Title: Emerald Lament
Author: Maria-half
Rating: PG
Type: One-shot, 4000 words
Characters involved: Knuckles

Warnings: Set in past, fluff

Disclaimer: I do not own Sonic the Hedgehog.
Summary: Knuckles the Echidna was a master thief, nary a treasure did he neglect to steal. Now, hear the story of a treasure that finally stole him.

The night air was cool. The deep blackness and solitude gave the impression of total silence. The uniformed man made another trip around the large circular room. He glanced throughout skittishly.

A swift movement in the guard's peripheral vision caused him to whirl around. His sword was out. There was nobody there.

A quiet shuffle and he spun again. A mouse squeaked and fled.

He sighed, turning back to the center of the room. There sat the prize. A beautiful gem, huge and extraordinary. The darkness around it was vanquished by the soft pulsating red. It was almost as if it were alive.

The "Crimson Heart". A ruby of the highest quality and besought after by any man with a head on his shoulders.

It calmed him, its warm glow making the room seem brighter, and the silence less oppressive. He felt uncommon, special, just guarding it. Others go their whole lives not seeing it once, while he saw it every day.

Suddenly, there was another in the chamber. A small red figure crouched down in front of the gem. A moment's surprise, then the guard charged. His sword was drawn and thrust forward with deadly precision.

The intruder was a reddish blur, jumping above the blade and vanishing into the darkness above. All was quiet. The guard spared only a cursory glance around him. His attention was focused on the ruby.

Then, out on nowhere, it came again. The watchman was knocked to the ground, and barely glimpsed the figure before it leaped back again. The guard took off after him, knocking the creature away from the jewel. In his distraction, he only used the side of his blade, harmlessly defecting it. The man had never seen something like it before. The beast was small, and animalistic, but with developed hands and feet. It was red, had red fur, and crimson spines where hair would be on a human. It was wearing wrap around sandals, not unlike his own.

It smirked and jumped over him easily, defying logic as well as nature. The guard whirled around, but it was too late. Outside the window he could see a red dot plummeting. The pedestal behind him was empty.

o0-|-0o

He looked down at the precious stone. In his hand, he thought, he held the wealth of a nation. In return for it, a country would supply him ten times his weight in gold. (A scam, the creature thought with amusement. He was far lighter than he looked.) But that was hardly what he was after.

The ruby glimmered in his hand. He could have sworn it was happier now. High on the adrenaline, just like he. It was free of the confines of that old tower, free to be gazed upon.

A treasure like this, unique and irreplaceable, excited him. He had to have it. It wasn't about wealth, he thought again. Gold, while admittedly not common, was not unique.

There was only one Crimson Heart. And it was here, pulsating warmly in his hand.

That was what Knuckles loved about being a treasure hunter.

o0-|-0o

Tikal walked slowly around the cliffs edge. From her position, she could see both the clouds around the sky island, and her village nuzzled at the edge. She smiled sadly as she looked down upon yet another war meeting her father was holding in the pavilion.

She glanced away, not wanting to think on such a gloomy topic. A head of her stretched a path, rarely trodden and green with life. The farther she walked, the more forested it became. The princess was hardly aware as the path led her gradually to a lower altitude. There, up ahead, was that fountain. This was the place her father was talking about with all those other men.

This was the place where that great Emerald resided.

Her grandmother had told stories about it, and once recited a poem. It was only one time, but Tikal remembered ever word as though she had heard it a thousand times.

Her father had heard these stories as well, when he was young. How the emerald was a thing of great power, and how it's wielder...

Her father was going too far, and she knew it. It housed the Chao; he would be destroying a home.

She smiled despite her mood as she came upon the large fountain. Spinning gently in the center was the emerald itself. Seven smaller jewels orbited it slowly. Tikal remembered her grandmother saying something about them, but she couldn't recall their story nearly so well.

In and around the fountain played the Chao. They were strange little creatures that lived peacefully under the guardianship of the emerald and Chaos.

