Fool Me Once
Knuckles soared over the fires started by Robotnik's crash. He circled in the rising thermals to gain altitude, turning his glide into something approaching true flight.
Not that the burning grasslands of the place he was supposed to protect would have been his first choice of lift of course, but right now it served to fuel both his flight and his anger. Satisfied that he was high enough, or at any rate too impatient to maintain the circling climb any longer, he twisted in the air and turned away from the crash site, heading out across the Island to find the intruder who was to blame for this.
"Sonic," Robotnik had called him, and the hedgehog was hard to miss--streaking across the landscape, glowing with all the energy of the stolen Emeralds. The very sight of it offended Knuckles. No one was supposed to have that much power. And certainly not to use it just to disport themselves as this arrogant creature was doing.
All of the Emeralds... But not the Master. Knuckles reached out mentally, feeling its presence there at the back of back of his mind. Still safe. For now. But there could hardly be a more acute threat than a thief equipped with the power of the Chaos Emeralds. Knuckles felt chilled at the thought of it.
Below him, the hedgehog was still racing along, apparently blissfully unaware he was being watched from above. Knuckles gathered himself then stooped like a striking falcon.
The collision as something cannoned into him was so abrupt Sonic was barely aware he'd actually been hit. He saw the Emeralds careen off inall directions, impossibly fast, as though propelled by something far more than the mere force of the impact. He staggered to his feet, dazed as much by the sudden loss of that energy as by the blow.
A wild-looking creature stood before him. Teeth bared, spiked fists held ready.
Sonic stared at this apparition which had apparently materialised out of thin air.
"Leave, thief," it growled.
Never one to be dismayed for long, Sonic shrugged carelessly.
"Say I. Knuckles. Last of the Echidnas, Guardian of the Master Emerald, and Protector of the Floating Island," his assailant responded, apparently taking Sonic's question for some type of formal challenge.
"Yeah? You know what Sonic the Hedgehog says? Finders keepers, pal. You weren't exactly doing a great job of protecting this place when Robotnik stuffed his Death Egg into it were you?"
"You caused that crash."
It wasn't a question but Sonic answered it anyway, with no small amount of satisfaction.
Knuckles pointed to the smoke on the horizon.
"That was the largest open grassland on the Island. It'll burn now until the next rain. It could be weeks."
Sonic opened his mouth to protest that he could hardly be responsible for where Robotnik choose to crash, but the echidna was already turning away from him.
"I have sent the Emeralds where you cannot reach them. You will never find the Master. You may consider yourself lucky that I am not pitching you over the edge back to where you came from. Destroy anything else and I may change my mind."
Sonic opened his mouth again, this time for some variation of "Just try it!" but Knuckles was out of sight before he could finish framing a suitable retort. Sonic was not used to being at a lost for words. He gaped for a few moments before asking of the empty air, "What's a Master Emerald?"
It had to come to a confrontation sooner or later of course. Even though Sonic had to admit that, thus far, Knuckles had seemed content to track and threaten and try to deter him rather than outright attempt to kill him. The booby traps could have been a lot more lethal, and that swift, silent glide cold have been used to far more deadly effect--more than once Sonic had been taken by surprise by Knuckles' abrupt arrival from above.
Used to Robotnik's style, Sonic had made the not illogical decision that the most dangerous looking route was likely to be the one which led to this mysterious Master Emerald, and it seemed to have worked.
Ahead of him, sat on the bottom step of a huge flight of stairs, in the underground palace, Knuckles was waiting. He stood as Sonic approached, wary, hands half raised, ready for an attack.
"A sensible creature would have given up by now," he said.
"I don't usually get accused of being sensible." Sonic shrugged. "But I'm telling you, it's not me you need to worry about! If this Master Emerald of yours is half as valuable as you seem to think, then I bet you Robotnik is up there right now rubbing his greedy little hands together!"
Knuckles cast half a glance over his shoulder, as if considering it, but shook his head.
"I do not believe you."
"Tough! If you won't stop him, then I have to. Let me past."
Knuckles answer was to launch himself forward, striking out with those wicked spiked fists. Sonic leapt aside, grateful for his reflexes, and managed a glancing blow as Knuckles overshot. A twisting, hit and run fight followed. Sonic got more blows in but he was having to use all his speed to dodge those vicious claws. He could feel himself tiring, and all the while he was aware that Robotnik was probably getting closer and closer to the Master Emerald.
Abruptly he found himself on his backside again. That deceptively slow glide made it difficult to judge an attack. Clearly recognising this as well, Knuckles was halfway up the steps and launched himself again.
Sonic eyed him, and muttered to himself, "Fool me once..."
