The midnight hour approached as Jaran Kai made his way home from Tails' lab, having once again acted as council for the adolescent fox. A poorly made up song of joy he sang as he danced down the darkened streets, allowing his glee to take hold of him again. Tails and Cosmo, the children he had been charged with protecting ever since he had arrived on Mobius, were to finally be joined in glorious matrimony. In addition, Tails had asked him to aid in the preparations for the next day. The thought sent shivers up his spine as he approached his hidden beachside bungalow, holding a hand out and disengaging the door's telekinetically triggered locking mechanism.
As he prepared to enter he suddenly stopped, turing one-hundred-eighty degrees to face some nearby palm bushes which lined his walkway. Narrowing his eyes he reached for his belt, snarling as he recalled that he no longer possessed his signature weapon. He proceeded to pull his hands up in a defensive position waiting for something to surprise him. "I know you're there. Show yourself!" Shouted he into the night air.
"You've gotten more paranoid lately…" Came a familiar voice as Shadow the Hedgehog stepped out from the bushes crossing his arms, "I thought you would sense it was me."
"Yeah, me too." Said Kai relaxing, "My perception has been really fuzzy lately."
"I'm guessing that's bad?"
"I'd rather not think about it that way," Kai replied, shifting his feet, "but yeah, probably."
"Can I talk to you?" Shadow asked, sounding unusually anxious, "I've got something you need to hear."
"Of course," Jaran said invitingly, holding the door to his small abode open for the onyx hedgehog, "come in, please!"
The hedgehog did so, walking through the door and into the human's living room, whereupon he sat on the rectangular sofa which dominated the center of the room. Shadow gazed around the open space as Kai sat in a chair adjacent to him, speaking observantly to the sage.
"Vanilla's definitely improved this place." Shadow remarked, "I like the minimalist look."
"It gives the illusion of space." Kai stated factually, "Did you want some tea?"
"No, but if you've got a bottle of wine I'd appreciate it."
Kai smirked as he paced over to his kitchen, removing a deep red bottle from a rack above his stove and two glasses. He then returned to his seat, filling the first glass and sliding it across the coffee table to Shadow before filling his own glass, taking a sip. "You're the only drinking buddy I have here, Shadow. Well, civil drinking buddy. Knuckles doesn't count."
"Sophisticated company is hard to come by here." Shadow remarked with a chuckle, taking a sip from his glass, "Just don't tell anyone. I'd never hear the end of it."
"So what did you want to talk to me about, Shadow? I assume you didn't come here just to have a drink."
Shadow set his glass down, lowering his head with a forlorn sigh and staring at the coffee table. By observing his actions, Kai could sense the urgency of what was on Shadow's mind. The hedgehog sat in silence, gathering his words before finally opening his mouth. "I was going to tell you earlier, but I didn't want to ruin the party… Seven children were killed yesterday, Jaran. It was on the news. They went missing a week or so ago and showed up dead and- God dammit, I don't even want to tell you what happened to them. Saying they were butchered would be an understatement. It happened late last night on the outskirts of Green Hill Zone."
"Wait, what?" Kai said in alarm, "Where? Where exactly did this happen, Shadow?"
"I'm not sure exactly." Shadow answered, "I just know it happened in a clearing where they supposedly played. Does it really matter where?"
Jaran fell quiet, unusually so even for the sage. As he stared out into the dimly lit living room a thought came to his mind; he had been there. Just before the group's battle with Omega he had watched those same children at play. He recalled experiencing the same gut-wrenching sensation that he did when anything in the world around him was out of place. At the time he had brushed it off as nothing. Now seven children were dead. Seven children were dead because he chose to ignore his feelings and rush to the aid of others. A tear leaked from his eye as the whole of that burden began to impress itself upon his mind. What he heard next, however, peaked his fears even further.
"There's something else," the hedgehog spoke slowly, "one of the children had a set of initials branded into their skin. I think you can figure out where I'm going with this…"
Kai was silent as he rose from his seat, lumbering slowly over to the mantle of his fire pit and leaning himself against it. He struggled to contain himself as his guilt overwhelmed him, feeling responsible for the children's horrible deaths. However, the mutilations performed upon them suggested a different tactic; something that was incoherent with the strategies Xemus had taken on their previous encounters. Blatant, unsubtle, outright maliciousness toward this planet and its people this early on in his tenure; it simply was not his way. The more he thought the more he began to wonder if perhaps something had happened beyond Xemus' control that had forced his hand. Despite the horror of what had occurred, now he was exposed, and that gave them the advantage.
