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The Princess and the Demon: Story Thread


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As the guerilla war against Robotnik and his mechanized legions drags on with no end in sight, the burdens of leadership begin to take their toll on Princess Sally. When an all-too-routine sabotage mission encounters an unexpected complication, she finds herself alone in Robotropolis, where she undertakes a harrowing journey that brings her face-to-face with her most terrifying adversary, a cunning and ruthless being that threatens her very soul.

Content Rating: T (Violence, mild language, and dark thematic elements)

Disclaimer: This thread is for story updates only. A discussion thread, which also features a set of appendices detailing this story's setting, can be found here:

 

The Princess and the Demon

 

Chapter I: Song in Shadow

 

Sunset.

 A decade ago, the sky would have been awash in a dazzling array of blues and violets, their cool hues intermingling with the fading orange and gold embers of Mobius’ sun in a dance that had inspired countless minds over the course of history. The dance was at once fragile and immortal, fading after only an hour or so yet always restored to life the next evening, each revival bringing with it subtle new movements that left the end of that day unique. It was a testament to the pure, elegant strength of nature that these daily occurrences remained moving, inviting those who witnessed them to lay down the duties and sophistications of society, if for only a moment, and enjoy simple beauty.

Even as a small child, Princess Sally had loved watching sunsets, had felt the brush of their power. On days when he was not burdened down with his duties, her father would often take her out to the palace balcony to watch the wondrous dance in the evening sky. He would set her on his shoulder as they looked out over the expanse of their kingdom, their home. Sometimes they talked; sometimes they remained silent, content to simply be with one another. On evenings when her father was busy, Sally would at times still go to the balcony alone to gaze out at the horizon. The sunsets were most comforting on bad days in particular. Whatever had happened, whether a scrape on the leg or an argument with Sonic or her father receiving upsetting news that she wished she could understand, Sally could take solace in the sunsets. They always appeared, no matter what. The events of the day could not change them. Nor could they change her life. Whatever happened, she would always be with Daddy, always live in a beautiful palace, always be best friends with Sonic, always be safe. These things were as sure as the setting of the sun appearing in the evening sky.

Now, no glimpse of the sun could be found. The last echoes of the multicolored dance had here been long since silenced, their eternal cycle of revival snuffed out. Across the rest of Mobius, the cycle continued unabated, the brilliant tapestry of the sky shifting and changing as it ever had. But here the reign of the sun had been usurped, the light of the great star overthrown and cast down. The sky had a new lord now, a thing of smoke and fumes, one that endlessly stretched the ghostly fingers of its black hand outward, so that with each passing hour more of the world was befouled by its taint. Again and again, the downcast starlight attempted to end its exile, to break through the fastness of its enemy and be reunited with the world below. Yet no ray could breach the dark veil that lay enshrouded above Robotropolis.

Though divorced from all heavenly light, the city was not beholden to absolute, perpetual night. Here and there, the dim, pale glows of lamps and spotlights could be seen, providing some small measure of sanctuary against the blackness threatening to engulf everything nearby. Yet they offered no warmth, no comfort, their hues sickly and cold. Far worse were the gouts of flame that tore through the air in mechanically precise intervals, bursting from towering smokestacks and open waste pits. The columns of fire rose roaring with tremendous force, the surrounding air trembling and distorting in their wake. Almost blinding in their intensity, the crimson torrents issued forth tsunamis of searing heat that lay waste to everything around them. Near the furnaces of Robotropolis, no life could endure. Yet as they rose in all their terrible might, the flames dared challenge the usurping lord of the sky, the veil of smog smothering the city. Against that impenetrable fastness, even they were as insignificant, stinging insects to be crushed under heel. The fires were swallowed up, their light quenched without as much as a shift in the fumes they strove to pierce.

The luminance cast forth by the fixtures and fires brought into dismaying clarity the state of their surroundings. Enormous steel structures stretched beyond the eye’s reach in every direction, some only a single story, others towering dozens of meters into the air. All were jagged and angular in their construction, products of geometrically precise designs that factored in not elegance and aesthetic, but efficiency and output. They ranged from power stations to factories, computer mainframes to waste disposal centers. Like organs in a body, each was crafted with a singular purpose, working in mechanical unison with the others to form the massive organism that was Robotropolis. Yet if the city bore any similarity to life, it was out of twisted mockery, of parody, for its streets harbored none of their own. Shuttles and surveillance drones flew through the empty air, weaving birdlike between buildings and bridges. Small mechanical creatures, failed experiments constructed and cast away over the years, scurried and clambered like rodents along walls and through crevices. A thin layer of dust and ash covered most surfaces like moss. To witness Robotropolis was to look upon something alien, a place so perverted and mechanized that it seemed otherworldly, as though some colossal giant had snatched the city from a planet equally metallic and lifeless and hurled it across the stars toward an unsuspecting Mobius.

Yet the city had not always been so. Once, it had been filled with verdant gardens and flowing fountains, whitewashed buildings that curved in gentle slopes. Great trees dotted the landscape, their soaring branches blooming with flower and shading the carefully crafted terraces and parks below. Arching wooden bridges spanned bubbling streams that meandered to and fro, their clear waters filled with fish dazzling in color. In orderly rows lay houses masterfully hewn from rough stone into intricate, unique shapes, their interiors lined with wooden panels and ceramic tiles. Above them towered the Ministry building, a monumental ziggurat of eight levels. Flights of stairs ascending to the peak lined each of its sides, flanked by gardens along the walls. Most magnificent of all was the royal palace, a pair of interwoven stone towers that gently curved ever upward, one culminating in a dome that housed the glittering throne room, the other in an arched bell tower used to signal the arrival of holidays and festivals. The palace was situated upon a network of bowl-shaped terraces, down which cascaded a series of shimmering waterfalls that merged with the river below. Mobotropolis, the city had been christened, The Jewel of Mobius. For Sally and millions of others, it had been far more.

It had been home.

Tattered remnants of this former glory could still be glimpsed in the outlying reaches of the city. Here, an old boarded up restaurant sitting between a pair of watch towers. There, the shattered stone walls of what was once someone’s house, lying in a crumbled heap amidst charred ashes that had perhaps been furniture. Shards of playground equipment covered in rust, strewn tangled about outside a weapons plant. A child’s toy, coated with dust, lying where it had been dropped years ago as the robotic police force suddenly turned on all that lived...

“Yo, Sal! Hedgehog to Sal! Ya read me?”

Sally snapped out of her reverie, annoyed at the interruption. “What?”

She looked over at Sonic, the source of her newfound frustration. The two were lying prone on the roof of a three story warehouse overlooking one of the city’s many computer hubs, a small squat cylindrical building surrounded by an electric fence.

“You were starin’ off inta space. Just two minutes ‘til Bunnie’s supposed ta give us the signal.”

Only two minutes? Sally frowned. That was absurd. She had been keeping track of time, despite her musings, and they still had nearly a quarter of an hour before the signal was due. She glanced down at the chronometer counting down on her wrist, its red digital digits shifting to indicate exactly one minute and forty-six seconds remained.

Oh.

The squirrel closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to regain focus. “Sorry. It’s just…this place. It still gets to me sometimes.”

Sonic offered a gentle smile, his tone softening as he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I hear you. I miss home too. But ya gotta stay focused while we’re out here. You know that as well as I do.”

“Better, on most days.” Sally managed a grin and the two shared a soft laugh, their thoughts briefly turning toward past missions together, the scores of trials and triumphs, narrow escapes and bitter losses, that had come to define so much of their young lives. They remained quiet after that, Sonic watching the countdown silently approach zero, Sally turning her eyes once more toward their objective.

Between the hub below and the fence encompassing it was a courtyard; every few seconds, its dull metallic surface was broken by a faint blue shimmer that quickly moved from one end to the next, the only sign that the building was protected by an alarm grid. Supplementing the grid were two rotating security cameras, as well as half a dozen SWATbots patrolling outside the fence. All in all, the hub was lightly defended, as it did little more than help funnel data between two much larger facilities. If NICOLE’s analysis was correct, however, it held a critical weakness, one that made the building the target of the night’s raid.

The countdown reached its terminus. A moment later, the building beneath the two Freedom Fighters shook slightly. Perhaps a kilometer away, the night was torn asunder by an explosion, a luminous lance that soared above the surrounding cityscape. The brilliant beacon was a shimmering mixture of oranges and golds, its gradient tapestry interwoven with the blues and violets of chemical smoke. For a moment, the light was as a glimpse of the sunsets of old, the multicolored radiance a remnant of what once was that dared reach out and reclaim its home.

Yet within seconds the light faded to waning embers, replaced with the pale, cold glow of searchlights as blaring alarm klaxons filled the air. The SWATbots patrolling outside the hub turned and raced off toward the source of the anomaly.

“Man, Rote’s outdone himself with the ol’ firecrackers this time!” Sonic chuckled, the warmth in his voice coming through even amidst the screech of alarms. Sally nodded, wishing she could share her friend’s enthusiasm. Rotor’s craftsmanship was indeed impressive, the walrus at times seeming as much an artisan as he was an engineer. But even he could do only so much with their limited resources. These explosives generated a great deal of noise and light, but lacked enough heat or force to inflict any significant damage. This rendered them useful only as distractions. Nuisances, not genuine threats. If only-

Sally’s thoughts were cut off as the alarms were joined by a growing droning sound. Squirrel and hedgehog pressed themselves flat against the warehouse roof as a squadron of gunships thundered overhead, wheeling to circle the site of the blast like some hideous flock of carrion. They would find no prey, however. Bunnie was long gone, headed to the rendezvous point on the outskirts of the city.

Her task was complete. For Sonic and Sally, clambering to their feet after hours of waiting, the night’s endeavor was only just beginning. The couple turned to one another, each extending a hand that moved to touch and dance about the other in a series of quick gestures that bore the fluidity of years of practice. The handshake was an old one, created what seemed a lifetime ago by two small children who had not the slightest inkling of wars or coups. It was a bastion of familiarity in these terrible times, an artifact of lost innocence and an emblem of a friendship that had survived the fall of a world into ruin.

Equally old and meaningful were the words that followed, a simple phrase that had come to underscore so much of their struggle for freedom from the tyranny befouling their former home. Five small words that carried with them no small amount of courage, an unshakeable confidence shared by those who spoke them.

“Let’s do it to it!”

The actions performed next were nearly as familiar. She, unwinding the coil of rope and lowering it over the rooftop edge, her hands swift and sure. He, tying the rope’s end to a fixture, threading back and forth to weave a knot steadfast and strong. Then they descended, the champion going before his princess, gliding soundlessly into the murk below.

How many times before had they done this? Descended into the mouth of oblivion on some daring venture, some fool’s errand, hoping to thwart the tireless machinations of their great enemy, dreaming to purge that festering blight and bring healing to a dead land? Dozens? Hundreds? It was uncertain, the memories a blur of breathless tension and fearful adrenaline.

There were moments that stood etched out in stark clarity, tangible triumphs and dismal defeats. The destruction of a foundry punctuated by a narrow escape, her arms wrapped around his body as he outraced tongues of flame. The loss of a gentle mentor known for years, his arms wrapped around her body as she wept tears of grief.

Yet most of their raids, though dark and deadly, were strangely unremarkable. They had become routine. Routine! The thought struck Sally as both ludicrous and terrifying. How could such acts, journeys into a twisted, alien realm that had only moments before overwhelmed her with its very visage, bear any semblance to the mundane? The answer, sadly, was too clear for any hope of escape into the refuge of uncertainty.

They had changed. Years of enormous hardship had taken their toll on the people of Knothole, leaving scars deep and beyond healing. None had truly escaped the death of Mobotropolis, the hideous tide of mechanization that had consumed the city. The Freedom Fighters were themselves constructs, children tempered by the loss of all they had ever known, by years of hiding in evil’s shadow, until they were forged into combatants, colder, harder, capable of fighting to reclaim all that once was.

Such a goal could never be realized. Even if Mobotropolis was rebuilt, restored to all of its former beauty and glory, its people freed, its enemies utterly destroyed…the world would not, could not, return to the way it was. Memory would linger. Through it, the pains and hurts would endure, the taint of the usurper never truly cleansed until all who witnessed it returned to dust.

Even if…

She, Sonic, and the other Freedom Fighters would be hailed as saviors, the great heroes of the age, but what then? They, who had grown up orphaned, cut off from society, without so much as a formal education, would be expected to acclimate. Live by a set of norms that would never truly be their own, however much they yearned for them to be. It was a bitter irony, that they should be denied even in triumph that which they had fought so long for.

Worse still, she herself, sole heir to the throne, would be expected to lead, to rule. To govern a society she could never again truly be a part of, to be the protector of a peace she would never know.

A queen was a paragon of all that was good, the embodiment of what one should strive for. A queen was kind, not critical, governed by courage, not fear. A healer, not a fighter.

Young girls would look upon her with awe and wonder, at night whispering to their innermost selves, “I wish I was like Queen Sally.” And what would they be idolizing? A wall. A shell of smiles and hugs and waves surrounding a broken woman old before her years, a relic from another age unable to banish the fears haunting her mind. The real Sally would never be a queen, merely a dressed up imitation trying in vain to match her forbearers.

Even if…

Stop it, Sally ordered herself as she angrily clamped down on her thoughts. That was despair talking, a viperous nest of fears unallied with even the faintest whisper of reason, more poisonous than any of the sickly fumes eclipsing the sky above. It had become increasingly problematic as of late, a whisper of malice breathing ruin into the edges of her mind when she dropped her guard. She hated it.

Perhaps this raid would help. Another victory, another blow struck against the usurper. A reminder that their cause was not hopeless, that they were that much closer to winning this war. Yes, tonight’s triumph would help.

The two Freedom Fighters completed their descent and dropped to the ground. Perhaps a hundred open meters separated the fence ahead from the warehouse shadow in which they stood. A hundred meters without cover, of breathless vulnerability. A passing security drone would spot them in an instant, turning painstakingly planned actions into frantic attempts to survive the next few minutes. Stratagems would crumple into instinct, hope engulfed by terror. A mere hundred meters, yet so much hinged upon them…

Then a gloved hand wrapped itself around her shoulder, its warmth permeating through the fabric, evaporating the unease in her heart. She turned to her best friend and smiled, gratefully allowing him to sweep her up into his arms. She rested her head against his chest, heard the pace of his heart quicken as his body tensed. Her arms tightened across his back. An intake of breath.

Then he began to run.

A hundred meters of fear and vulnerability vanished in an instant.

The entire crossing took only two, perhaps three, seconds, but it was enough for Sally to savor. The world around her lost its focus, its potency, becoming a blur. The only visible constant was the one holding her, his cocky smile betraying the wellspring of confidence that resided at his very core.

It was during those moments, when he ran with her in his arms, when everything else ceased to be, that a rare peace came over Sally. The walls of her soul were lowered, allowing the exhausted, suffocating girl within to draw life-giving breath. She heard not even the faintest echo of the shadowy whispers that had beset her for so long, that she had built those horrible walls to withstand.

Fears spawned from seeing her world devoured by an unending mechanized night.

Loneliness gnawing at the void the loss of her father had left, the scars of time’s passage not quite covering the rawness underneath.

Doubts about her worthiness as a leader, her ability to truly be the unshakable pillar of strength so many needed and sought in her out of trust in blood.

All of them were silenced.

