"We need to get out of here!" Knuckles yelled, spinning away from the bot he'd been attacking. "We need to get off this ship now!"
"No kidding?" Sally snapped. She had wrenched a weapon from a crushed swatbot and was vainly attempting to hold off three more with it.
Knuckles fought his way closer. "You don't know how much worse it is going to get." He grabbed her arm. "The hedgehog is coming, and he has no idea what he is doing."
"I'd say that was fairly typical, except that..." At the expression on Knuckles' face, Sally stopped. "What is it?"
Knuckles opened his mouth to say he didn't have time for explanations, when the point was made for him. The whole ship gave an almighty lurch, spilling everyone, swatbots and animal alike, to the floor.
A metal wall peeled open like tin foil and a near-blinding light spilled through. In the centre of it, floated a startlingly altered figure of a hedgehog. Eyes red, spines golden and wearing a manic grin.
"Sonic...?" Sally said hesitantly.
"Not exactly," muttered Knuckles. He stepped forward, firmly pushing Sally to the side and behind. His nerves twanged with the wrongness of what the hedgehog had done, and this weird, uncontrolled distortion of the Emeralds' power.
"If you have any understanding left, you can let this go." He spoke slowly. There was no predicting the hedgehog's reaction in this state. Speaking up at all was dangerous. But he had to try. In his mind the Master screamed, the Seven thrashed and flailed, their power cut loose from the stabilising force, dragged hither and thither by the tumbled, wild emotions of the hedgehog drawing on them. Knuckles' own body cried out for him to draw the Master's energy to himself, the only defence which might work against this threat. The threat he existed to contain, the reason a Guardian was always needed. He resisted the urge to channel it. The power was there now. Ready and waiting. But an Emerald-charged fight between the two of them here and now would destroy this ship and everyone on it. Behind him, Sally and Bunnie watched, stricken with shock.
"Control is a more powerful tool, than Chaos." Knuckles poured all his powers of persuasion into his words. All his belief in what was right. "Choice is the ultimate control. Your friend Sally knows that. She chose to let me go. Chose to put a stop to distrust, chose to leave. You can choose, to give this up. This does not have to be the only way." He held out a hand to the glowing hedgehog. "I can control this. You cannot. But you can choose to let me take it from you." He took a step forward.
There was a pause, then a strange sound came from the golden hedgehog which Knuckles didn't immediately recognise as laughter.
"Robotnik first," spat the hedgehog, then turned and flew away from them, leaving a trail of torn metal and holed bulkheads in his wake.
Knuckles sagged, half surprised to be still alive. He quickly straightened.
"What's happened to him?" Sally asked, wide-eyed and pale.
Knuckles shook his head. "We need to get out of here. I can stop him, but we need to get down to the ground. It's too dangerous up here. If it goes wrong..."
"But what's happened?" Sally persevered, as they picked their way towards the torn hole in the side, the way littered with broken bots.
"No one ever believes me when I say the Emeralds are dangerous," Knuckles said through a grimace, having resorted to leaning on Bunnie for support. "Your purpose for using them doesn't matter. Control is what matters, and you cannot simply take that like some bauble."
He pointed at the hole, through which the wind whipped. The ground was a a good thousand feet below them, discernible in the dark only by the glow from the trickling lavastreams, and it was getting further away with every second.
Bunnie clung to the tattered metal edge and peered out. "Any ideas?"
"One," said Knuckles grimly, stepping closer to the gaping tear. "Get behind me. Sally, hold on to me. Bunnie, hold onto Sally. Hold tight."
"What are you going to..."
Sally's question ended in a gasp as Knuckles pitched forward out of the hole, arms and legs spread wide to steady himself in the abrupt free-fall. There was a confused jumble of clutching limbs before the two girls sorted themselves out into someone more or less resembling a piggyback ride.
Knuckles flared his spines and slowed them. It was still a faster descent than he'd have liked, the extra weight was not making things easy and his back and neck were already protesting. On the plus side it beat hobbling and it was unlikely either Robotnik or the out of control hedgehog would immediately realise where they'd gone.
"Sonic!" yelled Sally.
Unless someone bellowed it out of course, Knuckles corrected himself wearily. He twisted awkwardly to see the flying fortress disappear in flames over the edge of the Island, and the golden hedgehog burst upwards from it and turn towards them.
