coming along?"

Tails shook his head, "I'm gonna try and find that asteroid or whatever it was that blocked out the sun yesterday. GUN lost track of it, but maybe I can pick it up again." The kit's expression twisted into a frown that gave him a scholarly look far beyond his years, "I've got a weird feeling it's important, somehow."

 

Sonic nodded, used to trusting his brother's judgement, "Ok lil bro. What about you, Rouge?"

 

The bat smirked at him, "You're also trying to track down the rest of the Chaos Emeralds, right? Well, it just so happens that I'm pretty good at finding shiny rocks, so how about I try and have a look around for the other five?" One turquoise eyelid flickered at him in a fast wink, her smirk still in place.

 

"Good point," Shadow agreed, "Provided you don't get distracted and accidentally put them in your private collection," the black hedgehog finished dryly.

 

Rouge laughed; a rich, deep sound and gave Shadow a fond look. Sonic tried to ignore the way his insides seemed to twist when Shadow returned it.

 

"Yeah, with the Emeralds being drained the way they are, and the planet's Chaos energy in flux, I'm not getting the same kind of clear readings I usually do. Rouge might be our best bet right now," Tails said awkwardly, looking slightly guilty.

 

"This does mean you boys will be out in the field by yourselves," Rouge pointed out.

 

Sonic and Shadow regarded each other for a long moment, then Sonic broke into a grin, "Sounds like fun!"

 

Shadow sighed.

 

xxx

 

The air in White Acropolis had a sodden chill to it when the two hedgehogs arrived in the mountainous region. Though at the moment the place was less 'White Acropolis' than 'Grey-brown Acropolis'. It was the end of the summer thaw, and the dozens of little streams that slalomed down the mountainsides were running bank-full, cutting broad, wet tracks through the snow the region was named for. Spiky, jagged rocks rose out from what remained of the slushy snow, their surfaces slick with icy water.

 

It had taken them roughly an hour to get there, Shadow now actually able to keep up with Sonic as long as the blue hedgehog didn't attempt to break the sound barrier. 

 

Sonic paused once again to grab hold of his leg and pull his foot out of a patch of soupy muck; it came loose with a wet popping noise. His red sneakers were now covered in brown sludge, but he actually felt kind of lucky he hadn't lost his shoes entirely to the sucking swampy depths. He shook his head; running was impossible here - as he had quickly discovered - the valleys were too saturated with water. He looked up, eying the rocks and wondering if climbing would actually work any better - at least that way he wouldn't be in danger of having his footwear disappear.

 

A large, dark shape passed over him, causing him to look up to see Shadow the winged hedgehog flying easily on the thermals as he soared over the mud and snow and water, effortlessly scouting the area. Sonic glared at him and, even though he knew the black hedgehog couldn't see him right now, he stuck his tongue out in a gesture of pure childishness.

 

Feeling slightly better, he swung up onto one of the rocks, and promptly felt a sudden sharp pain blossom in his hand. He pulled it back and saw that the sharp edge of the rock had sliced neatly into his palm, straight through the gloves he had put fresh on this morning. Absently, he began to wonder if the bad luck Shadow seemed to have been suffering lately was actually contagious.

 

"Enjoying yourself, Faker?" Shadow's mocking voice came from above him. Glancing upwards, Sonic saw the other hedgehog was circling him slowly, a smug smirk on his face.

Apparently Karma had a sense of humour.

Sonic, rather than get into yet another argument with the Ultimate Lifeform (which he most likely would lose...), chose to simply ask another question.

 

"You see anything yet?"

 

"Yes," Shadow replied, "The base is about half a mile up the main slope. Looks like he's moved the entrance, but that shouldn't be a problem."

 

"Heh, no. I've never had trouble getting into one of Eggman's fortresses," Sonic grinned.

 

"Strange that the Doctor chose to come back here. This base hasn't been used in almost two years," Shadow mused, sailing just in front of Sonic as the blue hedgehog laboriously hauled himself up and over the rocks.

 

Sonic shrugged, "I trashed his stuff up pretty bad last time. Even ole Eggman only has so many resources."

 

"Hm," Shadow said thoughtfully, "So this was his fallback position. It's isolated and difficult to get to by normal transportation, and the heavy metal deposits in the mountains disrupt radio transmissions. Makes sense for him to hide here."

 

"Whatever you say, Shads," Sonic grunted, not paying full attention as he tried to find a foothold on the slippery rock. His sneakers were not exactly designed as climbing boots - quite the opposite in fact. His shoes had been specifically designed to reduce friction, not increase it. And now that he had decided to climb up a sixty foot cliff, the handholds and footholds were getting harder and harder to find. It didn't help that the cut in his palm was causing his hand to throb painfully. The hero of Mobius gritted his teeth and continued to pull himself up. He had been through much worse than this. But suddenly, with a squeak, one foot lost grip on the wet rock, and he found that the other foot was slowly losing purchase as well it was forced to hold up all his weight alone. The familiar jolt of adrenaline hit his system as soon as his precious balance was gone and his fingers instinctively tried to dig deeper into the stone wall, but to no avail.

 

Dammit...!

 

With a gasp, Sonic's foot slid off the rock entirely to dangle helplessly, his fingers clinging desperately to the sharp edge of a last crevice. Part of his brain screamed at him not to look down… but he did anyway.

 

The ground seemed to plummet further away until all he could see was a long, long tumble with jagged rocks the only thing there to break his fall. His fingers strained, the hedgehog feeling like the tendons beneath the torn gloves and taut skin were about the break, or his nails to crack, the slice in his palm a thin flame of agony. His feet bicycled uselessly in the air, desperate to find a foothold, dislodging pebbles and stray flakes of half-melted snow. It had been a while since he had experienced a situation like this, Tails usually there to save-

 

A fierce, vice-like grip suddenly tightened around Sonic's wrist, lifting him bodily up out of harm’s way and up to the top of the cliff. Looking up in surprise, he saw Shadow, one taloned hand wrapped tightly around his peach-furred arm.

 

“Idiot,” Shadow growled as he set the blue hedgehog down. “You could have been killed.”

 

“Aww, I didn’t know you cared, Shads.” Sonic said as he dusted himself off with an admirable display of nonchalance. It was feigned, of course. Inside he was still shuddering, since as his fingers had slowly lost their grip a vivid memory returned to haunt him in full Technicolor surround-sound. A memory from the first time he had gone up against Robotnik, when a mis-timed jump had left him dangling equally helplessly over a spike trap – only that time there had been no-one there to pull him to safety and he had fallen. By sheer luck, he hadn’t been too badly injured, but the spike had grazed his leg deeply, just below the hip. Using his spin-dash had been such agony that he had barely bothered… but he had won in the end. Even though he had needed to spend a month almost bedridden afterwards.

 

Suppressing the memory with the ease of long practice, Sonic looked over to the long plateau which was dotted with metal barriers, spike traps and tall observation towers as well as the expected patrols of robots. At the end of that long, intimidating stretch was where Robotnik’s base sat, its grey metal almost blending in to the darker granite of the rocks around it. Two huge, thick metal doors had been cut into the mountainside, looming over the plateau ominously, the logo of a maniacally grinning face stamped onto them proclaiming the owner of this place loud and clear, the rictus grin silently foreshadowing the fate of anyone stupid enough to try and gain entry.

 

“Huh. You were right, Shads. Wayyyy too easy,” Sonic scoffed. It would take him maybe five minutes to get through all that. If he was going slowly and took time to wreck all the robots.

 

Shadow nodded, and then gestured with one clawed hand, “It appears the real entrance is concealed on the west face.”

 

They both moved over to take a closer look, squinting against the sun to discern the steel doors welded into the mountainside and Sonic noted that the apparent gate was well concealed… and apparently only accessible by air as it was more than a hundred feet high and had no convenient  ramps leading up to it this time.

 

Chaos, doesn't this guy have any idea about fair level design?

 

Sonic looked up at the darker hedgehog – who had apparently just realised the same thing.

“Any chance of a lift there, Shads?” Sonic smirked.

 

“Do I have a choice?” the Ultimate Lifeform responded automatically, though there wasn't any real bite to his tone this time. When Sonic didn't say anything else, he merely spread his wings dutifully, the black and white pinions briefly throwing a shadow over the pair, before he one, two, three powerful wingbeats that lifted him off the ground. The air whooshed past Sonic and let his quills rustle, the blue hedgehog briefly closing his eyes like someone enjoying the breeze at the coast might have done. He seemed almost....blissful...

Shadow quickly shook his head at this nonsense thought, again ignoring that feeling that tried to creep up in his stomach everytime he saw Sonic just smiling and enjoying a private moment of peace. Circling overhead, Shadow just looked at him for a moment. Despite Sonic’s completely untrammeled enthusiasm, the blue speedster was not exactly looking his best. His shoes were covered in mud, looking a pale brown instead of their usual cherry red. His gloves were filthy, and one had splotches of reddish-brown where he had clearly injured himself. A flicker of concern travelled through Shadow’s mind and was quickly suppressed.

 

“Hold up your hands.” Shadow instructed gruffly. Emerald eyes opened with that characteristic twinkle of mischievousness, but the younger hedgehog nevertheless raised his arms obediently, stretching them toward the winged Ultimate Lifeform swooping down.

“Hold on tight!” Shadow called, much like Rouge sometimes did when she had flown in to collect him, and their coordination worked perfectly. Taloned hands closed securely around peach wrists, Sonic's gloved fingers gripping his own forearms in a tight lock, being careful not to tighten his grip too much, lest his talons start sinking into Sonic’s vulnerable flesh.

 

Again, Shadow could feel that peculiar tingle race up his arms at Sonic's touch, the Chaos stored in that lithe blue body exciting his own that was forced to lay near dormant during the day. Before he could even think about that, however, the breeze and his own wingbeats had already taken them off the rock precipice. Sneakered feet had left the ground now, blue legs dangling uselessly in the air.

“Okay, let's make for the door!” Sonic smiled up at him before winking “Don't drop me, right?”

“Make a couple more bird jokes and I'll think about it,” Shadow replied dryly, before concentrating on their flight path again. The winds at this altitude were treacherous and now he had added weight. Although...Sonic wasn't that heavy...

No wonder, he's almost pure fur and muscle, Shadow's inner voice added in his brain unbidden, the black hedgehog looking down for a moment at the lithe body dangling below him, stretched out in this precarious position, making for a near perfect display of every single toned limb.

Sonic looked up, then and Shadow found that he was staring right into Sonic’s eyes. The blue hero was staring back up at him with an expression Shadow couldn’t define, but still left him feeling slightly shaken, his heart thumping erratically in his chest. The Ultimate Lifeform rapidly looked up again and tried to concentrate on the clouds or something.

 

Sonic himself was basically unaware of any ogling going on above him, merely trying to hold on to his - currently literal - guardian angel. Being carried by Shadow was different from being carried by Tails, and it made for an added tingle of nervousness – and excitement. Sonic was used to the smooth helicopter flight of his kid brother, yet the small drops in altitude and the flurries of wind emanating from his wingbeats tickling his fur as they whirled past him, giving him unfamiliar, but not unpleasant goosebumps, were an entirely new experience.

 

Sonic briefly looked down again and wished he hadn't. He was far from being afraid of heights, but there's scarcely anyone who liked looking at his potential, pointy death below, so he thought he was excused.  Nevertheless, he unconsciously tightened his grip on Shadow's wrists, trying to focus on the steel door in the rock that was rapidly drawing closer.

 

“Hey, you'll be cutting off the blood circulation in my hands. You aren't...scared, are you?”

Shadow's voice suddenly cut into his thoughts, and emerald eyes looked up, blinking as the hero of Mobius met the gaze of the Ultimate Lifeform and could hardly believe it – was that a smile tugging at the edge of Shadow's lips?

 

“...no, 'course not,” Sonic was quick to reply, shaking his head a little. Which was only the truth. Above him, Shadow's powerful wings were nearly blocking out the sun, and the black hedgehog's body was aligned like an arrow, nearing in on their goal. Beneath those pinions, Sonic nearly felt...comforted...

 

He actually looks really awesome when he's flying, shot through his head, and he didn't have a way to word it otherwise. And even if he was currently completely at Shadow's mercy, he wasn't worried. The other would never let him drop.

 

A brief smile flitted over Sonic's face, the blue hero himself slightly surprised at the trust he felt around Shadow. Did it have to do with their shared fate of being forced to transform? Or maybe it was something else entirely...

 

“How are you going to open the door?” Shadow asked suddenly, breaking into Sonic’s thoughts.

 

“Throw me.” Sonic replied.

 

“…What?”

 

“Throw me. I’ll spin-dash and smash it open.”

 

“And if I miss?”

 

“You won’t miss.” Sonic said confidently. Then his voice dropped to almost a whisper, “I trust you, Shadow.”

 

There was a long pause, then Shadow tensed his muscles, swung his arms so Sonic swayed like a pendulum for a moment before he heaved him forwards with all his strength, sending the blue hero hurtling towards the door.

 

“Yeeeeaaaaahhhhh!” Sonic cried.

 

To Be Continued…

 

Author’s Note: Sorry this has taken so long! Taranea and I have been insanely busy! But don’t worry, the next chapter after this will come along pretty soon. And expect MUCH more action in the next chapter. Robots, fights, transformations and threats - all coming up soon!

Between A Rock and A Hard Place by Skyblaze
Chapter 6: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

Chapter 6: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

The sound of rustling feathers seemed obnoxiously loud in the cramped quarters of an air ventilation shaft.

Even folded tightly onto his back, the wings only barely fit, and they brushed up against the cold sides of the metal shaft, making their owner feel chilled and tense. (Shadow had briefly commented on the sheer ridiculousness that no matter how much effort and instant death evil geniuses put into their defence mechanisms, for some reason they always seemed to feel a need to put in some sort of giant, easily accessible air vent maze as well. Sonic had replied that perhaps even evil geniuses got lonely from time to time and this was their subconscious way of hoping for visitors). By now, though, the black hedgehog was wondering whether the convoluted mess of corridors could be a trap after all with intruders simply starving to death inside. They had been sneaking around in the shafts for what felt like hours and there had been so sign of the Doctor. His main control area and workshop had both been deserted. Shadow was beginning to wonder if they had the right base at all.

Furthermore, the only thing he could currently look at as they crawled forward on their hands and knees was the blue hero's...backside...in front of him and for some reason, it distracted him way more than it should. And was it just him or was the temperature in these damned heating vents rising...?

“Hold up,” Sonic whispered as he peered down through a vent to spy on the corridor below, “I think someone’s coming.”

“It’s about time,” Shadow muttered irritably, fidgeting uncomfortably and trying to take his eyes off that twitching short tail. It wasn't the first time he had noticed how a part of his mind was uncomfortably drawn to look at the younger blue hedgehog's physique, but so far, they hadn't yet been forced into such close proximity to one another for such a prolonged span of time. And Shadow found his heart...unconsciously beating faster...

What the hell is happening to me? Is this also part of the transformation?  

Something metallic dashed by underneath them, the sound of an electronic motor whirring, wheels squeaking across the floor. Anther sound accompanied the vaguely rectangular bot as it hurried down the corridor towards an unexplored corner of the base – a series of popping noises.

Sonic peered closer, noting that the main body of the bot seemed to be made up of glass or clear plastic, the interior of which was filled with…

Sonic drew back suddenly, “You gotta be kidding me.”

“What’s wrong?” Shadow hissed.

“I dunno yet,” Sonic replied, turning his head to flash Shadow a sudden grin, “…but I plan to find out!”

With a couple of rapid movements, Sonic pulled open the vent and dropped down into the corridor below and immediately began to dash after the robot.

“Dammit!” Shadow spat, struggling to follow despite the encumbrance of his wings, “Why in the name of Chaos did I have to be stuck with this... him?! He'd need a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word 'inconspicuous'...”

He wriggled out of the tight vent, his wings stretched uncomfortably as he tried to pull himself loose. Finally, he half-jumped and half-fell down into the corridor and hurried after the blue speedster, muttering curses under his breath every step of the way.

Eventually, he arrived at a large, shadowed doorway where Sonic lurked, peering furtively through a thick velvet curtain into a dark room beyond. Shadow frowned, something not feeling quite right here. The décor was off – thick red velvet curtains were not exactly typical of the scientist’s taste. And the smell that drifted in from the room was not the one he associated with the Doctor, it wasn’t the smell of hot metal and solder, or strong chemicals. It smelled of dust, fabric and… butter?

“What’s going on?” Shadow demanded, his voice rasping as he tried to keep quiet.

Sonic pulled his head out from the curtain, a huge grin on his face, “Hey, Shads. Looks like its Movie Night in Buttnik-Land.”

“What?”

Sonic moved the curtain slightly aside to reveal… a movie theatre. Complete with crushed velvet seats, state-of-the-art surround sound system and a full-sized cinema screen.

And, sure enough, Robotnik was half sprawled across a couple of the seats, his attention fixed rigidly on the screen as the images played out in front of him, the light of the silver screen reflecting from his dark glasses. In one hand he held a box of popcorn, which had apparently been provided to him by the rectangular, semi-transparent robot Sonic had followed down here. On the screen, a sort of battle was playing out, human-like robots battling fiercely for supremacy of the silver screen with what looked a bit like homicidal pepperpots at large.

“What… is he doing?” Shadow asked, completely baffled as he pulled back.

“Looks to me like he’s watching Doctor Who,” Sonic replied laconically with a shrug.

“I can see that,” Shadow said acidly, “But why? Surely he…”

His thought was interrupted by a crunching noise, sounding obscenely loud in the quiet corridor. Shadow looked over to see Sonic munching happily on a handful of popcorn.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out where it had come from, “Are you insane, Faker?” Shadow hissed.

“Hey, I was hungry. And it’s good popcorn!” the blue speedster protested.

Shadow just glared.

“Want some?” Sonic asked, totally unrepentant as he held out the box.

The black hedgehog’s eyes narrowed. “…what kind of popcorn is it?”

Sonic blinked, “Um… buttered. With salt.”

“Hm,” Shadow said as he took a handful and ate it, Sonic looking on a bit incredulously, as if he hadn't really expected the other to take him up on the offer.

“Now what?” Shadow asked after he had swallowed. Sonic shook his head as if to clear it, then his grin re-appeared.

“I guess I could try my usual thing – wind up Eggman until he spits out something useful.”

Shadow might have raised an objection to this, but since it would fall on deaf ears, he gave up. “Do whatever you like, Faker. Just don’t expect me to save you again.” Even as he said it, he knew that if Sonic did get into trouble, he would go in there… like it or not, (and he didn’t) he needed the blue hedgehog's help right now.

Sonic just flashed him a thumbs-up, and with a gust of wind that blew the curtain apart, the hero of Mobius was suddenly inside the cinema, sat casually next to Robotnik and eating popcorn.

“Y’know, Eggman, I would’ve thought Doctor Who wasn't your style – after all, dontcha just hate a show where the hero wins all the time?”

Popcorn was flying everywhere as the human jumped almost a (surprising) foot in the air with a startled oath, “YOU!” Robotnik yelled.

“Or, wait, I know. You're watching the show 'cause of them Dalek-robots that roll around in there all the time. After all, they want to kill everything and have trouble climbing stairs, bet you feel some kinship with them.”

What are you doing here?!” The scientist snarled, moustache bristling to twice its usual size at the hedgehog's barb, simultaneously grabbing for the Mobian's throat. His elbow hit the remote lying at the table to his side and it fell to the floor, the picture detailing the epic battle on the screen freezing.

“Oh, y’know Eggman,” Sonic said smoothly, dodging the attack without any visible effort as he instead leapt to crouch on the armrest of his seat, “just here to see what’s up with those clones you’ve been making and how you managed to cause that eclipse.”

Robotnik stared at the blue hedgehog for a moment, anger gone and a comically slack-jawed expression on his face. Then a slow rumble seemed to build up in the scientist’s chest. Sonic tensed, bracing for action… and then Robotnik burst out laughing.

For the second time in five minutes, the blue speedster was rendered completely nonplussed as his long-time nemesis almost bust a gut laughing, leaning his considerable bulk against a chair as he guffawed, almost crying with mirth.

“Oh ho ho! You seriously think I had something to do with that?!” Another round of belly-wobbling laughter followed, “Your little foxy friend isn’t nearly as clever as I thought.”

“What are you talking about, Eggman?” Sonic demanded, jumping to his feet, his amusement now replaced with wariness.

“Well, my dear spiky acquaintance,” the red-clad mass shifted in the puffy cinema seat and the mustachioed scientist got to his feet as well, even if his movements were nowhere near as energetic as the younger hedgehog's had been. “It seems to me that your latest trip to my domicile has been in vain. There's nothing here that you seek.”

“What?! But-!” Sonic started to protest, yet was interrupted when Shadow stepped inside the cinema as well, whisking the curtain aside so that the glaring neon light of the corridor fell harshly into the darkened room. The sudden illumination nearly blinded Sonic and made him squint while the obese human's eyes protected by dark glasses remaining unaffected – yet widened considerably when they took in the silhouette of the Ultimate Lifeform, outlined sharply against the frame, white feathers gleaming just as brightly as two narrowed crimson eyes.

“Quit fooling around, doctor. I am not in the mood for games.”

“Shadow?! Oh ho ho ho, this is getting better and better!” Robotnik exclaimed laughing, staring with fascination at the winged hedgehog, who glared. Sonic's features immediately twisted into a less friendly expression, the hollering laughter of the human grating on his nerves, but a part of him couldn't help but point out that for a split-second, the scientist had actually seemed surprised at Shadow's novel form. Did that mean...?

“Stop laughing or I’ll have to hurt you. And I am good at that,” Shadow's hissing voice cut through the guffawing of the human, the hedgehog's new appearance for once working to his advantage as he bared his clawed fingers and spread his wings ever so subtly to assume an even more threatening aura. Robotnik calmed down visibly as he perhaps remembered that neither of the two hedgehogs (and Shadow in particular) were such a great idea to challenge unprepared. Instead, he resumed a more nonchalant pose, one hand on his hip while the other stroked his moustache, the tall scientist peering down at his two Sapient challengers, a confident smirk twisting his upper lip.