In their stead, a rising melody began to flow through the edges of her mind. Wordless, it was swift and erratic, seeming a barely controlled chaos ever on the verge of discord. Here, a note struck too soon by eagerness. There, a moment of hesitation and faltering, almost imperceptible as the sound shifted to shroud its shame. Yet beyond the roughness there lay power, a strength maintaining cohesion and ushering the music ever forward. It grew in volume, cascading deeper and deeper until all of Sally was awash in the melody. Its notes rippled through her thoughts, sifting out embedded anxieties and carrying them away like so much detritus, leaving behind calming reassurance.

But then the music was challenged. Beyond Sally’s mind, a besieged bastion at last receiving relief, there existed a world of flesh and metal. A fallen world, choked by smoke and shadow, in which drops of blood and sweat mixed with ashen dirt as the flesh was beset again and again in its struggle to check the metal’s spread. As the body holding her own came to a halt, that terrible world was suddenly brought back into focus. As she left his arms and stood on her own, the whispers begin to build again. Fears. Loneliness. Doubts. All of them threatened to renew their assault and ravage her mind, now naked before them.

Instinct, touched by traces of panic, demanded the walls be raised again immediately, that everything be shut out, that the mission could not afford her acting in a compromised state. Only cold, dispassionate logic could withstand the world around her.

Yet the melody remained, flowing around her and acting as a bulwark against the renewed torrent of bile. Bitterness lanced against it with a terrible fury, only to be deflected, leaving her unscathed. Reminders of countless failings were hurled with ruthless precision at her heart, yet all were splintered ere they reached their mark. With every blow the music weathered, however, it waned slightly. Slowly but surely, it was weakening, and Sally knew that Sonic was facing a similar assault of the soul as all the vile potency of Robotropolis renewed itself around them.

For a single, agonizing moment, it seemed that his melody, flawed and rough as it was, would fail entirely, that both of them would be swept asunder by the noxious tide. Doubt would cripple them. Fear would poison their innermost hopes. Years old scars would burst, sending the dammed up pains of the past forth to drown them.

Then Sally added her own voice to the melody. It was small and soft, lacking the raw passion and intensity that so defined the music of her dearest and oldest friend. Yet it held an equal strength. Where he bordered on chaos, she was careful precision. As he soared in crescendo, she was a soft backdrop, subtle and complex, ever shifting in her nuance. Her carefully calculated dance of notes touched where his faltered, seamlessly healing the gaps in the melody. Where she hesitated, his chorus held true. They were in absolute harmony, perfect counterpoints to one another. The music surged outward, overtaking the vicious onslaught. Even with all the terrible might of the surrounding world fueling them, the whispers of fear and doubt were as nothing before the melodious union. They were instantly purged from both minds, leaving only a calm as each healed the damage the other had suffered.

Gradually, the melody faded in volume as Sally and Sonic, for now freed from the wars of the spirit, turned to the outward task they faced. Yet the music did not cease, instead forming the rhythm through which their bodies flowed from one motion to another.

Running parallel to the fence just outside its base was a thick insulated cord fastened to the ground every two meters by metallic bolts. A few seconds of following the cord revealed that it was connected to a metallic box perhaps a third of a meter tall; save for an unlabeled panel screwed in at the top, it appeared featureless.

“This what we’re after?” Sonic whispered uncertainly.

The squirrel nodded, setting her backpack down before reaching into it and withdrawing a makeshift screwdriver. “It may not look like much, but this device regulates power to both the fence and the alarm grid behind it, making it my ticket in.”

As Sally began deftly removing the screws holding the panel in place, Sonic gave a theatric sigh. “Alas, that to smash it would be of no avail, for the alarms would hinder any chance to prevail,” he bemoaned, his voice nearly compromised by the tremors of laughter threatening to escape his longsuffering tone.

The princess looked up from her handiwork with a raised eyebrow. “Trying our hand at poetry again, are we?” she asked with a mix of mock suspicion and genuine curiosity.

Sonic’s face tinged slightly at the question, his right hand nervously rubbing the spines behind his head. “Well…I ah...ya seemed ta like it back when we were in Lower Mobius a couple months ago. The idea of it, anyway. Did a bit of practice here and there since then. Just trying to…”

His words drifted into silence, and Sally quickly returned her gaze to the panel, both to look away from Sonic’s blushing, sparing him further embarrassment, and to hide the warmth that could now be glimpsed on her own face.

“I’m not sure any of the great Mobian bards ever used the word ‘smash’ in their works, though I must say that’s quite the improvement over last time,” she replied after a moment. She hesitated again, the humor in her voice shifting to sincere warmth. “…and it’s quite thoughtful of you. Thank you.”

A quiet tinged with awkwardness filled the air as the last of the screws was removed and Sally detached the metal plate. Beneath it was a complex array of wires and circuitry, all of it so tangled and densely compacted that making sense of the components would take hours…for an organic. Reaching into an inner pocket of her vest, the princess withdrew her most valuable possession and flipped it open.

“NICOLE,” Sally whispered, “Please scan for input slot. Maintain response volume at ten percent.”

“Acknowledged, Sally,” the computer replied in a feminine tone equally soft, a green glow emitting from one of its sensors as it analyzed the device below. Only a few seconds passed before the sensor’s light narrowed into a tight beam aimed at a grooved cylindrical opening, an image of which was displayed on NICOLE’s screen.

As the computer reported its success, Sally reached into her backpack and withdrew a bundle of adapter cables, all of them identical on one end. Using the display as a reference, she quickly located the appropriate one and connected NICOLE to the input slot. The image vanished as data began to stream across the computer’s screen.

“Uplink…complete,” the computer dutifully reported. “No security measures in place. However, overt interference with power distribution will trigger an alert. Awaiting command, Sally.”

“Figured as much,” the squirrel sighed before pausing in thought. “…you said overt interference. Could you trick the system? Mitigate the current of electricity so that it flows at a slower rate, then project a phantom current masquerading as the rest of the wattage? That would give the fence and alarm grid sufficient power to avoid setting off the contingency alarms, but not enough to actually function. Run simulation and report.”

NICOLE made no reply, its lights dimming as every bit of the machine’s considerable processing power was delegated to analyzing yet another of the unorthodox stratagems conceived by its owner. As the device in her hand warmed a few degrees from the strain, Sally gazed up at the fence looming before her. Standing perhaps half a dozen meters tall, the obstruction’s height more than quintupled her own, quashing any hopes of being vaulted over.

 She would have to climb.

Yet even without searing streams of lethal energy writhing over every shard of the metallic fastness, the act would be dangerous. The metal links comprising the barrier were tightly interwoven, scarcely leaving room for purchase. Footholds were impossible altogether, leaving only her hands to support the full weight of her body and pack. To the untrained eye, the fence held no further defenses, for its summit lay bare, bereft of any tangled mass of barbed wire or rows of spikes jutting upward like sabers. Yet these omissions were predatory illusions, designed to lure intruders into hapless complacency. Each of the metallic links was honed to a fine edge, forming a tower of tiny blades. Any attempt to grasp them would result in the piercing of flesh and tendon, blood raining onto the ground below and cries of anguish filling the air above.

“Never boring out here, is it?” Sonic murmured wryly, his eyes on the same structure.

“Rarely so,” Sally whispered, her anxiety again abating at the sound of her friend’s voice. As she turned toward him, his admission moments earlier rose to the surface of her mind, casting ripples that refracted into shifting thoughts dyed with a myriad of emotions.

It was true that she had long held an appreciation for poetry, that most subtle and nuanced manner of the arts. Among the handful of texts she owned was a volume of such works, a compilation spanning centuries, its yellowed leaflets preserving the distilled currents of a hundred souls long departed. Each poem was a gateway painstakingly carved with the instrument of language, through which the currents freely flowed into her own mind, bringing with them memories and emotions, images and musings, all of them as vibrant and real as they had been when first wrought into strokes of ink set upon a page. Together, they formed a shimmering tapestry heralding in joyous adulation the very spirit of her world.

Yet that world had been rent asunder by unspeakable atrocity, and as the passage of years bestowed upon the young exile ever more understanding, the comfort offered by these glimpses into the past waned. For her wondrous culture, proud and fair, regal and beautiful, was no more. That which had over countless years been crafted was crushed under heel in a terrible instant. To the glories of old, no monument was left save a few tattered books salvaged from a mutilated ruin.

How could such fragile assemblages of parchment possibly be enough to save what was on the verge of being lost forever to the mire of time? By themselves, they were woefully inadequate, for it was only through the touching of souls that their strength was made manifest. But through this coupling, culture was passed on. Through the gateways of art, the lifeblood of past generations flowed into new minds still alive and vibrant. Through the lives of those so touched, a world could be reborn.

Sally felt the gentle stirrings of hope at the thought, yet as she studied Sonic they were met with uncertainty. Poetry was among the last things she would normally associate the hedgehog with. It was not that he was unintelligent; her friend was far more cunning than she suspected he gave himself credit for. Rather, his heart lacked patience. He was a being of action, ever in the moment, his mind seeming to analyze the world around him at a speed no less astonishing than that of his body. Matters of subtlety and introspection were something else entirely, and he appeared loath to dwell on them.

Whatever interest he held in poetry was clearly for her sake. That he should so pursue a subject far beyond the realm of comfort and familiarity spoke greatly of his commitment to their budding relationship. It was a humbling thought, one answered by warm assurance, a certainty that the hedgehog’s venture could nonetheless awaken him to a new facet, unseen yet resplendent, of the cause they had long risked so much for. Assurance gave way to determination as an idea began to coalesce within her mind.

“Uh, Sal?”

“Mmm-hmm?” the princess murmured distractedly, her focus lingering on how to best approach the matter.

“You’ve been starin’ at my face for over a minute,” Sonic noted, an inimitable grin spreading across his face. “See anything you like?”

That got her attention.

“I’m afraid not,” Sally replied dryly as she rummaged through the collection of playful jabs one invariably accumulated over a lifetime of knowing the wisecracking hedgehog. “I was just looking in vain once again for some shred of humility. I seem to suffer from this nagging delusion that I’ll see it one day.”

“Maybe you should get that checked out. Poor eyesight is a terrible thing to live with,” Sonic shot back.

“Oh, I agree. Hearing, on the other hand, I could manage without. At least then I could get a decent stretch of sleep without being subjected to that cacophony always coming from down by the bridge.”

“Hey, don’t be slammin’ the beauty of rock, Sal.”

“Is that what it is? My mistake. I had assumed it was two animals clawing one another to death…again and again and again.”

“Some people just can’t appreciate the classics,” Sonic sighed, “Though I don’t see how you can’t sleep with all that poetry ya read. Whadda ya see in that stuff?”

The flash of hurt that skimmed across Sally’s mind must have been betrayed in her expression, as Sonic’s smile vanished. “Whoa, sorry, Sal. I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

He closed his eyes in frustration before softly muttering, “Probably shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.”

Taking a deep breath, Sally took one of Sonic’s hands in her own. “No, I’m glad you did. Sonic, I…I’d like us to start reading poetry together. It wouldn’t have to be very often, just here and there. I’m already familiar with the poems in my book, and I think if I could help you understand them more, you’d start to enjoy it...” She trailed off, nervousness finally staying her tongue.

Sonic said nothing, but the doubt in his eyes was clearly visible, leaving Sally to berate herself in silence. That approach had been foolish. Too blunt, too forward. Now her idea was on the verge of failing entirely. It would be best to lower the tension before trying again.

“Oh come on, Sonic,” she continued after several moments of careful consideration, adopting a playful tone tinged with coquettishness. “How can a girl possibly resist someone versed in the fine arts? You could become a man of culture. We’ll start with poetry, then move on to ballads as we make our way to classical music. Perhaps some formal dancing lessons after that, maybe with a suit…”

With each passing statement, Sonic’s expression became more pained, his skin blanching and eyes widening in horror, until at last he could stand no more and stuck his tongue out, a mock retching noise escaping his lips with great fervor.

“If all that stuff was so important, you’d have fallen for Ant ages ago,” he glowered.

At that, Sally found herself making a face mirroring Sonic’s, her confidence returning as both of them laughed quietly. With another glance at the fence before her, she reached into her pack and withdrew two long strips of thick white cloth of a soft texture that belied the durability of the fabric. Several layers of the material would, when properly wrapped, prove sufficient to protect her hands from the razor edges of the fence’s links, making the climb before her possible, if still difficult. She held her arms out as Sonic took the cloth and began gently wrapping it around each hand.

As he carefully wove his shield around her, a stalwart barrier against which the daggers of the surrounding world could not avail, their shared melody began to build once more. The filth and corruption around them faded into insignificance, and as the seconds seemed to slow even time was made powerless. The harmonious song freed their minds from the shackles of the present, from the incessant demands of the now, and Sally found her awareness gently drifting into the then, the realm of memory in which emotions and events were crystallized, immortal and unchanging though they be shrouded ever more by time’s passing.

The scene upon which her focus settled was yet to be so marred, its nuances remaining illuminated in perfect clarity. She sat on a bedside holding a book, its cover worn and pages yellowed with age. Beside her lay Tails, carefully tucked in yet still awake, his attentive face illuminated only by the pale shafts of moonlight gleaming through the hut window. The eyes of the young kit were wide as she continued the story, a lengthy tale that they had been reading for nearly a week. It was one of daring adventure and fantastic deeds, of fearless heroes facing vile monsters. The recounting was brought to life as she read it with dramatic intensity, her voice shifting to assume the roles of knights and nobles, witches and warlocks. Standing beside her was Sonic, who acted out the events of the story with equal enthusiasm, his silent movements punctuated at times by the roar of a creature or the sound of clashing steel. Sincerity amply compensated for any lack of realism in their performances, and Tails remained enthralled for over an hour. At last, however, his eyes gradually drifted shut as the needs of the body gently set the pleasures of the heart aside for another evening.

Sally smiled lovingly at the recollection before narrowing her thought further, turning her intent toward the story she had been reading, poring over what she knew of its history and meaning. Parallels began to emerge with her earlier musings; she drew upon these, carefully weaving together the threads of two disparate matters into a unified whole. Satisfied with the conclusion she had crafted, the princess withdrew from the world of memory, bringing with her the fruit of her journey so that it might be presented in triumph to the one before her.

“Sonic, what do you think of the story we’ve been reading to Tails the past few nights?” she asked softly.

“Ya mean Sir Samuel and the Seven Seals?” he frowned in confusion. “Mondo cool, as far as books go. Plenty of excitement and all, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve probably heard the story a dozen times now, but it still moves the ol’ feelings.” His tone became wistful as he continued, expression turning upward in a sad smile. “I remember Uncle Chuck getting choked up at certain parts back when he read it to me, even though he said he’d been reading it since he was a kid. Guess it’s a classic.”

“Exactly. Sonic, that story was first written over five hundred years ago, yet the passage of time has claimed none of its potency. It remains powerful because it was deeply rooted in a culture dating back even further, a wonderful assemblage of traditions and ideals passed from one generation to the next that shaped countless aspects of life. Our culture. It’s such an important part of who we are. But now...” She gestured to their surroundings, the lifeless steel husks jutting in cold mockery from the ruins of their former home. “…that culture is on the verge of being lost forever. We’re the only ones left that can change that, that can pass things on until...” Words choked in her throat. “…until this can be undone.”

