The following evening, there were four Knothole freedom
fighters waiting for Spartacus. Sonic and Sally were joined by
Bunnie and Antoine. Sally thought that the badger clan might not
appreciate what would happen if they were to let Robotnik
continue unchecked. So Bunnie was along as sort of a visual aid.
Antoine, who had shared Sally's apprehension that the badgers
would continue to keep the old grudge alive and might attempt to
harm Sally if they learned she was of the House of Acorn,
insisted on going along to protect Sally. Sally finally relented
(over Sonic's strenuous objections). This was actually a second
reason why Bunnie was coming along: to keep an eye on Antoine as
he kept an eye on Sally.
At the appointed time, Spartacus stepped noiselessly into
"Ooo-wee!" Bunnie whispered. "Sally-girl, you weren't half-
kiddin' about them badgers! Ah hope they got a few more like
"He DID say he has a brother."
"You've brought quite a few friends, Sonic," Spartacus
"Yeah, well, we're kind of a team. You've met Sal and
Antoine; this is Bunnie."
Spartacus shook her hand and stared at her for a few
seconds. "I don't understand; where's the rest of your armor?"
"This ain't armor, sugar. This is little ol' me after
Robotnik got his hands on me."
"We were able to save Bunnie, but not before Robotnik did
his share of damage. I'm hoping to convince the elders of the
clan that they can avert this danger."
Spartacus considered Bunnie for a few more seconds. "It may
be difficult; some badgers would consider this an improvement."
"It's not what you think. How can I put this so you'll
understand? When a creature is roboticized, they're given a
warrior's body but they're robbed of a warrior's heart."
"Is this true?"
"Yes. Once you're roboticized, you no longer have a will of
your own; you can only carry out the bidding of Robotnik."
"That IS a consideration. As long as you put it in those
terms, there may be a chance the elders will listen to you."
"Way to go, Sal!" Sonic whispered.
"Thanks, but we haven't made our case yet."
They walked on through the Great Forest, with Spartacus
leading the way. Though the light was beginning to fail, the
Knothole Freedom Fighters instantly recognized a small clearing
they passed through several minutes later. Spartacus said
nothing about it, but the others knew that they had just crossed
a seldom-used trail that was a shortcut back to Knothole. They
kept it in mind for future reference.
It was just as the sun was setting that they heard sounds up
ahead: deep and gruff voices speaking a strange tongue, the high-
pitched cries and shouts of small children, and someone telling a
cadenced story to the accompaniment of a simple skin drum. They
knew from the way Spartacus lengthened his stride that they were
nearing his home.
The badger settlement was a seemingly haphazard array of
stick-and-mud lodges built so that their doorways faced a central
clearing. Small cooking fires burned in front of many of them,
boiling the contents of iron pots.
As Spartacus entered the clearing, conversation dimmed and
all eyes turned on his guests. The Knothole Freedom Fighters
didn't exactly feel welcome as the badgers silently scrutinized
them. Sally saw one small boy, a mere toddler, holding tightly
to one of his mother's leg with one hand while in the other hand
he brandished a wooden spoon as if it were a sword.
"Not exactly the red carpet treatment, is it?" Sally
whispered to Bunnie.
The mood changed appreciably as they were directed to
Spartacus' hut. Outside, bent over a fire, was an elderly female
badger who gave the travellers the first kind look they'd
received so far. Forgetting about the contents of the pot, she
walked up to them and took Sonic's hands in one of her own.
"So your old friend has grown up, my son."
"Yes, Mother. This is my mother, Diana."
"Yeah, I remember you from when you were in Mobotropolis."
"That was too many sunsets ago, I'm afraid," she chuckled.
"But let's get your friends something to eat. Adonis!"
Out of the hut stepped the impossible: a badger even larger
and more powerful-looking than Spartacus. "Adonis, your
brother's friends are here. Fetch bowls for them."
"But Mother, I was on my way to target practice."
"You can hurl axes with your friends after you've showed our
guests some common courtesy."
"They're not MY guests," he muttered as he retreated back
into the lodge. He emerged a few seconds later with a stack of
carved wooden bowls. Diana began ladling a thick stew into them
and passing them to the Freedom Fighters. Sally noticed that
there weren't any spoons or forks being passed around; a quick
glance at some other families taking their evening meal confirmed
her suspicion, and she began to scoop the contents out of the
bowl with her hand, bringing it to her mouth. The others
followed suit, the fastidious Antoine with the greatest
"This is very good, Diana," Sally said.
"Thank you, child. And you may call me 'Mother' if it
"It's a common way of showing respect," Spartacus added.
"Thank you, but it's because of what has happened to our own
mothers and fathers that we're here. Spartacus, when can we
speak to the clan elders?"
"It's customary to wait until after the evening's
"And even then you may not be heard!" someone croaked.
