25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 1: The wedding
No Echidna Is an Island
by K. M. Hollar
Copyright notice: Sonic, Knuckles, the Chaotix and related characters are copyrighted by Sega and
Archie comics. Slasher, Talon, Zephyer, and all other minor characters are copyrighted by K. M.
Hollar. This story copyrighted 2004 by K. M. Hollar. Do not copy without permission.
Author's note: Aside from Slave and the Darkness, this story has the most mundane premise of any
story I've ever written. I defy other fic writers to take a custody battle and make it interesting. Heck,
_I_ doubt I made it interesting. But stick with it and see if it comes out being fun by the end.
A lot of stories end with a wedding, implying that marriage is the Happily Ever After of life.
However, I'm of the opinion that marriage is only the beginning of the adventure, which is the reason
this story starts the way it does. I never intended for this story to grow beyond the wedding itself, but
it somehow did, and this fic is the result.
Do I dare even wear what I was thinking of
My true colors bleeding on my sleeve
Do I chance the romance that I've been dreaming of
Instead of wishing for it quietly
Always at a distance I wish you'd safely stay
Despite my resistance you sought me anyway
Gone are the days of all that I was afraid of
I've left behind the traces of who I've been
I'm no longer able to wrestle with this angel
And the closer you can get I can let you love me
--Gone are the Days, Nicole Nordeman
Chapter 1: The wedding
"Zephyer, are you okay?" Sally called through the bathroom door.
"Fine," came the echidna's voice, although she sounded awful.
Sally looked at her watch. "We have an hour until the wedding starts. You need to get dressed pretty
"I know!" Zephyer wailed, opening the door. She was as white as a sheet, and had the shaky look of
one who has been throwing up. She walked out and sat down on the nearest chair. They were in
Sally's hut, which had been turned into an impromptu dressing room. Knuckles and Zephyer were
getting married, and Zephyer was terrified.
The door opened and Serena Hedgehog walked in. She was carrying two dresses folded over her
arms, and deposited them on Sally's bed. "There! I was lucky to find them, the village is topsy-turvy
right now. Hi Zephyer, why aren't you dressed?"
"I've been working on it," said Zephyer, indicating her slip. "But I--I keep--" She jumped to her feet,
ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Sally looked at Serena. "Nerves."
Serena nodded. "I never realized she had such a weak stomach." She sat down and took off her
shoes. "We might as well get dressed--I wish I was a boy sometimes."
"Why?" said Sally, pulling her own dress over her head.
"They're having a great time over there," said Serena, lifting her own dress and inspecting it.
"Laughing and carrying on. Sonic teased me all the way over here about wearing a dress."
"Thwack him one next time," said Sally, checking herself in the mirror.
"My hands were full or I would have," said Serena, pulling her dress on. "Hey Zephyer, get out here,
I want to see how the wedding dress looks on you."
The door opened and Zephyer emerged whiter than ever. "Can't we call it off?" she begged, as Sally
took the wedding dress off its hanger.
"Too late to do that," said Sally. "Besides, there's no reason to inconvenience everybody like that.
We had to fly in a priest special just for today."
Sally and Serena pulled the dress over Zephyer's head and adjusted it. Zephyer looked at herself in
the mirror and smiled at the echidna looking back at her. The dress made her look taller and older,
and accented her jawline. She tossed back her dreadlocks and wished she felt as brave as she looked.
"Man, you are whiter than that dress," said Serena, who had been studying her. "And you look like a
queen or something."
"She really does," said Princess Sally. "Mother used to dress like this on formal occasions. Zephyer,
there's no way Knuckles deserves you."
"He derobotized me," said Zephyer through her teeth. "I'd say I owe him something. Oh no, look!"
She twisted around and looked at her back in the mirror. The dress had a low back, and it revealed a
long, hideous scar across her red fur.
Sally said, "Look, if you let your hair fall back like this, it hides it." Zephyer shook back her
dreadlocks. Ever since she had been derobotized her health had returned with a vengeance, and her
dreadlocks were thick and healthy.
Sally and Serena made Zephyer sit down and began fixing her dreadlocks. Each lock ended in a stiff
spine, and the ones in back were the stiffest. The ones closer to her face were softer and more pliable,
and these Serena brushed out and braided with ribbons while Sally fastened clips around the ones in
Midway through there came a knock, and a female voice called, "Can I come in?"
"Sure," Sally called, and Amy Rose bounded in. She was dressed in red, but this dress was a
trifle longer than usual.
"Ooo Zephyer!" she squealed. "You look adorable!"
"Thanks," said Zephyer, holding still under Serena and Sally's grooming. "What'd you do to your
hair? It looks great."
"Mom curled it," said Amy, looking in the mirror. "Oh, this is all so romantic! Do you think Sonic
will let me hold his hand?"
Serena flashed a grin at Sally. "Oh, I'm sure he'd like that. He gets very sentimental at weddings."
Zephyer's eyebrows shot up, and Sally went into a coughing fit to hide her laughter.
Amy was oblivious. "Oh goody! I'll make sure to stand by him when we go up in front. Can I help
do your hair, Zephyer?"
Zephyer opened her mouth, but Sally interrupted her. "We need someone to do Zephyer's makeup."
"Makeup!" squealed Amy. "I can do that!"
Zephyer glared in the mirror at Sally, who sat back and surrendered to a giggling fit.
Meanwhile, across the village, Sonic and Knuckles were dressed, groomed and tossing a ball back
and forth across Sonic's hut. "Gee, I hate waiting," said Sonic, catching the ball and spinning it on
one finger. "What are you guys going to do for your honeymoon?"
Sonic threw the ball to Knuckles, who tossed it back. "She wants an exclusive tour of the whole
island, so we're going to do some hiking."
"Hiking," said Sonic. "No trips to exotic locations?"
"The Floating Island IS an exotic location," said Knuckles, and grinned. "I know what you mean,
though. I was wracking my brains for a place to go until she suggested exploring."
They tossed the ball a couple times, then Knuckles got up and paced. Sonic watched him, reading
his friend's nervousness. "Want to play a computer game?"
"No," said Knuckles, looking out the window. "Looks like the whole village is out there."
"Any sign of the girls?"
Knuckles craned his neck. "Nope." The curtains were drawn in Sally's hut, but he had seen Amy go
inside. "I wish this was over with."
"I plan to enjoy the whole shebang," said Sonic, leaning back in his chair. "The rehearsal was so
much fun, I'm expecting today to be even better."
"Don't mention the rehearsal," said Knuckles, resuming pacing.
Sonic grinned. "At least there wasn't an audience when you knocked over the altar."
"I said don't mention it," growled Knuckles.
Sonic's grin widened. "Well, whatever happens, Tails is getting it all on tape."
"Thanks for reminding me," said Knuckles, walking to the wall, spinning around, and walking back.
He was interrupted as the door opened and a young brown and white anteater looked in. "Hello sir,
"Hi Talon," Sonic and Knuckles said in unison.
Talon stepped in and looked at Knuckles's suit. "Wow."
"Looks good, doesn't he?" said Sonic. "I keep telling him that, but he doesn't believe me."
Talon nodded. "Yes. Um, Knuckles sir, do you have a ring?"
"Yeah," said Knuckles. "Why?"
"I'm the ringbearer," said Talon, "and I wondered where the rings were."
Sonic and Knuckles looked at each other. "I gave it to you," said Knuckles. "Last night."
"I handed it back, remember?" said Sonic. "You put it in that coat you were wearing."
Knuckles made a dive for the closet, found a coat and frisked the pockets. "Here it is," he said,
pulling out a small box. He opened it and looked at the gold ring set with a glowing red stone. He
handed it to Talon. "Keep it safe."
Talon looked at the ring, then looked up at Knuckles. "Where's YOUR ring, sir?"
Knuckles went white and looked at Sonic. Sonic burst out laughing. "You made seven rings for her,
and forgot about one for you?"
"I can't believe this," said Knuckles, looking at his hands. "Where am I going to find a ring to fit me
in--in one hour?"
Sonic slapped his thighs. "This is classic! What are you going to do when the priest asks for the
"If you'd stop laughing for half a second, maybe I could think," said Knuckles.
Talon stepped forward. "What size do you need?"
Knuckles held up one finger, and Talon measured it with his fingers. "I'll see if I can find anything
that might work."
"Good luck," said Sonic as Talon left. "Knux has fingers like cucumbers."
"And a brain like a head of lettuce," said Knuckles. "I can't believe I forgot my ring!"
"Could you take one and stretch it to fit?"
"No time." Knuckles looked miserable.
Sonic fought back another attack of laughter. "Maybe Talon will think of something."
* * *
The center of Knothole had been turned into a wedding pavilion, with the streets roped off and chairs
of all shapes and sizes arranged in rows facing the altar. The altar was a packing crate upended and
disguised with flowers and vines. There were three cameras set up at discreet angles, each one poised
to film a different element of the proceedings. Tails was hooking up the third one to a laptop
computer when Talon ran up, panting.
"Tails, got a minute?"
"Not really," said Tails, looking up. "What's wrong?"
"Knuckles forgot to get a ring," said Talon, grinning. "You got any ideas for something else to use?"
Tails's jaw dropped. "He doesn't have a ring? Where has he BEEN? We've only been planning this
wedding for a month!"
"Yeah," said Talon. "So, any ideas?"
Tails sat for a moment, thinking hard. "How big are his fingers?"
Talon made a circle with both hands.
"What we need is more like a bracelet," said Tails. "Jewelry ... jewelry ... who around here has
something like that?"
"Nobody," said Talon. "That's why I asked you."
"Let me finish this, then we'll look around my workshop," said Tails, typing on the keyboard. "If
Zephyer finds out about this, she's going to kill him."
With forty minutes left until the start of the ceremony, Tails and Talon ran to Tails's workshop and
looked at the piles of machine parts. "Gold," muttered Tails to himself. "I don't use gold, it's too
"What if it was brass instead?" said Talon, picking up a piece of wire. "It looks gold."
Tails bit his lip. "Getting married with a brass ring sounds like some kind of joke." He took the wire
and bent it into a circle. He grabbed a pair of pliers and looped the wire again, then twisted the two
together and held up the result.
"That looks pretty neat," said Talon.
"Let's try it on," said Tails, and ducked out of his workshop.
Knuckles was tossing the ball up and down when the fox and anteater entered. He and Sonic jumped
up. "Try this on," said Tails, holding out the loop of wire. "Better get a real one as soon as possible,
because Zephyer will kill you for this."
"Brass?" said Knuckles, staring at the wire. "I might kill you myself."
"It's better than nothing at all," said Tails.
"True." Knuckles slid on the ring, and Tails cut off the extra wire.
"It does look pretty good," said Sonic as Knuckles held up his hand and examined it. "How it's
twisted together. It looks gold."
"It looks brass to me," said Knuckles, who saw a lot of ore every day in the tunnels of the Floating
Island. "But I guess it'll work."
* * *
Zephyer lifted the shade and peeked out at the square, where people were taking their seats. She
dropped the shade. "I can't do it," she said, turning to Sally, Serena and Amy. "Let's just say I'm sick
and postpone it until tomorrow."
Sally and Serena exchanged glances and said nothing--Zephyer's protests were beginning to sound
the same. But Amy looked horrified. "Zephyer, you can't cancel it now! We've been waiting for you
and Knuckles to get married since we moved here!"
"So I've heard," said Zephyer, examining herself in the mirror for the thousandth time. "Whatever
you did to my hair, it looks great." Her face was framed in multicolored ribbons that were braided
around her bangs and foremost dreadlocks.
"It'll look good in the pictures," said Serena. She checked her watch. "Ten minutes."
Zephyer had to sit down.
Sally stepped out of the hut to watch for the start of the ceremony, and saw Slasher the winged
velociraptor striding toward her. Slasher was wearing a golden necklace with a large glass stone in
it, and it gave her reptilian face a certain grace. "How's Zephyer?" the raptor asked.
"Nervous," said Sally. "I think a lot of it's for show--she doesn't know how to cope with happiness. Is
"We're getting there," said Slasher. "The priest wasn't wild about me giving away the bride, since I'm
not even Zephyer's species, but I talked about how we're like a family in Knothole and how it was
suitable and so on. He finally gave in. Oh, thanks for this necklace. I feel aristocratic."
"It looks good on you," said Sally with a smile.
The two watched the villagers choose their seats, and Tails run around, double-checking his
cameras. Amy emerged from the hut and looked at all the people. "Wow, it's almost time, isn't it?"
"Yes, better take your place," said Sally, and Amy ran to stand at the end of the aisle with a basket
of flower petals.
Serena stepped outside and sighed. "A real wedding, right here in Knothole! Sally, when you marry
Sonic, can I be your maid of honor?"
Sally's face grew hot. "What did you say?"
Serena looked at her, then covered her mouth. "Oh gosh, I shouldn't have said that."
Slasher coughed and kept a straight face.
Sally regained her composure. "I doubt I'll marry Sonic for a long time, but if I do, you can be my
maid of honor."
Serena stared at the ground, mortified.
The clock struck two, and across the village, Sonic and Knuckles emerged from Sonic's hut. Sonic
was giddy with excitement and thought Knuckles was walking too slowly. Knuckles had stopped
talking half an hour ago, which was a sign he was terrified. He followed Sonic with his teeth
clenched, dreading the stares of the crowd.
They parted ways at the aisle. Sonic winked and took off around the side of the chairs to meet
Knuckles up by the alter with Talon. Knuckles was down at the foot of the aisle with Amy, who
looked at him and giggled.
Tails had set up the sound system, and pressed play on the audio player. Rock music blasted the
pavilion for two seconds before Tails could find the stop button. Sweating and embarrassed, Tails
switched disks to the appropriate one and put it on. A titter of laughter swept the crowd. Ignoring
them, Tails activated his cameras and gazed at their screens on his laptop.
Amy walked down the aisle, sprinkling flower petals as she went. She waved to various people,
grinning like a celebrity, until she reached the alter and moved off to stand beside it.
Then it was Knuckles's turn, and he strode up the aisle as if it was a passage leading to a death pit.
All he could think of was how he wanted to punch Tails for playing the wrong music. Then he
reached the alter and had a breathing space. All eyes were at the foot of the aisle again, where
Zephyer was approaching, escorted by Slasher.
As the bride began her way up the aisle, murmurs rose from the crowd--Zephyer had never looked so
beautiful. Sally and Serena must be first-class beauticians, for Zephyer was ordinarily rather plain.
Zephyer tried to ignore them all. She had met Knuckles's eyes across the pavilion, and gazed at him
as she walked up the aisle. If she looked away even once, she would chicken out. But she made it to
"And who gives this female?" said the priest.
"I do," said Slasher, "as a member of her adoptive family."
Zephyer stepped away from her and stood beside Knuckles, gazing at him. He stared back,
breathtaken by the way she looked in her white dress. He had never seen her in a dress before.
They faced the priest, who gave a little sermon about marriage and all that it entailed. Then he read
the age-old words from a worn book. "Do you, Knuckles Echidna, hereby take this female to be
your lawfully wedded wife?"
"Yes!" Knuckles thundered.
A chuckle ran through the crowd.
The priest turned to Zephyer. "And do you, Zephyer Winstrom, hereby take this male to be your
lawfully wedded husband?"
"I do," said Zephyer.
Then they made their vows, swearing to be faithful for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in
sickness and in health, as long as they both should live. Zephyer was glad they had decided not to
memorize their vows and recite them, for her brain was scattered and she couldn't have repeated
anything from memory.
The priest called for the rings, and Talon stepped forward, grinning his lopsided grin, and held them
out. Sonic was grinning, too. Zephyer took Knuckles's ring and put it on his finger, noticing only
how large it was. Then he put her own ring on her finger. They had had to remake the band to fit her
derobotized finger, and the red gem glowed in the sun with a steady fire.
"You may now kiss the bride," said the priest. Knuckles pecked Zephyer on the lips, then they
turned and faced the crowd. Zephyer's mind was blank--despite the rehearsal, she couldn't remember
what to do next. Fortunately Knuckles was beside her, and he guided her forward, down the aisle.
She looked at him and smiled at the expression of determination on his face, as if this was an
unpleasant task he was trying to finish.
Everyone clapped as they exited the pavilion to an additional burst of music, and the bride and
groom led the way across the village to the community hut, where the reception was being held.
"Are you okay?" Knuckles whispered as they stepped into the big room.
"Fine," said Zephyer. "Now that it's all over. Do we have to stay for the reception?"
"Well, they're giving it for us," said Knuckles. "Here, have some punch. You'll feel better." He
ladled her a cup of red punch from a bowl, and made her sit and drink it. The rest of the crowd
trooped in at this point, talking and laughing. "Look, Knux is already the doting husband!" someone
shouted, and there was a guffaw of laughter.
"Was that Sonic?" said Knuckles.
"Yes," said Zephyer without looking up.
"I'll pound him for that," said Knuckles, smiling as the crowd swarmed around them.
Even Zephyer had to admit that the reception was fun. They cut the wedding cake, which had a
custard filling. There was a dance, and Zephyer and Knuckles danced as close as they liked. There
was the bridal bouquet toss, which Amy caught. Starry-eyed, she turned to look at Sonic, who edged
out the door. Amy screamed his name and ran after him, and Knuckles laughed and decided not to
pound Sonic after all.
Knuckles brought in two papers and read them aloud to Knothole. They certified that Zephyer was
legally his wife, disregarding all echidna social custom and rank. He and Zephyer signed it, along
with five witnesses. This was done to alleviate Zephyer's worry that her social rank was too low to
allow her to marry the Guardian.
The reception ended at dusk, and Zephyer fled to Sally's hut to change. Sally and Serena followed
"I am so glad to get this thing off," said Zephyer, pulling off the wedding dress. "I never want to
wear one of these again as long as I live!"
"Hopefully you won't have to," said Sally, retrieving the dress and hanging it from the back of the
closet door. "What're you going to wear? You got enough clothes as wedding presents to open your
"Did you see anything like a toga?" asked Zephyer, untying a ribbon from her hair.
"A toga?" said Serena, who was rummaging through the boxes of clothes. "Why in the world would
you want to wear that?"
"They're like what we wore back home," said Zephyer. "I didn't think I'd get one--I'll have to make
one later. Find me a dress, that'll work."
Serena produced a green cotton dress, and Zephyer pulled it on and looked in the mirror. "It works."
"It goes with your fur," said Sally. "Why don't you take what you need for tonight? We can bring the
rest of this to the island tomorrow."
"Okay," said Zephyer. She picked out two more dresses, then sat while Sally and Serena took the
clips and ribbons out of her hair.
Zephyer was collecting her things when there came a light knock on the door. Serena opened it and
Knuckles looked in. "Is Zephyer in here?"
"Right here," said Zephyer. She walked outside, then turned back and hugged Sally and Serena.
"Thank you guys so much! I would have wimped out if not for you."
"Oh, it was our pleasure!" said Sally. She and Serena waved as the echidnas departed.
Zephyer and Knuckles strolled through Knothole toward the teleporter. Without their fine clothes
they were anonymous in the gathering dusk. "Tired?" said Knuckles.
"A little," said Zephyer. "What do we do now?"
"You move in with me, duh," said Knuckles.
"No," said Zephyer. "I mean, what about the Master Emerald?"
"Shh," said Knuckles. "Wait until we get home."
Get home. Zephyer felt a thrill at the thought. The Floating Island was no longer a place to visit--it
was her home. And she never had to be seperated from Knuckles again.
The teleporter whisked them away and set them down on the receiver plate on the island. Crickets
chirped all around, and Zephyer could hear frogs croaking in the banana palm grove to the left. She
took a deep breath of the warm tropical air.
"It's different from Knothole, isn't it?" said Knuckles.
She nodded, eyes suddenly moist. "Every time I visited, I wanted to stay so bad that leaving was like
"Here now, don't cry," said Knuckles. "Let's run up to the house before we go to Hidden Palace."
Hand in hand they walked up the path to Chaotix Central, where Knuckles's house was. It had
started out as a one-room shack, but over the years Knuckles had expanded it, so now it was a
sprawling cottage that threw out unexpected wings. "What if the Chaotix are waiting in ambush?"
Zephyer asked, looking at the darkened windows.
"I told them we weren't coming home until tomorrow," said Knuckles. "Besides, they were all
helping with the reception, didn't you notice?"
"I noticed Vector provided the sound equipment Tails used," said Zephyer, grinning. "Poor Tails."
They went inside long enough for Zephyer to hang up her clothes, then they went outside again in
the warm June night. They were halfway back to the teleporter when Knuckles stopped. "Zephyer."
"Our kiss at the altar ... I didn't do a very good job."
She put her arms around him. "All right--let's try it again."
He kissed her and she kissed him back, each one taking longer and longer. Finally he reluctantly
drew away. "We're going to be late."
"For what?" she whispered.
He kissed her forehead. "The Master Emerald ceremony. See, the Knothole wedding didn't really
count. The real wedding is still coming."
Zephyer turned pale. "Oh no ... you mean we have to do all that again?"
"Not quite," said Knuckles. "Come on." They walked to the teleporter. Knuckles changed its setting,
and it whisked them to a tall, dark cave underground.
"Zephyer, there's someone I want you to meet," said Knuckles as they walked down the passage
toward the blue glow of Hidden Palace.
She gripped his hand in sudden panic. "Who?"
With a proud smile, Knuckles stepped across the threshold and said, "Locke Echidna--my father."
Locke rose from his seat beside the Master Emerald and walked forward. He was the same height as
Knuckles, and a shade heavier. The fur around his eyebrows and muzzle had a sprinkling of white,
and he had Knuckles's eyes.
"Dad, this is Zephyer Winstom," said Knuckles, placing her hand in his.
Locke bowed. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Zephyer. It's nice to be able to put a name to a face."
"It's an honor to meet you, sir," said Zephyer, liking him at once. "I see where Knuckles gets his
Locke smiled. "And I'm glad my son has good taste in women. Won't the two of you step this way?"
The three walked to the Master Emerald's pedestal. "What do we do?" asked Zephyer, unobtrusively
taking Knuckles's hand again. He could feel her trembling.
"It's a simple ceremony," said Locke. "Place your hands on the emerald, you will swear two
oaths--one, your vows of marriage, and two, and Guardian's oath."
"But we already said our vows," said Zephyer, bewildered.
Locke looked at her with amusement. "Knuckles has neglected your training, hasn't he? All oaths
sworn on the Master Emerald are unbreakable. That's why Knuckles can't leave the island for long
Zephyer looked at her husband, who nodded sheepishly.
Zephyer placed her hands on the Master Emerald's smooth top, and Knuckles did the same. The light
within the gem brightened. "Now repeat after me," said Locke, and began speaking in Old Mobian.
It was a shock to Zephyer, who had only been studying the language for six months, but she
understood enough of it to perform the ceremony. The echidna wedding vows were long and
involved, and in much fancier language than the ordinary vows. She and Knuckles repeated the
ancient words, and the Master Emerald slowly brightened, as if they were feeding it.
When they finished, Locke switched back to New Mobian. "I pronounce you man and wife, and may
this power hold you true and bind you as the Guardian is bound to the island."
A jolt of power flowed up Zephyer's arms, and for a second the cave swam in neon colors--then it
drained away, leaving Zephyer shaking and fatigued. Beside her, Knuckles was also shaken.
"Now, Zephyer Echidna," said Locke, turning to her, "you must swear the Guardian's Oath, because
you are now co-Guardian."
Zephyer nodded, planning to see this through. Again the words were in Old Mobian, and this time
only Zephyer repeated them. She noticed, however, that Knuckles's lips moved, as if he knew them
by heart and found it amusing to hear someone else say them.
This time, at the conclusion of the oath, the Master Emerald blasted its power into her body and
mind. She was flooded with images of the island as if the memories of all echidnas were being given
to her. They were so fast and vivid that she dreamed about them for weeks afterward, and the red
stone on her finger glowed in response.
Then it was over, and for a moment Zephyer was unsure if she could stand. But she willed herself to
stay strong. "Is that all?"
"That's all," said Locke. "And now I must be going."
"But Dad, didn't you want to look around the island?" asked Knuckles.
Locke shook his head. "I can't, son. The longer I'm here, the stronger its hold on me. You have my
blessing." He hugged Knuckles and Zephyer, then strode for the teleporter.
As it lit up and carried Locke away, Zephyer saw the desolate look on Knuckles's face, and she
wondered how many years Knuckles had been alone. She laid a hand on his shoulder. He ducked his
head and turned to her. "Well, that's done. You're stuck with me, now."
"When did he leave the island?" she asked.
"When I was six," said Knuckles.
Zephyer had a sudden vision of a small echidna child standing alone beside the Master Emerald, and
threw her arms around Knuckles. "You poor thing!"
"Poor thing?" said Knuckles. "I liked it. Now, do you want to stay here or go up to the house?"
"Whatever you want to do," said Zephyer. She took two steps and knelt, holding her head.
"What's wrong?" asked Knuckles, kneeling beside her.
"That last oath really took it out of me," she whispered.
"I knew you weren't strong enough yet," said Knuckles, glaring at the Master Emerald. "Come on,
let's get you home."
Zephyer tried to get up, but her equilibrium was off. In the end Knuckles picked her up and carried
her to the teleporter.
As they landed on the receiver plate near the house, Zephyer said, "It's traditional to carry the bride
across the threshold, isn't it?"
"I guess it is," said Knuckles. "I don't think most brides were still recovering from derobotization,
"Ugh, don't remind me," said Zephyer.
"You don't weigh anything," said Knuckles. "It's only been two months."
He stepped up on the porch and opened the door with one hand. "Welcome home," he said as she
stepped through the door.
He set her down on the couch in the living room, and sat beside her. She rested her head back on the
cushions and sighed. He smoothed her hair back from her face and kissed her temple.
"Knux," she whispered.
"This couch has got to go."
Knuckles straightened. "What? What's wrong with it?"
"Its springs are hanging out," said Zephyer, pointing to one beside her head. "And it's this hideous
"Hey, this couch and I have been through a lot together," said Knuckles.
Zephyer closed her eyes. "We'll get a new one."
Knuckles plucked at some exposed stuffing. "I suppose it could use a few patches, and the cushions
are shredded underneath from the time Kardot went after Talon with a sword .. but I think it has a
lot of use left in it. Maybe we could get it reupholstered." He looked at Zephyer again to see her
head had drooped sideways. He sighed and picked her up again.
He carried her to his bedroom--their bedroom, he reminded himself--and laid her down. She stirred a
little, then sank back into sleep like a child. He pulled off her shoes and covered her with the
blanket. He stood looking at her, feeling an immense shyness about the sleeping arrangements. He
removed his own shoes and eased under the blanket, trying not to wake her up. As soon as his head
hit the pillow, he realized how much of his strength the Master Emerald had taken.
He was asleep in three minutes.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 2: A period of adjustment
Chapter 2: A period of adjustment
When Knuckles awoke the next morning, Zephyer's side of the bed was empty, but there was a pink hibiscus flower beside his head. He looked at it for a moment, then sprang out of bed to find his wife.
Zephyer was in the kitchen, washing an assortment of fresh fruit in the sink. "Hello, sleepyhead," she said. "It's a gorgeous morning, and you've missed most of it."
He kissed her and said, "What's all this?"
"Breakfast," said Zephyer. "Remember when you had to worry about feeding me? Now I get to feed you."
Knuckles grinned. "If I had known that marrying you would be this convenient, I'd have done it years ago."
They ate breakfast and breathed the morning breeze that blew in through the open windows. "When do you want to start hiking?" asked Knuckles.
Zephyer examined a star-shaped fruit. "Well, there's all that stuff we need to haul in from Knothole, and what should we do about Talon? Should we leave him there, or bring him here and leave him to the mercy of the Chaotix?"
Knuckles chewed and swallowed before answering. "Let's bring him home. He hates leaving the island, you know."
Zephyer nodded. "I thought it was only an echidna thing."
Knuckles shrugged. "The island has that effect on everybody."
There was a moment of silence, and a flock of parrots flew by outside the window, chattering. "Could we adopt him?" asked Zephyer.
Knuckles looked at her. "I've thought about it. I couldn't do it before, being single and all."
"Well, if he's going to live with us, we might as well adopt him," said Zephyer. "Do you realize we could be charged with kidnapping?"
"Yeah, and what if we had to take him to a hospital or something?" said Knuckles. He sighed. "What worries me is that we'd have to find his uncle."
"Yeah." Zephyer made a face. "Anybody who builds himself a daughter and doesn't tell her about it has got to be loony." She licked her fingers. "I think we could leave this afternoon."
Knuckles nodded and carried his plate of rinds and seeds to the garbage. "It's great to see you eating again."
"It's amazing how much better I feel without the metal on me," she replied. "But you know, I kind of miss it."
Knuckles gave her an odd look.
"I had it so long," said Zephyer, "and I treated it like armor. It did protect me from the biotics."
"What did Zinc do when he saw you'd been derobotized?"
"He started crying. That reminds me--I need to pick up the chao, too."
"I'll come with you," said Knuckles. "We'll get all the work out of the way, first."