As she spoke, her words enkindled a glittering light in Sonic’s eyes. “But to pass that culture on, we have to learn as much of it as we can, right? Including poetry. I hear ya Sal. Although…music’s a part of culture too, ya know. Seems to me that rock’s just as important as poetry. Just ‘cuz it’s newer doesn’t make it any worse.”

At the comparison, Sally felt the emergence of a tendril of distaste, spawn of a shadow of arrogance that had long lain bound within the darker recesses of her heart, locked away in a vain attempt at confinement. From this suppressed prison, disdain sprung up with terrible speed, penetrating consciousness and discoloring her mind with its venom.

Music? What he referred to was nothing of the sort. Music was elegant, a harmonious family of layers dancing around one another with grace and precision, intertwining to form arms that gently embraced the mind, freeing it from the mire of the surrounding world. Resting in this soft touch of notes and rhythms, the soul was carried into realms sublime and fantastic, some rich with history and ancient wonder, others flowing with powerful currents of emotion. All were glimpses into that evanescent, incomparable paradise that was beauty. ‘Rock’ was far removed from this tranquility, as barren desert from life-giving streams. No gentle embrace, it threatened to smother the mind with its chaotic discord, drowning efforts at even rudimentary thought.

Yet as Sally stood before the event horizon of dismissal, on the verge of casting the suggestion into that chasm from whence no ray of thought could reemerge into the light of consideration, she gave pause. These words had been spoken by her dearest friend in sincerity. What right had she to so quickly toss them aside? After all, there clearly existed some basis for his belief, obscured from her though it was. Seeing but one recourse, she turned aside, clutching Sonic’s words tightly as she ventured once again into the world of memory. A far cry from her reminiscence of Tails’ bedside, the recollections she now touched were harsh and grating, a dozen instances of coarse noise flitting around her like a swarm of stinging insects. Steeling herself, she pressed forward, studying the noise for any deeper meaning, any semblance of cohesion.

There it was. A faint shimmer of harmony glinting for a moment as it breached the surface of the turbulent sea of erratic beats. Before it could vanish beneath the currents, Sally seized it, scrambling atop the coherence and using it as a vantage point from which to gauge the surrounding noise. Gradually, parts of it began to coalesce, forming small islands of motif and melody. They remained isolated, with most of the sounds still seeming shrill and chaotic by her reckoning, but their very existence was enough.

This was indeed music, borne of deliberate craftsmanship, questionable though it might seem. It was not some arbitrary array of arrangements, conjured up with no thought beyond the desire to satisfy the spontaneous caprices of the moment. There was design underlying the sounds. With such thought came intent, purpose. Meaning, the will to convey something more. Culture, then, could still be communicated through something as unlikely as rock, for the minds of those who wrought such music were as pervasively shaped by it as any.

As Sally gradually uncovered the wisdom of Sonic’s words, the conceit that had spread through her mind was finally checked, its inky black tendrils pierced by radiant lances of understanding cast downward from her higher consciousness. These lances, refined and focused, were joined by a wellspring of unfettered love rising up from the utmost core of her soul. Where they met, brilliant beacons lit up, their rays refracting this way and that as they tore through veils of condescension and interwove with one another, forming a wall of light that suffered no ill thought. As the network of lights expanded, the arrogance within her mind was forced ever backward, until at last it was confined once more to its prison deep within her subconscious. Though not utterly purged from existence, it was at least subdued…for the time being.

“You’re right, Sonic,” Sally finally replied after several long seconds of contemplation and conflict. “I may not understand your preferred forms of music, but that doesn’t make them any less a part of our culture.”

“Yeah…about you not understandin’…” Sonic’s words were at first unusually uncertain but found their footing as he continued. “I agree ‘bout our culture needin’ to be saved ‘n’ all. An’ if me learnin’ poetry’s an important step toward that, couldn’t the same be said for you learnin’ rock? We could teach each other.”

As Sally’s newfound understanding of rock as a legitimate and meaningful form of art had yet to blossom into full-blown, eager acceptance, the suggestion was met with an arched eyebrow. Yet after a moment she found herself nodding in agreement. Such a pursuit would, at one time, have doubtless been deemed far too lacking in dignity for one of her station, yet the notion of social propriety had long seemed increasingly irrelevant and absurd in the face of the dire circumstances she and her fellows had to contend with on a daily basis, despite Antoine’s insistences to the contrary. Moreover, it was only fair that, having asked of him, she give in return, especially if it helped achieve the same end. And if it meant that she simply had to spend more time alone with her now-more-than-best friend in situations that did not involve them being pursued or shot at, well

With the final tug of a knot, the hedgehog finished tying the strips of cloth around the princess’ hands, his handiwork leaving each with a fair degree of dexterity and surprising but welcome amount of comfort alongside the considerable protection afforded by the carefully layered white wrappings. Rather than withdrawing, Sonic shifted his own hands so that they were clasped in hers, their fingers intertwining as much as the fabric would allow. The two drew close to one another, silent, their shared melody washing through them as they basked in the contentment each found in the other. Though on the doorstep of a separation that would leave each alone and threatened by unnamable horrors, they allowed no cloud of fear to plague their minds, no tempest of anxiety to trouble their spirits. Theirs was the tranquility that can be found in the hearts of even the fiercest storms.

Closing her eyes, Sally allowed herself to be wholly submersed in the moment, trusting in Sonic for protection as she savored its nuances, carefully distilling them into memories that she could draw strength from during the trials ahead.

The feel of his hands beneath his textured gloves. The subtle, nigh imperceptible rhythm of his heartbeat. The soft, warm current of his breath, tinged ever so slightly with the fragrance of his last meal. A current that seemed to draw closer…and closer…with every passing moment…

She smiled in anticipation.

“Simulations complete, Sally,” NICOLE’s monotone, emotionless voice announced, intruding upon the silence as the sudden clap of thunder on a calm summer’s day, heralding the inexorable approach of forces unwelcomed. In that moment of tranquility’s breach, the melody faltered as all ‘round them the cold and gloomy structures of lifeless metal, wretched monuments to the depravity of the usurper, whose soulless treason and foul craft twisted and perverted the jewel of a world into a barren husk, a festering mockery of life, were unveiled once more with terrible intensity.

Rolling her eyes, Sally leaned forward and planted a kiss on Sonic’s lips anyway, the soft touch, though brief, providing enough measure of comfort to calm her startled nerves as she steeled herself yet again against the alien but all too familiar surroundings. “Right. Back to business at hand,” she muttered, glancing down at the small computer. “Report, NICOLE.”

“Analysis indicates that your hypothesis was valid, Sally. Decreasing the electrical current flow of the device in question by ninety-eight point seven zero two four percent will render nearby security measures effectively inoperable without triggering any contingency alarms,” the machine tonelessly droned. “However, to maintain a reduced current, this unit will need to remain connected to the port it is currently attached to.”

The princess resisted the urge to slap her palm against her forehead as she inwardly cursed her shortsightedness. How could she have been so foolish? Of course NICOLE would have to be left behind for such a plan to work! Without the small computer, her task in the building before her would be far more difficult. Perhaps…no, it would not be impossible, she reassured herself as she hurriedly flew through the world of memory, quickly reviewing her experiences of hacking various computers throughout the fallen city.

“Think you can pull this one off without NICOLE?” whispered Sonic, who, though not well versed in technical matters, clearly held similar reservations.

“I…I think so,” Sally breathed, “It won’t be easy, though, and will doubtless take far longer than originally anticipated. Instead of a few minutes, we’re talking hours. Maybe even a day or two.”

Days?! Ya can’t stay in there that long!”

Her smile bore a reassurance that she did not feel as she closed her pack and hefted it onto her shoulders. “I’ve got enough water and provisions in here to last for a few days. As for the increased risk of detection, security inside the building is pretty minimal according to the readouts we sliced last week. Once I gain access I should be fine.”

“But what about getting out? Ya know I’m more than happy to play the ol’ distraction card, but even I can’t keep it up forever. And then there’s NICOLE. We can’t just leave her-”

“It,” Sally automatically corrected.

“Whatever. We can’t just leave it out here. But if I take it, those security measures go back up.”

“Meaning I won’t be able to get out the same way I got in,” Sally nodded grimly. “I know. It just means I’ll have to get a little…creative. When we were staked out on top of that warehouse, I noticed a hatch on the roof of the hub. If I can get up there, I should be able to escape using that zipline launcher Rotor worked up.”  

Sonic crossed his arms and began tapping his foot, an absentminded gesture he often performed that betrayed his anxiety. It was usually brought upon by impatience, but the worry in his eyes suggested that was not the case this time. “I still don’t like it, Sal. Maybe we should just call this one off. Hit the hub some other time or just find another target.”

The possibility was tempting, she had to admit. Journeying through Robotropolis was all the more miserable and terrifying when alone, and the prospect of spending days holed up by herself within the wretched city lay heavy on her heart. That alone was far from sufficient cause to abandon the mission, of course. They were at war, and certain actions had to be undertaken, however unpleasant. The chances of victory were poor enough without personal fears complicating things. But though she was no coward, neither was she foolhardy. The parameters of the raid had changed, rendering her carefully crafted plan useless. To proceed now was to cross the threshold of uncertainty, to burden herself with unnecessary risks atop the staggering weight of dangers already present. And for what? Success here would not win the war. At best, it would be only a minor triumph, an infinitesimal step on the impossibly long and arduous road to the ever waning flicker of hope that was true victory.

But that was her path. Though it seemed to diminish day by day, hope of victory was not lost altogether. It could not be lost, not while she pressed forward. Not while she pushed herself beyond the meaningless illusions that were her limits. Not while she held the courage to give everything of herself so that others would not have to.

“No. I have to do this,” Sally firmly stated, the fiery determination fueling her heart seeping into her words more than she intended, leaving them hard enough to cause Sonic to flinch and cease his tapping. Seeing his reaction, she softened her tone, taking one of his gloved hands in her own and managing a wry smile. “Hey, I thought I was supposed to be the voice of caution and restraint. You’re always taking risks like this.”

Rather than giving a witty retort as she had expected, Sonic simply closed his eyes and sagged in resignation. “It…it’s not the same. When I go out there and take all those chances you’re always callin’ ‘crazy’, I’m by myself. I’m not puttin’ anyone else in harm’s way, so I can afford to push myself a little further. ‘Cause every bot that I toast or at least draw away is one that…that’s not aiming at…”

His voice faltered into nothingness, leaving a somber silence lingering in the air. Sally made no attempt to hide the moisture welling up in her eyes as she saw mirrored in Sonic the same agonizing helplessness that had beset her so many times before. It was a feeling that Sonic himself engendered more often than not as his reckless heroics left him hurtling headlong into great peril far beyond her control. Beyond her aid.

Beyond her reach.

To knowingly inflict that very feeling upon her closest friend was heart-wrenching, and for the briefest of moments the temptation to simply give up and return home resurfaced. Yet it was stilled as quickly as it arose. For in war there could be no security, no comforting assurance that those who fought at one’s side were safe. What recourse was there? To force those one cared for to stay behind, to prevent them from joining in the conflict? None of the Freedom Fighters would settle for such a thing, least of all she and Sonic. To abandon the war entirely, to remain in hidden sanctuary and hope to wait out the storm? Sanctuary could not endure forever, not in the face of the tide of evil spreading ever outward from Robotropolis, a tide that would soon engulf all the world unless checked by those possessing the courage to strike at its festering heart.

No. There was no recourse. Painful though it was, the helplessness that came with allowing others to put themselves at risk was a necessary evil, one that even Sonic must accept.

Sally felt the coolness of tears running down her cheek fur and suddenly found herself locked in a tight embrace, desperately wishing that the logic coursing through her mind didn’t have to make such terrible sense, that she could just run away with Sonic and be free from this awful, awful war, that she would wake up and escape the nightmare that had been the last eleven years.

As they held one another, her breathing gradually steadied, the despair threatening to overtake her replaced with calmness and conviction. Peace found her, covering her heart with a gentle touch as pure as newfallen snow.

Even the sudden tramp of mechanized feet in the distance, heralding the return of the contingent of deadly SWATbots guarding the hub, could not threaten the peace filling Sally as she turned and ordered NICOLE to begin regulating power to the security emplacements surrounding the structure.

It simply meant that it was now or never.

As the shimmer of the alarm grid faded from the courtyard, Sally flashed a sincere grin. “I’ll be headed back home before you know it. We can start our lessons as soon as I return.”

With that, she turned to the looming fence and began the climb.

Scanning the jagged bulwark for chinks in its razor mail, she found a gap of suitable size and carefully placed a hand inside the deadly maw. Ridge upon ridge of cold metal, each as sharp and potent as any cruel instrument of bloodletting forged in the days of old by barbarous warmongers in open furnaces beneath the moonlit winter sky, set against her fingers in predatory earnest, seeking to pierce and rend flesh and inflict upon her mind a blinding, all-consuming agony that would devour her every thought and forever eclipse any hope of comfort. Yet their ravenous fangs were blunted, their vicious onslaught splintered, for their malice could not avail against the anointment of protection encircling her hand, the steadfast ward of care covering her fingers. Guarded by her gifted shield, she found purchase even within that den of evil, binding it to her will so that it might betray its murderous architect and serve her by supporting her body in its pressing time of need.

Then she did it again. And again. Higher and higher she clambered, with each new handhold weathering a fresh assault, the cloths protecting her suffering flurry after flurry of scars yet never yielding an opening to the enemy. But though uninjured, she was not wholly spared from the bitterness of pain. Unable to utilize footholds, she had to rely entirely on the strength of her arms to carry her weight. Chiseled by long years of labor and toil, her body was a capable instrument, one well-maintained and kept in fit condition. Yet the strain, worsened by the burden of her laden pack, was still considerable, squeezing out of her pores beads of sweat that matted the fur of her forehead and covered her fingers, threatening to loosen her grip and send her plunging to the ground below.

Though only halfway through the ascent, she found herself drawing breath in short, ragged gasps. In each of her arms, there ignited an aching fire that burned more fiercely with every movement. The insistent pain demanded her full attention, leaving each passing thought blurrier and more difficult to muster. Concentration waned as higher mental faculties seemed to abandon her until she was overtaken by a mindless numbness as she inched forward, a humiliating baseness that mockingly scoffed at the intellect she so prided herself upon, at the foolish delusion that Princess Sally Acorn was anything more than a worthless mound of flesh being pushed to its very real limits.

All the while, her senses were unimpaired, senses that continually sent urgent messages past the fires of immolating pain surrounding her mind. These dark tidings warned of marching footsteps growing ever louder, of the coming arrival of evil’s agents, bringers of death armed with terrible devices capable of annihilating her exposed form. Within moments they would be upon her, and all hope would be lost.

She would perish. Leaderless, the Freedom Fighters would inevitably be crushed. All that she had ever loved, ever fought for, would be purged into nothingness as her world fell into eternal shadow.

Not on my watch.

Icy determination filled her veins, quelling the fires of pain as her mind reasserted its dominion over the rebellious shell that housed it. Her pain held no true meaning; it was merely a message, a signal that her body was strained at the moment. That was of no significance, for she had made it through far worse in the past and could therefore endure the current trial. She was uninjured, thus the pain was not indicative of any danger. Just…just a lack of comfort, one that would soon pass. Yes…the pain was meaningless.

