"Sonic, come ooooon!" Tails already sat in the Tornado's pilot seat, eager to be on his way.
"I'm ready, I'm coming, chill out!" Sonic didn't even bother with the stairs; he just jumped down from the upper level where the living quarters were down to the workshop.
Tails' impatience was actually pretty adorable, and this was nothing like a life or death situation that would actually require them to hurry.
Then again, the situation was a first of sorts and Tails had apparently appointed himself to the task of ensuring it wouldn't stay the last time. Knuckles had – sort of – invited them to stay a few days on his island for some Extreme Gear racing.
Yes, something extremely fascinating had happened, something Sonic had been about to let go and consider impossible. Their hot-tempered island guardian friend had taken a liking to a sport.
Sure, he claimed he'd been into the races for the Emeralds, and although he'd been suspiciously quick to agree when Sonic and Tails suggested having a fun race on his island, he'd said something about practice and important skills and how it had helped them stop Eggman in the past.
But Sonic wasn't stupid; he knew a lame excuse when he heard one. He just didn't necessarily need to call Knuckles out on it.
Tails obviously agreed with him; they'd shared a grin and a wink behind Knuckles' back and agreed to the "training".
Sonic bounded up onto the wings and smiled down at Tails in the cockpit. "See, I'm good to go."
"Was about time; I was getting ready to go without you." Tails' grin put immediate lie to his words.
"Aw, you wouldn't. What would you tell Knuckles?"
The fox's grin broadened. "That you were being annoying and I decided to dump you into the ocean on the way up."
Sonic laughed. "Yeah, he'd believe that."
"He'd understand that!" Tails was laughing as well while he reached for the ignition to start the engine.
Next thing Sonic knew was there was a weird scratchy noise, a spark, the wail of an alarm siren and a bang and his reflexes had taken him off the wings, snatched Tails along and they were all the way across the hangar before his brain had caught up with his feet.
"What was that?!" He sat a dazed looking Tails onto his feet.
The fox blinked, reconciling his sudden change of location and the events of the last few seconds, but he had practice. He took a slow breath. "That, if I'm not mistaken, was the death cry of the ring energy buffering capacitor."
"Oh." Sonic stared. "Is that bad?"
"Let me have a look, okay. If that's the only thing that went boom, I have a spare and we're good."
Sonic stood uselessly behind Tails while he opened a thankfully not actually damaged-looking engine compartment. The blackened thing Tails pulled from in there after a moment was smaller than his hand. "Here's the culprit."
"It's tiny for having made such a boom," Sonic noticed.
"It's also shielded." Tails' blue eyes went from the device to Sonic. "You might have overreacted a bit. We'd have been fine."
The hedgehog folded his arms. "It went boom! I have good reflexes! Boom is usually bad!"
"Yes, I know." Tails smiled. "Thanks for grabbing me, after all it could've been something really bad."
Sonic smiled back, nodding towards the charred piece. "So, nothing else broken?"
Tails shook his head. "I'll need to install the spare and run a couple of tests, we don't want anything frying on us while we're in the air later, but I think it'll be okay." He frowned. "But we'll be late. I'll need a few hours."
"Don't worry about it. You do what you have to do; we want a safe ride, after all."
"Will you give Knuckles a call, tell him we're not gonna make it right away?"
"Sure." Sonic smiled, although he doubted he'd actually reach their friend, but he dutifully made his way over to the main computer terminal of Tails' and its video call screen.
Surprisingly, Knuckles did answer his communicator, and not even with the usual air of annoyance. On the screen, he looked kinda smug and amused, actually. "What's it, Sonic? I'm waiting. Got lost already?"
"I don't get lost," the hedgehog insisted.
"Could've fooled me." At least he seemed in a good mood today; Knuckles' eyes were twinkling with mirth. Mostly at Sonic's expense, but whatever works, the blue hedgehog figured.
"Uh-huh." He traded Knuckles the glare that was customary for this type of exchange, before finally getting to the point. "No, we didn't even make it off the ground. Something fried in the Tornado. There were sparks and alarms but no power."
"Oh. Tails okay?"
"Yeah, he's already trying to fix it. Apparently he knows what is broken and has a spare. He's more upset that we're going to be late." Sonic shot Knuckles a grin. "Oh, and thanks a lot for asking if I'm alright, too."
Knuckles raised a mocking brow. "You look fine enough, and you run headlong into buildings for fun."
"Do too." The echidna was grinning now, too. "So I take it you're not gonna make it today?"
"Tails thinks we still might, just later, afternoon or so. We might not have enough time left to build much, or actually race."
"Don't worry about it. We can do all that tomorrow or the day after." Knuckles shrugged, violet eyes flicking away from the screen to trail across the sky. "I think it's going to rain tonight anyway."
"Aw dang, really?" Sonic pouted. He hated getting wet, and unfortunately Knuckles was usually right when it came to that sort of prediction. Both Sonic and Tails as pilots and frequent travelers could make an educated guess, but Knuckles, who lived between the clouds, was never wrong.
But on the video image the echidna was still looking amused rather than bothered. "Relax. I don't think it's going to still be around tomorrow. Just a summer rain. You're not gonna melt."
Sonic grumbled. "Yeah, right." He sighed. "Anyway, I'll see if I can help Tails with anything. He seemed confident we'd still make it later today, but maybe he could use a hand."
"Try not to make it worse." Knuckles grinned.
"It was you who called in the first place," the red echidna noticed.
"Yes, to inform you that we're going to be late. That's the polite thing to do." Sonic tried to feign annoyance.
Knuckles raised a brow at him. "Because it's so much like you to do the polite things?"
It could've been an insult, but Sonic found himself laughing anyway. "Well, it was Tails' suggestion," he admitted.
"Thought so." Also Knuckles was laughing. "Tell him thanks for the thought, and good luck fixing his plane."
"I doubt he'll need luck."
The guardian shrugged. "I figured it's the polite thing to say."
Sonic laughed again. "Touché. Are you gonna be bored?"
Now Knuckles looked like Sonic had said something entirely ridiculous. "I don't get bored," he insisted. "Impatient hedgehogs get bored."
Sonic stuck out his tongue at him. "Yeah, right."
Knuckles grinned. "No, I'll just go up ahead, decide on the exact track and mark it somehow, see where we can put ramps and such."
"That's a good idea."
"I trust you'll find the spot?"
Sonic nodded. "Sure. You showed us last time we were up. Piece of cake."
"Good. Then see that you get your backsides up here before I'm done building everything myself."
"I'll see what I can do to help Tails then." The hedgehog grinned. "See you later."
Knuckles just nodded at him and ended the connection.
The sky above was near overcast with high, thin clouds, still far above the island. The first heralds of the rain front he'd mentioned to Sonic, still many hours away. Right now, the light was still rather bright and the day was warm even up here where the forests thinned out with altitude, exposing wide fields of flowers and the dark rocks that spoke of the relative proximity to Lava Reef further uphill.
Knuckles hopped off his hover board halfway down the slope they'd decided would make a good racetrack. It was steep, a wide valley surrounded by even steeper rock to the sides. The open fields of grass were interrupted by patches of the pine forests common at this altitude. Knuckles leaned his Gear against one of those pines and set off on foot across the alpine meadow, towards an outcrop of rock in the middle of it. It had a sharp cut-off towards the downhill side and a more gentle curve up towards the mountain, possibly they could make this a ramp to jump off.
The echidna stopped near the rock's base. Something was weird. An inexplicable sense of unease gnawed at him. He'd checked and re-checked the Master Emerald's field, but it was not a presence on the island, no intruder, no threat to the precious gem. He was alone, and later today Sonic and Tails would be over, and he'd actually looked forward to their visit, he'd been in a really good mood this morning when Sonic had called, but now he felt ill at ease and he didn't know what to blame it on.
He looked out over the field of flowers, bright and colourful even without direct sunlight. The wind whispered softly though the pines around, but aside of that, it was silent.
Not a bird was singing.
Knuckles looked around, straining his ears. That wasn't good. Where were the birds, or the bumble bees going from flower to flower, or –
A growl rattled the rocks under his feet.
There was a deep, low rumble in the ground, and then an explosive bang like a thunderclap that split the ground before it split the air. A flame shot out of the flank of the mountain above his position, bright as sunlight and sky high. Just a heartbeat later, it was devoured by the black cloud that exploded from where also the flame had come from, and then the black cloud was rushing, rolling down the slope towards him.
For just a dumb, slow second, Knuckles stood and stared. Out of nowhere, an unbidden thought flashed through his head. Good chaos, what if this was what had happened to the other echidnas? What if he'd never found a trace of whoever had raised him because they'd been buried in ash and smoke and molten rock?
Survival instinct put a stop to this useless train of thought. There was nowhere to run. Maybe Sonic would be fast enough, but Knuckles wasn't faster than sound, or faster than plumes of hot gas and whatnot.
He reached for the Master Emerald's field in a panicked rush, drew in what power from it he could without direct touch to its surface, far away on the altar, hopefully safe and secure. The energy wound around him like a cape, a sizzling, unsettled coat of chaos.