* * *
"The tiger develops a taste for blood, and begins hunting in secret," said the video, showing footage of a Mobian tiger undergoing a werewolf-transformation.
"She doesn't know how to tell her friends, and retreats from society. Her instincts take over and she becomes active at night." Shots of the crazy-eyed tigress stalking through the woods.
"This is known as Mobian Regression. The final step along this path is when she begins walking on all fours." An image of the tigress crouching, now indistinguishable from a non-sentient animal.
"That is such bunk," said Tails. "Turn that off, will you?"
Talon switched off the television. "That doesn't happen?"
"No way," said the fox. He had an electronics kit spread out on the floor of his hut, and was building a second television. Talon had been watching the one already built. His eyes were wide. "Are you sure?"
"That was broadcast from the human colonies," said Tails. "They study us and think they know everything. They're a different species! How can they know what a Mobian's feeling?"
"It does happen, though," said a voice. The pair looked up and saw Zephyer looking in through the screen door. "I met a relapsed wolf once, and it was scary as heck."
"You did?" Tails gave her his full attention. "What happened?"
"He tried to eat me and Spike," she said. "Several times. I think he went after Slasher, too."
"Whoa!" Tails and Talon looked at each other. "So if I tasted blood, I'd, like, turn crazy too?" Tails asked.
Zephyer shrugged. "I don't know what causes it. Talon, do you want to come home, or stay here with Tails for a week?"
"Go home," said Talon, jumping up. He grabbed his backpack and was out the door, calling goodbye to Tails.
Tails waved, then reached over and turned the TV back on.
Amy Rose was babysitting the chao. When Zephyer knocked, she discovered Zinc and Chimera were dressed up in doll clothes, and Amy was having a tea party with them. Zinc had a patient, angelic look on his silver face that Zephyer recognized as the way he looked just before he shredded something.
Chimera, the dark red dragon chao, had no such reservations and was shredding his napkin. There was a pile of shreds beside him, and Amy looked exasperated.
"Hi Zephyer," she said as the echidna stepped in. "Could you tell Chimera to behave? He's been a brat all morning."
"I'm going to take them off your hands," said Zephyer. "Thanks for babysitting them."
"You're welcome," said Amy, undressing Zinc, who stared straight ahead. Zephyer knew the look--Zinc was fighting the urge to rip Amy's face off. Fortunately for Amy, Zinc was too well-mannered to do such a thing.
Chimera, on the other hand, tore off his doll clothes, threw them on the floor and stamped on them, then ran outside. "Brat!" Amy yelled after him.
Zephyer picked up Zinc, trying to keep from laughing. "Sorry about that."
"I don't want to see him ever again!" fumed Amy. "But you can bring back Zinc any time."
"Yeah right," said Zinc, once they were out of Amy's hut. "Zephyer, if I have to spend one more hour in that hedgehog's presence, I'll kill someone."
"She was a bad choice as a babysitter," said Zephyer, striding through Knothole with Talon at her heels. Talon was laughing.
"What?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Chimera ripping apart that dress." He snorted. Zephyer had only heard him laugh twice in her life, and she liked the sound. Talon was too solemn for a pup his age.
She arrived at the fenced area by the teleporter, and found a stack of boxes beside the gate. Sonic was running from the village to the teleporter and back, bringing more, and Knuckles was loading them on the lens and beaming them out as fast as he could go. Chimera was perched on a box, giving Knuckles a scornful account of Amy's babysitting style.
"Can we go through?" Zephyer asked.
"Sure," said Knuckles, stepping back and wiping his forehead. He picked up Chimera in one hand and handed him to Zephyer. "Go with her, and don't you dare bite her."
"I can, you know," said the dragon-chao to Zephyer. "You aren't made of metal anymore. But I won't bite you, because I'm nice."
"And if you do, I'll thrash you," said Zinc from Zephyer's other arm.
Zephyer and Talon stepped onto the lens and beamed out to the island. There was a pile of boxes beside the receiver plate, and the chaotix were busy carrying them up to the house. "Hi Zephyer," said Espio, who was stacking boxes. The chameleon studied her. "Being married hasn't made you look any different."
"Did you expect me to sprout a third eye?" said Zephyer, stepping off the plate and setting down the chao. Talon jumped off the plate and ran up toward the house, the chao pursuing. "Hey, get back down here and carry stuff!" Zephyer yelled after them.
Espio handed her a box. "I figured Knux would have beat the snot out of you by now. You're the only person with the nerve to make him that mad."
"We'll see how the honeymoon goes," said Zephyer. "If he hits me, I'll hit back, that's all."
"If he hits you, he'll kill you," said Espio, lifting a box and picking up another in his prehensile tail. "You aren't robotized anymore."
"I know." Zephyer looked up the path. "Hey, what's Slasher doing here?"
The velociraptor was trotting toward them, her head bobbing like a bird's. "Hello," she said as she reached them. "I got recruited to help move you in." She picked up two boxes in her forearms and strode up toward the house. Zephyer and Espio followed.
With all of them working, the boxes were moved in half an hour. They stacked them in the living room, and Zephyer said, "I'll unpack them when we get back. Thanks, everybody."
"Welcome!" chorused the Chaotix, and stampeded outside, shouting something about the swimming hole. Slasher followed them out the door, leaving Zephyer and Talon alone.
Talon was staring after the raptor. "Slasher scares me."
Zephyer patted his shoulder. "I don't like her much, either." She raised her voice. "Where have those bratty chao gone?"
"In here!" came Chimera's voice from the kitchen. "We're eating lunch."
Talon ran to the kitchen. "What're you having?"
Zephyer left the house and stood on the porch, looking across the lawn and trees to the sea. "I'm here," she thought. "I'm finally home." She felt that roots were growing from her into the island's soil, binding her there like a tree to the earth. Body and soul, she belonged on the Floating Island.
She heard footsteps and saw Knuckles and Slasher walking up the path toward the house. Knuckles was talking, and Slasher was nodding. Her angular, reptilian face was strange to Zephyer, and she could not read the raptor's expression. Knuckles looked serious, and Zephyer wondered what he was saying. Watching him, Zephyer remembered that she was married to him now, and the shock stunned her a little. At first she was afraid, then she felt shy, then she was gloriously happy.
Zephyer watched him as he approached, and met his eyes when he looked up. Something like an electric charge passed between them, then it was gone and Knuckles was stepping up on the porch. "Zeff, I asked Slasher to stay with Talon and Zinc and Chimera while we're gone. Is that okay?"
"Fine with me," said Zephyer, wondering what had just happened. "Slasher, do you think you can manage? I hardly know what to tell you."
"Talon will show me around," said Slasher, her teeth flashing in the sunlight. "And there's the Chaotix if all else fails. Don't worry about a thing."
Zephyer was looking at Slasher's claws and trying not to think, "Predator!" "Come in, I'll tell them what's going on." She looked at Knuckles, who was watching her with amusement. He recognized her uneasiness.
Talon was none too happy with the new arrangements, but tried not to show it. Zinc and Chimera were familiar with Slasher because of her chao Chalcon, and they laughed and promised to give Slasher a hard time.
"Better not act up or I'll eat you both," she threatened with a wink. She waved a three-fingered hand at Knuckles and Zephyer. "Get lost, you two. Everything will be standing when you get back."
"It'd better be," said Knuckles, shaking a fist. "I lost a fight to you once, Slasher. I wouldn't do it again."
"Hear that, guys?" said Slasher to the chao and Talon. "He just said he wouldn't fight me again!"
"You beat Knuckles once?" said Chimera, round-eyed. "How?"
"Well, let me tell you," said Slasher, crouching down to the eyelevel of the chao, "it was a dark and stormy night ..."
Knuckles and Zephyer each had a backpack and a sleeping bag. "What about a tent?" said Zephyer. "You know, if it rains?"
Knuckles gave her a condescending look. "This is the Floating Island, home of the echidna clan for generations. Don't worry about shelter."
They put on their packs and slipped out the back door. "Which way?" asked Zephyer, inhaling the breeze from the ocean.
"Southwest," said Knuckles, leading the way into the trees. "There's plenty to see, and the country's not so rough as in the interior." He motioned to the mountain range in the island's center.
Zephyer gazed at the slopes until the trees hid them from view. "What's up there?"
He flashed her a smile. "Secrets." He took her hand and they walked for a while without speaking, enjoying the woods.
"You don't like Slasher, do you?" said Knuckles suddenly.
"I don't mind her," said Zephyer, disentangling her hair from a twig, "but she kind of scares me. She's so ... animal."
Knuckles laughed. "And we're not? I know what you mean, though."
"I hope Talon's okay with her," said Zephyer. "He's scared of her, too."
"He'll get over it," said Knuckles. "She's a big teddy bear once you get to know her. And she kind of ... I don't know ... she has this ingrown mothering instinct that she lavishes on anybody who will let her."
"Might be good for Talon," muttered Zephyer, trying to picture Slasher with an ingrown mothering instinct. "I hope you know what you're talking about."
They skirted a fallen tree bigger than a semi-truck. They were descending into a marshy valley, and the trees were fewer and larger. "Mushroom Hill," said Zephyer, recognizing it.
"Yep," said Knuckles. "I learned to glide down here."
"Could you teach me?"
He looked at her dreadlocks and stroked them appraisingly. "Maybe. A bit of chaos field is involved, but hey, you're a Guardian now."
"You gave me some of yours, remember?" said Zephyer. "And how hard can gliding be, anyway?"
"That was life I gave you, not chaos," said Knuckles, continuing to stroke her hair. "It's like punching through rock--you can't do it cold turkey."
"So why'd you do your training down here?"
Knuckles kicked at a nearby mushroom. "There's a spot around here where these cover the ground. It's like falling on a mattress."
She looked up to reply, and again that pulse of electricity darted between them. This time Knuckles felt it, and they froze. "What was that?"
"I don't know," said Zephyer. "That's the second time now."
"That was weird!" said Knuckles. "Let's do it again." They looked away and looked at each other several times, but nothing happened. Knuckles rubbed his temples. "One more thing I wish I had asked Dad."
"I never knew any echidnas who had that happen," said Zephyer. "I thought it was love."
Knuckles threw back his head and laughed. "Love! What a concept! Maybe it is. Or maybe it's because we're Guardians. Or maybe we're just nuts." He pulled her into a rough embrace and kissed her on the lips, then they walked on.
"Show me how to glide," said Zephyer.
"Not now," said Knuckles. He ran a finger along her arm, which was scored with fresh scars. "I don't want you to get hurt again."
"I wouldn't get hurt!" said Zephyer. "I feel fine! And I'd be falling on soft mushrooms, so what's the problem?"
"You were on your deathbed less than two months ago," said Knuckles. "I'm not going to let you kill yourself."
"You're too protective, Knuckles Echidna," said Zephyer, glaring.
"And you're too foolhardy," said Knuckles, glaring back. "Fine, try gliding. You won't be able to do it."
"Show me where the mushrooms are, and I will," said Zephyer.
Knuckles turned right and led her downhill, into the marsh. Crickets sang all around, and gnats rose to meet them in clouds. "This is why I don't come down here much," he said, waving a hand in front of his face. "Here's the spot."
The ground dropped, and reddish-brown mushrooms covered the ground in a twenty-foot circle. Zephyer slipped off her backpack and handed it to Knuckles. "Hold this. I won't be a minute."
Knuckles bit his lips to keep from grinning.
Zephyer strode to the edge of the hollow, shaking her dreadlocks to fan them out. Then she leaped out over the hollow in what she thought was a glide position. But instead of floating on the air, she fell flat on the mushroom bed, which was floating on the surface of a muddy pond. She splashed down in the water and came up gasping for breath.
Knuckles doubled up laughing.
"You!" Zephyer choked, for she had knocked the wind out of herself. "You knew this was a pond!"
Knuckles was laughing too hard to answer.
Zephyer waded ashore, covered in mud and kicking mushrooms out of her way.
"You should have listened to me," said Knuckles, enjoying the look on her face. "Gliding is harder than it looks." Then he turned and ran for his life as she charged at him.
* * *
Knuckles and Zephyer had been gone ten minutes when Talon slipped out of the house and ran north, toward the hills. He gained the cover of the trees, struck a thin trail, and followed it up a hillside. He crested the hill and bounded down its side toward the outskirts of a bamboo forest. Every few years Knuckles attacked it with various weed killers, but the bamboo persisted in spreading across the island.
When Talon had first come to the Floating Island, he had discovered a sofa-sized boulder on the border of the bamboo. In the three years he had lived there, the bamboo had encircled the boulder for ten feet in all directions, and only Talon knew it was there.
The anteater pushed through the stiff green stems of the bamboo, knowing it was time to borrow a machete to hack a clear path again. It took all of his strength to force himself to the boulder. He climbed up on it, panting. The bamboo formed a deep green hollow all around the stone, the tops meeting overhead. It was like a secret cave, and while Talon sat there, no one on Mobius knew where he was. It was a pleasant thought.
He drew his knees to his chin and gazed at the bamboo curtain around him. Everything had changed suddenly, and he wasn't sure he liked it. Knuckles had married Zephyer, and she had come to live on the island. It seemed the very atmosphere of the island had changed. Talon liked Zephyer and wanted Knuckles to marry her, but he had not realized how it would affect his own life. Now there were strangers in the house.
Slasher was the strangest of all. Talon was acquainted with her from his time in Knothole, but he disliked her claws, and her leathery skin, and her green eyes with their slit pupils. He felt he had to watch her all the time, because if he turned his back she would eat him. But he despised himself to feeling such things. The chao trusted the raptor (and they were much more fragile than he was), then why couldn't he?
He just couldn't, that was all. Talon slid off the rock and reached into a hollow under the boulder. Inside were a collection of action figures that he had bought in the human colonies. He began to play with them, making them venture out into the bamboo where harrowing adventures awaited them. In this way he escaped from the discomforts of his own world for a while.
After an hour he tired of his solitary play, and decided to spy on the house to see what was going on. He pushed his way out of the bamboo and retraced his steps up the hill and down the path toward home. As the house came into view, Talon left the path and crept through the trees so as to avoid being seen. The yard was empty. Talon stood and watched, wondering where everyone was.
A shadow fell over the grass, and Talon looked up, shrinking back into the trees. Slasher was circling overhead, her golden wings open in a glide. Talon watched as she circled lower and lower, finally landing on the lawn. As she folded her wings, he saw Zinc and Chimera in her arms. Their shrill voices reached him, begging for another ride. "Not now," Slasher laughed, which was a harsh croaking in her throat. She set them down and trotted around the corner of the house, the chao racing after her. Talon watched them go. He had forgotten that Slasher could fly; was nowhere safe from her?
Talon jumped a foot in the air and spun around. Espio's outline appeared against the brush, and he shaded into sight, grinning. "Gotcha."
"Don't do that," gasped Talon.
"What's the matter?" said the chameleon. "Watching ferocious predators make you nervous?"
"What are you doing here?" asked Talon, avoiding the question.
"Sneaking," said Espio. "Keeping an eye on things, you might say. I didn't think you got along with Slasher very well."
"No." Talon looked toward the house. "Can I stay with the Chaotix until Knuckles and Zephyer get back?"
"Sorry kiddo," said Espio, slapping him on the back. "Knux didn't want us torturing you when he wasn't around to supervise." Talon gave him a skeptical look, and Espio grinned. "Really, those were his exact words. 'You guys better not pick on Talon or I'll bust your heads.'"
Talon nodded. "I wish he'd get back soon."
"Separation anxiety alert!" said Espio, waving his arms. "Doctor, doctor, we have a patient over here!"
Talon only looked at him.
Espio sobered. "Sorry, Talon. It was just a joke. You know. I do that."
Talon turned away, and Espio kicked himself. The oddest things made Talon shut down, and Knuckles had warned all of them in private that if any of them pushed Talon to that point, then Knuckles would think of a harmless yet awful punishment for them. Espio hated to think of what that might be.
Talon dashed toward the house, reached it unmarked by Slasher, and slipped inside. Espio watched him go, wondering whether he felt sorry for Talon or wanted to string him up by his ears. Probably the latter.
* * *
Slasher did not see Talon until sundown, when he emerged from hiding to eat dinner. Slasher tried to speak to him, but he avoided her gaze and fled from the house as soon as the meal was over.
It hurt her to see him act that way, but she pretended to ignore it. The chao constantly wanted to play, and thus she had no time to chase after Talon and talk to him. He would have to warm up to her on his own.
That night the chao begged her to sleep in their room, but Slasher refused. "I'm going to sleep in the living room. I can stretch out." She bade them goodnight and closed their door, and padded to Talon's room. A single sniff informed her the room was empty. She sighed and returned to the living room, flopping on the rug. Her wings needed preening after all the flying she had done that day, and she extended one and began straightening the feathers with her teeth. The house was quiet, and she could hear the voices of the chao in their room.
A long primary feather pulled loose, and Slasher laid it on the floor and looked at it. She was due to moult her winter plumage, a process she dreaded. She was a month overdue, and her old feathers were thin and ragged around the edges. The new feathers would smart and itch as they grew.
She continued preening, making a pile of feathers that fell out. The chao would enjoy playing with the big ones--after all, it wasn't every day you received a raptor feather.
The front door eased open. Slasher ignored it and went on with her preening. Talon's brown and black face peered in, and he watched her for several minutes. When the velociraptor gave no sign she saw him, he slipped inside and sprinted for his room. "Goodnight, Talon," said Slasher before the door closed. She heaved a sigh and set to work on her other wing.
* * *
Knuckles and Zephyer were up before dawn the next morning. They hiked to the outer edge of the island and watched the sun rise over the mainland, and faced the cool breeze. "Fair weather," said Zephyer, inhaling. "For today and tomorrow, at least."
"There'll be some wind," said Knuckles, also breathing the air. "Looks like you'll get some lessons in using the Master Emerald."
Zephyer's eyes lit up. "Really? All right!" She looked at her hands out of habit, and laughed to see they were not metal. "I still haven't got used to this," she said, taking Knuckles's hand. She looked out at the horizon, and Knuckles studied her face. There was a thinness about the hollows of her face that showed she had not recovered from the traumatic derobotization. Zephyer had to heal in her own way, and it might take several years for her to bounce back.
She looked at him. "What're you looking so sober for?"
"Sober?" said Knuckles brushing away his worries. "I was just wondering where to go today."
"Wherever's closest," said Zephyer. "Hopefully somewhere with a teleporter, so we can visit Hidden Palace."
Zephyer bowed. "So I am. And I married a bigger one."
Knuckles grinned. "I can't deny it. Let's see ... the nearest teleporter is in Marble Gardens, about two day's walk from here."
"Then let's get moving," said Zephyer, hoisting her pack.
They were deep in the Mushroom Hills, and giant silver trees rose above them like pillars, sheltering the mushrooms beneath them. The previous day Zephyer and Knuckles had had a raging mudfight until they were coated in it. Then they found a stream that wound down into the marsh and washed. They camped beside the stream that evening, because there were fewer flies and the air was more wholesome.
Now the Guardians hiked on, Knuckles pointing out things that only a Guardian would care about. Which trees had survived the terbium blight. Which mushrooms were rare, and which ones were edible. The tree where he had carved his initials when he was seven.
They hiked the rest of the day, resting whenever Zephyer began to tire. The trees shrank and thinned out, and the mushrooms vanished. Before them stretched the green, rolling country of Marble Gardens, once a major echidna city, but now only a ruin falling to dust.
"Why did they abandon it?" Zephyer asked as they made camp that night. She stood at the top of a hill, watching the setting sun outline the distant ruins in gold.
Knuckles was lighting their campfire. "It dates back to Pachachamac's time. He was chief of the mainland tribe, and he led a rebellion against the Guardian tribe on the island. Except he tried to take the Master Emerald and ticked off Chaos." He blew on the smouldering tinder and watched the flames grow. "Chaos killed everyone in Marble Gardens and all the lowland cities."
"How sad." Zephyer stood looking at the ancient city until the sun sank from view, then descended the hill to their camp. "Nobody ever tried to rebuild it?"
"No." Knuckles sat back and looked at her. "The Guardians thought it should be left as a warning to all the tribes. That was when they moved the Master Emerald to Hidden Palace."
"I'm surprised there's any ruins left," said Zephyer, opening her pack and rummaging around for food. "How many thousands of years has it been?"
"Only one thousand," said Knuckles, gazing into the fire. "When all that stuff happened with Tikal and Perfect Chaos ... she let me see into the past. The echidna glory days. We're the last of a species, Zephyer. Those glory days are long gone."
Zephyer looked at Knuckles in surprise--she had never heard him talk like this. "No need to get all melancholy," she said. "I never realized you knew so much history."
"It's something to do," said Knuckles.
She handed him a toasting fork and a slice of bread. "Here, toast this. What you need is food."
He gave her a quick smile. "Thanks, Zeff."
* * *
Slasher lay in the brush, hidden from all eyes. She was up the hill from Chaotix Central, where the Chaotix were having a barbecue. She could smell the roasting steaks, and her mouth watered. But for the moment she needed a break from babysitting the chao, and Talon needed a break from her. She watched him running around down below as Vector warned him away from the barbecue.
Supposedly the Chaotix were having a party to celebrate Knuckles being gone, but she knew they all missed him. Charmy had marked a calender with a red X on the day the newlyweds would return. Slasher had noticed each of the Chaotix sneaking up to the calender to count the remaining days, and she felt sorry for them.
Earlier that day, she had entered the house for a snack, and heard voices in Talon's room. She looked in and saw Talon and Mighty the armadillo seated in opposite chairs, books and papers strewn all over the bed beside them. Talon was bent over a mathbook, and Mighty was explaining how to work a pre-algebra problem. Slasher slipped away, impressed. It seemed that Talon's schooling had not been neglected.
Slasher watched the crocodile inspect the steaks, and licked her chops. The Floating Island's inhabitants rarely ate meat, but Vector always had some frozen steaks somewhere in case of an emergency. Slasher was glad he had brought them out--plant food was all right, but she needed protein to sustain her carnivorous body.
Vector slapped the slabs of juicy meat on a plate and bellowed, "Hey Slasher! Dinner!"
The raptor sprang out of hiding and ran down the hill, teeth shining in a grin. Espio, Charmy and Mighty scattered with mock screams, and Vector pretended to ward her off with the tongs. "Back! Back, monster!"
"Maybe you shouldn't have called the monster's name," said Slasher. "Can I have one now?"
"Sure," said Vector, lifting a steak in his tongs.
Slasher grabbed the steak in her claws, ripped off a chunk in her teeth, swallowed it whole, and finished the rest of the steak in three bites.
"Still hungry?" said Vector, watching in admiration.
"Sure," said Slasher, devouring a second steak. She licked the juice off her claws and sighed with satisfaction. "Ahh, that was good." She gave Vector a slanted look. "Bet you can't eat two steaks that fast."
"Bet I can!" Vector grabbed a steak and ripped it in half with his jaws, but had to chew a few times before swallowing. "Gosh Slash," he said, licking his teeth, "how do you do that?"
"Habit," said Slasher. "I've got to go wash now. I'll come back for dessert." She trotted away across the lawn in the direction of the river.
"We have dessert?" said Charmy.
"Yeah, you," said Espio. "Come on, let's eat. Where's Talon and Zinc and Chimera?"
"Cowering indoors," said Vector, carrying the remaining two steaks into the house.
Talon had watched all this through a window, but pretended he hadn't. He and the chao were taking turns cranking an old-fashioned ice cream maker, and it was wearing them out. Then Mighty entered and took over. "You wimps!" he said, turning the crank easily.
"It's almost done," shot back Chimera. "I can smell it. You're just too strong."
"There's no such thing as too strong," said Mighty. He pulled the crank handle out of its socket and held it up. "Oh no, I broke it! Must mean the ice cream's done."
"See, I told you it's done!" crowed Chimera as Vector entered with the steaks.
Dinner was a noisy affair. The Chaotix were extra-outgoing to make up for Knuckles's absence. Talon tried to enjoy it, but was listening for the click of claws on the front porch, and the squeak of the opening door. He kept thinking of the television program he had watched with Tails about a Mobian going feral. Slasher ate like an animal, and spent a lot of time by herself ... what if she started hunting them? What if she attacked one of the chao like she had the steak and--
Talon nearly jumped out of his seat as Slasher entered the kitchen through the back door. "You guys ready for dessert?"
"Yeah!" chorused everyone except Talon. Charmy and Mighty got up to serve the ice cream, and Talon slid down in his seat to avoid the velociraptor's gaze.
Slasher laughed and joked with the rest of them over dessert, sometimes speaking to Talon. He cringed whenever she glanced at him, and was relieved when the meal was over. Slasher took Chimera outside, and Talon, Zinc and Charmy washed the dishes.
"She won't eat you, you know," said Charmy Bee.
Talon's ears flattened. "I know. But she still scares me."
"You have to get to know her," said the silver chao, polishing a plate as tall as he was. "And if she still scares you, look at her chao Chalcon. Only a kind heart could have pulled him out of himself like she did."
Talon thought of the silent undersea base where Chalcon had been mortally wounded, and where Talon himself had nearly perished. The period after that was a blur, and he couldn't remember seeing Slasher at all. But somehow Chalcon had rehatched as a snow-white chao, bigger and stronger than all the rest.
Talon put away the last dish and sidled toward his room, but Charmy darted after him. "Come outside with us, Talon! It's a beautiful evening."
"You're not my dad," murmured Talon, but he allowed the bee to lead him out of the house. As he stepped onto the grass, he missed his mother and father so bad it was like being twisted in half. "I don't belong here," he thought, looking at the Chaotix with stranger's eyes. "I want to go home." But he didn't have a home anymore--his parents were dead and their house burned. And he didn't want to go back, not to his old horrid life, not really.
He blinked back tears and drifted toward the edges of the lawn. Escaping the Chaotix was easy, if he remained inconspicuous. He circled the base of a tree, then keeping it between him and the others, slipped into the evening shadows of the wood.
* * *
The days passed. Slasher tried and failed to befriend Talon, and the Chaotix helped the raptor look after things.
Knuckles and Zephyer hiked all the way to Sandopolis. Along the way Knuckles showed Zephyer the old broken emerald shrine, how to use one of the hovertops, and the inlet for water from Hydrocity. They entered the desert and explored the ruins there. Knuckles introduced Zephyer to the secret library, and they spent a day pouring through the old manuscripts and the pile of notebooks containing Knuckles's translations.
Zephyer drank it in like a sponge. Every day was like living in a dream; she was with Knuckles, on the Floating Island ... and she was a Guardian now! Sometimes it worried her, especially as she was falling asleep at night. Happiness like this had to have a catch. Reality would rear its ugly head, and she would find out that she wasn't allowed to marry him, or the island would crash, or someone would die.
As they were leaving Sandopolis, Zephyer voiced this fear. Knuckles laughed out loud. "Why should anything have to happen? People get married every day, Zeff. There's no penalty for being happy."
"There is for me," said Zephyer. "Every time I'm really happy, the world blows up. Just watch."
"You're just paranoid," said Knuckles, grinning.
That evening a storm blew in out of the west, and it began to rain so hard it was like standing under a waterfall. They saw it coming, however, and ran to the nearest teleporter. They reached it as the rain began, but in the few seconds it took for the machine to warm up, the echidnas were soaked through.
They beamed down in a dark cave lit by a single yellow crystal, and stood panting and dripping in the sudden silence.
"Well," said Zephyer, "now I know to pack a raincoat, no matter what you say."
"I didn't advise against a raincoat," said Knuckles, kneeling to adjust the teleporter's setting. "Just a tent. Looks like we'll be camping underground tonight."
The teleporter lit up again and transported them to the high teleporter hall outside of Hidden Palace. As they stepped off the receiver plate, Zephyer asked, "What was that other place we were in?"
"Storage cavern," said Knuckles, wringing out his dreadlocks one by one. "Let's walk down to Lava Reef, it's warmer there."
The damp pair strolled through the crystal gardens and grottos, toward the heat radiating from the molten core of the Floating Island. They reached an antechamber with a small lava pool in one end, which was so hot their fur began to steam at once. They lingered only a few minutes, then bolted for the coolness of the higher passages.
"Can we camp in Hidden Palace?" Zephyer asked, eyes dancing.
"Sure," said Knuckles leading the way. "I'll show you some more Master Emerald commands, too."
Staying in Hidden Palace was luxurious after camping out in the wild. The rock around the emerald chamber was riddled with tunnels and caves. Some had caved in over the years, but some Knuckles had cleaned out and reinforced. Knuckles showed Zephyer two rooms he used for storage, but he became oddly quiet when she asked about a third room.
She walked in for a look, and found it was stacked to the ceiling with crates marked 'weapons'.
"Weapons?" exclaimed Zephyer, turning and staring at her husband. "What do you need weapons for?"
"Stockpiled them after the ARK incident," said Knuckles. "If a thief gets to the emerald chamber again, I'm not messing around."
Zephyer looked at him with new respect. "You make me wish I still had that pistol in my hand. Where'd you get all these?"