As she swung an arm upward toward the next opening, her eyes alighted on the tattered yet still resolute fabric guarding her hand. At the reminder of he who had wrapped it, still faithfully watching below, her fears of the oncoming foes were assuaged. They could not threaten her, not while the greatest champion Mobius had borne witness to in a thousand years stood before them undaunted.

The peace she had felt earlier, driven to a deep recess within her heart as the climb intensified, reemerged, its warmth filling her once more and melting frozen resolve into life-giving waters that washed away the last vestiges of fear and pain.

There occurred at that moment a curious thing. Though evil held sway over so much of the surrounding world, Sally felt a sense of rightness welling up inside her, as though being where she was just then was in accordance with some great plan ordained in the unfathomable reaches beyond the realm of time and space. She realized it was probably nothing, merely an inexplicable errant thought. But still…to think that she, bearer of great responsibility in tumultuous times, was despite all her failings and faults ultimately doing what she should do was comforting. She often wondered what her father would think of what she had become, but as she reached the top of that fence, exhausted, a tiny beacon of defiance in a twisted city of unending night, she knew beyond any shadow of doubt that he would have been proud of her.

Really not the time for this, Sally-girl, she reminded herself as, blinking back tears, she swung her lower body up and over the wonderfully smooth top of the fence, rotating so that she was now poised to drop down to the other side. Taking a deep breath, she let go, curling into a ball as best she could and rolling to minimize the impact. It still knocked the wind out of her, and it was all she could do to press herself flat to the ground as she gulped lungfuls of air.

She had made it.

Not a moment too soon, it seemed. Even as she struggled to steady her breathing, the sound of her gasps, though seeming far too loud as to possess anything so much as remotely resembling the degree of subtlety befitting a covert situation involving the rapid approach of enemies, was suddenly dwarfed by a declaration as lifeless and metallic as the amalgamation of transistors it issued from.

“Alert! Target Priority One has been sighted in Robotropolis Sector 7, Quadrant 3! All security units within adjacent sectors are required to assist in capture of tar-GZZZT!”

The SWATbot’s words were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass and a burst of static that made Sally’s ears ring and spine tingle. Looking up from where she lay, she saw that the machine was convulsing uncontrollably, a glowing golden band jutting out from its shattered red visor.

“Sheesh. You metalheads talk too much,” Sonic quipped as he gracefully danced around the crimson beams of searing lethal energy the five remaining machines began firing toward him from their wrist-mounted cannons. “After all, all talk and no play makes for a dull bot!” A second torrent hurtled at the hedgehog with equally unsuccessful results. “And dull is right. You guys are seriously boring tonight. Let’s fix that.”

Weaving through the hail of fiery darts with an ease that Sally still found astonishing even after all these years, Sonic jumped atop one of the steel sentries even as he asked, “How about a game of tag?” Leaning forward, he began mockingly rapping with his fist on the visor of his unwilling mount. “I’ll let you guys figure out who’s ‘It’.”

Without hesitation, the four machines not being ridden by a supernaturally agile Freedom Fighter opened fire once more on the hedgehog, only for their target to leap out of the way, leaving the guard he had been atop exposed to the assault. Though most of the bolts sailed harmlessly over the SWATbot’s head, one punched through its visor and clean through the back of its head, leaving a perfectly round hole from which smoke began to pour as the machine toppled to the ground.

“Well whadda ya know, that’s correct! Now you’re getting into the spirit!” Sonic cheered, clearly enjoying himself despite the gravity of the situation.

 As usual.

His reckless enthusiasm had often irked Sally, but now it caused her mouth to twinge upward in a small smile. She was still worried, of course. Watching one’s dearest friend come under fire had a tendency of instilling at least some minute degree of anxiety in most individuals, and she was no exception. Yet that fear was kept at bay, confined to a small part of her mind by confidence in his ability and the assurance that he was still following the plan. For all the chaos of Sonic’s actions, they remained within parameters that Sally, having set them herself, understood. Understanding did not quite equate to comfort, but in such situations it was the closest approximation she could reasonably expect to have.

Moreover, she had to admit, if only to herself and not anyone else, least of all Sonic himself, that there was something inherently enjoyable about watching him in such moments. Witnessing the destruction of machines that were foremost among the instruments used to overthrow her civilization from within was rather cathartic, naturally, but it seemed that there was more to the sensation welling up within her than grim satisfaction. Joy? Pride? Hope? Perhaps it was a blend of all three that she felt, lying prone and motionless, watching the boundless confidence and exuberance that dwelt within Sonic’s spirit boldly proclaiming themselves in a fallen city that for more than ten long years had been starved of the laughter now flowing from his lips.

“But what’s up with this ‘Target Priority One’ stuff?” he was saying, running headlong toward a SWATbot and delivering a jumping kick that, strengthened by the force of his momentum, sent it careening into another. “You guys used to call me ‘Hedgehog Priority One.’ You’re so impersonal these days! After all we’ve been through, I was sure our relationship was better than this.”

He was answered by a salvo of bolts stemming from a new direction, where over two dozen recently arrived SWATbots, flanked by a pair of hovercraft, were marching toward him. “Hedgehog, Priority One!” the machines droned as they realigned their aim.

“Now that’s more like it!” Sonic grinned. If he was put off in the slightest by the arrival of enemy reinforcements, he did an admirable job of concealing it. Darting through the now far more intense maelstrom, he reached the still convulsing form of the first SWATbot he had neutralized and withdrew the Power Ring lodged in its head. As he did so, the cannon beneath one of the two gunships began to glow with an almost blinding intensity. An instinctual cry of warning welled up in Sally’s throat, yet through sheer agonizing willpower she stayed her tongue. He knows what he’s doing, she tried to reassure herself. Taking action would in all probability accomplish naught save their own deaths.

Her trust was rewarded as Sonic darted away an instant before the gunship’s charged blast struck the ground where he had been standing, creating a brilliant explosion that thundered in Sally’s ears and forced her to squeeze her eyes shut. For a split second, the surrounding air rose sharply in temperature and even behind closed lids her eyes began to water.

When she opened her eyes a moment later, she found that the paralyzed SWATbot was gone, completely vaporized, while the ground within a two meter radius of the impact had been reduced to a smoldering crater. Sonic himself had been thrown to the ground perilously close to the fence, the Power Ring still clutched in his hand. Though he was on his feet once more in an instant, for the first time since the skirmish had begun the hedgehog looked worse for the wear. His body was caked with soot and sweat, his posture tense and his breathing heavy.

Glancing behind him, Sonic must have seen the concern in Sally’s eyes. He winked and offered a grin that still bore the confidence his entire body had been brimming with seconds before. Raising the Power Ring high above his head, he whispered “Love ya, Sal.”

I love you. He had spoken those beautiful words to her before, yet each time he breathed them they were welcomed by an opened heart that treasured each precious syllable with the tender care a mother gives her newborn. An observer somehow privy to the innermost chambers of her spirit might have found it odd that she would treat these three words, each worn to the point of being mundane after centuries of frequent use in common parlance, with such emotion. But Sally knew far better than to think them as being within the same spectrum as the ordinary. Individually their radiance was hidden, but together?

Together they outshone the stars.

Together they formed a discovery of incomparable worth, an epiphany that cast into perfect clarity the answers to innumerable questions she had long been asking in vain without even knowing. Together they made her spirit soar upward in a glowing dance toward the heavens that grew until it seemed to touch everything that was good that had ever existed and ever would exist in all of Creation. Joy, laughter, compassion, and so much more swirled around her as they joined in the resplendent celebration, and with her in the center of it all was love.

She yearned for nothing more than to rush toward him, wrapping him in her arms and speaking those same wondrous words to him, at once whispering them in his ear with gentle grace and shouting them from atop the highest mountaintop in the world with utter abandon.

And yet she could not.

It seemed, in that moment, the most severe transgression ever committed in history that she should be barred from doing so. But, just or not, she was. She had a job to do, and as always duty came before her own desires, however deep they ran. And so she remained silent. She remained silent as the golden glow of the Power Ring Sonic held spread across his entire body, steadying his breathing and easing his posture as it filled his being with strength. She remained silent as the group of mechanized terrors before him opened fire once more, only to find him tearing through their ranks as he hurtled forward, the air behind him thundering with the clap of a sonic boom. And she remained silent as he sped out of sight, leading the entire contingent of foes away so that she might succeed at the task before her.

When Sally was certain that the last of the SWATbots were gone, she clambered to her feet, undoing the cloth around her hands as she eyed the structure before her. There was still the matter of the pair of security cameras guarding the door, one on either side of the entrance, but experience had refined her ability to deal with such things down to an art. Mass production may have rendered the cameras all equally efficient, but it also left them all equally predictable.

The emplacements in question were of a model that was entirely automated; due to the sheer number of cameras installed throughout the city, only those in high security areas were designed with separate monitoring SWATbots in mind, a setup that, though more thorough, was far more costly. Automated cameras such as these signaled an alarm if tampered with or if heat signatures were detected, the latter feature preventing the various forms of robots from setting off alarms themselves. However, the hardware for the thermal sensor package was rather heavy, limiting the speed at which the cameras could rotate. Though the presence of a second camera with a field of coverage overlapping that of the first helped compensate for this slow rotation rate, it ultimately left brief but very real blind windows that could be exploited. Doing so required preparation, of course, a combination of time, a hidden observation point, and technology that could triangulate the cameras’ fields of vision, but Sally had possessed access to all three whilst waiting atop the adjacent warehouse with Sonic.

It was only a matter of pulling it off.

She waited until the left camera had completed two-thirds of its outward arc, then, taking a deep breath, sprinted forward, crossing the span of the courtyard in a carefully memorized pattern that left her directly beneath the right camera, a permanent blind spot that allowed her to catch her breath. Once the camera was in the appropriate position, the squirrel quickly shuffled against the wall of the building and reached the door itself. With a full three seconds to spare, Sally deftly entered the keycode she had spied one of the maintenance robots using to gain access and dove into the doorway as the hatch hissed open.

Safe for the moment, she turned around and gazed out at the distant surroundings beyond the fence, where she could just make out the flashes of light and echoes of yelled taunts that signified Sonic was still joyously eluding his pursuers, still surviving an assault that would have killed anyone else and doing so while laughing.

A single tear drifted slowly down the cheek of the princess as she smiled sadly and whispered, “I love you too, Sonic Hedgehog.”

For the thousandth time, Sally wondered how she could possibly ever be worthy of him. He was Sonic Hedgehog. Living legend. Champion of the free peoples of Mobius. Hero entrusted by fate with power that defied comprehension.

And she...she was Sally. Leader by right of blood, not of merit. Prisoner to a host of fears and doubts. Tactician whose foolishness had already cost eight courageous men and women everything.

With that, the walls around her heart arose once more as doubt set in again, the shared melody keeping it at bay for now nothing but a memory. Still, memory held some measure of power, and after a moment of concentration she was able to rekindle part of the peace she had felt earlier. She was alone in Robotropolis, cut off for the time being from all aid, yet the breath she had drawn while protected by the melody had been a deep one, enough to replenish her spirit for some time. As the entrance hatch slid shut, entombing her in darkness, Sally assured herself that the love she clung to, for Sonic, for Tails, and for her people, would grant her the strength to see this through to the end.

It would have to.

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Chapter II: Language and Purpose 

 

Darkness engulfed Sally the moment the entrance was resealed, the resounding clang heralding the arrival of an outstretched hand of midnight black that spirited her away from the surrounding desolation and depravity of Robotropolis and into a realm even more hostile and uninviting, a den of cold voices that issued whispers of deceit and fear. Effortlessly, they overwhelmed the eyes of the intruder, coercing them into betrayal before marching upon her spirit. The mind of the princess proved to be far more stalwart than her physical form, however, and the onslaught was quickly routed. As the writhing tendrils began to amass once more, Sally breathed deeply and shifted her mental gaze, looking into the world of memory as she searched for a means of quickly dispelling her assailants.

Her thoughts alighted upon a song, a time-worn ballad recounting the coming of dawn upon a chill winter’s day long since passed. She drew it forth, weaving its verses through her soul and into a protective ward. Thus, words of despair were met with words of hope. Sharpened daggers of uncertainty and helplessness were splintered by a growing light, a beacon tinted the softest shade of pink that swam through violet skies to wrap her shivering body up in its warm folds before spreading outward, transforming the landscape of her mind’s eye from an austere and unknowable wilderness into a tranquil place of serene beauty.

Sally allowed herself a soft laugh at the victory, small though it was. It was truly remarkable, that art should offer means by which a single, perfectly distilled moment might brave the cold journey across time and space, arriving in the here and now with enough vigor and potency to aid her in wars of the spirit. More amazing still was that this latest triumph had been secured with but a single song. How far more terrible and fair the full measure of her culture must be, the allied might of every novel and poem, song and symphony, painting and dance, all of them arrayed as one in their glittering splendor!

Bitterly, such wonder was but fleeting fancy, an impossible dream that could never be realized. Much had been lost to history; far more had been purged by the cowardly usurper. In a sickening testament to his depravity, he had come to know the power of culture, only to despise it for the threat it posed to his tyrannical dominion. Yet even in a virgin world not violated by his taint, one could not hope to experience more than an infinitesimal sliver of culture’s bounty. Even the most passionate and dedicated connoisseurs of the arts were still subject to mortality, the explorations of their thirsty souls doomed to be cut short by the decay of the frail vessels that bore them.

Life was finite, a passing thing that slowly yet inexorably ebbed away from the universe toward the all-consuming unknown that lay beyond, be it paradise, oblivion, or something else entirely. Every second of existence that passed by was lost for eternity, a grain of sand plummeting from the neck of a bottomless hourglass into an abyss beyond recovery. This was a constant, a law of existence as fundamental as any other. Despite its immutability, mortality had been the subject of countless philosophical discussions throughout history. Some individuals allowed themselves to become crippled by despair at the concept, to the point that they declared life devoid of meaning and purpose. Others saw life as nothing more than a barrier between themselves and a greater plane of existence, resulting in the occasional suicide cult whose members sought to hasten their own ascension. Most tried not to dwell on the matter and instead focus on life while it lasted.

For Sally, the question of life’s significance in the face of death had been answered at a very young age, though it was a revelation that she had not wholly understood at the time, the full extent of its implications and nuances being beyond the earnest yet limited reach of her youthful thoughts. Her world had seemed so much simpler then, a charmed existence alongside her father and best friend within a wondrous citadel atop a city unrivaled in splendor. She had been happily naive, sheltered from exposure to the grim and terrible happenings of the larger world. For the peace that had governed her life was both fragile and younger than even she, purchased in blood after years of her people fighting in a conflict so vicious and widespread that it had been known as the Great War long before its conclusion…

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“Not so tight, Rosie! I can’t breathe!” Sally complained as her caretaker adjusted the straps of her new dress.

“Dearie, if you would just stand still instead of fidgeting constantly, this would be much easier for both of us…” the elderly woodchuck chided in return, her soft chuckle robbing her words of any harshness they might have held.

At the back of the ornate dressing room stood Tabitha, Mobotropolis’ finest seamstress and the architect of the infernal raiment currently trying to kill the young princess. “I apologize for any discomfort, my lady,” she said in a tone that rang of sincerity rather than the patronization Sally so often encountered when conversing with elders, her shifting hands betraying a nervousness that contrasted with her otherwise calm manner. “I don’t often do commissions for children, and I fear that I may have incorporated your measurements improperly.”