“Coming to threaten me in my own base. That's interesting, Shadow, I would have expected such obvious stupidity from Sonic, but not from you.”

Hey!”

“I will pound your base into the ground if you don't tell me right this second what you did to me,” the black hedgehog snarled (ignoring Sonic's offended glare directed at Robotnik's back). The red-clad scientist's forehead creased up into a scowl.

“I haven't done anything to you, how often do you want me to say it? Though if you wish, I would gladly perform some experiments on you to find out what it is...” Robotnik offered with a sinister grin, the Ultimate Lifeform baring his teeth in a feral growl.

“You would find it to be your death warrant,” he informed him. “Cut it, Doctor. Sonic told me you captured him in some kind of contraption of yours right before he started to turn into a wolf mutant at night. I don't believe for a second you're uninvolved in this.”

“Wait, Shadow, I don't think it works like that. I mean, he didn't do anything to me this time, either,” Sonic piped up. Robotnik raised an eye brow.

“'This time'? So you're transforming again, too? Interesting...” he chuckled. “Well done, Shadow. Bring Sonic to me more often and I might even not need my surveillance systems any more to know what is going on in the world. A blabber-mouth like fox-boy, that one...”

“Wha- shut up!” Sonic shouted, obviously a bit flustered as the conversation had suddenly turned on him. The Ultimate Lifeform's stare turned several levels dryer as the blue hedgehog tried and failed to come up with a retort, wondering if he had imagined the other just faintly blushing.

Robotnik crossed his arms. “Makes me wonder why the two of you work together at all. Where did you leave the two-tailed wonder and the jewel-thieving bat-girl?” he asked (and Shadow thought he could detect a hint of relief in his voice that Omega wasn't here as well...)

“None of your business,” Shadow replied. “And if you won't tell us what your deal is in all of this, then we might just have to settle for your Emerald instead.” Immediately, Robotnik's face darkened again, his entertained expression gone.

“You won't get it.”

“Famous last words,” Shadow stated darkly, stepping toward the human, taloned hands flexing. Robotnik drew another remote.

“One push of this button, Shadow, and I will have enough robots in here to turn both you and the blue halfwit into casserole...chicken, in your case.”

Shadow looked at him with murder in his eyes, for some reason not even sure whether he felt more angered by the insult to himself or to Sonic – if anyone was putting down that hedgehog, it was him!

“Try it and you wouldn't leave this room alive,” Shadow growled, now locked in a staring-contest with the grinning scientist, their noses nearly touching as the other had bent down to sneer into his face. For a moment, both potential combatants simply glared at each other, both attempting to scare their opponent into submission before open warfare would follow. Robotnik had to have stepped onto the fallen remote again because the film started to play out behind them again, the grating, raspy voices of the aliens known as the Daleks screeching out:

We obey no-one! We are the superior beings!”

The tension lasted only a few moments, before something occurred to both of them.

“Wait...”

“...where's Sonic?”

It was then, of course, that the explosions, alarms and general mayhem in the background started.

“What the-?!” Robotnik shouted, rearing backwards, but then the curtain of the movie theatre was already ripped from its frame as a blue whirlwind tore through the opening.

“HeyShadowgottheEmeraldletsgobye!” He called, before already grabbing the black hedgehog by the wrist and yanking him off his feet, dashing back for the door. The Ultimate Lifeform was only dimly aware of something grey in Sonic's other hand, shimmering even in the dim light.

“SONIC!” Robotnik's voice screamed after they were out of the door, immediately followed by “Exterminate! Exterminate! EX-TER-MI-NATE!!!” from the speakers of the movie theatre, possibly also illustrating the egg-shaped Doctor's state of mind in the process.

Shadow was just getting back his balance and rising from the blue speedster's grasp as he beat his wings, Sonic not slowing down in the least. From the other side of the theatre entrance already emanated the metallic bedlam of battle mechs in pursuit and now that Robotnik had to have called for reinforcements, the first alarms were starting to turn the battle fortress into a red-lit, cacophonous disco from hell.

Where did you get the Emerald?!” Shadow shouted, even as he was flapping his wings wildly in the confining corridor to avoid crashing into walls and still keep up with the blue speedster grinning up at him.

“I figured I wasn't much use while you two were in I Shall Taunt You-mode, so I thought I'd just go ahead and nick the thing from his lab while you kept him busy,” he winked. “You know, once you actually get down to it, he always uses pretty much the same map for all his fortresses, so it wasn't all that hard to find...”

“And the fact that you alerted his entire security system in the process?!” Shadow called back, narrowly dodging a projectile from one of the GUN-walker-like robots emerging from wall-vaults where they ran past. Once more, the black hedgehog couldn't help but think that Sonic the Hedgehog was to an organized battle plan what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association. The blue speedster shrugged.

“Meh. Seemed to speed things up, I thought.”

Behind them, there was the characteristic howl of an Egg-O-Matic's jet boosters pushed to their limits, indicating that the overlord of the fortress himself was hot on their heels at last.

“Yeah,” Shadow admitted with gritted teeth. “Most likely our violent demise.”

Flashes of grey, red and yellow flicked past his vision as Shadow shot through the corridors at top speed. The fading yellow trail of Gaia Energy behind him told of what was propelling him forward, his wings stretched out to their fullest extent, trying desperately to keep him stable. From somewhere further behind was the lumbering sound of metal against metal as dozens upon dozens of robots chased after them, their shapes ranging from classic models resembling a caterpillar or a laser-shooting crab to more modern forms, flying beetles, invisible spider-like abominations and Star Wars-like walkers with rocket launchers mounted onto their shoulders. Too many for even the two of them to take on.

“You worry too much, Shads,” Sonic replied breezily, but the black hedgehog wondered whether he might have also heard a bit of nervousness in the other's tone as their situation was rapidly changing for the worse.

"I’m saying that it wasn’t exactly the smooth infiltration I’d been hoping for," Shadow said acidly, the bird-like scratchiness of his voice putting a extra bite to the sarcasm.

"Can't win 'em all, buddy," Sonic replied, not looking up as he continued to dash headlong down the corridor. As if in passing, the hero of Mobius leapt up, curled into a ball and shot towards the laser cannon that had just popped out of the wall, destroying it in a shower of metal fragments. A second laser canon likewise met its demise at the point of Shadow's Gaia-enhanced talons. They kept going. They had no choice.

As they turned another corner, gaining a few more precious seconds from their pursuers, the Ultimate Lifeform began to shift his shoulders uneasily, a tremor running through his wings. Something felt…wrong.

"There's another exit around here someplace…" Sonic muttered desperately, green eyes searching the walls as they both dashed past. A laser blast streaked over Shadow's shoulder, almost singeing his feathers. He twisted out of the way, swooping down another adjoining corridor, Sonic close by.

“There!” the blue speedster shouted in triumph as he screeched to a halt in front of Shadow, curling up in a split-second and launching himself at a door in the wall. The metal hinges broke with a crack as the hedgehog impacted them, the gate crashing down – to tumble into oblivion. The door had been a small delivery entrance designed similarly to the main gate; only accessible by air as it was built into the steep, unforgiving mountainside. The wings of the steel door now audibly clattered down the rock onto the plateau more than a hundred feet below them. Sonic was launched into the cold outside air along with it, for a heart-beat suspended in nothingness - but didn't let that faze him in the slightest. Blue knees bent as he dropped onto the near sheer rock wall tilted at an almost 80° angle...yet when it came to running down walls, Sonic the Hedgehog could do perpendicular.

“Shadow! Follow me!” he called, as red sneakers dug into the granite and the blue hero shot down the side of the mountain, gathering speed as he went but never losing his footing once.

“I'm coming!” Shadow shouted from inside, even as a cold, itchy feeling was beginning to crawl up the black hedgehog's spine now. He angled his flight, tugged in his wings and swooped through the opening leading to the outside just as the blue speedster had – and the eldritch sensation coiled around his gut like a snake made of ice. His insides clenched up and he gasped. The flow of Gaia Energy that was currently driving him forward stuttered and died. Before the Ultimate Lifeform could even cry out, a phantom wind blew up around him, pulling at his quills and feathers. A horrible suspicion began to grow in him, blooming into a certainty when the jewel at his neck glowed brightly.

"No!" he gasped as his wings began to dissolve. Trailing black and white feathers like  smoke from a damaged airplane, Shadow plummeted helplessly towards the sheer ground, just as the last slivers of the sun outside vanished behind the jagged horizon.

'We're further north!' his mind screamed as the ground came up to meet him, 'Dammit, we're further north! I should have realised! I should have…'

There was a flash of white and a burst of pain… and then nothing at all.

 

xxx

 

Sonic turned at Shadow’s yell just in time to see the Ultimate Lifeform tumble from the sky. With a screech of rubber on stone he slowed his descent for just the heartbeat it took him to view the black-furred body impact on the mountainside with the dull, horrid sound of flesh hitting granite, bouncing off it to tumble further and into his death. Sonic's entire body tensed as he pulled himself to a sharp halt, then curled up, bounced and catapulted himself upwards with all his might to grab the falling black hedgehog in mid-air.

“Got you!”

Sonic gasped as the lifeless body fell into his arms and he cradled him securely, heedless of the sharp quills. Now they began falling again, the blue hedgehog's knees nearly buckling under the added weight as he came down onto the rock-wall once more, the hero of Mobius now forcing his leg muscles to start racing immediately before he could lose either his balance or purchase.

Shitshitshitshi-!

Praying that no bot had yet come out of the fortress and could shoot him into his back, Sonic tore down the near sheer ramp beneath his feet. Seconds before the foot of the mountain was reached and he would have smashed headfirst into the rock, blue legs tensed and propelled the hero and his precious charge into the air again, Sonic finally coming to land on another rock and, only then, permitting himself to collapse to his knees in earnest. The Emerald he had stashed into his quills as he had seen Shadow falling slid out of his spines and landed on the rock he was kneeling on with a small clink, the dull, grey stone looking just as empty of energy as Sonic currently felt. At last outside, with only the plateau between them and freedom, the hero of Mobius dared to breathe a small sigh of relief. They had made it.

But only by sheer luck...

The blue hedgehog glanced down at his injured companion.

I really should have known better.

“Hey! Shadow!” he tried to call out softly to the unconscious black hedgehog, quickly checking him over for any obvious injuries but found nothing bar superficial cuts and scrapes, the white-tufted chest rising and falling evenly. Sonic probably just had to trust that the Ultimate Lifeform really lived up to his name when it came to sturdiness. Now, how to get away from here and to a safe place...

Sonic tried to stand up again, stuffing the Emerald back into his quills and once more lifting the limp other hedgehog into his arms with a grunt.

Boy, is he heavy! Rouge sure wasn't joking when she said that...

By now it was also getting darker by the second, it seemed to Sonic, the sky already decorated with twinkling stars that reflected off the wet slush. The only other light came from the watch towers scattered across the plateau as their big-beamed searchlights scanned the landscape. Sonic shifted the comatose Shadow until he was draped over his back as best as was possible without being lacerated by the blue hedgehog's quills even if the speedster tried to flatten them as much as he could. He stood up properly.

“Right. Now I have to get us out of here before Eggy's bots arrive, with an unconscious tonne disguised as a hedgehog on my back, through a terrain that was hard enough to maneuver when I could actually see where I was going,” Sonic muttered to himself. “Could this day get any better?”

With the creaking, groaning, cracking sound of breaking rock, several boulders detached themselves from the mountainside above Eggman’s base and began to roll down the mountain and right towards him.

“Huh?”

Sonic's first, paranoid thought was that it could be an avalanche… but then he realised that the boulders were… changing, growing steadily larger as they stretched out into huge hulking robots coated in armor identical to the rock that made up the mountain. More of them rolled off the other hillsides, effectively cutting off his escape route

Seeing no choice, Sonic quickly stashed the unconscious Shadow behind an outcropping of rock that he hoped devoutly would not prove to be another robot in disguise, trusting the Ultimate Lifeform’s darker colouring would keep him out of sight as it had his feral ancestors. Then he turned and faced the robots.

Several of the tower searchlights swung around, lighting up the area in a brilliant glare that dazzled Sonic for a moment. Blinking desperately, he backed off a couple of steps as he heard a grinding noise and the spots cleared from his eyes just in time to see a huge, rock-covered fist swing right towards his head.

He tried to jump out of the way, but the massive fist caught him in the hip and sent him flying, only for him to smash straight into another robot. His head ringing from the blow, he still managed to gather his wits enough to dodge as its arms came for him and nimbly twist behind its leg. They were humanoid-shaped, similar in design to the orange-painted Egg Pawns he had faced together with Knuckles and Tails when they had fought Metal Sonic over three years ago, but now he was all alone, and these larger, darker versions were much more deadly. Another rock-bot tried to make a grab for him from behind this time, but the blue hedgehog jumped over the grasping hand and up onto its arm to use it as a ramp, revving into a spin-dash right at its head.

He rebounded off it violently, not even making a dent on the robot.

The hero of Mobius landed hard, pain jolting through his back.

What are these things MADE of?! That felt like trying to smash through solid stone!

He yelped as another one of the bots moved with surprising agility, grabbing hold of his leg and hauling him up off the ground. Sonic fought to break free, but the mecha's grip was like a vice. The machine swung the hedgehog around its head like a lasso, then threw him over to one of its fellow bots, who simply dropped the dazed hedgehog straight to the ground, as if this was a distorted, lethal version of a sadistic ball game they played.

The robots began to gather, closing in on Sonic.

“Oh ho ho ho ho ho!” Robotnik’s peculiar laughter echoed through the mountains as he surveyed the scene set out before him, the egg-shaped scientist finally having caught up to them in his hovercraft, “Not quite quick enough to get away this time, hm, my spiky friend?” Robotnik asked in a conversational tone, silver light bathing the bald man’s shiny head as the moon rose above the peak. “Do you like my new inventions? I call them Rocklings. I find they make excellent guards. Let them break a leg of yours so you can't run away again, will you...?”

From the centre of the congregation of robots, a low, rumbling growl rose up. Robotnik frowned as the growl turned into a howl that rang through the mountain range like a bell. A robot was suddenly flung away like a rag doll, mechanical limbs getting crushed to pieces when it impacted against a boulder. Another of the Rocklings found itself smashed to the floor as a furious, transformed Sonic tackled it at knee-level, claws ripping at the rock-like armour and leaving oil-bleeding gashes in their wake. The wolf turned, green eyes flashing with fury. Two impossibly long arms stretched out to grab two bots, each held by one arm until they were violently slammed together. The wolf snarled as he repeated the manoeuvre again and again, metal heads colliding without mercy, until the two Rocklings were nothing but a pile of smouldering debris.

Robotnik’s frown deepened at this new development and he pressed a button on the console before him. With whirrs and clicks, more and more boulders detached themselves from the mountain until it looked like the entire rock-face had come to hissing, clanking, crawling mechanic life… more robots than even the wolf could fight alone.

Sonic seemed to realize this too, now, dropping into a crouch and snarling warningly at anything that approached.

Robotnik smiled in satisfaction, like a dog trainer who had his most difficult animal finally tethered and muzzled and was now approaching with a choke collar. “I’ve got you at last, you blue pest.”

The sudden touch of something cold against the back of his head wiped the smile from his face instantly.

“Hello, Doctor,” Shadow said, his voice deceptively calm.

“Sh…Shadow! I… ah…”

“Call them off,” Shadow ordered flatly, hover-skates creaking ever so slightly on the rim of the hovercraft onto which he had so silently leapt.

“What?!”

“Call off your army of overgrown domestic appliances, or I put a bullet in your brain,” the black hedgehog stated, his words as clipped and as cold as a knife in the dark, and just as easy to understand.

“You… you wouldn’t dare!” Robotnik blustered.

The click of the hammer sounded very loud in the human's ears.

“Believe me, Doctor, I have no problem at all with splattering your brains all over the mountain. The world would probably be much better off if I did,” Shadow said,  his  face entirely dispassionate. “Don't ever expect the same mercy from me as from Sonic, Doctor – it's not a mistake you would survive.”

“But I know things,” Robotnik wheedled, beads of sweat forming on his head, “I could help…”

“I’m not interested in your ‘help’, Doctor. You had your chance to talk to us. I doubt you would say anything that wasn't just a lie to get your head out of the noose. Now, call off your robots.” Shadow had never raised his voice; it was all said in an entirely calm, flat tone that was far more intimidating than any amount of shouting could be.

“Rocklings, stand down!” Robotnik finally called over his microphone, voice shaking from likely both fury and fear, beads of sweat forming and running down his neck where Shadow had the gun pressed against his head. The robots looked at him curiously, “Stand down, I say! That’s an order!”

The Rocklings backed away, then quietly went back up the hillside and returned to being apparently harmless bits of mountain, the wolf they had been threatening growling after them. The gun was withdrawn and Robotnik at last felt able to breathe again.

“You’re making a big mistake, Shadow,” he said to the hedgehog’s departing back after the now wingless Sapient had jumped down, but the Ultimate Lifeform didn’t even bother to turn around. “You have no idea what you’re involved in!” Robotnik yelled, “This is far bigger than you or that blue pest could possibly imagine! Why do you think fox-boy hasn't yet been able to find out anything?! What do you think is currently eluding those fools of GUN?!”

Shadow glanced over his shoulder, red eyes gleaming, “We’ll see. We have your Emerald for now, that shall be enough.”

With a snarl of frustrated rage, Robotnik pounded a fist against the edge of his hovercraft as both dark shapes of the Ultimate Lifeform and the hero of Mobius started to disappear into the night and he was powerless to do anything.

“I HATE – THOSE! - HEDGEHOGS!”

To be continued...

End Notes:
Author's Notes: Well, this is our Christmas gift to all our wonderful readers. I hope you guys enjoy it. Look out for more new stuff in the New Year and everyone have a nice Festive Season.
Creatures of Darkness, Creatures of Light by Skyblaze
Chapter 7: Creatures of Darkness, Creatures of Light

Chapter 7: Creatures of Darkness, Creatures of Light

 

The darkness had swallowed both the form of the wolf and the midnight hedgehog as if they were both more creatures of night than day now, the only tell-tale signs of their presence their gleaming eyes and the brightly blazing shoes of the Ultimate Lifeform as they departed from their site of battle. Robotnik's cries of rage faded away rapidly into the cold night air behind them, the man's general insults, curses and anatomically correct wishes of specific dismemberment concerning the two hedgehogs only occasionally interrupted by a  banging sound that sounded like the rotund scientist was either hitting his own head against his hovercraft, or, rather more probable, that of an unfortunate minion's.

It was Sonic who finally broke the silence on their side.

“So...that was kind of a bust, huh? I mean, we didn't get all that much from Eggman.” he asked, turning his large head a bit to the side as he was running on all fours, dark blue body stretching and straining to keep up with the speed the black-furred hedgehog maintained. His voice was still as dark and with that growling undertone it had already taken on during the fight, and a slight shiver ran down Shadow's spine as he heard it again. Ignoring that, Shadow shrugged, eyes straight ahead.

“Other than the Doctor himself is clueless, no. Perhaps the Emerald will yield some more information about what caused the Gaia imbalance, though.”

“Once we get it back to Tails, yeah,” Sonic agreed, mind obviously already elsewhere, for now concentrating on running. When they had made their way here from the kit's house it had been day time and with Sonic running at a comfortable pace that a flying Shadow could keep up with, it had taken them about three hours. Now that they were returning across moonlit plains, it seemed like Sonic the wolf was hell-bent on not taking longer than that time in his transformed state, even if it killed him.

“Interesting fighting style, by the way,” Shadow commented casually a few minutes later, having the satisfaction of seeing Sonic nearly briefly falter in his step.

There was only a slight falter in Sonic's rapid movement, but it was enough for Shadow to pick it up, a flash of an uncomfortable expression fluttering briefly across Sonic's transformed face.

"Uh...yeah, I guess." Sonic replied, before catching himself again with his characteristic cocky grin, that was even recognizable through a mouth full of razor-sharp lupine teeth. “There ain't nothing about yours truly that's not interesting, after all.”

"Its far more aggressive than your usual style. Very efficient, though." Shadow noted in a clinical tone. Sonic squirmed while trying to look like he wasn't bothered in the slightest.

"I doubt even those copies of me would be a threat to you in that form," Shadow continued, needling the speedster, "You could tear their limbs off with ease."

“Yeah, because that's what I do, y'know. Tearing limbs off,” Sonic replied dryly, obviously trying to steer the conversation into less unfamiliar waters with sarcasm. Then a grin began to creep up upon his face though, as apparently an idea had just drifted into his mind of how perhaps the tables could be turned. The smirk the wolf gave the darker hedgehog could already be classified as almost predatory.

“...except...you almost sound like you...liked what you saw,” the blue speedster suggested slyly, and it was only the darkness that prevented Shadow from suddenly bolting on ahead, because that question, along with that playful growl that had underlined the words had for some reason caused heat to shoot into his face, and the Ultimate Lifeform wasn't sure whether his cheeks hadn't immediately turned a traitorous darker shade. Because...what Sonic said hadn't entirely been untrue...

Dammit, stop this. Just because it had caused his stomach to feel a bit funny as he'd seen the werehog fight, back when he had just been trying to get back to his feet after his head had been ringing due to his fall, it didn't mean anything. Even if...I would like to see it again. Except I didn't just think this, the black-furred hedgehog tried to assure himself in his own head, putting down Sonic's teasing question to the usual mockery he had to endure day in day out from him anyway.  

“Don't flatter yourself, hedgehog,” he replied instead with his own version of mock-derision. “I merely thought it was interesting to see you fight differently.”

 “Yeah, well, don't get too used to it,” Sonic said, his tone not letting any disappointment or other reaction to the put-down show as he changed the topic, “Once we've found out who's behind this mess this time, we'll both get to keep our quills again permanently.”