Knuckles avoided her eyes. "The island floats over a lot of territory."
"Ahh," said Zephyer with a knowing nod. "I pity the fool who tries to break in here now."
Knuckles led her back to the emerald chamber, uncomfortable with talk of weapons and semi-shady dealings. "I'll show you how to stabilize the Floating Island," he said. "Watch." He placed one hand on the green gem and said, "Master Emerald, stabilization anchor." The emerald lit with yellowish light.
"No skill involved," he explained. "It wears off after a few days, so if you want to keep the island stationary for longer than that, you have to come back and repeat the command." He touched the Master Emerald again and said, "Free." The emerald dimmed.
"Let me try it," said Zephyer, stepping up to the pedestal. She mimicked Knuckles's actions, and the emerald's response was the same.
"There's also an island defense command," said Knuckles. "I just found out about it. Apparently the Master funnels all its power into the Guardians so they can wipe out any enemies that might be threatening the island."
Zephyer looked at him. "Have you ever tried it?"
He smiled sheepishly. "I don't have the nerve."
"Is there a users' manual somewhere, where I could learn all these commands?"
"Nope," said Knuckles. "One of the Guardian laws is that no Master Emerald commands may be written down in one place. Imagine if they fell into the wrong hands!"
"I didn't think of that."
Knuckles stepped down from the pedestal and opened their backpacks. "Where do you want to sleep?"
"Right here," said Zephyer. "As close to the heart of the island as we can get."
Knuckles gave her an odd look. "Heart of the island?"
"Sure," said Zephyer, as if it was something everyone knew. "The Master Emerald is what makes the Floating Island what it is." She rubbed its smooth top as Knuckles unrolled their sleeping bags. She looked down at the seed crystal bed around its base, and wondered how much of the Master's power they had absorbed. She touched one, and its green glow flickered. She teased its pointed tip without paying attention to what she was doing. The shock of a wetting, then being suddenly warm and dry, had made her drowsy.
She jumped and looked around. "Huh?"
Knuckles rose from their packs, staring. "How are you doing that?"
Zephyer looked down and saw the crystal she had been teasing was six inches longer than before. "Whoa. Did I do that?"
"Yeah." Knuckles touched the crystal, but nothing happened. "Do it again."
She touched the tip again, and the crystal resumed growing like a time-lapsed video of grass.
"I think you've rediscovered a trick of the ancients," said Knuckles in awe.
Zephyer watched the crystal grow, fascinated. "I'll bet this is how they made the Emerald Sword." She released the crystal. "Think I can do it to other crystal colors?"
They two snatched some snacks and ate while they wandered through the lower caverns. All the crystals responded to Zephyer's touch, even ordinary quartz. Knuckles remembered something he had read a long time ago--the abilities of female echidnas were different from the males. Females were not warriors, but craftsmen and artisans.
At last they returned to Hidden Palace and crawled into their sleeping bags. "That's a nice thing to do," said Zephyer, yawning. "But I'd rather glide, like you."
Knuckles gazed at the ceiling. "I'm glad you can force-grow crystals. It's a lost art."
They were silent a moment, each busy with their thoughts.
"What day is it?" asked Zephyer.
"Friday, I think," said Knuckles. "Gosh, time flies."
"Friday?" said Zephyer. "As in, the honeymoon's over tomorrow?" Knuckles shrugged, and she heaved a sigh. "Oh well, at least we had fun. Tomorrow, real life starts. Do you want to try to adopt Talon?"
Knuckles hesitated a second, shifting his brain to this sudden new subject. "Uh. Yes. I don't know anything about adoption, though."
"I think we have to work with the laws of the country he's from," said Zephyer. "Do we know where he's from?"
Knuckles wracked his brain. Talon's explanations of his previous home had been vague and elusive. "I have an idea he's from somewhere in the Ausif ocean. He was flying northwest when he got here."
"There's a jillion islands down there," said Zephyer, frowning. "We'll have to ask him which one."
"Easier said than done," said Knuckles, placing both hands behind his head. "The kid doesn't talk about his past. All I know is that his parents died in an arson fire."
"I know," said Zephyer. "He needs a stable home, and I think we can give that to him."
They talked about the pros and cons of adopting Talon, and of what things an adoption agency might ask. Zephyer finally dozed off, but Knuckles lay awake for a long time, listening to her breathe and thinking about the future.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 3: Blackguard Island
Chapter 3: Blackguard Island
"You want to adopt me?" Talon sat up straight.
It was two days later. Knuckles and Zephyer had arrived home, and in the flurry of unpacking and settling in, it was their first chance to talk to the anteater alone.
"Like, you want me to be your kid?" Talon's eyes were wide with wild hope, his usual reserve abandoned.
"That's what we're saying," said Knuckles. "I know living on a floating island is kind of lonesome, but we'll make sure to feed you every few days."
Talon burst out laughing, jumped up and hugged them both. "I'd love to be adopted! I thought maybe you wouldn't want me here now and you'd send me to Knothole and--" His voice broke on a sob. He sat between the echidnas on the couch, eyes closed, trying to hold back the flood of emotions that had caught him off guard.
Zephyer hugged him. "We really want you, Tal." She glanced at Knuckles, who met her gaze and a flicker of electricity raced between them.
Ignoring it, Knuckles put an arm around Talon. "We need to ask you some questions, so we can figure out this adoption stuff."
Talon sniffed. "Okay. What?"
Zephyer picked up a notebook and pencil she had brought with her. "Where are you from?"
"Three-twenty-nine East Boulder Lane," said Talon at once. "Marshill, Blackguard, north island."
"Whoa, whoa, slow down," said Zephyer, scribbling furiously. "East what?"
Talon repeated the address. "That's where I lived with my uncle."
Zephyer copied it down. "What's your uncle's name?"
"Pendel Mori." Talon laced his fingers together and studied them. "He's my Dad's brother. Do you think he'll sign the papers or whatever?"
"If he won't, I'll make him," said Knuckles. "Can you show us Blackguard Island on a map?" He pulled a map out from under the couch and spread it on the coffee table.
Talon studied it for a moment. "Here." He tapped a collection of islands in the southern corner of the map. The north-most island was the largest.
"Oh," said Knuckles. "So that's Blackguard." He had such an odd tone in his voice that Zephyer and Talon looked at him.
"Have you been there?" asked Talon.
"Heard the stories," said Knuckles. He traced a four-sided shape among the islands. "That's the Blackguard Quadrangle. Ships and aircraft travelling through there have weird blackouts. Some vanish completely."
"Really?" said Zephyer, wide-eyed. "Is that true?"
Talon was nodding. "I've heard of that, too, sir. Dad said it's the place where a chaos emerald touched Mobius, and the chaos fields are all messed up."
"I think we'll approach it from the north," said Knuckles. "I'm not taking the island in there."
"How long will it take to get there?" asked Talon.
Knuckles walked his fingers across the map, measuring. "About two weeks. We'll have time to do some research on adoption."
"Can I do it?" asked Talon, standing up, eyes bright with enthusiasm. "If I could borrow your computer, sir ..."
"Ah, a ploy to grab my palmtop," said Knuckles, smiling. "Fine, go ahead."
Talon dashed from the room.
Zephyer looked at the map again. "Is this quadrangle stuff for real?"
"Let me put it this way," said Knuckles. "Even humans are afraid to go through there. They route all their shipping lanes around it."
"But humans are immune to chaos," said Zephyer as Talon came back in with Knuckles's computer. The anteater curled up in an armchair opposite the couch and sat there, eyes fixed on the screen.
"I know they are," said Knuckles. "But their instruments aren't. If you're in an airplane and your instruments break, you're toast."
"Not the ideal vacation spot," said Zephyer. "Do you think Slasher would mind going with us?"
Talon's head jerked up.
"Why Slasher?" said Knuckles. "I thought she scared you."
"She does," said Zephyer, "but she's done a lot of political work, and face it, she's scary-looking."
"True." Knuckles looked at Talon. "Find anything?"
"Not yet, sir." Talon's voice dropped. "I'm afraid of Slasher, too."
"You guys and your predator-phobia," said Knuckles, shaking his head. "She's harmless. Really."
"Famous last words," said Zephyer.
Knuckles stood up. "I'm going to talk to her. You guys see what you can dig up on adoption." He strode for the door, muttering about species supremists.
He found Slasher outside, sunning herself on the grass with both wings open. He was startled to see that patches of feathers were missing from her wings. "Slash, are you sick?"
"Hmm?" She lifted her head and blinked at him. "Oh no, just moulting. You want something?"
"We're going to adopt Talon," said Knuckles. "I wondered if you'd come along and help out."
"I'll call Knothole and see if they mind," said the raptor, eyes half-closed. "It shouldn't be a problem. Oh ... could you talk to Talon for me? He thinks I'm planning to eat him."
"I've tried," said Knuckles with a sigh. "He doesn't believe me."
Slasher shook her head. "Looks like I'll have another chance to make friends if I stay. I'll see if Sally has time to collect some adoption info." She extended a forearm, which had a communicator strapped to it. Slasher turned it on and waited for a pickup click. After a moment it did, and Sonic's voice said, "Yeah, what?"
"I need to talk to Sally," said Slasher. "What's with you?"
"I'm helping Sal with this paperwork junk," came Sonic's voice, "and I'm about to go nuts! Sal's getting lunch. I can take a message."
"Tell Sally to scrape up some information about adoption procedures," said Slasher. She covered the microphone and whispered to Knuckles, "Where are we going?"
"Blackguard Islands," said the echidna.
Slasher uncovered the mic. "Particularly relating to the Blackguard Islands."
"You guys are going to the Blackguard Quadrangle?" Sonic yelped. "Man, lucky!"
"We're not going to explore," said Slasher. "Just a boring piece of red tape to work out. I'll send you a postcard."
"I'm gonna get you, Slasher."
"Neener neener. I'll leave my com on. Bye." The raptor closed the connection and yawned. "Nope, not a problem. It's nice and tropical down there, right?"
"Blackguard is right on the equator," said Knuckles. "You don't mind hot weather, do you?"
"It's better than snow," said Slasher. "I'll tell you when Sally calls me back."
"Okay." Knuckles stepped up on the porch and stuck his head in the door. "I'm going to run to Hidden Palace and get my Master Emerald miniature."
"I want to come!" said Zephyer, jumping up. "Be back in a few minutes, Talon." She darted to Knuckles and the pair made for the teleporter.
Talon stayed in his chair, clicking through online searches and documents. Adoption was an easy topic to find out about. There were several agencies for adopting babies, and he glanced over the procedures. The family had to be approved, fill out piles of paperwork, have someone do a home study, and finally wait for the adoption agency to negotiate with a neighboring country for a youngster of the right species.
Right species? He dug deeper. A note on one document informed him that this agency did not support inter-species adoption because the parents would not treat the child as their own, or the child would grow up with an identity complex. Talon looked for other agencies with a growing knot in his stomach. Each one had a similar disclaimer. One, however, admitted that adoption within the same genus sometimes worked.
Talon clung to this thread of hope. Anteaters and echidnas were sort of similar ... he wasn't sure if they were in the same genus or not. He had no doubt that Zephyer and Knuckles would take care of him, but convincing people in authority would be different.
As he sat there, chewing a claw, the door opened and Slasher entered. "Oh, hi Talon," she said. "Is Zephyer here?"
"She went with Knuckles," said Talon, watching her warily.
Slasher gestured to her communicator. "Sally called me back. She had Nicole compile a spider-search and she's sending it to Knuckles's email."
Talon looked at the palmtop and opened the message program. A message from Sally appeared. "Got it." Now go away, he thought.
Slasher walked up and leaned her forearms on the back of the couch. "Are you okay with all this?"
"Do they let people adopt outside their species?"
Talon stared at the floor. "They say it doesn't work, and they discourage it. But one place says that sometimes adoptions within genus are allowed."
Slasher nodded. "We might be able to swing that. I don't know what genus echidnas are in, but you've always got along with them, right?"
Talon nodded. He opened Sally's letter and scrolled through pages and pages of information. Most of it related to Blackguard's laws and regulations pertaining to emigration, passports and visas. He ignored Slasher, willing her to leave. After a moment she sighed, and he heard her pad to the door and go outside.
Talon was still in the chair when Knuckles and Zephyer returned, passing the Master Emerald miniature back and forth and chattering. "Any word?" said Knuckles to Talon, tossing the gem up and down.
"Sally emailed you," said Talon, handing him the palmtop.
Knuckles looked at the text and whistled. "She's thorough, isn't she? Zeff, look at all this."
"Good grief," said Zephyer. "I can guide the island while you read it, if you want."
"You're just after my emerald," said Knuckles with a mock glare.
"Our emerald," Zephyer shot back. "Hand it over."
Knuckles made a big show of giving it to her, bowing and kissing her hand before placing the emerald in it.
Zephyer laughed and held the emerald southward. Talon felt nothing, but Knuckles had to grab the couch for support. "Crazy female driver."
"Going to harp on my driving skills, now?" said Zephyer.
"Heaven forbid," said Knuckles, flopping on the couch and holding up the computer.
Talon watched them with a warm feeling. He had never seen either of them so relaxed, and he liked it.
* * *
The weather warmed up as they travelled south. Knuckles guided the island into the north-south jetstream, and for four days the island was buffeted by roaring winds that drove it south at a constant speed of twenty knots.
They dropped out of the jetstream at the equator and moved southeast. Knuckles took to navigating from the top of the island's highest peak, where he could see the horizon in all directions. He taught Zephyer to use a sextant, and every night she took measurements from the stars, and marked their location on a map. Travelling with the Floating Island was like sailing a giant ship--the winds effected their progress, and the stars were their compass.
Talon was pensive and quiet. As every day carried them closer to Blackguard, his fears began to grow. What if he had to go back? What if the government wouldn't let the echidnas adopt him? What if Kit was there? Talon had lived in terror of his older cousins, who had set the fire that killed his parents. Kardot had perished a few years earlier, but Kit was still out there and probably crazier than ever. Talon was ashamed to admit these fears to anyone, and so spoke less and less as the weather grew hot and the constellations changed.
One day about noon Knuckles returned to the house. "Land ho," he said as he walked in.
Zephyer was sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of books and papers, teaching Talon the basics of Old Mobian. "We're there?" said Zephyer. "Great. Now what?"
"We'll need to get some passports made up," said Knuckles. "I don't know about you, Talon. You're a citizen with no papers."
Talon said nothing, but his ears flattened.
Vector the crocodile poked his head in from the living room. "Hey boss, I could do all that for you."
Knuckles turned in surprise. "You could?"
"Sure!" said Vector. "It's not big deal with these island places, anyway. Lots of people come and go. Can I borrow one of the portable teleporters?"
Knuckles dug one out of a cabinet. Portable teleporters were the size of a dinner plate with four spider-like arms that planted into the ground for support. They had two lenses--one inside, and one outside. Once a person teleported, the unit beamed after them ten seconds later. They were a quick, convenient way to travel from the island and back.
Vector called Espio, Charmy and Mighty to the house. "I'm going ashore to get passports and stuff. Want to go?"
"I do!" Charmy said. "I already have a passport."
"Me too," said Espio, holding up a grimy paper with twelve stamps in it.
"I didn't know you travelled, Espio," said Zephyer.
The chameleon's eyes half-closed. "Knuckles made us all register to get them when we came to live here. So we can go ashore anywhere without trouble." He gave Knuckles a sidelong glance, and Zephyer wondered if the Chaotix had helped Knuckles collect those weapons in Hidden Palace.
"Well, what're we waiting for?" said Charmy. "Let's go!" The bee raced out of the house, and the Chaotix trooped after him, Vector carrying the teleporter under one arm. Knuckles watched them go, hands on his hips. "They need a little shore-leave. Have either of you guys seen Slasher today?"
"Not since this morning," said Zephyer. "She told me that this hot weather has made her nocturnal. She sleeps all day."
Talon felt the fur on his back stand up.
Knuckles shrugged. "Good idea. It's cooler at night. I'm going to fine-tune the island's position." He strode out into the sunlight.
* * *
"This makes my thirteenth stamp," said Espio, examining his passport.
Mighty, Charmy and Espio were sitting on a bench in a walled courtyard in the dappled shade of a magnolia. Vector was inside the building to their backs, collecting paperwork to take back to the Floating Island.
"My thirteenth, too," said Mighty.
Charmy glanced at his passport. "This is only my ninth. How come you guys have so many?"
"The point is, we're going to have bad luck," said Espio, his skin shading a dark purple. "I mean, we're just north of the Blackguard Quadrangle, and do you know what Blackguard means?"
"It was named Blacksand until the Siguards came," said Mighty, looking bored.
"It's another word for villain!" exclaimed Espio.
"Really?" said Charmy, swinging his feet. "Do villains come here on vacation?"
"Probably." Espio looked suspiciously at the people walking past the courtyard gate. There were many reptiles, birds and marsupials, and although they were exotic-looking, they looked no more shady than the Chaotix did.
Vector emerged from the adobe building with two manila envelopes. "Got 'em," he said. "Let's cruise around before we go back."
The four trotted out of the courtyard and into the hot street. It was paved with gravel, and low adobe houses lined the sidewalks. Jungle growth was everywhere--palm trees, vines, creepers, flowers, all growing wherever the inhabitants would allow them to take root.
The Chaotix walked until the sun's heat began to overwhelm them, then they stopped in the shade of an awning. "Hey," said Vector, "do you guys want to try to find Talon's uncle's house?"
"Sure," said Mighty. "Do we know the address?"
As one, they looked at Espio. The chameleon looked shifty. "What makes you think I know it?"
"You know everything you're not supposed to," said Vector. "Come on, Espie. I know you know it."
"Three twenty-nine East Boulder Lane, Marshill, Blackguard," recited Espio. "We're in Marshill, aren't we?"
"Yup!" chorused the others.
"Charmy," said Vector, "mind finding a map for us?"
"Aye aye sir," said the bee, and buzzed away into the street. He returned five minutes later, looking triumphant. "Just act like a tourist and everybody helps you!" He opened the map, and everyone gathered around.
"There," said Mighty after a second. "East Boulder Lane. It's all the way across town, though!"
"Big deal," said Espio. "We'll get a good look at Marshill on the way. Let's go before it gets any hotter."
The Chaotix set out across the town, growing thirsty and uncomfortable as the sun beat down on them. They saw fewer and fewer people, as the inhabitants retired indoors to sleep through the hottest hours of the day. "That sounds like a good idea," said Mighty, wiping perspiration from his face.
"You wimpy mammal," said Espio. "We reptiles don't mind the heat, do we, Vector?"
"It's not too bad," said the crocodile. "I'm just worried it's making you hyper."
"Hyper? Me?" said the chameleon. "Perish the thought! Can we walk faster? I'm bored."
"How can you be bored when there's so many flowers around?" said Charmy. "It's like walking through a fancy restaurant!" His antennae waved as they passed a riot of yellow and red flowers.
East Boulder Lane was on the island's east side, running along the top of a bluff overlooking the ocean. "Behold the Blackguard Quadrangle!" said Vector, gesturing to it. "Imagine ... that's the direction Talon went when he ran away."
"The kid must have been desperate," said Espio, gazing out at the tranquil blue sea. It looked no different from any other stretch of water they had seen, and they walked on, keeping to the sides of the road where overhanging trees cast shade.
"Three twenty-nine," said Charmy, pointing. "There it is."
A steep driveway ran up the hill above them, and set back into the hillside was a sprawling white house with a red tile roof. Trees shaded most of the house, and the lawn was smooth and green.
"Doesn't look like such a bad place," said Mighty.
"Yes, but who knows what lurks in there?" said Espio, eyes narrowed. "I'm going to sneak up there and look around."
"Isn't that trespassing?" said Mighty.
"Only if you get caught," said Espio, his skin changing to blend with the gravel driveway. He darted up the driveway, keeping to patches of shade where his shadow wouldn't give him away. The others watched him, uncomfortable and nervous.
They lost sight of Espio as he reached the trees near the house, and for a while there was no sign of him. Then they heard his footsteps on the gravel, and the chameleon shaded into view again, panting. "This place is huge," he said. "It's built into the hill and there's at least one story underground. The rear of the property goes way up the hill into the jungle, and there's some sheds and stuff back there. I want to see inside the house. Any ideas?"
The Chaotix looked at each other. They all wanted to see the mysterious place that Talon had fled from and still wouldn't talk about.
"Well," said Vector, opening one of his manila envelopes, "we need Mr. Mori's signature that he's Talon's legal guardian so Talon can re-enter the country as a citizen."
"Perfect!" said Espio, grabbing the envelope. He would have darted off, but Mighty grabbed his tail.
"Hold it, buster. Better let me do it. I'm a mammal, and I look more respectable than a chameleon."
Espio grudgingly turned over the envelope, and Mighty led the way up the driveway to the house.
They reached the porch, and Mighty rang the doorbell. They heard a chime far back in the house. It was echoed by a deep rumbling like the growl of an enormous lion, and the porch vibrated underfoot. There was a distant slam of a door and the sound stopped. The Chaotix exchanged a look, wide-eyed.
After a few minutes the front door was opened by an anteater wearing glasses and a grimy labcoat. "What can I do for you?" he said, blinking in the sunlight.
Mighty had to swallow before he could speak. "Uh. Yes. We're here on behalf of your nephew, Tal--uh, Konya Mori. The government needs your signature on these documents before they'll let him back into the country."
The anteater took the papers and thumbed through them. "I thought Konya was living with echidnas."
"Well, he is," said Mighty. "They sent us here to collect the papers so they could bring Tal--uh, Konya themselves."
Mr. Mori read the papers, ignoring the growing restlessness of the Chaotix. He kept the door open, and Espio peered inside. The room behind Mori looked disappointingly ordinary; an armchair, some pictures on the walls, gold-flowered wallpaper. There was no sign of anything that made loud, angry growling noises.
"Just a moment," said Mori, retreating into the house.
"What was that sound?" whispered Charmy as soon as they were alone.
"There's more to this place than meets the eye," said Vector. "Shh!"
The anteater returned with a pen. "There, I've signed them. Tell little Konya that he is welcome home whenever he chooses to return." Mori's smile was more like a grimace.
"Um, actually," said Mighty, "the echidnas want to adopt Talon."
"Oh?" said Mori, tilting his head to one side. "How interesting. Perhaps you should have the echidnas talk to me themselves."
Mighty flushed. "Yes sir."
"Thank you for coming," said Mori, closing the door.
"Well, that was exciting," said Espio as they walked back to the road. "Do we really want to hand Talon over to that weirdo?"
"No," chorused the others.
"And what made that noise?" said Vector. "Is the dude breeding monsters in the basement?"
"I'd love to get inside," said Espio, a glint of mischief in his eyes.
"Espio, look at me," said Vector. "Read my lips. N. O. No!"
The group found a wide spot beside the road and set up the portable teleporter. Vector set it to fire four times, and one by one they jumped back to the Floating Island.
Zephyer was waiting for them at the receiver dish. "Well?" she said as they arrived. "Why were you guys gone so long?"
"We hunted down Talon's uncle," said Espio. "Talk about weird! We can't give Talon back to him."
"He signed the guardianship papers," said Vector, showing them to Zephyer. "Talon can get into the country now. But, uh, if you try to bring him back here afterwards, it'll be considered kidnapping."
Zephyer looked at the papers and bit her lip. "We'll have to contact an adoption agency right away."
A shadow fell over them, and they looked up. Knuckles was gliding in a circle overhead. He dropped, landed with a thud and walked up. "Well?" he said, looking at the papers in Zephyer's hands.
Mighty recapped their adventure, including the mysterious growl. He concluded, "The guy doesn't care about kids. He was only being polite. If I was Talon, I'd escape into the Blackguard Quadrangle, too."
Zephyer looked at Knuckles, who drew a deep breath. "Tough or not, we need to do this. There's some ghosts that will haunt a kid his whole life, and I don't want the problem of family hanging over Talon. Did you get the phonebook I asked for?"
Vector hefted the remaining manila envelope, which was two inches thick. "Yep."
"Great. Let's go up to the house, I need to make some calls."
* * *
Over the next two days, the situation went downhill so fast that Zephyer felt like she was riding a rollercoaster down its first drop.
The adoption agency Knuckles called informed him that because the Floating Island was technically a foreign country, and because Talon was living there as a minor without papers of any kind, he was considered a hostage. Please return him to his rightful guardian or we will be forced to take drastic measures against you.
"Talon," said Knuckles, gazing at the phone in his hand, "we have to send you back or they're going to arrest me."
"The adoption agency said that, sir?" said Talon, turning white under his fur.
Zephyer hugged him protectively. "Once you're on Blackguard, they'll work with us. You'll just have to stay with your uncle until we can get this worked out."
"Yeah," said Talon hollowly. "I guess ... I guess I'll go pack." He pulled away from her and went to his room.
Zephyer's mouth worked, and tears stung her eyes. She turned to Knuckles, who looked as if he had been suckerpunched in a fight. "Knux, we're going to fight for him, aren't we?"
He looked up at her, and his face hardened. "Darn right we will."
* * *
That afternoon Knuckles, Zephyer and the Chaotix escorted Talon through customs and back to his old home. Zephyer held his hand as they walked up the driveway, and his hand was icy cold. She whispered, "It'll be all right, Talon."
Talon's eyes were dark with pain and fear as he looked up at her. "I'm losing my family again," he whispered. "Each time I wind up with my uncle. It's horrible."
"I put something in your bag," murmured Zephyer. "So did Knuckles."
Talon looked up at Knuckles, who had not spoken a word for the last hour. As they stepped onto the front porch and rang the doorbell, Talon felt Knuckles's heavy hand on his shoulder.
The door opened, and Talon's uncle stood looking at them. "Hello," said Mori, blinking at the crowd as if the light hurt his eyes. "You must be the echidnas who abducted Talon."
A muscle jumped in Knuckles's jaw. He said through his teeth, "We cared for him, not abducted him. We would like to adopt him."
Mori stood aside for Talon to enter. Talon released Zephyer's hand, but Knuckles gave his shoulder a hard squeeze before letting go. Talon stepped across the threshold into the darkened entry room that he remembered so well, and turned and looked back at the islanders. The same look of anger and grief was reflected in every eye. Knuckles's fists were clenched, and Zephyer's eyes were full of tears. If Talon looked at them one more second he would cry, too, so he turned and carried his suitcase down the hall toward his old room.
As soon as he was gone, Mori's manner changed. "You, Knuckles Echidna, are the vilest of slime for harboring that child for so long without contacting the proper authorities. I will never approve of any adoption, and I have the law on my side. Go back to your floating rock and take your motley horde with you." He slammed the door.
Knuckles looked at Zephyer and the Chaotix, the fury radiating off him like radioactivity. If he had chosen to tear down the door and pummel Mori, none of them would have stopped him.
"What do we do, boss?" growled Vector.
Knuckles's hands opened and closed a few times, as if imagining Mori's neck between them. "I'm going to find the meanest lawyer in town."
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 4: Rough going
Chapter 4: Rough going
Talon's old room was the same as he had left it--dark, dingy, with climbing vines covering the window. The walls were painted blue, and as Talon stepped in he felt the old melancholy return. He set his suitcase on the bed and gazed at his shoes--the one link he had with his parents, and his link with the Floating Island. The shoes belonged with a set of emerald armor, and the soles were made of red and green super emerald vein. Talon knew the password to activate the shoes and let him fly, for his father had taught him to use the shoes when he was little. Back during acting school.
He looked up and saw his uncle in the doorway. "Welcome home, Konya," said Mori with an insincere smile.
"Thanks, Uncle Pendel," said Talon. "And my name is Talon."
"I see you've retained that ridiculous nickname," said Mori, his smile vanishing. "No doubt encouraged by those ignorant echidnas. Don't worry, I won't let them take you away."
"You're not going to let them adopt me?" cried Talon, jumping to his feet. "Why not?"
"Because echidnas are violent by nature," said Mori. "I see their impulsiveness has rubbed off on you." Talon opened his mouth to retort, but Mori held up a hand. "Quiet. I do not allow backtalk. You know the rules to living here. In your room by eight o'clock, up by six. You will be resuming school at Happy Mobian Academy. The barn out back is off-limits at all times, and so is the basement."
Talon nodded. "Yes, Uncle Pendel."
Mori nodded and left, closing the door behind him.
Talon stood in the middle of the room as his world collapsed. He might never see Knuckles or Zephyer or the Floating Island again. He was doomed to live with his uncle until ... until he was eighteen and could live wherever he wanted. It was only five more years and ...
Talon sat down in the darkest corner, drew his knees to his chest and stared into the gloom, too empty to cry.
He sat there a long time, listening to the creak of the house, the sound of a dog barking, a distant lawnmower. Sounds he had not heard while on the Floating Island. He knew everyone there and was accepted. Here he was an outcast. He burrowed deep into the shell that Knuckles had worked for three years to break.
He remembered Knuckles's hand on his shoulder, reluctant to let go, and Zephyer's voice in his ear. "I put something in your bag."