“Oh nonsense, madam,” Rosie grunted reassuringly in between tugs. “Your dress is superb…I…just…need to…finish this…knot, and…”

The last bit of cloth slid neatly into place, at which all three individuals present sighed in relief. This was followed by Sally loudly gasping for air for several seconds, her actions exaggerated more out of playful theatricality than genuine annoyance or need.

“There,” Rosie beamed, turning Sally to face the large mirror that comprised one of the dressing room’s walls. “Oh, Princess, you look marvelous! Your father will be so pleased…”

Sally gazed at her reflection, resisting the urge to pout at the doting. The skirt of her dress had a shamrock green base, with malachite gemstones evenly placed along the hem. Its lower half was embroidered with flowers of silver and deep blue, the upper half with intricate curves of white and sky blue. Her bodice was of the same deep blue as that in the lower skirt; though it was dotted with tiny white gemstones, it possessed no embroidering of its own, save for the region covering her chest, upon which was set in silver the crest of her house, a great tree rising from an acorn. Together, the ensemble gave the distinct impression of shifting from a field in spring to a cloudy, daylit sky, and from there to the vast, starry expanses of space.

It’s…alright, I suppose, Sally thought silently. Pretty, I guess, but that’s about it. A little scratchy too…

“Well? What do you think, my lady?” Tabitha asked, her voice tinged equally with eagerness and anxiety.

Among the virtues most instilled in the young princess since her birth were politeness and honesty. For a moment, the two conflicted as she struggled to determine how exactly to express her respect for the great deal of effort that had obviously been put into the gown’s creation without exaggerating what little enthusiasm she actually felt toward it.

“It…is very pretty. You did an excellent job, Miss Tabitha. I’m sure my father will be pleased,” Sally said at last, doing her utmost to sound regal. She looked up at the seamstress.

Tabitha was short for a feline, standing only a few inches taller than Rosie. Her fur was a striking pure white; given that she appeared no older than thirty, the color was doubtless not the mark of age but natural, something of a rarity amongst her people. She was not garbed in a gown of her own, as one might expect of a seamstress, but instead wore a simple sleeveless tunic notable only for its multitude of pockets, poking out of which could be seen needles, spools of thread, bits of cloth, and other odds and ends tied to her trade. Despite her modest attire, she carried an air of regality and sophistication about her, the source of which Sally found difficult to pin down. Perhaps it was her posture, which was upright yet somehow relaxed, with none of the stiffness seen in the palace guards. Perhaps it was her accent, smooth and precise, each syllable crisply enunciated in a manner that did not impart undue harshness or severity upon her tone. Or perhaps it was her sapphire eyes, bright with intelligence and purpose, that seemed to effortlessly take in even the most minute nuances of whatever lay before them.

Those eyes widened for a fraction of a second at Sally’s words, and the squirrel thought she glimpsed a frown begin to overtake the cat’s features before being suppressed in favor of a tight smile that, though polite, seemed none too genuine. Clearly, the implications of the delay in Sally’s response and the lack of excitement in her voice had not gone unnoticed by the dressmaker.

“Very good, my lady,” Tabitha curtly replied, bowing her head forward. “If there is nothing else, I will take my leave.”

As the feline turned to go, Sally frowned in thought. Her voice had sounded empty, as though deliberately drained of all emotion, lest it carry out into the open thoughts and feelings she desired to keep hidden but could not otherwise restrain with reasonable certainty. Of course, the lack of emotion was itself indicative that something was amiss, and it cemented her suspicions that Tabitha was upset with her. Not angry, but…sad. Disappointed. It had not been Sally’s intent to hurt the seamstress, and she resolved to correct the matter while there was still opportunity.

A balance of etiquette and honesty having failed, she decided to bank entirely on the latter.

“Miss Tabitha, please wait!” Sally implored, her façade of regality replaced by genuine earnestness. As the dressmaker turned once more, brow wrinkled in confusion, she gulped, took a deep breath, and pressed on. “I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful or hurt your feelings. I think it’s a very nice dress, honest! I just…well, I don’t get it. What’s the point of dresses, of your job? Sure, they can be pretty, but…that’s it, right? I don’t see anything else to them. Is that prettiness really worth the hassle of putting them on or all the time you spend making them? Other types of clothes are easier to wear and often do useful things, like protecting you from the cold or rain. I mean, right now you’re wearing something with tons of pockets so you can carry things that help you work. It’s not as pretty as the dress, but it’s more useful. Doesn’t that make it better? Come to think of it, unless you need pockets or warmth or something, it’s a whole lot easier not to wear anything at all!”

Tabitha’s eyes widened, her deliberately reserved features now radiating shock tinged with horror and indignation. She blinked twice, as if to ascertain the reality of her situation. Before she could verbally respond, however, another voice spoke up.

“Now see here, young lady! That’s quite enough out of you!” Rosie snapped, her arms crossed. “I won’t have you trying to question the career of this poor woman. And I certainly won’t tolerate you advocating prancing around stark naked like a…like a male!”

Sally rolled her eyes at her nanny’s histrionics. “Rosie, we’re covered in fur,” she replied, tugging on a tuft on one of her arms for emphasis. “We’re not humans like Minister Julian. There’s nothing wrong with not wearing anything. Mobian guys do it all the time…”

“And it’s barbaric,” Rosie interrupted. “Clothing is among the most basic marks of civility and decency. Where this ridiculous trend among men of going unclad started, I have no idea, but it isn’t going to spread to the fairer half of the population on my watch! Why, when I was a girl, men always wore clothing in public, just as we do!”

“That’s because you weren’t raised around here, Rosie,” Sally sighed. “Sir Charles says that when he was a boy…”

“Not another word! Such backtalk is most unbecoming of a lady, much less a princess. You’ve been hanging around that hedgehog boy far too much; I’ll bet he’s the one filling your head with such ridiculous notions. Hmph! The princess of the land, going about with no attire at all? Society will have truly collapsed if that ever happens!”

Sally did her best to tune out the prattling woodchuck. Rosie meant well, and was indeed a wonderful nanny overall, but when something set her off, there was no stopping her until she had spoken her piece.

A moment later, a soft knock at the door interrupted Rosie’s lecturing. I guess some things can stop her, Sally dryly corrected herself. I’m just not one of them. Aloud, she called out, “You may enter!”

The thick wooden door opened, revealing a sparrow clad in the uniform of a palace servant. “Pardon the intrusion, your highness,” she said, bowing before Sally, her voice distinguished by a lyrical, half-sung quality common in the normal speech of avian Mobians.

“It is no trouble at all,” Sally replied, trying to sound regal while still being warm and inviting. “How may I help you, Miss Aerolynne?”

“Actually, it’s Rosie whom I need,” the servant said before hastily adding, “with your permission, of course.” At Sally’s nod, she turned toward the woodchuck. “We’re a bit short-winged right now and could use some assistance setting up for the banquet in the main hall. Would you be so kind?”

Rosie did not respond immediately. Instead, her eyes narrowed for a moment, seeming stern and critical as they looked over Tabitha from head to toe, as if evaluating whether there was even the slightest possibility of the seamstress posing a threat to the princess. Then the moment passed, her eyes reverting to their usual wide, kindly appearance.

“Yes, of course,” she nodded toward Aerolynne. The sparrow took her leave, but before the woodchuck followed suit, she assured Sally that she would be just a few rooms away.

“There are guards posted just down the hall. Let them know if you need anything,” Rosie finished as she shut the door behind her, a comment that seemed as much a veiled threat toward Tabitha as it was an assurance toward Sally.

Sally rolled her eyes at her nanny’s overprotectiveness. By all means, take your time over there. Now, where were we? Oh right, the point of dresses.

Turning back to Tabitha, who had been worryingly quiet this whole time, she concluded her long-interrupted impromptu speech. “Anyway, Miss Tabitha, I don’t mean to sound rude. I’m just curious. Why do you make dresses?”

To her surprise and relief, Tabitha wore a warm expression, no longer seeming insulted or upset at having the purpose of the craft she had devoted her life to called into question. Rather, she was slowly shaking her head in astonishment, a small smile steadily spreading across her features.

“My dear princess,” she said softly, “you truly are a wonder. To pick up on my body language as you just did…well, either I am far less subtle than I consider myself to be or you are most perceptive for one so young. Given that it flatters us both, let us presume it is the latter case.” She chuckled briefly before continuing in a more serious tone. “But to begin considering the merits of utility versus aesthetics at your age, that is something special indeed.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, and a small tear glimmered in the corner of her right eye. “Perhaps the dress I designed for you is more appropriate than I imagined…”

Sally had been beaming at the praise, a tad confusing though it was, but frowned in bewilderment at this last musing.

“What do you mean?”

“Sally…” Tabitha began before pausing with a look of uncertainty. “Do if you mind if I address you as such? While I typically prefer to maintain proper etiquette when conversing, particularly with individuals of social stature far higher than my own, I fear that recent tangential discussions of…uncladness…have rendered an atmosphere befitting propriety untenable and beyond immediate repair. Moreover, what I have to say might be conveyed more readily if spoken in a more relaxed and personal manner.”

“So…what you’re saying is that you feel goofy trying to stay formal right after Rosie and I were talking about the idea of running around naked?”

“Just so,” the seamstress responded in a deadpan tone.

Through valiant effort, Sally managed to compress the urge to burst out laughing into a soft snicker and wide grin. “Fine by me. I actually prefer to be called by my name rather than titles.”

“An admirable quality…or at least, often the sign of one,” Tabitha acknowledged before resuming. “But as I was saying, Sally, you just touched on an ages old debate, one that I suspect has been around in some form or another since close to the dawn of civilization. Life is rarely easy, and meeting its incessant demands often proves exhausting, even when focusing on utility and efficiency. To cross beyond that cold, sterile threshold and reach out into the nebulous realm of aesthetics, of beauty, is far more difficult still. Why, then, should we do so? Why strive for such things, when they have no immediate, tangible value, yet can only be achieved through additional, often considerable, effort that carries no certainty of bearing fruit?”

The seamstress paused and closed her eyes, her furred brow furrowing. It seemed to Sally that she was deep in thought, as though struggling to determine how best to coalesce colossal, abstract concepts into discrete, simple words suited for utterance.

“It is a matter of language,” the feline said at last, smiling as she opened her eyes and looked once more at the young heiress before her. “Of expression. Each of our souls is awash with multitudes of thoughts. Most fade away into nothingness or are crystallized into memory, but…there are some that resonate with us, that stand out in stark clarity from their surroundings and demand our attention, refusing to be so easily swept from the forefront of our minds. And ah, it is those thoughts that are truly special. They can be cultivated, refined, grown and polished into something that holds deep and profound meaning, that touches the sublime. For many, to know such a thought is to love it, for it is these that serve as the windows through which we might experience beauty.

“Of course, beauty is something to be spread. That which captures the mind in loving bondage is itself a prisoner, confined to the soul that bore it into being. For a thought to be freed, and so free its creator from the burden of nourishing and sustaining it, it must find purchase beyond the soul, in the physical. Once immortalized as part of this realm, it can be perceived by others, who may well look upon it and find inspiration, a catalyst for their own thoughts laced with beauty and the sublime.

“Rendering the sublime manifest is rarely a straightforward undertaking, however. These words we speak, this everyday parlance…is limited. Basic conversation suffices for the conveying of general information, yes, but the soul’s deepest currents, our highest and most precious thoughts and passions? They require more to be properly elucidated: other languages, not of the tongue, but the soul. Music. Poetry. Painting. Literature. These are but a few of the mediums that comprise the arts, that allow one to speak with unmatched purity from the deepest, most intimate recesses of the heart. It is through the languages of our souls that we may find and understand our truest selves…and it is through them that we may best demonstrate who we are to others.”

Sally did not even attempt to keep herself from gaping as Tabitha at last grew silent. As the woman had spoken, whatever anxiety she may have been feeling had clearly melted away, leaving her seeming taller, prouder, almost aglow with whatever divine energy imbued her words with such eloquence and passion. The speech might not have been rehearsed, but the sentiments it conveyed obviously helped form the very foundation of her identity.

If her impassioned oration had left the seamstress swept up in her own world, the staring eyes of the young princess bore holes through which reality came surging in, sweeping away both her newfound glow and usual air of regality. The feline lowered her head, ears drooping as her cheeks ignited in a bright crimson visible even through her white fur.

“…Dressmaking happens to be my language,” Tabitha finished meekly before sighing. “My sincerest apologies, my lady. I suppose that made very little sense. Just the incoherent ramblings of a rather foolish woman who cannot so much as adhere to her own views and resist trying to explain the abstract in conversation. With your permission, I’ll take my leave in the hopes of sparing myself further embarrassment.”

“No!” Sally shouted, too shocked to act with restraint. When she was met with a raised eyebrow and forced frown twitching at its edges with what seemed like suppressed hope, she took a long, slow breath to compose herself. “Miss Tabitha, that speech was incredible. While I didn’t understand all of it, I think I got the main point. When you make dresses, it’s like…it’s like writing in a secret code! A code that lets you say things better than you can by talking!”

Whatever reservations had been holding up the dressmaker’s wavering frown dissolved in a heartbeat, leaving her positively beaming with pride and excitement. “In essence, yes! That’s actually a splendid metaphor! However, as with any code or language, one must learn how to interpret art in order to truly understand it. Such knowledge is not easily taught, but rather comes gradually through life experience as one encounters and reflects on various works.”

Sally frowned in disappointment, her shoulders slumping. “So I won’t be able to figure out what this dress is saying until I’m older?”

Tabitha’s grin turned sly, her voice adopting a playfully conspiratorial tone. “Not necessarily. Between you and I, there’s a certain fashion designer I know who might be willing to divulge her secrets. All that she asks in return is for you to try to figure it out yourself.”

“…Alright,” Sally said uncertainly. Though skeptical of her ability to decipher a language she essentially had no experience with, she nonetheless turned back toward the mirror and began diligently studying her reflection.

After a minute or two of silence, the dressmaker offered a bit of advice. “Try thinking associatively. What are you reminded of?”

“Well…” the princess began slowly, “The lower part of the skirt makes me think of a meadow; it’s green with flowers. The upper part’s colors remind me of cloudy skies, but…I’m not sure about these curvy patterns. They’re very pretty, but they don’t really remind me of anything.”

“Try to describe them,” Tabitha encouraged. “Are they simple?”

“No, the designs are complex. Very detailed. But at the same time…they’re still patterns. They’re orderly and structured.”

“And how does that compare to what you see in the lower skirt?”

“Well, flowers aren’t like that. They can be very detailed, but they’re usually uneven and not so pr-…  pre-…” Sally sighed in annoyance. “Oh, what was that word again?”

“Precise?” the dressmaker offered.

“Thank you. Yes, so precise. I mean, even if you find a bunch of flowers of the same type, they’re still not going to look exactly the same. I guess nature’s like that in general, really.”

“So if the patterns don’t represent something natural…” Tabitha gently pressed.

“…they must have to do with something Mobian-made!” Sally finished, starting to grow excited. “Or human made, I guess. You know what I mean. So…there’s a contrast between the two parts of the skirt. Natural things on the bottom, and things made by people on the top!”

“Excellent. Keep going! What about the bodice?”