"It's him, isn't it?" Shadow asked nervously, "Is it Xemus?"
"No," Kai answered slowly, turning around to face the black hedgehog, "I don't think so… This would draw in too much attention to himself."
"So you're saying it was someone else?" Shadow inquired, confused, "No one on Mobius would have done something like that to children. It had to be him."
"That… or something belonging to him."
"What are you talking about, Jaran?"
Kai then sat back down, folding his hands as he looked directly at the black hedgehog with upmost seriousness. "Xemus isn't like Eggman, Shadow. He doesn't like attention. He stays up in the Darkship and watches, studying his targets, looking for their weakest link. Usually he'll send his acolytes to do his dirty work."
"Wait, what are acolytes?" Shadow asked curiously.
"They're servants… of sorts." Kai explained, "Xemus rarely, if ever, kills anyone. No, he tortures you; breaks your body in the most agonizing way possible. Eventually the body gets tired and stops feeling any pain at all. Then, he'll reach into your mind, prodding around until he brings to light your greatest fear; making you live it over and over again in the span of just a few seconds. Eventually, your mind is left empty. The lights are on, but nobody's home. He cripples the body, then hollows out the mind. When there's nothing else he can do then finally, finally he destroys what's left, which isn't much. Just a husk that used to be somebody."
"That's… disgusting!" Shadow shuddered, a surprising amount of emotion surfacing in his voice, "Why doesn't he just kill them?"
"Because, that's how he gets his kicks, Shadow." Kai answered morbidly, "It's strange… the reasons people will do such terrible things. Some want power, some want money, some want to be known, but these aren't the people you should be afraid of. Some people just want to watch the world burn, and to listen to the screams of the people living in it. After all… in the end, the screams of heroes and the screams of ordinary people all sound the same."
Shadow hesitated, not knowing how to respond to Kai's darker musings and the implications they carried. Instead, he dismissed these thoughts with another question. "What does this have to do with Xemus' Acolytes?"
"Do you honestly thing that anyone, no matter how evil they may be, would ever willingly follow him?" Kai asked rhetorically, "Xemus makes his followers. If he finds a person he thinks would be useful for whatever reason, he does the same thing to them that he does to everyone else, but skips the physical torture. No use in a body that's not able. After their mind vacates he pours his own essence into the empty husk. They become mindless, monstrous, and are completely bound to his will."
"So zombies?" Shadow oversimplified.
"If you'd like. Thing is, because the way they are created is so crude, things don't always go like they are intended to."
"How do you mean?" Shadow asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Xemus is chaos, and he passes that on to every acolyte he creates. Sometimes the link binding them to him snaps randomly and they run amok. Ferals, if you will. I'm willing to bet that a Feral Acolyte got to those kids."
"You mean there are more of these damned things!?" Shadow said alarmed, "We've got to find them before-"
"Relax, Shadow." Kai said calmly, "Xemus' acolytes rarely go feral. What matters now is Xemus has made his presence known, which means he's going to have to move his plans forward earlier than he wised. I'm guessing that he's not happy right now. Not one bit."
"So we can be ready." Shadow surmised, "We can prepare."
"Exactly," Kai said with a nod, "I don't know what he's planning, but you can bet it involves Tails and Cosmo."
"Why?" Inquired the black hedgehog, "They don't seem like they'd be important to someone like him."
"Because, Shadow, they're innocent. They've been the heart of this group for some time. To break them would destroy us… and me."
"Why is he so determined to hurt you?" Shadow asked in a gruff voice, "What does he get out of it?"
The human gave a sigh as he lowered his head, looking down into his lap as he struggled to form his thoughts into words. "Do you know what it's like not to have a purpose, Shadow?" He finally managed to utter, "To exist without reason in a world that not only doesn't want you, but doesn't need you either?"
"You know I do." Shadow replied, "Why are you-"
"No, you really don't, Shadow." Kai dismissed him, "People like you and I make our own purpose, our own reason for existing. That's part of being mortal. Having a soul. We make our own way. What does a creature without that capability do, though?"
"Why don't you tell me?" Said the black hedgehog.