How had he forgotten that? He jumped to his feet, ran to his suitcase and opened it. On top of his belongings were a communicator and an envelope. Talon picked up the com and recognized it as one of Knuckles's modified long-range units. He opened the envelope next, and a silver tube slid out. He looked at it for a second before he recognized it as a whistle with a long, odd cut in the top. There was a letter with it, which he pulled out and opened.
Slasher made this whistle for Zephyer and I as a wedding present. I want you to have it. If you need anything, blow it and Slasher will come. If you need her fast, blow it 3 times. If you're desperate, blow it 5 times. Take care of it, because I'm going to want it back when we bring you home. The communicator is one of mine. Call home once or twice a day to let us know how you're doing. If your uncle is mean to you, make a note of it and I'll smack him around to teach him a lesson.
The tears came easily after that.
* * *
Knuckles asked a few people who they considered the toughest, meanest lawyers in town, and everyone recommended the firm Dewey, Cheetum and Howe. Knuckles located the firm, had the Chaotix and Zephyer wait in the reception area, and approached the secretary.
"I want to talk to the nastiest of your lawyers," he said, glaring.
The secretary took one look at him and pressed a button on her intercom. "Ms. Howe, there's a client here for you." She pointed to a hallway. "Third door on the right."
Knuckles nodded and strode off.
He entered a large office with dozens of framed awards on the walls, and a wide window with a view of the ocean. Sitting behind the desk was a sleek red ferret with shrewd, beady eyes. She sized up Knuckles, then motioned to a chair. "Sit down, mister ...?"
"Echidna, Knuckles Echidna," said Knuckles, taking a seat. "You don't look like a nasty lawyer."
"Some would disagree," said Howe. "Your case had better be interesting."
"Sticky adoption case," said Knuckles, and explained about Talon coming to the Floating Island to hide from his awful relatives. At first Howe looked disinterested, but as Knuckles mentioned Pendel Mori, her ears pricked up. Knuckles concluded with a terse account of what had happened when they had relinquished Talon, then looked at the ferret. "Well? Interesting enough?"
"We'll see," said Howe. "How much can you pay?"
"Five power crystals, fifty carat, at current market value," said Knuckles. "You could get a better price for them if you sold to collectors, or maybe the human military."
"Will you make a down payment?"
"Will you take my case?"
The ferret and echidna regarded each other.
"Yes," said Howe. "Between you and me, I'd love to put Pendel Mori in prison. Of course, losing this case means YOU might be the one in prison."
"If there's a chance of getting Talon back, I'll risk it," said Knuckles.
Howe pulled a sheaf of papers out of her briefcase. "I need to get these customized. Who will I be representing, besides you and the boy?"
"Oh, my wife," said Knuckles, remembering with a shock that he was married now.
"She'll need to cosign," said the lawyer. "Fetch her in while I create a profile." She left the office in a gliding, snaky motion.
Knuckles walked out to the waiting area and beckoned to Zephyer. As she rose, he said to the Chaotix, "This might take a while. You guys might as well go do something."
"It's a hundred and ten degrees out there," said Espio. "What do you expect us to do besides melt?"
"That's your problem," said Knuckles, in no mood to be crossed. "We'll meet back home this evening." He led Zephyer to Howe's office.
The office was empty, so the two sat down to wait in opposite chairs. Zephyer looked around the office, reading the award plaques and examining the photos of little ferrets on the desk. "Is she nasty?"
"I think so," Knuckles muttered. "She didn't mess around much. She's also expensive."
"Can we afford it?"
"That's why I pay these people in jewels. The price is indefinite and large."
The pair lapsed into silence, intimidated by their own voices in the unfamiliar room.
When Howe didn't come back for another ten minutes, Zephyer fell to brooding. "This is your fault," she hissed at Knuckles. "We didn't have to mess with any of this legal junk--Talon was fine living with us illegally."
"Oh, so it's my fault now," snarled Knuckles. "You agreed to this, remember?"
"Yes, and it doesn't make it any better," retorted Zephyer. "I read that stuff Sally emailed you--it can take up to a year for an adoption to go through, and that's one without legal entanglements. Who knows what could happen to Talon in a year?"
"You don't suppose I read that too?" snapped Knuckles, leaning forward. "I know! It makes me sick! What do you want me to do, kidnap him for real?"
"Yes, if that's what it takes!" Zephyer was ready to take the argument to blows, but they were interrupted as Howe slipped in the door.
The ferret snaked behind the desk and sat down, ignoring the flushed faces of her clients. "I'm ready to open this case, Mr. and Mrs. Echidna. I'm going to ask you some questions and I need your identification."
Knuckles gave Zephyer a look that said their fight was not over, and directed his attention to the papers on the desk.
It took an hour to read and sign all the papers, and Howe explained everything as they went along. She asked questions carefully calculated to learn about her clients. How long had they been married? Had Talon ever told them about his prior home? Had they interacted with Talon's relatives before?
When they told her about meeting Kit and Kardot, Howe made a triumphant bark in her throat.
"Why, do you know them?" Knuckles asked.
Howe got up and closed the door, then beckoned for the echidnas to move close. They did until her whiskers brushed their faces, and she said in a low voice, "Pendel Mori has had multiple charges of illegal experimentation brought against him, but there was never enough evidence to convict. There was nothing wrong with Kit and Kardot. At first."
"Kardot was an android," said Zephyer. "Why should they care how he treated her?"
"Kardot wasn't always an android," whispered Howe. "She was the second-oldest of Mori's five children. Three of them died of natural causes, or so we think. Kardot started life as a flesh and blood anteater. How he made her into an android we'll never know. He somehow had her birth records erased, so it would appear she had always been that way, but me and my firm know better. I saw the certificate before it vanished."
"What about Kit?" said Knuckles, eyes wide.
"I don't know," said Howe. "He's not right in the head, but whether that's due to experimentation or seeing his father's cruelty, who can say?"
Zephyer and Knuckles looked at each other in horror. "We have to get Talon out of there," said Zephyer.
"Yes," said Howe, eyes gleaming. "And put Mori behind bars for good. If I can use this case to do that, I will." She stepped back and returned her voice to normal. "Thank you for your business. I'll give you a call in a day or two." She escorted them out of the office with a smile, revealing her long white fangs. As soon as they were gone, Howe whisked down the hall to Cheetum's office.
Cheetum was a black rat. He was filling out a form with one pink hand and eating a cheese sandwich with the other, and glanced up when Howe slithered in.
"Call in Dewey."
Cheetum picked up his phone and pressed a button. "Dewey, Howe's got something to talk to us about." The rat hung up the phone, and a moment later a weasel entered the office. He was even snakier than Howe, and was smaller with a shorter muzzle.
"What's the trouble?" he asked.
"I may have found a way to convict Pendel Mori," said Howe.
Cheetum and Dewey straightened.
"Seems that since his kids are gone, he's starting on his nephew," said Howe. "But his nephew's been living with these echidnas who want to adopt him. If we can prove that these echidnas will provide a better home environment, we might have a case."
"How will that convict Mori?" asked Dewey.
"That's the good part," said Howe. "I'm going to request studies by social services, and have them comb his little lab from top to bottom. I'm sure he's got something illegal we can nail him with. But I'm going to need your help."
"You got it," said Cheetum. "My other clients can wait another few days."
"I'll get the research team on it," said Dewey. "Better hire a detective to watch the kid, too. Never know what Mori will do to him."
And the lawyers parted ways.
* * *
The next morning before school, Talon stole around the house, trying to see if Kit was living there. Kit's room was clean and vacant, but Talon checked the other four bedrooms, just in case. None of them looked inhabited, and there was only enough food for one person in the refrigerator.
He saw no sign of his uncle from the time he got up to when the school bus came. This didn't worry Talon much, for the less he saw of his uncle, the better. But there was no sign of him on the first or second floors, and the basement was locked. Talon remembered it was off-limits, but thought it unusual ... the basement had been Kit and Kardot's hangout. Mori must have turned it into something else.
Talon had no books to take to school with him, but it didn't matter. As soon as he climbed on the bus, the racket of unruly youngsters smote his ears, and a few yelled, "Check it out, Konya finally came back! Where you been, Konya? Juvenile hall?" There was a roar of laughter. Talon slipped to a vacant seat, trying to ignore the shouts.
Happy Mobian Academy was on the other side of the island, in a lush, green park-like area. To the casual observer it was the perfect school: the grounds were beautiful, the buildings were ultra-modern, clean and newly painted. But the students knew otherwise. This was a private school with an unusual charter, and Talon's parents had talked about it with horror and started a petition to close it down. Perhaps that was one reason they had been killed in the fire. Talon's uncle, upon receiving custody, had enrolled Talon there at once.
Talon went to the office first, his stomach cold and hard under his ribs. The assistant principal was a female dachshund, and she gave Talon a long look when he entered. "Well well. Konya Mori. I never expected to see you again."
"Yes ma'am." Talon stared at the floor. He heard her rustling papers, and for a wild second thought about blowing the whistle for Slasher. But no, he had survived this place before. He could do it again.
"You were in Rabbit group, weren't you?" said the assistant principal. "You're too old now .. thirteen, aren't you?"
"We'll put you in Antelope, then," she said. She handed him a maroon armband. "Your group is in Jungle environment this week. The Jungle instructor will show you where to go."
Talon nodded as he put on the armband and left the office.
The school grounds covered twenty acres of uninhabited island, backing up to the ocean on the south. There were large clumps of jungle, piles of rocks, ponds, and a wide grassy meadow. No desert, though, thought Talon with a touch of smugness. The Floating Island's environments are better.
He followed one of the trails marked 'Jungle', trying to remain unnoticed by the other students around him. Everyone wore maroon or yellow armbands, and Talon guessed that Leopard was having their classes with Antelope today. His stomach knotted even tighter. The predator groups were the worst.
At the edge of the trees, Talon found a group of kids with maroon and blended with them, hoping no one would recognize him. Nearby was a wiry civet cat in a maroon vest, signifying that he was their instructor. A few stragglers trotted up, and the teacher faced the group.
"All right, animals, listen up! Today we're pitted against Leopard! You will have to exhibit all the qualities of the antelope to pass this lesson--speed, endurance, and sharp senses. Stay in small groups--there is safety in numbers. Leopards hunt alone, and a lone Antelope is a dead Antelope. Class ends at noon. Go!"
The kids turned and ran into the woods.
Talon had grown since the last time he was here. Not only were his legs longer and his endurance greater, he had learned a few things. Now, as he ran with the chattering, laughing group, he understood these idiotic lessons. The school was making young Mobians into animals. He thought of the TV show he had watched with Tails about Mobian regression. This school encouraged it! But Talon was too meek to rebel against the system. He simply told himself that he would not go feral, and concentrated on surviving.
What had developed out in the jungles was a kind of gang warfare. Each team attacked the other, and if some kids reached the end of the day with bloody noses or broken bones, it meant they were learning. A pecking order was established within each team, and timid ones like Talon were at the bottom.
All day long he ran, hid, watched his back, and jumped at shadows. His reflexes were slower because of living civilized, and twice he was jumped and beaten up. By the end of the day he was bruised, dirty, and curled up inside into a tight knot.
When he arrived home at three o'clock, he again found the house deserted. Talon tried to like it, but he was lonesome and homesick, and couldn't help thinking of what Knuckles would have done if let inside that school. He went to his room, barricaded the door, and pulled the communicator out from under his pillow.
He clicked it on and waited for the responding click. After a moment it came, and Knuckles's voice said, "Hey."
"Talon! Hey! How're you doing?"
"Okay," said Talon, feeling safe now that Knuckles was on the line. "I just got home from school."
"School?" Knuckles sounded astonished. "He made you go to school your first day back?"
"Yes sir." Talon didn't want to think about it. "Any chance of my coming home soon?"
"We've hired a lawyer to work this out," said Knuckles. "She has a grudge against your uncle and was delighted to take the case."
"Oh good." Talon didn't know what else to say. "Thanks for giving me this com."
"You're welcome. You get the whistle?"
"Have you used it?"
"Huh." Knuckles sounded puzzled. "We haven't seen Slasher since we got here. I thought you whistled for her."
"No sir." Talon looked at the window, his old fear returning.
"Strange. Well, has your uncle been treating you all right?"
"Yes sir." If not seeing him all day was right treatment.
"Hey Tal, listen," said Knuckles, lowering his voice. "If you find out your uncle's doing ... well, anything illegal, call me right away."
"Illegal?" Talon perked up, thinking of the locked basement. "Like what, sir?"
"I don't know. But if you see something weird, let me know. And be careful."
There was a long pause, Talon knew he should hang up, but he couldn't bear to turn off the comfort of Knuckles's voice.
"Well, if you need anything, call," said Knuckles. "And don't be afraid to use the whistle. Slasher likes you, you know."
"Oh." Talon could only think of the way she had eaten the steaks. "Thanks."
"Bye sir." Talon turned off the com and sat looking at it. He wished he dared strap it to his wrist, but his uncle might take it away, and at school it would get broken. He shoved it back under his pillow, glanced at his window again, and met Espio's eyes.
A second later the window was open and Talon was leaning out. Espio was colored the same as the vines that covered the window, and Talon kept losing the chameleon among the leaves. "Espio, what are you doing here?"
"Checking on you, kid," said Espio. "Us Chaotix have been watching the house. Is your uncle here? Can I come in?"
"I haven't seen him today," said Talon, glad of Espio's presence. "Come on in, but be quiet. He might be in the basement."
Espio climbed through the window, his skin changing colors to blend with the walls and floor. Talon led him through the house, conducting a tour in a whisper. Espio grunted now and then, memorizing the layout. When they came to the basement door, Talon said, "I'm not allowed to go down there. It's always kept locked. I can't go in the barn, either. Want to see that?"
Talon took Espio into the backyard, led him across the lawn and into the forest, where the barn was located. As they walked up to it, they became aware of an unpleasant odor, like rotting meat. The barn's door was chained shut, and there were bars in the windows.
Espio climbed up to look in the windows, but it was so dark that all he could see were vague, indistinct shapes like machinery under tarps.
Espio climbed back down, looking curious. "A locked barn and a locked basement. Did we tell you about what we heard?"
Espio related the story of ringing the doorbell and hearing a wild beast growl before Mori answered the door. Talon blanched. "What could it have been?"
"No idea," said Espio. "Maybe he has a really big dog or something. Be careful."
Be careful. Everyone kept telling him to be careful. Careful of what?
They snuck back through the house, and Espio left through Talon's window. "Thanks for the tour, kid," he said. "If you need anything, sneak out front and wave at the bushes. We're taking turns watching you."
"Okay," Talon grinned as Espio slunk away. If the Chaotix were close by, then he didn't mind being alone.
* * *
Knuckles had received Talon's call as he was getting ready to meet with the lawyer again. He and Zephyer dropped what they were doing and huddled around the communicator. When Knuckles hung up, he looked at Zephyer. "How did he sound to you?"
"Depressed," said Zephyer, looking at the com as if she could see Talon thought it.
"At least he's all right," said Knuckles, strapping the com to his wrist. "And the Chaotix are keeping an eye on him."
"I wish he was home again," said Zephyer, looking downcast. "I know he doesn't make much noise, but it's been too quiet without him."
Knuckles grunted and walked out the door, Zephyer following.
They took a portable teleporter with them as they warped back to the mainland. Zephyer hated to leave the Floating Island so much; she understood the part of the Guardian's oath about being bound to the island. Leaving it seemed a form of betrayal, and she wondered how Knuckles had managed to do it so often. She did not know that Knuckles's loneliness had become so intense that even the island's call could not keep him there, and it was not until the Chaotix came that Knuckles was able to stay at home. Her own presence was also a comfort to him, although he would never tell her such a thing. All Zephyer knew was that they were still mad at each other, although they had a temporary truce while dealing with Talon and Howe.
They walked through Marshill to the big white building where Dewey, Cheetum and Howe was located, and found Howe in her office with five stacks of paper on her desk. She greeted them, and as soon as they sat down, she got down to business.
"According to Blackguard law, a child may be removed from his home when it is proved that his current environment is unsafe, or his parents or guardians are unsuitable. He will be placed in foster care until suitable guardians are found for him. You two will need to go through the adoption approval process immediately so that will be out of the way. That way when we have the child removed from his current home, we can place him with you at once."
Knuckles nodded. "What agency would you recommend?"
Howe handed him one of the stacks of paper. "This is the Orphan Aid foundation. They're small but very efficient. I've worked with them before."
Knuckles sideyed Zephyer as they both wondered if this agency was somehow dishonest. Electricity darted between them. Knuckles's eyes widened, then he bent over the papers. Zephyer looked at them with him, wondering why the electricity had surprised him.
"This case cannot proceed until you are approved for adoption," said Howe. "I'd advise you to go to the Orphan Aid office immediately. My hands are tied until then."
"Okay, we'll do that," said Knuckles, glancing at Zephyer. "Call us if anything happens."
"And keep me informed on the approval process," said Howe.
As they left the office, Zephyer said, "Well, that was a short visit."
"She knows what she's doing," said Knuckles. "We have to be approved so she can go in and shred Pendel Mori. I could see the bloodlust in her eyes."
"Carnivores," said Zephyer. "Oh yeah, the electric thing happened again."
"It happened right as she gave us the adoption papers." He looked at Zephyer. "What were you thinking?"
"I wondered if they were dishonest," said Zephyer, and gasped as the electricity zinged between them.
Knuckles grinned. "That's it. When we think the same thing, there's an electric arc. Or is it chaos energy?"
"I don't like it," said Zephyer."
"Maybe we can control it," said Knuckles. "Try it. Think about Talon."
Zephyer did and looked Knuckles in the eye, and the power struck like lightning. They both flinched. "This is stupid," said Zephyer. "It hurts us to think alike! Is it a Master Emerald thing?"
"No idea," said Knuckles, walking on. "Is this my fault, too?"
"No," said Zephyer, reddening. She knew she ought to apologize, but pride was a hard thing to swallow. It took her until the end of the block to spit it out. "I'm sorry, none of this is your fault. I shouldn't have said that."
He looked at her fiercely for a second, then his expression softened. "I shouldn't have got so mad. I miss Talon, too." He squeezed her hand as they walked along.
* * *
Vector lay in the shrubbery, polishing his binoculars. Mighty sat nearby, slurping a milkshake. Espio and Charmy were hidden across the yard somewhere, watching Talon's house from every angle. The house appeared deserted, and it was boring, hot work, for the afternoon was stifling.
"What time does Talon get home from school?" asked Mighty.
"Three o'clock," said Vector, checking his watch. "Ten minutes."
"We ought to stake out his school, too," said the armadillo.
"Naw," said Vector. "It's just school. He'd be indoors all day except recess, and we'd miss anything his uncle did."
"Is Mori even there?" said Mighty, peering out of the bushes at the house. "We haven't seen him since he insulted us the night he took Talon."
"Apparently Talon hasn't seen him, either," said Vector. "Talk about a deadbeat parent."
"I hope that lawyer eats him alive," said Mighty, stirring his milkshake. "Hey, I think the school bus is coming." He dropped on his stomach beside Vector as the bus rumbled to a halt at the foot of the driveway. Talon stepped off, looking dusty and tired. He walked up the driveway with his head down and entered the house as the bus drove away.
"Poor kid," muttered Vector, watching the windows with binoculars. "Espio's moving up to spy on him. Maybe Talon'll catch Espio again."
"If I was him, I'd try to," said Mighty. "He's got to be lonely." The armadillo froze and grabbed Vector's arm. "Hey, who's that?"
Vector followed his gaze and saw a mouse standing at the driveway entrance, looking up at the house. He set off around the perimeter of the property, withdrawing a tiny camera from his pants pocket. Vector trained the binoculars on him, frowning. "That isn't one of Knuckles's lawyers, is it?"
"No, his lawyer is a ferret," said Mighty. "Shh, he's coming this way."
The two flattened themselves as the mouse walked by, snapping pictures of the yard and house.
Vector watched the mouse with a dark glare. "What's that guy think he's doing? We were here first!"
"Maybe Mori hired him," whispered Mighty. "Maybe Mori's noticed us watching the house, and this mouse is trying to figure out our positions."
"If he wanted to do that, he could just beat the bushes and yell," replied Vector, worming his way forward to see into the yard. "No, he's up to something. Maybe he's a burgler."
"Then we ought to stop him, shouldn't we?"
Vector had been sitting in the bushes all day, and any excuse to get out and move around was welcome. "All right, let's jump him!"
The mouse was near the house, counting windows, when he noticed something that didn't look right. There was a shadow against the wall that was cast by nothing. He moved closer and snapped a picture. The shadow moved, and a pair of reptilian eyes met his.
The mouse was tackled from behind and crushed to the ground by Vector, who was three times his size. "Got 'im!" exclaimed Vector. "Let's get him out of sight, quick!" The crocodile got up, holding the mouse in a headlock, and Mighty caught the mouse's flailing arms. They hustled him into the shelter of three potted palms that formed a screen, Espio following them.
"Okay," said Vector, "talk fast. What are you doing here?"
"Who are you people?" exclaimed the mouse, panting. "Mori has bodyguards now?"
"No, but Talon does," said Espio. "Who are you working for, huh?"
The mouse looked at them incredulously, then began to laugh.
"What's so funny?" growled Mighty. "You're awful small to pound, but I could talk myself into it."
"Back pocket," gasped the mouse. "My wallet. Look at my ID."
Espio retrieved the wallet and opened it. Inside was a business card that read, "Ralph Martin, private detective." Espio read it aloud. "Private detective, eh? We're doing a bit of that, ourselves."
"Ann Howe hired me to keep an eye on this kid and his uncle," said Ralph. "Will you let me go, please?"
Vector released him from the headlock and the mouse straightened, rubbing his neck. "Thanks. You wouldn't happen to be friends of Knuckles Echidna, would you?"
"Thought so," said Ralph, dusting himself off and checking his camera for damage. "You boys could do with a bit of training. First though, have you seen anything noteworthy since you staked out this place?"
Vector sideyed his companions. "Maybe. What's the camera for?"
"Reference," said Ralph. "Now will you--"
He was interrupted as Charmy exploded into their hiding place, quivering with fury. "What are you guys doing?" he screamed in a whisper. "Mori just came out, injected Talon with something and left again!"
"What?" everyone yelped. They started to run for the house, but Espio stopped them. "Wait! Let me go! Mori might come back!" The chameleon slipped out of hiding, his scales mimicking his surroundings, and raced to Talon's window. The others sneaked through the shrubbery, casting dark looks at each other.
Espio reached the window, inched his fingers under the sill and opened it. Talon was standing in the middle of the room, staring at the closed door. He turned as Espio opened the window. "Hello Espio." He looked dazed.
"Are you okay?" asked Espio, slipping inside. "What did he do? Charmy said he injected you?"
"No," said Talon, holding out one arm where a few drops of blood stained the fur. "He took a blood sample." He sucked the place until it stopped bleeding, and Espio cursed himself for abandoning his post.
"The five minutes we weren't watching you ... Where'd he go?"
"Out," said Talon, pointing at the door.
Espio whisked to the door and out in the hall, determined to find Mori and see what he was doing.
The chameleon's memorization skills served him well, and he went straight to the basement stairs. The door at the bottom was closed. Espio descended the stairs and tried the knob. It was unlocked! He turned it and opened the door a crack.
Beyond it was a whitewashed room with several tables. Espio glimpsed a few glass tubes and bottles, and guessed it was laboratory equipment. He eased the door open another fraction, and spotted Pendel Mori. He had a small vial of Talon's blood and was pouring a few drops of something into it.
Espio took mental snapshots of what he saw, to memorize it. Back behind the tables was a wooden partition, and a stout chain ran behind it. As Espio watched, something reached up and grabbed the top of the partition.
Espio shut the door and ran for his life, forgetting about camouflage and even where he was. He took a wrong turn and wound up in the living room, doubled back and found Talon's room by sheer luck. Talon was sitting on the bed, waiting for him. "Espio?" he said, straightening. "You're white! What happened?"
The chameleon grabbed the anteater by the shoulders. "Don't you ever go down in that basement, you hear me? If he tries to take you down there, fight and scream, we'll come. But don't ever go down there!"
Talon's eyes were wide with unasked questions, but all he said was, "Okay, Espio."
Espio vaulted out the window and dove into the bushes where the rest of the Chaotix and Ralph awaited him. He was starting to shake.
"Espio!" said Vector. "What happened to you?"
"I saw Mori in the basement," whispered the chameleon. "He didn't inject Talon, he took a blood sample. I looked in and there was something chained up, it was trying to get out." He trailed off, seeing again that thing reaching up and grabbing the top of the partition. It was smooth and brown, like a tail--no, not a tail. He struggled to identify it. Like a giant spider's leg. But that wasn't it, not a spider. More like a feeler. The most horrible thing was that he knew only two things about it: that leg or whatever, and the thickness of the chain holding it.
"What was it?" asked Ralph, staring at Espio with the rest.
The chameleon was turning from white to sickly green, and he was staring straight ahead. "I don't know," said Espio. "Some kind of bug." Then he curled up the fetal position, coiling his tail around his head.
The Chaotix looked at each other. They had never seen Espio act like this before.
"Is Talon all right?" asked Charmy.
"Yes," whispered Espio. "Call Knuckles. Tell him we have to get out of here."
"And leave Talon?" said Vector.
Espio rocked back and forth and didn't answer.
Vector looked at Mighty. "Take Espio back to the island. Tell Knuckles what happened. Charmy and I will stay with Ralph."
"You got it," said the armadillo. He pulled Espio to his feet and led him out of the yard, toward where they had left the portable teleporter.
Vector gazed toward the house, brow furrowed. Ralph watched him. "Care to work with me now? Whatever your friend saw, we can use it to build a case against Pendel Mori."
"You can?" said Charmy. "What kind of case?"
"Illegal experimentation," said Ralph. "We could put him behind bars for a very long time."
Vector looked at Charmy, then Ralph. "What do you need to know?"
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 5: Raising defenses
Chapter 5: Raising defenses
Knuckles and Zephyer were sitting on the front porch in the shade, reading through a sheaf of papers from Orphan Aid. Zephyer read without moving, twirling a dreadlock in her fingers, but Knuckles kept setting down his papers and looking out at the horizon. He rose and without a word marched off across the yard and into the trees.
Zephyer watched him go and sighed. She knew that Knuckles was still adjusting to sharing his home and island, and sometimes he needed solitude like food and water. She kept reading.
After a while Knuckles returned and thumped down in his chair. He looked at Zephyer, curled like a cat in her chair. "How can you sit still for so long?"
She looked at him. "I don't suffer from Sonic-syndrome, that's why."
Knuckles muttered and looked at his document again. For a while neither of them spoke. Then Knuckles said, "Do you understand all this?"
"I guess," said Zephyer. "It's not hard to understand, it's just that there's so much of it."
"That's the problem," muttered Knuckles. "I had no idea families were so much work."
Zephyer stifled a laugh. "If you can call it a family. Two echidnas, two chao, and an anteater. And the Chaotix."
"You don't have to be the same species to be a family," said Knuckles. "Look at Knothole."
"Yeah," said Zephyer, looking thoughtful. "Everybody looks out for everybody there."
"That's one reason I let them coax me from the Floating Island," said Knuckles, gazing at the treetops. "I never had a family."
Zephyer looked at him and saw his eyes were fixed and distant. She remembered the look on his face when Locke had left, and rested a hand on his arm. "You have a family now."
"Right." He looked at her. "And it's worth fighting for. Talon belongs with us as much as the chao do."
"You're not alone, you know," said Zephyer. "I'm here now, and I'm going to fight this battle with you." She picked up his paper. "If you like, I'll read all this and summarize it for you."
Knuckles looked at his wife a moment, then grinned. "It'd be a load off my mind."
"No problem." Zephyer kissed his cheek. "I've seen Sonic go stir-crazy, and I know the signs. Go smash some rocks or something."
Knuckles stood up and opened his mouth to reply, but was distracted as the incoming teleporter dish flashed. Two figures appeared, one of them doubled up in distress. "Uh oh," said Knuckles, and bolted off the porch. Zephyer threw aside the papers and tore after him.
Espio was pea-green and clinging to Mighty with hands, feet and tail. His eyes were wide, breath coming fast and shallow.
"What happened?" asked Knuckles as he reached them.
"Espio saw something," said Mighty, grunting as he half-dragged the chameleon along. "He's choking me, grab his arm."
Knuckles pried Espio's arm off the anteater's throat as Zephyer reached them. It took all three of them to get Espio to the house, and they deposited him on the couch. He curled up at once and closed his eyes. The echidnas and armadillo stood looking down at him. "What did he see?" asked Knuckles.
"I don't know," said Mighty. "He said it looked like a bug."
"But he's not afraid of bugs," said Zephyer, watching the chameleon as he wound his tail around himself.
Mighty shook his head and explained about Mori taking a blood sample from Talon. Knuckles and Zephyer exchanged glances--Mori kept getting weirder.
"I should have packed Talon a gun," muttered Knuckles.
"You packed him a whistle," said Zephyer. "That's just as good."