“It looks like the night sky; the white gems are stars, and the rest is just a dark background…except for one thing. My family’s crest is there, which seems a little weird. I mean, the bodice is supposed to be outer space, right? If the lower skirt is the ground and the upper skirt is the sky, that would fit the pattern. But…my family doesn’t have anything to do with space. I know that’s where humans are supposed to have originally come from, but, as far as I know, no Mobian’s ever been up there.

“Come to think of it, if the upper skirt is supposed to be the sky, why are those patterns there? You just agreed that they meant things people make, but that doesn’t include many things in the sky. Sure, there are planes and shuttles, but that’s mainly it, right? I’ve heard of things like floating cities in made up stories, but Sir Charles says Mobian science isn’t that advanced yet…”

“Mobian space travel and an abundance of atmospheric technology? Strange things indeed. You are correct, Princess, that they are beyond our society’s ability at this time. But will they always be so?”

Sally’s eyes widened. “You’re talking about the future! This dress, it…it has to do with a time when we’re far more advanced than we are now. And my family crest…are you saying my family will have something to do with that?”

“You’ve nearly figured it out, but one crucial piece of the puzzle still needs to slide into place. Possibility and the future of our people are themes of this dress, yes, but what it is truly about at its core is a single, tangible thing you have yet to identify, obvious though it is.” The feline chuckled kindly. “You might say it’s staring you in the face.”

The princess frowned in confusion, looking around the room before facing the mirror once more. Then her jaw dropped.

Me?!?”  

As Sally whipped around to face her, Tabitha knelt down so that the two were at eye level with one another.

“Yes, Sally,” she smiled softly, eyes starting to brim with tears as she placed a hand on both of the young squirrel’s shoulders. “Whenever I design a dress for a specific individual, I do my utmost to allow my understanding of who that person is to guide the design process, to ensure that the work is not only aesthetically pleasing but a reflection of the client’s inner being. As I’m sure you can imagine, doing so unfortunately tends to be rather difficult when the person in question is a stranger, as you were when I received this commission. I knew of you, of course; I’d be surprised if anyone in the whole kingdom of Theiapele, especially here within the capital, did not. Yet knowing of and genuinely knowing are worlds apart. In the case of most unfamiliar clients, I prefer to hold informal interviews over tea or lunch in order to foster a greater understanding of them, to gain insight into their careers, background, aspirations, and so on.  Though I feel now that I was mistaken, I did not think such an approach would bear fruit in your case, given your age. So instead of trying to rely on a wanting understanding of you based on observation and scraps of information, I based my design on what I hoped you would become, on the person I wanted you to be.

“I do not know to what extent you have been apprised of…recent history, and it is certainly not my place to be the one to inform you of such things. But know that our country, indeed, much of the whole world, has suffered deeply over the past few years. The source of this misery was recently ended, in no small part due to the leadership of your father and heroism of Minister Julian, but its aftereffects will be felt for years. The world is now catching its breath and stands at a critical point on the path of history. Behind it lie untold horrors and sadness. Before it is a crossroads. Each path leads to another crossroads, and then others still. The future is uncertain, a complex mire of interrelated decisions yet to be made. Some paths lead to anarchy and chaos, a ruin that could match or even eclipse that which has already transpired, unthinkable though it seems. Others lead to stagnation, civilization limping through the years, its wounds never healed, as decay and the rot of corruption gnaw away at its foundations.”

Sally found herself quietly crying, confused and terrified by the ominous words that the woman before her spoke with such grave intensity. The seamstress normally spoke in a lofty, sophisticated manner that was difficult to understand, but this was something else entirely. What she spoke of seemed alien and abstract, yet massive and dire, a thing of terrible and incalculable significance that threatened to overtake and consume her peaceful world as surely and utterly as a tsunami hurtling toward a tiny, unsuspecting island.

Then she found a hand gingerly wiping the tears from her face, accompanied by a voice that was now no longer weary and grim, but soft and gentle.

“Ssh. It’s alright, Sally. It’s alright,” Tabitha whispered, forming a small smile. “There’s no need to be afraid, because there’s another path still, and it’s the one that I genuinely believe we will travel. And do you know where it leads?”

“Where?” whispered the young girl, sniffling.

“To prosperity. To growth. To a future in which the wounds of the world are healed and the lessons of history learned from so that the sins of the past are not repeated. To an age of possibility in which a foundation of unity and humility gives birth to a host of discoveries and triumphs that shatters the cage of what we now consider to be our limits. To a cultural renaissance that drives people everywhere to cultivate beauty within their souls and then free it through great works of art that inspire and empower future generations for millennia.”

The seamstress closed her eyes and shook her head, still smiling. “Perhaps I am being foolish. Perhaps such a future is impossible, nothing more than the ravings of someone blinded by her own romanticism. But I think it’s a future worth believing in and striving for.”

Sally managed a giggle. “It certainly sounds a lot nicer than those other paths you mentioned.”

“That it does. However, successfully navigating that labyrinth of crossroads and reaching it will be no small task. As it happens, our country is in better shape than other nations, in some cases enormously so, and is thus poised to lead the rest of the world on this journey. The burden of choosing which paths to take thus lies on, more than anyone, our leader, your father and my king. Thankfully, in this regard we have been truly blessed, for he is a wise man with a good heart, a paragon of strength that has already carried us through dark times.

“However, the journey will be a long one. Eventually, the king, worn and tired from a lifetime of leadership, will step down from the throne. You are our princess, his only heir. When that day comes, the mantle of leadership and the burdens that come with it will pass to you. It shall be you, Sally Acorn, who must navigate the Crossroads of Fate and guide us toward the future, whatever it may be.”

Sally shut her eyes tightly, standing perfectly still as she tried to take in the enormity of what had just been said. She had known that she would one day rule, that she would be queen, but rarely gave the matter thought. It had seemed nothing more than a simple fact for the time being, an event so many years removed from her own present circumstances that it had might as well not even exist.

But it did exist. Impossibly far off though it seemed, the position of queen would one day be hers to fill, and for the first time she began to consider what that truly meant. Eventually, a burning in her lungs alerted her to her body’s needs, and she took a deep breath, slowly nodding as she did so.

“That is why I designed your dress this way,” Tabitha continued. I hoped that you would grow to become someone worthy of that mantle, that, when the time came, you would rule with wisdom and integrity. I wanted to believe in you, in a future queen who would not lead us astray but serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration to both her people and those of other nations.”

The princess moved to a chair at the edge of the room and sunk into it, arching her head upward. The movement of the ceiling fan caught her eye, and she tried to focus on it, seeking refuge in any distraction, however mundane, that could ease the pressure of the crushing weight just placed upon her mind.

It didn’t help.

The waters of her spirit were normally peaceful, their currents of emotion gentle and graceful as they ferried thoughts to and from consciousness. From time to time, some form of unpleasantness would find entry, disrupting the tranquility and causing the currents to become unstable. Yet, without fail, it was soon swept away, failing to sink deep within her and take poisonous root.

Now, the waters churned and rolled as they were buffeted by wild, surging currents of negative emotions. Fear of not living up to what was expected of her, of making mistakes that would harm more people than she could imagine, of just not being good enough. Self-pity at being forced to bear such a terrible burden, at not being master of her own fate, free to nurture and pursue her own dreams. Anger at Tabitha for placing this pressure upon her and upsetting her state of mind, at stealing away part of her innocence, creating a breach in the shield of youthful ignorance that sheltered her from the harsh realities of the world around her.

“No pressure…” she eventually snorted, eyes closed, not bothering to hide the bitterness or wavering in her voice.

There was no response, but Sally, content to sulk and not trusting herself to refrain from outbursts, remained still, thoughts writhing within her. What makes me so special? Why make me queen? I’m just a child! I don’t know the first thing about leadership! Sure, it’s a long way off, and I’ll learn in that time…but will it be enough? CAN it be enough? To have so much responsibility…over so many people…I don’t see myself ever being ready. I should be looking up to wise people like Miss Tabitha, not the other way around.

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

Sally looked up, surprised. The words had been Tabitha’s, but they sounded…strange. Her enunciation had been softer, less precise. The seamstress was kneeling opposite her across the room, crestfallen and eyes closed. The feline had shown signs of sadness before, yet this seemed deeper, more personal.

“…Miss Tabitha? Are you alright?” Sally whispered, her surprise enough to briefly subdue the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions she had been engulfed in.

Tabitha slowly met her gaze, and it seemed to Sally that her eyes were ridden with…guilt. Indeed, she seemed younger, somehow, less experienced and more vulnerable.

“No. No, I’m not. Unintentional though it was, I’ve clearly hurt you, callously dumping what must seem like the weight of the world on your shoulders without so much as a word of warning.” She strode across the room and knelt before Sally, bowing her head. “Princess…Sally…I beg you to forgive me, to believe me when I say that I would never wish pain upon you or knowingly bring you grief. I just wanted to let you know how important you are, how much you matter to me, to all of us. You are hope embodied, the promise of the coming dawn in a long and painful night that is at last drawing to an end.”

As the dressmaker spoke, Sally realized that her accent had indeed shifted. This was not the elegant, cultured tone of a noblewoman, but that of a commoner. Her words carried an earnestness and purity that spoke of a complete lack of reservation. Before Sally was a woman who had willingly set aside her carefully constructed affectations, the mannerisms she had adopted for herself to wear as a mask before the rest of the world. Underneath was a soul that, though stripped of regality and confidence, was remarkably gentle, a kind-hearted being who felt deep sorrow and regret for having done wrong in her own eyes, for having hurt another.

Whatever lingering anger and resentment Sally may have felt toward her vanished in an instant, her spirit beginning to calm as she leapt out of her chair and hugged the kneeling woman tightly. Tabitha gasped, clearly taken by surprise, but reciprocated the hug after a moment.

They stayed that way for perhaps a minute, after which the older woman rose to her feet, clearly embarrassed but nonetheless laughing softly as she wiped tears from her eyes. “Sally, I’m afraid all this talking has left me rather parched. Would you please excuse me to grab a drink from the other room?”

“Of course. Bring me one too, please.”

The feline left and returned several minutes later, a glass of ice water in each hand. As she reentered the room, Sally surmised from her body language that she had again donned her usual mannerisms. Posture, expression, gait, and composure all spoke of class and regality. She was once more the cultured, sophisticated fashionista. Even so, her eyes bore a glint that betrayed the kindness behind them.

“Your drink, my lady,” Tabitha spoke in formal tones, offering a glass to Sally.

“Thank you kindly, Miss Tabitha,” the princess replied in kind as she accepted it. She slowly sipped at the water, savoring the cold relief it offered.

When the two had finished, the dressmaker gingerly asked, “Princess…with your permission, I wish to offer a final addendum to…our previous discussion.”

Sally sobered at this but nodded after a moment of thought. Whatever it is, I know she means well. Besides, it’s not like she’s responsible for the importance of the tasks before me. The truth was always there; she just made me see it. Unpleasant, but it had to happen sooner or later.

“After today, I see more than hope in you, Princess Sally. I see potential, the genuine makings of the leader I envisioned. You are an incredibly intelligent young lady, and I truly mean that. Why, I could never have imagined that my time at the palace today would include the two of us holding a philosophical discussion of art! You have also shown perceptiveness and compassion, and, though it hurt, the fact that you took the prospect of carrying the burdens of a leader seriously demonstrates that you value both responsibility and the welfare of your people. Continue working to cultivate these virtues, and I assure you that, when the time of your reign finally comes, your people will be most proud of you, as will your father.”

Sally gulped but nodded gravely. “It won’t be easy, but I’ll do my best.”

To Sally’s surprise, Tabitha winked, her voice losing some of its formality. “Of course, you mustn’t try too hard, at least for the near future. That time is many years hence, for your father is wise and still in his prime. Do not dwell on the future, but rejoice in your youth! Spend time with your friends; revel in activities you enjoy; embrace your freedom while you still can and live life to the fullest! Promise me that, when you think back on our discussion, you’ll try to see it as a source of encouragement, not stress.”

The young squirrel grinned widely, relaxing considerably. “Yes ma’am!” And with that, her spirit completed its return to peacefulness, its currents becoming tranquil once more. The fears and anxieties that had emerged were not destroyed, but they were diminished and kept at bay, sealed away by a newfound ward of hope that burned radiantly within her.

Tabitha set their glasses on a table and began collecting her things. “It’s truly been a delightful experience meeting you, Princess Sally, but I’m afraid I need to get going. I have many things to attend to before tomorrow night.”

“So you’ll be at the banquet, then?” Sally asked hopefully.

“Of course! I hope to see you there. You’ll get to meet my fiancé, whom I suspect you’ll get along with famously. I’ll also be wearing something more…expressive than these old things,” she added, gesturing to her work clothes.

A sly grin formed on the face of the seamstress, and she looked around the room conspicuously before leaning in. “Speaking of clothes,” she whispered in a mock conspiratorial tone, “I feel I must urge you not to carry out any royal decrees advocating the acceptability of public nudity. Think of what it would do to my business!”

Both of them were still laughing when Rosie finally returned.

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The rest of the day passed without incident. True to her word, Sally tried not to dwell on the more unsettling aspects of her conversation with Tabitha, instead focusing on whatever task lay before her. The exchange had no outward effect upon her, save that she was perhaps more diligent in her studies, more likely to allow her gaze to linger on works of art that she passed by. Soon the sun completed its journey across the westward horizon, leaving in its wake the soft shades of night, which slowly spread out to wrap the land in quiet embrace. Desiring to be well-rested for the proceedings of the following evening, Sally readily yielded to their advance and retired early.

Sinking into her luxurious bed, she reached over and switched off the nightstand lamp, leaving the room in near total darkness and quiet. Bereft of most of its usual stream of sensory stimuli, her mind turned inward, peacefully reflecting on the day’s occurrences. She thought of her wonderful new dress, of all the effort and meaning that had gone into it, and briefly pondered whether she herself would someday learn to express herself through art. Miss Tabitha called dressmaking “the language of her soul.” But how do I figure out what my soul’s language is? Does everyone have a soul language? Heh, I don’t see Sonic making art. Although…it would be…be pretty funny…if it was… Her thoughts began to blur, leaving it more and more difficult to continue her musings. They quickly ceased entirely, as her consciousness drew in on itself and sunk deep into her mind, surrounded by the warm emptiness of sleep.

The void was soon filled, however, for the loss of lucidity marked a loss of control, the lowering of barriers and restraints she had fashioned within her mind. Without such safeguards, the unconscious self was free to move unchecked…and assert a will of its own.

She was sitting alone in a rowboat out on a lake. A thick veil of white mist encircled her, limiting eyesight in any direction to only a few meters. It was quiet, the waters around her still, and though she did not recall how she had come to be there or for what purpose, such things did not seem to matter. She was relaxed, at peace, and for a time was content to simply sit and enjoy the tranquility. Gradually, however, a growing disquiet began to form in her gut. Something was wrong, but she lacked the faintest idea as to what it could be.