He dived for cover behind a larger rock, buried into the earth at its feet as good and fast as he could in the moment that was left, until the fires of hell fell in all around him and the world burst into flames.
"Are we there yet?" Sonic whined playfully as he turned back towards Tails from his spot on the wings.
The fox laughed. "Grow up, Sonic."
"No." Sonic laughed, too. "That seems boring. Also, you should know I never do as I'm told."
Tails grinned. "So, will reverse psychology work? If I told you to not grow up, would you?"
Sonic pretended to give this some thought. "Don't think so," he announced then. "Because now I know what you're planning."
"Oh no, my cunning plan was foiled once more!" Tails was laughing again.
"Yeah, you shouldn't take your cues from Eggman. Announcing your cunning plans out loud isn't exactly a good idea." Sonic winked at his adopted brother through another laugh before turning back to gaze at the horizon ahead. It was indeed cloudy, but it didn't look rainy yet here. "I see the island!"
It was appearing at the horizon right now, still well above their current level of flight, hidden from a cursory look by a cluster of clouds that wrapped around it.
"Yeah, me too." Tails gently tipped the Tornado's nose up and an increase in throttle rumbled softly under Sonic's feet as the biplane began to climb higher to reach the Floating Island. Tails preferred to fly the majority of the way at lower level where the air was thicker and less cold.
Now the Tornado's powerful engine let them gather altitude quickly. Even in summer, the cool air brushing through his fur and spines sent shivers down Sonic's arms and he tucked his hands under his armpits for warmth.
"I keep telling you to sit in the seat, you know. This plane has heating and everything," Tails remarked from behind him. "But it has heating for the spaces meant for passengers."
Sonic threw another look back at his friend. "Shut up."
Tails grinned. "I know you like the wings best; I just say there are more sane alternatives."
"To riding a plane on its wings? You don't say." Sonic laughed.
Tails was apparently about to say something anyway, but distracted from it when the Tornado's wings caught the turbulence of the boundary to Angel Island's thicker, warmer atmosphere.
Sonic took a deep breath of clear and much less thin air while Tails adjusted the pitch and throttle. After a moment, the biplane settled back into a stable course towards the Floating Island in front of them. A thick swath of clouds wove around the base, and the shape of a nearly black cloud rose from behind the island's central mountains.
No, not a cloud. Smoke. "Is that fire?! Tails, there's a fire!" Sonic pointed.
Tails pulled the plane into a sharp right turn, pushing its nose down too so he could get a better look past the double wings. "Sonic, that's almost where we wanted to build our track! Where's Knuckles?!"
Chaos, where is Knuckles? Hopefully doing the sane thing and keeping a safe distance? "Too far to see anything yet!" Sonic narrowed his eyes, squinting through the wind on his face. It wasn't much of a bother; the Tornado wasn't near as fast as he was when running at top speed.
He wished he'd be down on the ground, wished there already was ground below to run on. To hurry and find their friend down there.
He'd said he'd be there by morning, marking the track…It was quite a bit into the afternoon now.
The smoke was a thick, dark grey column, more like the factory chimneys at Eggman's strongholds than the forest fires Sonic had seen. Too much in one space. But that was good, wasn't it? "It doesn't look like it spread very far, Tails!"
Tails didn't say anything in return, eyes narrowed and alternating between the shape of the Floating Island closing in and his instruments on the dash. "I'll have to bring us around from the other side; we can't fly through the smoke!"
Sonic nodded, not taking his eyes off the island's slopes. Steep and carved with ravines. Lots of fun to run and race down on Gears. Not very good to land a plane.
They normally landed much further down the island, where it was less steep. The burning spot uphill at least didn't have the densest forest; they'd been looking for more or less clear tracks for their boards. The jungles ended much further down the mountain. Firs and pines grew up there, spaced farther apart the higher you got, almost to where Ice Cap began, here and there even to the edges of Lava Reef's large crater.
As Tails circled the island still from a safe enough distance, Sonic finally got a proper look at the area the smoke came from. And it wasn't a forest fire at all. A few of the patches of pine forest had apparently caught flame, but they were not the source of all this smoke.
The source was further up the mountain, where the black slope nestled up against the outskirts of Ice Cap's glaciers. It looked like an explosion had torn a hole into the mountain's flank, and that hole was now hiccuping out the black smoke. At the edge of the hole, Sonic could catch a glimpse through the smoke and found a deep red glow shining back at him.
Liquid fire from the island's core.
"It's not a fire; it's an eruption!" Also Tails had figured it out; he was gesturing down to it even as he guided the biplane in a wide sweep around it.
"Yeah, I see it!" Sonic followed the slope down from the new crater. A track of fiery embers was creeping from the hole, like blood slowly oozing from a wound. It didn't look like it was going anywhere fast or far, though.
Further down, the thin mountain forest had been covered in dark grey dust. Ash, probably more like it.
Sonic had seen volcanoes up close before. He wasn't scared of a fiery mountain. He usually trusted in his running speed. It was just that he'd never really thought to connect "Angel Island" and "volcanic eruption" before, even though there was that giant main crater and its molten core up there and he'd nearly found his end in a lava flow once or twice that first time he and Tails had been to the Floating Island.
It seemed half a lifetime ago.
Without knowing it, Tails seemed to think along the same lines. "I never thought it could erupt," he said. Sonic threw a brief look over his shoulder to find his brother's brow wrinkle in confusion. "I mean, it's so small! It's cut off from the planet's mantle, where volancoes get their magma from. It's still hot because it takes a long time to cool down, but I didn't think it had the energy for a large eruption!"
Sonic chanced another look at the crater spewing smoke and ash down to the left of them by now. "It's not a large eruption. It's a pretty small crater, compared to what you can find at Flame Core or so."
Tails was nodding thoughtfully. His 'trying to make sense of science' face. "Maybe hot gas gathered in there and burst through the rock from the pressure."
"There's not a lot of lava." Sonic contemplated the mountain. "Think we're safe from surprise explosions? If it was pressure, it has an outlet now."
Tails shrugged, looking anxious and helpless. "I don't know; I'm not a volcanologist! But we have to go down! Knuckles could be down there!"
Sonic nodded grimly. Knuckles was certainly down there. It was a small island, there wasn't much space to run away when a mountain decided to blow up, and they'd planned on meeting up there somewhere. Knuckles would be there, and if he was, he could be hurt. Or worse. Sonic bit his lip. They were not going to consider that until they had to. "We need to find a place to land," he said instead.
Tails nodded back at him. Sonic was sure he'd seen the look on his face; they knew each other too long and too well to hide much from one another. Neither needed to say anything; it was like the unspoken words hung loud and heavy between them as it was.
They found a landing spot for their biplane still a good distance from the eruption area. It seemed safer to keep a distance than risk getting the plane damaged. If they needed to get out of here, it was their only ride, short of jumping over the island's edge, and that was too far for Tails to fly by himself. They didn't know what the volcano would do, and there was a possibility that Knuckles was hurt, or one of them would get hurt looking around, and maybe rings wouldn't cut it. The Tornado was their emergency evacuation ride in case everything went downhill completely.
Tails had opened up the cargo hold in the biplane's tail and was throwing out its contents. Sonic picked up the pieces and methodically placed aside anything that could be of use.
Their hoverboards – could probably be used to search areas you couldn't walk on, which was possible with a fire and all. But they'd also probably suck in the dust and ash, they were sensitive to overheating their engines even when sucking in just sand, and if they needed them Sonic could retrieve them quickly later.
Shovels – maybe. They'd leave those here for now.
A collection of other tools went to join the shovels.
Rope. Rope could be good. Sonic dropped it with the first aid kit and the flashlights already placed to the side.
Their picknick bag. Lemonade and juice – grape flavour, a surprise for Knuckles. Chocolate bars and cookies. They could use that later. They'd probably need food and drinks.
Finally Tails produced two rucksacks, and the two went over their collection of items and devided up the load.
They'd been on several search and rescue parties before, both of them. It wasn't that they really went looking for trouble, but they got around a lot, Sonic even more than Tails, and they weren't the types to turn their backs if help was needed somewhere. They'd helped in finding avalanche victims in skiing zones, had helped finding lost children in forests and swamps, helped locate lost travellers in the desert, and Sonic had looked for survivors in a bush fire area and had participated in a cave search after an accident trapped a group in there. They knew how to organise a search.
Knew what was important. Like, keep a clear head. Search methodically. Mind your own safety first, because if you get hurt or trapped, you mean more work for other helpers and you won't be able to help anyone else. Don't run around randomly, even if you're as fast as Sonic. You could run right past someone and miss them in a disaster area, between smoke and possibly unstable ground and the landscape that didn't look like normally anymore, even if you knew it well before.
Sonic knew exactly what they needed to do. It shouldn't be so hard, but he didn't want to sort items into rucksacks right now. He wanted to run, to shout for Knuckles, find out if he was okay. And he knew from Tails' silence and from the way he stuck so closely to all the rules of thumb for emergencies they knew that he would also rather be running around in a near panic right now.