Everyone turned around.
An extremely old badger shuffled toward them, so old that
two young males held up his arms on either side to enable him
to walk. He stared at the Knothole residents with dark, beady
"Sophocles!" Diana scolded, "you just about scared the life
out of my son's guests."
"As if that gives them the right to address the clan elders!
I know why you're here. You can't fight your own battles, so you
want us to do your work for you. Well, you'll get no help from
us, I assure you!" He motioned with one hand to move off in
another direction, and the two younger badgers changed course.
"It's because we fight better than any animal on Mobius. We
fight better. We hunt better. I can still smell a member of the
cursed House of Acorn a mile away!" He rambled on in a similar
vein until he was out of earshot. The Knothole Freedom Fighters
exchanged a glance that communicated the same message: "It's a
good thing he can't smell one any closer!"
"Pay no mind to Sophocles," Diana assured the others. "When
it comes to remembering the old glory of the clan, he's the worst
of the lot."
"I take it he's a clan elder," Sally observed, handing her
bowl to Diana for a second helping.
"The head elder. Who's the elder of your clan?"
"We have none. We live together and fight against Robotnik
"What is a 'Robotnik'?"
"Robotnik isn't a what, he's a...."
"Save it for the elders, Sal," Sonic said.
The meal continued with polite conversation; the Freedom
Fighters made sure the subject of Robotnik didn't come up again.
It was going to be a hard enough sell to the elders if the rest
of them were anything like Sophocles. Sonic helped Spartacus
clean up after the meal -- the badgers considered this "sons'
work" -- while the others left to take part in the evening's
festivities before the meeting.
The "festivities" of the evening, like every other evening,
weren't organized. Some badgers took ax in hand and used a
designated tree for target practice. Others engaged in a tug-of-
war with a stout rope. Bunnie and Sally wandered over to a
crowd of badgers and saw that they were arm-wrestling on an old
tree stump. Adonis was among them.
"You!" he barked, pointing to Bunnie. "Let's see what that
arm can do."
Amid the cheers of the badgers, Sally tried walking away.
"C'mon, Sally-girl! They asked for it!"
Bunnie demurely seated herself on one side of the stump
while Adonis knelt on the other side. She offered her left hand
to Adonis, who wrapped his own around it. At a signal, the
At first it seemed as if neither contestant had heard the
signal. But after a few seconds the crowd realized that both
contestants were exerting equal strength and that neither had an
advantage. Then the action began in earnest. For the next three
minutes the momentum shifted from one to the other; just when
Bunnie seemed about to pin Adonis, the badger would let out a
roar and raise his hand from the stump, or Bunnie, her hand an
inch away from the surface, would raise it up as slowly as a
sunrise. One of the badgers tried declaring the contest a draw;
most of the watching crowd disapproved of his attempt. They
wanted a fight to the finish. Finally, after five minutes that
seemed like an eternity, Adonis slowly worked Bunnie's hand to
the stump. It barely grazed the wood but it was enough; Adonis
was declared the winner to the cheers of the crowd. Adonis
extended a hand to Bunnie, who shook it, then got up and began
walking back to Diana's hut with Sally walking beside her.
"That was very gracious of you, Bunnie," Sally whispered.
"'Gracious,' mah bunny behind! Ah just about blew a
"You mean he actually beat you?"
"Sally-girl, you do NOT want to get on the bad side of these
here badgers! Sorry Ah let our team down," she added.
"Look on the bright side; maybe they won't think your
'armor' is such a good thing after all."
Antoine, meanwhile, had been content to watch several
badgers engage in target practice using hatchets. Unfortunately,
he was not content to simply watch.
"Hey, Blue Coat!" one of the badgers yelled. "Let's see
what you got!"
"*Certainment*!" Antoine replied. He walked up to the line
where the badgers had been standing; the target tree suddenly
looked a mile away. Someone handed him a hatchet.
It was then that Antoine discovered that a badger hatchet
was a large ax to most Mobians. The thing must have weighed at
least as much as he himself. But to his credit, he tried.
Grabbing the handle with both hands, he hurled it with all his
might. Unfortunately, all his might didn't amount to much and he
managed to sink the axhead into the ground in front of him. He
struggled to maintain his composure while the badgers around him
roared with laughter.
"You may have better luck with that one!" one badger said,
pointing to a nearby ax resting on the ground, handle pointing
straight upward. Determined to better his last performance,
Antoine walked over to it, reached over behind his head, seized
the handle and gave a tremendous heave.
But Antoine's string of bad luck remained unbroken. The ax
was a trick; the handle was only loosely fitted into the axhead
and it came out cleanly. The momentum of Antoine's heave carried
him forward and he landed flat on his face as the badgers once
more burst into gales of laughter.