“Agreed,” Shadow replied easily, red eyes already watching the horizon again as his mind was once more trying to figure out their current puzzle. “So we've found out that the Doctor is not the main culprit but he thinks it's something equally big or bigger...not very helpful, but at least something to go on.”

“Yeah, and we've also found out Eggman likes silly Sci-fi. Does that get us anywhere, Mr. Holmes?” Sonic asked, amused at the Ultimate Lifeform's serious thinking expression, that immediately turned into a dead-pan stare at his friendly mocking question.

“Somehow, Sonic, I don't think the Doctor watching another Doctor and his timey-wimey adventures has anything to do with the current situation,” Shadow said dryly, although not entirely unfriendly. A bit of the enmity against the other hedgehog had gone after the battle where they had just now saved each other's lives once more. They ran and skated on in silence for just another few moments, when the black hedgehog to his surprise found himself even asking a question that was for once completely unnecessary and just for conversation.

“...how do you even know that show, hedgehog? I thought it got cancelled years ago.”

Sonic gave an amiable shrug (no mean feat while still running on all fours), “They re-booted it some time back. There was a re-run on cable last time I was sick and had to stay in bed. Sucked less than day-time TV, too.” A smile crept onto his face, as he added. “'sides, Tails is absolutely nuts for that show. I swear, he's been trying to fabricate one of them sonic screwdrivers for years...” his voice trailed off for a few seconds, before it suddenly returned, along with a mischievous expression and a twinkle in the transformed hedgehog's eye.

“Why, when did you ever watch it, Shads? I didn't have you picked as the guy who would stoop to something as common as entertainment television with homicidal pepperpots.” He grinned.

Shadow gave him a hesitant stare. “Maria...was somewhat obsessed with the lead actor at some time.”

Sonic's eye ridges rose. “Really?” he laughed. “Hey, I bet you saw the original transmissions! In black and white and all!”

Shadow bristled. “Excuse me? I'm not that old!” he shouted, but by then Sonic had already pulled ahead laughing and the pair vanished mock-chasing each other into the night.

 

xxx

 

“Oh, hey, welcome back,” Tails smiled, poking his head from the laboratory as the two older Sapients trooped through his front door and into the kitchen. “How'd it go?”

“Well, not that great. Turns out Robotnik wasn't what knocked the Gaia so out of whack. We did manage to palm an Emerald from him, though,” Sonic summarized the events succinctly, pulling the pale, dull grey stone from his head quills and depositing it on the table, slumping on a chair himself. “Anything new here?”

“Still no contact to Knuckles,” the fox kit replied, biting his lip. “I was getting a bit worried, so I asked Rouge whether she couldn't fly up and take a look for us. If he's for some reason deliberately ignoring us, at least she would be able to coax him from hiding,” the two-tail gave a lop-sided smile. His expression brightened. “Oh, but while I didn't find out more about that asteroid, I at least could locate the next Chaos Emerald!”

That got the two hedgehogs' attention.

“Really?”

“Where?” Sonic had perked up and Shadow emerged from his half-body expedition into the fridge. Tails grinned with a bit of pride.

“It's really far, but my scanners managed to pick it up. The next Emerald is in Holoska, at the North Pole!”

Sonic grinned. “Awesome. I'll get my snowboard.”

Shadow grimaced. “Fantastic. I'll stay here.”

The next thing that happened was one of the werehog's arms lengthening freakishly and a finger poking the Ultimate Lifeform into the side.

“Aw, what's the matter? Scared of a little cold?”

“I prefer civilized temperatures,” Shadow scowled, swatting at the insulting digit, not feeling like explaining that yes, while his artificially engineered body could work at sub-zero temperatures, that didn't mean that the owner of this body - who had spent his entire childhood in a climate-controlled environment - liked it. “Right,” he said instead, emptying the last of a bottle of some sort of isotonic sports drink, “If we'll have to go to the goddamn arctic tomorrow, I'm spending the last few hours I still have before my body mutilates itself again asleep. See you in the morning,” he said, placing the empty bottle on the counter and striding toward the door of the house.

“Wait, where are you going? Aren't you staying here for the night? It's already late...” Sonic rose from his chair as the dark hedgehog yanked the handle, cool night air streaming into the warmly lit kitchen. The mouth of the blue-furred speedster snapped shut as Shadow's gaze snapped into his direction over his shoulder briskly, crimson eyes glinting in the twilight. For one moment it almost seemed as if the wolf was suddenly flustered by his own question...or had it been a request? Shadow's face remained unreadable for a moment as the silence stretched on, but then his expression half-hidden by darkness seemed to become just a tad softer. Red eyes closed themselves for a second, the Ultimate Lifeform briefly rubbing a gloved hand across his forehead, looking just a tad tired for once.

“I...appreciate the offer. But I'm going home.”

“Home?” Tails asked. “You mean to...”

“Club Rouge,” Shadow clarified. “Holoska is a longer expedition than a trip to White Acropolis and there's some stuff I need to sort out and pick up from my apartment.”

“Do you want me to fly you? Or Tails,” Sonic offered, adding the name of his kid brother as if a hastily tagged-on afterthought.

Shadow shook his head. “I'll be fine. Westopolis isn't that far and...”- and now a definite smirk crossed his face - “...until dawn the title of the Fastest Thing Alive is rightfully mine, I presume?”

Sonic gave a snort that could either have been offended dignity or slight amusement, Tails could only call out a short 'Bye, Shadow!' and then the dark form had already taken off, palm trees planted around the house rushing in the night breeze caused by the black whirlwind rushing through them on lightning skates.

 

xxx

 

“Well, seems like everything has gone okay today, at least. I'll print you guys some maps and info so all goes well tomorrow, too,” Tails said, closing the door after Shadow had left. Sonic still sat at the kitchen table and the picture of the werewolf carefully sipping tea from his too-small cup would have been quite comical, if the fox kit wouldn't have thought that there was an expression in his big brother's eyes, still staring at the door that had just closed, that for some reason looked almost a bit...forlorn?

“Sonic?” he enquired,  and that seemed to snap the transformed hero out of it. The expression was gone in a heartbeat and the blue Mobian shook his large head quickly.

“What? Oh, yeah. Yeah. Thanks, kiddo, that'll be great.”

“Is there something bothering you?” Tails asked, his tone conveying all the astuteness that came from being not only a kid genius, but also having known hedgehog currently trying not to sulk at the kitchen table for longer than half his life. For a fraction of a second, his big brother seemed to look a bit panicky, but then that was also gone so fast Tails wondered whether he had imagined that just now.

“Huh? No...I – I just thought he'd stay the night here, s'all.” 

“Well, that's probably Shadow for you,” Tails gave a little shrug with a helpless smile on his face. “Did you work well today together, then?”

“We did actually,” Sonic's face brightened up a bit at the memory. "It was pretty smooth after we got used to it. He even saved my life." Tails pricked up his ears at that last bit. He knew Sonic could probably have rescued himself from whatever his peril had been, and it seemed Sonic had been enjoying himself... perhaps something even more than enjoyment, at that. Instead, he simply took the dull Emerald from the table and nodded.

“Glad to hear that. If I manage to use this, I should be able to get more accurate readings on the rest of them, or maybe even find out what happened to them.” He briefly drummed his fingers on his chin, twin-tails swishing in thought. “Maybe, if Eggman isn't behind this, I could even propose an information-sharing alliance with him...”

“Uh-oh, bad idea, bro,” Sonic shook his head, looking pained.  “He didn't give this Emerald up that peacefully, and we had a run-in with some of his newest robots and...” his head dropped a bit and he looked away as he continued, voice just a tad more somber now as he relayed the story of their mountainside adventure, "If Shadow hadn't woken up and threatened to blow Robotnik's head off, at that point...” Sonic finished, unhappily, “Well, I don't think we would have been back so easily.”

“Oh.” Tails looked a bit unhappy at his big brother's somber account. “That's not so good.”

“Well, we managed,” Sonic shrugged, leaning back into a more relaxed pose as the conversation drifted into lighter waters. “Could have gone better, could have gone worse.”

“Hnh.” The fox kit bit his lip, toying a bit with the gem stone in his hands. Then, he seemed to make a decision and looked up. “Sonic...does it bother you to be a werehog again?”

Sonic raised an eye ridge, for a moment seemingly trying to read his little bother's thoughts behind that serious small face. And he thought of telling him about the the pain, the speed taken as if he was crippled now, the darkness that took you, smothered you, changed so many parts of you that you didn't even know who you were when it let you go again. And then he smiled.

“It's not the greatest feeling in the world, no. I miss running, proper running during the night, a lot. Plus, the transformations are a pain in the literal sense,” he added dryly, scrunching up his impressive snout. “But hey, as long as I got you,” he said, suddenly grinning as broadly as only a wolf could, at the same time snatching up the small fox cub in one of his giant paws, holding him above his own face just beneath the ceiling, laughing as Tails gave a shriek of surprise, “and you treat me like your bro and not some monster, I think I can cope,” the hero of Mobius said with a wink of his eye, just before opening his hand and letting Tails tumble downward onto his now considerably broader chest, catching him in a bear hug that drove the wind out of the kit's lungs, but was nevertheless returned fiercely by stick-thin golden-furred arms only a second later.

“Of course, Sonic,” Tails assured him, words mumbled into thick dark blue fur, “I promise.”

“That's my bro,” the blue hero smiled, putting the two-tail down again, the fox shaking himself like a dog with roughed-up fur would. “Well, let's hit the hay for now, okay?”

“Yeah,” Tails agreed as the two unlike brothers headed for upstairs and the kit yawned. “I also found out some new stuff about Gaia that I can investigate tomorrow. My reasoning is by now that the reason Shadow is affected by Gaia this time around when he wasn't the last time is that the object that fell from the sky and caused the eclipse either brought its own Gaia or somehow changed or imbalanced ours, and if I can only find out what connection Shadow could have to-”

“Tails. Kiddo. I'm barely awake as it is.”

“Oh. Sorry,” Tails gave a little embarrassed laugh, his enthusiasm currently having overwhelmed his own need for sleep. “Good night, then. See you in the morning, Sonic.”

“Sure,” Sonic nodded. “Night, Tails. If you see any bogeyman hiding under your bed, tell them that they should be afraid of me.

Both of them laughed as they entered their separate chambers, Sonic closing the door of his behind him  as he stepped into the more than familiar surroundings of what qualified as Tails' guest room and Sonic's semi-permanent lodging place, this night no longer occupied by Rouge.  The transformed hedgehog sunk down upon his mattress with a sigh. This night promised to be more comfortably spent than the last one when he had had to share the living room with Shadow and slept on the floor, but...

Sonic the Hedgehog stared at the ceiling, somehow knowing that the discontentment Tails had spotted earlier had not only to do with his forced transformation, but also with the fact that a certain black hedgehog had left, but even while the hero of Mobius was still trying to figure out why this had disappointed him exactly, sleep had already claimed him, and the night was spent alone and dreamless...

 

xxx

 

Westopolis. He dropped to the cold asphalt as the fire of his skates died and let himself in with practiced ease – the apartment above the Club had been his home for the better part of two years, and it was a comfortable arrangement, Rouge being a landlord who charged no rent as long as Shadow helped out occasionally with unreasonable guests at the club or more...secretive work (where he usually had to help out with unreasonable security guards at museums). The dark-furred hedgehog strode through the deserted club area, scaling the stairs to his living quarters while feeling the strains the day and its transformations had left on his body. And only seven miserable hours till sunrise when the whole circus would start again...

The Ultimate Lifeform growled.

“Shadow?”

He whirled around at the noise, almost ready to pull out his gun out of reflex, but relaxed when he recognized the form in the door.

“Hey, Rouge. Thought you'd be off looking for Emeralds.”

“Well, I was, but the fox kit called me off earlier when he had discovered the second one ahead of me. He also suggested I go up to Angel Island to see if that echidna is alright." She pointedly ignored Shadow's smirk as she off-handedly referred to Knuckles – they both knew that the Master Emerald was only half the reason for her countless invasions of the Floating Island, "Apparently hasn't been returning their calls. I'm just having a bit of beauty sleep here before I leave. And you, sunshine?”

Shadow frowned at her address, not appreciating any mentions of sun or the shining thereof

at the moment.

“I have been conscripted to visit the Antarctic tomorrow,” Shadow replied in a tone that was fittingly icy. “One of the blasted stones is there.”

“Oh, honey,” Rouge gave a sympathetic smile, stepping closer into his room. The 20 squaremetre domain of the Ultimate Lifeform showed few signs of habitation, the only personal effects lying around a case with DVDs  in one corner, a few catalogues on the writing desk  mostly featuring things that looked dangerous, a wardrobe filled with the usual amount of gloves. Also there, though cunningly hidden under heavy books, was a faded picture of a young girl and an old man. Sometimes Rouge wondered whether Shadow realized she knew it was there.  

“Urgh,” Shadow commented, sinking down on his bed.

“Hey,” Rouge smiled at him, settling herself next to the grumpy hedgehog and snaking an arm around his prickly back.  “Don't pretend it's the end of the world.” There was another bat-fanged grin. “I think there's worse things than wings on your back.” 

“Easy for you to say,” Shadow grumbled, still not looking at her. “Your wings are natural. They don't cause you to wake up nearly screaming each morning.”

There was a moment of silence after that, and then Shadow could feel the light weight of the female bat leaving the mattress beside him, heard her heels softly treading across the wooden floor of his room. It surprised him a bit, he hadn't expected her to walk out on him like that, but then again, she hadn't. When he did raise his head, eventually, Rouge the Bat was instead leaning next to the window, the moonlight falling through it in such a way that she was just in the shadows. Shadow heard his friend give a sigh. Turquoise eyes opened to look at them then with a rare expression, a kind of strange mixture of detached sadness and empathy, but also a bit of faint amusement that always seemed to accompany near everything the white-furred jewel thief said or did. 

“That is true,“ Rouge finally said slowly, “But it wasn't always like that. You know what it's like being the only kid with wings at school?” she asked, and asked it calmly, but something in her tone let Shadow imagine, just faintly, a picture of a small girl, and a group of other kids, surrounding her,  pulling...

“Not everyone takes kindly to your ability of flight when they don't have it,” Rouge stated casually, crossing her arms and looking out at the night sky, her face now devoid of any emotion but remembrance. Shadow frowned.

“Didn't your parents-”

“Never met them.” Rouge shrugged, but there wasn't much sadness attached to that statement. “I grew up in a foster home and later in a foster family. Mice, all of them, the mother and some of the kids even albinos, so I didn't look too out of place. Except for, well, these,” she told him a story, then, detailing some of her history. Despite her matter-of-fact tone, Shadow could sense the echoes of bitterness and isolation in the bat's words as she wove a tale of rejection and bullying, or having to hide what she was beneath baggy clothes, of how she had struck back at her tormentors... and how those acts of rebellion and revenge had backfired on her:

" ...And then, one day, there was the theft of a rare jewel necklace from the mayor's wife.” Her voice assumed an ironic tone. “Now, contrary to all of today's evidence, back then, that wasn't me. They caught the actual burglar later, a band of birds. But what they could confirm pretty quickly the next day was that the crime definitely had committed by someone who could fly...” said, briefly flapping the black, leathery appendages on her back. "So I did they only thing I could. I skipped town and struck out on my own. There... wasn't anything left for me, back there." she finished here tale, finally.

 

There was smile on her face again, a smile that seemed a bit uncertain on features both too young and eyes too old for a girl that was already running a club, was a wanted jewel thief and secret government agent, and not even 22 years old. Shadow suddenly wondered just how old his friend must have been when she had had to leave her home hounded, how young when she arrived in the big city and what might have happened to her there that made her learn so quickly to achieve all this when she was barely older than her friends.

A white-gloved hand moved to rest lightly on his shoulder, ready to move in an instant if Shadow reacted badly - he rarely received physical comfort, so accepting it wasn't easy for him, but Rouge's touch was pure friendship and sympathy, warmth against the encroaching night they both usually dwelled within. Shadow relaxed as she sat on the bed next to him.

“So, what I wanted to say was – I don't think wings are ever easy. Nor is being different. No matter whether you're born like that or get transformed. But I probably don't need to tell you anything about a tough childhood, huh?” she asked, and finally, there was almost something like a twitching of the Ultimate Lifeform's lips.

“No,” he said, But I'm glad that you did, was what he didn't say, and they still heard it. However badly Shadow wanted to deny it most of the time, even he needed a friend to talk to, sometimes.

 

Xxx

 

 

Morning came to the Mystic Ruins and with it came a hedgehog flying from the sky.

“Hey, Faker. Wake up.”

“Whu-WHA!”

Sonic's unintelligible reply was accompanied by the surprised blue hero yanking his sheets instinctively higher in shock – quite an understandable reaction when you accounted for the impressive figure perching on his window sill and leaning over his bed next to it, dark wings spread out for balance wide enough to block the sun.  

“It's seven o'clock,” Shadow pointed out reasonably, “Sun's been up for at least half an hour.”

“You've apparently gained some more control over your landing abilities, then,” Sonic commented a bit crankily as he heaved himself out of bed, quills in total disarray. “Fine. I'll be downstairs in a minute,” he yawned. “Get yourself some breakfast and we can be off.”

Shadow dropped from the window at his words and Sonic, looking after him, couldn't help but feel a pang of envy at the grace with which the dark-furred hedgehog landed expertly on his feet with only two massive wing beats to break his fall...and perhaps he also thought it a bit...hot? The blue hero quickly made his way down to the kitchen himself.         

 

xxx

 

“Alrigh'. Goog mornging, Fadow,” Tails greeted the two of them, speech only slightly hindered by two large slices of white bread sticking out of his mouth while he was tracing something on a map lying on the table. “I've narrowed down the coordinates as much as I could,” he said once his mouth was bread-free once more. “I think I can drop you off reasonably close.”

“So we're taking the tornado again?” Shadow asked. “Why don't you stay here and let Sonic fly the thing?”

“Because to get to another continent we need to use the special turbo,” the two-tail said, “otherwise it would take hours.”

“And?”

“You don't want Sonic to use the special turbo.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Tails finished their conversation, while Sonic at the table tried to look as innocent as possible with an I-don't-know-about-any-holes-in-any-skyscrapers -expression, and after the little fox had left the kitchen with the documents, the two hedgehogs soon followed him into the hangar.

“The tornado still doesn't seat three people very well if one of them has such large wings, and when we go as fast as we're about to, Sonic can't stand on the wingtips, either,” Tails said as he pushed a button that let the huge doors open and the light stream in from the runway, “but luckily, Sonic had an idea for that.”

Shadow frowned. “Well, whatever it is, I hope it's not another-”

Tails held out a steel-reinforced rope. Shadow's expression fell.

“-goddamn rope. I hate you both.”

 

xxx

 

“Woooh! Shadow, you holding up okay?!”

Sonic's question was yelled over the rushing winds as the Tornado roared across the sky above the ocean, and the black hedgehog with his spread pinions had to read the words more from his lips than he actually heard them. It was hard enough to balance himself in the jet's slipstream and keep his hands holding the rope from freezing, anyway. Though he never would have admitted it, the Ultimate Lifeform was glad when finally, the white-and-grey northernmost continent that was their destination came into view and he could let go of the rope as Tails brought the Tornado in to land. 

“I'm going to drop you off here,” the fox kit said, not even bothering to turn off the engine as Sonic climbed out of the plane. “Just keep heading north, and you should eventually get to some civilisation. Chaos Emeralds have a habit of not staying undetected long, I don't think they should be too hard to find. Someone's probably noticed something. Oh, and Sonic...” the small fox kit bit his lip, as if he had to be the bearer of unwelcome news and didn't want to be. The hero of Mobius laid a hand on the shoulder.

“What is it, bro?”

“As you keep heading North, the sun will sink. You'll head ever deeper into the Arctic circle. And...” Tails took a deep breath. “It won't come up again while you're there.” 

“...right.” Sonic nodded, his face set. He sighed, his breath clouding in little white puffs in front of his face. “Well at least we'll be spared the transforming pain, I guess,” he summed it up sardonically. “Plus, I think the wolf will be better suited to dealing with these temperatures than our songbird here....”

“The 'songbird' is going to rip your vocal cords out in a minute.”

“Right. Moving along...” Sonic strode off along the path quickly, although it had to be said that cutting Shadow's words though were, by now they lacked some of the venom they earlier had been loaded with. Tails' guess was that the dark hedgehog was either getting more used to his transformation, or, (was that possible?) was getting more used to Sonic...

“Okay,” the kit said instead. “I'll try to locate the next emerald while you're gone and have a look at the two you brought in. I've given you that transmitter, Sonic – Shadow, try not to let him lose it – just call me when you need to be picked up again, wherever you are.”

“Sure. Thanks, bro!” Sonic called, waving as the plane soared into the stormy heavens again, leaving the two hedgehogs behind on the frozen ground. There were patches of snow around already, though mostly it was a brownish-grey tundra-like wasteland, the only plants clinging fiercely to the ground like moss, the only noise the rushing of the winds and the thunder of the icy sea against the rocky shores. Up ahead, the sky was getting darker and that would be their course.

“Holoska,” Sonic said, the name itself seeming to tinkle in the air like ice. “Ever been there, Shadow?”

“No,” the black hedgehog shook his head.

“Alright then,” the blue-furred hedgehog nodded, rubbing his arms in the freezing wind, and there was a smile on his face again. “I've been here before. Looking forward to showing you all the sights.”

He really means it, Shadow thought as the blue hero had taken off, running below him at a speedy pace that the winged hedgehog nevertheless could keep up with, he really IS looking forward to this adventure with me. Even if it means he will have to spend night and day in his wolf form....

And for some reason, Shadow couldn't help himself but feel at least a tiny bit flattered.

 

xxx

 

The landscape changed as they kept running. At first, snow started to fall, and when they didn't slow down, soon covered the ground the deeper they pushed north. They had come across a road, which, even if not asphalt, was at least downtrodden snow, and made running easier for Sonic, so they stuck to it. There were already ice crystals sticking to the end of their quills and night was beginning to fall fast, letting the temperature drop down further. None of them was shivering yet – Shadow was built to resist environments well below zero degrees and Sonic had a metabolism that cheerfully ignored any air temperatures above absolute freezing point anyway, as long as its owner kept running and eating – but nightfall would mean other problems.