The blue hedgehog looked away from their equipment and scanned the surroundings. Part of him hoped they were indeed panicking and Knuckles would turn up suddenly, as he used to. Out of nowhere, guided to their location by some mysterious guardian-y sense or something, and across his island quicker than he should be because he knew shortcuts everywhere.
But he didn't appear silently from behind a bush to startle the quills off of Sonic. The island was quiet and strangely colourless, the sky wreathed in clouds and the smoke obscuring the higher parts of the mountains.
"I think we're good to go," Tails announced behind him.
Sonic nodded at him, forcing a smile on his face for his young friend's sake. "Let's go."
He could smell it well before he saw it. Sulphur and smoke that scorched their way up his nostrils.
Naturally, Sonic was the first to cross the last hilltop in their way, and what he saw brought an abrupt brake to his run.
Down below, the next valley led up and down the side of the mountain. It had been a rocky terrain before, with a few trees here and there in between, easily far enough to safely speed past on a board in any case.
What they'd designated as their race track for today looked more like some post-apocalyptic wasteland now. Most of the taller trees had been felled by – something. Explosion, blast, whatever. Something powerful. A few of them lay crumbled in a heap, several hundred meters from where Sonic remembered them standing. The remains were still burning, a slow, lazy fire that added a trail of light grey smoke to the heavy air. Isolated, it would look like a giant's take on a bonfire.
But it wasn't isolated. All across the slope, between this hill and the next, trees were brightly aflame, or already reduced to pitch black skeletons. The entire ground, Sonic remembered it as light green moss and alpine flower fields, was covered in dark grey ash. The ash was still falling, carried along by a hot wind from uphill that stirred up the dust in frequent gusts, like a winter storm would blow up the snow. The fire threw long, flickering shadows and an eerie red glow across the field.
Sonic coughed. Even at this distance, the smoke stung in his throat.
At the top of the steep slope sat the fresh crater. From here, you could hear it rumble and growl, like an angry beast. It was still too far to see the lava, though, but whatever explosive force had torn this hole into the mountainside had been powerful enough to floor the trees and to throw ash and small rocks several kilometers downhill.
If Knuckles had really been here when this happened -
"Oh my god…" Slightly breathless, if from the running or the view Sonic didn't know, Tails stopped at his side.
The blue hedgehog just nodded, allowing Tails a moment to get his bearings, too. He shrugged off his rucksack and fumbled for the first aid pack he carried. After a moment he found what he was looking for and pulled out two large folds of brightly white cloth. They were probably intended to make a sling from or something, but they could repurpose them as masks.
"Here," he nudged the stunned looking fox. "We don't want to breathe in all this."
Tails blinked, then shook himself and focused on Sonic. "Yeah, right."
They helped each other securely tie the cloth over nose and mouth. Sonic settled the knot behind Tails' head and inadvertently grinned as Tails turned around to look at him. "You look like a bandit out to rob a stage coach." His voice came out slightly muffled through the triangle of double folded fabric.
He was rewarded with a quick chuckle. "You too! But it's the wrong colour. Would have to be black to look badass."
Sonic shrugged. "The way I see it, it'll turn black on its own soon enough."
Tails nodded, light moment forgotten already. The blue eyes swept slowly across the fire and destruction before them. "Sonic, if he's here, how are we gonna find him?! What if he's –"
"We'll find him, and it'll be okay." Sonic put a hand on either of Tails' shoulders, forcing him to look at him, and not the smoke and death. "We can do this."
Tails nodded slowly, ears still tipped back, but he took a deep breath and gave another, firmer nod. "Okay." His eyes moved over Sonic's shoulder, taking another look at this barren wasteland down there. "But where are we gonna start looking? He could be anywhere!"
Not letting go of his little brother's shoulders yet, Sonic too turned to survey the mountain again. If they were right and Knuckles had been over there when the volcano blew, and if he'd had time to run, he'd have gone downhill. It was the only clear path you could run quickly on. The edges of the steep valley offered some shelter between rocks and in cervices, they would have to check there, too.
The chances to survive the blast were probably better the further down he'd been, so maybe they should start down and make their way up? That would be the safer searching area, too, for them as well.
But what if he'd been up close to the eruption? What if they wasted their time looking further down and didn't find him in time? Or if the slow flow of lava creeping out the crater would cover the ground uphill they had to search? It was much more dangerous higher up, but it had been more dangerous for Knuckles, too.
Sonic bit his lip behind the cloth, but turned back to Tails. "I vote for starting as high up as we can go. We have about four hours til sunset. The lava is going to cover more ground with time, and it's probably best we search the most dangerous part while we still have lots of light."
The fox nodded. "Makes sense." He drew another deep breath and pulled free of Sonic's hold. The large blue eyes looked frightened still, but decisive, too. Tails was a kid, but this wasn't his first brush with danger by far. He'd be okay. "Hurry. We're wasting time."
Sonic nodded back, and together they made up the mountain.
Towards the fire and smoke.
I painted the scene where Sonic and Tails stop atop the hill overlooking the eruption area. Take a look if you like!
Slowly, carefully, Sonic made his way around the young crater. Even through the protective cloth, the air was hard to breathe, hot and thick. The ground was an unstable mixture of patches that were half molten and glowing a dim red heat and areas that were covered in a thick layer of dust and something that was almost like sand, and like in sand dunes it shifted under his weight, sliding here and breaking off there, and he had to be careful to not bring down half the mountain if he didn't watch his step.
Sonic whirled around at Tails's yelp, the quick motion upset his balance on the slippery dust and he ended up sliding down, down, spinning around himself once, twice before getting the chance to jump clear and land more safely atop a black rock that looked out of the dust. Old ground. Stable old ground.
"Tails!" Hurriedly he looked around to locate his friend, and finally spotted him perched atop a similar space he was on right now. The orange fox was balancing on one foot while rubbing the other. "You alright?! Tails?!"
"'m okay," Tails shouted back. "I thought I burned my foot! But I think it's fine!" He looked over at Sonic, shock and surprise and something like frightened awe in his eyes. "The ground is so hot it melted the profile right off my soles!"
Sonic took a second to check on his own shoes, but they were made from heat-resistant rubber to withstand a supersonic run - and a quick, hard brake at that speed. They bore a few black scorch marks, but he wasn't even sure if these were new or not. "I think I'm okay to go! Maybe you should fly?"
Tails had already jumped off his rock and was hovering a good meter off the ground with the whir of spinning tails. "I figured!"
Sonic gave him a thumbs-up and continued his careful path across the lava and ash field.
Half an hour later, they were far enough down the hill to give Tails cool enough ground to stand on again, too. They'd found no trace of anyone or anything yet, and no island guardian had appeared magically before them to call them reckless idiots and tell them off for messing around in a dangerous area.
Sonic was drenched in sweat, droplets of it falling down the tips of his spines, and depending on where they fell to the ground, they'd evaporate on the spot with a sharp hiss.
Tails didn't look much better off, fur plastered to his body and by now stained a muddy grey with dust.
They were picking their way across the field in a more or less straight line, moving further away from the crater with their search pattern. Tails was a couple meters lower than Sonic, still well within shouting distance. Slightly below the fox's path the first remains of what had once been mountain conifers of some sort still supported a notably large fire that illuminated the space around like a giant torchlight.
Sonic stopped for a second to look around. He'd been worried the fire would spread over a larger area of the island, and they had no way to contain it, but the sparse vegetation up here wasn't close enough to support an actual blaze, and the ash all over, hot though it still was, had probably also smothered some of the flames before they could go anywhere.
The sky above was a dark grey, but Sonic wasn't sure anymore if it was the clouds they'd seen on their flight closing in, or if it was the smoke, or the ash still heavy in the air. Sometimes it fell from the sky like snow flakes, but hot to the touch and sometimes a flake of it was still bright orange with residual heat.
Noting that Tails had continued a good bit ahead without him, Sonic swept a last searching look around before taking a few hurried steps to catch with his friend.
It was a mistake.
The second or third of his short leaps through rock and dust turned into a slide upon landing, and before Sonic knew what was happening the ground had disappeared under him, taking his feet with it. He span around to regain his balance, threw out his arms to grab something or steady himself, but even supersonic reflexes don't do much when there's nothing to stand and run on.
Sliding, slipping, struggling to find a hold somewhere, Sonic tumbled down the slope. He was going right towards the burning trees! Frantically he tried to find somewhere to put his feet, somewhere to jump from, but he was still slipping, falling, tumbling out of control.
"Sonic! Sonic, hold on!" He located Tails only as a shadow in the cloud of ash that he'd stirred up, somewhere above him, a whir of tails in the middle of the wind and heat.
He reached out a hand towards him, struggling for purchase on the treacherous slope, and somewhere between them Sonic managed to jump and Tails caught his wrist.
"I can't see a thing, Sonic!" Tails, too, was caught in the thick dust, the spinning tails only making it worse.
"Up! Go up," Sonic shouted. He wasn't sure which way up was, but he hoped Tails did.
Near blind and coughing, they finally emerged from the dust devil and dropped down somewhat to the side, taking shelter with one of the old rocks.
Sonic brushed ash and dust off a gasping Tails. "Hey, you okay?! Tails!"