Antoine still tried to salvage a measure of dignity from
the debacle. "You are having some activities that are a bit more
At this, a badger named Brutus laughed heartily. "Oh, so
it's something 'philosophical' you want. Perhaps you'd like to
engage in a little something we badgers call 'squaring the
"Ah, the geometricals! *Oui*, I would be enjoying that very
The badgers cleared a spot between four stout trees. Tying
a rope to the trunk of one tree, they ran it around the other
trees until it had formed a rough square. Brutus then stepped
through the ropes into the center, motioning for Antoine to
follow. As he did so, a crowd of badgers gathered around.
Only then did Antoine discover that what the badgers called
"squaring the circle" was a euphemism for no-holds-barred
wrestling. Antoine scrambled to get out of the ring, but he was
either pulled back in by Brutus, or if he did managed to get even
halfway out another badger would pick him up by the scruff of the
neck and throw him back in.
Sonic, having finished helping Diana clear away the dishes,
worked his way to the edge of the ring, where Sally joined him a
second later. They had both heard Antoine's all-too-familiar
scream, a signal that he had once more gotten in over his head.
"Oh my gosh! Sonic, we've got to do something; he'll get
killed in there!"
At that moment, however, Antoine became aware that Sally was
at ringside. In accordance with the logic of chivalry, this was
Antoine's cue to attempt the impossible for the sake of his
princess. He ran straight for Brutus, as if to tackle him.
Antoine's attempt came to nothing; the badger simply put
Antoine into a bear hug and practically squeezed the life out of
him, then followed that up with a belly-to-belly suplex. The
three-count to signal the end of the match was a formality.
While Brutus acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, Antoine
was picked up by the scruff of the neck and placed outside the
ring. Sonic and Sally ran up to him, picked him up into an
uncertain yet upright pose, and guided him back to Diana's
hut. His eyes were wide open but unfocused.
"Yo, Ant! You OK?"
"*Sachez que je suis a votre disposition.*"
"*Je pars dans quelques moments.*" Having said that, he
"Forget it, Sal, nobody's home."
They left Antoine to sleep it off and resumed watching the
next wrestling match, this one between two badgers of similar
size and strength. After a few seconds, though, someone stepped
in front of them to block their view. It was Sophocles.
"You thought I'd forgotten about you two," he croaked. "I
may be old, but my memory is still good."
"I'm sure it is," Sally said in a bid to be diplomatic.
"I remember. I especially remember every injustice we
badgers have suffered at the hand of the Acorn kings."
"I'm sure other badgers have other memories," she replied
coolly as she turned her attention to the match.
"Yes, they remember the time before the Acorn kings, when
the throne of Mobius was held in honor." Sophocles, too, kept
his eyes on the ring.
"Mobius hasn't been cursed with evil rulers; not until
Robotnik, at any rate."
"Even his rule is preferable to the cowards of the House of
"Then you'd rather see Robotnik on the throne than a member
of the House of Acorn?"
"I'd rather see the throne smashed! The Acorn Kings have
thoroughly corrupted it!"
It was a curious conversation that they engaged in. Both
Sally and Sophocles kept their eyes on the wrestlers, never
making eye contact with each other. This style -- known as "side
talk" -- had evolved into a ritual language of mutual insults in
the royal court of Mobius. If cool heads prevailed, such a
conversation would NOT be a prelude to a duel.
Clearly, however, this wasn't happening. Eventually, only a
handful of badgers and the two wrestlers hadn't stopped to listen
to the conversation. Antoine, who had sufficiently recovered his
wits, had joined Sonic and Bunnie to listen as well. Both of
them noticed that Antoine was pale with fright.
"The House of Acorn has never been, and never will be, an
honorable one! Only little cowards like yourselves would think
That did it. Sally broke off the side talk, walked in front
of Sophocles and looked him in the eye. "Then if only to shut
your old mouth, I'm willing to take up the honor of the House of
"A typical Acorn stratagem: to issue a challenge to an old
"Then you can name your champion if I can name the place and
"Done! Adonis will be our champion. Name the place and
"In the ring! Right now!"
Barely managing to control her temper, Sally pulled off her
vest, unclipped Nicole from the top of her boot, wrapped the
handheld computer in the vest and handed it to Bunnie.
"Sally-girl, have y'all lost your mind!?"
"Yeah, Sal, you saw what that one goon did to Ant! And
Adonis is even bigger!! I say we juice!"
"Relax," she whispered, "I know what I'm doing."
"Girl, Ah hope so."
Sally stepped into the ring where Adonis was waiting.
Without any signal that the match had begun, Adonis charged
straight for her. Antoine covered his eyes. A second later,
however, the crowd of badgers let out a roar. Fearfully, Antoine
Sally was still upright, knees slightly bent, her body tense
and ready. Adonis was in one corner, flat on his back under one
of the trees.
"Sacre bleu cheese! What has been happened?"