He flung himself forward and underneath the echidna then exploded upwards in a spin, knocking the breath out of him in an explosive gasp. Knuckles twisted to try and get his feet under him as he fell and might have succeeded if not for the steps. He landed awkwardly, one foot caught beneath him and Sonic winced himself as something cracked
Knuckles fell forward onto the unforgiving stone, wrapping his arms around his midriff and drawing his injured foot in close. Sonic might have jumped over him and gone on, except that he was alarmed by the strangled sound of his opponent's breathing, which made it seem as if he was about to expire there on the floor. It wasn't the same as leaving a destroyed badnik, after all.
"Hey," Sonic said, from a safe distance. "You okay there?"
Knuckles took a long shaky breath and pushed himself up to one knee. Not in submission, his fists were still raised. And he was still between Sonic and the stairs.
"Oh, come ON..." Sonic groaned, and moved to go around him.
Knuckles thrust himself forward with his good leg and tackled the hedgehog around the waist, sending them both to the ground. Sonic dragged himself back to his feet, Knuckles clung on to him and struggled up with him. He grabbed a fistful of spines with one hand and brandished the other clawed fist at Sonic's throat.
"No one endangers the Master."
Even injured, the echidna was the stronger of the two and Sonic tried in vain to pull away from that lethal hand. Desperately he kicked out at the one weakness he knew, and planted a hefty kick into Knuckles' broken left ankle.
Knuckles made the choking sound of someone trying not to scream outright, and for a moment was holding onto Sonic for support, not restraint. Sonic shook him off and started up the stairs three at a time.
Knuckles really did cry out then, and Sonic turned.
"You don't honestly expect--" He stopped when he saw the echidna's expression.
Knuckles was on his hands and knees and his face was stricken. Not with the pain of his injuries, but with something like horror.
He spoke, though it seemed as if he could barely get the words out, and his eyes were unfocused as if he was unaware of Sonic's presence.
"He's done something to it."
Sonic bounded back down the steps.
"What do you mean? Robotnik? The Emerald? What's happened?"
"It must be him. He's done something. I can't..."
Only Knuckles' obvious distress kept the words, "Told you so," from Sonic's tongue. Instead he settled for shaking him by the shoulders.
"Come on, help me out here! What's happened? Do you know where he is?"
Pain lanced from Knuckles' ankle through his whole body and he felt his grip loosen involuntarily. Through blurred vision, as he fell, he saw the hedgehog moving away.
No! He could not fail. He reached with his mind for the Master's strength. Something akin to a prayer. Please, give me the strength to stop him.
He had managed it before. Using the Master Emeralds power to stave off the effects or injury and weariness. It was always temporary, it could only delay the pain, not heal it, but it would do for now.
So he reached. And abruptly he found his mind scrabbling against a freezing, slick barrier. Oil and cold metal. He could get no purchase on it. For the first time he could remember he was unable to feel the Master Emerald. Only cold metal. Confining. Trapping.
He couldn't contain an anguished cry as he realised that he'd been deceived. That he'd failed and the Master Emerald's sanctuary had been breached.
It him several moments to register that the hedgehog had not run on, but was instead crouched beside him, shaking his shoulders. It hurt, but that hardly mattered now.
"Leave," he managed. "It's too late. He has the Master. The Island will fall."
"Then help me!" The hedgehog shouted over the rumble of the ground beginning to shift. "Tell me where he is so I can stop him!"
Knuckles struggled back to his feet and snarled through the pain. Was he to be so quickly deceived a second time? He shook his head, regretting it, as the movement sent dizziness sweeping over him.
"I can't --don't-- trust you. You'll take it for yourself."
Sonic rolled his eyes. "And from the point of view of the whole 'Island falling out of the sky' routine, that would be different, how?" The ground shifted again. "What have you got to lose?"
Knuckles limped towards the steps and didn't answer. He would have preferred there be no witnesses to the humiliation of having to crawl up them, but ignoring the hedgehog was the closest he could come.
Sonic waited, pointedly tapping his foot until Knuckles regained his feet at the top of the stairs, and persisted.
"Can you run on that ankle? Do you really think you can catch him in time?"
Knuckles hadn't thought of it in those terms. He was the Guardian and he was obliged to try.
"Do you really think you can catch him at all, without me to show you the way?" he growled, defiantly.
Sonic, by this point, was tempted to try. He'd already wasn't enough time arguing. He itched to be running, and at Robotnik. Knuckles was correct though, he didn't have the first clue which way to go. Not to mention it would be a whole lot easier with Knuckles on hand to disarm the various traps and gadgetry that had delayed him ever since he'd landed here.
Sonic stuck out his hand, as Knuckles stood, head down, catching his breath.
"Truce?" Sonic asked.
Knuckles took one faltering step away and almost fell. He stopped and stared at Sonic for several, long seconds. Then he nodded almost imperceptibly, reluctance in every line of his face.