Suddenly, the surrounding silence was shattered. All around her were the sounds of screaming and cries for help, burning flames and frantic splashing. Moments later, a forceful gale tore through the mists, sweeping them aside. As Sally held onto the boat for dear life, she looked up…and was horrified. She was not on a lake, but in Mobotropolis! The city had been flooded, the waters consuming the lower districts and the first stories of the upper levels. What few buildings still protruded out were aflame, filling the air with smoke that caused her eyes to water. Through the tears, she could see people scattered throughout the water, clinging to debris. Grabbing the boat’s oars, she furiously rowed toward the nearest group of survivors, yet even as she did so, one of them lost his grip, sinking down into oblivion. Another had done so by the time she reached them, leaving only one left. With all her strength, Sally managed to pull the soaking woman aboard. As she did, a thousand heads turned as one toward her, shouting, “Princess! Please, help us!” Though overwhelmed by emotion and confusion at the destruction and chaos before her, she hurriedly rowed toward the next group, of whom she managed to save two. Then she moved to the next group. And the next group. And the next group. All too soon, the boat was filled to the point of barely keeping afloat, the number of rescued utterly miniscule compared to the tally of the doomed. Again and again, they cried out for Sally to save them, yet she could do nothing more.

Suddenly, a familiar voice could be heard amidst the clamor. “Sal! Please! Ya gotta do somethin’! I can’t hold on!” Mortified, she searched for its source, but could not find Sonic anywhere. “Please, Sally!” he begged, his voice increasingly weak. “I’m not gonna make it! I’m…not…” He trailed off into nothingness, and a moment later Sally heard a splash from somewhere behind her.

Panic gripped her, but it was outweighed by a cold determination to do whatever it took to save her best friend. “Hold on, Sonic!” she yelled as she stood up, preparing to dive overboard after him. Yet before she could jump, she was grabbed from behind by the outstretched arms of those she had already saved.

“Princess! Don’t abandon us! We need you!” they pleaded in unison, pinning her to the bottom of the boat. She struggled to break free, but to no avail. Minutes passed, and as it became clear that there would be no saving Sonic…that there would be no saving anyone else at all…she succumbed to grief and began sobbing.

“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “I’m so, so sorry. I couldn’t save all of you! I tried, but I just couldn’t do it…”

“You could have, but you were weak,” boomed a voice that was at once recognizable and strange. Where loving warmth should have been, there was only cold cruelty. Concern and compassion had been replaced by disdain and derision.

Unable to believe her eyes, Sally stared up at her father, standing atop one of the burning buildings. His body was wreathed in flames, yet remained unharmed. “Daddy!” she pleaded, “Please, do something! I’m scared! I…I don’t know what to do!”

“That is precisely the problem, you pathetic little wretch,” he sneered. “You were supposed to lead this people, this city, but as all began to fall into ruin, you sat by and did nothing. By the time you awoke from your stupor, it was far too late.” As he spoke, ghostly apparitions appeared around him; though Sally did not recognize any of them, they were so akin to her father in features and garb that she realized they must be her ancestors, the kings and queens of the past. “It’s not as though I asked much from you. All you had to do was fill the throne for a few years. Maintain the status quo. Clearly, I was mistaken to believe you could achieve even that.”

Words failed Sally. How could her loving father say such terrible things? Were they true? Was all of this somehow actually her fault?

There was a deafening crack beneath her, and suddenly a jolt of pain shot up her spine, as searing hot water began surging into the boat. The vessel collapsed under its own weight, dumping those aboard into a watery grave below. Despite the pain, Sally tried to swim, to stay afloat, but she was dragged down by those she thought she had saved, still clinging to her. As she went under, the last things she heard were the scornful words of her father, echoed by the spirits of the past.

“For centuries, our family has ruled this land. Such a shame that the line should end with the likes of you.”

The world went black, her senses dead to everything save the sound of screaming. Presently, she realized that the noise was only coming from herself. Given that she was neither soaked nor scalded, as well as able to breathe and scream rather than choking and making strangled gurgling noises, she quickly concluded that she was currently in no danger of drowning. That calmed her down slightly, enough that she managed to stop screaming, though her breath still came in ragged gasps. Tentatively feeling around her surroundings revealed the familiar soft fabric textures of sheets, pillows, and stuffed animals, suggesting that she was not dead either, but in her own bed.

Was…was it just a dream? It seemed so real, so horrible…

The absolute blackness was at last breached by a bright light as a doorway swung open. Resisting the impulse to start screaming again at the sudden intrusion, Sally rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision. As it adjusted, she could make out Evangeline Depardieu, Captain of the Royal Guard, silhouetted against the doorway, hand on the hilt of her sheathed sword.

“What is ‘appening, My Princess?” she called out in her thick Trivarine accent. “Are you alright?”

“I…I think so,” Sally replied as she tried to calm her breathing, the words feeling hollow. “It must have just been a bad dream, but…” The images replayed themselves in her mind, startlingly vivid. Her home, engulfed by fire and flood. Being unable to save anyone. Losing Sonic. Her father’s scorn and disappointment…she began crying, wishing the dreadful memories would just go away.

The uniformed coyote sat down on the edge of the bed next to her, wrapping an arm around her back. “Oui. Oui. Zey can be terry-ble zings, ze nightmares. I do not get zem myself very often anymore, but my own little one does. You have met my Antoine, no?”

“A few times,” Sally nodded with a sniffle, recalling the timid young coyote who, though polite, always seemed on the verge of jumping at his own shadow. He had come across as the very opposite of Sonic, and she suspected that the two would not get along well if they ever met.

“Well, what I have found ‘elps ‘im is to talk about ze dreams,” Evangeline continued. “Zey seem scary at ze time, oui, but they are often not making much of ze sense. Bringing zem out into ze light reveals zis, and it and it makes it easier not to be afraid of zem. Some nightmares even seem quite silly in ze retrospect! Zere was one my little ‘Twan mentioned in which all ze butter in ze kingdom had been replaced with m-“

“This wasn’t like that,” Sally interrupted darkly, annoyed at the seeming condescension, at the casual dismissal of something so horrific. She had weathered such bad dreams before, ‘experiences’ so trivial or absurd that she scarcely gave them a second thought upon awakening. But this… This was not remotely akin to forgetting to do a mathematics assignment or being chased by a swarm of flying books. It was far darker, far more intense, than anything her mind had hitherto conjured.

Evangeline frowned, clearly taken aback by her brusque interjection. “But of course, My Princess,” she hurriedly replied in a reassuring tone that was tinged ever so slightly with annoyance. “It was not my intent to offend. I was merely suggesting zat sometimes…” Her words trailed away with a frustrated sigh. “Perhaps I am not being ze best person to discuss zis with. Shall I awaken Madam Rosie or His Royal Majesty? You are of course closer to zem, and I am sure both would be ‘appy to ‘elp with zis matter.”

Sally was now awake enough to be largely lucid, and she took several moments to consider the offer. It was possible that speaking about the matter would help, though she could not see how. What could they say that would bring her peace? Simply reassuring her that it was just a dream, that none of it had been real, would do no good; it was obvious that the city remained untouched by fire or flood, that its people, her people, were safe. For whatever reason, that knowledge brought little comfort, its light seeming cold and dim, eclipsed by a haze of painful emotions that refused to fade. Talking about the dream would surely draw that haze closer to her, wrapping her in its suffocating grip as she relived that ghastly phantom apocalypse. It was not something she was sure she could bear again so soon, and it was certainly not worth contending with unless lasting comfort was an assured result. Rosie cared for her, but their relationship lacked a certain…closeness…that seemed requisite to dispelling that wretched murk. As for her father…

Such a shame the line should end with the likes of you.

The cold, condescending words of the apparition echoed in her mind, and to her shame Sally found herself unwilling to turn to her own father. How could she? How could she look him in the eye and reveal that she had, however unintentionally, thought him capable of such cruelty? Her father was, without question, the greatest person she had ever known, a paragon of virtue and beacon of leadership, a man who attended to the needs of an entire nation yet reserved the innermost chambers of his heart, the deepest and purest wellsprings of love and tenderness, for his daughter, for her and her alone. For some unknown part of her mind to have rejected that truth, to have envisioned him as having a scornful, chiseled heart, after all he had done…perhaps she was unworthy of being his heir after all.

Thinking like this isn’t going to help. Need to get out. Clear my head.

“No…No thank you,” Sally at last replied aloud. “Both of them had long days attending to the banquet preparations, and I don’t want to disturb them. Would it be alright if I went for a walk instead? I don’t want to try going to sleep again just yet.”

“If zat is what you wish,” Evangeline nodded, her eyes tinged with concern and uncertainty. “I shall be accompanying you, of course.”

The hallways of the palace were still, their silence unbroken, save for the echoing footfalls and soft breaths of the princess and guard as they crossed the ornate floors of marble tile. The emptiness was of stark contrast to the steady flow of servants and soldiers, artisans and aristocrats, that the finely hewn stone walls bore witness to during the day, as though the inhabitants of the city faded into and from existence with the sun’s rising and setting, in their absence leaving behind a hollow shell of a world. Sally had hoped to find some measure of peace in the tranquility, or at least diversion from the grisly sights that had seeped into the eyes of her soul, for such nighttime walks had proven relaxing before. Yet now the cavernous chambers seemed to only echo the feelings she carried into them, the state of her thoughts twisting her perceptions. She did not observe the lavish architectural nuances, the carved intricacies of the columns or the flowing patterns of gilded metal that stood faithful watch on both sides of the staircases, though she knew them to be there. It was the high ceilings, the sheer scale of the rooms, that held her notice, leaving her seeming small and fragile. It was the dim glows of the lamps set into the walls, around which shadows pooled like doubt at the edge of thought.

She had known these halls all her life. It was a strange thing, that they could remain unchanged and yet now seem so different…

It was becoming apparent that these corridors carried no consolation for her, and yet she continued to wander, her feet taking her she knew not where, Evangeline ever remaining close behind her in a silent vigil that should have brought comfort but instead inexplicably worsened the aching disquiet in her heart. Eventually, Sally found herself standing out on a balcony, gazing at the city below. Mobotropolis. She had never set foot outside the walls of the Theiapelen capital, yet harbored no longing to, no desire to see the wider world, for how could anything be of equal beauty or wonder? It challenged the boundaries of her imagination, to attempt to conceive of a paradise formed by nature or artifice forged by man that could eclipse her home in its glory. The white walls of the city had ever served as tireless, faithful sentinels since time immemorial, immortal bulwarks that stood fast against whatever terrors lurked in the wider world. Immediately beyond them, however, there was no gathering shadow, no rising malignancy stalking the land as it sought entry. There was only lush farmland, fields of wheat and barley just beginning to wear a golden tinge in anticipation of the coming harvest. Clear and cool rivers meandering freely into the horizon. Small villages humbly resting under the watchful gaze of the monolithic capital.

In the distance stood a vast network of enormous trees said to be as old as the deepest foundations of the city. The Great Forest; so named out of not any dearth of creativity, but simple truth, for it was without peer, a testament to the natural world so massive and intricate that it nearly rivaled Mobotropolis in majesty. Yet even it fell short to what was within those walls. For nearly two thousand years, the city had stood, over the centuries growing and shifting as its inhabitants constructed new tiers, each drawing nearer to the heavens than the last, and labored to improve and refine aging districts, in their vigilance suffering no onset of rot or decay. And so it was that its every aspect, from the streets of the lowest quarter to the crest of the tallest tower, bespoke only the finest craftstmanship, a blending of artistry spanning many generations. Sally had always found the city beautiful, but now she appreciated it anew, looking through the lens of Tabitha’s impassioned words. Every part of it, each fountain and statue, hanging garden and curve of architecture, was a work of art, a means of expression, carefully designed to reflect the sublime currents of its creator’s soul.

Alone, they were beautiful, but together? Together they were the voice of her people, culture made manifest and immortal, a melody in which the voices of those long since passed still resonated with power and clarity, joined in perfect concert with the living.

Then the exquisite vista was marred, its purity tainted, as in her mind’s eye Sally imagined torrents of water surging through the streets and alleys, swallowing whole what little they did not rip apart; gouts of flame on rooftops, sending pillars of smoke and a suffocating stench into the air. She closed her eyes, tightly gripping the guardrailing. Gradually, the mental image faded, though its implications lingered. As precious and longstanding as the city was, it was ultimately, unshakably, a fragile thing. Its beauty was no safeguard against destruction, its walls, however mighty, not impervious to every ravaging force. For whatever elaborate safeguards and ingenious defenses the greatest engineers and tacticians in all the kingdom of Theiapele might possibly devise, the preservation of Mobotropolis was not, and could never be, an absolute certainty.

That the loss of the city would be a terrible tragedy seemed a gross understatement. Even if, by some impossible turn of events, its people were preserved, spirited away to some new location and provided homes and jobs, their culture would still be devastated, crippled in song and soul as the voices of two millennia were silenced. The wounded artists still living could, in time, begin anew, though the embodied dances of their spirits that had been snatched away by fate’s caprices could never be truly replicated, even by they. But for the smothered works of hearts passed into death, there could not even be such facsimiles; they would be gone forever, beyond recovery and, in time, even recollection.

So much of her people’s identity, so much beauty, lost. To consider also the loss of life that her mind had conjured, that would doubtless result from any upheaval so cataclysmic…it was overwhelming. Exceeding comprehension.

“The city looks so peaceful, so beautiful…but is it safe?” the young princess wondered aloud, hands clenching the balcony railing. “Could all of this someday be lost?”

“An astute question, indeed. Can any among us truly claim to be safe, free beyond all doubt from the innumerable ways through which life’s flame may be snuffed out? It seems impossible. There are few certainties in this world, but the death of all flesh is among them.”

Sally spun around, startled. She had expected no reply, save perhaps from Evangeline, yet this voice had been male. Before her stood one of the only two humans she had ever met. Though nephew to Minister Julian, Sir Martin bore little resemblance to the towering general, with a short stature of scarcely more than four feet and long, thin nose that narrowed near the end. Unlike those of most Mobians, his body had neither fur nor feathers, his pale skin covered only by a patch of brown hair atop his head, trimmed neatly in a short military cut. To offset this lack of natural adornment, his clothing, a dark green officer’s uniform with a gold trim, white gloves, and black boots, was more concealing than most, covering everything below the neck.

“Yet the safety you question is not that of yourself or any one individual, but of an entire city. A city is artificial, a collection of constructs designed and created by intelligent minds,” Martin continued, joining Sally and Evangeline on the edge of the balcony. “Constructs are not beholden to so many of the weaknesses we possess…. A building, fountain, or painting does not need food, cannot suffer disease. With proper care, they can even weather any passage of time, lasting long after their creators have turned to dust.” Martin rested his arms on the railing and lowered his head, eyes closed and brow wrinkled as though deep in thought. It seemed to Sally that he was speaking more to himself than to her.

“And yet such things can, in the end, be destroyed. Even entire cities…” he sighed, bitterness and sorrow creeping into his voice. He turned to face Sally, though his eyes seemed unfocused. Distant. “I suppose, to answer your question, Princess, that the world would have to change a great deal for this city, for anything we have wrought, to be safe, incapable of being lost.”

“Zat is quite enough, Lieutenant! Ze princess is troubled already tonight, and I will not be permitting you to fill ‘er ‘ead with such gloomy thoughts!” Evangeline interjected, the authority in her voice suggesting no shortage of experience in putting subordinates in place.

“Of course, Captain!” Martin replied, snapping to attention and giving a crisp salute. If the man resented the reprimand in any way, it was not betrayed by his features. To Sally, he offered a polite nod and said, “My apologies, Princess. It was not my intent to cause you dismay. Your musings simply struck a chord with things that have been on my own mind lately. I can assure you that this city…is as safe as it has ever been.”