"Burn everyone who does."
Both of the companions fell silent, staring at the flickering tongs of flame that burned in the living room fire pit. Shadow picked up his glass of red liquid and downed the contents in a single gulp, then looked back at Kai with a vacant expression. "So… what do we do?"
"We know he's on the move now." Replied the man stroking his chin, "Now we just wait for him to move his next piece."
"If that was a chess metaphor it wasn't very good." Shadow chided.
"Shut up." Kai snapped back jokingly. Within the span of a moment his mood changed from sullen to brimming as a smile covered the sages face. A secret began to bubble to the forefront of his thoughts, one which he had sworn not to speak of. Despite promising Tails that he would remain silent, Kai would need help in completing the task of preparing for the upcoming morning and he trusted no one more than Shadow the Hedgehog. "There's something I want to tell you as well," began Kai anxiously, "I need you to swear you won't speak of it though."
"And if I don't?" Replied he with a smirk.
"I'll erase your memory and you'll never know anyway."
"Compelling…" Shadow chuckled, propping his left leg up on his right, "So what's this secret, then?"
"I need your help, Shadow." Kai began, shifting forward in his seat, "Tomorrow something big is going to happen. Probably the biggest thing that has or ever will happen to this team. I need your help to make sure it goes off without a hitch."
"Okay, fine. Cut the theatrics and tell me what it is!" Shadow ordered, tapping his foot anxiously.
"I need you to put aside traditionally accepted scruples for just a moment. There is absolutely no reason Tails shouldn't be allowed to do this if he can-"
"God dammit Kai, WHAT IS IT!?"
Taking a deep breath and with a cheshire grin upon his face the secret he was not supposed to tell passed across his lips. "Tails is going to propose to Cosmo…"
Dead silence. Kai's grin remained constant as Shadow only stared blankly with no emotion revealing itself on his face whatsoever. After almost two full minutes of quiet the hedgehog spoke in a shaken voice. "You mean in a few years… right?"
"No, I mean like tomorrow." Kai replied, his grin widening more if that were possible.
"W-what?" Shadow said emotions finally peaking. The hedgehog raised off of the sofa as his eyes widened, his voice exacerbated by enthusiasm, "You can't be serious, Jaran. If you're fucking with me I swear to God I'll-"
"I'm most certainly not joking." Kai said in a deeply serious voice, "Tails is going to ask Cosmo to be his wife, tomorrow evening at Divino Ristorante, and he wants us all to witness it."
Again, silence. Unlike last time however, the atmosphere of the room permeated with glee as even Shadow found himself grinning like a fool. As before the black hedgehog broke the silence, in a startlingly loud manner no less.
"I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!" Blasted the hedgehog, leaping from his seat and pumping his fists, "I KNEW THE BOY HAD IT IN HIM! But Jaran, what about the law? Won't they conflict- or do you have a plan to counter that too?"
"Of course I do!" Jaran laughed, taking a swig of his wine, "Tails and Cosmo will be married… if she says yes." With that the man took another gulp, finishing off his glass. "I wasn't supposed to tell anyone, but I can't do this by myself. For once I have to ignore my own rules and ask you for help."
"For once?" Shadow scoffed, sitting back down, "Yeah, I'll help. I owe those kids a debt… too much."
"Just like that?" Asked Kai tilting his head to the side.
"Just like that." Replied he, his voice leveling again.
"Shadow…" Kai hesitated, seeming to struggle with his words before replying with a simple, "thank you."
"It's not for you," Shadow said lowly, standing and beginning to pace, "I was there… back on the Typhoon. I knew them before you had any idea we existed. I saw how much it destroyed Tails after he ended her life. I think that was when I really started to understand why he was so attentive, why he defended her against me, and why he fulfilled her final wish and fired that cannon. That was when I realized how wrong I had been about her, and him, and just about everything else. Tails grew up too fast, Jaran. It wasn't his fault, but it happened, just like it happened to me. When she came back he had the chance to be a kid again, which was something I'll probably never have. I don't want that boy ending up like me. He's been too selfless to deserve that. Vanilla said it best, I think. They keep each other young. They deserve that much…" As Shadow's ramble came to a close he turned to face the human who only smiled at him in silence. The hedgehog then returned to his seat with a heavy sigh, placing his hands on his knees and looking up at the Guardian with a light smirk. "So… what's the plan?"