Knuckles increased his rate of descent. This was going to be a rough landing, but at least they'd be down. He hit the ground in a barely controlled belly flop. Sally and Bunnie rolled clear and he staggered giddily to his feet, trying to focus on the position of the hedgehog.
He took several deep breaths, and forced himself to calm. Desperate he might be, but fear and anger he couldn't afford. Control. Control was the key. He reached out. The power came in a rush as though the Master itself was eager for the change. Knuckles fought it and won, channelling the energy, changing it, making it a part of himself. The light began at his chest, his heart, and radiated out until he glowed, as bright or brighter than the advancing hedgehog.
Shadows danced strangely on the ground in the flickering light. Sally and Bunnie leapt backwards, alarm in their faces at the change but Knuckles knew his own strength and was firmly in control.
"Find cover," he said shortly. "If I fail he may come after you. It won't last, but while it does he's dangerous. Keep away from him."
Sally nodded grimly, still looking shocked and scared. Knuckles looked up, clocked the position of the hedgehog in the sky, and leapt.
SuperSonic plunged toward the trio below him. Two of them were already running from him and he exulted in the rush of air, of the sheer speed and glory. He thought he'd known speed before. He'd been wrong. This was speed, this was power, this was everything he'd ever wanted, ever dreamed, and it was his, and there was more to come.
Robotnik had been trivial to deal with. Almost a waste of the immense energy at his disposal. The echidna on the other hand... Rising to meet him. Shining almost as brightly as himself. That was different. That might actually be a challenge worthy of his interest.
Straight as an arrowshot the echidna flew towards him. So simple, so obvious. The hedgehog laughed for joy and for fury and twisted in the air until the stars spun. He slipped easily past the echidna, and dropped on him from behind. Fingers scratching and curling, grasping, throttling, closing on his enemy's throat. Even like this, even gleaming with bright, beautiful power, the echidna had to breathe. Had to suck in that high, cold, delicious air, now being denied him. The hedgehog dragged him higher still, relishing the spasming struggles that proved he was the stronger. He could not see what must surely be despair on the echidna's face, but heightened senses let him feel the jump of his opponent's pulse beneath his fingers. Ragged now. Failing.
Then, suddenly, impossibly, the echidna's hands closed on his wrists. Prising his arms apart. Dragging his grasping hands from his throat. Spreading his own arms and guiding them both downwards once more. Back towards the torn surface of the volcano's slopes. Back to where he'd come into his own, and this would not do at all! SuperSonic hissed in rage and tugged and yanked at the echidna's grip. How dare he be so calm! How dare he think he could simply end this back where it began. Defeat, if it came, would not be this dark, silent glide back to earth. Defeat came in fire and noise and destruction. What else was such power for? This was not right!
He struggled viciously and had almost freed one hand, when, through his spitting fury, he heard what it was the echidna was saying with his voice so maddeningly calm.
"You do not understand the nature of control. Control is not power. The Master does not control the Seven. It channels them, harnesses them, charges them. Control is not about that. Control requires conciousness. Control is the power to stop."
There was a blinding light and a sudden, crippling sense of loss. Briefly the image of seven glowing gemstones dancing in the sky around SuperSonic. Then they were gone, and he was gone, and only an exhausted blue hedgehog remained, draped across the back of a glowing Guardian, drifting slowly back to the shadowed ground.
Sonic grunted as they hit the ground and looked around in dazed confusion. His head hurt and he ached, and when he looked at Knuckles, the echidna seemed to be flickering. Sonic blinked rapidly and shook his head and when he looked again the effect had stopped.
Sonic frowned. The echidna had been trying to persuade him of something?
Or... They'd been fighting? No. He'd been fighting Robotnik. He frowned. You think he'd remember whether he'd won or lost that one. He'd fallen?
Knuckles offered no explanations and by now Sally and Bunnie were running towards them. From the gaping hole in the ground, Dulcy stuck her nose out. "Um, is everyone alright?" She climbed out to join them.
Sonic pressed his fingers to his temples. "I'm going to take Bunnie's line here and ask 'What the heck just happened?'"
"Sonic!" Sally flung her arms around him and hugged him fiercely before letting go and turning to Knuckles.
"Thank you," she said, leaving Sonic more perplexed still.