She ran over when they looked up and waved. The liquid-like form of chaos peeked out of the fountain and greeted her with a nod.

What would happen to all the little places like this should her father obtain the emerald?

o0-|-0o

A white-gloved hand appeared over the threshold of the cliff. Soon after it was another, their small spikes jutting upwards dangerously. Knuckles hoisted himself over and collapsed on the worn path. He was exhausted.

Slowly, the echidna dragged himself up, and off the path. He hid in the bushes nearby, not wanting to be discovered so soon. He had never completely believed that this island existed. It was admittedly hard to swallow, a floating chunk of land. Its only connection to the world below was the rare occurrence of passing a mountain. Even then, it was damn near impossible to reach.

He would know; he climbed the great hulking lump!

Knuckles sighed. He needed a nap. Gingerly, favoring his sore body, the red creature relaxed on the soft foliage. He was out the next moment.

It wasn't until the next day did he awake again, stretching and popping from sleeping on the ground. The echidna assessed his surroundings before judging it to be safe and going off to search for his emerald.

The island was like nothing he'd seen before. The plants seemed so tropical, yet he was thousands of feet off the ground. The air was thin and slightly chilly, and Knuckles did not understand what such flora was doing, thriving here.

He observed that the cliffs were almost circular, encasing the entire island. It seemed defensive, but he did not know what this natural fortress would protect against. He could make out a thriving civilization. They were near one end of the island, the cliffs at their backs and sides, and a constructed wall at the front. Most everywhere else was densely forested, though he though he could see other buildings, now over-grown.

The city was a small one, but Knuckles could see many people inhabiting it. Mostly the same hair color, he thought. It was just more indication of the inaccessibility of Angel Island.

He couldn't make out much more from his position, but the emerald obviously wasn't there so he paid it no mind.

"Who are you?"

Knuckles jumped and turned around. A... girl looked curiously at him. She looked like him, like no one ever had before. She was pale, her fur a soft tan.

She had fur.

She had a white undercoat, unlike his desert tan, and white stripes patterned her spines and arms. She was dressed decoratively, too, like royalty.

"Um... hello?" she said. He blinked, focusing on her face again.

"Hello?" he repeated.

She smiled at him. A cheerful, innocent expression. "It means I am greeting you." she said, then giggled.

Knuckles blushed under his fur. "I know that!" he said. She giggled again. The thief turned back around, staring over the cliff edge. He scanned over the dense forest to the city.

Nope. The emerald had not suddenly appeared while he was distracted.

"What sre you doing?" The princess-like girl leaned around and peered over the edge. Knuckles didn't move. She looked up at him, but he refused to look back. She prodded him in the side, and pouted.

"Hey-"

"I'm not doing anything!" the red echidna said. The girl went silent and pulled back. For a moment, he though she had left.

A glance behind told him he was sadly mistaken. The strange girl was pouting at him.

Cute... Knuckles blinked. Well, he admitted, she was cute. He felt himself blush again.

"...Sorry." he said, then looked away again.

She smiled, moody face gone in an instant. "It's okay. My name is Tikal," she said. "What is yours?"

"Knuckles." the echidna said after a moment. He turned around to face her. "What do you want?"

"Are you from the land below?"

"Yes." Knuckles said. He winced in memory of the climb.

"That is really amazing. What is it like down there? How did you get up here? Do all echidna down there look like you?" The thief could not keep up with her.

"Well, I-" he thought for a moment, then continued. "I've never seen another echidna. I climbed, and it's warmer." Tikal laughed.

"You answered backwards," she said. Knuckles huffed. "It's warmer?" She changed the subject again. "But it's so hot up here! What are your summers like?"

"It's hot?" Knuckles looked incredulous. He lived in the desert before his world traveling. It was broad daylight here and it was like a desert night.

"Tell me more," the pretty echidna asked. "You've really never seen another like you?"

"Not before you." Knuckles said. He shook his head, then looked away over the edge again. "Are they all echidna, too?"