“Shadow!” Sonic called up. “The sun's gonna vanish soon! You should fly above the road, just in case!”

“Yeah, yeah!” the black hedgehog replied, not really paying attention to the other's words. He would know when he had to land, and the snow beside the road looked softer to land in, anyway. And just as the Ultimate Lifeform had expected, the sun did go under just then, and the tell-tale shudders began to crawl through his body. He spread his wings as wide as he could, to break his fall as the feathers trailed away on the Northern winds.

“Shadow, no! I told you to-!”

It turned out the only thing he hadn't expected....

Whomp

...was the depth of the snow beside the road.

“Having fun down there?” An amused Sonic's face appeared in the bit of grey sky Shadow could barely see from his icy hole.

“Ha-ha. Help me out of here.”

“The impression you made looks really funny from above, you know. Like a starfish.”

“I said-

“I know, I know. Hold on,” the blue hedgehog said, at the same time taking off the green scarf he seemed to be wearing more for fashionable than practical use anyway. “Here. Grab a hold.”

“...thank you.” Shadow uttered the words with a bit, as it were, coldness in his voice, but to Sonic they seemed warm enough. He gave Shadow another smile.

“You're welcome.”

Then the blue hero cocked his head. “Hey, you don't seem to be as grumpy as usual today. What changed?”

“Well...” the black hedgehog shook the last bit of snow out of his quills, stretching his back a bit now that it wasn't full of feathers. “I...had a bit of a talk with Rouge. About how wings aren't the worst that can happen.”

“Glad you think so,” the blue speedster replied, his smile becoming a bit wider and reaching his eyes now. “Because, you know, “ he said, looking at the sky now, “I don't think this adventure was the worst that could happen, either.”

And before Shadow could say anything else, the blue hero had already taken off again, running along at a speed close to sound, apparently determined to cover as much ground as possible in the short time span from nightfall till moonrise. Shadow, a bit taken aback for just a heartbeat, recovered quickly enough and followed the other into darkness, territory uncharted.

 

xxx

 

There were lights in the distance. Shadow, whose eyes were better than Sonic's, could barely see them, but they indicated finally a town not too far away. Before he could say anything to the blue speedster, though, Sonic stopped him himself.

“One moment. It's starting.”

The gaze of the Ultimate Lifeform whipped to the sky, although of course he already knew what the other meant. Up above, pale and beautiful and unfeeling, rose the moon – and the first rays of reflected light were just falling down on them, letting the snow glisten beneath the starry sky and the blue hero next to him shiver like not even the cold could have made him.

“Ah-!” Sonic had dropped to his hands and knees now, a strangled cry of pain dying in his throat as even his larynx was forced to transform. Shadow's hands balled to fists as he had to watch the hero of Mobius lower his head in pain, pressing his face into the snow in agony. It wasn't right that either of them had to suffer like this!

Bones cracked. Teeth broke forth, staining the snow beneath red. Tendons snapped and healed.  A stifled scream escaped from contorted lips that had grinned at him just moments ago, eyes squeezed shut in hurting. Shadow had seen lots of displays of pain before, had experienced it himself, on his own body, just that very morning but this...the dark hedgehog's closed fist began to tremble. Why was this suddenly so much worse?

I...I want to help you, I really do...Sonic...

The Ultimate Lifeform stretched out a hand to the prone figure writhing, the sounds of the other's agony cutting into his heart like they hadn't when they had fought before. It was the first time he witnessed the other's transformation properly and decided it was just as bad as his own, if not worse. But still his hand hovered in the air, and he couldn't bring himself to even touch the shuddering hero, provide some comfort if nothing else. His hand lowered and the dark hedgehog closed his eyes instead, standing like a silent watchman next to the other as the transformation finally, mercifully, ended, even if his insides were screaming. 

“Ugh...” Sonic's lower timbre indicated that the process was over as the wolf rose, shaking his dark blue fur free of clinging snow. “Sorry you had to see that. I don't think it's very pretty from the outside, either,” he said, stretching himself a bit like a giant dog.

Shadow shook his head. “It's okay.” His face hardened. “But if I find the one responsible for putting us through this, I will make sure they suffer worse.”

Sonic sucked some air through his teeth. The Ultimate Lifeform's words had sounded sharper than the cutting wind.

“Damn, Shads...” he mumbled, taking a step closer to him in the snow, the bulk of his body protecting the now smaller hedgehog a bit against the gale. “That bad for you, huh?”

“Well...” his black-furred doppelganger seemed to fight for words for one moment, crossing his arms and looking the other way before he continued. “Just now I...I just don't like what it does to either of us.” He turned around abruptly as soon as he'd said it. “Let's get going before we freeze to death.”

 

xxx

 

The night flew by like a curtain of stars, chilly and silent and endless. The footprints of the pair of travelers were the only ones visible, huge, paired and five-padded imprints where the wolf had run, and a trail that looked like some kind of skiing madman had come through behind Shadow, snow blasted aside by skating shoes. Nevertheless, the lights ahead were drawing closer, and soon they were able to see structures of the dwellings, low wooden huts, small stone houses and round things that Shadow wondered might be igloos, even if he had only ever seen those things in picture books when  younger. They slowed down when they approached what qualified as perhaps the first outpost of this 'town', something that in summer perhaps could have been a hut with a fence around a garden. There were somewhat strange-looking marks in the snow around a smaller tool shed with some canisters stacked in front of it, indicating that there was probably someone living in there, too. A lamp burning at the doorway bathed the place at least in semi-darkness, even if it only made the shadows at the edge of the circle of light dance; Shadow began to feel as if there was something in the darkness, just waiting to pounce on them, when their back was turned. Sonic seemed to feel the same, apparently – the wolf's fur on his back had started to rise, and there was a low growl rising from his throat. They paused in their approach to the houses.

“Something is not right here,” Shadow said quietly. “We should-”

And that was all he could say, because next he was already cut off by that most distinctive of sounds which was a gun clicking in the dark.

“Stay right there, you misshapen creature! We all knew you would be back!”

 

To be continued...

 

 

End Notes:
Author's Note: Well, here it is at last. Sorry its taken so long, but I lost my job and Taranea sadly lost a family member, so we've been a bit screwed up for a while.
But you guys have got your fix just before Summer of Sonic rolls around again. And if anyone else is attending that event, look out for Tails the Blacksmith hanging out with Sir Blaze Percival and Sir Shadow Lancelot... that'll be me and Tara in cosplay. Feel free to say hi!
Chapter 9: Snowbound by Skyblaze
Author's Notes:
No, we aren't dead. Tara spent a year in Japan and I spent a year trying not to go (literally) crazy.

Expect to be seeing more from us very soon, though,

Chapter 8: Snowbound

 

The night flew by like a curtain of stars, chilly and silent and endless. The footprints of the pair of travellers were the only ones visible, huge, paired and four-padded imprints where the wolf had run, and a trail that looked like some kind of skiing madman had come through behind Shadow, snow blasted aside by skating shoes. Nevertheless, the lights ahead were drawing closer, and soon they were able to see structures of the dwellings, low wooden huts, small stone houses and round things that Shadow wondered might be igloos, even if he had only ever seen those things in picture books when younger. They slowed down when they approached what qualified as perhaps the first outpost of this 'town', something that in summer perhaps could have been a hut with a fence around a garden.

There were somewhat strange-looking marks in the snow around a smaller tool shed with some canisters stacked in front of it, indicating that there was probably someone living in there, too. A lamp burning at the doorway bathed the place at least in semi-darkness, even if it mostly made the shadows at the edge of the circle of light dance; Shadow began to feel as if there was something in the darkness, just waiting to pounce on them, when their back was turned. Sonic seemed to feel the same, apparently – the wolf's fur on his back had started to rise, and there was a low growl rising from his throat. They paused in their approach to the houses.

"Something is not right here," Shadow said quietly. "We should-"

And that was all he could say, because next he was already cut off by that most distinctive of sounds which was a gun clicking in the dark.

"Stay right there, you misshapen creature! We all knew you would be back!"

 

There was a brief moment of silence after that statement. Shadow stood stock still for a second as the words hung in the frigid air, a growl barely building in his throat before there was a flurry of motion. Within fractions of a second, snow had splattered into the air and the man holding the weapon yelped briefly as the gun was pulled from his hands. 
When the ice crystals had settled again, Shadow stood staring at the former gunman, his eyes glittering in the cold moonlight.

 

"Threaten us again," he stated calmly, "and a ruined face will be the least of your problems." The Ultimate Lifeform was aiming the barrel at the figure who had held it before, but his gaze also roving over the shadowy group behind him, now nervously trying to shuffle backwards. Shadow's stiff posture radiated fury, it was a rage disproportionate to the situation, but it boiled in him all the same. They did not deserve this! For every step they took, something seemed to push them back and he was royally sick of it - couldn't these idiots see that they were threatening Sonic, who had probably saved their lives, directly or indirectly - more times than they could count on both hands, and to add an insult to the threat was more than the Ultimate Lifeform could bear.
Then he blinked as that thought rushed through his psyche – wait a moment, why was he so concerned about an insult to Sonic of all people?

"Shadow..." Sonic sighed, "You really gotta stop pointing a gun at everyone we meet."

"Wait. That voice. Sonic..?" one of the figures in the darkness said tentatively, stepping forward into the sullen light from the village. The figure was swathed in a thick coat and hood, his face was so covered in white fuzz that neither Sonic nor Shadow could tell if it was a polar bear Mobian or just a particularly hairy human. "Is that really you?"

Sonic smiled, trying his best not to show too many overly sharp teeth and vaguely waving one large, paw-like hand, "Uhm...yeah. The one and only. Hey there." 

A sigh seemed to ripple through the group, and a lot of the tension went out of the air. 
"Boy, are we glad to see you." 

"That wasn't what it looked like earlier," Shadow growled, trying to make the line sound more threatening than actually petulant at this point. Was it really a surprise that blue hedgehog had friends everywhere? 

"Shadow, take it easy!" Sonic said insistently, putting a hand on top of the shotgun and slowly pushing it down. Their eyes locked for a moment as Shadow briefly resisted, then gave in.

 

"Fine," Shadow grunted, dropping the weapon. Sonic gingerly retrieved it and handed it back to its owner.

 

"So, why're you guys so jumpy, anyway?" Sonic asked casually, "I don't remember anyone besides Eggman's robots pointing guns at me last time."

 

The small crowd of Holoskan villagers exchanged glances.

"Why don't we head back to the village?" The hairy guy suggested finally, "We can fill you in."

 

Sonic moved to follow them as the headed off, but Shadow folded his arms and scowled. "I don't recall agreeing to any side-quests, Faker."

 

Sonic rolled his eyes, "Chill out, Shadow. They might have some clues about the Emerald - or maybe even that clone of yours."

 

The black hedgehog made a noise that sounded mostly like 'hmph', but he moved to follow anyway, even if still keeping his stiff posture, his arms tucked in close to his chest. Sonic eyed him for a moment, noting as the darker hedgehog passed him that he was trembling slightly... no, wait, not trembling - he was shivering.

 

Sonic considered sidling closer, maybe putting an arm around the other's shoulder, letting the warmth of his thick fur help the obviously chilled midnight hedgehog, but Shadow's body language of barely suppressed frustration and the way his eyes kept darting about, tense and wary, suggested the Ultimate Lifeform would not appreciate the gesture. Instead, Sonic just positioned himself so that he blocked the worst of the cutting arctic gale from hitting Shadow, acting like a big furry windbreak.

 

The rest of the village slowly rose into view. It took Sonic a while to even realise it was there, since the white, dome-shaped buildings blended perfectly with the rest of the snow-covered landscape. 

 

The leader of the group of villages gestured to one of the larger igloos, somehow finding a door underneath the layers of packed snow before opening it and ushering the two hedgehogs inside, along with a couple of the other villagers.

 

Shadow relaxed visibly once they were inside, though he still remained tense and alert. Sonic wondered if the black hedgehog had ever been relaxed in the presence of strangers, but then he reflected on what he knew of Shadow's history and instead rephrased that question as to whether his striped doppelganger had ever been relaxed, period.

 

Probably not.

They took seats around an open fire, the villagers removing some of their cumbersome outer garments to reveal a motley collection of Mobians and humans. The Mobians were mostly cold-weather species, polar bears, seals, walruses, there was even a lone arctic fox who was ladling a hot, spicy beverage into mugs and handing it around. Sonic accepted a cup and took a cautious sip, allowing himself a smile when the spicy warmth of the drink seemed to spread from his stomach all the way down to his chilled toes. He glanced over at Shadow, who was sat beside him, clutching a mug of the hot drink - not drinking it, but clinging to it like a lifeline, both hands wrapped tightly around the ceramic cup as he stared blankly into the fire, the red-orange light reflecting in his eyes and staining his white gloves red.
A shiver ran down Sonic's spine, a memory suddenly arising as he remembered another time he had seen Shadow wreathed in firelight, helpless to prevent the other hedgehog slipping out of his grip and falling into immolation in the atmosphere. He snapped his eyes away, looking around for something else of interest to distract him from that dark memory.


The hut wasn't an igloo like he had thought when he had seen it from outside - there had certainly been enough snow packed around it. Instead, it was constructed of a loose lattice of twigs and straw, with something that looked like tar plugging up the gaps. The snow was packed all around the outside - 'for camouflage or insulation,' a thought with Tails' voice said in Sonic's head. The room was mostly round, a firepit in the middle with various metal things hanging over it for cooking, a small hole above acting as a chimney. Shelves containing books and tools lined the walls and a small cot piled with furs was tucked discretely under one of the shelves. It was cosy, if a little cramped and smoky... and to Sonic's currently highly sensitive wolf nose, it was also kind of smelly.

"So, you were going to tell us why you greeted strangers by pointing a barrel at them?" Shadow's voice broke into the quiet. His eyes no longer stared blankly, now they were sharp, his piercing red gaze fixed on the head villager who had just removed his heavy coat and scarf to reveal a swarthy, heavy-set human with a vast white beard and a thick mane of silvery hair, somehow suggesting he should be more concerned with managing elves and perhaps manufacturing little stuffed polar bears rather than trying to gun down innocent hedgehogs... At the Ultimate Lifeform's question, Sonic sighed. Shadow was never one for small-talk, was he.

"I apologise for that," the head villager said in his deep, rough voice, "But the village has been having some problems lately with unwelcome visitors."

"Visitors?" Sonic broke into the conversation, "What kind of 'visitors'?" he asked, worried that he was about the hear a description of some of Dark Gaia's creatures – the transformed hero of Mobius had no particular desire to relive those battles, and if Dark Gaia's monsters were running free... what did that mean for Chip? Icy prickles of worry for his friend danced across Sonic's spine, even though common sense said a demi-god like Light Gaia could probably look after himself.

"No one's been able to get a good look at them," the Head Villager admitted, "But after the thefts, we thought we better set up a patrol to look for them."

"Thefts? What got stolen?" Sonic asked, baffled. There was little if anything of value out here to steal, as far as he could tell.

"It was small things at first," one of the other villagers, an elderly walrus, said in a slow, rusty voice, "A few spare screws and bolts. Then a quart of oil went missing from the snowmobile shed. Bits of sheet metal, engine parts, tools..." the walrus shrugged. “Strange thefts, but theft is theft.”

The head villager nodded, "I know it probably doesn't seem like much to you, but this is a small village. We don't have much, so everything we do have is precious."

Sonic nodded, "Ok, I get that."

"I still somehow fail to see what any of this should have to do with us," Shadow interrupted, once again displaying about as much courtesy and social tact as a small tank in a porcelain store. 

"Well, that depends. What're you boys out here for?" The head villager replied laconically, apparently used to the black hedgehog's social graces by now and choosing to deal with them in a practical way.  

Shadow bristled, irritated at being lumped with Sonic into the category of 'boys', but before he could open his mouth to issue a sharp retort, Sonic replied, "Looking for a Chaos Emerald that's supposed to be around here someplace."

"Fine, faker," Shadow growled, "Just tell them everything."

"Ah chill, Shads. I don't think these guys have much use for a Chaos Emerald."

"You'd be right about that," the Head Villager said, leaning back in his chair and settling in a bit more. "How about a deal?” he asked then. “You help look for those unwelcome visitors of ours, and we'll loan you some equipment to make your search easier."

Shadow raised an eyebrow for the first time indicating an actual interest in the conversation, "What kind of equipment...?"

The white-bearded human shrugged, "Snow shovels, flares, lanterns, warming packs, trail rations and clean water, hammer, pitons and rope if you need to climb something."

Sonic and Shadow exchanged a long look and finally Shadow sighed in resignation. "Ok," Sonic said, "It's a deal."

"Great." The head villager stood, "Its a couple of hours until it gets as close to light outside as it ever does this time of year. Why don't you two rest while I go scare up some supplies?"

Shadow sighed as the villagers filed out of the hut.

"Since when," the black hedgehog asked then pointedly, "Are we the local pest control department?"

"Since it's the right thing to do, and it'll be pretty helpful." Sonic paused, then grinned. "For example, I'll let you have all those warming packs."

Shadow gave the other hedgehog a look that could have melted through steel and went to bury himself in the furs on the bed.

 

---

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away (and a couple of hundred miles up) Angel Island floated quietly high in the air. Rouge the Bat currently fluttering over to it, exceptionally grateful that one of the GUN carrier jets had agreed to give her a lift up this high - getting all the way up here under her own power would have been

near impossible. Of course, the military aircraft had had to keep a distance of some hundred metres, since only a few aircraft like Tails' Tornado had cleared landing permission and really no-one wanted the island's defence systems to activate (or simply a very angry Knuckles to come out). So, Rouge had wisely opted to bid the pilot goodbye a couple of minutes ago and launch herself out of the plane, black wings spread wide high up in air almost too thin to hold her.

 

Despite that, though, she landed lightly on the soft grass, reminding herself to rest for a moment and breathe deeply. The island was rarely this high and with good reason - even that hard-headed echidna needed oxygen.

 

Rouge tutted with mild exasperation as she made her way up to the Emerald shrine, white unstained boots crunching in the dirt, for once making no attempt to conceal her approach.

 

"Knuckles! Where are you, spinehead?" she called as she neared the partially-ruined stone structure that surrounded the Master Emerald, ruins that told of a time long ago before their civilisation had been destroyed by the wrath of a god. The bat drew another breath. "You can relax, I'm not here to steal your precious Emerald this time!" Wide white ears strained, but still, she couldn't hear an answer. Where was that echidna?

 

Figures. The first time I'm for once *not* after his beloved Emerald, the guy is a no-show. Rouge, girl, you really do have the worst of luck...

 

The albino bat let out a little sigh, a hand running through her headfur in annoyance. Well, no choice but to continue looking elsewhere. She was almost about to turn around and take off to look for the elusive Guardian at some other place on the island, but then something caught her eye.

 

Sticking out behind a bit of pillar and just visible, there was a hand lying on the ground in the dirt.

 

A hand in a very familiar white boxing glove.

 

"Knuckles?" Rouge asked, but now there was already a feeling in her chest that something here was very, very wrong. She hurried over and stepped around the stone fragment, her eyes coming to rest on what a part of her had already suspected – the Guardian of Angel Island, lying in the dirt. He wasn't moving anymore.

 

"Knuckles!"

 

Without another thought, she was at his side, her GUN First Aid training kicking in as she checked him over for injuries, finding none save for a small bump on the back of his head - probably due to his impact on the ground, if he had fallen off the pedestal where the Master Emerald sat. There didn't appear to be anything else wrong, which calmed her, but Rouge rolled him carefully into the recovery position just in case. What could have caused this? She fretted to herself. Knuckles was tough, a powerful fighter, it would take a hell of a blow to just knock him flat that way and the

thought that whatever it was might be still on the island now chilled her... but there was no sign of bruising or broken bones. Something magical perhaps? But then, why? The Master Emerald was still there, glittering peacefully on its plinth, so theft clearly wasn't a motive...

 

Knuckles stirred, groaning faintly as he started blink and then tried to sit up, probably woken up by her moving him after all. Violet eyes widened as he beheld Rouge next to him, but at least he made no immediate attempt to brush her off as she carefully supported him in his attempts to upright himself. "Easy there," she soothed, "You'll probably feel groggy for a while."

 

"Rouge?" He said blearily, rubbing as the back of his head, wincing when he encountered the knot of his skull, "What are you doing here? Ow!" He hissed as something in his neck seemed to crack a little, eyes squeezing shut for a moment. "What happened?" he asked again, obviously trying to still get his bearings. "How long was I out? Is the Master Emerald okay?"

 

"Your big gem stone is fine and as for the rest, I've no idea," the bat replied, only rolling her eyes at the first of the questions. "I only just got here. I was hoping you could tell me."

 

Knuckles grunted, looking around and trying to stretch the ache from his muscles - laying on cold stone wasn't exactly comfortable, "Hmph. At least you didn't try and steal it this time." his violet eyes suddenly went wide and he tried to scramble suddenly to his feet, almost collapsing again when a wave of dizziness assaulted him.

 

"Easy!" Rouge said sharply, catching his shoulder to steady him, "You've got a big bump on your head, you shouldn't be running around just yet."

 

"You don't understand!" the echidna snapped, pulling out of her grip, "The Master Emerald gave me a warning. I'm the Guardian of the Emeralds, I have a duty!" his voice rose at the last part, something almost like desperation riding on his words.

 

Rouge blinked. She had never seen Knuckles like this before. She sighed. "All right, all right. Calm down, I'm here to help you. So what do you need to do?"

 

"I need to find Sonic - right away."

 

That was out of character, too. Usually Knuckles stayed away from the blue speedster where possible, and usually went out of his way to describe Sonic as 'aggravating' at best and 'a chaos-spawned nightmare' at worst. Rouge thought about making that observation, but the wild look in Knuckles' eyes told her that this might not have been the best plan, "He and Shadow are in the Arctic," she replied instead, trying to sound as calm as possible, "they're looking for a Chaos Emerald."

