All four of the Knothole fighters stared at Knuckles.
"They're going to break in here and kill us all if you don't stop them!" Sally grabbed his shoulders and dragged him halfway to his feet before he shook her off and took one step away before stumbling against the wall and sliding back down.
He brushed ineffectually at the dirt now caking his injuries before looking back at her. He pointed.
"Emergency tunnels – they lead to the outside. You can leave."
Sonic snorted. "And you think we're going to outrun them with you on that leg?"
Sally shook her head, she had heard, or understood his meaning, more clearly than the hedgehog.
"I will not be running anywhere," Knuckles said.
"You're just going to sit here and let them kill you?" Sally snapped. The other all looked at her startled.
"He doesn't mean that..." Bunnie said.
Knuckles found that now it came to it he was perfectly calm. The doubts and decision making were done with. It was simple.
"They would have killed me in the shrine if you hadn't come. It doesn't matter. I'm the last. There are no more Guardians. Once I'm dead there will be no way to restore the Emerald. The shards will fade and its power will go out of the world."
He let his head fall forward, no longer having the energy to face their confused, demanding stares.
"And maybe you were right, maybe that's what ought to happen. You'd be safe from it. Everyone would."
"No!" Sally said, dropping to her knees and shaking him painfully. "No. I was wrong. Wrong! And Griff is dead because of it and I can't let you die because of it too. I can't let you!"
"You can't stop me," Knuckles corrected, ignoring both her tears and another pang that had nothing to do with his injuries. "Even if the swatbots don't get here first, how much blood have I lost from that leg? How much am I still losing? How long have I got?"
"Don't do this." Sonic knelt beside Sally and put his arm around her, though his gaze was fixed on Knuckles. "You don't have to do this."
He pushed the bag of shards into Knuckles' loose grasp.
"I saw what that thing could do. It could save you -- heal you."
Knuckles shook his head as he looked down at the shards. He could feel the cold from the wall seeping into his back, spreading through his limbs.
"It would keep me alive, that's not the same thing."
A crash from further down the tunnel made everyone's heads snap round.
"They're into the tunnel. You should leave." Knuckles stared down the dark passageway.
Sally looked towards the source of the noise, then back at Knuckles.
"No," she said suddenly.
"What?" Knuckles looked back at her, baffled.
Sonic shot a quick look at Sally, then shook his head, equally abruptly. "No," he echoed.
"No." Bunnie stepped alongside Sonic, hands planted on her hips.
"Nope," put in Dulcy, finally.
Knuckles glared at them, angry and confused in equal measure.
"You'll be killed if you stay."
"I don't think so," Sally said. "You know why? Because I trust you."
Knuckles stared. It was hard to think. He was almost too hurt and tired to process this new development.
Sally spoke again, crouching down and leaning close. "I trust you and I don't think you'll let us stand and be killed while you can prevent it."
She lowered her voice sadly.
"And if you really do distrust us so much that you'd rather we died along with you, then I've gone so very far wrong that I'm not sure I deserve to walk away."
Knuckles looked from face to face and down again at the shards in his lap. He had to choose and choose now. Swatbots were pouring up the tunnel. One took aim at him, but Sonic spotted it and deflected the shot by the simple means of knocking the thing's arm off.
And then the others were fighting too. Standing between him and the swatbots and he recognised the expression on their faces. Knew he had worn it himself already this day. He knew now that there was only one way this could end.
Knuckles closed his eyes, tuned out the noise, the blasts, didn't flinch as laser fire whistled past him and struck the rock wall near his shoulder.
Trust came harder than achieving the calm state of mind he knew he needed. If this was his choice then he was utterly reliant on the Knothole fighters to keep off the bots while he made it, and that was so completely new that it took hard work to put out of mind.
He managed it with an effort, breathed slow, listening to the soft chiming of the Emerald shards as he raised his hands and they once again rose and glowed softly.
By now the battle raging beyond the pool of light spilling from the shards was no distraction. The light flowed like smoke, or water, or something thicker, more malleable and Knuckles shaped it, moulded it until a glowing image of the Master Emerald hung there, perfect and complete and the shards came together in that image and steadied.
It took only the smallest effort of will, in this state of concentration to hold them, to make them one again, and instead of taking energy the shard reformed and gave it back, an out-rush of green energy that washed across the room.
Bots inside and out fell instantly to the ground, the living Mobians gasped as the wave passed over them.
Knuckles didn't need to look round to know that there was no more threat. He stared instead at the perfect, flawless Emerald as it dropped gently to the ground.
No one broke the silence until Knuckles looked away from it, his breathing suddenly laboured and weary and his head swimming. He looked around at the tumbled rocks and the sharp angle of the floor, finding it slowly slipping out of focus. There was a sensation of movement, and it took such an effort of concentration to recognise that it was the Island starting right itself, and not just his wavering grip on consciousness.
He blinked and lowered the hand he'd been reaching out to the Emerald to steady himself against the wall. Sudden fear added to the shaking of his breath as he felt unconsciousness approaching. Instinct railed against it, yammering at his nerves that there were too many people here, that the Emerald wasn't safe, that he could not—must not—rest.
The Emerald's glow pulsed softly in time with each gasping, ragged breath. His fingers scrambled at the dirt of the tunnel floor, unthinkingly seeking for something to hold on to. Something solid to anchor himself to wakefulness.