Sally could not help but notice that, as he said this, Martin would not look her in the eye.

She gave a mental shrug, assuming the oddity to be merely a result of tiredness or stress. “There’s no need to apologize, Sir Martin,” she assured him. “You were just speaking your mind, and I appreciate the honesty. If you don’t mind my asking, why are you out so late?”

“Indeed,” Evangeline echoed. Though one of her eyebrows was arched, her tone carried an air of only curiosity, not suspicion. “Your shift ended four hours ago, yet you are not only awake, but in uniform.”

The human sighed, seeming downcast for a moment before quickly straightening, as though he had to remind himself that he was before a superior officer. “I have not yet been home tonight, Captain. A private matter between my uncle and I has become increasingly…complicated…as of late, and I desired some privacy, or at least to spend some time away from him. I came out here to think and clear my head. May I assume that you are here for similar reasons, Princess?”

At Sally’s silent nod, he turned to Evangeline. “Captain, I’d be happy to look after the girl for you. I’ll be out here regardless, and, to be frank, I could use the company.”

“I should be getting back to my patrol…” the Mobian officer mused. “It is your decision, Princess. Ze Lieutenant is a dependable man, and you will be quite safe with him. If you would prefer I remain by your side, ‘owever, I will of course do so.”

Sally hesitated. Martin was nearly a stranger to her; she had met him only a few times, and always in the presence of others. Still, he did not seem an ill or disagreeable sort, and he certainly seemed more approachable than Minister Julian. The man was clearly in a contemplative mood, and as such was perhaps more likely than Evangeline to offer insight into the fears and doubts troubling her mind. Though it seemed unlikely, she might even be able to do the same for him! Something was clearly bothering him, and he had expressed the desire for company, after all…

“That’s very kind of you, Evangeline, but I’m sure the two of us will be fine. I don’t want to keep you from your duties. Thank you for walking with me.”

“It was my pleasure, Princess. Good night,” Evangeline replied with a short bow. After exchanging a brief salute with her fellow officer, she turned and briskly marched down the hallway, the echoing sound of her footfalls briefly lingering before giving way to silence.

For a time, the quiet remained unbroken, princess and soldier both returning their gazes to the cityscape below, Sally wondering what it meant to be responsible for something so vast and precious, Martin dwelling on some grave matter that she could not guess. As the minutes passed, she found herself increasingly seeking distraction, something to focus on that did not cast an invisible weight upon her shoulders.

“Sooo…” she spoke up, ignoring the feelings of awkwardness that the action prompted. “Sir Martin, I know it isn’t any of my business, but is there anything I can do to help with whatever’s bothering you? If you want, I could talk to Da- my father about it. He would solve the problem. If not…well, Rosie says that talking about things with someone is better than keeping them all bottled up.”

“I appreciate the offer, Princess Sally, but this…matter…between Julian and I is a very delicate and personal one.” Martin sighed, closing his eyes and kneading his brow with a gloved hand. “It is not a thing to be discussed with others, even yourself or the king.”

Sally nodded, studying him out of the corner of her eye for a few slow, solemn moments as she remembered something, a rumor borne by hushed whispers through the halls of the palace.

“Your uncle…he’s the only family you have left, isn’t he?” she whispered sadly, turning to face the human.

Martin stared at her, a flurry of emotions passing through his features in rapid succession. Surprise…worry…pain…his expressions shifted so quickly that it was difficult to glean anything more than brief, vague impressions from them. Yet one fleeting sight stood out: a fiery glare that seemed directed at not merely the princess, but everything before him, as though Martin carried some hidden rage against all the world and yet nothing within it, a fury focused on something unknowable and intangible.

A chill settled in Sally’s gut, causing her heart to shiver.

Then the moment passed, Martin’s visage soon settling on bitter resignation. “He is,” he replied simply.

Sally gave him what she hoped was an understanding smile, sympathy driving away the memory of his wrathful glare. “My best friend doesn’t have any family besides his uncle. They’re very close, and I can’t imagine one not having the other. He doesn’t really remember his parents, but he says that, though that hurts sometimes, he can always count on his uncle to help with the pain. I…I guess I’m like that, too. I may be surrounded by guards and attendants, but they’re not family members. Even Rosie isn’t really family. There’s just Daddy and me.”

She sighed, wrapping her arms around herself as thoughts and memories rose unbidden to the forefront of her mind. Sonic believed he had a few brief, fragmented memories of his parents. However fleeting those glimpses might be, they were more than she had of her own mother, of whom she lacked even the faintest recollection. She was never spoken of, the subject hurriedly changed whenever Sally asked of her; no displayed photographs or portraits; no wistful, fond tales of her life told before bedtime. In fact, other than Sally’s own existence, everyday life held scarcely any indication that King Maximilian Acorn the Second had ever had a queen, save perhaps the constant sadness lingering in the corner of his eyes, never spilling outward beyond its glass confines except in those rare moments when he thought he was alone.

For her part, Sally perceived her mother only as a sense of absence. It did not hurt, per se, as there was no feeling of loss. There was just an emptiness, an undefined void in her heart that only coalesced into aching clarity when she saw other children being loved by their own mothers. Such moments sometimes stung a bit, and though she was taught that envy was a vice, she had nonetheless allowed it to touch her on more than one occasion. Being around certain people would, at times, seem to start to fill the absence. Rosie, with her caring efforts to help raise her, was an obvious candidate for a mother figure, as was Evangeline, ever watchful and protective. Even Miss Tabitha, with her words of wisdom and warm embrace, had echoed many of the traits that Sally felt a mother would have. But in the end, the emptiness remained; though it was through no fault of their own, each of those women simply lacked a connection with Sally that could even begin to compare to the bond the young princess had with her father.

Her father loved her. Deeply and unconditionally. Not as a princess or some abstract symbol of the future, but as a person. As his daughter. She could have been destined to become nothing more than a lowly farmer, and his love would not have waned in the slightest for it. This was an absolute, a gleaming, objective truth that was immutable and unshakable, regardless of circumstances or the passage of time. It was her foundation, an ever-present source of identity and security.

I have nothing to fear from him.

The thought was so obvious, yet it struck Sally as an epiphany, banishing many of the concerns stirred up by her nightmare, exposing them for the hollow lies that they were. Lucidity had revealed the cold specter envisioned by her subconscious to be nothing like her father; that much, she had already known. But she saw now that he would not judge her for conjuring such thoughts, nor think ill of her anxieties and fears regarding the future. She had been ashamed to go to him about the dream, but shame had no place in her father’s presence.

“I know what it’s like to have someone important missing from your life,” Sally continued aloud, a warm conviction growing in her heart. “It can hurt, leave you wishing things were different. But that only makes the people you do have with you more important. If you and your uncle only have each other…well, I hope that you manage to stay close, no matter what’s going on. We all need family, after all. I know I’d be lost without mine.”

Now, Martin was looking directly at her, the faint glimmer of a tear cascading down his cheek before being torn from his body and lost in the freefall of gravity’s inexorable force. As it burst upon hard stone below, he spoke, his voice an almost pleading whisper steeped with a strange remorse. “Dear child, why must yours be such a compassionate soul? You are so innocent, so full of life and promise. Those such as you deserve a better world than that in which we live, a world where safety and freedom are more than the fragile, soothing deceits we shroud ourselves in. I want to believe that you could give it to them, that, through your leadership, your generation should be spared the horrors that mine has suffered. Truly, I do. Yet I know in my heart that, through no fault of your own, it is an impossibility, that the burden before me must be carried or all will ultimately come to ruin, even as your kind words make that certainty all the more agonizing.” He closed his eyes, clenching a fist as his tone became harsher, angrier. “So often, he has seemed to me cold. Callous. Thinking of people in the abstract and treating them as mere numbers. Now I am beginning to see why. Perhaps it is necessary to shoulder this weight.”

He spun around, slamming a gloved fist against the wall, his voice rising to a choked cry. “Is it so wrong that I envy his conviction!?” he seethed behind gritted teeth, so caught up in whatever maelstrom of doubt and emotion was plaguing his mind that he now seemed oblivious to Sally’s presence. “Is it so terrible to wish for the courage to do what must be done, to be more than a spineless, sniveling coward??!”

For her part, Sally was increasingly baffled by the human’s cryptic words. Even more alarming were his violent swings of emotion. She did not feel threatened by the man, for his anger seemed directed inward, yet it was clear that something was deeply wrong.

“S-Sir Martin?” she uncertainly asked, starting to reach a hand out to him before deciding against it. “I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

Martin slowly turned around, boring into the princess with the haunted eyes of a man who had gazed into the mouth of Hell.

“I am afraid, Sally Acorn. Afraid for the future. And there’s not a damn thing you or your father can do about it.”

Under normal circumstances, Sally would have been aghast at Martin’s use of one of Rosie’s “Paddle Words”, yet here the transgression seemed trivial, a mote amidst a freezing eclipse: the black void of despair blotting out every trace of hope’s light in the man before her. Whatever the nature of the bleak envisioning that had possessed Martin’s mind so potently, it was clearly of enormity in scope, a doom striking far more than he, his family, or perhaps even the kingdom itself. Its cause was unknowable to Sally, making it all the more ominous, yet the young heiress nonetheless saw in it a reflection of her own soul.

Floodwaters smothering her city as fires burned overhead. Frantic hands clutching her, holding her down. Helplessly watching as the lifeless body of her best friend faded into the murk…

The paternal apparition and its cruel words, at least, remained banished, unable to stand before her renewed assurance of her father’s boundless love. Yet the other aspects of the dream lingered in her thoughts, the fears that spawned them continuing to trouble her.

“I’m scared, too,” Sally eventually replied sadly. When Martin offered no response in voice or visage, she continued. “Scared for the future, I mean. I’ve always known that I’m a princess, of course, but am only just now starting to get what that means. When I’m older, the job of taking care of all this will fall to me.” She gestured to the sweeping expanse below the balcony, to the grand city and lands beyond, before sighing and slumping down against the wall opposite Martin. “I mean, how am I supposed to do that? What if people get hurt because I make a mistake? I’m trying not to worry about this stuff — I even promised a friend that I wouldn’t —but I can’t even sleep without getting nightmares about it! Sheesh, I can’t even keep a promise…”

Martin sat down as well, hands resting on his knees as he faced Sally. They remained that way in silence for a time, the human gradually calming down while the squirrel did her best to focus on counting the number of floor tiles she could see without moving, hoping to distract herself from her anxieties.

“Is that why you were out here, then? A nightmare?” Martin asked at one point. Sally nodded, hugging her legs before the quiet of night resumed its reign.

“That was a foolish thing to promise: not being afraid,” the lieutenant eventually continued. “No offense intended to you or whomever asked it of you, of course. It’s a noble goal, after all…just a futile one. As ‘cultured’ individuals, we prefer to fancy ourselves our own masters, the sovereign rulers of our souls, regardless of external circumstances. Even the lowliest beggar may turn his gaze inward and enter a realm where he seems king. But such notions are comforting lies, delusions we so desperately cling to in order to avoid the truth, which could not be more different. Within the sphere of the mind, it is not the beggar who is king…it is the king who is slave. We are all slaves, Sally. Slaves to our baser selves, to the darker emotions that lurk within the subconscious. Hate. Greed. Lust. Pride. Envy. And yes, fear. You have been taught to abhor these vices, to shun and suppress them; and rightly so, for when allowed to run rampant, they are the causes of every atrocity this world, or any other, has ever known. Yet even the most virtuous and disciplined among us do not, cannot, know purity. For our darker sides cannot be destroyed, only walled away. Like water behind a dam, they lie in wait, building in pressure. And should a chink in the dam appear, even for a moment, the pent up wickedness will surge through, ravaging the conscious self and poisoning the body’s actions. To be sure, the virtuous man who finds himself in the aftermath of his own iniquity will regret his actions, bottling his vices once more and perhaps trying to make amends. But it matters little, as the misdeed is still done…and he will find that, the next time his moral dam is tested, it is weaker for it.”

Sally frowned, weighing the man’s glum words against her own experiences. “That might be true for some people, but not everyone. I know my father’s no slave to evil!”

“The king is a good man, as far as such a thing can be truly said of a person. One of the finest of your line, by most accounts. But he is not perfect,” Martin replied, shaking his head. “Like the rest of us, he has his limits, his weaknesses. Put him under enough strain or force him to choose between virtue and that which he is unwilling to lose…” He looked pointedly at Sally. “…and he will surely crumble.” Before the princess could raise an indignant protest, he raised a hand to silence her. “Do not be offended, Princess Sally. It is not my intent to speak ill of your father; in fact, I respect him a great deal. I am merely pointing out the simple, unfortunate truth: he is no less bound to this curse, this vile taint of the spirit, than you or I. In truth, he bears it better than most. There are far, far too many beings in this world with scarcely any regard for morality at all, who freely let themselves be dominated by their instincts and impulses, resulting in countless terrible acts, the natures of which you are best spared.” He shuddered, bitterly clenching a fist. “We call ourselves men and women, yet in so many ways are little more than beasts. Worse! For at least beasts lack ambition and intellect, tools as immensely dangerous as they are powerful, and so are limited in their destructive potential. In the worst of circumstances, a predator may doom a family…” He closed his eyes and lowered his head, a sense of defeat upon his features. “…a person can doom a city. A nation. A species.”

Sally’s grip around her legs tightened as she considered the glum proclamation. She was no philosopher, no great scholar of the mind used to contemplating existence, but her education had nonetheless given her the beginnings of certain beliefs regarding such matters. Among them was the notion that sentient beings, Mobian and human alike, were sacred, gifted with a divine spark that created a fundamental, unbridgeable divide separating them from mere animals. Martin’s description of people as little more than intelligent beasts doomed to be controlled by their base natures was at odds with this. It was certainly a more disheartening worldview, particularly when considered alongside her mounting anxieties toward eventual leadership. If she could never truly rule her own mind, how could she be trusted to rule a nation? The throne would magnify the consequences of her actions a thousand times over. Orders given in moments of petty anger or jealousy could have disastrous effects…as could indecision borne of fear, the very emotion she now struggled in vain to control, that had crept up from subconscious depths to smother her in her sleep.

Martin’s weary description of the magnitude of harm a single person could cause echoed in her mind. Even if it was not true for the average individual, it would be for her. She would have that kind of power. Perhaps, one day, the only thing standing between her world and ruin would be the moral dam in her heart, strained to the breaking point…

The thought made her want to cry, but before her first tear was shed, kind, gentle words leapt from her memories to embrace her spirit.

There’s no need to be afraid, because there’s another path still, and it’s the one that I genuinely believe we will travel.

Tabitha had hope. Like Martin, the seamstress was clearly carrying the scars of the past. Both had seen terrible things that Sally could not begin to understand. Both realized the weight of the crown on the future of the world. And both knew that their future queen was a scared, confused little girl. But where Martin saw just another slave to vice and instinct, doomed to never truly rise above her own inner darkness, Tabitha saw the makings of greatness, the key to healing the wounded world and guiding it into a golden age.

Sally felt the warm glow return to her heart. There are people out there who believe in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. If I’m going to honor them, to serve them as queen, I can’t give up. She shakily rose to her feet, looking down at the man before her, so beaten and broken by despair. I won’t give up. Though still troubled and uncertain, she at last saw what she needed to do. She needed help. She needed the one person she trusted most in all the world.

“I need to see my father.”

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