The little fox looked up at him, eyes bloodshot from the smoke and flickering with the aftershock of their near fall and something else, something desperate and afraid. "No! Nothing's okay! You almost slipped into the fire!"
"You caught me, it's okay, you were awesome!"
Tails was shaking his head at him, ears curved all the way back. "We aren't going to find him out here!"
Now it was Sonic's turn to vehemently shake his head. He wasn't going to let them consider that. Never. "We'll find him," he said, hoping he sounded convincing. He was stopping to feel convinced himself.
For just a second Tails looked angry. "What if we don't?! Sonic, what if we can't find him?! Or what if he's – what if it's too late to find him?!"
"Hey, we're not going to give up now because I took a little tumble!"
"I didn't say we should give up!" Tails frowned, breathing hard, but that short, rare spark of anger had burned out already, and he continued much softer. "Sonic, I'm scared."
Sonic sighed, pulling his brother into a short, firm hug. "I know. But we survived worse. Knuckles survived worse, too. We're gonna be okay. You have to believe that."
Tails nodded against his shoulder before pulling away. He threw a wary, but decisive look back the way they'd come, where the dust was just beginning to settle again. "We'll have to look there again. We probably missed a part of it with all this dust flying everywhere. We can't risk overlooking anything."
"We can't." Sonic studied the slope and then his friend. "It's probably enough if one of us goes. Cover me?"
The dusty cloth across Tails's muzzle stretched with a brief smile. "Always, you know that."
Sonic patted at his shoulder as he walked past him again. "We're gonna make it," he said.
He was starting to lose track if he was trying to convince Tails or himself.
"Knuckles! Knuuuuuuckles!" A bit further down the hillside, Tails was shouting.
"Knuckles! Can you hear us?! Knux!"
They were going to get hoarse before nightfall if they kept this up and there was no trace of their missing friend.
Sonic stopped his slow, careful way through the dust and ash to take a thorough look around. It was slow progress like this, but you had to stop and look around if searching for someone who might be buried somewhere or injured and lying behind the next best bump of the slope. If you hurried, you risked going right past the victim. Sonic knew that. Tails knew that. It was common sense.
That didn't make it any easier. He wanted to run, to try and cover as much ground in a short time as only he could, but the ground was unstable, and his running and wind might stir up the dying embers and reignite a fire, or cause another landslide that could get him or Tails or even Knuckles trapped and make everything worse.
If he was out here.
He had to be out here.
Somewhere where they could still find him.
Part of Sonic tried to cling to the hope that Knuckles had been somewhere else but in what was now this ash-covered wasteland, but it was a fact that Knuckles had said he'd wait here for them.
That aside, he'd never needed that long to find them whenever they came to the island. He had this almost scary sixth sense thing about finding people on his island. And even if he'd been at the other side of it, Angel Island wasn't huge. He'd be here by now, to check out the fire and the volcano and their being here, and he'd probably be complaining about all the racket they were making.
"Oh god, Sonic! Sonic!"
The hedgehog jumped at his friend's scream. Tails sounded – Sonic wasn't sure, but it was something dreadful. Something terrifying. Something to freeze the blood in his veins.
Hopping and sliding over precarious ground, he hurried to where Tails was standing as if frozen suddenly in place. Sonic gulped and prepared himself for the worst.
The fox startled at Sonic's shout of his name behind him, but he didn't move from his spot until Sonic stopped next to him. He just pointed a shaking finger to the ground before them.
Even covered in ash, the bright crimson stuck out in sharp contrast. Buried halfway in dust and rocks and bent in a weird angle at its middle, it was still quite obviously Knuckles' hover board. And the side of it that was facing them was oddly deformed, the metal surface molten into a strange shape.
Sonic shook himself loose and reminded himself to breathe. They'd been looking for a trace of their missing friend. This was one. Work with it.
Tails next to him seemed to be shaking. Instinctively Sonic drew an arm around him, pulling him firmly against his side.
The motion seemed to drag Tails out of the shocked trance. "Sonic, look at his Gear. If he was here when it happened, if he was riding it or –" He swallowed, started over. "If what hit his board hit him, I don't – Sonic, it was so hot it melted!"
Sonic squeezed Tails' upper arm. "Yeah." And it bent the strongly built board in the middle, too. No, don't go there. Don't. "Tails. Tails, this is Knuckles. He's really hard to kill. If he was here, he's probably hurt. We have to hurry and find him quickly. This narrowed down our search area. But we have to keep it together." By now Sonic was sure he was trying to reassure himself as much as his little brother.
But it seemed to work, Tails gave a shaky nod and looked around, trying hard to avoid looking at the mangled Extreme Gear. "Out in a spiral from here then?"
Sonic nodded. "You got it. Keep your eyes open; he could be buried somewhere."
Tails swallowed, but pulled himself upright and followed Sonic's lead.
He couldn't breathe.
The world was still fire and smoke, and he couldn't breathe.
He was surrounded by it, covered in it, fire and smoke and heat and ash and darkness.
Everything hurt, everything burned, fire and smoke, and somewhere in this distance, somewhere behind the darkness and the heat rang an Emerald tune.
It was like a call. Urgent and sharp, like the fire.
He couldn't breathe. He didn't think he could move. He didn't know to where.
But he needed to go.
He struggled to reach out for the green light, felt along its pull, and it wound around his soul like a blanket. Soft, cool, almost a promise.
Come. Get out of there.
He latched onto that link, that chain, that lifeline, and from somewhere, the darkness lit up in that steady green that rang in his ears like bells.
He tried to draw a breath again, ended up coughing on dust and heat that burned all the way down into his lungs, clutched desperately to that green promise. That cool, safe glow.
When the dust settled, Knuckles found himself curled against the base of a rock, still halfway buried in thick, dark ash. He blinked. His vision was swimming with tears or whatever, a blurry, grey swirl spiraling around him that wanted to drag him back under.
But the Emerald shine was still bright, a guiding light out of here, away from fire and smoke, and he fought to get his feet under him somehow, steadying himself against the rock in his back. His back burned.
Everything burned and the world was spinning in dark, swooshing circles, but he had to go somewhere. Try to reach that Emerald glow, or that weirdly familiar blue spark of chaos flickering somewhere much closer, and slowly, unsteadily, he stumbled towards it.
They'd moved so far apart now, at opposite positions on their spiral out path, that Tails was hard to see through the haze and the ash still raining down. Sonic had a feeling it was going to get dark soon, but he didn't want to waste the time and check.
He threw a look back to the center of their search pattern. If Knuckles had been where his board was, or somewhere close, how far could he have run? Sonic studied the hill above. The crater wasn't visible anymore, hidden somewhere behind that curtain of smoke and ash. Sonic guessed he himself would need several seconds by now to run up there, or down from it to where he was now.
The lava obviously was much much slower, and thankfully it didn't look like it would get much farther at all. The initial explosion was something else entirely. That would move at sonic speed, or at least close to it.
He couldn't have gotten far. "Knuckles!"
Sonic went back to surveying the area closer around his position, brushing his feet through the dust here and there in spots that looked odd to him, to make sure he wouldn't miss a buried body.
He really didn't want to think about finding a body right now.
He wiped at his eyes, stinging and watering with the smoke. He couldn't risk missing something important because his vision was blurry!
"Knuckles! Can you hear us?! Knuckles!"
The call for his friend ended in a rough fit of coughing. Even with the protection of the cloth, his throat was scratchy and dry.
They'd been here much too long already.
Sooner or later, they would have to call a break, at least to have a drink, maybe eat the chocolate bars for energy, and it wouldn't be much longer until they'd need the flashlights to search. The smoke was smothering what little daylight was left.
Sonic kicked at another could be shape on the ground, throwing up more dust and coming back empty again, kicked another time at it for good measure, harder than was warranted. Stopped. Forced a slow breath. It didn't help unleashing his frustration on the dust.
He looked back up, another long, slow searching look all around. His concentration wasn't at its best by far anymore, and the haze and wind and unsteady fire light were bound to play tricks on your perception. A few times, both him and Tails had thought they'd seen movement, but it had been just rocks in the flickering glow, or a whirl of dust thrown up by a gust of wind.
As he set back out along his path again he first dismissed the motion he caught from the corner of his eye at another such mirage, but a moment later he heard the coughs. A horrible, strangled sound.
Disregarding all precaution, he was running before he'd fully processed the decision. Jumped over a fallen, smoldering stem of a tree, landed in a wild slide and barely recovered his balance and sense of direction. He almost didn't manage to stop before crashing into the nightmarish apparition in black, grey and red before him.
The ashen ghost lifted his head, stared at Sonic for a moment from hazy, reddened eyes - and toppled bodily against him. For a moment something strange and green flashed around them, but they were going down before Sonic had a chance to think about it.
"Oof!" Unable to break the fall under the sudden weight, the blue hedgehog twisted into it instead, letting his spines and back take the brunt of the impact. A fresh cloud of dust swallowed them up immediately.
Knuckles landed sprawled on top of him, coughing and wheezing even worse now. Sonic wasn't even sure if it could actually count as breathing at all.