"Yes, of course! What else could they be?" She looked confused. "What else is down there with you?"

"Humans." Knuckles said, nonchalant. "Birds, beasts. All sorts of things." Tikal looked confused, but did not ask him.

"You... you do not have them, do you?" he asked. She shook her head, and he stopped. "Not even birds?"

"I do not even know what it is." He thought Tikal sounded awful cheerful for not even knowing what a bird was. Tikal glanced at him, then down to her city.

"It's beautiful." Knuckles said. Get her on the topic of pretty things. Girls love to talk about gems.

"You think so?" She seemed happy. Knuckles stared at her smile. It seemed foreign on her face, though that was what she did for the majority of their short time together.

"You should do that more often." he said, then blinked. That sounded awful verbal for a thought...

Tikal looked surprised. She stared thoughtfully down at the civilization. Did her realize how little she appreciated her home? Did he know that he had just made her see its beauty from the eyes of an outsider? One who did not know of the echidna tendencies towards war?

"Would... you like to see it?" she asked. Maybe he could change it. Maybe what they needed was a new voice, a new view of the world! Tikal whirled around with a wide smile on her face. Knuckles stepped back.

"S-see it?" He said. Why did she look so happy? What did he do? He had no time to ponder further, however. Tikal grabbed his hand and pulled him fast down the mountain. He nearly slipped and had to use all his theft reflexes to avoid the terrain they were speeding past.

Soon the ground leveled out again, and Tikal seemed to calm down. Knuckles followed her shyly, glancing down at the hand wrapped around his. She spoke quickly and he tried to keep up.

"This is the Great hall," she explained, gesturing to a pavilion. "We hold feasts and celebrations in there." The foreign echidna nodded, and was pulled off to another building. "The observatory," she said. "A house," They must have gone though the whole place, he though dizzily. Knuckles remembered what it looked like from above. The city certainly was not as small as it had seemed.

Suddenly, Tikal stopped. The thief looked up, stirred from the mist of his thoughts and her voice. She stood before a large building. He hadn't seen this one before. He looked at her curious and saw the little frown on her face.

He looked back at the closed off structure. It didn't seem special, although he could hear the buzz of voices inside. Perhaps she wasn't a people person? He thought, and then blushed under his fur. She seemed to like him, despite that.

Just then, the door swung open, and a large echidna stepped out. Even though Knuckles had seen Tikal, he wasn't expecting another creature like him. It was still odd.

The man looked down at them, glancing between boy and girl. Knuckles felt his hand quickly dropped.

"So..." he said. His voice radiated power and authority. Now that he noticed, so did his attire. He was dressed in fine cloth, and jewels. His armor was sturdy and cared for and sword at the echidna's hip looked deadly beautiful.

"Who is your friend, Tikal?" the thief's eyes snapped back up to the face of the speaker. He was staring back, observing him from head to toe. "He looks like a warrior, but I've never seen fur like that."

"I... He's a friend of mine." Tikal mumbled. She was looking down, but forced herself to smile up at her father. "I like his fur."

Knuckles blushed again. The elder nodded.

"Come in," he invited, standing back. Knuckles stepped forward automatically, then glanced back at his new friend. She seemed tense, and stared at him with an expression he couldn't place. After a moment with Knuckles and her father watching, she stepped forward and they traveled into the hall.

In the main hall, warriors sat conversing around a huge table. They all stood and bowed when the elder echidna entered. He nodded back and they took their seats.

"I bring a guest; a friend of my daughter's." Knuckles glanced back at her, surprised. He was obviously ruler here, but she dressed and acted with such restraint.

"I hope he will find his stay comfortable." the red echidna turned back to him in surprise. The king smiled, and gestured towards an empty seat.

"Thank you, your majesty." Knuckles took the seat offered to him graciously. The king sat next to him, at the end of the table.

Tikal reluctantly sat on the other side of her father.

The king looked delighted at Knuckles manners. "So, what is your name, boy?"