"Knuckles." Sally's voice was firm. "It's okay. We're here."
Knuckles groaned, unable to help himself – didn't they realise that was exactly the problem?
"We're not going anywhere. We'll keep it safe."
And he wanted to believe that, he really did and he'd gambled on it. Again, and if he was wrong and if Sally's words were another lie then it was already much too late.
His eyes were closing now against his will, though he fought for every last glimpse. His last thoughts as the colour and light faded around him was a wordless prayer that this time he'd chosen correctly.
It was light when Knuckles next woke and that confused him all over again. He pushed himself upright, relieved to find that his limbs responded to his commands more promptly now. The light was sunshine, and he was laying on one of his own cots in a shallow cave, the Master Emerald at his side glowing only dimly in the bright light. He could hear water running nearby which reminded him how thirsty he was.
He stiffened at the sound of footsteps and was halfway to standing before he recognised the approaching silhouette as Sally.
"How did I get here?" he asked by way of greeting. "How did you find it? How long was I unconscious?"
She smiled. "In that order – we carried you, Sonic found it, and almost two days." The smile faded. "We didn't want to snoop, but that tunnel was cold and filthy and not the best place to be trying to treat you."
Knuckles gave a tiny shrug, the relief bubbling up too strong to be dampened.
"This place isn't important."
He sat on the edge of the cot. He was stiff and sore, but the danger was clearly well past. Some quality in the air told him they were high, high up and the energy flows of the Emerald were subdued, but stable. Clearly it had expended some power in keeping him alive long enough to at least start to heal.
He faced Sally.
"And you're still surprised." Sally regarded him sadly.
"I..." He started speaking before he was sure what he was going to say. Stopped because it was true and he shouldn't feel guilty about it but he did.
"You don't... I can't..." He stopped again. Sighed.
"Yes," he said eventually. "I was surprised."
"It's okay." Sally touched his shoulder lightly, quickly, withdrawing her hand before he had time to react. "We'll put it down to 'Guardian stuff' shall we?"
Knuckles recognised the attempt at humour but Sally didn't know how close she was.
"In a way," he said. Abruptly he shook his head and stood, testing his balance and relived to find his head still clear. There were practical matters to deal with.
"I need to move the Island," he said. "I need to take it a safe distance from Knothole. Somewhere Robotnik... somewhere no one... will find it again."
He saw regret at that in Sally's eyes, knew she must still be thinking of how useful the power of the Emerald would be in their fight. A part of him wanted to relieve that disappointment -- he did owe them a certain amount of gratitude in spite of everything and a rather larger part would have liked the opportunity to indulge in revenge upon the vile Robotnik.
A Guardian's duties allowed for neither obligations of debt or personal vendettas however.
"You have good people, Sally," he said slowly, trying to find the right words to ease her disappointment in him. "Good friends. Good fighters. You will win your battles, in time."
Sally looked at him for a long time, but his experience with people was insufficient to interpret her gaze.
"We'll go on trying," she said, after a silence.
Knuckles nodded. "That's all any of us ever do."
Knuckles walked carefully, to the entrance of the cave. He leant on the hedgehog's shoulder when it was offered and pointed towards the edge of the Island. "I'll show you something before you leave."
Outside they could see the coastline changing as they moved swiftly and surely and so smoothly there was no difficulty in keeping their balance as they helped Knuckles to the very edge.
The Island slowed and drifted inland.
Small clouds passed below them but the air felt no colder, another benefit of the Emerald's power.
Knuckles pointed down.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked.
The three Knotholers looked down. A dark green swathe spread out below them.
At its north-west edge there was a smear of grey and tan. Light glinted from the dull grey, picking out highlights here and here.
Sally pointed. "Is that Robotropolis?"
Dulcy whistled through her teeth. "It looks so small from here..."
"Where's Knothole?" Sonic asked.
Sally pointed at the green, which spread across most of the visible landscape from this angle.
"In there," she said. "That's the Great Forest. I've seen maps but..."
"It lives up to its name, huh?" Sonic said.
Sally turned back to Knuckles and smiled. "Thank you."
"It's important to know what you're fighting for," he said. That was the best he could offer, the best he had. Perhaps it went some way towards repayment.
"Yes," Sally agreed. "We'll have to get back there soon." She faced Knuckles. "But not until you're back on that leg properly and working on a full set of ribs I think."
Knuckles gave her a blank look.
"You want to stay longer?"
Sonic rolled his eyes. "Again with the stupid questions."
Bunnie smiled. "Five of us should be enough to defend that Emerald, even with a hop-along Guardian, d'ya think?"
Dulcy looked at the ruin of the volcano slopes. "Looks like you'll need some housework help if nothing else."
Sally looked back at Knuckles.
"What do you say? Trust us?"
Knuckles closed his eyes again in thought. For a moment he turned his attention to the power flows through the Island. He'd almost forgotten how effortless their power could be could be when the Emerald was untroubled and whole. He felt no danger here, no threat.
"If someone told you to put your hand into the fire. That this fire wasn't hot, that it would do you no harm. However much you wanted to believe them – could you?" Knuckles' voice was a murmur, speaking more to himself than any of the confused creatures around him.
"And even if you believed them, how hard would it be to do it? Would you put your hand in the flame?"
He looked again at each of them in turn. Returning to Sally.
And reached into the fire.