Sonic grinned. "All right then! Here, let me give you a hand." He closed the distance between then and looped his arm around Knuckles' shoulders. The echidna flinched but didn't protest as Sonic got a good grip under his arms.
"Which way?" Sonic asked?
Sonic accelerated so fast Knuckles' feet didn't touch the ground again until they stopped.
The stop was brought about by Knuckles flailing at Sonic's shoulder and shouting, his voice torn away by the wind of their speed.
"Huh?" Sonic slowed to a stop to listen.
"Well there's gratitude!" Sonic huffed.
Knuckles ignored the retort. "It's not a straight line all the way, you dolt. We passed the transmat orb half a mile back!"
"Oh. Well you could have said something."
Knuckles snorted. Sonic smiled in amusement at his indignation and turned around.
"Wow!" Sonic said as they reappeared in the middle of the weirdest sight he'd seen yet. Even without looking down something in the quality of the air told him they were high up. Ruins floated all around them, apparently unsupported in the air. They stood for now on one of the larger pieces and Knuckles pointed to the far end.
"I've been hurrying," Sonic pointed out. "You were one who wanted to debate in it committee back--" he started to point, then realised he had no idea where he was in relation to anywhere else anymore and finished, less hotly, "--back there."
Before Knuckles could respond, if indeed he would have bothered, something fast and heavy knocked the both of them flying and withdrew to hover slightly above them.
"Uh, oh," said Sonic, picking himself up and looking at Metallix, "Hey, pal, new paint job?"
Sonic glanced across to check where Knuckles had fallen and found him already back on his feet, and staring back and forth between him and his metal equivalent. His expression changed slowly from disbelief to suspicion to fury.
"You..." His voice was shaking as he glared as Sonic. "I led you here! I trusted... And now this. Is this your version of Robotnik's devices?"
"Hey, hey hey," Sonic raised his hands to ward him off. He was certain the only reason Knuckles hadn't already attacked in spite of his injuries, was that he didn't know which hedgehog --living or robotic-- to tackle first. "This isn't what you think it is! Me and Robotnik have been enemies a long time. This is his idea of a clever plan. And we haven't got time for this!"
Knuckles looked doubtful, but it was Metallix, oblivious to the byplay below who settled the matter. He plunged at Sonic. Knuckles, whose reactions were obviously quicker than his decision making, leapt to intervene and knocked him aside.
"There," he gasped. "Now I've lent you a hand. We're even." He pointed again at the far end of the platform. "Go! There's another trasmat. Keep heading up. Robotnik's at the top with the Master Emerald. You were right. I can't run in time to stop him." He looked back at Metallix. "But I can keep this one from delaying you."
Sonic wasn't sure about that. Knuckles was only still standing through an act of willpower, and Metallix was hardly a push-over. Of course, as he'd told Knuckles earlier, if the Island ended up in the sea that would all become a bit irrelevant. Sonic turned to run.
"Hedgehog!" Sonic glanced over his shoulder at Knuckles' shout. "If you were lying I'll find you."
Before Sonic could answer, Knuckles had summoned up some last reserves of energy and ploughed headlong into Metallix.
Sonic ran on in search of Robotnik.
"Wonderful," Sonic muttered, making the word sound like a curse. ""Just marvellous. Beat Robotnik and bring the whole zone tumbling down in the process. Nice job."
Somewhere above him explosions were still echoing. Somewhere below, the floating ruins were rapidly becoming falling ruins as the shockwaves sent them spinning and crashing. Somewhere even further down --he hoped-- was Tails and the Tornado. If not, it was going to be a very very long drop. He'd already passed the spot he'd left Knuckles fighting Metallix, with no sign of either of them. He hoped the echidna had made it away. That glide should get him safely back to the Island shouldn't it?
A roar of an engine and the bright red wings of Tails' biplane shot into view banking around hard to avoid the debris.
"Jump!" Tails, shouted, and Sonic didn't need to be asked twice. He landed squarely on the upper wing and slid down into the cockpit to join Tails.
"Nice timing," he told him. "I don't suppose you've seen a bright red spiny type flying around in this lot have you?"
Tails shook his head. "Nope. You want to look for him?"
"Be rude to leave without saying goodbye wouldn't it?
It had taken Metallix some time to work out that Knuckles was injured. He had been perhaps a little more wary than he needed to be, and this had bought the echidna some time. Then too --if Sonic was to be believed-- the bot had been designed to tackle quite a different approach to combat than Knuckles employed, and this bought him a little more.
Knuckles had got in several hard blows and Metallix' movements were becoming more erratic. Then quite suddenly the explosions started from above. Suddenly that frigid barrier which had kept the Master Emerald out of reach was gone and Knuckles reached for it gratefully. He looked up to see its glow in the sky overhead and knew it would float safely back down to the Island, which in turn would float safely itself as a result.