 

Knuckles muttered a curse, teeth grinding. "Rely on the hedgehog to be in the most inconvenient location imaginable. If I flew the Island to Holoska it would take me days," he added under his breath.

 

"No need to use that kind of language when a lady is present," Rouge scolded, conveniently ignoring she used much worse linguistics daily if on a particularly difficult mission from GUN. "Besides, if you need to talk to the blue boy so badly, there are much easier ways," she continued smugly, "The fox kid has a communicator that he can use to get in touch with Sonic if he needs to."

 

The Guardian's spirits seemed to brighten up immediately. "Right. Then we need to get to him right away. Lets go!" he said, and, before the bat could even get a word in edgewise, the red-furred echidna was already gone, charging toward the edge of the island and the sky beyond.

 

"Well, I suppose someone has to keep you from falling unconscious mid-glide and subsequently drowning," Rouge sighed as she took off after him, only pausing briefly to cast a last longing look at the Master Emerald that she was forced to leave behind as she ran.

 

"But I swear, I better be getting paid overtime for this..."

 

---

In Holoska, the two hedgehogs had finally headed out into the tundra, Sonic carrying the backpack filled with supplies, as well as the small hand-held chaos detecting device he had pulled from his quills. Thankfully, the device was simple enough that Sonic could operate it with his oversized transformed paws. In fact, as the head villager had explained, once it was active, one only needed to look at the small, square screen where a stylized gem stone shard was displayed. Once any emerald came into range, it would start beeping and blinking green, changing colour to yellow and then red as the Chaos reading came closer. Shadow had noted that for accuracy this was ridiculous and he had been expecting a bit more than a hot-and-cold detector that could only go ding when there was stuff, but Sonic had simply dragged him out the door at that point, knowing that this was most likely all Tails had been able to cobble together in such a short time.

 

"I'm going to head off that way." Shadow said abruptly, pointing in a different direction to the one Sonic was going in.

 

"Huh?" Sonic asked, "Why?"

 

Shadow rolled his eyes, "Right now the Chaos Emeralds are mostly drained, but still emitting small amounts of power. I can probably sense them, if you aren't there blotting out the signal."

 

Sonic blinked, "Wha..? No way! If I'm blotting out the signal, how come this thing can pick it up okay?"

 

Shadow snorted, "Tails knows your Chaos signature, he can screen it out of the readings that device takes," he replied shortly, "I don't have that advantage. You're practically a beacon of Chaos Energy, Faker. Its fairly obvious you never learned how to control it properly."

 

"Hey, its not like I had anyone to teach me how!" Sonic shot back, a touch defensively, then a flash of mischievous humour glinted in his eyes, "Besides, if I could do fancy Chaos tricks, what would be left for you to do? You'd have to take up a new hobby – any good at macramé?"

 

Shadow narrowed his eyes, but refused to rise to the bait. "Hmph," he grunted before then turning away, "If I find anything I'll come find you."

 

Sonic reached a stretching hand into the backpack and pulled out the warming packs the villagers had given him, "Here ya go, Shads. You might as well stay warm."

 

The look on Shadow's face was unidentifiable as he reached to take them.

 "...thank you," he finally said, his voice quieter that usual.

 

"No prob," Sonic replied with a shrug, "Well, see ya later, Shadow," he concluded as they both headed off across the snow-covered landscape.

 

Sonic held the chaos detector out in front of him, frowning at the small display on the device. He swept it back and forth as he trudged through the loosely-packed snow, hearing it crunch under his transformed shoes, grateful at the moment for the strange spikes in them that held him in place on the treacherous snow-and-ice covered landscape.

Then suddenly the scanner beeped, the display starting to turn slightly amber. Sonic smiled in satisfaction and moved in that direction, following the beeping and the slowly changing colours as they led him closer to his target.

 

It had started snowing again. Small drifting flakes spilled down from the sky, blown by the frigid wind making Sonic as grateful for his shaggy wolf pelt as he was for his spiked shoes. He hoped Shadow was okay - he knew the dark hedgehog didn't like this sort of weather at all...

That thought was cut off as Sonic abruptly reached the end of the landscape - the shelf of packed ice ended suddenly, and beyond was a large expanse of icy arctic water. Reluctantly, he waved the scanner out over the edge of the ice. The display promptly flashed red and the beeping now sounded positively ecstatic.

 

Sonic stared at the turquoise water, appalled, then back at the happily beeping device. "You gotta be kidding me!"

 

The wind picked up at this, howling and hissing in his ears, seeming to grow steadily louder as Sonic frowned at the water, small waves now beginning to form in the arctic gale while the hero of Mobius was feverishly trying to devise some way of getting to the Emerald without being forced to get wet. He considered attempting to use his elasticated arms to reach for it, but dismissed that idea quickly - there wasn't anything to stop him from over-reaching and losing his balance and ending up in the drink,   which was, quite literally, the last thing he wanted.

 

Again, the wind hissed louder, almost breaking Sonic's concentration. Funny, it almost sounded like...

 

"Look out!" A strange  unknown voice suddenly cried out from behind him, Sonic turning just in time to see a dark shape leap towards him from out of the swirling snow, red eyes filled with killer purpose fixed on him, hands outstretched hungrily, wanting to grab and tear.

 

Trained reflexes moved unfamiliar, slower muscles at the last minute and his decreased speed almost cost Sonic his life. The transformed hedgehog dodged, throwing his massive head back as he could feel something cut the air just where his throat had been a second ago, and shifted his weight to one side automatically, still feeling far too slow and ponderous for Sonic's taste, but at least the movement was enough to send his attacker sailing past him. Instinctively, because the werehog had some fighting advantages, too, one huge paw shot out, whip-like, to encourage the forward momentum of his assailant with a hit in its back and, satisfactorily, send   whatever it was ploughing face-first into the snow.

When the attacker rolled to its feet in a lightning-quick movement, Sonic's suspicion was confirmed.

 

It was a Shadow-clone. Any remaining flicker of doubt about the identity of the occasionally-winged version he was travelling with was instantly squashed when Sonic's gaze met the crimson stare of this doppleganger. None of the emotion of the real Shadow, none of the echoes of pain and loss, or the bright brilliant purpose and determination that shone in the real Shadow's eyes. This version was mindless savagery given form.

 

The clone stared at him, eyes scanning - searching for weaknesses on its prey.

You won't find any.  Sonic flashed it a wolfy grin, all his sharp teeth showing and dropped into a fighting crouch.

 

"You wanna play? All right then, bring it on, Faker,” he scathed that last word loaded with all the meaning and sincerity he would never use on the real Shadow. Between him and the real Shadow, that word, that title, almost was just a game, a joke perpetuated between sometime-rivals and almost-friends. But here, it was serious. And Sonic intended to prove it.

 

And then he was gone in a deadly pounce,  paws outstretched and sharp claws arcing towards the clone's unprotected face, a wolf-like howl tearing from his throat and rushing away in the storm.

 

 

Quite some distance away, Shadow was having no luck finding the Emerald, and even less luck staying at least a little bit warm or comfortable. He stopped for a moment with a muttered curse and rubbed his hands together, letting the heating pack he had clutched in his hands relieve some of the chill in his fingers. 

This is ridiculous.

He had skated over and around miles upon miles of featureless icy wasteland without his Chaos sense picking up anything at all except the distant spark of Sonic's presence far behind him. But, just at that moment, a flicker in that blue-star Chaos aura caused Shadow to frown, a whisper of something very much like concern flashed across his thoughts.

Then, the howl of a wolf echoed across the frozen landscape. Shadow didn't give it a second thought, he turned and shot back towards the burning star of Sonic's chaos presence, his jet shoes leaving melted trails of slush in his wake.

 

There was blood on the snow, and Sonic already couldn't tell anymore whose it was. His jaw snapped shut and something tore between his teeth. The clone's glove? Its wrist? There was a metallic, salty taste on Sonic's tongue, something dripping down his muzzle. Wrist maybe.

 

I have just bitten off a hand.

 

It was a faint voice that said those words in the transformed hero's head,  but it was almost inaudible. There were noises drowning it out, the howling of the storm around them, the shrieking and snarling of the thing that looked like Shadow upon him, but loudest of all was the roar of the wolf in Sonic's head. The faint voice was nearly gone, only enough to distract him for a split-second...and that was enough for next it was his own voice, screaming aloud into the arctic night and into the whirling snow almost blinding him, a cry of pain torn from his throat as the clone had somehow rallied and lashed out, driving something sharp into the biceps of Sonic's left arm.

He hadn't been fast enough to evade it. Lost his focus because what he'd done on instinct had been disgusting.

 

The transformed hedgehog snarled like a wolf that was rabid and spat something out into the snow that he didn't want to look at ever again. His unhurt arm lashing out but missing the attacker's form by inches, the hurt creature still backflipping with a speed that should have been Shadow's, a speed much faster than any of the wounded hero's attacks. A red haze was threatening to descend in front of Sonic's eyes again, pain coupled with rage at his own failure to evade the attack trying to consume any last rational thoughts and he had to consciously hold on to what he knew.

 

No. I need to fight this thing properly.

He wasn't Sonic the Hedgehog any more. He was the wolf now, and he needed to remember to fight with its instincts, not against it. It was time to stop being squeamish about a limb or to. This thing wasn't even sapient. Remember that. 

 

They were circling each other now, a brief, deadly dance before the next clash would follow, perhaps the last. Copied rocket skates were flaring, melting the snow while huge, steamy breaths of the transformed hero of Mobius let snow flakes dissolve in mid-air. The ground at both their feet was starting to bloom red.

 

I need to remember to fight like the wolf...

 

It had been hard, when he had first transformed. His usual attacks hadn't worked. In turn, the ferocious and brutal style his new form required had been alien to the speedster. But he had learned, now he just needed to remember...let the muscles bunch in his shoulders. Let the jaws open wide, ready to tear through whatever they could catch. Red eyes blazed at him, filled with an emotion that he thought had probably last been on the real Shadow's face the day he watched Maria die. Bloodlust.

They charged and this time Sonic was ready, his massive body sliding smoothly under the searing kick of his opponent because this time he had remembered to stay on all fours before twisting himself around on the ground with claws and spikes tearing into the snow and frozen earth beneath, leaping into the air before the clone had time to get its bearing or balance, and then feeling the surge of pure, wild triumph as his paws connected with the slender chest of the other hedgehog, the muffled thud as its back hit the ground underneath Sonic's bulk, and for one second, seeing the wide-eyed look of disbelief on its face just before his teeth closed over its throat.

 

And then, right at the moment when the hero of Mobius would have snapped the neck of the black hedgehog dangling limply in his jaws, green eyes suddenly fell on a lone, small midnight figure in the snowstorm that was looking at him a crimson gaze so much more familiar than the dying clone's, and an expression that was unreadable. Sonic froze.

 

Shadow.     

 

Shadow, the real Shadow, had been looking at him. Watching him. Was now observing him with something that was a perfect replica of him hanging bleeding between Sonic's teeth. Suddenly, the hero of Mobius wanted to vomit so much more than to bite down. He spat the thing in his mouth to the ground and shook his head wildly, trying to get rid of every last memory of Shadow – not Shadow, never Shadow, it was the clone, but still – of a black hedgehog dying at his hands, at his claws and between his teeth. Sonic stared in mute horror, the feral light in his eyes fading as he realised what had just happened.

 

Awkwardly, he shuffled away a few steps, as if trying to escape his own memories of the fight moments ago. Again, an anguished howl would have torn itself from his throat, but Sonic cut it short, now wanting to behave like the wolf less than ever; it had worked well, too well, and what would Shadow think of him now, tearing into his clone like a feral gone mad?

 

To Sonic, it seemed like the longest moment since their adventure had started, but when Shadow finally moved, it felt like a wave of relief when the black hedgehog took only a step toward him, not away, and his voice was far from dripping with disgust or anger, when he instead just softly asked,

“Sonic...are you alright?”

 

xxx

 

Shadow had been making his way through the snow, skating steadily at first, but accelerating ever faster, his movements becoming wilder and more frantic the more he could feel Sonic's chaos aura flickering and flaring erratically in the distance. Something wasn't right. He managed to slow down just enough as he actually came within hearing range, Sonic's howling and some other, feral snarling riding on the wind hitting his half-frozen ears. Skates blazed brightly as the Ultimate Lifeform came to a stop on top of a snow drift, eyes narrowed and immediately taking in the scene below.

 

A black body, trapped in dark blue jaws.

He was watching himself, being killed by Sonic. It felt...a bit peculiar, to be honest, but again, a part of Shadow was again admiring the wolf, its ferocious strength, the dark green eyes with that nearly feral fire burning within them, it was hard for Shadow to tear his gaze away, somehow feeling just a tad warmer now despite the freezing storm around them...and then, just before Sonic could deliver the killing bite, their gazes locked. And Sonic was suddenly staring at him with a horror strong enough in his eyes that let Shadow feel as if he'd downed all the icy sea water surrounding them in one gulp.

 

What...?

 

Before Shadow had even time to wonder why the despair in the other's gaze had for some reason had such an effect on him this suddenly, he was already aware that he needed to do something, now. The wolf had already spat the clone barely clinging to live onto the snow, now shaking his massive head wildly, looking even more desperate now than before. Shadow tried to clear his head and took a step forward.

“Sonic...are you alright?” 

 

Sonic's head snapped around to look at Shadow, his green eyes still haunted but now with at least a new flicker of...something in them. He looked down at the clone's broken body, shivering despite his fluffy pelt.

 

Shadow took another few cautious steps forward. "Sonic..?" When the blue hero still didn't say anything but only regarded him kind of helplessly now, as if afraid if he'd move he'd hurt Shadow as well like he had the clone, Shadow finally closed the gap between them and, carefully, reached up to lay a hand on the transformed hero's arm.

 

What could you say in a situation like this...?

 

"...it's all right," the black hedgehog finally managed softly, as reassuringly as he knew how.

 

Sonic just looked at him, "How...how can you say that?" He gestured helplessly at the body lying like a broken toy in the snow, still twitching, then wrenched his head to the side, not able to look at the display any longer. “I almost...I almost....” Sonic tried, sharp wolf teeth bared at Shadow as he obviously struggled with the next words, but Shadow thought he might have heard the killed you in there still.

 

The black hedgehog took a deep breath. Sonic had never taken the life of anything even resembling a sapient creature before...

 

Shadow briefly closed his eyes, then held the hero's gaze calmly. "Because sometimes, it really is kill or be killed. Morals and principles mean little when you are that close to death. Sometimes it just comes down to survival. And then, you do what you must. You aren't any good to anyone dead," he spoke with the weight of absolute conviction, though his gaze was darkened - the gaze of someone who had seen far too much horror and pain, the gaze of someone who even as he spoke knew he was stirring memories he would rather not have recalled.

 

Again, masking even this emotion, the black hedgehog lowered himself onto one knee next to the dying clone in the snow, and pulled out a familiar semi-automatic from his quills, black steel contrasting sharply against the red-stained snow.

 

“And when it comes down to it,” Shadow continued, “Sometimes all you can do is give them a clean death.”

 

He looked up again at Sonic, and the blue hedgehog was surprised to find something in that gaze now almost resembling...protectiveness?

And then a single shot rang out across the dark, and the clone on the ground finally stopped moving.

 

Sonic drew in a deep breath, trying to control his trembling. They were safe. Shadow was safe. He hadn't murdered anyone...

 

“Thank...you. I think.”

 

“No problem,” Shadow answered calmly, storing the gun again in his head headquills,  but there was a bit of a warmer edge to his voice, as if the black hedgehog had really appreciated the thanks Sonic had just given. The blue hedgehog who hadn't been able to harm even someone who looked like him as soon as their eyes had met...

 

Shadow tried to shake his head to clear it. Time to sort out this weird situation later. At the moment, both of them had trouble even thinking straight because of their transformations. Better to concentrate on matters at hand...

 

As it turned out, Sonic could help with that.

 

“By the way, Shads, I found the Emerald.”

 

“Oh?” Shadow replied, noticing the slightly forced light tone the blue hedgehog was using, but didn't comment on it, guessing that Sonic just wanted things to be back to a more normal state as well. Shadow could get on board with that. “Good.”

 

"Not really," Sonic replied, his movements slowly more natural as he took out his scanner and waved it over the water, the thing again almost seeming obscenely happy that it could tell the whole world that the Emerald was hiding in the most awkward spot possible. 

 

"Damn," Shadow muttered as he realised just how damned difficult it was going to be to retrieve. Then he paused, his ears flicking as he heard something. He looked at Sonic, who nodded, putting a clawed finger to his lips, indicating he had heard it too.

 

They moved slowly and quietly towards the source of the noise - rounding a large snowbank as the sound got clearer, resolving itself into several odd, metallic-edged voices.

 

"-who else could it be? Large, blue and spiky." one voice said.

 

"I dunno. I don't remember him being that... furry," another, squeakier voice replied.

 

"Either way, should we really be here? If it is him, he's not exactly got a reputation for being friendly to us," a third voice chimed in.

 

Sonic and Shadow finally emerged at the back of the snowbank and stopped dead as they saw a small cluster of badniks. They all seemed to be old designs, and most showed signs of age and damage, some of which had been haphazardly repaired. The two hedgehogs and the badniks stared at each other for a few moments, eyes locked with various types of visual sensors.

 

Finally, one of the badniks spoke up. "Busted," it said.

 

To be continued...

 

 

 

Chapter 10 - Unlikely Allies by Skyblaze
Recap time

Recap time!

 

When we last left our heroes, they were heading into the Arctic to recover a Chaos Emerald that Tails had located somewhere in the vicinity. Things are complicated by the fact that a) Shadow turns into a kite by day and Sonic into a wolf at night, which seems to indicate that something has once again destroyed the balance of Light and Dark Gaia, turning Sonic (and this time Shadow as well)

once again into the avatars of those forces to restore the harmony of the life energy of the planet.

 

To that end, they are now hunting down the seven Emeralds which had solved this problem the last time, but as an unexpected variable, Shadow clones of an unknown origin have also started to attack. Could Robotnik possibly have built them? Right now, Shadow and Sonic in his wolf form just fought one of them in the arctic snow, but that fight ended abruptly when our heroes heard a noise and discovered they had had a very unlikely audience...

 

Chapter Nine: Unlikely Allies

 

“What,” Shadow said in a very flat tone, “is that.

 

“Uh,” Sonic stared at the small group that, compared to Robotnik's latest contraptions, resembled more a horrific lovechild between a paint store and a junkyard sale. He looked at Shadow.

“...have you ever heard of the term 'classic badniks'?”

 

“Classic whatnow?” Shadow asked, his frown switching between irritation and just plain confusion as he beheld the half a dozen small...things looking up at them from behind a snowdrift. He understood that they were some sort of robots, but the Ultimate Lifeform also figured that he hadn't yet seen any robots designed to look like, well, adorkable insect critters.

 

“Badniks,” Sonic repeated again. “Basically, Robuttnik's earliest attempts at killer robots.”

 

“Killer...robots,” Shadow said. As he spoke, something like a screw fell out of the purple thing resembling a bat.

 

Different times, okay?” Sonic shot back, no idea why he was suddenly feeling almost defensive of the things that had tried to kill him for the better part of his childhood. “If I remember correctly, those are called Moto-bug,” - he indicated the red thing that vaguely looked like an evil ladybug on wheels - “Caterkiller, pardon the bad pun -”

 

“Hey!” the green, yes, caterpillar-shaped badnik complained,

 

“Bat brain, that's the purple one, buzz bomber, I think they named a variety show after those,” Sonic said, gesturing first at the worryingly lilac-coloured thing that reminded Shadow of a sort of homicidal mixer that someone had stuck wings to, and then at something that looked like a robot bee with a construction helmet and didn't that say something about Robotnik's state of mind even five years ago, “That one's burrobot, he was always pretty useless – sorry, buddy, but that's the truth-”

 

“It's...it's okay...” a small voice said, which belonged to a little, yellow and blue badnik that looked like a sad, anthropomorphized trainee tank wearing a baseball cap. It hung its head a little.

 

“And that,” Sonic said, triumphantly pointing at the last one of the bunch, “is, uh...” for the first time, the hero of Mobius faltered a little,  “It's crab....crab...er, crabby....something-”

 

“It's crabmeat!” an apparently rather, well, crabby, red and white robot resembling a certain seafood screeched, angrily waving one of its claws at the werehog. “And you could at least have remembered my name, you-!”

 

Right,” Shadow said, his tone suggesting that he was trying to keep this situation out of the ridiculous and failing, and that this was not improving his mood, “And what are they doing here?”

 

“Well, we were saving your hide,” one of them, the...purple vampire mixer...piped up, flapping its wings a bit awkwardly as if it by now wasn't so sure that that had been such a great idea any more.

 

Shadow raised an eye ridge. “Excuse me?”

 

“Wait,” Sonic interrupted him. “That was you who called out to warn me of that Shadow clone?”

 

“Well, yeah. I, uh, told my friends here you might not smash us?” Bat Brain asked, apparently trying a strained smile with a mouth that had only ever been engineered to be an angry snarl. Judging from Sonic and Shadow's slightly alarmed expressions as he tried to favour them with it, it wasn't a great success.

 

“It is you, right? Sonic?” The one called Moto-bug asked at this point, its voice scratchy and distorted as it was apparently the most badly damaged of the lot. “Ah'm sorry, mah optic sensors ain't what they used to be. But you looks...different.”

 

“Heh, yeah,” Sonic now actually gave a bit of a lop-sided smile, rubbing the back of his head a little, “I guess you wouldn't know, but we're currently dealing with this curse thing that transforms us every-”

 

“Yes, yes,” the old Moto-bug waved a dismissive scythe-arm, interrupting him and apparently not even listening, “ And ah right remember you used to be a lot fatter.”

 

At which point Sonic seemed to have a choking fit and Shadow considered a face-palm.