Knuckles gazed at Espio. "I hope so."
* * *
Talon couldn't get Espio out of his mind.
He lay in bed that night, the chameleon's voice echoing through his mind. "Don't you dare go down in that basement, you hear me?"
He had never seen Espio turned white--it was a color Espio hated. What had he seen? And why had Uncle Pendel needed a blood sample?
Talon curled up in a ball, his imagination running wild, filling the basement with half-imagined shapes and monsters. He wished he was in his own bed on the Floating Island, where Knuckles and Zephyer were only a shout away. Then he wished for Max, his chao. While gentle-natured, Max would fight to the death to protect his young master. He thought of the whistle for Slasher, and wondered what he was more afraid of--something in the basement, or Slasher.
As he lay there, he heard footsteps in the hall outside his door. He recognized his uncle's shuffling gait, and tensed. Then he heard a rustling, tapping sound, and the house creaked. Then his uncle and the tapping sounds moved off down the hall. Talon lay perfectly still, his heart beating so hard he couldn't breathe. He heard the back door open and shut, and without even thinking about it, reached under his pillow, pulled out the whistle and blew it.
It made no sound, and Talon hoped it was not broken. He thrust it back under his pillow and watched the window, wondering what would happen if instead of Slasher, something came that made a tapping when it moved. Then he wondered if he should have blown the whistle, because what if Slasher tried to eat him?
A shadow fell across the windowpane, and a voice outside said, "Talon?"
For a second he thought about faking sleep, but he had called her, so he might as well let her in. He got up and opened the window. Slasher looked down at him, her green eyes reflecting the porchlight. "You have Knuckles's whistle?" she asked in surprise.
"He loaned it to me," said Talon, looking up at her with his instincts panicking. "For if I ... I got scared."
Slasher thrust her head through the window, sniffing. "Scared of what?"
"I don't know." Talon knew it would sound silly if he told her he had heard a tapping sound in the hall.
"Can I come in?"
"Uh, sure." Talon backed away from the window and Slasher squeezed her wings to her sides and climbed through. She turned around once to pull her long tail through the window, then moved to the door and sniffed the crack under it. "Hmm," she said after a moment. "Your uncle was here a few minutes ago."
"Yes," said Talon, dying to ask her if she smelled anything else. "I heard ... something."
Slasher lay down in front of the door with a grunt. "Nothing will bother you while I'm here."
Somehow the sight of her bulk against the door reassured him. Talon climbed into bed and lay with the blankets pulled up to his chin. He watched Slasher's head turn this way and that as she looked around his room. "Is this where you lived before?"
Talon thought. "Almost a year."
"Do you like Marshill?"
"Um ... I guess."
"I've been exploring it," said Slasher. "I like the weather, and the people, and the food. But I've noticed nobody lives on the south side adjoining the Quadrangle."
Talon had heard the stories of the Quadrangle all his life. "They're afraid of it."
"Why, I wonder?" asked Slasher, fixing an eye on him. "I'm tempted to fly out there and see if something happens."
"It only hurts machines," said Talon.
"Maybe I could take some instruments," said Slasher. "But not now."
Slasher extended one wing across the room, and motioned to the gaps in her primary feathers. "Moulting." She sounded dismal. She refolded her wing and muttered, "It's worse this year."
"Why?" Talon wanted her to keep talking. As long as she talked, he could hold at bay the nagging terror of having a predator in his room.
Slasher rested her head on her forepaws. "Growing feathers is painful. My wings are implants, and maybe the feather hormone is leaving my body or something ... but every year it hurts more and takes longer." She sat up and chewed a spot on one wing before laying down again. "What are you afraid of?"
Talon thought of Espio's warning and the tapping in the hall. "Espio says there's something in the basement. And I ... I heard something."
"Really now." She fixed both eyes on him and sat up. "What did you hear?"
"Kind of a clicking ..."
"Have you told anyone else?"
"It was only a minute ago."
The pair watched each other. Then Slasher got up and padded to the window. "I'm going to investigate. Close and lock the window--I'll guard the house for the rest of the night."
"Okay." Talon waited until she had left, then closed the window and turned the lock. He jumped back in bed and burrowed under the covers, glad that she was gone, and feeling a little safer with her patrolling.
* * *
At dawn Zephyer was awakened by Knuckles moaning and thrashing in his sleep. She sat up and shook him. "Knuckles, wake up." His fur was damp with sweat. Suddenly his eyes opened, and he grabbed her and kicked her off the bed.
Zephyer landed on all fours, stunned, and sat there looking at her husband. He sat up and blinked down at her. "Zephyer? What's the matter?"
"You just kicked me down here," she said. "I take it you were having a nightmare."
"Oh Zeff, I'm sorry," he said, helping her up. "It's this dream I keep having!"
Zephyer was wide awake now, and sat on the side of the bed, watching Knuckles warily. "Care to share it with the class?"
"It's nothing big," grumbled Knuckles, looking embarrassed. "I dreamed I came home to the island after two months, and I found everybody dead."
"That's your oath haunting you," said Zephyer. "I wondered how long you could keep up this furlough stuff. I know I can't."
"I don't know," said Knuckles, getting up. "This latest thing with Espio must have set it off."
"Oh, I forgot about him," said Zephyer, picking up her shoes from a chair. "I hope he's okay, the wimp."
"Nothing scares Espio like that," said Knuckles. "Not to the point of losing his self control."
"I'm going to check on him," said Zephyer.
Knuckles followed her into the living room, where Espio had spent the night on the couch. He was still there, snoring and the same color as the cushions. Zephyer smiled at Knuckles, who shrugged and headed for the door. They could talk outside.
Knuckles opened the door and jumped. Slasher was lying on the porch, and as the door opened her head jerked up and she snarled, baring her teeth to the roots.
"Uh, Slasher?" said Knuckles, wondering if slamming the door was wise. Her eyes were bright yellow, and her jaws were caked with black blood. Her teeth were stained with it.
"Knuckles!" whispered Zephyer, grabbing his arm.
Slasher snarled and growled at both of them, then jumped to her feet and loped into the trees, still snarling and looking over her shoulder.
Knuckles shut the door and stood staring at it.
"What in the world happened to her?" whispered Zephyer. "Her eyes changed colors! That was Slasher, right?"
"Yes," said Knuckles, horror growing inside him. "Something must have happened to her." Black blood on her jaws and teeth. She had been killing.
Espio sat up and looked at them. "Morning, guys. What's with you?"
"Slasher was on the porch," said Zephyer. "She snarled at us and ran off."
"Snarled at you?" said Espio, folding the blanket they had loaned him. "Was she hurt?"
"She'd killed something," said Knuckles. "Her eyes changed colors because raptors do that. The fiercer the raptor, the hotter their eyes." He glanced at Zephyer, and a twinge of electricity danced between them as they thought of the velociraptor tribe on the island where they had first met. Even there Slasher had retained her reason. The thing on the porch was an animal.
Espio's color had returned to purple, but now it lightened several shades. "She saw it," he said. "The thing in the basement. I saw its leg and flipped. I'll bet she saw it all and lost her mind."
"You don't know that," snapped Knuckles. "We don't even know if she was on the mainland." He wanted to defend Slasher somehow, since Zephyer was wearing her I Told You So look and Espio was ready to believe anything. "We woke her up suddenly, that's all."
Zephyer and Espio said nothing, and Knuckles remembered his dream of finding them dead. Suddenly he wondered who Slasher had killed, and why of all places she had come to the porch to sleep? He opened the front door and strode out. "Stay here," he told Zephyer. "I won't be gone long."
* * *
Slasher's memory was a blur. She paced around and around a boulder in the woods, fretting. She barely remembered visiting Talon, because when she left the house, she had encountered something that sent her into pure survival mode. She had escaped to the skies and the Floating Island with its blood polluting her teeth. She spent the night on the porch as her mind and body cooled, but when Knuckles opened the door, her frayed nerves nearly induced her to attack the echidnas.
As soon as she entered the trees she calmed down, and was now pacing, burning with shame and fear. She had never lost control like that before, never! What had she done in that blur the previous night? By concentrating she could remember hearing the whistle and responding to Talon by staying with him for a while. Then he told her about hearing strange sounds, and she went to investigate, and she woke up on the porch, snarling at Knuckles.
Around and around the boulder she went, head bobbing in agitation. What should she do? Go home? But what if Talon blew the whistle again? She almost regretted making it, because the whistles were connected to her subconscious in such a way that she had to respond to them, and could hear them no matter where they were blown. It was a great tool to give a friend, but it left Slasher vulnerable. She hoped they had told Talon that.
But what should she do? What if she lost control again and hurt someone she cared about? She knew her eyes must be yellow, and she could still taste the blood in her mouth. She turned aside and rubbed her muzzle in the grass, trying to wipe off the taste and scent. It clung to her, heavy and musky. She tried to remember fighting, and felt a terrible urge to kill welling up inside her. Perhaps some things were best forgotten. She resumed pacing, willing the fury within her to calm.
She scented Knuckles and whirled to find him watching her from among the trees. There was a large box beside him, and he was wearing his steel shovelclaws, which doubled as both tools and weapons.
"Hello Knuckles," she said in a low voice. "It seems I've broken everyone's trust."
"What else can I do?" said Knuckles. "Zephyer's half-afraid of you to begin with, and Espio's convinced you saw whatever he saw. And then you snarl at me! What do you expect me to do?"
"Pitch me off the island," said Slasher, lowering her head. "Something happened last night, and I lost control."
Knuckles walked forward, but he did not remove his shovelclaws. "Like what?"
The big raptor told him the little she remembered, aware of the contrast in their sizes--his head only reached to her shoulder, but Slasher felt low enough to crawl under a snake's belly with a hat on.
When she finished, Knuckles stood gazing off through the woods, thinking. "You probably did see whatever Espio saw," he said. "I hate to tell him he's right, he'd gloat forever."
"We have to get Talon out of there," said Slasher. "But I don't dare go back. I don't know what'll happen if I snap again."
"Talon has your whistle," said Knuckles, giving her a sidelong look. "If he calls you, you'll go."
"I know!" Slasher whirled and began circling the rock again. "Why did you give it to him? Don't you realize what could happen if someone used it against me?"
"It looks broken," said Knuckles. "Talon won't let anything happen to it. I told him I want it back."
Slasher muttered under her breath and kept pacing. "What's in the box?"
Knuckles gave her a hard look. "The Emerald Sword."
Slasher stopped and stared at him. Slowly she turned her back, closing her eyes. So even Knuckles didn't trust her anymore. Not if he brought out the Emerald Sword and risked using it. She felt his hand on her neck.
"Slasher, I have no choice. Part of the Guardian's oath is that I must defend my island, and that includes its inhabitants." He chuckled. "You'd probably kill me in a fight, anyway."
She looked at him. "Not if you had the Emerald Sword. Nothing survives against it. I've seen Sonic use it."
They looked at each other, the echidna and the yellow-eyed velociraptor, and understood that silent battlelines had been drawn. For the time being Knuckles couldn't trust Slasher, and Slasher couldn't trust herself.
She was the first to turn away. "Do what you have to do." She kept her eyes on the ground as Knuckles picked up his box and walked away. She resumed pacing, but this time walking slowly with head down and tail dragging.
* * *
Knuckles returned to the house looking grim. Zephyer was sitting on the porch waiting for him, and jumped up when she saw him coming. He set the box on the bottom step and embraced her. "What happened?" she whispered.
He withdrew and looked into her eyes. "She said she met Espio's monster and snapped. She thinks it'll happen again."
Zephyer looked at Knuckles's shovelclaws and knew that he had taken steps to protect everyone from the velociraptor.
Knuckles turned and opened the box, which resembled a small coffin. Inside was a suit of armor, plated with green crystal. "Wasn't that Kardot's?" said Zephyer, eyes widening.
"She used it, yes," said Knuckles, "but she stole it from Talon's parents." He handed Zephyer the breastplate, and she grinned and put it on. The armor was simple, and each piece fastened to the next with a hinge. There was also a girdle, shinguards and a belt to support the sword sheath.
In the box under the armor were two swords, each wrapped in burlap. Knuckles removed the first and handed it to Zephyer. "This goes with the armor," he said as Zephyer unsheathed it. "It was Kardot's."
Zephyer held up the yellow crystal blade and watched the sun shine through it. "Does it glow?"
"Yeah." Knuckles removed the other sword from the box without touching the hilt. "This is the Emerald Sword. If you pick it up and it glows for you, it'll make you into a killing machine." He unsheathed it four inches. A thread of green light was concentrated in the center of the crystal. Knuckles resheathed the sword and hurriedly laid it aside. "Yep."
Zephyer swung the yellow sword a few times and jogged in a circle, the armor clanking around her. "This stuff weighs a ton."
"It's not as heavy as the thirty pounds of biometal you were packing around," said Knuckles.
"That was different," said Zephyer. "The machinery did part of the work for me." She twirled the sword from hand to hand and dropped it. "How come there's no helmet?"
"There never was," said Knuckles, but he looked at Zephyer doubtfully. It did seem odd that there was no protection for the head.
She looked at him. "No point in wearing all this into battle if your head's gonna get chopped." She spun the blade a few more times, criss-crossing with both hands. After a moment she stopped to rest, panting. "This sword does everything for me," she said. "It's kind of neat."
"But you can control it?"
"Sure. I'll bet I could get really good if I practiced."
Knuckles looked at her for a long moment, then picked up the Emerald Sword and unsheathed it. He swung it a few times, the glowing blade feather-light. He felt its thirst for blood and battle, but it was dim. It did dictate how to swing it, however, and he went through the same exercises that Zephyer had. He turned and faced her. "Care to duel?"
"Knux, these are sharp!" she exclaimed. "And you're not wearing any armor!"
"Hold on," he said, retreating into the house. He reappeared a moment later with two pieces of wood. He stuck one on the end of his sword, and Zephyer did the same with hers. "There, all safe," he said. "If I get too aggressive, yell 'stop', and if I don't, run for it."
Zephyer's eyes widened, but she nodded.
They faced each other, swords held before them, watching each other's eyes. Knuckles swung, Zephyer blocked. She danced forward and counter-attacked, and Knuckles dodged and circled, grinning. "You hit like a girl."
"Sue me." She sprang at him and he countered, their blades clashing.
Espio walked out on the porch and watched. The two echidnas, one in armor and the other without it, circling and battling all over the front lawn, was quite a sight. "Oh man, the others don't know what they're missing!" he thought. "This is better than cobra wrestling!" He leaned on the railing and watched.
It looked like they were trying to kill each other, and both their faces were grim and unblinking. But after a few more minutes Zephyer said, "Stop!" and they lowered their swords. She doubled over, panting, and Knuckles realized sweat was running into his eyes. "You're pretty good," he told her. "For a girl."
"It was the sword," she puffed. "It told me what to do."
"Mine too," said Knuckles, wiping his forehead. "That's the first time the Emerald Sword didn't try to eat me alive."
Zephyer noticed Espio. "Well, how was it?"
"Awesome," he called. "I didn't know you could fence, Zephyer."
"Me neither," said Zephyer. "But I want a helmet. Having a blade flying at your face is unnerving."
"I'll call Talon this afternoon and ask if there was one," said Knuckles, sheathing the Emerald Sword. "Hey Zeff, our appointment with Orphan Aid is in an hour."
"Heck." Zephyer sheathed her sword and began shedding armor.
"Zeff," Knuckles murmured to her, "keep the sword with you. I'm keeping mine."
They exchanged an electric glance--they were to be armed at all times. She nodded, and Knuckles went inside in search of a belt.
* * *
"Test today!" said one of the teachers, waving to attract the attention of the students. Everyone looked up and grew quiet. Talon felt a sick wave of fear wash over him. "You know what happens during tests!" bellowed the teacher. "Each class will be hunted in turn by the various group teachers. You will have to display the qualities you have learned in previous classes to pass. If you lose your armband, you fail. Tests are over when the horn sounds. Go!"
Simple rules, but so horrible in practice. Talon followed his group into the trees, knowing he would flunk. He always failed his tests--the only reason he had progressed at all was because he had somehow lived to thirteen.
The Antelope group was quiet and jumpy. Even the bold ones hated tests, for the teachers were experts at guerrilla warfare and sometimes flunked whole classes by taking their armbands.
They stayed on a path for a while, then the group headed into the shelter of the brush, watching and listening for danger. Talon thought of using his shoes to hide in the treetops, but then the avian groups would spot him and his shoes would be confiscated. Better to take his chances on the ground.
Someone raised their hand--the signal for danger. As one the group turned to run, but the class ringleaders knew how to pass tests. A lanky kangaroo aimed a kick at Talon's legs that knocked him down. The rest of the class escaped, and the 'predator' pounced on the fallen victim.
Talon felt claws in his back and lay still as the dingo unsnapped the maroon armband. "Failed," grunted the dingo, and ran after the herd. Talon picked himself up, brushing sand off his fur. At least the teachers weren't as violent as the students. And since he had failed, all he had to do was go back to the entry area and wait. Flunking tests was a relief, really. It meant he could sit still without fear of being hunted.
The young anteater returned to the trail and walked back. Once another teacher found him, but he saw Talon had no armband and passed him by.
Suddenly the bushes parted and three wolves jumped out and surrounded him. Their armbands were gray--Wolf group. They were all bigger and taller than Talon, and he looked at them with despair.
"Well well, it's a little flunky," snickered the leader of the group, a burly wolf with yellow eyes. "Bet the teacher didn't hurt you much, did he?"
Talon didn't answer.
"Do you know what happens to little anteaters who get caught by predators?" grinned another wolf. "They get eaten! I think we need to educate you in the ways of the wild." The wolf shoved him, and Talon covered his face. "Aww, not going to fight back?" laughed the ringleader. "We got us a coward here, guys! A little--yellow--coward--" With every word they shoved Talon around until they knocked him down. Then they gathered around, kicking him savagely, yelling for him to get up and fight.
They were interrupted as one of them hissed, "Teacher. Run!" They fled, leaving Talon lying on the path with the wind beaten from his lungs and blood in his mouth. The teacher jogged up the path, jumped over him and was gone.
Talon sat up, tears running down his face, and slowly climbed to his feet. It hurt to move or breathe--they had kicked him in the arms and sides, and he wondered if his ribs were cracked. He hurried up the path, hoping he met no one else.
There had been a time when had tried to fight back, but the pounding he received was just as bad. When bullies caught him now, Talon gave up. There was no way he could win. All he could do was take it and go on. Hey, everyone was bullied, right? It made them stronger, right?
He reached the entry area and sat down, aching all over and breathing shallowly. "I just want to go home," he thought, thinking of what Knuckles would have done if he had caught someone kicking Talon in the ribs. He wiped his tears and sat there, waiting for the horn to blow.
One by one other flunked students trickled out of the woods and joined Talon. All of them looked angry, and they didn't speak to one another. All of them waited for the test to end.
Finally the airhorn sounded, and the groups and teachers filed out of the jungle. The flunkees were written up, given back their armbands, and sent out for another lesson with their group.
By three o'clock Talon was in real pain. His bruised muscles had stiffened, and he could hardly move his arms. He rode the school bus in a daze, and got off at his uncle's house with the single goal of taking some aspirin and going to sleep. He walked up the driveway, which seemed steeper than ever, and glanced at the shrubbery, thinking of the Chaotix. "Hey guys," he said in a low voice, "call Knuckles and tell him I'll call at seven."
A hand emerged from a bush in the thumbs-up sign, and Talon went inside. He located some aspirin, took two, and entered his room. He painfully dragged his dresser in front of his door, made sure his window was locked, then stretched out on his bed.
When he awoke hours later, it was pitch black in his room, and he was freezing. He lifted his head and pain rippled over his torso. The aspirin must have worn off. He sat up and heard his communicator clicking. He pulled it out and realized it was after nine o'clock, when he had meant to call in at seven. He pressed the receive button and rasped, "Hello?"
"Talon?" Zephyer's voice sounded relieved. "Where were you? I've been calling and calling!"
"I was asleep," said Talon, realizing he was hungry, and remembering he would have to move his dresser to leave his room. "When can I come home?"
Zephyer sighed. "Not for a few weeks, at least. Did you sleep all afternoon?"
"Are you sick?"
"No ..." Talon was reluctant to admit he was hurt.
"I got hurt at school."
There was a pause, and Talon heard Zephyer's muffled voice in the background as she talked with her hand over the microphone. "How long has this been going on?" She sounded angry.
"Not long," Talon lied. "I wandered off and they found me." He didn't want to admit that he had let them pound him--not to an echidna, who never dreamed of walking away from a fight.
"Well, if it happens again, call me," said Zephyer. "I won't stand by and see you hurt so bad that you sleep for--for six hours!"
"Okay." Talon wondered what Zephyer could do, but didn't say anything.
There was a mutter in the background, and Zephyer said, "Oh yeah. Talon, you know that emerald armor your dad collected? Do you know if it had a helmet?"
"A helmet? I think so. He kept it locked up somewhere."
"Did Kit and Kardot get it?"
"No." Talon tried to remember. The shock of losing both his parents had turned that period of his life into a nightmarish jumble, and he hadn't cared what happened to the armor. He remembered something about his uncle receiving whatever belongings of his father's that had survived the fire. "Uncle Pendel might have it."
"Could you look around the house for it? Knuckles let me try on the armor, then he assaulted me with the Emerald Sword, and I started thinking about helmets."
Talon nearly laughed, but it hurt his stomach. "I'll look for it."
"I guess that's all. Be careful, Talon. If anything happened to you, I'd ... I'd ..." She trailed off.
"Thanks," he said softly.
"Bye Zephyer." He turned off his com and looked at it, a rush of homesickness wrenching his heart. Then he moved his dresser back and ventured out into the dark house to get something to eat.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 6: Treasure Hunt
Chapter 6: Treasure hunt
Vector was sitting in the bushes at 10 PM, yawning and thinking about bed when his communicator buzzed. He flicked it on. "Yo."
"Hey you." It was Espio. "I'm back and ready for trouble. Where are you?"
"At Mori's," said the crocodile. "About ready to knock off for the evening and let Ralph take over. Want to come out here?"
"No," said Espio. "I've got other stuff to do. How's Talon doing?"
"Knux just called, said bullies have been pushing him around." Vector ground his teeth. "If I knew who they were ..."
"Ditto, man. I just turned red. I'm going to make a night of it, so see you in the morning."
Espio signed off, and Vector rose and located Ralph. The detective was sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, surveying the area through an infra red scope. "I'm shoving off," said Vector. "Espio might come by."
"Check," said Ralph. "Will that velociraptor come back?"
"I don't think so." They had seen Slasher the previous evening, but lost track of her when she took off and flew around overhead.
Vector found Charmy and Mighty, and they walked down to the portable teleporter.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Marshill, Espio entered a library and asked to see their newspaper archives. The newspapers were kept on disk, and the librarian showed him to a row of computers. Espio sat down and began searching.
Talon had been on the Floating Island three years, so his parents must have died around then. Espio searched for the name "Mori", and found a listing from four years previous. Wow, Talon had lasted a year with his uncle. No wonder the kid was so messed up. Espio opened the file. It was an article about an arson fire and the tragic deaths of Philip and Andrea Mori. Police were conducting an investigation and trying to find the arsonist. Espio found a few more articles, each one shorter and shorter. The investigation turned up suspects but no evidence, and the case was closed.
There was an obituary describing Philip as warmhearted and full of energy, with a passion for archeology. Andrea was listed as a loving wife and mother who contributed much to the community and participated actively in her son's acting career. They were survived by their only son Konya, and Philip's brother Pendel.
Well, now he knew Talon's parents' names. Espio sat back and thought. Had Philip Mori had a will? That would tell who had received the armor, wouldn't it? He would have to look up whoever Philip's lawyer had been. His thoughts jumped to Howe with sudden suspicion. What if that was the reason she hated Pendel?
The chameleon rose, left the library and hotfooted it across town. At night Marshill came to life with lights and lots of people who had slept half the say, and were out to enjoy the warm night. Espio enjoyed the night life, but he was too busy to sightsee.
Howe was working late when she heard a knock on the office door. "Come in," she said, and looked up as a purple chameleon stepped in. The ferret rose. "What can I do for you?"
"Call me Espio," he said, shaking her hand. "I'm a friend of Knuckles Echidna's, and I'm doing some research for him."
How studied him. "Really. What kind of research?"
"I'm interested in Philip Mori's will. Any idea where I could find a copy?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Possibly. Why?"
"I'm interested in the whereabouts of some of Philip's collections," said Espio, looking Howe in the eye. "I wanted to know if they wound up in Pendel's clutches."
Howe smiled. "Ah, I understand you now. One moment." She left, and returned several minutes later with a sheet of paper in her hands. She handed it to Espio and watched him as he read it.
It was straightforward. Everything went to Philip's wife, and if she died, then everything went to Talon. There was no mention of anything specific. Espio looked at Howe. "If I told you what I'm after, could you help me?"
"Okay," said Espio. "Philip collected an entire suit of really rare armor. It was stolen by Kit and Kardot and is currently in Knuckles's possession, because Talon didn't want it. But the helmet is missing and I'm trying to find it."
Howe looked thoughtfully at the will. "I happen to know that the helmet was the jewel of Phil's collection. It might also explain that letter that was with the will." She left and returned with another sheet of paper.
"So were you Philip's lawyer?" Espio asked as she handed him the paper.
"No. Philip's lawyer retired shortly before the fire. I inherited some of his clients, and knew Phil about six months."
Espio smiled. "You liked him."
She shrugged and gestured to the letter. "Go on, read it."
Espio looked read it.
"To whom it may concern,
"The crown of my collection has today been hidden in a secret place where only a member of my family can find it. There are three clues they must find. Here is the first one.
The name of an island before the island fell
Remember the chime of the blue and white bell
Find the remains of a modern well
And open the door beneath the dell."
* * *
"A treasure hunt?" Knuckles stared at Espio. "You're kidding me."
It was near noon the following day. Knuckles and Zephyer had emerged from the Orphan Aid office where a caseworker was helping them through the approval process, and met the Chaotix on the sidewalk. Espio told them about Philip Mori's letter, and recited the rhyme from memory.
Zephyer looked at Knuckles. "Any of that make sense to you?"
"Nope," he replied. "I assume it has something to do with Blackguard, and I don't know anything about this island."
"Talon would," said Vector. "This was his dad, you know. Could we call and ask him?"
"I'd rather take him with us," said Knuckles, looking fierce. "Tomorrow's Saturday. Is there any law that keeps a kid from hanging out with friends on the weekend?"
"No," chorused the Chaotix.
"Good," said Knuckles. "Tomorrow we'll invite him to spend the day with us. Or maybe this afternoon when he gets off school."
"I want to make sure he's all right," muttered Zephyer. "This talk of bullies has me worried. You know Talon doesn't stand up for himself."
"That's for sure," said Mighty. "All those times we teased him and he just faded away ..." The group looked at each other, sharing a protective jealousy for the youngest member of their clan.
"Let's get lunch," said Knuckles. "Then let's go find Talon's school. I want to know more about this place. You know he hasn't mentioned it at all?"
They trooped off down the sidewalk under the blistering sun, and found a restaurant with air-conditioning. After eating lunch, they hit the hot streets to find Happy Mobian Academy.
It was nearly three o'clock by the time they located it, but at last they they stood on the corner across from it, looking up at the white building with its wide manicured lawn and trees. It was quiet and dignified, and the group gazed up at it, imagining Talon in a classroom somewhere.
They had stood there three minutes when a school bus pulled to the curb, and the school's doors burst open and students flooded out. More school buses pulled up and kids ran to them, yelling and shouting. Knuckles motioned for everyone to stay put, then crossed the street to enter the schoolyard. He watched the door for Talon, and after a while the anteater emerged, walking slowly and deliberately. Knuckles had never seen Talon move like that, and watched him descend the steps. Talon kept his eyes on the ground, and would have walked past him if Knuckles had not said, "Talon!"
Talon's head snapped up, and the look of joy that flooded his face was so strong he seemed to grow two inches. He ran up and went to hug Knuckles, but checked himself and looked at the other kids. He extended a hand instead, and Knuckles shook it, grinning. Knuckles led him away from the school, across the street.
"What are you doing here, sir?" Talon asked.
"We came to get you," said Knuckles. "Spend the afternoon with us, and we'll take you to your uncle's, then pick you up tomorrow for the day."
Talon glowed. "Yes sir!"
They reached Zephyer and the Chaotix, and Zephyer grabbed Talon and hugged him. He whimpered, and she released him. "Sore," he said, touching his sides.
Knuckles and Zephyer exchanged glances of identical fury and indignation. Knuckles said, "From bullies?"
"Yes sir." Talon looked down. "They knocked me down and kicked me."
"They could have broken your ribs!"
"When we get home, I'll teach you some self-defense moves," said Knuckles. "Come on, let's get out of the sun."
Talon looked up with a smile. Home meant the Floating Island, which meant Knuckles and Zephyer had not given up.
They entered the shade of a huge eucalyptus, and Knuckles said, "You know how we're looking for your dad's helmet?"