Hastily he struggled to get out from under the listless weight of his friend and find some purchase on the slippery ground. He ended up basically pulling Knuckles backwards out of the worst of the dust, slowly and as carefully as possible, trying not stir up more dust and hoping to keep from hurting him more than was unavoidable.
Out in as clear atmosphere as he could find within the next half a mile, he hurried to sit Knuckles up. The spines at the back of his head were black as soot, but the rest of him was too covered in ash to see where and how badly he was hurt, and nothing of that mattered if he choked here anyway.
Kneeling behind him so he could hold him up by the shoulders, the hedgehog spent a few anxious moments trying to coax Knuckles to breathe. Only when he was halfway sure he wasn't going to suffocate right here and now, he turned his head around and hollered for Tails.
In the short time it took the fox to make the way over, Sonic at least succeeded in finding a thready pulse under the cuff of the tattered cloth that was left of Knuckles' gloves.
"Sonic! Knuckles!" Tails, miraculously, had the presence of mind to drop down to the ground a few meters away so his tails didn't cause another whirl of dust nobody needed. "Is he –"
"Alive." Barely. They didn't have time for details. "Quick, we need a mask for him to breathe through. In my rucksack, but I can't reach like this."
Tails nodded sharply and unzipped Sonic's bag to drag out the heavy first aid kit. Within seconds he had folded another cloth into a triangle shape.
Knuckles stirred in Sonic's hold on him when Tails moved to tie it over his face, struggling away from it.
"Hey, easy, we're trying to help you!" Sonic gave his shoulders what he hoped qualified for a soothing squeeze. "You're breathing in way too much of this smoke!"
Knuckles' eyes fluttered open again, but Sonic wasn't sure if he understood what they were saying right now. Either way, he was holding still and Tails finished the make-shift mask.
"It's probably way too late for that," the fox mumbled, critically studying his work and the way Knuckles was still struggling to draw breath. "He most certainly has smoke poisoning already."
"But we don't need it getting any worse," Sonic insisted.
Tails nodded. "True." He looked between Knuckles and the first aid kit, then at Sonic in an unspoken 'what now'.
"Put it back for now. We can't really see a thing here, and I think the smoke is the worst."
Tails looked doubtful and worried and still fairly terrified underneath. "Can we even move him? What if –"
Sonic understood the concept of internal injuries and all the other terrible things that could potentially be wrong, but the truth was that they were really short on options here right now. "He was walking when I found him. Well, at least he was on his feet."
Tails stared. "He was conscious?"
"Close enough." He nudged the echidna. "Knux? You with us?"
Knuckles stirred, mumbling something into the fabric across his mouth that sounded suspiciously much like "Emerald".
Sonic watched him for a second, remembering that weird feeling when he'd first grabbed him. Green. Something about or around Knuckles had been green. "You know, maybe that's not a bad idea."
"What?" Tails was apparently unsuccessful trying to keep track with Sonic's train of thought. To be fair, also Sonic was failing to completely make sense of things in his head.
"His Emerald." Maybe that was what made no sense. A lot about Knuckles and his shiny rock never really made sense. But could it fix this? What else could?
"That's halfway across the island!"
It was a distance even Sonic wasn't fond of travelling at the moment. "I know. Probably not our first stop." He coughed on that scratchy feeling at the back of his throat again. "Come on, we need to get out of here first."
Tails nodded, and between the two of them, they made one abortive attempt to put Knuckles on his feet before deciding to carry him. The echidna didn't protest, and that was frightening all over again.
Grimly Sonic tried to focus on finding the quickest way to a safer place instead. Somewhere with fresh air and water.
Even the shortest "way out of here" they could find took much longer than it should, but they didn't want to risk dropping their load, and Sonic was stumbling backwards for the biggest part of the way.
Knuckles' head was a heavy weight against Sonic's shoulder and collarbone, the tousled, scorched quills poking and stinging, but he was a hedgehog, he wasn't worried about getting poked.
He was worried because he was pretty sure Knuckles had passed out on them minutes ago. Nobody wanted to stop and check; it wouldn't do any good.
Holding him like this, Sonic's arms wound under the echidna's armpits and across his chest, and it meant he could feel every shallow, wheezing gasp for air. He hoped his grasp didn't add too much pressure that made it even worse.
Tails was silent unless required to give a direction, holding under Knuckles' knees and focussing hard on the way ahead Sonic couldn't see properly. Guiding them out of this mess. Just every now and then he'd steal a horrified, wide-eyed look down at their way too still friend.
Sonic had stopped trying to reassure any one of them that it'd be okay. He was nearing the end of his rope, too, and maybe they should save their breath for later.
The change when they passed over the crest of the next hill over was stunning. A cool, fresh evening breeze suddenly danced through his spines, sweeping them against the back of his head like a gentle caress.
Tails obviously felt it too, he looked startled and relieved as it blew into his face. "I think we're coming round the windward side!"
Sonic nodded. Angel Island was odd about its winds, their flow ever changing as they wrapped around the Floating Island. It could be almost a lull here and a gusty, capricious near storm in just the next zone, just slightly around the mountain.
There was a light pine forest here too with patches of thick, flowered shrubbery here and there in between. It was much less dark than just a minute ago. Here it looked like it was still a good while until sunset. Sonic turned his head to get a look over his shoulder. The sky was still an ominous grey, but over there, the clouds looked heavy with rain, not with smoke.
Turning back, the way they'd come was hidden behind the dark shape of a hill and the fire was only still visible as an eerie orange halo around the hill top.
"Sonic, look!" For the first time in what had to be hours, Tails sounded... hopeful?
The blue hedgehog turned for another glance back and felt a smile spread on his face that pulled at the dusty cloth and tickled his nose with it.
Up a small incline, at the base of a rather large tree, two straight lines of rings span gracefully in the dim evening light, a bright spark of gold twinkling their way with every revolution.
Inviting. Friendly. Sonic thought it was the first inviting, friendly thing he'd seen all day.
The mysterious Gold Rings spawned as randomly on Angel Island as all over Mobius. Sometimes, you'd find a lot in one small area, and then you could run around for hours without much chance to locate more than one or two of the spinning rounds. As far as Sonic was concerned, the things had a mind of their own somehow, and here on the Floating Island it was as if they avoided the zones where you'd be most likely to need them. Maybe the rings hated volcanoes? They could be suspiciously rare at parts of Lava Reef, and they'd found none over the entire course of the afternoon. Right when they would have needed them.
But it didn't matter, because they were there now. Sonic turned back to Tails, and without having wasted a single word on it, they accelerated their steps up towards the shiny rings.
A series of bright, golden plings surged through him in a dizzying rush. Pling, pling, plingplingpling. The energy spiralled into his blood and bones with a familiar urgency before gently fading away.
Knuckles gasped and for the first time since - he couldn't even remember - the hasty attempt at a breath was followed by cool air all the way down into his lungs. The relief was instantaneous and so dizzying in itself that it almost stole his fragile hold on his senses right away from him again.
He focused on his newfound ability to breathe for a moment before trying to make sense of anything else.
There were still a number of aches and pains clamouring for attention all across his body. His back still felt like it was on fire, but he thought it was cooling.
Everything was cooling. Something softly brushed through his fur.
He was in the water? Had to be. Floating on top of the waves. Weightless, dizzying still. Sonic was talking to someone, but it wasn't him. Was it?
Why was he in the water? Wait, why was Sonic in the water? Something didn't make sense here.
Knuckles struggled to open his eyes, eyelids sticky with irritant. When had he closed them? He didn't remember.
His vision still swam and swirled when he managed to blink, and he found himself looking into a blurry, grey face with no mouth and nose. There were hands holding his legs and under his shoulders and - there was something over his mouth and nose! Had someone captured him?!
The echidna struggled with sudden panic.
"Sonic, put him down!" The voice sounded vaguely panicked, too. And familiar. Tails?
He was indeed being set down, quickly but gently, instead of being dropped to the floor as he'd almost expected. It didn't matter though, as soon as his back touched the ground, it was as if someone had put a hot iron to it. Knuckles barely bit down on a yell, choked on his own breath instead. He was vaguely aware of hands on his shoulders, of being sat back up.
Sonic? The guardian struggled to catch his breath and clear his eyes again. Adrenaline pulsed sharply in his veins, taking an edge off the pain, but not the confusion. "What-" The word came out as hardly a croak.
"Easy, just a second!" Tails for sure. At least he sounded like Tails. Through Knuckles' watering eyes, he still looked all sorts of grey and - something was off.
"Let me get rid of that, okay?" Sonic. Trying to sound calm when he really wasn't.
Knuckles blinked at the bluish grey blur, but didn't resist when Sonic reached for him. Whatever had been wrapped over his face disappeared.
The world was starting to slowly clear around him. Tails was holding out a bottle at him. That seemed a good idea! Knuckles reached for it with a shaking hand. The liquid was lukewarm, but like balm to his dry throat. It was sweet, too. The taste took several moments to register. Grape juice?
A lot of things really made no sense right now.
"Don't drink it all at once. I think you're not supposed to do that when you're dehydrated, and you most certainly are." Sonic sounded less than sure of what he was saying, but he was quicker than Knuckles and that wonderful bottle disappeared from his grasp.
