Chapter I

"You're supposed to quake in mortal terror at the fate I've in store for you!"

– Enerjak; Knuckles the Echidna issue #3, 1996

The mirror in front of her was ornate and beautiful in design, a present to the Princess of Necronopolis from the Iron Queen of the Dragon Kingdom.

Julie-Su sat at her dresser, brushing the pink and purple hair that sat on top of her head, looking at her reflection with an air of indifference. Though treated like a princess, she had never seen herself as such therefore didn't think of herself as beautiful or any other such adjectives. For come her coming of age ceremony, her beauty would no longer matter. The echidna pursed her lips together, the brush stilling in her hair before she finally pulled it free and set it down on the dresser. She crossed her arms, leaning her head on them and blowing a lock of hair out of her eyes.

There was a knock on the door to her quarters, which made her look up and sit herself properly as was expected of someone of her status. "Come in," she called, placing her hands on her knee as she crossed one leg over the other.

"Forgive me for interrupting you, Princess." She relaxed a little when she saw it was only the Grandmaster of the Stealth Legion, though watched as a couple of maids entered the room, one of them heading straight to her en suite bathroom to draw a bath while the other hung some kind of robes from the wardrobe to the side of the room. "But Lord Dimitri has requested that I be your bodyguard between this evening and your coming of age ceremony."

Julie-Su frowned a little, regarding the chameleon with a critical eyebrow, almost asking why she would need a bodyguard until her…

"I understand you might be uncomfortable with this kind of set up, your highness," he added, arms crossed behind his back as his tail wavered in the air. "But his Lordship is confident that the Brotherhood will make a bold attack against the Citadel, either before or during your coming of age ceremony."

Oh yes, of course. The Brotherhood of Guardians. "Surely they would be recovering from the attack they made on one of our factories three days ago," she said, brushing a dreadlock behind her shoulder as the sound of running water in the bathroom stopped, indicating that her evening bath had been drawn.

"Regardless, Lord Dimitri would prefer it if you were watched at all times." His one good eye regarded her coolly, not answering her question. "Someone of your status would make a prime target, especially since the ceremony is being made public."

"I see…" Julie-Su rose from her seat in front of her dresser, robe slipping a little from her shoulder slightly to reveal her pink fur. "I look forward to the coming days, Grandmaster." It would be interesting for sure. She waved a hand nonchalantly as she passed him. "You are dismissed for now. I have a bath waiting."

"As you wish, Princess." With a short, sharp bow, he turned on his heel and left the room, closing the door behind him, but he would not be very far from the heiress. It was his duty or his head, and he preferred his head where it was; firmly attached to his shoulders.

Untying the sash around her waist, Julie-Su let the robe fall off her body before she slipped into the bath, arms resting on the sides as she relaxed, closing her eyes as the maids set about doing what was required of them. Tilting her head back with a sigh and crossing her legs in the water, she opened her eyes so they were half-lidded, looking at the ceiling as soap was lathered onto her body.

Things would be very interesting indeed…

"Can I join you out here?"

Knuckles looked over his shoulder, watching his teammate approach him from the doorway into the complex. Mighty looked like he was fresh from a shower, towel wrapped around his neck as he smiled. Knuckles smirked a little, though it was half-hearted at best as he turned his gaze back up to the stars. "Suit yourself. It's free world."

"We wish it was anyway." The armadillo made his way over to where his friend was leaning against a rock, looking at Knuckles before glancing up at the sky himself. "Clear sky. It's going to be cold tonight."

"We're in a desert, you moron. It's cold every night," the echidna quipped, rolling his eyes at Mighty before glancing out across the horizon in front of them. The desert was believed to be inhospitable…too much so for the Dark Empire, therefore it made a perfect base of operations. A breeze blew past them, picking up sand and carrying it along. "What brings you out here?"

Blue eyes looked at him with concern, Mighty's hands falling from the towel around his neck to the pair of slacks he wore, scratching the back of his neck along the way. "You've been all melancholy since we blew up the factory at Marble Gardens." That had been a few days ago, their latest in a long line of victories over the Dark Empire. "What's up?"

Knuckles pursed his lips together in thought, shifting against his rock as he hopped onto it, leaning back on his hands. "You ever think…maybe things could be different? Like…we've all been told that my ancestor failed to stop the Dark Empire from rising, but what if he had?"

"You asking me if I believe there's alternate universes or something?" Mighty tilted his head in thought, leaning back against Knuckles' rock and crossing his arms over his chest, still staring up at the stairs. "Well, sure. I believe that for every action you take, there's a consequence and the path less traveled. Meaning for every choice you've made, there's a world in which you didn't make it. Like, if we hadn't chosen to blow up the factory a few days ago, there would be more slaves, more pain and suffering."

The armadillo scrunched his face up at the thought. He didn't like the idea of people in misery…part of the reason he'd joined the Brotherhood. "So if there was a world where Steppenwolf had succeeded in banishing the Dark Empire, there would be peace of some kind." He shrugged. "Maybe you and I would still be friends, maybe not. Fate brings people together, Knux, and she has a funny way of doing it."

That hadn't been what he had meant, but it made some sort of sense. Knuckles cupped his head on a hand, looking up at the stars twinkling above them. Mighty was right, in a roundabout way. This was their reality and they'd been chosen to fight the Empire for a reason. "I guess that makes sense." The echidna stretched, laying back along the rock and pillowing his head on his arms. "Thanks."

"Anytime." Taking the towel from around his neck, Mighty threw it over his shoulder, turning as though to go back inside before looking at Knuckles. "By the way, Vector told me to tell you that he's ready to whoop your ass in the arena again."

Not that he had the first time. As Knuckles recalled it, it was Vector who had his own backside handed to him, handbag and all. He rolled off the rock and dusted himself off. "Well, if he's so eager for me to wipe the floor with his butt, I'll be happy to oblige." Giving a gesture to tell Mighty he was welcome to come along and watch the show, Knuckles began heading back inside the complex.

Mighty sighed and shook his head, about to head in himself when he turned to look up at the moon. It was beautiful and full in its cycle, and for some reason it calmed him. The armadillo's ears gave a twitch before he smiled widely and turned, running back inside as a commotion started up, hearing Vector's loud voice and Ray's shy squeak.

Some things never changed.

The moonlight shining through the window of her room reflected on the wine glass in her hand. Lien-Da regarded the other echidnas in front of her, elbow leaning against one of the armrests of her seat while her head rested on her hand. "So what are we going to do, gentlemen?" she said, swirling some of the cherry red liquid around inside her glass before taking a sip, glancing at her twin and her nephew. "The coming of age ceremony is less than a week away and Grandfather has appointed a bodyguard to watch over our dear half-sister."

Father and son looked at each other in thought, Kragok reclining back in his chair with his own wine glass while Remington leaned against the wall of his aunt's room with his arms crossed over his chest. Lien-Da appeared to be less than thrilled at the lack of ideas when there was a light cough beside her, making her look up.

"If I may, your ladyship," Dr. Finitevus began, one hand coming up to push his spectacles along his snout. "I have been looking over my books, and there is a…certain type of Hex. It will make the inflicted person controllable, willing to do ones bidding without a single thought to their own free will."

The smile that curled across Lien-Da's lips was wicked as she reached up, placing one of her hands on the white echidna's jaw and caressing it before looking back over to the other two. "See? Now why can't you boys come up with ideas like this one?" Her hand dropped, ignoring the glaring looks being sent her way as she turned in her seat so she was able to view Finitevus without craning her neck, crossing one leg over the other. "That sounds positively delightful, Doctor. Please…go on…"

– end chapter I –