"Yes sir. I looked for it last night, but I didn't see it anywhere."
"We found out your dad hid it and left a trail of clues to follow. It was with his will."
Talon looked surprised, then grinned. "Dad loved treasure hunting."
"We need your help figuring out the clues," said Espio, pushing forward. "Can we start now?"
"Um, okay," said Talon.
"Okay, what does this mean?" said Espio. "The name of an island before it fell, remember the chime of the blue and white bell, find the remains of a modern well and open the door beneath the dell."
They all watched Talon for a reaction. For a moment he looked blank, then he smiled. "The blue and white bell hung above the door in Dad's shop, so he knew when people came in. It was from a ship."
"What about the first part?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Talon. "Blackguard was called Blacksand until the Siguards took it over a hundred years ago. The beach on the west side is made of black sand."
"We have a location!" whooped Vector, and the Chaotix exchanged high fives.
"It's only a couple miles from here," said Knuckles. "Can you walk that far, Talon?"
"Yes sir." Talon would have walked all the way to West Mobius if it meant being with them.
* * *
The black sand beaches were popular among sunbathers, because the sand absorbed heat and toasted anything that touched it. The beach backed up against basalt cliffs, which had worn away to create the black beach.
The islanders walked along the beach, wetting their feet in the Ausif ocean to keep them cool. They kept their eyes peeled for a blue and white bell, or the remains of a well. "What's a modern well, anyway?" asked Zephyer.
"Oh," said Knuckles, "it's a big tank with pipes that go down to the water table."
"So we're looking for a broken one," said Zephyer with a nod. "I wish there weren't so many people!" The beach was crawling with them.
"You're just used to our own private beaches," said Knuckles in her ear.
The Chaotix spread out, exploring and checking out the females. Knuckles watched them. "They're enjoying this detective thing."
"They have me under surveillance," said Talon. "Espio especially."
"You need it, kiddo," said Zephyer. "You haven't seen anything like what Espio saw, have you?"
"No ma'am," said Talon. "I haven't been near the basement." He looked down as something bumped his leg, and saw Knuckles and Zephyer were wearing swords. "Why are you carrying those, sir?"
"Protection," said Knuckles. Talon looked questioning, but neither echidna pursued the subject. Warning him about Slasher was a touchy business, because they had given him her whistle for protection.
Half a mile further on, the cliffs jutted out in a rocky point, and a lighthouse stood at the end. The three climbed a winding path over the rocks, and the Chaotix straggled after them. Vector tapped Knuckles on the shoulder. "Hey boss, I asked about a busted well, and this guy said there's one at the north point."
"How far is the north point?" said Knuckles.
"Thirty miles," said Talon quietly. When they had stopped, he sat down on a rock and rubbed his ribs.
Zephyer watched him with fire in her eyes.
"Oh," said Knuckles, looking at Talon with the same heated look. "We'll try there tomorrow. How much further do you want to go?"
"Until dark!" said Vector.
"Get lost, then," said Knuckles. "We're going to rest here a minute."
Vector opened his mouth to make a snide comment, but caught Knuckles's slight gesture at Talon. "I'm heading this way, see ya!" The crocodile jogged off, flipping on his headphones.
Knuckles and Zephyer sat on either side of Talon and gazed out at the ocean, which was a brilliant mass of gold under the sinking sun. The lighthouse was silhouetted against it with a flock of seagulls perched on its roof. They sat there without speaking, content to be together in the short time they had.
"Are you in pain?" Zephyer asked.
"It's not bad," said Talon without looking at her.
Zephyer looked at Knuckles as a flicker of electric indignation raced between them. Talon jumped. "Ow!"
Knuckles and Zephyer stared at him. "What?"
"Something shocked me," said Talon, inspecting the rock he was sitting on.
"You felt that?" said Knuckles, rising to his feet.
"Yeah, what was it, sir?"
Knuckles gave Zephyer a puzzled look. A new twist to this electric thing. "Nevermind. Let's go on."
The had descended the trail to the shore again when Zephyer paused, looking back. "Hey ... did you notice the lighthouse is blue and white?"
Knuckles and Talon squinted against the glare off the ocean. The lighthouse had two broad blue bands painted on it.
"Let's go look at it," said Zephyer, setting off across the sand.
Knuckles looked at Talon as they followed her. "What do you think?"
Talon shrugged. "It said 'remember the chime of the blue and white bell'. It didn't say find the bell itself."
A wooden boardwalk was built over the rocks to the lighthouse, and Zephyer trotted along it until she reached the rocky hill the lighthouse was built on. The lighthouse was as big around as a regular house, and its top looked small and distant as she stood at its foot. Out here at the end of the land, the ocean surrounded her, and Zephyer was conscious of how vast and deep it was. She gazed out at the horizon until Knuckles and Talon caught up with her.
Talon paced around the lighthouse, looking down at the rocks and the water lapping them. He was at the far side of the tower when he came upon a pile of metal scraps and a long tank, overgrown with weeds. He looked at it for a moment before he wondered if this was the remains of a modern well. "Knuckles sir!" he called. "Look at this!"
Knuckles and Zephyer hurried up and looked at the junk. "That was a well, all right," said Knuckles. He drew his sword and poked around in the weeds with it. "Now what?"
Talon was staring at the wall of the lighthouse just above the scraps. Scraped into the plaster was the outline of a footprint. He pulled off his right shoe and fit it into the footprint--it matched exactly. He looked toward the lighthouse's roof, the echidnas following his gaze. "Dad wrote these clues for me. So I could use my shoes." He backed up and spoke two words in Old Mobian. The soles of his shoes lit up, and he floated to the top of the lighthouse.
"'Chaos activated'," Zephyer translated. "That's all the password is?"
"Old Mobian passwords are very logical," said Knuckles, sheathing his sword. "I'm glad Talon's with us. I never would have noticed that footprint."
They watched as Talon landed on the roof. He was out of sight for a moment, then he jumped off the roof and descended to them. He held out a metal cannister with a screw protruding from the bottom, which had held it to the roof. "I found this up there with another footprint by it. It's rusted shut."
Knuckles took the cannister, twisted the top and opened it. Inside was a key.
Talon took it and tried the lighthouse door, which opened. Knuckles and Zephyer followed him inside.
Inside was a round room with a circular staircase winding up into the ceiling. "The door beneath the dell," muttered Talon, walking to a trapdoor in the floor. Knuckles helped him lift it, and they looked down into the musty darkness within.
"I'll go down there," said Knuckles. "My sword glows." He climbed down in the hole and vanished. Zephyer and Talon stood at the top and looked in.
"What's down there?" called Zephyer.
"Looks like a basement," came Knuckles's voice. "It's empty."
"Empty?" said Talon. "You're sure, sir?"
There was a moment of silence, then Knuckles said, "No, I guess not. Ha, typical! I'm coming up." He climbed up out of the basement. Stuck through his belt was a bottle with a cork in it. Talon grinned when he saw it. "Believed in doing things properly, didn't he?" said Knuckles, pulling out the cork. "The message in a bottle." He looked at his thick fingers, then handed the bottle to Talon.
Talon slipped a finger through the bottle's mouth and pulled out a roll of paper. He unrolled it, and the three read it together.
"Through the hole and past the Three
Climb the hill and view the sea
Then down beyond the twisted tree
View the Quadrangle from the lee
Of the final standing Key."
* * *
Slasher lay on the roof in the shadows of an overhanging tree that evening, watching as the islanders dropped off Talon. He left them on the porch, and she heard the click of the front door as it opened and closed. The islanders trooped back down the driveway, unaware of Slasher's presence.
The velociraptor had spent the day thinking over the situation. She was a danger to herself and those around her, and Knuckles didn't want her on the Floating Island. But he expected her to provide silent protection for Talon, because Talon still had the whistle. So Slasher would protect Talon.
There was no sound from inside the house. The remains of the sunset faded from the sky, and crickets and frogs sang in the jungle growth all around. After an hour, Slasher guessed Talon had gone to bed, and rose from her hiding place. She padded down the roof and jumped into the yard. She sniffed, but there was no wind and she couldn't tell if any watchers remained in the yard. Deciding it didn't matter, she paced to the mass of ivy growing over Talon's window and peered in.
Her darkness-attuned eyes made out the anteater's shape curled up under the blankets. Slasher was tempted to roam around and figure out what had frightened her before, but instead she lay down in the flowerbed under Talon's window. Hunting the creature was shooting herself in the foot and she knew it.
The neighborhood was quiet. Slasher could hear the murmur of the sea at the foot of the bluffs, and looked out at the ocean, darker blue than the sky and mirroring the stars. The Blackguard Quadrangle ... what might she discover by flying out there? Probably nothing--she had watched seagulls flying all afternoon, and none of them had any problems.
A sound. Slasher's head jerked up and she looked in the window. The bedroom door was open, and Talon's uncle was standing there. Slasher watched as he crossed the room and shook Talon. "Why did you get back from school so late?"
"Huh?" Talon sat up. "I was with some friends."
"Those echidnas?" Slasher couldn't see Pendel's face, but he sounded angry.
"Lie, Talon!" she thought.
"Yes," said Talon.
She shook her head as Mori said, "You are not to interact with that species, do you understand? Echidnas are vile and dangerous!"
"Why?" Talon was half-asleep and not functioning properly.
"Because I said so!" Mori moved toward the door. "Don't fall asleep, I'll be back." He left, closing the door.
Slasher tapped a claw on the window, and Talon turned and looked at her, then jumped up and unlocked the window. "Get in bed," said Slasher. "I'll get under your bed and give him a scare if he tries anything."
Talon nodded and pulled the blanket over himself as Slasher lay flat and squeezed under his bed.
Pendel Mori returned, carrying something that gleamed in the light from the hall. Talon shrank back. "You're giving me a shot?"
"This is the blood I took from you earlier," said Mori. "I'm putting it back in you, that's all. Give me your arm." He stepped up to the bed, and Slasher reached out and grabbed his ankle.
Mori screamed and leaped backward, nearly falling over. "What was that??"
"What?" asked Talon innocently.
Mori edged sideways toward the door, and for effect, Slasher reached out her arm again and swiped at his legs. Mori bolted, slamming the door behind him.
"I'd better get out of here before he comes back with a gun," said Slasher, crawling out.
Talon was grinning. "That was great. Look, he dropped the hypodermic needle." He picked it up off his sheets and handed it to Slasher.
"I think I'll get this analyzed," she said. "Don't let him stick any needles in you, okay?"
She whisked out the window and he closed it behind her.
Mori didn't return for the rest of the night.
* * *
Espio's communicator clicked and he lifted it. "Yeah?"
"Espio? This is Slasher."
"Would you happen to know where to find a lab in this city?"
"A lab? What for?" Espio motioned that he would be back, and left the Orphan Aid office for a moment. It was warm outside after the air conditioned interior, and Espio felt feeling return to his extremities.
"Mori tried to inject Talon with something and I got the hypodermic. I want to get it tested."
"No kidding." Espio blended with the wall as some people walked by. "I saw a lab downtown on Oleander road. Want me to have Howe meet you down there? She might be able to use it as evidence."
"Good idea! It'll probably take me an hour to get there. Does Howe mind running around at one AM?"
"Everybody on this island is nocturnal, Slash. I haven't seen one business closed at night since we got here."
"Really. May I ask how you know this?"
"No you may not." Espio grinned to himself. "We found the second clue, did you hear?"
"You did? That was quick."
"Because we're brilliant, that's why. We're going to hunt down the next one tomorrow, if Talon survives."
"He will. He barricaded the door. Make sure you warn the lawyer that she's meeting with a velociraptor."
"Will do. Espio out."
* * *
Howe and Slasher met as Slasher was depositing the hypodermic into an envelope at the lab counter. "Hello," said the ferret. "You must be Slasher."
"And you must be Ms. Howe," said Slasher, handing the envelope to the chemist. The raptor and ferret shook hands. "Is there somewhere we can talk?"
Howe eyed Slasher's claws and long tail. "We'll have as much privacy here as anywhere."
The two withdrew into a corner, and Slasher recounted in a low voice what had happened earlier than evening. Howe stared. "Why would he draw blood, then re-inject it?"
"I don't know," said Slasher. "I'm thinking he added something to it, and if he did, it won't look good in court. I'm a witness."
Howe scribbled this down on a notepad. "Finally, the armor has a chink! I've been looking for something like this for years. I can get social services on him if those lab results show anything."
"He also has some kind of creature in the basement," said Slasher in a near-whisper.
Howe gave her a sharp look. "How do you know?"
"Espio and I have seen it. Or Espio saw one of its legs. And I ... I think I attacked it. I don't really remember."
"You don't remember?"
"I snapped. I woke up twenty miles away with its blood all over my face."
Howe stared at her for a long time. "This happens often?"
"No." Slasher looked down. "I'm afraid to look for it for fear of what might happen. But the basement is always locked."
"Forget social services, we'll get a search warrant," said the ferret with a sudden grin. "When do those results come back?"
"Next Friday," said Slasher. "Next Friday, let the games begin."
* * *
Saturday dawned hot and clear over Blackguard and the Floating Island alike. Zephyer awoke to a metallic jingling, and lifted her head. Knuckles was seated on the floor, inspecting the contents of an old, dented coffee can. "Knux?" she said, sitting up. "What are you doing?"
He looked so guilty that Zephyer was sure she had caught him laundering stolen money. "Oh, I, uh." He cleared his throat and tilted the can so she could see the chunks of yellow metal inside. "I was looking at my gold ore."
Zephyer climbed out of bed. "Gold ore? Where'd it come from?"
"The island, of course," said Knuckles. "There's not much gold here, but it turns up once in a while."
She took the can and examined a few pieces. "Why'd you look so guilty?"
He looked down at the floor for a moment. "If I tell you, promise not to get mad?"
Zephyer's eyes widened. "Oh no. What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything." Knuckles glanced at her sideways, then held up one hand to show her his wedding ring. "This is brass."
Zephyer stared at the ring for a few seconds, then dissolved into laughter. She sank to the floor beside him and doubled over, and Knuckles watched her with a half smile. When her laughter had subsided, he said, "At least you think it's funny. I was afraid you'd bite my head off."
"Why is it brass?" she asked, wiping her streaming eyes.
Knuckles explained about forgetting to have a ring made before the wedding, then added that he hadn't had a chance to have a gold one made. "That's why I was looking at my ore. If I provide my own gold and pattern, it won't be so expensive." He took off his ring and held it up. It fit easily over Zephyer's whole hand. "That's a lot of gold."
"But this is unrefined gold," said Zephyer, lifting the can. "Will there be enough?"
"That's what I was wondering," said Knuckles with a wry smile. "I'll have it made when we go to town today. Hopefully it won't take more than a couple of days."
"You married me with a brass ring," said Zephyer, and broke into laughter again. "Sounds like some kind of joke!"
* * *
At dawn, Talon awoke and was afraid his uncle would keep him home if he ventured out of his room. As the sun rose, he escaped through his window, activated his shoes and flew from tree to tree, watching the road for the Chaotix or echidnas.
Around eight o'clock he saw Knuckles walking up the roadside by himself, looking up at the house with a worried expression. Talon dove out of the tree. "Knuckles sir!"
Knuckles turned with a grin. "I should have figured you'd be out already. I was wondering how to break a door down quietly."
"A window would be easier," said Talon, still grinning. He and Knuckles set off back down the road.
"How're your ribs?" Knuckles asked.
"Better today, sir," Talon replied, rubbing them. "My breathing's easier."
"Good," said Knuckles. "Zephyer wants you to see a doctor."
"I'm fine, really, sir."
"I know you are. How about breakfast?"
They met up with the Chaotix and Zephyer at an outdoor diner. They had a cheerful breakfast, tossing around ideas about the meaning of the second clue. Talon understood the first line. "Through the hole and past the three--that's in the island preserve outside of Marshill. There's a hole in the fence that Dad found, then there's three rocks that look like tombstones up the hill."
"Looks like some hiking is in order," said Mighty. "Think you're up to it, Zephyer?"
"I am if you are," she said. "This is fun."
They took a bus to the island preserve, which was in the island's interior--a fifty mile patch of jungle crisscrossed by dirt trails. The trails were fenced to keep people from wandering off, but Talon's father had discovered a loose post that could be lifted aside like a gate. He and Talon had used it several times, and as Talon watched Knuckles move the post, he wondered if his Dad had been the last one to touch it. He felt the backs of his eyes grow hot.
The group climbed up to the three tombstone-rocks. "The next line's easy," said Espio. "Climb the hill and view the sea."
This took a bit more effort, for the hill was steep and rocky, and the trees and undergrowth blocked their view of the landscape. But after half an hour the ground levelled out, and the trees opened up in a clearing. The ocean was visible behind them to the south, east and west. To the north it was blocked by more hills.
"Down beyond the twisted tree," read Knuckles from the piece of paper. "Spread out, everybody. Look for a twisted tree."
After a quick search, Zephyer found it--an ancient pine, bent and twisted by the wind and weather. It was the only pine on the hilltop.
"Now we go down beyond the twisted tree," said Knuckles, "and view the Quadrangle from the lee of the final standing key. What's a standing key?"
"The Quadrangle is to the east," said Zephyer, pointing, "so that's the direction we go. Any ideas, Talon?"
The anteater shook his head.
"A key could be anything," said Vector. "For some reason I have an idea it's a rock."
"Then let's look for rocks," said Knuckles, leading the way back down the hill.
As they walked, Zephyer slipped her hand into his. "This is the life."
"You like adventuring, eh?" said Knuckles with a smile. "Even when Talon's future is in doubt?"
"In spite of it," said Zephyer, swatting a mosquito. "For now we're all together, and I like it."
"My life usually isn't this interesting," said Knuckles. "Usually I just work around the Floating Island instead of treasure-hunting."
"I'm not complaining," said Zephyer, returning his smile.
"You're not sorry you married me?"
"Even though you'll be chained to a Floating Island the rest of your life?"
"I don't mind that, I love the Floating Island almost as much as I love you."
Knuckles chuckled. "At least you didn't marry me for my real estate."
"Oh no," said Zephyer, dodging around a stickery yucca. "I got a guy who is strong, fun, mysterious, and handsome to boot."
"Handsome?" said Knuckles, throwing out his chest. "You think I'm handsome?"
"Yeah," said Zephyer. "Before I came here, my mom was trying to set me up with every cute guy she saw. You're the best-looking of the lot." When Knuckles looked smug, Zephyer added, "Don't get your ego in a knot. I could start naming your bad qualities, too."
"How about you don't," said Knuckles, and kissed her.
They were distracted by a shout from down the hill. "Hey, look at this!"
Knuckles and Zephyer broke into a run.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 7: Another sighting
Chapter 7: Another sighting
Slasher had watched Talon sneak out of the house from her perch on the roof. She had returned from
her meeting with Howe, and had snatched a few minutes of sleep. But now Talon was with Knuckles
and needed no further protection. Slasher laid her head on her forepaws and slept.
She awoke later in the day as something struck her in the nose. Her head jerked up and she saw
Ralph the mouse sitting on a branch opposite her with a handful of gravel. He waved, and she rose
and walked to the corner of the roof. "What do you want?"
"I need your help for a few minutes," said Ralph. "I need some photos of the inside of the barn out
back, and I can't reach the windows."
Slasher had a vague recollection that the barn was bad news, and said so. Ralph waved a hand. "You
don't have to go inside! Just jump on the roof and take some pictures. You don't even have to look in
if you don't want to."
Slasher studied him. "Why should I help you?"
"I'm looking for evidence to convict Mori," said Ralph, laying his ears back. "I thought you might
Slasher considered. The only sightings of the monster had been at night, and right now it was 11 AM
and over a hundred degrees. The daylight seemed safe and ordinary. "All right," she said. "But if I
start acting funny, climb a tree and stay there."
* * *
Knuckles and Zephyer arrived on a wide shelf jutting out of the hillside. The end of the shelf
dropped in a cliff twenty feet high into more forest. The shelf was empty of trees, and was scattered
with huge square stones, as if some ancient structure had fallen to pieces over countless years. Only
one stone stood upright, and it had a hole boared through the center.
Talon and the Chaotix were already there and discussing the last two lines of the clue. "View the
quadrangle from the lee of the final standing key," said Vector, walking around the block of stone.
"This has got to be the key, it looks too weird to be anything else. Hey Knuckles, which way is the
Knuckles strode around the stone, observing the lichen that grew on its surface. Then he pulled off a
glove, licked his finger and held it up to test the breeze. "This side," he said, stepping into the
sheltered side of the stone. "View the quadrangle ..." The hole through the stone faced east. Knuckles
stooped and looked through it. The hole looked over the treetops to the ocean.
"See anything, sir?" asked Talon.
Knuckles studied the view. "Nothing special. You guys see anything?"
One by one they all gathered around and peered through the hole. Nothing stood out to any of them.
They tried lining up the stone's top with the horizon, or standing back and seeing if they could see
something through the hole.
Talon stood at a distance by himself, thinking. He could imagine his father watching their efforts
with arms folded, laughing. It had to be something simple and brilliant. Something that gave Talon a
reason to use his shoes, because Philip had always encouraged Talon to practice flying.
Talon walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down. "I wonder..."
* * *
Slasher and Ralph strode through the wood in the back yard toward the barn. As soon as they
entered the trees, Slasher's sensitive nose caught the smell of carrion. It was not offensive to her--she
viewed overripe meat as a delicacy--but it put her on her guard. There was a carcass somewhere
around here, and a smell this strong would attract scavengers. She eyed Ralph and saw he looked ill.
"Why don't you hang back?" she asked. "Give me your camera. I don't mind the smell."
"Thanks," said the mouse, handing her a flat camera that was smaller than her hand. "Press this
button to take a picture."
Slasher nodded and bounded down the path toward the barn.
The smell was coming from the barn with enough potency to kill the surrounding foliage. Slasher
paused in the clearing and looked around. Something was wrong. She knew she had seen this
clearing before, and wracked her brain to figure out what had changed. She circled the barn, looking
and listening, head low and tail stiff.
The raptor made a complete circuit before she realized what it was. The clearing was bigger. Trees
and bushes on the borders were missing in a ring around the barn, leaving holes in the earth where
they had been torn up by the roots. Slasher investigated one such hole and found white splinters of
wood around it, as if the tree had been cut down. But the tree itself was gone--no dragmarks or tire
tracks showed where it had gone.
There were probably dozens of explanations, but it made Slasher uneasy all the same. She checked
the barn door, found it chained, and gazed at the high windows for several minutes, wondering if she
dared jump to the roof and look inside.
When the clearing remained quiet, Slasher opened her wings and used them to leap up on the barn
roof. She landed with a thud on the hot shingles and crouched there for a moment, listening for
sounds from within. Nothing happened. She hung over the edge of the roof and peered in a window.
Inside was dark and indistinct. Like Espio, Slasher guessed it was machinery covered by tarps. She
lifted the camera, stuck the lens between the bars and snapped a picture. It was so dark in there she
doubted it would turn out, so she flipped on the flash and took another snapshot.
For an instant the inside of the barn was illuminated in white light, and Slasher saw what the barn
actually contained. She screamed and leaped straight up off the roof.
Her initial leap carried her almost to the house with the aid of her wings, and her next leap carried
her to the road in front of the house. She crouched there in the shade, shaking and snarling, clutching
* * *
Talon activated his shoes and took imaginary steps over the treetops eastward. He looked back at the
keystone to make sure he was in line with it, then looked down at the trees below him. To his
surprise, he saw a tree with three trunks was just below him. The first verse sprang to mind--through
the hole and past the three. Did the rhyme have a twofold meaning? Talon dropped to investigate,
and saw the bottle wedged in the fork of a branch.
Talon worked it loose, grinning as his father's brilliance, and flew back to the others, who were still
puzzling about the stone. "Lookiee here!" said Vector. "The kid's found it! Where was it, Talon?"
"A tree with three trunks," said Talon, struggling to remove the cork. He handed it to Knuckles, who
removed the cork and handed it back. Talon reached in, pulled out the slip of paper, unrolled it and
read it aloud.
"Well done! Now direct your steps to the north end
Down the river to the final bend
Half a mile toward the day's end
Beyond the gate that dogs defend
Past the cows and another bend of the stream
Find the volcano's root and steam
Ten spaces south, twenty paces west and then
Tal, do your thing."
Talon's voice broke on the last line, and he quickly gave the paper to Knuckles and drew back from
the group. The Chaotix pretended not to notice.
"A rhyming road map, how nice," said Espio. "Can't say much for his poetry. And I don't like this
stuff about 'the gate that dogs defend'."
"Do we want to try to solve it today?" said Knuckles. "The north end's quite a ways from here."
"You think Talon is up to it?" murmured Charmy, as Zephyer went to Talon and put an arm around
"I don't know," said Knuckles. "Maybe we should--" He was interrupted as his communicator
buzzed. He clicked it on. "Hello?"
"Knuckles?" said a breathless voice. "This is Ralph Martin, the private detective. We've had a
breakthrough if I ever get my camera back."
"Really? What happened?"
"Slasher saw something and she's cracked up. She won't give my camera back and I'm dying to get the
film developed. Could you come down here? Maybe you could talk some sense into her."
"Where are you?"
"Up a tree on Mori's property. Slasher's down on the road, and she's menacing everyone who walks
Knuckles's eyes widened a fraction, and he looked over his shoulder to make sure Talon had not
heard this. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Knux out."
"I've got to go down there," he said to the Chaotix. "You guys go with Talon and Zeff and find the
helmet. You have your coms?"
"I'll call you later." Knuckles walked up to Zephyer and Talon, and took Zephyer aside. "Emergency
call," he said. "I have to go meet with the detective right away, he's uncovered something big." He
tried to tell Zephyer the real reason with his eyes.
She gazed at him, trying to guess. "Okay ..."
"Go hunt the clue without me. I'll call later." He mouthed, "Slasher," said Zephyer's eyes widened.
She looked down at his sword, and he nodded.
Talon watched them. "Is it serious, sir?"
"I think so." Knuckles patted his shoulder. "I expect you to find that helmet, all right?"
Knuckles ran to the cliff, jumped off and glided away over the trees.
"I wish I could do that," murmured Zephyer, watching. She looked at the Chaotix. "What are we
waiting for? Let's head out!"
* * *
It took an hour for Knuckles to reach East Boulder Lane, and he was hot and sweaty by the time
he turned onto the shady road. He dreaded what he would find, and drew his sword as he turned the
Slasher was lying in the weeds on the roadside, and Knuckles wouldn't have noticed her if he hadn't
been looking for her. As he approached, she lifted her head cobra-like, and glared at him.
"Hi Slasher," he called. "Are you sane?"
She only looked at him. Knuckles moved toward her cautiously. "I only want the camera." He could
see it in the grass between her forepaws. When he was ten feet away she bared her teeth and rose to
her feet. Knuckles was aware of how big she was. "Snap out of it, Slasher. I'd rather not use this
sword on you."
She stood her ground, but made no move to attack. Knuckles began speaking softly, as if to an upset
horse, hoping the sound of his voice would calm her. She watched him with her lemon-yellow eyes,
and her snarling subsided. He kept talking, but did not lower his sword. She might decide to maul
him and he didn't plan to let her get close enough.
Slasher's face began to relax, and the feral look faded. "Knuckles?" she said at last. "Oh gosh, I did it
"Camera, please," said Knuckles, sheathing his sword as a cold sweat of relief broke out on his back.
"What? Oh." She picked it up and handed it to him. "I must have got a picture of it. I turned the
flash on and ..." She gave a savage snarl. "I saw the abomination. It's in the barn, causing the smell.
Pendel Mori is a fiend--I can't see how he's related to Talon."
Ralph ventured into sight, peering at Slasher. Knuckles gave him a thumbs up, and the mouse
hurried out to them. "Thank goodness! Slasher said to climb a tree and stay there, and that's what I
"Good move," said Slasher. "I could eat you in ..." She sized him up. "Six bites."
Ralph stared at her as Knuckles handed him the camera. "There. Get it developed."
"Will do," said Ralph, and jogged off toward town, casting worried looks over his shoulder at the
"So what is this abomination?" asked Knuckles.
Slasher gazed up at Mori's house. "I can't describe it. The sight of it sends me out of my mind. What
scares me even more is the question of where it came from." She looked at Knuckles. "Mori belongs
"When did that occur to you?" said Knuckles. "Howe said you'd dug up some evidence against
"A hypodermic," said Slasher. "The lab results come back Friday, then we'll see."
"Friday," said Knuckles. "I wish this adoption approval stuff went faster. Sunday we're having a
caseworker come out and inspect the house to make sure we won't be locking Talon in the shed or
"Yeah, they need to know that," said Slasher. "Where's the group and Talon?"
"Treasure-hunting." Knuckles glanced at his communicator's clock. "They'll be up at the north end
by now. Maybe they've solved the puzzle already."
"Let's go, then," said Slasher, dropping a wing. "We'll fly up there."