"Hey!" Looking after the hedgehog in protest, Knuckles came up short again at the notion that Sonic too had some dark grey, triangular thing wrapped around his face.
The hedgehog caught his look and pulled at it, bringing it down to his neck like a scarf. "Sorry. I suppose we look a bit on the spooky side?"
"What -" At least now he could speak a little more clearly, even if he realised after that one word he had no idea what he was even asking.
"There was an eruption," Tails said, reappearing in Knuckles' field of view. He really did look quite grey, with a scarf like Sonic, only the fur on his muzzle was still mostly white and orange, a weird line that ran along horizontally under his eyes. Grey and orange and white.
"Do you remember that? Knuckles!" Sonic sounded urgent enough that the red echidna made another attempt to focus his scattered attention.
He needed a few seconds to backtrack far enough in the conversation to recall the context for the question, then he nodded. Eruption."Yes." Fire and smoke. Nothing but fire and smoke. He shuddered at the memory. "I remember." And he remembered them not being here? "When did you -"
"We're not sure how long it's been since the eruption." Tails had a scary way of guessing his thought process without much input from Knuckles' side right now. "When we arrived like, three or four hours ago?" He paused, frowned, then shrugged and continued. "It was well underway when we came here, and we needed a long time to find you."
Sonic sat back on his heels, but one hand remained a steadying hold on Knuckles' shoulder. "How are you feeling?"
"Floaty." It was the first thing that came to mind, and as soon as he said it he realised it probably made no sense. But it was kind of true. Even down on steady ground, he felt... off of it.
Sonic sighed. "Okay, I'll ask again in a minute."
"Smoke poisoning means not enough oxygen in your system. It makes sense that you're dizzy." At least Tails was agreeing, even though he sounded like something terrible was happening.
It kind of already had. Something quite terrible.
Knuckles nodded at his friends again, mostly to avoid having to give a vocal answer while he strained to sort through the hazy mush of memory. Nothing made sense since this explosion. He remembered calling for the Great Emerald's power, a last resort, that panicked, uncontrolled rush of the energy singing through his veins.
Oh Chaos - What happened to the Emerald?! He hastily reached for the link in his mind and let out the breath he'd held for that terrified second when he found it clear and safe. Shaky with the aftershock of his rash use of it, somewhere behind the steady idle thrum, and now that he listened, he could feel the tingle of it burn underneath the pain of his injuries, deep in his chest and down his lower back. Working on healing it, without his doing, probably since it had happened.
Probably the reason he was even alive.
"Hey, Knux!" He blinked, found Sonic's hand waving in front of his eyes for his attention.
"Sorry," he mumbled. He knew both Sonic and Tails well enough to be aware of the worry lacing the tone and made an effort to focus his straying thoughts on his friends.
"It's alright. You breathed in a lot of smoke. Might've hit your head, too. We don't know." Sonic studied him critically. "We found a few rings for you a few minutes ago. I suppose they did help, you're breathing a lot better and all, but there's only so much a few rings can do after the fact."
Knuckles nodded. Rings and Emeralds were much more effective at preventing injuries from occuring than for undoing them later, and the fact that he was quite obviously still not in good shape, even with the Master Emerald's protection and healing energy as well as the rings Sonic spoke of made it quite clear that he'd been hurt badly. "Thanks," he mumbled, "for finding me. You probably saved my life."
"You're welcome." Sonic was still watching him closely. "You might have to thank your giant shiny rock for some of it," he noticed. "You were -" He faltered over the word. "- running on Emerald power when I found you? Kinda, I guess?"
Knuckles wasn't sure of that; he didn't have a clear enough recall of the situation. He thought he remembered Sonic, chaotic and blue in midst of the grey haze, but the memory was more than fuzzy.
But it was possible. The Master tried to not have its Guardian killed, after all.
"It's not that important now," Sonic was saying, recapturing Knuckles' thoughts before they could completely run away from him again. "While you do look slightly more alive than when we ran into you, that doesn't mean you look anything but awful. What's hurting the worst? Your back? You're so covered in ash that it's hard to tell. You gotta help us out here. Do we need to try and do something about it right here, or can we try and find a place with water to help clean it?"
Knuckles struggled to follow the hedgehog's words and succeeded only in keeping track of the last part of it. Now that he could breathe - the rings, perhaps - Sonic was right, his back was the worst. But cleaning it first sounded better than anything else. "It can wait," he said.
Sonic frowned at him for a moment, as if trying to figure out the truthfulness of his words, but then he nodded.
"Do you think you can walk now?" Also Tails was frowning at him. It seemed like the expression of the day. "If we give you a hand?"
At any other time, Knuckles would've been insulted, but the truth was that he hurt all over and his head was still in a lazy spin. A hand would probably be required. He nodded his agreement. "Just, you know..."
Sonic gave a sharp nod of his own that shook flakes of ash out of his spines. "Right. We'll try not to touch anything that met too closely with a volcano."
Everything of him had made way too close an acquaintance with a volcano.
Knuckles couldn't help himself, something about the absurdity, the Sonic-ness of the words tore a laugh from his throat - which immediately turned into a coughing fit to remind him that he probably wasn't breathing as well as he'd thought.
He needed a minute to recover from it, and then had to try and reassure his anxious looking friends that he wasn't dying right now. Tails looked like he outright didn't believe him, but Sonic, ever the impatient one, but the positive thinker too, was working on getting them moving again and it was enough to distract them all.
It needed an arm over the shoulder of each of the others to keep Knuckles on his feet, but now that he could get a proper look around, he knew where they were, and which way to go.
When I started writing this story, I didn't exactly plan out everything; a lot of things developed by logical consequence. This chapter is one of those. And once I'd written it, I wondered if the entire story requires an M rating or not. In the end, as you can see, I decided against it. But, warning in advance, some of this might not be for the faint of heart.
Oh, and there's bad words, too. Sorry?
For still looking as if he'd stumbled right out of a horror movie, Knuckles had a remarkable sense of orientation, Sonic thought. Well, it was his island, he probably knew every tree and every stone up here, but given the fact Sonic still had no idea if the echidna could even look straight, it was a feat.
The place Knuckles was leading them turned out to be a small grove. A couple of tall and wide trees surrounded a small pond. A merry creek passed through it before continuing downhill through a small field of moss and grass. The water jumped over pebbles and a few old, fallen branches with a soft noise that seemed like music to Sonic's ears right now.
They sat Knuckles down next to the creek. A quick wash got the worst of the dust off Sonic and Tails' hands and faces at least. Knuckles washing off his face mostly removed the grey smears, but only to reveal the fact he was pale as the sky underneath all the grime.
Unpacking the rucksacks turned up the snacks they'd brought along and Sonic convinced both of his friends to at least have a few cookies and another drink first. If the evidence of earlier was anything to go by, cleaning and treating whatever injury was under the ash cover on Knuckles' back wasn't going to be lots of laughs and giggles.
Sonic set a still shaken and nervous looking Tails to the task of sorting through their supplies and checking the exact content of their first aid kit.
The hedgehog himself wolfed down a half molten chocolate bar to at least have something for energy to run on for a little longer, before he filled one of their now empty bottles with the cool water from the creek to pour over Knuckles' back.
It really was just water and he'd hardly touched him, but that didn't seem to matter. Knuckles curled around his middle, choking on a strangled gasp of agony.
Somehow the quietness of it was worse than a yell would've been. Sonic almost dropped the bottle. "Fuck, sorry, sorry..." For a second he debated stopping, then decided he needed to at least be able to see what they were dealing with.
By the time he'd unearthed a quite nasty looking burn that covered what had to amount to half of Knuckles' back, the quick, shallow pants were on a good way to qualify as hyperventilation, but not at all to supply anyone with enough oxygen.
Now Sonic allowed his hand to drop the bottle. He reached for Knuckles' shoulders instead, carefully pulling him first back to what came close enough to a sitting position and then when no reaction came into what closely enough resembled a hug that he'd never ever thought of initiating if Knuckles didn't look like he couldn't breathe again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, come on, Red, stay with me. Deep breaths, come on." It wasn't near the first time today Sonic was stuck trying to somehow get the echidna to breathe properly, and it wasn't much better than watching him suffocate on smoke and ash. The blue hedgehog wondered if you just normally took things like the concept that your friends were breathing like normal healthy people for granted when you shouldn't. When it was so easy to lose. "Come on, with me, in and out, you can do it..."
Slowly, Knuckles managed to catch his breath, although he was still awfully tense in Sonic's hold, so much the quills shook faintly under the strain. Like a hedgehog's would have. On impulse Sonic brushed them down, then again when no protest came and Knuckles actually did relax a little bit.
Distantly Sonic realised his own hands were shaking, too. It was scary, seeing proud Knuckles breathless with pain, to know he'd caused most of it, to know how often he'd seen his red friend just brush off injuries and keep going and fight giant robots, to know this was worse, to think how very close they'd come today to not all walk away from it alive.
"I'm sorry to hurt you," he repeated. "I was being as careful as I could."