 

Excuse me?!”

 

“Don't listen to her! Don't listen to her!” The other badniks now swarmed frantically in front of the  Moto-bug, Bat Brain trying to cover Sonic's furious line of sight with his wings, “She's old, she doesn't know what she's saying!”

 

“Ah know what ah'm saying, sonny, and he was fat. Right and proper well-fed. Nothing like them noodly limbs of his and his friend there now, back then. Ah, they just dun make them anymore like they-”

 

“Sonic. I'm going to Chaos Blast the lot of them this instant if you don't give me one reason why I shouldn't,” Shadow grated between his teeth while the badniks were now scrambling to roll the elderly Moto-bug away and hastily re-assuring both hedgehogs that none of that was meant like it sounded, honest, both of them looked just like modern hedgehogs should, yessir, and could you pretty please not dissassemble them, that would be great, thanks.

 

“Yeah, I'm struggling to come up with one, too,” Sonic replied dryly, but then sighed. “But yeah, don't. They did try to help, after all.”

 

“They called the Ultimate Lifeform Noodle-limbs”, Shadow pointed out, but Sonic waved him off. “And they called me fat. I'm sure my frankly fabulous self-image will survive,” he said. He looked Shadow up and down and squinted slightly, then, "And hey, you are the ultimate lifeform after all,  ain't like you've got much to complain about in the department either," Sonic added in such a deceptively casual tone that Shadow almost didn't catch the meaning of his words, “Come on, let's find out what they're doing here, get what we came for and leave, kay?”

 

“Fine,” Shadow said, sounding as resigned as anyone spending longer periods of time with Sonic invariably did, still trying to puzzle out the meaning of Sonic's odd remark. Then he quirked an eye ridge.

 

“...were you, though?”

 

My weight as a twelve year old was absolutely fine,” Sonic managed to say that sentence wihtout actually separating his teeth. He turned his nose up and crossed his arms. “I just...hadn't hit my growth spurt yet, okay?”

 

“If you say so,” Shadow said, and Sonic wondered whether he had imagined the faintly amused undertone in the other's words. The hero of Mobius permitted himself a snort.

 

Heh. Shads actually friendly teasing me. World must be really ending, then.

 

Aloud, he cleared his throat and said, “Okay, you lot. No smashing time for now. Instead, wanna tell me what you're doing here?”

 

“Uh, right,” Bat Brain, who seemed to be the spokes...bot for the group, turned back to them. “Thank you. We're...not actually doing much here. As you can probably tell, we're from an old production line that was fitted with, as it turned out...slightly malfunctioning programming. As a result, we weren't, uh, he most effective of badniks,” the purple robot said, sounding a bit contrite. “Argued more about theoretical battle tactics than actually doing anything to stop you, for instance, no thanks to some members of the team,” Bat Brain said, shooting a side glance at the robot crab. It glared and crossed its claws in some sort of mechanical pout.

“But yes. Back then, when you had run through Mystic Cave Zone for the third time and Doctor Robotnik once again found all the other badniks destroyed except for us, and you still alive because we had once again just missed you...well...”

 

“He tried to destroy us himself,” Buzz Bomber said darkly. “We fled.”

 

“We found the robot version of the Town Musicians of Bremen. This day is getting better and better,” Shadow muttered under his breath, before for the first time addressing the assembled robots directly. “Okay, so you defied your creator and made for the hills,” he said, crossing his arms. “Why come here?” he asked, suspicion barely veiled in his words.

 

The badniks looked at him. Then the caterpillar turned to the others and asked,

“Okay, so has anybody any idea who he is?”

 

“Never seen him before,” the crab replied. “Looks like one of those black hedgehog things, though.”

 

“Yeah, Sonic, didja tame one of them? That's so cool!” the burrobot piped up, its light voice now sounding positively awed as it looked up at the blue hedgehog, “...though this one doesn't look as clever or dangerous as the other ones. Does it have faulty programming, too?” the small robot asked, peering curiously at Shadow.

 

“Yes, I think I can see why the Doctor wanted to incinerate the lot of them,” the Ultimate Lifeform said dryly to his blue-furred partner, who, annoyingly, now seemed to have some odd facial twitching going on and suspiciously trembling shoulders. “Stop giggling.”

 

“I'm...I'm sorry...!” Sonic managed, but of course only got so far before he now burst into laughter regardless. Shadow internally counted to ten and thought of the fact that Maria probably wouldn't approve of him grievously harming anyone who simply seemed to be cursed with a lack of basic self-preservation instinct.

 

“You will not insult me by presuming I am one of those things,” Shadow said instead, stepping forward and feeling inwardly pleased at how the badniks immediately shut up and scrambled to attention at his tone, “My name is Shadow the Hedgehog, and I am the Ultimate Lifeform, bioengineered by the brilliant ancestor of your bumbling creator,” he snapped his fingers and enjoyed the mechanical gasps at the small emerald flame that sprang to life in his palm.

 

“ These creatures that look like me are inferior copies with a bastardized purpose. I was made to protect this planet and command the power of Chaos, and anyone who dares to oppose or ridicule me will be destroyed.” He bent forward, until blazing red eyes were at a level with cartoony black and white optic sensors. “Did I make myself clear?

 

There was the sound of five badniks frantically attempting something that resembled a nod. Shadow decided to ignore the sixth one, the Moto-bug who now appeared to be taking the mechanic equivalent of a nap, and also the little burrobot who said something like 'I think I liked Sonic more' in a very tiny whisper.

 

“Right,” Sonic nodded. (and tried not to think of how a small part of him had noted that whenever Shadow got as serious as that, it was also seriously hot...) “Glad that's settled, then. Okay, so now that we're all introduced, wanna telling us now why you're here? And why you called out to me?”

 

“Well...” Bat Brain seemed to give the winged equivalent of a shrug. “Mostly, it was coincidence. We headed for the Arctic circle, because we assumed there would be less people who could have a grudge against old badniks. We tried to keep to ourselves, we really did, but sometimes, we, well...sometimes one of us would break and...see...”

 

“And you stole parts from the village to repair yourselves,” Shadow, who at times could piece things together eerily quickly supplied, crossing his arms. “That right?”

 

“We didn't have another choice,” the caterpillar robot said, sullenly, looking up at both of them. “You can't destroy someone just because they were doing what they had to continue to function.”

 

“Believe me, if I had this my way, we couldn't possibly be less interested in petty theft,” Shadow muttered, but Sonic ignored him.

 

“Okay, so that's one mystery solved. And no, we're not going to smash you because you stole, but you will have to work something out with the villagers,” the transformed hero said, “If you're scared they will try to take you apart, we can put in a good word for you so you might be able to come to an arrangement where you work for the things you need-”

 

“-if you give us the information we need and then not distract us from our mission,” Shadow cut in glibly. “Have you seen anyone else here, looking for something?”

 

“No one, apart from those things that look like you. We've been trying to stay out of their way, but even if they don't seem to talk, they do seem to be searching for something,” Bat Brain said, before it slightly tilted its head. “That...what you're all looking for, it wouldn't happen to be a Chaos Emerald, would it?”

 

“Why would you think we're looking for an Emerald?” Shadow asked, red eyes immediately narrowed in suspicion. The little burrobot shrugged its mechanical shoulders.

 

“It's Sonic,” it explained. “That's all he ever does, isn't it?”

 

“First they call me chubby, then they say I'm unoriginal. After this, I'll need some serious ego-stroking,” the blue hero muttered, at the same time trying not to appear too miffed that it was now Shadow who seemed to have trouble to suppress a snort. 

 

“You're his creatures. Do you think the clones are something the Doctor built?” the black hedgehog asked then, eying the badniks sharply.

 

“No,” the catepillar shook its head. “We don't think so. They...sort of lack his touch.”

 

“If you mean they don't fall apart after one spin-dash, then you would be right,” Shadow said, ignoring the collective bristling of the badniks at his remark. “Alright,” he said, dismissively, “Then we're done here. You can scatter.”

 

“What? But-!”

 

“We don't need an audience for what we're going to do,” the black hedgehog said, irritably. “If you want to be helpful at all, you can go and keep an eye out for more of those clones, but I don't want you hanging around here.”

 

“One moment,” Sonic said, grabbing Shadow's arm and pulling him a few metres aside, the black hedgehog for once forced to yield to Sonic's superior strength easily, even as he was obviously irritated.

 

“What?”

 

“Shadow, why are you sending them away?” Sonic hissed under his breath. “The Emerald is submerged in freaking ice water, we could ask them to get it for us.”

 

“For them to make away with it as soon as they have it, yes,” Shadow replied, and cut Sonic off before the blue hedgehog could protest. “Sonic, I don't trust them as far as I could throw them. They could be spies for the Doctor, they could be rigged with a self-destruct mechanism, they could steal that Emerald and fly away with it as soon as we've finally got our hands on it. No.”

 

Sonic stared at him for a moment, once again sharply struck by how little Shadow trusted anyone, and how much his heart ached when he thought of the events that had made him that way, “But...they don't seem like bad guys.” he said softly.

 

Shadow gave him a look. “You don't look like much of a hero in your current state,” he pointed out flatly.

 

“Low blow.” Sonic drew a little back from the hedgehog, his voice neutral, but his eyes...Shadow for a moment wondered why only looking at them now actually made him regret what he had just said, something slightly injured and vulnerable, like a wounded puppy.

 

This...dammit, Sonic, I didn't mean to-

 

“I...just don't want someone to get hurt,” Shadow said quietly, carefully not saying something else, namely something like you.. He looked at Sonic again. “You're too trusting sometimes, hedgehog.”

 

“If I hadn't trusted you not to backstab me back then aboard the ARK, we would never have been able to defeat the Biolizard,” Sonic pointed out, and it was a bit satisfying to see Shadow...not so much as flinch, exactly, but still look a bit awkwardly to the side. Sonic considered this. Shadow was a loner, someone who had possibly been burnt just one time too often in his short life, someone who was almost desperate to never have to rely on anybody because of it...

 

...and someone who trusted you to help him when Gaia let wings erupt from his back, a voice in Sonic's head supplied.

 

What would happen on the infinitesimally small chance that the badniks would betray them after Sonic had gotten Shadow to trust them?

 

Sonic took a breath and looked at the black hedgehog, “Okay, even considering we do send them away -  how are we supposed to get to the Emerald? I ain't going in there, that's for sure.”

 

Shadow regarded him for a moment, seeming...almost relieved? Grateful? Sonic wasn't sure, before the black hedgehog gave a dismissive handwave. “I can retrieve it. Water close to zero degrees usually kills humans from hyperthermia somewhere in between exposure for sixty to ninety minutes. I am not only the Ultimate Lifeform, but also expect to spend considerably less time submerged.”

 

Sonic blinked. He wasn't even going to mention how Shadow's continued display of knowledge relating to various causes of death was just a little bit this side of morbid, but he was also trying to ignore the knot of worry that seemed to have formed so instantly in his stomach at those words.

 

“Are you, uh, sure?”

 

“Happy? No. Sure? Yes,” Shadow replied. “The thing that actually makes me want to go through with this less than pleasant vision is the certainty that after we've retrieved the damn thing we can go home and leave this entire blasted snowscape behind. And the sooner I do that, the better. Now would you kindly ask our guests to leave?”

 

“...all right,” Sonic said reluctantly after a moment had passed. “But...if anything...I dunno, if you feel like you're starting to lose consciousness or anything, you come out, okay?”

 

“Yes, yes,” Shadow waved him off, irritably. “I should be able to sense the Emerald with accuracy and precision and be back before you know it. There's no need for fretting.”

 

“I don't fret,” Sonic lied, at the same time turning around abruptly and stalking back to the robots.

“Okay, I don't know whether you've heard anything of this, but me and Shads talked it over, and it would be best if you leave. Thanks for the heads-up earlier, but we're good on our own now.”

 

“What? You want to retrieve the Emerald alone...from in there?”  the buzz bomber asked, briefly glancing at the icy depths. “Are you-”

 

Yes, we're sure,” Sonic cut him off. “We'll manage. Besides,” he raised an eye ridge, for one moment wondering whether Shadow might even have been right with his suspicions, “Why would you be so eager to help us? I'm Sonic the Hedgehog, remember? I used to smash guys like you by the dozen back in the day.”

 

“Yeah, but...but you also smashed Doctor Robotnik and he tried to smash us...” the burrobot looked at the floor as it poked its two arm drills together a bit nervously. 

 

“We've offered him our help, okay? He doesn't want it, we don't insist,” Crabmeat stated, looking at the other badniks sternly. “I say we should start leaving this place before more black hedgehog things are attracted by the Emerald.”

 

“Yeah, that's a good idea,” Sonic nodded. “I'll keep my word and say something good about you to the villagers so you can try and start talking to them instead of stealing when this is over. Good luck until then.”

 

“Thank you, Sonic,” Bat Brain replied. “Good luck to you, too, I suppose. And, uh...” it flapped its wings a bit indecisively. “Also...thanks for sometimes asking before you smash something. That kind of thing, it...doesn't always go unnoticed.”

 

“Right,” Sonic said, scratching his head a little as he watched the strange little parade of old robots roll, flap and sputter their way back where they had come from, soon not even noticeable any more in the arctic night. He turned around took a few steps back to Shadow, who had dug a torch from their backpack and unearthed another few supplies.  

 

“Got everything?”

 

“Yes,” Shadow replied. “I have a light source and a knife in case I have to prize the Emerald free from somewhere. Also, I've laid the towels and the...heating equipment at the top of the backpack for when I return. And, for your sake, mostly, I'll be tying a line around myself so you can have some peace of mind while waiting.”

 

Sonic shuddered in sympathy. For all his insistence on the self-reliant plan, Shadow didn't seem to look that much forward to it.

 

“Okay, then,” Sonic said. The idea of some sort of rope around Shadow's waist made the plan indeed sound somewhat better, even if the blue hero still didn't feel that happy about the idea of Shadow potentially jumping to his doom. They approached the edge of the ice, their feet sinking into the freshly fallen snow, more flakes settling on their coats as they stared down into the dark waters more than fifteen feet below them, ice shoals bobbing on the small waves that lap against the ice walls that make up the shoreline. Sonic looked at the water and then back at Shadow.

 

“I don't care how long you say you can survive in there, I'm giving you ten minutes tops before I'll yank you out of there like an ultimate mackerel.”

 

“Fine. That should be sufficient,” Shadow waved him off, experimentally pulling on the line wrapped around his hips like a belt and handing the other end to Sonic. “It's fifty feet long. I don't think I shall require more than that.”

 

“I hope,” Sonic muttered, and then still had to keep himself from internally flinching as Shadow only nodded, and then flung himself off the cliff to hit the ice water with a splash! and then was swallowed up by it in seconds.

 

xxx

 

Tails was staring at the scanners in his workshop with a frown of confusion. He hadn't heard back yet from either Sonic or Shadow, which could either mean the mission was going so swimmingly that they hadn't had the need to radio back to him for assistance, or that something so terrible happened to them that they couldn't even call for help any more, his ever-so-helpful mind supplied brightly while an overactive imagination cheerfully seemed to have prepared a veritable slide-show of detailed images just what could have happened to two continental mammals in the arctic. Tails bit his lip and tried to ignore everything.

 

Stop it. They're Sonic and Shadow. They've both taken on worse. You've got something to do here, and if you want to be useful at all, you better do it!

 

The two-tailed fox shook his head as if to physically clear it and then stared at the monitor again with renewed concentration. If only the readings would make more sense!

 

These measurements have to be faulty somehow. There's wayyy too much Dark Gaia readings everywhere, this is completely different from last time. But that simply can't be, it goes against any basic natural law – a planet has to have exactly equal amounts of both energies, otherwise it would break apart like last time, and it hasn't this time – and even if these results were accurate, where would the extra Dark Gaia energy be coming from?!

 

Tails groaned and let his forehead bump against the monitor, hoping everyone else was having more luck with their respective quests.

 

xxx

 

Shadow would have screamed the moment he hit the water, except he knew that that would only have meant inhaling it. Instead, he drew another breath and threw himself into the icy darkness, knowing that with every second he spent inside this frozen hell, his reflexes were likely to become slower and his muscles would cramp up more. He could feel his heart rate speeding up as if he were in a life or death situation, his metabolism instinctively trying to compensate for the sudden temperature loss like crazy. It wouldn't be too long now before the shivering would start, letting his hands become unsteady and clumsy. Shadow shone the torch below him and kicked off, hover skates even underwater working perfectly and letting him carve through the ocean more effectively than any attempts at swimming ever would have.

 

And.

 

Well.

 

He wasn't about to let Sonic see that the only swimming style he'd ever mastered was the dog paddle, either...

 

Shadow blinked and narrowed his eyes as much as he could, the cold, salty water burning against his corneas as he pushed through the water. The entire sensation eerily reminded the black hedgehog of the time he'd spent aboard the ARK submerged in a liquid-filled cylinder when he had still been Professor Gerald Robotnik's project, but back then, that solution had been pleasantly warm, and it had never been so dark...

 

Focus. It has to be around here...

 

Well, at least that memory meant that Shadow didn't immediately associate the sensation of being underwater with something bad or something to panic about. He slowed his movements, briefly closing his eyes, letting his Chaos senses reach out around him...

 

There!

 

Shadow had felt it, just a small blip on his own personal Chaos radar, but it had been enough. He could feel it, pure Energy cut into the perfect shape of a diamond, focusing the field around it, calling the Chaos, calling him...

 

“Jackpot.”  

 

Or at least, that was what he would have said if he had had the air to spare. As it was, Shadow was able to stay under considerably longer than most other non-aquatic Mobians when he had a lungful of air to go on, but even he knew that that wouldn't last forever.

But it wouldn't need to.

 

Shadow grinned as he swam toward a rock formation below, the dark blue gem stone they were looking for  perched right atop its peak, just faintly glowing even in its depowered state and only waiting for a taker...the black hedgehog stretched out the arm that wasn't holding the flashlight, only a few feet from his goal now, intent on nothing but closing his fingers over the stone.

 

Which was why he never even saw the attacker until they slammed a fin into the side of his head with full force. 

 

xxx

 

Sonic was tapping his foot. And occasionally pacing in a circle. And sometimes doing both of those things at the same time which was one of those special talents that only superspeedy hedgehogs seemed to possess.

Finally, he stopped. And sighed.

“You can come out now, you know? Your series was always rubbish at hiding.”

 

“What? No, there's nobody here, I sw – oh, shoot,”  a small voice could be heard, and then, what at first glance had looked like a silver snow cone stuck upside down in the snow, slowly grew until it revealed first the head, then the upper body, and the entirety of the little burrobot as it made its way out of the white cover that it had been buried under. “It's the nose, isn't it?” it asked a bit sheepishly. “For some reason that always sticks out.”

 

“Yeah, 'sticking out' seems to be a sort of theme with you guys, to be honest,” Sonic said, but made sure to accompany the statement with a small smile to convey that he wasn't about to attack the small badnik for going against their wishes. “Why'd you stick around?”

 

“I...uh, I guess I only wanted to see whether your friend makes it back alright. I know he doesn't want our help now, but...I know that sometimes things happen that mean you need it after all,” the burrobot, said, looking a bit to the side.

 

“Yeah, here's to hoping no things happen,” Sonic said, gripping the rope a little tighter. “He's been down for three minutes. I'll pull him up in another seven.”

 

“Uh-huh,” the bot nodded. “That's because he'll need air, right? I always wonder what that would be like...”

 

“Not pleasant when you're not getting it,” Sonic said in a slightly strained tone, the company of the old badnik plus the conversation about being underwater conjuring up unwanted memories of certain very labyrinthine zones and that was something he did not currently want to think about. The little robot seemed to get the hint, though, because when it spoke next, it had chosen a different topic.

 

“Say, is he your new sidekick? The scary black hedgehog?”

 

Sonic almost laughed, despite the tense situation.

“What, Shadow? My sidekick? Oh man, that would be hilarous, but do yourself a favour and don't let him hear that!”

 

“Right,” the burrobot said, now sounding a bit confused. “Only you used to have a sort of small, yellow thing with you and it isn't here this time...?”

 

“A small...what you mean Tails? He's a fox, dude, not a 'yellow thing'!”

 

“Sorry!You organics look all a bit similar, to be honest. Is he...er, still functioning?”

 

Again, Sonic's lips almost twitched at the obvious difficulty the little robot seemed to have with its vocabulary. In truth, he welcomed the conversation, because it at least distracted him from the alternative, which was worrying over Shadow. Surely a little rambling couldn't hurt to pass the minutes...?

 

“You mean whether Tails is all right?” Sonic asked. “Yeah, he's fine. Stayed home for this gig, though. Shads...Shadow is someone I met more recently, two years ago during some business involving a space colony. I, uh, collected quite a few friends in a bit strange ways ever since I left Green Hill Zone, to be honest,” Sonic said when the burrobot seemed to stare at him at this information.

 

“...friends? Like, more furry things?”

 

 “Appreciating you not calling us 'things', buddy, but yeah.” He started counting them off at his free hand's fingers. “Like, there's a reptile and insect detective agency, then there's Shadow, who, like I said, has some...alien baggage or something, then there's Blaze, who's a pyrokinetic princess from the future – or a princess from an alternate dimension, actually, still haven't quite figured that out – Rouge, who's actually more Shadow's friend, but yeah, she's either a spy or a treasure hunter, but really, the only thing she's actively hunting and/or spying on is Knucklehead and his Emerald, then there's those idiot birds on their hoverboards, and then I also met Silver, who I think is some sort of time traveller from a period where they've successfully interbred hedgehogs with cockatoos...” Sonic trailed off  a little when he became aware that the robot was now staring at him with a slightly strange expression. It took a moment before the classic model found a sort of reply.

 

“...the future sounds terrifying.”

 

“...yeah,” Sonic said. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” He glanced at the communicator display that doubled as a stopwatch at the moment and felt something clench inside himself when he saw that it already been eight minutes. Not yet the time limit he had set Shadow.

 

But already enough time for something to have happened to him.