Knuckles hesitated. He had never enjoyed riding Slasher, because he was afraid he'd fall off and his
legs went to sleep. But he hated even worse for Slasher to think he was a coward. He climbed on her
back and held on as she jumped off the bluff and soared out over the sea.
* * *
There were several streams on the north side of the island, but a mile from the shore they flowed
together and wound down to the ocean. Zephyer, Talon and the Chaotix followed it, trying to decide
which bend was the final one.
Espio stopped and looked back. He had been checking his watch for the last hour, and now he said,
"Sorry guys, but I have to go."
The Chaotix stopped as Zephyer and Talon walked on ahead. "Go?" exclaimed Charmy. "Why?
We're halfway there!"
"I have an appointment I can't miss," said the chameleon.
"Bet he's got a girlfriend," said Vector with a grin.
"No," said Espio, "although I wouldn't mind that. You guys will find out my scheme in due time.
Call me when you find the treasure." He turned and jogged up the path.
The Chaotix looked at each other and shrugged. "He's not happy unless he's up to something," said
"But to quit when we're so close!" exclaimed Vector. "I hope he has a really good reason."
The Chaotix hurried to catch up with Zephyer and Talon.
The stream bent a final time, then poured down a rocky channel to the sea. "This is it," said Zephyer.
She consulted the clue. "Half a mile toward the day's end. That's west, right?"
"No, Zephyer," said Vector. "Everybody knows the sun sets in the east."
She stuck out her tongue at him and stepped over the stream westward. They followed her.
Zephyer led the way along the top of a rough, broken lava flow that sliced the soles of their shoes
and creaked as they walked. For a while scrubby grass grew here and there, but it gave way to
nothing but hot bare rock under the sun.
Half a mile further on they came to a rusty barbed wire fence, and they gathered around it. "The gate
that dogs defend," said Talon, peering around. "Maybe I should investigate." He ignited his shoes
and took to the sky, peering in all directions. Zephyer and the Chaotix watched him fly high over the
rocky plain. After a while he returned. "There's a junkyard way south of here, and I saw some dogs,
but they're chained. Over there, west, is another stream."
Zephyer checked the directions. "Past the cows and another bend of the stream. See any cows?"
"Nope," said Talon, landing on the far side of the fence. One by one they crawled through, and hiked
across the fenced plain. It enclosed five acres, and beyond it the land dipped and vegetation appeared
again. A small stream ran over the rocks, and on the far side, under the trees, several cows lay in the
grass, chewing their cud. The group ignored them and plunged into the shade for a rest.
"Past another bend of the stream," said Mighty, reading the clue. "The stream bends off over there."
"Now we look for an active volcano," said Vector, rubbing his hands together. "I'm betting it looks
way different from Lava Reef."
"Why should it?" said Charmy. "Lava's lava no matter where it is."
Vector shrugged. "I want to see some, okay?"
"Then let's go," said Zephyer. "Better than listening to you guys bicker."
They followed the stream to its next bend, and hiked along the shore. The beach was made of broken
rock and some sand. They began to notice a smell of rotten eggs as they walked, and the sand gave
way to a crumbly, porous rock. "Look, steam!" said Mighty, pointing. The group hurried toward it.
A finger of black rock was thrust out into the ocean, and steam poured from a vast fissure in its
surface. Vector climbed up on it and looked in.
"Well?" Charmy called.
Vector climbed down. "I can't see anything, there's too much smoke. But boy is it hot!"
Zephyer checked the clue. "Ten paces south, twenty west. Let's count them off." They all walked
away from the beach, up the cooled lava floes ten paces. Then they walked across them twenty
paces. It bought them to a ten-foot wall created by cooled lava. Zephyer looked at Talon. "Do your
Talon's throat constricted, and he had to whisper the activation phrase for his shoes. He flew up on
top of the lava flow and looked around. There was nothing there. He inspected the rock at his feet,
and smiled. The outline of a shoe was scraped into the rock. He set his foot in it and saw up the hill a
tree with an arrow carved in its trunk pointing down. He looked down at the others. "Over there! A
tree with an arrow on it!"
The group ran around the rocky wall and arrived panting at the marked tree. They looked at the
ground, and realized they had nothing to dig with.
"That's no problem," said Mighty. "We're natural diggers, aren't we?"
Talon looked at his claws, shrugged, dropped to all fours and began digging. After a moment, so did
the rest of them.
It was buried under a foot of sandy soil. Before long their hands struck something that sounded
hollow, and they yelped and dug faster. It was a plastic box and surprisingly large--two feet to a side.
They located the corners, gripped it and heaved the box from its resting place.
Zephyer and Talon tried to open the airtight lid and failed. "Here, let me," said Mighty with a smug
look. He pried open the lid without trying.
They stared down at a golden disk two feet across, studded with sky-blue stones. It was intricately
carved with snakes and geometric patterns, and the Island Seal was etched in the center.
"The shield," said Talon, picking it up. "I remember this." He fit his arm through the straps on the
inside, and held it up with a grunt.
The group turned their attention back to the box. It was full of sawdust, and Zephyer plunged her
hands into it. "Here it is!" she exclaimed, brushing the shavings aside. She held up an odd-looking
helmet. The top was studded with three rows of thick triangular spikes, and the lower edges had
what looked like droplets of melted metal protruding from it.
Zephyer put it on her head, and the droplet-shapes fit down between her dreadlocks to clasp her
skull. The noseguard was a triangle that protected the top of her muzzle, and a red stone was set in
the forehead. Suddenly Zephyer looked like a warrior from the past with the ferocious aspect of her
personality enhanced. Then she laughed and took it off, and the vision passed. "I'll bet I look like an
"You look scary," said Vector. "I'd hate to see Knux in it."
"And why is that?" asked Knuckles, striding toward them from the beach. Slasher was picking her
way over the rocks behind him. Zephyer gave the raptor a sharp look.
"It had this shield with it, sir," said Talon, hefting the gold disk. "Look at the jewels in it!"
Knuckles took it, hooked his arm through the straps, and blocked imaginary blows with it. Unlike
Talon, the weight didn't trouble him. "Now this could come in handy," he said. "Let's see that
When Knuckles put it on, it looked like the crown of a warrior king, and the Chaotix all took a step
backwards. Even Slasher kept her distance.
"What?" said Knuckles, watching them. "Does it really make me look scary?"
"It sure does," said Zephyer, looking at Knuckles as if his fur had suddenly turned blue. "No wonder
Island Warriors were so feared! It changes the whole way you look."
Knuckles pulled it off and handed it to Zephyer. "Put it on, I want to see." She did, and he gazed at
her in slow shock. "Dang, Zeff."
She pulled it off. "I see why your dad kept this locked up, Talon."
Knuckles checked his com-watch. "Not bad. It's only one o'clock. Let's hike back and you guys show
me all the landmarks."
"And I need to call Espio," said Vector, turning on his com. "He split a while ago, said he had stuff
Knuckles frowned. "Stuff to do, huh? I hope it's legal."
They took their time hiking back, pausing often to rest in the shade as the day reached its hottest
hours. They arrived back in town at three o'clock, hot and thirsty. They mobbed a restaurant for cold
drinks, then remembered they hadn't had lunch, and ordered food. They were aware that Talon had
to return to his uncle's house, and none of them wanted that time to come. They made lunch last as
long as possible, nibbling snacks until five, when they had a light dinner and caught an evening bus
Talon was quiet during the trip back. He kept thinking of the previous night when his uncle had
been so angry at him. He wondered what would happen when he came home from spending the day
with the echidnas. He told himself that he would whistle for Slasher as soon as he reached his room,
and keep her by him all night.
His opinion of her had changed since she had saved him from a potentially lethal injection. Anything
was better than Uncle Pendel's irrational fury, and even with her feral looks, she was associated with
home, and on those grounds he welcomed her.
The echidnas, Chaotix and velociraptor escorted Talon to the porch as quietly as possible. Talon
whispered goodbye and slipped in the front door, closing it softly behind him. Then he tiptoed down
the hall to his room, and twisted the door knob. The door didn't move.
He pushed harder, then realized that he had left his dresser in front of the door when he left that
morning. He would have to get into his room through the window.
Talon turned to retrace his steps, and froze with a gasp. Mori was standing at the end of the hall,
watching Talon's efforts to enter his room. "Hello, Konya. Did you have a nice day?" The mocking
tone in his voice told Talon that he knew everything. Talon didn't answer.
Mori walked toward him. "You have developed a deplorable amount of stubbornness lately. I told
you those echidnas were a bad influence on you. Hasn't school taught you anything?"
Talon kept quiet.
Mori gazed at him for a long moment. "It seems you are defiant to the last. Perhaps your bull-headed
streak might be curbed if I showed you what I found in your room today."
Talon's stomach knotted. The communicator! He called on his stage training to keep his face blank.
Mori was watching him. "Come with me." He grabbed Talon's wrist and led him down the hall,
through the living room, and around a corner to the basement stairs.
Talon had a vivid memory of Espio's instructions to scream and yell if he was taken to the basement,
and tried to twist out of his uncle's grasp. Mori grabbed him with surprising strength, dragged him
down the stairs and through the basement door.
Talon looked at the rear of the basement, but the partition was folded back. There was no monster. He
kicked and fought anyway as Mori wrestled him past the tables to the far corner of the basement.
Here was the chain--the thick, heavy kind used to fasten large logs to flatbed trucks. Mori grabbed
one end, looped it around Talon's neck and fastened it to itself so tightly that it nearly shut off
Talon's breath. Mori shoved him to the floor, and Talon sat there, breathing hard and groping at the
Mori straightened his shirt, watching Talon. "Maybe that'll teach you to listen to me, you brat. Now
pay attention." He walked to a nearby table and held up Slasher's whistle. "What is this?"
"It's a whistle," said Talon hoarsely. He hoped his uncle would blow it. The links of the chain were
digging into his throat, and he was panicking.
"It's a broken whistle," said Mori, ignoring Talon's discomfort and indicating the cut in the top. "Or
is it tuned to an ultra-high frequency?"
Talon pretended not to hear this and felt along the chain for the clasp.
Mori laid the whistle aside and held up the communicator. "And this is how you kept in contact with
the echidnas. I must say, the idea of modifying one of these units for long-range is impressive. He
must have paid a high price for it."
"He made it," said Talon in a burst of loyalty to Knuckles.
"No echidna has the brains for this," said Mori, waving a hand. "And to insure you don't go
wandering the island with them tomorrow, you will stay down here until Monday morning, when
you will go to school as usual. Understand?"
Talon's fingers located the clasp and opened it. The chain fell off his neck, and he bolted for the
door. Mori caught him by the tail, dragged him back to the corner and chained Talon again, this
time closing the clasp with a padlock. The chain was loose enough to allow Talon to breathe, and he
sat there panting, slumped forward under the chain's weight.
His mind raced. The chain was about ten feet long, which might let him reach the nearest table. It
was empty, however. Talon watched his uncle to see what he planned to do with the communicator,
and drooped in disappointment as Mori clamped it in a vice and began taking it apart.
The minutes passed, and neither spoke. Mori paid no attention to Talon, who was glad. He crawled
into the corner and leaned into it to ease the weight of the chain. It was so heavy he could hardly
move. He thought wistfully of the islanders, who were probably still in the driveway when he was
dragged down here. He should have yelled. How had Mori got the whistle and com when the door
was barricaded shut? He must have used the window.
Now there was nothing to do but wonder what awful things Uncle Pendel might to do him. Talon
thought of their encounter in the hall, and the mention of his education. Suddenly he had an idea. If
that school trained kids to behave like animals, then Uncle Pendel must expect him to act like one.
Talon's five years of film acting returned in a flash, and suddenly he had a character to play. A beaten,
hateful kid, half-wild and probably dangerous.
Talon slipped to all fours and lay on his belly, breathing through his teeth. As he detailed this
alternate version of himself, his face became hard and distant. If he worked hard enough, maybe he
could convince his uncle he was semi-feral. His mind slipped into a long-disused track, where Talon
stepped aside and became someone else. He was secretly pleased at the chance to perform, and if it
didn't work, then at least if gave him something to do.
He would be here for another thirty-six hours.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 8: Waiting
Chapter 8: Waiting
The Chaotix left to find Ralph, who had offered to loan them some books on detective work. Slasher
wanted to stick around Mori's house in case Talon needed her, so Knuckles and Zephyer took the
teleporter home by themselves.
The Floating Island seemed silent and empty after the bustle of Blackguard, and Knuckles and
Zephyer missed Talon. They said nothing about it to each other. Zephyer went hunting for the chao,
who had left a note saying they had gone on a safari. Knuckles went off by himself to unwind and
watch the sun set.
He returned to the house after dark. He found Zephyer in the living room with his old electricity
meter on the floor. She looked up as he entered. "Oh good, you're back."
"Find the chao?" he asked, walking up and looking at the batteries, wires and light bulbs Zephyer
"Yeah," said Zephyer. "They were mad at us for being gone all day. I fed them dinner and they're in
"What are you doing?" Knuckles asked, gesturing to the electrical apparatus.
She smiled. "I wanted to try to measure our eye-charge thing."
Knuckles sat down across from her and picked up one of the wires connected to the meter. "These
are positive and negative. If we hold either end, won't we fry each other?"
"We do anyway," said Zephyer. "I'll hold the negative end, it suits me."
Knuckles nodded and tried not to smile. "Okay, but if this blows up my meter, you're buying me a
"Sounds fair," said Zephyer. "Think about ... uh ..."
"Blowing up the meter," said Knuckles, grinning. They locked eyes and the electric pulse jumped
between them. The meter's needle bounced to 20 volts.
"Hah!" said Zephyer. "It worked!"
"We've had stronger jolts than that," said Knuckles. "Think about Talon."
The needle indicated 70 volts. Knuckles gazed at it. "It must be chaos energy manifesting as
"We could use it as a weapon!" said Zephyer. "Imagine if we had our swords, and the armor, and
this electric thing, too!"
"We have to control it, first," said Knuckles. "Think about the Master Emerald."
The meter sprang to 500 volts, and Knuckles and Zephyer yelled and dropped the wires. "Dang!"
said Zephyer, shaking her hand. "Try to kill me, why don't you!"
Knuckles rubbed his fingers. "This was your idea, bright girl."
"Oh, so it's my fault?"
"Yeah it is." Their eyes met, electricity flashed between them, and the meter indicated 130 volts.
"Look!" said Knuckles. "It picked up without us touching the wires!"
"Just don't think about the Master Emerald," said Zephyer. "That's too dangerous."
"It must be when our thoughts are in tune," said Knuckles. "When we think close to the same thing,
there's a low charge. When we think exactly the same thing, it's a strong charge."
"What are you guys doing?" said Chimera, peeking over the back of the couch.
"Electrocuting each other," said Knuckles. "Want to watch?"
"Yeah!" Chimera slid down onto the couch cushions, followed by Zinc, and the chao looked on
Knuckles picked up the wires Zephyer had collected, wound them around a lightbulb, and he and
Zephyer tried to light it. The chao watched in glee as the lightbulb flickered on and off, and the
echidnas flinched over and over. Out of curiosity they tried thinking about the Master Emerald
again, and the lightbulb exploded.
"Well," said Knuckles, sweeping up the glass with his hands, "we can conclusively say that the
Master Emerald is dangerous."
"I've burned my hand twice now," said Zephyer. "Maybe we should quit."
"No, don't!" said Zinc. "This is fun to watch!"
"But painful to do," said Zephyer. She glanced at the clock. "Good grief, it's after nine! You two had
better go to bed."
"Aw man!" said Chimera. "Are you guys gonna be gone all day tomorrow?"
"No," said Knuckles. "A social worker is coming tomorrow to inspect our living quarters."
Zephyer looked at him in horror. "Oh my gosh, I forgot about that! Do you know how dirty this
Knuckles glanced around the living room. "Looks okay to me."
"It's filthy! First thing in the morning I'm gonna do some serious cleaning." She pointed at the chao.
"You. Bed. Now."
"We'd better turn in, too," said Knuckles, collecting the apparatus. "I have to pick up the inspector at
"Eleven!" Zephyer exclaimed. "I knew I should have cleaned house today!"
The next morning Knuckles awoke before sunrise, and Zephyer was already up. He smelled
detergent and heard her banging around the house, and pulled his pillow over his head with a groan.
But it was too noisy now that he was awake, and he climbed out of bed and ventured out of his
Zephyer was on her hands and knees, mopping the kitchen floor, her dreadlocks tied back in a rag.
She looked up when her husband looked in. "Hi Knux! Don't come in, the floor's wet."
"When did you get up?" Knuckles asked. The kitchen was spotless.
"Four," said Zephyer, scrubbing. "Could you sweep the hall so I can mop it?"
"Uh, sure." Knuckles went in search of a broom, bewildered at how easily Zephyer could turn his
life upside down.
At seven Knuckles balked and demanded breakfast, and Zephyer took a break. They ate on the
porch, sitting on the railing. Zephyer was enjoying her cleaning streak, and chattered to Knuckles
while he nodded and grunted now and then. Then she dove back indoors, leaving Knuckles alone on
the porch, looking out over the island. He sat there for a while, enjoying the silence and aware of the
clatters and bangs coming from inside the house.
He ventured back inside to find Zephyer having a showdown with Chimera. The dragon chao was
standing in the middle of the living room, a scowl on his face. "I won't clean my room!" he
exclaimed. "Zinc made the mess, tell him to do it!"
"I told you both to clean it," said Zephyer, hands on her hips. "You live in there, too."
"But he's the one who built the fort!"
Knuckles stepped into the room and looked at his chao. "Do you need a spanking?"
"No," said Chimera, frowning.
"Then do as she says. Now." When Chimera didn't move, Knuckles began counting. "One, two,
Chimera broke on 'two' and bolted for his room. As he entered, they heard Zinc say, "See? You have
to help clean up, ha ha!"
"Zinc!" Zephyer called, and his mocking subsided. "I'm going to come in and check your work!" she
added. She looked at Knuckles. "Will we get in trouble for spanking chao?"
"I don't know," said Knuckles. "Probably not something to discuss in mixed company."
"Yeah. Hey, want to help me in here?"
"Actually, I was going to ... uh ... mow the lawn," said Knuckles.
Zephyer shrugged. "Okay." She grabbed her floor cleaner and rag, and Knuckles made a quick exit
out the back door.
He hadn't planned on mowing the lawn, but he had two hours until he had to pick up the inspector,
and it was better than letting Zephyer boss him around. He opened the little toolshed that adjoined
the house and pulled out his lawnmower. It was one of his early robotics experiments when he first
became interested in mechanical engineering. Once it had been pushed about twenty feet, the gears
and springs had stored enough energy that the mower drove itself. He had tinkered with another
model that was fueled by a lesser power crystal, but it wasn't working yet.
Knuckles mowed the front and back yards, dumped the clippings on a compost pile, and went
indoors to clean up. The house smelled fresh, and the floors sparkled. The windows were open, and
he found Zephyer in the chao's room, cleaning out from under their crib. Knuckles hardly ever
ventured in there, for the converted closet was a disaster area, but Zephyer had returned a semblance
of order to it. Zinc and Chimera were playing with toys unearthed from the geologic layers on the
floor, and looked up as he stepped in.
"Zephyer needs to clean our room more often!" said Chimera.
"After this, you two will clean your own room," said Zephyer, sitting up with her face flushed. "Hi
"You're brave," he told her.
She grinned. "And going to be exhausted."
"It's ten thirty," he said. "I'm going to wash up and pick up the inspector."
"Good grief, already?" said Zephyer. "I'm almost done in here, go ahead."
When Knuckles left, Zephyer finished the chao's room like a whirlwind, and ran for her room to
change clothes. She selected a blue dress, combed out her dreadlocks, and fastened ornamental clips
around them. By the time her grooming was finished it was almost eleven, and she caught Zinc and
Chimera and washed their faces and hands. She warned them to be on their best behavior, then took
up watching by the front windows, looking toward the teleporter receiver plate.
* * *
"This book says you have to take classes and stuff to get a private detective license," said Vector.
He and the Chaotix were sprawled in the back room of Ralph's office, each of them reading a
different book on being a detective.
Mighty looked up. "You mean we'd have to go back to school?"
"That's what this says," said Vector, waving Becoming a Private Detective for Morons.
"Mine, too," said Espio, who was a fast reader and halfway through So You Want To Be A
Detective. "This says you need to work with the local police force, too."
"Makes sense," said Mighty. "That's where you'd get your clients."
"How about you, Charmy?" asked Vector. "What are you learning?"
The bee was sitting in the windowsill, engrossed in his book. "Oh, this is great!" he said, not hearing
a word they had said. "There's these three guys who are detectives, and their secret base is inside a
trailer in a junkyard, and they're solving a mystery with this haunted castle ..."
"A novel?" said Vector in disgust. "You're supposed to be doing research!"
Charmy turned a page and didn't answer.
"When do you think Ralph will be done?" said Espio, checking his watch. "He's been in there an
"Developing pictures takes a while," said Mighty. "Especially when you have as much film as he
does. He had fifty-six exposures on that roll."
"Fifty-six?" spluttered Vector. "I didn't know they went that high!"
"He's using a Hidepalm," said Mighty, who knew the ins and outs of cameras. "The rolls of film for
those things are huge. Maybe if we get into this detective business, I can afford one."
Espio checked his watch again. "I hope he hurries up."
"Got another date?" grinned Vector.
"Yep," said the chameleon smugly. "And wouldn't you like to know the particulars."
"Don't make me go detective on you," said Vector.
"Oh, you'll find out eventually," said Espio, waving a hand. "I just have a ... a parallel agenda right
now. You'll thank me when you find out."
The Chaotix exchanged glances. Espio rarely did anything praiseworthy.
Suddenly Ralph screamed a swearword from the next room.
The Chaotix jumped up and ran to the darkroom door. "What? What's the matter?"
"Must be a good picture," muttered Espio.
"Are you okay?" Vector called.
"Fine," came the irritated reply. "It startled me is all. Stand back, I'll show you." The door opened
and Ralph emerged, carrying a paper still damp with chemicals. He handed it to Vector and the
Chaotix looked at it.
At first they couldn't tell what it was. Then they realized the camera was looking through a window
high up, angled down toward the floor. Highlighted by the flash was a face, peering upwards. It
looked cat-like, with a feline nose and mouth, but there were too many eyes and no ears.
"That's it!" said Espio. "The thing I saw! And boy, isn't it WRONG?"
Looking at it, Vector saw it as a cat, then an insect--then he tried to reconcile the two, and his brain
twisted. That thing was not possible. The others muttered in disbelief and squinted, trying to believe
their eyes. The longer Vector looked at it, the more he noticed. The eyes were multi-faceted like a
fly's. Mandibles protruded from the sides of the jaws. The horns might be antennae. A black shadow
outlined it from the flash, hiding the rest of its body.
Vector tore his eyes away and handed the picture to Mighty. "That's what made Slasher snap?"
"Yes, and I see why," said Ralph. "It gave me quite a turn, myself, when it came through on the
print. I've got to rush this to Howe. Genetic experimentation and mutation are forbidden by
The Chaotix grinned and punched their fists in the air. "Talon is as good as free!"
"Not quite," said Ralph, "but this helps the case a lot. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to make half a
dozen prints of this picture." He returned to the darkroom.
Vector checked his watch. "Knux said not to call until after two. He'll be vastly interested in this
"And so will a lot of other people," said Charmy. "Like the police."
* * *
The social worker who inspected the echidnas' house was an electric blue bird with a long beak. He
carried a clipboard in his prehensile wingtips and wandered around the house, taking notes. Zephyer
and Knuckles awaited him nervously in the living room. The bird had asked to show himself around
the house, and Zephyer was thankful she had cleaned it.
At last he returned to them. "You have a lovely home," he told them. "It checks out nicely. A mark
in your favor is the ownership of chao, and big, healthy chao at that. How long have you had them?"
"About six months," said Knuckles. "We raised them from eggs and had them two years, then the
Chao Company reclaimed them. We recently adopted them for good."
The bird nodded. "This study is not conducted to approve your house--it's really to confirm the
environment in which a child will be raised."
"How long will the approval process take, Mr. Honeycreeper?" Zephyer asked.
The bird cocked an eye at her. "Please, call me Bill."
Zephyer looked at his two-foot long beak and sideyed Knuckles. Electricity tingled between them,
and they tried to keep from laughing. Bill appeared not to notice. "There is a small problem you may
have in the process, and that is locating a child of the appropriate species. Echidnas are very rare."
"We know," said Knuckles. "We're prepared to adopt outside our species."
Bill looked at his clipboard. "Well, you see," he said, "we at Orphan Aid try to discourage
extra-species adoption. Sometimes an improper match can result in disaster. We had a sad case
several years ago when two parrots took in a civet kitten. When the kitten was three she mauled her
"We don't want a kid THAT far from our species," said Knuckles. "Anteaters and echidnas are
distant relatives, aren't they?"
"Only by the greatest stretch of the imagination," said Bill. "Echidnas are unlike any other
"The anteater we're trying to adopt has a lot in common with us," said Zephyer, bristling.
"It doesn't matter," said Knuckles, glaring at Zephyer to shut her up. They didn't need a fight with
the social worker. "The point is, we're trying to adopt an anteater. He ran away from his home and
has lived with us for three years. We get along with him very well."
"We'll look into the matter," said Bill, writing something down. "As it is doubtful that there are any
echidna children available for adoption, we will consider your request."
The rest of the interview was uneventful, and afterwards Knuckles escorted Bill back to the
teleporter. When he returned, he found Zephyer sprawled on the couch, eyes closed.
"Are you asleep?" he asked, leaning on the back of the couch.
"No," she said, opening her eyes. "Just exhausted. Do you think that went well?"
"Bill was friendly," said Knuckles. "I don't think he'll blacklist us, if that's what you mean."
Zephyer sat up and began taking the clips out of her dreadlocks. "I hadn't thought about education
when he asked about it. How'd you think of a tutor?"
"Talon's been tutored off and on by the Chaotix," said Knuckles. "And I've drilled so much stuff into
the poor kid's head that he's worthy to be any guardian's kid."
"That comment about echidnas being rare," said Zephyer. "I doubt they've even heard of echidnas
before us, let alone seen any."
Knuckles opened his mouth to reply, but froze as they heard a distant buzzing sound.
"Your com," said Zephyer.
Knuckles ran to their room, snatched the com off the dresser and flicked it on. "Hello?"
"Heya boss," Vector drawled. "Ralph got his Slasher-photos developed, and boy oh boy."
"Are they good?"
"You have to see 'em to believe 'em. You should have heard Ralph swear when he saw it."
"Slasher called it an abomination."
"Oh yeah, Knux, it's abominable, that's for sure. It's like--it has too many eyes. I'll have to show you
"Have you called Howe?"
"Yeah, Ralph took the photo to her himself. It's not exactly concrete evidence, but it gives us
something to go on."
"Can you bring us a picture right now?"
"Sure. But if Slasher's around, don't let her see it."
Knuckles clicked off the com and returned to Zephyer. "They got a picture of the thing."
Zephyer's eyes widened. "What is it?"
"Vector's bringing up a picture now," said Knuckles. "They've already given it to Howe. Now all we
need are the results of that hypodermic."
Vector appeared fifteen minutes later with an envelope in one hand. He found Knuckles and Zephyer
waiting for him, and watched their faces as they pulled out the picture. For a second they looked
blank. Then Knuckles frowned and looked closer, and Zephyer squinted. "What IS that?"
An expression of disbelief crossed Knuckles's face, then revulsion. Vector grinned, recognizing the
progression: first uncertainty, then disbelief, then horror.
"We've got to get Talon out of there," said Zephyer. "Does he know about this thing?"
"Espio warned him," said Vector. "If the kid wasn't so tight-lipped we'd know if he's seen it."
Knuckles checked his watch. "I'm going to call Howe."
* * *
Talon opened his eyes. He had been asleep, and dreamed a python was squeezing him to death. He
lifted his head and saw the chain was resting across his back. He slid out from under it and looked
around the basement. Mori was gone and the basement door was open. From the look of the light,
Talon guessed it was late Sunday afternoon. The air in the basement was cool, but the concrete
under him was warm, conducting heat from the scorching day outside.
Talon was thirsty, for his uncle had fed him four hours earlier, but the pride of the character he was
playing kept him from asking for a drink. This was a battle of wills between himself and Uncle
Pendel, and the alter-Talon intended to win. The normal Talon was shocked at this, but decided it
didn't hurt. One more night down here and it would be Monday, and he would be freed. Even the
torture of school was better than sitting in a corner with a chain around his neck.
The anteater stood up and inched forward so the chain would not clank. He had not had a chance to
stretch the chain, and he wanted to see how far he could go. He looked at the pile of parts that had
been his communicator--Mori had reduced it to bare components. The whistle was lying on the table,
far out of reach.
Talon reached the first table and was almost to the second when the chain halted him. He began a
circle, exploring everything in his range of motion. One of the tables within his reach was stacked
with notebooks and binders, each labeled with a number and a letter. Talon looked at the open
basement door and wondered if his uncle could hear him. Who cares, said the character he was
playing. He grabbed a binder marked 54B and flipped it open.