"... know," Knuckles mumbled into his shoulder. Far too quiet. Sonic longed to be snapped at in familiar, quick anger.
He pulled back a little to try and look at him. "How're you feeling?" It was a dumb question. He knew that.
"... think I'm gonna be sick."
In spite of that threat, Sonic tightened his hold again. "Nonono, we really don't need that." They really didn't need that. Misery aside, they probably couldn't afford to have him lose any more fluids. "Take a few more deep breaths with me. Think of all the nice grape juice you had, would you want to waste that? We brought that stuff just for you! We braved a crowded marketplace to obtain this great juice!"
In some detached part of his mind, he was proud of coming up with somewhat light and silly dialogue while also his own stomach was coming to the conclusion that being sick seemed a reasonable course of action.
He wasn't even the only one impressed; he was rewarded for the quip with a disbelieving gasp of a chuckle. "Only you, hedgehog," Knuckles muttered.
"Yeah, I'm one of a kind, I know." He almost grinned through the horror of this day, but then he looked up and found Tails staring at him and Knuckles, wide-eyed. "Hey buddy. You alright?"
Tails shook his head with a brutal honesty Sonic had not seen since the fox had been much younger. Tails was still so awfully young now, but like all of them he'd learned to put on a façade. "I'll be fine," he said anyway. "I don't need to be fine right now." The blue eyes flicked out across the water, back to Sonic, then down to where he'd tidily spread out all their equipment. "What do you need? What can I do?"
Sonic smiled at his little brother, putting Tails up on the mental list of 'deserves a good hug soon as this is over'. "What do we have for burns?"
Tails held up a tube. "Ointment. It's good, anti-septic, too. I tried it last time I, uh, welded."
Sonic raised a brow at him. "Do I want to know?"
"Nope." Tails was quick to shake his head now, easing up with the familiar lines of his particular exchange. Sonic supposed since he'd taken Tails under his wing when he'd been only four, and had suddenly been responsible for someone else than himself, they'd had this conversation like a million times. Tails called the concept 'plausible deniability'. Sonic preferred to just not be told some things.
He also preferred to not put an eight year old into situations like this one right now, but that was usually out of his control. "Okay, can you come here, keep an eye on Knux? I'm afraid I'll need to properly clean it before we can put that on, and it's not gonna be fun."
"You don't say," Knuckles mumbled, but he did make an obvious effort to sit upright and by himself.
A small bit of weight dropped off Sonic's chest at that first vaguely sarcastic reply he'd gotten since they'd come here. "Okay, and you, I want you to tell me how your Emerald is doing."
Knuckles blinked at him in obvious confusion, then a second later in sudden alarm. "You think something is wrong with it?"
"No, no, I think it's perfectly fine. You on the other hand - how about you try and do some guardian thing to try and convince it to help heal this mess you have for a back right now?"
Knuckles frowned. "It's doing that already."
"Oh? But not very fast?" Tails had come to take Sonic's place sitting with Knuckles.
"Fast is unsafe. Fast is... for emergency, for life and death." Knuckles shook his head. "Injuries can be healed quickly if need be, in a fight or something, but they don't heal well quickly."
Sonic nodded, figuring they should take some comfort from the knowledge that the Master Emerald of all things apparently didn't consider its guardian to be in mortal danger anymore. It would know, right?
He shook off the thought. He was really tired by now too, tired and frazzled, but they all needed to focus for a couple more minutes before everyone could take a break.
"Okay, anyway, I still want you to try and focus. Call up the shiny rock for some energy or whatever it is you have going on with it."
Something like comprehension finally lit on Knuckles' pale face. He nodded and closed his eyes.
Tails was still frowning, clearly not following Sonic's train of thought, but he didn't seem inclined to ask. To be fair, Sonic didn't know how Knuckles and his Emerald worked. Different than Sonic and Chaos Emeralds, for sure. But it seemed by far the more stable connection, the one with utmost permanence. Sonic had seen Knuckles lean on the giant shiny rock for strength before, and if nothing else, it would work as a distraction. He didn't think it needed quite the same focus as using one of the moody Chaos Emeralds, but who knew?
Sonic took another minute to place all his supplies in reach and to give Knuckles a chance to find whatever headspace one put himself in when trying to somehow talk to the Master Emerald. Sonic couldn't tell how it worked, or if it would work at all given the fact Knuckles obviously wasn't having the clearest of heads right now, but if the vague sensation was anything to go by, he had succeeded to call up something. Something distant, something faintly green, something chaos was tingling ever so softly under Sonic's hand when he reached for Knuckles again.
Suddenly, Sonic wondered if some of that was even normal? Was Knuckles always such a flicker of greenish chaos? That discharge, that almost explosion when he'd first stumbled into him on that volcanic field was obviously not. Whatever it had been, Master Emerald life support or whatnot, that wasn't normal.
But this? This was faint and fickle and Sonic wasn't sure if he'd notice if he wasn't paying such close, anxious attention. What of it was because Knuckles was injured, how much would be a normal part of someone living so closely with chaos energy as its guardian? Knuckles had claimed at times that Sonic was chaos, would that mean the same was true in reverse, that Sonic should feel this chaotic essence in Knuckles' presence, too, but had never paid attention?
The hedgehog shook himself out of it. It didn't matter, not now, not here.
"Get over with it, Sonic."
Steeling himself, Sonic went about soaking a still mostly clean piece of cloth and carefully started to dab at his friend's back.
In what were certainly quite high up on the list of the most awful and gruesome five minutes of Sonic's life, he finished removing dirt and ash and, ouch, some scorched fur from Knuckles' injured back. He tried to be as quick and efficient as possible, tried to not stop at every wince and every hitch of breath. The faster they got this done, the better for all of them. Sonic was sure he was going to have nightmares of this, he was equally sure Tails would have nightmares of this, and Knuckles? Well, Sonic hoped he wouldn't remember this whole thing in too much detail.
By now Tails had Knuckles in a firm hug not unlike Sonic had done a few minutes ago, face all but buried into Tails' shoulder and the fox's left hand smoothing down along the spines from the top of his head. Tails had lived with Sonic long enough to not hurt himself on hedgehog spikes, and echidna quills were not that different. In a token effort to distract him, Tails was mumbling quiet, nonsensical reassurance.
Knuckles utterly uncharacteristically didn't resist being held; he was still if not for winces and gasps, in spite of the green tingle still flickering erratically under Sonic's fingers, like a frantic pulse.
The blue hedgehog spent longer than was probably necessary just rinsing and hopefully cooling the burn, before using up half their supply of burn ointment on it. It seemed that the package size in their kit was not intended to deal with something just remotely this size.
At least they apparently carried a large enough bandage to cover it up. Sonic distantly thought burns needed to breathe and be able to cool off, but he saw little options to keep in clean otherwise, and he was sure none of them wanted to go through cleaning this again anytime soon. If Knuckles was right and his Master Emerald was doing some magic about it anyway, maybe it would be enough?
Sonic really hoped he wasn't screwing anything up here. His knowledge of first aid came mostly from a course taken with Tails years ago, and from dealing with the scrapes and such he brought along from his various adventures. Knuckles was the much better field medic, but... Yeah.
Maybe it would be easier if Sonic had gotten hurt? If roles were reversed, maybe nobody would have been hurt because Sonic could've been fast enough to run from it? Or wouldn't he? What if not? Given everything, as bad as this looked, Knuckles was in incredibly good shape for someone who'd been blown up by a flaming mountain. Sonic was fairly sure he'd used his giant Emerald for protection somehow. How much worse would it be without that?
Sonic shook himself and decided he really didn't want to know.
For a few minutes the hedgehog busied himself tending to smaller cuts and burns, but it didn't need quite as much focus and he suddenly realised that Tails was still talking quietly. Now that he listened, Sonic noticed the fox had apparently run out of comforting nonsense to say, but for some reason he'd been of the opinion that he should keep talking anyway, about whatever.
"Whatever" seemed to right now be a recital of the periodic table, complete with details from common and scientific name up to the elements' atomic weight and known isotopes. Sonic was quite sure Tails was trying to distract himself at least as much as Knuckles...
It was usually Sonic who would find a distraction if one was needed. He'd been awfully slacking in that department over the last couple of minutes. Way past time to up his game, then, but it wasn't Tails and his chemistry lecture he addressed first, although that definitely needed to be addressed pronto. But Knuckles really was terribly quiet and still right now and it worried Sonic slightly more than the fact that Tails seemed to seek comfort with lead's electron number and melting point.
He half-heartedly brushed down some of the thick dreadlock spines, again unable to brush off the black colour. "I'm afraid your quills are gonna look like a bad Shadow cosplay for until this grows out," he said, clinging to the last bit of humour he had left because also Sonic needed a distraction.
Funnily, this silly comment was what roused Knuckles, who probably didn't even know what a cosplay was. He pulled his head off Tails' shoulder and squinted back at Sonic. "Huh?" Even that one not-quite word sounded rough like sandpaper.
Knuckles' stirring in turn shook Tails out of his recital of chemistry numbers. "What?"