"Knuckles, sir." He's dined with the fine before this. Go with it and good will come to you.

"Where do you come from, Knuckles?" The table was all watching him. Truth, he shall name them the truth.

"The world below here. I come seeking adventure." Sort of truth.

"The world below..." Whispering broke out around the table. Knuckles heard the beginnings of a plan to conquer it. "What is it like?" The king continued. Silence settled around the table. The foreign echidna could not tell if it was due to the subject, or the demand of their king.

He suspected both.

"It is barren. The ground in cracked and there is no water anywhere for miles. The only plants are waxy and spiked. They are better used for clubs then food, and are quite poor for that as well.

"The only place of water is too large and vast. All that is there is water, and most of the times it is filled with salt and undrinkable. There are no others like me below; only beasts like humans and birds. They roam wild. It is paradise here." Well, not much truth at all, really.

Knuckles' audience seemed captivated. They stared at him, disbelief in their eyes, and whispering broke out again. There were no more plans for another war.

"I... see... You are an unfortunate one, my boy. I think you should stay here with us." The king was staring him down. Knuckles could not look away. "You would be honored as a warrior here."

Finally, he looked away. He could see Tikal just beyond her father. Her eyes were bright, and her smile was gone.

"I... must refuse." He said. The king frowned.

"What, do you think you might just enter my home and leave with my daughter?" He sounded a little angry, Knuckles thought. "I shall let you know what becomes of fools like you!"

The table seemed to rise as one, and Knuckles could not take another step before he was dragged to the ground. A blade was pointed at his head. He could see the sandals of the King right in front of his face. Comfortable, practical. They looked just like his.

o0-|-0o

Knuckles sighed as he looked around the cell. He could not believe that they had many prisoners, or they would have tried a little harder. He wanted to get out as quickly as possible, however and waited just until the sounds of his gaol-keepers footsteps receded into the distance. Quickly, he lifted the old door up off its hinges and leaned it against the wall. He slipped out and was gone.

o0-|-0o

"Father! Please think about what you are doing!" The army continued like clockwork.

She tried to stand in the way after it was obvious that her words would not be heard. For a second, Tikal saw a concerned look in her fathers face. But her hope was destroyed as it turned to rage. He knocked her aside, and charged forward. His men followed, frenzied and ready for battle.

"Don't!" she called desperately. She grasped at the air in front of her as though it would bring them back.

Suddenly a red blur raced from the trees. Knuckles stood before them, fists up and guarding the way.

The king spat at his feet derisively. "Are you maddened, boy?" he gestured behind his and the horde of angry echidna. Knuckles did not move. Instead, he lunged forward, lashing out at the king. He knocked the elder back, and took another swipe with his horned gloves.

Enraged, the king drew his sword and slashed upwards. Knuckles jumped back, bouncing into the air as he touched the ground again. The King followed him with his eyes, and twisted the sword. The red echidna scrambled for something to reverse his momentum as the blade came slicing back at him. Just in time, he wrapped a gloved hand around a branch and swung up over the weapon.

Growling, the king stomped forward, claiming the opening. He fell back again as Knuckles completed his swing and nailed him in the chest. There exchange continued, neither getting much headway over the other.

Then, a resourceful soldier ran past, ducking under the swipe of a fist. He hoped to snag the coveted jewel for the King.

"Damn," Knuckles hissed, jumping back. He twisted in the air and propelled himself off a trunk toward the other echidna. The Soldier fell with a groan. Without hesitation, the thief whirled around and brought his gloves to block. He barely deflected the swipe with his claws. Knuckles fell back with the force of the king's blow. The king brought the sword back around, and trained it at his throat.

The Echidna warlord gestured for his army to charge with his other hand. He did not look away from the thief at his feet as they rushed past on either side. They paid no mind to their surroundings, slashing down anything that moved. The trees and bushes were hacked away to blaze a path.