He got a chance to see what had happened, for Adonis charged
at Sally once again. And just as the time before, Sally deftly
stepped aside and, grabbing Adonis as he passed her, used his own
momentum to propel him toward the far corner. Sonic and Bunnie
resisted the urge to high-five each other.
After two more tosses, Adonis found himself down on both
knees. As he tried to get up, he put one arm behind him for
balance. That was Sally's cue. Grabbing his wrist with one
hand, she used her other hand to put pressure on his elbow,
forcing it to bend in a direction it wasn't meant to bend.
Adonis howled in pain; the crowd of badgers let out another roar.
Sally knew that Adonis wouldn't submit to a simple armbar; she
did it mainly to buy a few seconds of time to figure out what to
What she had to do next, however, was duck a rock that
someone in the crowd had thrown at her. That was enough to cause
her to release Adonis from the armbar.
"Hey! That's not fair!" Sonic yelled out. But before he
could say or do anything else, a number of badgers in the crowd
turned toward him with very unfriendly looks. Sonic realized
that if he said or did anything now he'd be in the middle of a
full-scale badger melee. He shot a quick glance at Spartacus,
who shook his head slightly. It was his way of telling Sonic
that it would be a bad idea to say something like that again.
Seething, Sonic backed off a step. Satisfied that Sonic wasn't
going to protest further, the badgers turned their attention back
to the ring.
The situation inside the squared circle hadn't changed.
Adonis continued to attempt a direct assault on Sally. And Sally
continued to either duck out of the way or else use Adonis's
momentum to hurl him to the ground.
After about a minute more of this, Adonis let out a roar of
frustration. The crowd of badgers grew silent. Then Adonis
bellowed out one word which electrified the badger crowd: "Claw!"
"What the hoo-ha's a claw?" Bunnie asked.
"THAT," Spartacus said in a hushed tone, "is the Claw."
A badger handed Adonis a cruel-looking metal glove, covered
on the back with shining metal spikes. Adonis made a fist; to
Sonic, it appeared that the Claw had more spikes than he had
quills! Another badger poured a clear liquid over the Claw, as
if to anoint it.
"What's that stuff?" Sonic asked Spartacus.
"What's it for?"
"Just hope your friend doesn't find out."
Another badger was now offering a second Claw to Sally. She
took it from him and slipped it on; it practically came up to her
"Sonic," Spartacus whispered, "if your friend continues the
match now, she's either very brave or out of her mind."
Just as another badger was about to pour fire water on
Sally's Claw, however, she motioned him away with her free hand.
Then, the tossed the Claw through the ropes to the outside of the
ring, where its spikes drove into the ground.
"That settles it, then. Your friend's out of her mind."
Once more Sally faced off against Adonis. Adonis wasted no
time; he lunged at Sally, swinging the Claw from side to side.
Once Sonic thought that Sally had been cut, but she stayed on her
Finally, with a roar of frustration, Adonis raised the Claw
high in the air and brought it down toward Sally, who again
managed to dodge out of the way just in time. But Adonis had
swung with such force that he buried the spikes of the Claw in
the ground. He tugged at it once, but it wouldn't budge.
Adonis was on his knees, his eyes level with Sally's. Sally
knew she had to work fast. She hit Adonis with three spin kicks
to the head in rapid succession, followed by a standing drop kick
to the head. Adonis slumped to the ground unconscious, and his
hand loosed its grip on the inside of the Claw. That signalled
the end of the fight.
Sally stepped out of the ring, to the sullen silence of the
crowd. She started putting on her vest.
"Let's get out of here," she said softly to the others. "I
think I just wore out our welcome."
Sonic turned and looked at Spartacus. The badger nodded his
And then the taunts started.
"Get back here, runts!"
"Finish what you started!"
"Just like an Acorn to run away from a fight!"
This last was the unmistakable voice of Sophocles. Sonic
had heard enough. He was about to turn around and confront the
old badger when Sally grabbed him tightly by the upper arm.
"Let it go," she whispered through clenched teeth. "Just
On they walked, Sally maintaining a fast pace. Finally she
asked: "You think we're beyond their hearing?"
"I think so, Sal, but...."
"One, two, three four," she said as she began counting her
steps out loud.
"What's the deal, Sal?"
"Just making sure, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen,
eighteen, nineteen, twenty."
At the count of twenty, Sally let out a cry like a pup and
dropped to the ground, holding her abdomen. Her face was pinched
in agony and tears flowed from her eyes. Her breath came in
gasps and pants.
"Sal! What's wrong?"
"What is happening to you, my Princess?"
But Sally was clearly in too much pain to answer. So Sonic
scooped her up in his arms and, with Antoine hanging onto his
neck and Bunnie hanging onto Antoine's, he juiced back to
Received on Tue Jan 30 1996 - 14:14:52 PST
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