 

Sonic cast a worried glance at the murky water below. If this was any other situation, he probably wouldn't even be half as nervous about Shadow being able to handle himself, but this was water...

 

The blue hero took another breath as he stared at the rope. Maybe he could start pulling it in just a bit...?

 

And it was at this point that he saw the black body floating to the surface.

 

Shadow!” Sonic yelled, without thinking, before he realized that whatever the dark, misshapen thing that had just surfaced a good thirty metres from them was, it certainly wasn't a hedgehog body. “What is that?!” he barked at the burrobot, who nervously let his drills turn.

 

“I – I don't have the data-”

 

“Shadow!” Sonic yelled again, because now there surfaced a second strange body, and a third, and that was when Sonic pulled at the rope with all his might.

 

It came flying out of the water with a torn end.

 

“N-no...!” Sonic stammered, staring at the frayed line in his hands in utter horror.

 

“Oh no,” the burrobot said, sounding genuinely distressed. “This isn't good, I'll radio the others-”

 

You!” Sonic whirled on him, suddenly all wolf, bared teeth and glowing eyes and raised fur, “If I find out that this was anything to do with you, and Shadow has come to any harm, there won't be a place in the universe that you'll be able to hide from me,” he snarled, and then, before the robot could say anything else, the hero of Mobius had already hurled himself into the water after his friend.

 

xxx

 

Cold...it was so cold...

 

Sonic knew that by rights he should be panicking. He and water did not mix. He even avoided going near swimming pools when he could, but for some reason, that seemed to be one of the advantages of the wolf, a certain instinct that let him know water was safe, he could swim, it would be fine...

“Shadow!” Sonic shouted again as his head broke the surface once more, desperately splashing his way toward the spot in the water where all the dead things had been surfacing, his coat, thicker than that of a hedgehog feeling heavier by the minute and dragging him down....

 

Very well, Sonic thought. Down is where I'll have to go anyway.

 

He took one last breath and disappeared under the surface.

 

Shadow? Are you here? Anywh-SHADS!

 

Sonic nearly would have gasped as his eyes did their best to regain some sort of focus underwater and he started to recognize the scene below and in front of him.

Bodies. Bodies floating everywhere.

He still couldn't make out their exact form, something strange, a mixture of amphibian and pescine features maybe, but all of them damaged, dead, fins, tails, other parts missing, bleeding, floating slowly upwards...

 

And then, right there down below him, the Emerald that was illuminating the entire horror panorama, lying peacefully upon a rock formation with the unmoving body of Shadow weightlessly suspended in front of it.

SHADOW!

Sonic's entire mind screamed as he immediately stretched out his elastic arms, kicking his legs to reach the black hedgehog and the Emerald, his mind working frantically as to what must have happened here – a fight, obviously, these things, whatever they were, attacking Shadow as he had tried to get the Emerald. And he must have been fighting and killing them until his air ran out...

Sonic reached the black hedgehog and would have sighed in relief as he appeared unharmed, at least as far as he could make out in the dim underwater lightning of the drained power gem.

Only then a thought occurred to him. Mainly that if Shadow had passed out from oxygen deprivation...

 

Has he really finished off all of the attackers?

 

And then once again, Sonic could only be grateful for the sometimes uncanny reflexes of the wolf, because he twisted just quickly enough to avoid being chomped into pices by two hugely gaping jaws rushing toward him.

 

Oh no, you don't.

 

Sonic transferred both Shadow and the Emerald into one of his large paws and used the other to swing after what had to be the last monster that Shadow hadn't been able to take down. He still didn't know what they were (killer wales? For some reason killer wales really hated hedgehogs...) but at the moment wouldn't have cared if this was Cthulhu in person, his claws digging deep into the side and flesh of the black creature and hauling it close enough that Sonic could deliver a bite of his own into its neck, holding it there, before shifting his hand to its tail and then twisting it with the wolf's strength until he could feel its spine crack.

 

There...wow...that is...a lot of blood, I think I finished it...

 

Sonic could feel how his arm dropped away from the dead creature, his muscles suddenly feeling a whole lot heavier and he was also aware of how his vision now seemed to go a little funny around the edges.

Yeah...I...probably...should have spared a little air to get us up there, huh, Shads...?

 

Even thoughts were becoming more sluggish now, while there was a steadily growing burning in his lungs, indicating that any moment now, his body would overpower his brain and force him to take a gulp of air that didn't exist, and that meant he still wouldn't be able to save Shadow...

 

No...

 

And then, just before complete blackness threatened to overwhelm him, the last thing Sonic could see was, hilariously, another red, piranha-shaped classic badnik zooming toward him, sharp teeth gleaming in triumph, and wasn't that a laugh, because not only would he die by the...well, fin...of something he had already been able to stomp in his childhood, no, it also meant that the black hedgehog had been right all along and now the price they'd be paying for Sonic's trusting nature was both their lives.

 

Shadow...I'm sorry.

 

To be continued...? 

 

 

 

Chapter 11 - Light Killing Shadows by Skyblaze
Advent of Equinox - Chapter 10

Advent of Equinox - Chapter 10

 

His lungs burned. He couldn't see a thing anymore, blackness closing in on him, his thick pelt weighed down by icy water as he was slowly dragged down to the depths. Sonic tried to summon up some last reserve of energy, some strength to escape the shining teeth of the robot coming to finish him off, but there was nothing left in him.

 

A spasm of pain tore through his body as something sharp dug into one of his arms, then into the other and he could feel himself being abruptly pulled.

 

This was it.

 

Death rushed toward him with the force of a tidal wave, the coldness of the water wrapping itself around his consciousness like a lover who wouldn't let go, and Sonic could wonder only briefly whether there wasn't something funny in this – the unstoppable hero of Mobius, finally taken out by nothing more than an ancient badnik...

 

Then his head broke the surface.

 

Sonic gasped on reflex, and it probably saved his life. While his brain still had no idea what had happened, his body took over instead, greedily inhaling desperate gulps of air into aching lungs, his vision slowly clearing as oxygen hit his bloodstream again. It took one, two moments for Sonic to get his head back into semi-working order, black spots still dancing in his vision, but eventually, he even managed to look down to see what had lifted him to the surface and saved him from the robot.

 

He almost did a double-take when he realised what it was.

 

As it turned out, the pinching sensation on his arms was still the pair of Chopper badniks, but they were holding him in their teeth with a surprisingly...gentle grip. Sonic  blinked at them for a moment – mostly because the words 'gentle' and 'Chopper badnik' together in a sentence seemed to make as much sense as 'Knuckles' and 'Dance Dance Revolution' – but then another thought crashed into his consciousness and any levity of the situation was immediately replaced by his blood having all but turned into ice.

 

"Shadow!"

 

Sonic immediately started to flail as the memory hit, trying to escape from the grip of the Choppers to dive down again, fetch and save the hedgehog who had been floating underneath the ice like he were dead already, had almost managed to tear himself (and a good deal of fur) away from the red, mechanical maws of the robot fish, both of whom gave two rusty, muffled, but still definitely surprised sqawks at the hero's attempts at escape – just before Sonic abruptly froze.

 

Shadow was already at the surface.

 

“Wha...?” Sonic croaked, for a moment absolutely nonplussed. Hadn't the black hedgehog been literally out-cold moments ago? But then something moved in the water next to the other, and the hero's lips formed a silent 'o' as he realized that a pair of the same badniks that had pulled him from the dark was also at Shadow's shoulders, pushing both of them toward the icy shore. Sonic's heart beat slowed down a little as Shadow's head lolled and he thought he could see a small muscle spasm in his face – indicating that the self-proclaimed Ultimate Lifeform appeared to be unconscious, but alive.

It took another minute, but eventually, the red, fish-like badniks had succeeded in towing them towards the shore, supporting Sonic until he could crawl out of the freezing water and lift Shadow out to lay beside him. The hero of Mobius could scarcely resist from kissing the freezing ground – the instincts of the wolf seemed to have kept his aquaphobia in check enough for him to avoid a panic attack, but that didn't mean he was going to go all ocean-hugger any time soon.

 

Chaos.” Sonic collapsed into the snow. He knew he needed to start getting both of them warm and dry as soon as he could, but surely a moment of respite was allowed...?

 

From behind a snow drift, there was a noise that somehow managed to sound like a hesitant tank, and when Sonic lifted his head, Burrobot came trundling over to join him. "I, uhm, called for some help," the badnik said diffidently, "Hope that's okay. Sorry.” It poked its drills together nervously. “Uh, if you do disassemble me, c'n you take care not to break the nose...?"

 

"Ahoy kid, if that landlubber tries to take ye apart, we're going to pull him back in. What were you even doing in there? Land-based organics aren't designed for such cold environments," one of the Choppers cut in (and Sonic wondered whether robots were even supposed to be able to have a don't-you-know-anything – voice setting, or whether that was just Robotnik's faible), "They start malfunctioning."

 

"Yeah," Said another Chopper, "Never send a furball to do a robot's job!"

That comment elicited a round of something that sounded unnervingly like laughter from the water-based bots. Sonic also wondered whether the two mechanical fish had actually just high-fived (finned?) each other, or if he was imagining things by now.

 

“’eah, ‘ou gign’k e’en gek whak ‘ou came hor!” Another chopper (who had been towing Shadow, and then dived abruptly down again) proclaimed proudly, if rather indistinctly. The fact that its entire mouth was filled with a Chaos Emerald near the same size as its body might have contributed to that. As it surfaced, it spat the stone onto the snowy shore, its worrisome teeth then forming a rather smug smirk. “Looking for this, spikeball?”

 

"Uh... thanks. And yeah, 'm not gonna hurt the little guy, so you can keep your...uh, gills on. Or whatever. But thanks a lot for the Emerald, I’ll take it in a mo’" the blue hero managed, most of his attention on Shadow by now anyway. He had already turned the black hedgehog over onto his front and now pushed on his back, being careful of the quills (is that what you do with drowing victims? I have no idea ^^°). As soon as he did, a great torrent of water gushed out of Shadow's mouth, quickly followed by the Ultimate Lifeform coughing and choking as he hacked up more arctic water.

 

"Uh. You okay, Shads?" Sonic asked tentatively.

 

"Why, peachy," Shadow growled in between bouts of coughing, now at least on all fours. “I always...wanted to swallow a freaking aquarium...”

Sonic grimaced as the next round of coughing started, and decided to give the other at least a semblance of privacy by walking a short distance away and occupying himself by shaking off most of the water there. Surprisingly, it only seemed to be the outer layer that was still wet, the plush inner layer actually mostly still dry, keeping him relatively warm.

 

He rejoined Shadow, who by now appeared to have gotten most of the water out of his lungs, but was still alternately coughing and shivering. A decision snapped into place in Sonic's mind and he approached the darker hedgehog, stepping up close to his side and wrapping his bulky arms around him.

 

Shadow... stopped moving. As though every muscle in his body simultaneously froze. "What," he asked in a strained voice, "Are you doing, faker?"

 

"Warming you up," Sonic replied, trying to keep his tone perfectly matter-of-fact, "Or didja prefer freezing?"

 

"No, I was assuming you had taken leave of your senses and believed I was that pink girlfriend of yours."

 

“Nice try, Shads. But you're missing a giant mallet and an unholy fascination with a certain blue hedgehog for that.”

 

The banter was comforting. It made Shadow feel like he still had control over the situation - even was he was being hugged by the blue (literal) lunatic. (Nice one, took me a second! XD) He tried to turn his head a little to catch a gaze at Sonic's expression.

 

“...are you also planning to release me again at some point?”

 

"Not until you've stopped shivering like you're about to shake all your quills loose, no." Sonic grinned. “What'sa matter, scared of a hug?”

 

“I'm not scared of anything,” Shadow replied automatically, but, even if he had tried to infuse the snapped retort with some annoyance, it somehow hadn't come out as sharp as he had wanted it to. If Sonic had registered the lack of antagonism, he didn't show it. Instead, the blue hero only shrugged.

“Well, then,” he said, as if that had cleared everything up, and then settled back against the snow, pulling Shadow down to sit and lean against him, large, spike head resting on his shoulder.

 

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Shadow began to relax as the warmth from Sonic's body began to leech into him, calming the almost frantic shivering, easing his cramped and aching muscles. It was a fight against his own body to not simply melt again the welcoming, warm fur behind him, and the black hedgehog had to resist his impulse to go to sleep.

 

“Hmm...not so bad, is it?” Sonic's voice was silent, almost hesitant, and it let Shadow's eyes snap open, and, just for a moment, catch Sonic's gaze just over his shoulder, looking curiously...tense? But before he could even think of a reply, the seeming sounds of a Blechsammer interrupted them, and Sonic abruptly released Shadow as the rest of the Badniks came clanking, whirring, flying and trundling into view.

 

"Er... you both still functioning?" Bat Brain asked.

 

"Yeah, we're both alive." Sonic replied, "Pretty close call, though."

 

"Ya never were all that good at water," Crabmeat put in, somehow looking amused despite its limited range of facial expressions.

 

"Thank you so much for the concern," Shadow muttered, having finally recovered his breath and got to his feet, at the same time picking up the light blue Emerald from the snow.

 

"C'mon, Shadow. They did just save our lives. And got the Emerald for us, by the way."

 

Shadow just grunted and Sonic rolled his eyes, "That's his way of saying 'Thank you'," Sonic told the badniks, ignoring the scorching glare Shadow was directing at him. Sonic turned his attention back to the black hedgehog. "What were those black killer whale things anyhow?"

 

Shadow shook his head. "I don't know. They took me by surprise, too, I couldn't get a good look at them. They were fairly well-camouflaged in the water."

 

"Yeah, it sure was dark down there," Sonic agreed with a shudder of fear, "Hm. Maybe they were Dark Gaia creatures? I ran across those last time, but I don't remember anything that looked like them."

 

The dark hedgehog shrugged as he grabbed a blanket from the pack and draped it over himself, rubbing it across his limbs vigorously to try and warm himself back up, "Different situation this time, it may have changed things. It's hard to say without more data."

 

"We've never seen anything like 'em either," one of the Choppers added.

 

"Uh, guys?" Crabmeat put in suddenly.

 

"Yeah?" Sonic asked.

 

"Are they some more of your friends?" the bot asked in an almost worried tone, pointing with one claw.

 

Sonic looked to where the bot was pointing and saw...a horde of penguins? – he wondered briefly, but only for a moment, when the truth became apparent a second later, his heart briefly clenched in his chest.

 

In the arctic night, the army of Shadow clones was closing in rapidly.

 

"No, they aren't!" Sonic yelled abruptly, rearing backwards, "Shadow, we got incoming!"

 

"I noticed, Faker," Shadow growled, but he also looked fairly tense, as if a fight was looking less than appealing now that he was drenched and cold.

 

Bat Brain swooped down in front of them both. "We can hold them off!" it exclaimed (ignoring Crabmeat’s muttered ‘the hell?’ in the background). “If you promise to put in a really good word with the villagers, we can lead them in the opposite direction!”

 

"Thanks for the offer, but no. These things are fast, you'd get yourself scrapped," Sonic replied tensely (can we have a synonym for tensely? Already used that one above), then glanced at Shadow, "Any ideas, Shads?"

 

Shadow's eyes narrowed, "We need to lead them away from the village. The last thing I need is one of them escaping and again wreaking havoc in my name.” Red eyes briefly scanned the terrain. “Ideally, we need somewhere defensible - a choke point to thin them to manageable numbers."

 

The thought of fighting more of those things - things that looked so much like the hedgehog he had come to see as a friend - turned Sonic's stomach after what had happened last time, but he nodded grimly.

 

"We know a place like that," the buzz-bomber said. “It’s a fairly steep climb, but-“

 

"Sounds fine," Sonic cut him off, "Then let's go!"

 

Next, as a group, they ran out across the tundra, the buzz-bomber leading the way. Sonic was forced to run on all fours in order to keep up, which thankfully Shadow declined to comment on. Snow had begun to fall again, covering their tracks as soon as they made them in the arctic night. The pack of Shadow clones closed in slowly behind them, skates blazing in the darkness like a demonic horde in pursuit. Sonic nearly barrelled into Shadow when they came to a halt; it was a natural cul-de-sac, an area surrounded by steep cliffs made of solid ice, perfect for an ambush – if you were atop the walls. The badniks began to scale the cliff in front of them straight away, the ground-based models aided by those who could fly.

 

“Hurry! We need to get up before they get here!”

 

Shadow watched as Sonic followed them up, his claws and spiked boots making efficient climbing spikes. The black hedgehog's method of ascent was much more laborious, especially since he was still clutching the Emerald in one hand. For once, he wished the sun would come up and allow a swifter climb. He glanced back down over his shoulder and tensed when he saw that the clones were gaining rapidly, red eyes lit with an unsettling determination.

Shadow dug his fingers into the ice wall, trying to climb as quickly as he could as the first ones reached the bottom of the cliff, immediately starting to crawl upwards like a swarm of black spiders.

 

Dammit! Of all the times to be missing the ability to Chaos Control-AH!

 

Shadow almost cried out aloud when a sudden tug on his foot almost made him lose purchase. With a mixture between a yelp and a snarl, the Ultimate Lifeform instinctively kicked down, lashing into the clone that had grabbed him. The jets on the soles of his shoes blazed hot as the Chaos inside him flared up at the threat to its master, scorching the clone’s face badly enough for it to lose its grip and tumble down the cliff with a wordless shriek of pain and fury. Immediately, Shadow tried to resume his climb, but the clones were swarming him now from all sides. With a furious snarl he kicked off another, but a third was already grabbing at his arms, trying to reach the Emerald.

 

"Shadow!" Sonic called, now at the summit of the cliff, "Hold on, I'll come help!"

 

"Just grab the Emerald, Faker! I can handle this if I have both hands!" Shadow shouted back, grunting at he tore yet another clone off the cliff face with a savage backhand blow.

 

"No way! There's too many of 'em, even for you!" Sonic's voice sounded closer, but Shadow didn't dare look up, there were too many clones, and his grip on the ice was too precarious by far.  One of the clones came up on his right like a snake, moving unnaturally against the frozen wall to grab at his arm, reaching for the Emerald, cold, artificial fingers digging into the flesh of his biceps. Shadow’s grip slipped with a cry as the clone tugged him off balance. Another copy took advantage of his slip-up immediately, also wrapping its gloved fingers around the Ultimate Lifeform’s leg and pulled, leaving all of Shadow's weight to be held by one arm and one foot wedged precariously into the slippery ice while from all sides grasping hands were clutching at him like a zombie horde, blunt nails digging into his fur in mindless determination. The clone at his side, clinging to the frozen surface like a vampire bared its teeth in an artless expression of malice and victory, drawing closer with panting breath. Below, more of them were also closing in, Shadow their prey at the centre, struggling against the grabbing hands trying to immobilize him and pull him down, pull him apart, like an insect in a nest full of black and red-striped cannibalistic spiders. Falling into their seething mass below would mean death.

 

No!”  Panic now for the first time rising, Shadow gasped and kicked against his captors, trying with all his considerable strength to tear loose, but more clones were swarming up the cliff, seeming to sense his weakness like bacteria closing in on an open wound. He couldn’t win this. They were going to overwhelm him with sheer numbers. Already, another twitching, grasping hand was starting to lay itself across his face, fingers digging into his eyes, his open mouth-

 

N-No! Get awa-!

 

Something white and blue entered his peripheral vision like a marine lightning bolt. Shadow’s head flew up to see one of Sonic's impossibly elastic arms reaching towards him, the wolf’s claws extended.

“Shadow! Gimme the stone!”

 

Wrenching his arm free from another blindly groping hand grabbing at it, Shadow threw his hand holding the Emerald desperately upward, trying to stretch without falling. If he could only get the gemstone somewhere safe and free his hands for climbing and fighting...

 

Sonic’s claws closed around the Emerald.

 

The next second, the arctic tundra was suddenly lit with a brightness so sheer it burned.

 

What-?

 

 Shadow’s red eyes were for a moment as wide as Sonic’s as the endless night of the polar circle turned into blinding day for a single moment.

 

Next to him, the screams started. The clones gave choked cries as the light exploded over them, some falling from the cliff as they instinctively tried to cover their eyes and avert their faces. Shadow himself would have nearly lost what remained of his footing - but not because of the lightning.

 

What had nearly knocked him off the wall had instead been the sudden fierce burn of Chaos energy rushing through his veins like a spring tide of pure fire.

 

The Emerald was active again.

 

The black hedgehog’s head snapped up to look up into Sonic's equally wide, bright green eyes, ignoring for the moment the comical sight of Sonic in his wolf form apparently dangling upside down and held by a chain of badniks suspended from the top of the cliff like a character chain straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

 

"Just a moment," Shadow said, his voice hoarse, but steady. "I'll be right back."

 

With that, the black hedgehog pushed suddenly back away from the cliff and backflipped, skates activating mid-air to slow his descent and let him land at the foot of the cliff as gracefully as the acrobat he was. Around him, the clones, both the ones that had fallen off the cliff side and recovered, as well as the ones that had just arrived, immediately rushed at him, red eyes intent like a pack of hunting dogs smelling blood. Hands looking exactly like Shadow’s were already reaching out mindlessly, grabbing and clawlike in their eagerness towards the Emerald now lit with its proper pale blue glow.

 

Shadow looked at them and smiled like a shark.

 

"CHAOS BLAST!"

 

The arctic night was lit up for a second time in as many minutes, but this time, the false sunrise burned red.

 

When it was over, Shadow looked at the melted crater about him and the strewn bodies of the mindless creatures that wore his face and form, now lying still in the arctic snow forever. He nodded in satisfaction.

 

 Hah. Don't mess with the original.

 

Silently, he then turned back to the cliff face, raising his head toward the others. Sonic was still dangling from the chain of robots suspended from the cliff. The blue hero only looked faintly relieved now – the badniks, on the other hand, were now staring at the black hedgehog with eyes the size of power rings. Given the fact that their faces technically shouldn’t even be able to show any expression at all, Shadow supposed he had to give them credit for that.