The Emerald was whirling and flashing as they came upon it. It was not unlike a siren, but it's warning went unheeded. The soldiers merely stopped a moment to admire its glory for a moment before continuing. The Chao were knocked away and the chaos emerald snatched from the air.

A general of the army admired it in the sun; it twinkled enticingly. He smiled, not noticing the creature raising fro the pool. Several stared as though hypnotized at the smaller gems. The rest stared in frozen horror as the monster shot a tapered tentacle through them one by one.

The king looked up with alarm as screams began. He ran over to see his warriors fall before a monster like he had never seen before. It's liquid-like body twisted and bubble with rage as it fought the echidna army. Within minutes their numbers were already down by half. A few brave echidnas tried to defend themselves, but the weapons flowed through the Chaos like water.

Seven emeralds were flying around its head so fast that they looked like blurred halo. Soldiers fell like flies around it, until there was only the king.

"Whoa," Knuckles landed behind him, ready to try and stop the king again, but faltered. His wide eyes stared at the carnage around the once peaceful fountain. He looked up at the Chaos, and felt a flicker of fear.

Then, he felt an odd twang in his chest. Automatically, he looked to the fountain, but the strange little emeralds weren't there. A glint brought his attention back to the guardian. The twang grew and the emeralds shot apart, scattering into the distance.

The King swore next to him, and the Chaos spun to glare at him. Knuckles could feel its voice in his bones. Wordless, it wailed for it's fallen family. Wordless it demanded revenge.

Wordless, it lunged.

Knuckles stumbled back. The King fell limp beside him. He would rise no more. The Chaos roared with anger, the grass dying at its feet. It came closer, and Knuckles stepped back.

Then, music broke the silent dread. A soft, sweet lullaby stopped the Chaos in its tracks. Knuckles dared not move, lest it notice him again. Behind it, the great green emerald glowed and spun as though dancing to the tune.

Tikal stepped closer, her voice never wavering. The Chaos bowed its head. It was a sad, mournful lullaby, rocking the lost to their finally rest.

'Get out of here!' Knuckles wanted to shout. He wanted to grab her and run. He could see tears in her eyes as she pointedly stepped past the Chao, and echidna warriors. She spared no glance for her father.

But still she sang, the emerald moving faster and faster. Its glow was blinding. Tikal stared straight into it, her haunting melody reaching a climax. Chaos seemed to disintegrate into the green. Knuckles shielded his eyes and looked away. Even then he could see the blinding star-bust that left spots in his vision. When he dared to look again, the creature was gone.

And so was Tikal.

"No..." he whispered. It was the first thing he was able to say for a long time. "No..." How could something like this happen?

How could that damned emerald do that to her! It was a protector; it should protect her!

But all it did was destroy everything in its path...

Calm yourself, child.

Knuckles jumped, and looked around. He had never felt something like this; a voice that spoke in his mind.

The girl is not gone. It continued. She has given herself to stop the vicious cycle of destruction.

The echidna stared at the emerald, all that was left of this tragedy. The cause and completion of it.

She asked for my power to cease the destruction, and I granted it. She is here.

"Why?!" Knuckles demanded. "Why can she not be here?"

The Chaos is not appeased. Its energy has been corrupted by sadness and anger. Without her, it will wreak havoc.

There was silence for a moment. Knuckles felt tears sting his eyes. Trapped. She had sacrificed herself. But for what? There was nothing left. There was only him.

The emerald's glow grew strong once more, washing over him. Remain here, he heard.

Return her gift. Guard this place with all your strength. Let nothing ruin the sacrifice.

You are the Guardian.

o0-|-0o

The emerald glittered soothingly. He could feel her presence inside. He longed to be with her again.

But with her Knuckles could sense the all-consuming hatred of the Chaos. He could tell that her presence alone was the only thing that kept its vengeance at bay.

Knuckles stood looking over the runs of the city. As ages passed, he watched from a distance. The clouds overhead never ceased their movement. The people below never becoming more than specks of sand falling to the bottom of the hourglass.