Sonic pointed sloppily at the back of the echidna's head, not willing to give either of his friends the chance to sink back into whatever dark space he'd pulled them from. "His spines. They're black, and it doesn't wash off. I think it'll have to grow out slowly."
Knuckles shrugged, warily, like he expected even that small motion to not be a good idea. "It'll grow back," he said anyway, like it didn't matter.
It really didn't. Not at all, but it was easier to ask what had scorched his spines pitch black than to wonder what it had been like when the same thing happened to soft skin and fur instead of hard spines.
But Sonic's tired, mad brain didn't want to stop going in that direction. "Were you running from it?"
It had been more thinking aloud than actually asking a genuine question, but Knuckles apparently took it as such. "I figured I wouldn't be fast enough to run. I tried to burrow away from it."
"With your feet and hands down." Tails for some reason seemed to appreciate working out the details. Maybe uncertainty scared the scientific mind more than facts. "That's why it hit your back. Your quills protected you some, but they don't cover your entire back."
"Something like that." The Emerald tingle was gone from where Sonic could feel it, and Knuckles seemed even groggier in its wake than before.
The hedgehog pushed some more refreshments on him, but then left him to sit around in peace and sip at a bottle of lemonade. Instead he dragged Tails towards the pond and used the excuse that they needed to finally get properly clean to check on his young friend, and to finally give Tails that hug. To be perfectly fair, Sonic really felt like he needed a hug as well. The brothers just held each other for a few long moments, finally having that bit of time to allow the realisation that they were indeed all alive to fully sink in.
Eventually Sonic pulled away, holding Tails at arm length. "You okay, kiddo?" He'd not called him that in a long while.
The flash of surprise in the blue eyes told him Tails was well aware of that, but he nodded softly. "Yeah." The relief was obvious in the weight of just that one word. "You?"
"A-okay." Sonic smiled. It was stretching the truth a bit, and Tails knew that, but all in all, if his friends were okay, Sonic was okay, too. "Come on, let's see if Knuckles left some lemonade for us."
Tails shrugged. "If he wants it, I'll be happy to stick to water from the creek." Any other day, this statement would seem more likely in reverse, with Knuckles choosing the water.
As it turned out, the echidna had not finished off all the lemonade. He was still nursing that same bottle, although by now it was down to a third of its contents, and something about the sweet drink or the sitting around for a few quiet minutes had done him some good. The violet eyes were more alert than Sonic had seen in all the time since they'd found him, and in a way that was familiar, awfully relatable and just completely and utterly ridiculous, Knuckles was looking at them with what was obviously concern. "You guys okay?"
For a moment there, Sonic almost laughed. Knuckles looked like he'd gone a few rounds with a dragon and lost, and he was asking about them? "Yeah, we're good." He plucked himself down next to the echidna in an exaggeratedly casual manner just to make a point. "It's just been a long day."
Tails settled down across of them with a quiet hum of agreement.
"Yeah, I suppose." The echidna turned the bottle in his hold, watching the yellow liquid swish around in it. "I'm sorry I didn't… have a better grip on myself."
Chaos… This was ridiculous, too. Knuckles wasn't usually the most proficient person in picking up on cues for things like the emotional impact the last few minutes, heck, hours on Sonic and Tails, but did he have to choose today of all days to try and get better at reading them?
That aside… "Do you think we're jerks, Knux?"
Knuckles stared, clearly not quite following, but Sonic didn't wait for an answer anyway.
"And you clearly have a wrong perspective on things here. Dude, if some clumsy hedgehog is poking around a huge burn, you'd have all the rights to scream your lungs out or something. You're a shining example of "grip on yourself". If something like that were a subject we judge people on, we could totally be proud of you. But we're not jerks, just to make that clear again."
Knuckles still didn't look super convinced.
Sonic sighed. "Okay, let's make a list of facts here, shall we. One: I've had burns, Tails has had burns, all much smaller than this, and they hurt like hell. Nobody here will think less of you. Two: You were hurt really bad when we found you. Evidence number one: those rings you had didn't do much if anything about that back of yours, which means they were probably busy healing something far worse. You breathed smoke and ash and whatever evil gases there were for hours. We also can't rule out head injuries, because we just have no way to reliably check. You're totally allowed to be off your game here. In fact, I have only a few scrapes and a scratchy throat and I feel off my game. Tails?"
"Yeah, me too. Totally off my game." The fox shrugged. "It's not like we're never in dangerous situations, but it's not the same, I think. You know, it was just an afternoon, just a few hours, but it seemed – I dunno."
"Hours?" Knuckles frowned. "I don't remember hours, I don't even… I think my sense of time is just totally –"
"Shot?", Sonic supplied. "To Meteor Herd and back?"
Knuckles snorted. "Wouldn't have been my choice of words, but I think it works well enough."
Sonic shrugged. "No harm in that. We can do without it for the rest of this mess of a day."
"Yeah, I suppose."
For another few minutes, they sat in a semi-circle, Sonic and Tails sharing the remaining bottle of lemonade between them. The small creek still gurgled happily on beside them and a cool wind was rustling in the bushes around and whispering down from the crowns of the large trees surrounding the grove.
It was Tails who finally waved a hand around vaguely. "It seems so… surreal. To think that just an hour ago… Just over a few hills… It's so peaceful here; you would never think there was all this fire and destruction."
Sonic was about to agree, because it really was so very weird, but apparently it had just now occurred to the island's guardian that parts of his beautiful flying piece of ground had caught flame. The tousled dreadlocked head snapped up from where he'd been half lost in thought gazing at his drink. "I have to go see it!"
Only Sonic's jumping to his feet, hand pressing down on his shoulder kept Knuckles from getting up. "Absolutely not! Have you looked at yourself?!"
Even still white as a sheet and with scorched quills and fur, Knuckles was glaring his best. "So what? This is my island! I'm responsible for it! I need to check it out!"
Just a few minutes ago, Sonic had been relieved at Knuckles looking more like himself. But this? This was impossible. Unbelievable. Sonic glared right back. "What are you gonna do about it, huh?! Glare at it, like you glare at me?! There's a crater and it's spewing smoke and ash, mostly, by now! There's nothing you can do about it, and nobody is responsible for volcanic eruptions!"
"I'm the guardian! It's my –"
"I swear to Chaos, Knuckles, if you say anything about responsibility again tonight, I'm going to –"
"Stop! Both of you!" Tails was no longer sitting either, instead he stood in front of them, bushy tails thrashing agitatedly behind his back. "It's enough!"
"Right." Sonic sighed, really, really grateful for Tails yet again. He pulled in a slow, calming breath and focused on the red echidna. "Knuckles, we spent hours trying to find you out there in this – this inferno! We were about to give up hopes of ever finding you alive, or finding you at all! For all we knew, you could've been buried under molten rocks or burning dust or whatnot!" From the corner of his eye, Sonic could watch Tails wince, and he silently promised himself to apologize to him later. "Knux, you almost died out there. Damnit, you were half dead when I found you, and for all we know you have only your shiny rock to thank for not being completely dead! And I swear to you, over my dead body if you must, you're not going back to get blown up again or molten or set on fire until you at least look like you can reasonably stand by yourself!"
Knuckles blinked, temper and ill-timed sense of responsibility stalled somewhere in the middle of Sonic's outburst, and now he was just sitting and staring at him, still awfully pale and the black and grey marks standing out in stark contrast to the few spots where you could still see his original colour of fur. "Oh," he said, sounding quiet again and hoarse from breathing way too much smoke. Now he looked lost all of a sudden, lost and hurt and tired. "I… sorry?"
Sonic blew out his breath in a sigh. It was impossible to be angry with someone who looked like death warmed over. "Look," he said, trying for a softer and calmer tone again. "I'm not mad at you. And if it calms your nerves, I was going to run and see how it's looking over there. We should keep an eye on it. To be safe. To make sure it's really calming down as it seemed and that there isn't any forest fire spreading or something. But if someone goes, it's someone who looks like they can stand without falling over. And that doesn't include you tonight. I'm sorry. No offense."
Knuckles apparently couldn't decide whether to be mad or reasonable or anything else and it just added to the lost look.
It was Tails who chimed in to rescue the awkward silence from lasting too long. "I don't think it's still likely, but should there be another explosion, it's probably sensible if Sonic goes, because he's the fastest."
That seemed to get through to the echidna. Sonic hoped Tails knew what a wizard he was sometimes. "Yeah, okay," Knuckles mumbled. He squinted up at Sonic. "Sorry."
The hedgehog finally pulled the restraining hand off his friend's shoulder. "S'okay. You earned a few get out of jail free cards for today." He threw a look back up the small path they'd come down. "I guess I should be going to take that look then, huh?"
"Be careful." Apparently Knuckles had forgiven him.
Sonic grinned. "You know me."
"Yeah, that's why I'm saying it." Finally, there was a smirk on Knuckles' face.
The blue hedgehog took a moment to affectionately ruffle Tails' bangs even while technically still speaking with Knuckles. "I won't be long. Be good, kids."
Tails was laughing at this address, and Knuckles' protest about it was swallowed up by the wind as Sonic accelerated up the trail.