 

“Is...is that the future?” the bot resembling a bee buzzing next to the line of his hanging brethren asked, and sounded aghast.

 

“Uh. That’s Chaos Blast. Yeah,” Sonic ventured.

 

Barbaric.”

 

“It did just save my hide,” Shadow pointed out calmly, as, Emerald safely in his hand again, he started to climb towards the others a second time. Sonic reached out and Shadow allowed himself to be pulled up to the top. When they were all standing on safe ground once more, the striped hedgehog noticed the blue hero staring at him oddly.

 

"What?" Shadow asked, warily.

 

For a moment, it looked like Sonic was going to say something, but then he just shrugged his enormous shoulders and said instead, "Well, I guess now we know how to re-activate the Emeralds, huh?"

 

Before Shadow could choose a suitable reply, the communicator in Sonic's ear crackled to life.

 

"Sonic! Sonic! Can you hear me now?" Tails' voice came over the tinny little speaker.

 

"Yeah, little bro, I can hear you. What up?" Sonic replied, and Shadow supposed he should only be mildly surprised the thing still worked. Tails was well aware of his lunatic big brother’s lifestyle, and therefore probably tended to make his devices to last.

 

"Oh, thank goodness! We... well... Knuckles is here and-"

 

"Great!" Sonic interrupted, "Glad you found the big lunkhead. Where was he, out on a fishing trip?"

 

"Not exactly, Sonic..." then, distantly in the background behind Tails, Shadow fancied he could hear the sound of Knuckles yelling, "Well... Knuckles... he says he has some information, but he wants to talk to you."

 

"Uh... ok, sure." Sonic said, confused. Rare was the occasion when Knuckles wanted to just have a chat.

 

Yeah. Rare as something like the sudden evaporation of every ocean on Mobius, or possibly Robotnik announcing his intention to stop his schemes for world domination in favour of joining a Zumba club.

 

And then, sure enough,

 

"What have you DONE, you blue maniac!?"

 

...Knuckles was definitely yelling down the line with enough volume to make Sonic's ears flatten themselves to his head.

 

"So nice to hear from you too, Knucklehead," Sonic replied flatly, “Remind me to send you a postcard never.”

 

"Don't get smart, Sonic," Knuckles growled, "What I want to know is how in the name of all the Emeralds you managed to end up as the avatar of a GOD?!?"

 

"Well, I..." Sonic blinked, "Wait... WHAT?!"

 

To be continued...

 

Chapter 12 - A Race Against Time by Skyblaze
Advent of Equinox - Chapter 10

Advent of Equinox - Chapter 10

 

His lungs burned. He couldn't see a thing anymore, blackness closing in on him, his thick pelt weighed down by icy water as he was slowly dragged down to the depths. Sonic tried to summon up some last reserve of energy, some strength to escape the shining teeth of the robot coming to finish him off, but there was nothing left in him.

 

A spasm of pain tore through his body as something sharp dug into one of his arms, then into the other and he could feel himself being abruptly pulled.

 

This was it.

 

Death rushed toward him with the force of a tidal wave, the coldness of the water wrapping itself around his consciousness like a lover who wouldn't let go, and Sonic could wonder only briefly whether there wasn't something funny in this – the unstoppable hero of Mobius, finally taken out by nothing more than an ancient badnik...

 

Then his head broke the surface.

 

Sonic gasped on reflex, and it probably saved his life. While his brain still had no idea what had happened, his body took over instead, greedily inhaling desperate gulps of air into aching lungs, his vision slowly clearing as oxygen hit his bloodstream again. It took one, two moments for Sonic to get his head back into semi-working order, black spots still dancing in his vision, but eventually, he even managed to look down to see what had lifted him to the surface and saved him from the robot.

 

He almost did a double-take when he realised what it was.

 

As it turned out, the pinching sensation on his arms was still the pair of Chopper badniks, but they were holding him in their teeth with a surprisingly...gentle grip. Sonic  blinked at them for a moment – mostly because the words 'gentle' and 'Chopper badnik' together in a sentence seemed to make as much sense as 'Knuckles' and 'Dance Dance Revolution' – but then another thought crashed into his consciousness and any levity of the situation was immediately replaced by his blood having all but turned into ice.

 

"Shadow!"

 

Sonic immediately started to flail as the memory hit, trying to escape from the grip of the Choppers to dive down again, fetch and save the hedgehog who had been floating underneath the ice like he were dead already, had almost managed to tear himself (and a good deal of fur) away from the red, mechanical maws of the robot fish, both of whom gave two rusty, muffled, but still definitely surprised sqawks at the hero's attempts at escape – just before Sonic abruptly froze.

 

Shadow was already at the surface.

 

“Wha...?” Sonic croaked, for a moment absolutely nonplussed. Hadn't the black hedgehog been literally out-cold moments ago? But then something moved in the water next to the other, and the hero's lips formed a silent 'o' as he realized that a pair of the same badniks that had pulled him from the dark was also at Shadow's shoulders, pushing both of them toward the icy shore. Sonic's heart beat slowed down a little as Shadow's head lolled and he thought he could see a small muscle spasm in his face – indicating that the self-proclaimed Ultimate Lifeform appeared to be unconscious, but alive.

It took another minute, but eventually, the red, fish-like badniks had succeeded in towing them towards the shore, supporting Sonic until he could crawl out of the freezing water and lift Shadow out to lay beside him. The hero of Mobius could scarcely resist from kissing the freezing ground – the instincts of the wolf seemed to have kept his aquaphobia in check enough for him to avoid a panic attack, but that didn't mean he was going to go all ocean-hugger any time soon.

 

Chaos.” Sonic collapsed into the snow. He knew he needed to start getting both of them warm and dry as soon as he could, but surely a moment of respite was allowed...?

 

From behind a snow drift, there was a noise that somehow managed to sound like a hesitant tank, and when Sonic lifted his head, Burrobot came trundling over to join him. "I, uhm, called for some help," the badnik said diffidently, "Hope that's okay. Sorry.” It poked its drills together nervously. “Uh, if you do disassemble me, c'n you take care not to break the nose...?"

 

"Ahoy kid, if that landlubber tries to take ye apart, we're going to pull him back in. What were you even doing in there? Land-based organics aren't designed for such cold environments," one of the Choppers cut in (and Sonic wondered whether robots were even supposed to be able to have a don't-you-know-anything – voice setting, or whether that was just Robotnik's faible), "They start malfunctioning."

 

"Yeah," Said another Chopper, "Never send a furball to do a robot's job!"

That comment elicited a round of something that sounded unnervingly like laughter from the water-based bots. Sonic also wondered whether the two mechanical fish had actually just high-fived (finned?) each other, or if he was imagining things by now.

 

“’eah, ‘ou gign’k e’en gek whak ‘ou came hor!” Another chopper (who had been towing Shadow, and then dived abruptly down again) proclaimed proudly, if rather indistinctly. The fact that its entire mouth was filled with a Chaos Emerald near the same size as its body might have contributed to that. As it surfaced, it spat the stone onto the snowy shore, its worrisome teeth then forming a rather smug smirk. “Looking for this, spikeball?”

 

"Uh... thanks. And yeah, 'm not gonna hurt the little guy, so you can keep your...uh, gills on. Or whatever. But thanks a lot for the Emerald, I’ll take it in a mo’" the blue hero managed, most of his attention on Shadow by now anyway. He had already turned the black hedgehog over onto his front and now pushed on his back, being careful of the quills (is that what you do with drowing victims? I have no idea ^^°). As soon as he did, a great torrent of water gushed out of Shadow's mouth, quickly followed by the Ultimate Lifeform coughing and choking as he hacked up more arctic water.

 

"Uh. You okay, Shads?" Sonic asked tentatively.

 

"Why, peachy," Shadow growled in between bouts of coughing, now at least on all fours. “I always...wanted to swallow a freaking aquarium...”

Sonic grimaced as the next round of coughing started, and decided to give the other at least a semblance of privacy by walking a short distance away and occupying himself by shaking off most of the water there. Surprisingly, it only seemed to be the outer layer that was still wet, the plush inner layer actually mostly still dry, keeping him relatively warm.

 

He rejoined Shadow, who by now appeared to have gotten most of the water out of his lungs, but was still alternately coughing and shivering. A decision snapped into place in Sonic's mind and he approached the darker hedgehog, stepping up close to his side and wrapping his bulky arms around him.

 

Shadow... stopped moving. As though every muscle in his body simultaneously froze. "What," he asked in a strained voice, "Are you doing, faker?"

 

"Warming you up," Sonic replied, trying to keep his tone perfectly matter-of-fact, "Or didja prefer freezing?"

 

"No, I was assuming you had taken leave of your senses and believed I was that pink girlfriend of yours."

 

“Nice try, Shads. But you're missing a giant mallet and an unholy fascination with a certain blue hedgehog for that.”

 

The banter was comforting. It made Shadow feel like he still had control over the situation - even was he was being hugged by the blue (literal) lunatic. (Nice one, took me a second! XD) He tried to turn his head a little to catch a gaze at Sonic's expression.

 

“...are you also planning to release me again at some point?”

 

"Not until you've stopped shivering like you're about to shake all your quills loose, no." Sonic grinned. “What'sa matter, scared of a hug?”

 

“I'm not scared of anything,” Shadow replied automatically, but, even if he had tried to infuse the snapped retort with some annoyance, it somehow hadn't come out as sharp as he had wanted it to. If Sonic had registered the lack of antagonism, he didn't show it. Instead, the blue hero only shrugged.

“Well, then,” he said, as if that had cleared everything up, and then settled back against the snow, pulling Shadow down to sit and lean against him, large, spike head resting on his shoulder.

 

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Shadow began to relax as the warmth from Sonic's body began to leech into him, calming the almost frantic shivering, easing his cramped and aching muscles. It was a fight against his own body to not simply melt again the welcoming, warm fur behind him, and the black hedgehog had to resist his impulse to go to sleep.

 

“Hmm...not so bad, is it?” Sonic's voice was silent, almost hesitant, and it let Shadow's eyes snap open, and, just for a moment, catch Sonic's gaze just over his shoulder, looking curiously...tense? But before he could even think of a reply, the seeming sounds of a Blechsammer interrupted them, and Sonic abruptly released Shadow as the rest of the Badniks came clanking, whirring, flying and trundling into view.

 

"Er... you both still functioning?" Bat Brain asked.

 

"Yeah, we're both alive." Sonic replied, "Pretty close call, though."

 

"Ya never were all that good at water," Crabmeat put in, somehow looking amused despite its limited range of facial expressions.

 

"Thank you so much for the concern," Shadow muttered, having finally recovered his breath and got to his feet, at the same time picking up the light blue Emerald from the snow.

 

"C'mon, Shadow. They did just save our lives. And got the Emerald for us, by the way."

 

Shadow just grunted and Sonic rolled his eyes, "That's his way of saying 'Thank you'," Sonic told the badniks, ignoring the scorching glare Shadow was directing at him. Sonic turned his attention back to the black hedgehog. "What were those black killer whale things anyhow?"

 

Shadow shook his head. "I don't know. They took me by surprise, too, I couldn't get a good look at them. They were fairly well-camouflaged in the water."

 

"Yeah, it sure was dark down there," Sonic agreed with a shudder of fear, "Hm. Maybe they were Dark Gaia creatures? I ran across those last time, but I don't remember anything that looked like them."

 

The dark hedgehog shrugged as he grabbed a blanket from the pack and draped it over himself, rubbing it across his limbs vigorously to try and warm himself back up, "Different situation this time, it may have changed things. It's hard to say without more data."

 

"We've never seen anything like 'em either," one of the Choppers added.

 

"Uh, guys?" Crabmeat put in suddenly.

 

"Yeah?" Sonic asked.

 

"Are they some more of your friends?" the bot asked in an almost worried tone, pointing with one claw.

 

Sonic looked to where the bot was pointing and saw...a horde of penguins? – he wondered briefly, but only for a moment, when the truth became apparent a second later, his heart briefly clenched in his chest.

 

In the arctic night, the army of Shadow clones was closing in rapidly.

 

"No, they aren't!" Sonic yelled abruptly, rearing backwards, "Shadow, we got incoming!"

 

"I noticed, Faker," Shadow growled, but he also looked fairly tense, as if a fight was looking less than appealing now that he was drenched and cold.

 

Bat Brain swooped down in front of them both. "We can hold them off!" it exclaimed (ignoring Crabmeat’s muttered ‘the hell?’ in the background). “If you promise to put in a really good word with the villagers, we can lead them in the opposite direction!”

 

"Thanks for the offer, but no. These things are fast, you'd get yourself scrapped," Sonic replied tensely (can we have a synonym for tensely? Already used that one above), then glanced at Shadow, "Any ideas, Shads?"

 

Shadow's eyes narrowed, "We need to lead them away from the village. The last thing I need is one of them escaping and again wreaking havoc in my name.” Red eyes briefly scanned the terrain. “Ideally, we need somewhere defensible - a choke point to thin them to manageable numbers."

 

The thought of fighting more of those things - things that looked so much like the hedgehog he had come to see as a friend - turned Sonic's stomach after what had happened last time, but he nodded grimly.

 

"We know a place like that," the buzz-bomber said. “It’s a fairly steep climb, but-“

 

"Sounds fine," Sonic cut him off, "Then let's go!"

 

Next, as a group, they ran out across the tundra, the buzz-bomber leading the way. Sonic was forced to run on all fours in order to keep up, which thankfully Shadow declined to comment on. Snow had begun to fall again, covering their tracks as soon as they made them in the arctic night. The pack of Shadow clones closed in slowly behind them, skates blazing in the darkness like a demonic horde in pursuit. Sonic nearly barrelled into Shadow when they came to a halt; it was a natural cul-de-sac, an area surrounded by steep cliffs made of solid ice, perfect for an ambush – if you were atop the walls. The badniks began to scale the cliff in front of them straight away, the ground-based models aided by those who could fly.

 

“Hurry! We need to get up before they get here!”

 

Shadow watched as Sonic followed them up, his claws and spiked boots making efficient climbing spikes. The black hedgehog's method of ascent was much more laborious, especially since he was still clutching the Emerald in one hand. For once, he wished the sun would come up and allow a swifter climb. He glanced back down over his shoulder and tensed when he saw that the clones were gaining rapidly, red eyes lit with an unsettling determination.

Shadow dug his fingers into the ice wall, trying to climb as quickly as he could as the first ones reached the bottom of the cliff, immediately starting to crawl upwards like a swarm of black spiders.

 

Dammit! Of all the times to be missing the ability to Chaos Control-AH!

 

Shadow almost cried out aloud when a sudden tug on his foot almost made him lose purchase. With a mixture between a yelp and a snarl, the Ultimate Lifeform instinctively kicked down, lashing into the clone that had grabbed him. The jets on the soles of his shoes blazed hot as the Chaos inside him flared up at the threat to its master, scorching the clone’s face badly enough for it to lose its grip and tumble down the cliff with a wordless shriek of pain and fury. Immediately, Shadow tried to resume his climb, but the clones were swarming him now from all sides. With a furious snarl he kicked off another, but a third was already grabbing at his arms, trying to reach the Emerald.

 

"Shadow!" Sonic called, now at the summit of the cliff, "Hold on, I'll come help!"

 

"Just grab the Emerald, Faker! I can handle this if I have both hands!" Shadow shouted back, grunting at he tore yet another clone off the cliff face with a savage backhand blow.

 

"No way! There's too many of 'em, even for you!" Sonic's voice sounded closer, but Shadow didn't dare look up, there were too many clones, and his grip on the ice was too precarious by far.  One of the clones came up on his right like a snake, moving unnaturally against the frozen wall to grab at his arm, reaching for the Emerald, cold, artificial fingers digging into the flesh of his biceps. Shadow’s grip slipped with a cry as the clone tugged him off balance. Another copy took advantage of his slip-up immediately, also wrapping its gloved fingers around the Ultimate Lifeform’s leg and pulled, leaving all of Shadow's weight to be held by one arm and one foot wedged precariously into the slippery ice while from all sides grasping hands were clutching at him like a zombie horde, blunt nails digging into his fur in mindless determination. The clone at his side, clinging to the frozen surface like a vampire bared its teeth in an artless expression of malice and victory, drawing closer with panting breath. Below, more of them were also closing in, Shadow their prey at the centre, struggling against the grabbing hands trying to immobilize him and pull him down, pull him apart, like an insect in a nest full of black and red-striped cannibalistic spiders. Falling into their seething mass below would mean death.

 

No!”  Panic now for the first time rising, Shadow gasped and kicked against his captors, trying with all his considerable strength to tear loose, but more clones were swarming up the cliff, seeming to sense his weakness like bacteria closing in on an open wound. He couldn’t win this. They were going to overwhelm him with sheer numbers. Already, another twitching, grasping hand was starting to lay itself across his face, fingers digging into his eyes, his open mouth-

 

N-No! Get awa-!

 

Something white and blue entered his peripheral vision like a marine lightning bolt. Shadow’s head flew up to see one of Sonic's impossibly elastic arms reaching towards him, the wolf’s claws extended.

“Shadow! Gimme the stone!”

 

Wrenching his arm free from another blindly groping hand grabbing at it, Shadow threw his hand holding the Emerald desperately upward, trying to stretch without falling. If he could only get the gemstone somewhere safe and free his hands for climbing and fighting...

 

Sonic’s claws closed around the Emerald.

 

The next second, the arctic tundra was suddenly lit with a brightness so sheer it burned.

 

What-?

 

 Shadow’s red eyes were for a moment as wide as Sonic’s as the endless night of the polar circle turned into blinding day for a single moment.

 

Next to him, the screams started. The clones gave choked cries as the light exploded over them, some falling from the cliff as they instinctively tried to cover their eyes and avert their faces. Shadow himself would have nearly lost what remained of his footing - but not because of the lightning.

 

What had nearly knocked him off the wall had instead been the sudden fierce burn of Chaos energy rushing through his veins like a spring tide of pure fire.

 

The Emerald was active again.

 

The black hedgehog’s head snapped up to look up into Sonic's equally wide, bright green eyes, ignoring for the moment the comical sight of Sonic in his wolf form apparently dangling upside down and held by a chain of badniks suspended from the top of the cliff like a character chain straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

 

"Just a moment," Shadow said, his voice hoarse, but steady. "I'll be right back."

 

With that, the black hedgehog pushed suddenly back away from the cliff and backflipped, skates activating mid-air to slow his descent and let him land at the foot of the cliff as gracefully as the acrobat he was. Around him, the clones, both the ones that had fallen off the cliff side and recovered, as well as the ones that had just arrived, immediately rushed at him, red eyes intent like a pack of hunting dogs smelling blood. Hands looking exactly like Shadow’s were already reaching out mindlessly, grabbing and clawlike in their eagerness towards the Emerald now lit with its proper pale blue glow.

 

Shadow looked at them and smiled like a shark.

 

"CHAOS BLAST!"

 

The arctic night was lit up for a second time in as many minutes, but this time, the false sunrise burned red.

 

When it was over, Shadow looked at the melted crater about him and the strewn bodies of the mindless creatures that wore his face and form, now lying still in the arctic snow forever. He nodded in satisfaction.

 

 Hah. Don't mess with the original.

 

Silently, he then turned back to the cliff face, raising his head toward the others. Sonic was still dangling from the chain of robots suspended from the cliff. The blue hero only looked faintly relieved now – the badniks, on the other hand, were now staring at the black hedgehog with eyes the size of power rings. Given the fact that their faces technically shouldn’t even be able to show any expression at all, Shadow supposed he had to give them credit for that.

 

“Is...is that the future?” the bot resembling a bee buzzing next to the line of his hanging brethren asked, and sounded aghast.

 

“Uh. That’s Chaos Blast. Yeah,” Sonic ventured.

 

Barbaric.”

 

“It did just save my hide,” Shadow pointed out calmly, as, Emerald safely in his hand again, he started to climb towards the others a second time. Sonic reached out and Shadow allowed himself to be pulled up to the top. When they were all standing on safe ground once more, the striped hedgehog noticed the blue hero staring at him oddly.

 

"What?" Shadow asked, warily.

 

For a moment, it looked like Sonic was going to say something, but then he just shrugged his enormous shoulders and said instead, "Well, I guess now we know how to re-activate the Emeralds, huh?"

 

Before Shadow could choose a suitable reply, the communicator in Sonic's ear crackled to life.

 

"Sonic! Sonic! Can you hear me now?" Tails' voice came over the tinny little speaker.

 

"Yeah, little bro, I can hear you. What up?" Sonic replied, and Shadow supposed he should only be mildly surprised the thing still worked. Tails was well aware of his lunatic big brother’s lifestyle, and therefore probably tended to make his devices to last.

 

"Oh, thank goodness! We... well... Knuckles is here and-"

 

"Great!" Sonic interrupted, "Glad you found the big lunkhead. Where was he, out on a fishing trip?"

 

"Not exactly, Sonic..." then, distantly in the background behind Tails, Shadow fancied he could hear the sound of Knuckles yelling, "Well... Knuckles... he says he has some information, but he wants to talk to you."

 

"Uh... ok, sure." Sonic said, confused. Rare was the occasion when Knuckles wanted to just have a chat.

 

Yeah. Rare as something like the sudden evaporation of every ocean on Mobius, or possibly Robotnik announcing his intention to stop his schemes for world domination in favour of joining a Zumba club.

 

And then, sure enough,

 

"What have you DONE, you blue maniac!?"

 

...Knuckles was definitely yelling down the line with enough volume to make Sonic's ears flatten themselves to his head.

 

"So nice to hear from you too, Knucklehead," Sonic replied flatly, “Remind me to send you a postcard never.”

 

"Don't get smart, Sonic," Knuckles growled, "What I want to know is how in the name of all the Emeralds you managed to end up as the avatar of a GOD?!?"

 

"Well, I..." Sonic blinked, "Wait... WHAT?!"

 

To be continued...

 

This story archived at http://www.sonadow.com/fanfiction/viewstory.php?sid=909