He drew the power of it to himself and struck out. Metallix never stood a chance.
Another blast rocked the platform before he could celebrate and it pitched alarmingly, sending him skidding over the edge. He twisted and jammed his claws into side of the stone. He dangled there breathlessly for a moment before releasing and twisting into a glide.
It wasn't easy, amid the tumbling lumps of masonry, not to mention the occasional entire pillar. He descended as quickly as he dared without losing control.
"There!" Tails called out and swung the plane around.
Sonic spotted it the same moment, a small red shape weaving through the debris.
"Can you get in closer?" Sonic frowned, Knuckles was very close to some of those stones.
As if his thinking it was the trigger, two of the larger pieces collided with another and one spun off into the echinda's path. He twisted to avoid it. Failed. Struck hard against another piece, and clutched at it with his claws. He tumbled end over end along with the chuck of masonry before losing his grip and falling.
Tails pulled the plane around and dived to intercept the fall. Sonic climbed back on top of the wings and got ready to grab. It wouldn't be easy. Knuckles was clearly either unconscious or too badly injured to glide. Either way he would be difficult to catch and unable to hold on to the aircraft himself. Sonic refused to consider the alternative, that the reason he was falling not gliding was that the impact had been unsurvivable.
Tails lined it up and shouted to Sonic.
Sonic braced himself and kept his eyes on Knuckles as Tails made the intercept. The lineup was spot on. Knuckles landed almost square on top of Sonic who grabbed frantically at a wrist as it slid past and hauled him fully onto the wing.
Knuckles stirred and opened his eyes. His first response was to pull away from Sonic, but he froze when he realised where he was.
"Good catch," he allowed.
Sonic shrugged and indicated Tails. "Good pilot."
Knuckles raised an eyebrow. "Modesty now? That's new."
"Gratitude?" Sonic mimicked, "That's new."
Knuckles didn't comment.
"Is there somewhere you'd like us to drop you off?" Sonic asked, still in an exaggeratedly polite tone. Knuckles seemed to miss the sarcasm.
"Anywhere on the Island. The Master Emerald fell somewhere there. I will find it and restore it to a protected place."
"Don't suppose you need a hand?" Sonic joked. Suspicion flared instantly in Knuckles' eyes and Sonic laughed hurriedly, realising he'd miscalculated. "Only kidding."
Knuckles' expression smoothed and he stared out over the Floating Island.
"I was incorrect in my initial judgement of you, hedgehog. If I had fallen you could have taken the Emeralds at your leisure."
"Is that an apology?" Sonic smiled slightly.
"No." Knuckles still looked out ahead, not at Sonic. "I am a Guardian. It is not in the nature of my task to be trusting. But it was not difficult to believe Robotnik when he said that someone was after the Master Emerald. I have fought off many such. And his ship was damaged, and there you were, uninjured and carrying the Emeralds. I do not have the practice with falsehoods that you surface dwellers apparently do. It is hard to detect and judge something of which you have no experience."
Sonic wasn't certain whether he'd just been insulted, but this once it seemed unintentional so he let it go.
"Well, Robotnik is a better liar than most."
Knuckles gave a noncommittal sound, but didn't explain himself further.
After they landed, Knuckles jumped down and watched as Tails turned the plane around to take off.
"Knuckles--your ankle?" Sonic stared.The echidna was limping, true, but nothing likely as badly as he should have been. And he'd survived Metallix somehow.
Knuckles frowned, and for a moment Sonic thought he would tell him to mind his own business.
"It is inevitable that injuries occur when guarding the Master, so there is a way for the Guardian to use the power to maintain themselves during the battle." He pasued as that sank in. "If Robotnik had not interfered with the Master, you would not have defeated me in the Hidden Palace."
Knuckles watched him. "Any more questions?"
"Um No," Sonic said, a little taken aback by this pointed waiting for them to leave. "Well, bye then," Knuckles was clearly impatient to get on with restoring the Master Emerald and wanted them well out of the way first.
Knuckles turned around and headed into the trees. Sonic supposed that his taking his eyes off them was the closest to a sign of trust as he was likely to get.
"Let's go, Tails," he said.
Knuckles lay in the Emerald Chamber, the Master a warm, reassuring presence at his back. He was weary now, too tired to maintain his hold over the chaos energy any longer and his ankle and other injuries throbbed too much to sleep.
He was still faintly perturbed by recent events. He had made a nearly catastrophic error of judgement and come very close to losing both the Master and the Island as a result.
If Sonic had not been present and Robotnik had come alone would he have realised his intentions in time? Was he expected to go though his entire life suspecting everyone he met?
He sighed. Of course he was. What other way was there. The Emeralds were too powerful for anyone to be trusted not to desire that power.
Why else was there a need for a Guardian in the first place?
He turned over, restlessly, and tried to sleep.