Knuckles inclined his head once in brief acknowledgement, and looked at Sonic.
"You attempted to use the power of the Chaos Emeralds," he stated flatly. "I need hardly add that it was an unmitigated disaster."
Bunnie was looking at the trail of white smoke marking where Robotnik had disappeared.
"Maybe not entirely," she murmured. "Robotnik is gone..."
Sonic frowned. "Why don't I remember?"
Knuckles shrugged. "It generally happens that way. Stress maybe. The mind protecting itself. I'm sure your friends can fill you in on the salient details. As Bunnie points out, you may well have killed Robotnik. You then decided to follow up that little triumph by killing me."
Knuckles' hand went absently to his throat and Sonic's frown deepened.
"What did you do with to the Chaos Emeralds?" Sally asked.
Knuckles' head snapped round quickly. "They are safe."
"And the Master Emerald?"
Knuckles folded his arms. "Go looking for an answer to that question and we are still enemies."
Sally raised her hands. "No," she said firmly. "No. Enough mistakes have been made. You were right. The Emeralds are too dangerous. For any purpose."
Sonic rubbed his head again. "Certainly something that'd need a bit more practice," he mumbled.
Knuckles turned away. "My whole life is 'practice'. It always has been."
"Guardian," Sally said, stepping up beside him, and adopting her most formal tone. "Before... this happened, you had offered to lower the Island to allow us to leave..."
Knuckles faced her. "I had considered it. I seem to recall I feared an attack from the surface if I did so."
Sally shook her head. "There will be no attack."
Knuckles inclined his head again, his formality matching Sally's own. "I believe you. Pick a spot. Somewhere remote. I do not wish the Island to be seen. I would also take it as a courtesy, if you let the stories about this place... remain stories."
Sally nodded. "That might be difficult," she said. "We don't really know if Robotnik survived.
"He does have a habit of managing it!" Sonic put in.
"If he has," Knuckles said, "Then we have a common enemy."
Sally nodded. "And if that's so, will we see you again?"
Knuckles looked up at the star-filled sky, and fading smoke.
Nicole had supplied the location and in the early morning light, Knuckles crouched at the edge of the Island with one hand brushing the ground, fingers twined in the stringy grass. Water lapped a few feet away as the Island drifted toward the shore in response to something that was less than a command, more than a thought.
The others stood close behind him as the Island came to a stop, settling beside a sheer outcrop where the land fell steeply into the sea.
"How does that work?" Sally asked, her voice filled with curiosity.
Knuckles picked up a small, smooth pebble and, straightening, tossed it to her.
"How did you catch that?"
Sally turned the pebble over in her hands. After a moment she smiled.
"Just like that?"
Sonic looked from one to the other.
"I don't get it."
Sally threw him the pebble. "You surprise me."
Sonic pulled a face and lobbed the stone into the clear water.
"So, we done here then?"
Sally was still watching Knuckles.
"I think we are," she said and held out her hand. Knuckles looked at it for a moment, slightly uncertainly before shaking it cautiously.
"Bye bye, sugar," Bunnie added, also sticking out her hand. Knuckles took it though he couldn't help casting a look at the other hand, now unable to avoid wondering how that had happened.
But Bunnie smiled and released his hand as though she hadn't noticed and hesitantly he smiled back.
Dulcy,on the other hand, looked him up and down, her wing still curled against her side before saying, "Hmm, no hard feelings then."
Knuckles dipped his head and glanced at his own injuries. "No," he said. "No point. Sometimes there are no good choices." He looked at Sonic and his voice grew wry. "We don't always know what we're doing."
"Yeah yeah," Sonic muttered, then shrugged. "Well, thanks, I guess. Even if I don't really remember what for." He grinned suddenly. "Looks like one or the other of us gave Robuttnik and Snively a butt-kicking anyway so that's a win!"
For now, Knuckles thought, but didn't stay it aloud. After all, his battles were different ones and for now, was always the best he could ever expect.
He watched as the four surface dwellers scrambled from the Island to solid ground. He watched as they watched, as the Island rose back into the sky, until faces were blurred by distance and eventually even the figures themselves were lost from view.
Knuckles turned from the edge and looked up the slope to where the volcano steamed gently in the cool dawn air. He never had checked on it. That would be his first job.
Slowly, he climbed the hill towards the caves, in Angel Island's silent morning.