A resounding slam was heard as four decrepit acolytes flew across the bridge of Xemus' dying battle tug, striking a metallic bulkhead at the far end of the long platform running down the middle. Before being given the chance to recover their lord and master crawled out from a shadow nearby to them, having apparated across the dimly lit room by way of the shadows that surrounded him. With another flick of his wrist he sent all four flying again, tossing them back to their starting point at the observation area at the head of the platform. Again Xemus seemed to melt into the shadows, reappearing from another near the four whom he punished. Looking down at them he let out an animalistic snarl, making even his mindless servants shiver in terror.
"I seem to recall ordering you to observe only," snapped the overlord, "and yet you have exposed me by killing a group of children who's lives weren't important enough to be worth ending!" Pulling his hand across his shoulder he delivered a sharp backhanded slap to the nearest acolyte with his taloned hand. "You've forced my hand before I desired it! He knows that and will use it to its fullest!"
Xemus' temper seemed to mellow out quite suddenly as he walked a few paces back and faced the space scape visible from the bridge's viewport, turning his back on his rogue acolytes. The four creatures rose, three of whom cowered back and one who did not. The one who's bravery or insanity was so great that it thought it could challenge its abusive lord stepped forward, drawing its lightsaber and igniting it. Xemus made no motion, simply chuckling at the failed drone he had cobbled together out of a human body and a piece of his own darkness.
"I suppose I only have myself to blame. Create servants of pure instinct and you'll always have a feral in the bunch. One who simply won't obey. I suppose if I had left your former hide's intelligence intact we might not have this inconvenience, but then I would have the obstruction of free will to oppose me. Far more aggravating, I would think. I must maintain a certain amount of order over my horde if I am to achieve chaos on a greater scale. I'm sorry, but your usefulness has expired…"
As Xemus spoke the shadows in the room seemed to shift, with his own stretching out of its own accord toward the shadows of the four acolytes. His shadow refused to stay in a form coherent with its owner however, sprouting tendrils of darkness which wrapped themselves about the acolytes shades. Mirroring their shadows the four acolytes seemed to be gripped in an invisible entanglement and lifted from the platform, with the one rebellious one loosing its grip on its weapon which clattered to the floor and deactivated. As their master looked out of the ship's window his shade continued its seemingly magical animation, as the various protrusions and tentacles it had formed began to rush into the oraphis' and cavities of the acolytes' silhouettes. In synchronies the creatures bodies began to rupture and be intruded by the hidden force which crawled beneath their skins, squirming and pulling them from the inside. Suddenly, the poor slaves exploded in showers of gore and tar-like blood, ripped apart by the invisible force invading them. When nothing was left, Xemus' shadow retracted, returning to its natural state cast behind its owner. Seeming not to notice, Xemus turned and began pacing, speaking aloud as though his servants were still alive to hear him.
"At the very least one useful piece of information was brought to me by yourselves. This race they continuously reference, the Metarex. I sense considerable fear in their minds centered around those creatures. Especially the girl. I can't use that unless I am familiar with them…" Xemus then proceeded to turn and walk down the ramp again, stepping through the remains of his dead slaves as though they were a doormat. He then approached one of the more aware humanoids responsible for his ship's operations, scarcely looking at him as an order left his unseen mouth. "Show me all data Black Doom provided to us on the race known as the Metarex."
Upon his order a holographic display materialized at the center of the massive bridge streaming the requested data visually in front of Xemus. The dark character watched attentively, observing closely as every bit of information on the alien intruders known as the Metarex was made available to him. With each passing moment his eyes seemed to light up, and not in the way one's eyes should, but rather with a sick glee only he could manage. Ideas began forming and combining in his black hole of a mind. After hours of dedicated study he had formed the beginning constructs of a strategy.
"So… the girl's own descendants lead her race to oblivion, and she fears the shadow of her father? Intriguing…" Again Xemus gloried over his slave by acknowledging him, giving another demand. "Contact Black Doom. His resources may be of use to me. As for Cosmo, I believe she deserves my personal attention on this matter. Bring her here, get what I need, have a bit of fun, and break the fox…" Proceeding back to his window the sadistic creature looked out into space, a stained twinkle in his empty eyes as he quietly mused to himself. "Such beauty one can find in negative spaces."