The first hundred pages were nothing but text and computations. Beyond that were diagrams of
DNA strands and molecules. In the very back Talon found a detailed sketch of a spider's leg with its
He replaced the binder with a quick glance at the doorway, and opened another binder, 56B. More
text and equations. The diagrams this time were of insect body parts; legs, thoraxes, heads,
abdomens, stingers, antennae. Talon shut that binder and replaced it, too. He picked up 57A, opened
it, and stared into the face of the monster in the barn.
It was drawn in pencil from the front and side, and on later pages its body was illustrated in detail.
Talon shut the binder after two pages, the fur on his back standing up. So that was what Espio had
seen. A monster to end all monsters. He was chained with its chain ... so where was it now?
He darted back to his corner and curled up, his role-playing forgotten. He had to tell somebody. But
how could he call Knuckles without a communicator? Maybe the Chaotix were still outside and he
could tell them. But what if they needed that binder for evidence? He imagined his uncle's face if he
was caught stealing the binder, and Talon felt a chill. Instant death.
Mori returned to the basement and looked sharply at Talon. Talon stared at the wall. He hoped Mori
didn't notice the binders had been moved. He kept thinking of the monster on the page--like some
fantastic thing from a movie. But this was real. He glanced at his uncle and remembered the night
something had walked tapping through the house. A wave of sick fear hit him, and he willed himself
to show no emotion.
Slowly he pulled himself back into the role of angry half-wild pre-teen and wore the character like a
shield. There was nothing to fear right now. If he could last this out, then he would have a chance to
* * *
Howe was sitting in her office, looking at Ralph's photo and chewing a manicured claw when her
phone-light flashed. She picked it up. "Hello, Ann Howe of Dewey, Cheetum and Howe."
"This is Knuckles Echidna," said Knuckles. "Have you seen that picture?"
"Looking at it," said the ferret. "I can nail him on ten different charges, and that's without
concentrating. Has the boy had any contact with it?"
"Not that we know of, but Slasher--the raptor--she's seen it twice now. She won't talk about it, it
makes her crazy."
Howe gazed at the picture. "We need more to go on. Mori has covered his tracks far too well up to
this point. Do you have any grounds for a complaint to child protective services?"
"No, other than Talon hates living there," said Knuckles. "He got beat up at school by bullies."
"I can't use that." Howe opened the binder on her desk. "Once those lab results come back, we'll be
able to move. Friday?"
"Friday. And if we can't get Talon out of there legally, I'm going to kidnap him."
"I wouldn't advise that."
"I know." Knuckles sighed. "I'll call back later."
"Goodbye." Howe hung up and placed the photo in the file. Then she left her office and snaked
down the hall to Cheetum's office.
The rat was studying a legal brief when she entered. "Howe goes? Ha ha."
"Funny," said the ferret. "The Mori case is stalled. I need more information."
"Say no more," said Cheetum. He pulled a slim folder from a desk drawer and handed it to her.
"Dewey's research team compiled this and delivered it this morning. Mori's financial records."
Howe opened the file and her eyes widened. Inside were pages and pages of receipts from off-island
suppliers; chemicals, biotoxins, genetic material, and highly illegal harvested body parts. In addition
were hundreds of laboratory equipment items. Everything was paid from a stock exchange account
and was listed as liquid assets. It was purchased under the name John Otter, but was shipped to
Mori's residence. Howe didn't ask how the research team had found these records--they were not
known as dishonest lawyers for nothing.
Cheetum was watching her. "Does that help?"
"Yes," said Howe. "Conviction will be easy. But we need a catalyst, a reason to go after him in the
first place." She checked her watch and sighed. "Friday."
* * *
Monday morning, Talon awoke to find his uncle unlocking the chain. He didn't speak, and neither
did Talon. Talon's plan was to flag down whoever was watching the house and beg them to take him
away before the school bus came. But Mori counteracted this by escorting Talon to the bus himself,
and watching Talon get on. Then Talon was on his own with no hope of escape--to escape he had to
use his shoes, and flying anywhere near school made him a target for the bird and bat classes.
He arrived at Happy Mobian Academy and shuffled inside with the others. He received his maroon
armband and followed the rest of his class outdoors.
A teacher met them and pointed them toward Mountain Environment. As the class ran off down the
path, Talon's spirits rose a little. Mountain was better than Jungle because there was less cover, and
you could see the predators coming.
Their instructor this week was a badger with thickly-muscled forearms. "Listen up!" he bellowed.
"You Antelopes are in Mountain this week, and to survive in the mountains, you need flexibility,
cunning, and balance! You're teamed against Eagle and Wolf, so you'll need to watch the sky as well
as your back. Travel in small groups--predators pick off the loners. Go!" The kids ran for the rocks.
Mountain was formed by a volcanic outcropping about thirty feet high, on the edge of the forest.
Additional rocks and gravel had been piled around its base, creating a dangerous playground for
predators and prey alike. Talon ran for the boulders, looking for the Eagle class.
A group of avian Mobians were perched on the 'mountain' top, watching the other classes come in.
He counted two macaws, a tern, four gulls and a trogon. They weren't predators, but were expected
to behave like it and attack other kids on the ground. What usually happened were broken wings and
injured legs, and hence the Eagle group received low grades and seldom attacked anyone.
Talon was more concerned about the Wolf class. They were made up of real predators--dogs,
wolves, jackals, hyenas, and they took hunting seriously. The best way to escape them was to climb
the mountain, so Talon began picking his way through the rocks in that direction, alert to every
He glanced over his shoulder just as a wolf's gray face peered around a boulder. It was the same
wolf who had helped beat him up on the day of the test, and Talon broke into a run, ducking
between the rocks. "A loner!" he heard one of them yell. He glanced back and saw the same three
wolves were after him, their eyes gleaming and animal.
Adrenaline gave Talon extra speed, and he leaped up the steep hill at the mountain's foot. He heard
them scrabbling after him, and jumped for a ledge he knew about. He caught it, pulled himself
up--and found himself nose to nose with the three ringleaders of Antelope. The kangaroo was
nearest, and with a smile he reached out and shoved Talon backwards off the ledge.
Talon twisted in midair to land on his feet, only to be tackled by the wolves, who gnawed him as
they all toppled down the rocky hill.
They abandoned Talon at the bottom with yells of "Sissy!" and worse words. He lay on the ground
with blood oozing from their bites and tears running from his eyes. He didn't want to do this. He
couldn't win. It was madness.
Slowly he picked himself up and limped off in each of a better hiding place.
* * *
Mori was waiting for him when he got off the bus. By this time Talon's fur was matted with dried
blood, and he limped from a deep slash on his left thigh. Mori grunted and escorted him indoors.
On the roof, Slasher spoke into her communicator. "Talon had a rough day! He's all chewed up and
"Bloody!" exploded Zephyer on the other end of the line. "What do you mean, 'bloody'?"
"He looked like some animal's been chewing on him," said Slasher. "What kind of school does he go
"I think it's time we found out," snarled Zephyer. "Those lab results better be good, because I'm
going to start chopping heads."
"Only a few more days," said the raptor. "Then we can all pitch in."
* * *
Tuesday was just as bad. Again Mori escorted Talon outside, looking suspiciously around the yard.
Again Talon rode the bus without hope of escape, and again faced Mountain, this time sore and
unable to run as fast.
The same three wolves hunted him all day long. It seemed the tall, yellow-eyed leader wanted to kill
Talon slowly, one wound at a time, and he didn't consider his day complete until he had drawn fresh
Wednesday was the same. Talon arrived home that afternoon in tears, but trying to hold them back
so his uncle wouldn't see. The islanders could only watch helplessly--Mori kept close watch on
Talon so they couldn't make contact with him. He didn't use his communicator, and Slasher was
puzzled that Talon didn't use the whistle. Maybe it wasn't safe to venture inside the house.
Thursday, the wolf went for Talon's throat, and his sidekicks had to pull him off, scared and looking
over their shoulders for teachers. All kinds of violence was allowed in school, but not deliberate
attempts to kill. Talon arrived home later silent and trembling, still feeling the wolf's hot jaws
closing around his neck.
But on Friday, things changed.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 9: Avenged!
Chapter 9: Avenged!
Been beat up
Been broken down
Nowhere but up when you're face-down
On the ground
I'm in last place
If I place at all
But there's hope for this underdog.
Underdog, Audio Adrenaline
At eight o'clock Friday morning, a large group of people crowded into the front room of the lab as
Slasher picked up the results on the hypodermic. Howe was there, along with Knuckles and
Zephyer, and the Chaotix. Ralph hovered on the sidelines, afraid to stand near Slasher.
The raptor received a white envelope, opened it and pulled out the paper inside. There was a
moment of tense silence as she skimmed over it. She bared her teeth. "This is it. Listen. 'Contents of
vial: blood type O, anteater. Secondary substance: aggressive central nervous system mutagen,
A collective breath was drawn, and Slasher looked up. "Well Ms. Howe, does this give you
something to go on?"
"Yes," said the ferret, her eyes tinted with bloodlust. "Give me those results. I'm going to call social
services and the police."
"And I'm going to pick up Talon from school," said Knuckles. "If he's been chewed up as bad as
Slasher says, we can sue them for negligence and abuse."
Howe grinned at him. "I love lawsuits."
Knuckles gave Zephyer a quick hug, and saw his own smouldering rage reflected in her eyes. It was
Friday, and the game had begun.
Knuckles took a bus and arrived at Happy Mobian Academy at 11 AM. The grounds were quiet as
he walked up the steps and entered the administrative building. He entered the principal's office
without knocking, and found a fat panda reclining behind his desk. He gave Knuckles a withering
look. "Can I help you?"
"I need to pick up a student," said Knuckles. "Could you tell me what class he's in?"
The panda stared at him insolently. "Are you a parent? There's no echidnas enrolled here."
"I've come to pick up Konya Mori," said Knuckles through his teeth. "An anteater."
"Sorry," said the principal. "I can't help you."
Knuckles barreled out of the office, slamming the door behind him. He walked down the hall, but
there were no classrooms. He arrived at the door at the end of the hall and looked out the window.
He could see kids running all over the place. Was it recess? He opened the door and stepped outside.
Three adult civet cats with 'instructor' on their vests were standing at an intersection of five paths,
smoking and talking. They fell silent as Knuckles approached. "Hey, I'm looking for an anteater
named Konya Mori."
Two of the cats looked at the third, who jerked his head at a path marked 'Mountain'. "He's in
Mountain. But I don't advise you to go out there."
"Class is in session. Your presence will be distracting."
Knuckles looked in disbelief at the paths marked with different environments. "This is a classroom?"
He started down the trail, but one of the cats caught his arm. "Mister, you don't want to go out there.
Wait until class ends--it's over at noon."
Knuckles was suspicious. "Why? What goes on?" He wrenched away from the cat and jogged down
the trail, ignoring the cries of the teachers for him to come back.
Everywhere were young Mobians, all with different-colored armbands. Knuckles saw them roaming
in packs with frightened expressions. What kind of demented place was this? And why didn't Talon
complain? In growing horror and anger, Knuckles jogged faster.
Where the path opened out into the rocky Mountain environment, Knuckles met a badger who was
standing guard. He stared at Knuckles. "You're not on staff. What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to pick up a student." Knuckles looked the badger up and down--Knuckles could whip him
in a fight if he had to.
"Parents aren't allowed inside the environments," said the badger. "You'll have to wait."
"Who's gonna stop me?" said Knuckles, walking past the badger and into the rocks. The badger
didn't follow him, but pulled a two-way radio out of his back pocket and began speaking into it.
Knuckles didn't care. He jogged among the boulders, calling, "Talon! Where are you, Talon?" He
looked up at the mock mountain scornfully--he had boulders at home bigger than that--and yelled,
"Talon! Come here already!"
He heard footsteps and turned to see Talon running toward him, eyes wild with fear. "Knuckles!" he
gasped. "Get me out of here, the wolves are hunting me!"
Knuckles saw a pair of clawmarks had torn across Talon's face, ripping his left eyelid, and blood
was running down his face and shoulder. Talon reached up to wipe his eye, and revealed a hideous
bite on the inside of his arm.
"I think I'll wait for these wolves," said Knuckles through his teeth. "Get up on that rock." Talon
obeyed, shaking and gasping for breath.
They heard shouts and running feet. In a moment the three wolves who had tormented Talon all
week dashed in among the rocks, their tongues hanging out, following Talon's trail. They skidded to
a halt when they saw Knuckles. "Look, a parent!" gasped one of the sidekicks.
The leader looked at Knuckles, his yellow eyes glinting. "We can take him," he said to his
companions. "We beat teachers--and we need to show this guy why parents aren't allowed into
Knuckles raised his fists. "I'm sorry to hear that, boys."
The pack sprang at Knuckles, and Knuckles ducked forward and landed a punch to the lead wolf's
snout. As the wolf yelped and staggered backwards, Knuckles twisted around, knocked one of them
sprawling with a left hook and the other with the follow-up right hook. When one of them jumped
up and sprang at him with jaws open, Knuckles knocked him ten feet with an uppercut perfected by
He turned as the leader wolf recovered and charged at him, intending to overwhelm Knuckles by
sheer weight. Knuckles sidestepped and kicked the wolf's feet out from under him. Growling, he
jumped to his feet and ran at Knuckles again. Again Knuckles danced sideways and hit the wolf with
two lightning punches as he went by. "This school hasn't taught you must about fighting," said
Knuckles as the wolf landed on all fours. "Just how to be a bully. Let me tell you something--I'm
going to bring a lawsuit against this place, and you'll have to see how you do in a real school."
The wolf glared up at him. "I'm gonna kill you."
Knuckles motioned to Talon. "Try it. I'll make you match every mark on him."
The wolf looked at Talon, backed away, then turned and ran. The other wolves followed him, and
Knuckles and Talon were alone.
Knuckles helped Talon off the rock. "Let's get you cleaned up."
"What are you doing here, sir?" asked Talon, wiping blood out of his eye.
"Test results came back," said Knuckles. "Mori tried to inject you with some kind of mutagen to
mess up your brain. Howe was ecstatic. You're not going back to Mori's if I can help it."
Talon smiled in relief. "I'm really glad, sir." He shrank close to Knuckles as they passed the badger,
who glared at them, but said nothing.
They walked up the path toward the school buildings, Talon limping and wiping his eye over and
over. The sight of him sent Knuckles into a towering fury at this school and these people. "Do you
actually learn anything here?" he asked.
"Yes sir," said Talon. "How to run fast and avoid big kids. And what makes good hiding places."
Knuckles made an angry sound in his throat. "Survival of the fittest. Whoever invented this school
was sick. Why didn't you say anything to us?"
Talon gave him a sad look. "What could you do, sir?"
"Well, I'm doing something now. Hey, check out the Gestapo."
Awaiting them at the doors were the three instructors, the principal, and two six-foot gorillas with
"Who are they?" gasped Talon. "I've never seen them before!"
"Let me handle this," said Knuckles. "Fly out front, hide and wait for me. I won't be long."
Talon nodded, activated his shoes and fled. The group stared after him with their mouths open, then
eyed Knuckles. He read their superstitious fear and thought of the Blackguard Quadrangle with an
inner grin. Maybe he wouldn't have to fight them.
"I'm sorry, but we can't allow you to leave," said the fat panda. "You have to sign a nondisclosure
"Can't have me talking, eh?" said Knuckles, watching the gorillas. They could do him some damage
if they landed a blow. "What if I don't want to sign anything?"
"Then I can't be answerable for the consequences," said the panda, and the gorillas beat their clubs
into the palms of their hands.
Knuckles looked at the sky. "Do you feel that?" When nobody answered, Knuckles held up both
arms and said in a flat voice, "The Quadrangle, it calls to me. The power ... I feel the power!" He
checked their faces--their uneasiness was growing.
He lowered his arms, cupped his hands together and began to chant in Old Mobian. The civets and
panda took a few steps backward, and the gorillas stopped brandishing their clubs. Only scholars
knew Old Mobian any more, and to hear it fluently from this echidna, who was obviously not a
scholar, did not bode well.
In Old Mobian Knuckles was saying, "You nitwits have abused enough kids and I'm gonna get
Howe to sue your butts into the next millennium! I feel the power, all right! You're lucky I left my
shovelclaws at home or I'd do more than pound you, I'd slash your faces until you look worse than
The civet cats turned and ran. Knuckles began walking forward, moving his hands in a circle as if he
held invisible energy between them. The panda backed away, and so did the gorillas. As the panda
laid his hand on the door, Knuckles switched back to New Mobian and roared, "The power within
me, the power that is ME!" He sprang forward, and the panda and gorillas fell over themselves
getting through the door and locking it behind them.
Knuckles jogged for the perimeter fence, laughing. Acting the part of a sorcerer was fun when the
audience believed every word. He climbed over the wall, dropped to the other side and strode across
the street, looking for Talon. The anteater peered down from a roof, then descended to the sidewalk.
"What happened, sir?"
"Nothing," said Knuckles. "I let them know who they were dealing with, and they decided to let me
go. We'd better get you cleaned up before Zephyer sees you. She'll have a stroke."
* * *
Knuckles took Talon to a first-aid station in a hospital, and spent half an hour washing the blood out
of Talon's fur, and bandaging his cuts. Talon's wounds of the previous week had been washed but
not bandaged, and Knuckles cared for them as well. Then he gave Talon two aspirin, and while
Talon was taking them, Knuckles stepped outside of the room and called Zephyer.
"Is he okay?" she asked at once.
"Yeah," said Knuckles. "You won't believe this school--they train kids to act like animals. Talon got
a little scratched, but I've patched him up and he's better now. I think he should lie down for a while.
Is it still illegal to take him home?"
"Yeah." Zephyer sounded disgusted. "Just a second." There was a moment's pause, then she said,
"Howe says that Talon can take a nap on the couch in her office. She's going down to child
"Anything happen since I've been gone?"
"Yeah, CPS went to Mori's. He was really evasive and wouldn't let them in the house. Howe means
to have him in court by tomorrow."
"Great." Knuckles grinned. "Any word on the barn?"
"No, that's next." Zephyer lowered her voice. "They need Slasher to identify the monster for them. I
think it's a bad idea, but she's the only witness."
"It's a really bad idea," said Knuckles. "Maybe if I went with her ..."
"Knuckles, don't you dare."
"I'm the only person who can snap her out of her trance," said Knuckles.
"Then let me come with you. We'll wear our armor and everything."
"It's not necessary--"
"The monster is probably more dangerous than Chaos! Like duh we'll need weapons!"
"Fine, you bring weapons, and if we need them, I'll ask."
"Good. I'll meet you at Howe's."
"See you there." Knuckles turned to find Talon standing in the doorway, listening.
"Will they kill the monster?" he asked.
Knuckles shrugged. "If it's dangerous, they will."
"I saw pictures of it in Uncle Pendel's notebooks," said Talon. "He called it a manticore."
"A manticore? That's a mythical creature, isn't it?" said Knuckles, trying in vain to remember
anything about the name.
Talon nodded. "I think so."
"Well, Howe said you could hang out in her office if you'd like to rest. Come on."
They hopped a bus back to the other end of Marshill, and met Zephyer and the Chaotix in the front
room of the lawyer firm. They escorted Talon to Howe's office, gave him instructions to lie down for
half an hour, then returned to the front room.
Zephyer and the Chaotix were furious about the amount of bandages Talon was wearing, and
Knuckles gave them an account of Happy Mobian Academy in a low voice. By the time he was
done, his audience was ready to march off and firebomb the school.
Vector jumped up. "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going down to the police station and help them
raid Mori's house."
Mighty, Espio and Charmy rose, too. "Count us in!" They stormed out of the office, and from the
look on Zephyer's face, she had more than half a mind to follow them.
Knuckles and Zephyer sat in the office for half an hour, and precisely thirty minutes later Talon
emerged. "I feel better," he told them. "Could I go out to the Floating Island for a few minutes?
Knuckles and Zephyer exchanged a glance. "He could help me collect the armor and stuff," said
"All right," said Knuckles. "But just for a few minutes. Bring a portable teleporter with you, and I'll
meet you at Mori's."
* * *
Talon was quiet as he and Zephyer walked up the path from the receiver plate to the house on the
Floating Island. As they reached the house, Talon said, "I wish I didn't have to leave."
"If all goes well, you won't have to," said Zephyer, retrieving the armor from a crate in her room.
She put it on, much to Talon's amusement, and handed him Knuckles's sword and shield. Talon
examined the green blade. "Does Knuckles still go crazy when he uses this?"
"He says it's not so bad anymore," said Zephyer, fastening her own sword to her belt. "He thinks it's
because he's older."
Talon shrugged. "Or because he's married."
Zephyer gave him a sharp look, but Talon was examining the gems in the sword's hilt.
Zephyer put on the helmet and led the way back out of the house. Talon trailed behind, reluctant to
leave. "I hope I can come back, Zephyer."
"You will, Talon, you will!" Zephyer waited for him and put an arm around his shoulders. "We're so
close now! There's this little bit left to do, and you'll be placed in our custody."
Talon nodded. "I'm afraid something else will go wrong. Everything else has."
"Expect it and you won't be surprised," said Zephyer, the helmet adding a vicious element to her
words. "Nobody will blame you if you run for it and somehow wind up here." They reached the
receiver plate. Zephyer picked up a portable teleporter from the stack there, and they beamed out.
* * *
"Pendel Mori," said the police dog, "we have reason to believe you are harboring an illegal mutant
on your property."
The anteater blinked at the two officers in surprise. "An illegal mutant? Whatever gave you that
The police dog held up a copy of Ralph's photo. "We received this, and have the testimony of an
eyewitness. We have to investigate."
"This is the doing of those echidnas, isn't it?" growled Mori, craning his neck to see into the yard.
"It's not my place to say," said the officer. "We must identify the creature in this photo and determine
if it's a threat to Blackguard."
Mori gazed at them, and a crooked smile spread across his face. "Yes. Come with me, please."
There were police and animal control personnel all over the front yard, and everyone carried
weapons, lethal and non-lethal. If the thing wasn't dangerous, they would capture it. If it was, they
would kill it.
Knuckles, Zephyer, Talon, Slasher and the Chaotix were standing at a distance, out of Mori's range
of vision. As he led the way into the backyard, they followed him with an escort of policemen.
Zephyer was in full armor, but Knuckles would only carry his sword, and that only to stop Zephyer
from nagging him.
Slasher was twitchy and jumpy, breathing in rapid snorts. "I'm going to crack," she whispered.
"They should muzzle me, I'm going to crack and do something I'll regret."
"No you won't," hissed Knuckles. "It's broad daylight and it'll be on a leash or something."
"It was on a leash before," Slasher whispered, adjusting her wings. "And it still wanted to eat me!"
She whimpered in her throat, and the group stared at her. This display of terror was unlike the
Slasher they knew.
The police took up stations in the trees around the barn's clearing, everyone making faces at the reek
of carrion. Talon hung back and stood behind a tree, and Knuckles and Zephyer walked on ahead
beside Slasher and three cops. Zephyer nudged Knuckles and thrust the golden shield at him.
Knuckles shook his head, but took the shield and fit his arm through the straps. "I'm going to laugh
at you for this later."
"Go right ahead," said Zephyer.
Mori removed a key from his pocket and began unlocking the barn door. Slasher half-crouched,
nostrils dilated, eyes wide. She knew what would step through that door. A hush fell over the
Mori slid back the final latch and grinned at the assembled crowd. "This creature is not a mutant. He
is a continuation of a research project I participated in fifty years ago." He swung the door open, and
the stench rushed out like a cloud of poison. He stepped out of sight for a second, and they heard the
tapping of claws ... then Mori returned, leading the manticore.
Slasher's scream was echoed by every throat in the place. The beast was twelve feet tall at the
shoulder and twenty feet long. It marched out of the barn into daylight, its multiple eyes unblinking
as it looked at all of them at once. It had a head like a lion, complete with shaggy mane, and its body
had perhaps once been a lion's. But each leg was now a creaking segmented spike with a clawed
insect foot. Sprouting from its sides were six hairy spider legs, curled under its belly for now. Along
its back were folded a pair of wings, and it had a scorpion tail curled over its back with the stinger a
translucent yellow in the sunlight.
Every gun was instantly trained on the monstrosity. Slasher barely restrained herself, and now
crouched low, trembling and staring, growling deep in her throat. Knuckles and Zephyer found they
had drawn their swords. The manticore watched them all, and they saw it was wearing a bridle with
a bit in its mouth, the attached rope in Mori's hand. That explained the beast's obedience. It stood
stock-still as Mori addressed his audience.
"On the space colony ARK, a collection of scientists began a quest for the ultimate lifeform. One
that could survive in all environments, eat anything, drink anything, breathe anything. Our project
was the biolizard, a creature that could live in any aquatic environment. It would have lived had not
the military shut us down."
He glared at them, as if this was their fault.
"When the project was discontinued, I returned here and continued the project in secret. What you
see here is the land version of the Shadow project: a creature that is invincible on land."
"All of this can and will be used against you," said one officer, recovering his wits.
"Let them try," said Mori, suddenly breaking into hysterical laughter. "There are places where my
work is not illegal--and I shall move to one of them!" He swarmed up the manticore's mane and sat
astride its shoulders, still holding the lead rope. He held something above his head in one hand. "See
this, echidnas? This is a sample of Konya's blood. One day I will feed it to the manticore, and it will
hunt him across the world until it finds him and devours him. Think about that next time you try to
adopt outside your species!"
He kicked the manticore's sides, and it opened its wings suddenly, making everyone duck. Then the
beast leaped straight up, cleared the trees, and flew away into the sky.
They fired after it, but they either missed or their bullets had no effect. The group ran out into the
open, staring after that hideous winged shape in the sky. It was headed due north, away from the
Quadrangle and the islands.
"Slasher, go after it!" Knuckles yelled, pointing.
She gave him a wild look. "Are you insane? I'm not going anywhere near it! It's another of those
stinking ultimate lifeforms!"
As they watched, the dwindling speck in the sky wheeled around. It dropped and grew larger, flying
back toward Blackguard. "What happened?" muttered Zephyer, squinting.
"Maybe he forgot something," said Knuckles.
The speck grew larger and larger, and now they saw something was dangling from it--the lead rope?
The beast glided down toward them, its legs dangling like a wasp's, and screams broke out among
the onlookers. A few fired at it, but someone yelled, "Don't shoot! It's got Mori!"
As it passed over the yard it dropped something that landed with a thud on the grass. Several
policemen ran to it, and Knuckles did, too. It was Mori, and his left arm had been chewed off at the
shoulder. He was unconscious, and as one of the men pulled off his belt to apply a tourniquet, the
manticore flew by again.
Everywhere people threw themselves flat, but Zephyer watched it and yelled, "Come down and fight,
It circled around and landed on the roof of the house, folded its wings and crouched there, its
scorpion tail arched.
"Zeff!" Knuckles appeared at her side. "That vial of blood is gone! Where's Talon?"
"I don't know!" She looked around wildly. "Talon!"
He darted out of the trees and ran to them, unable to keep his eyes off the manticore on the roof.
"Sir, what do we do? It tore his arm off! And--and look at it!"
They looked at the monster and saw its jaws were chewing. "I think I'm gonna be sick," said
Suddenly the manticore leaped off the roof, landed on the lawn and sprang toward them over the
heads of the police. "Talon, get down!" Knuckles yelled, and held up his shield as the stinger slashed
down. It glanced off the shield, and at the same time the forelegs pawed and kicked at the echidnas.
Knuckles blocked the blows, then slashed at the nearest leg with the Emerald Sword.
Razor-sharp crystal met rock-hard exoskeleton and sheared it almost in two. At the same time
Zephyer swung at the other leg. Her blow was not as powerful, but her blade bit deep into the other
foreleg. The manticore made a growling, snarling sound, and its jaws and mandibles gnashed
together. It sprang over them on its long legs and pivoted about, trying to reach Talon. "Oh no you
don't!" Knuckles yelled, leaping and swinging at its chest. He fell short, but the manticore dodged
Now the police and animal control people were firing tranquilizer darts at the beast, but it ignored
them. Knuckles kept after it, hoping for another swipe at its injured forelegs. Behind him, Zephyer
grabbed Talon and dragged him behind a line of police, who had formed up in front of Mori in case
the monster decided to finish its meal.
As they stood there panting, Mori's eyes opened and he looked at Zephyer and Talon. "Hello," he
whispered, smiling. "It's going to eat you, Konya."
"What?" snarled Zephyer. "Shut up, you sicko!"
"Really," said Mori to Talon. "It ate the vial along with my arm and the bridle. Manticores are
known for their appetites. Once it has tasted you, it won't rest until it has eaten you. It may also
come after me, but I don't mind. It will eventually taste the echidnas, and eat them as well."
Zephyer looked at Talon, then at the manticore. "Knuckles!" she yelled.
He retreated from battle, and his spot was taken up by four animal control people with cattleprods.
"What?" he panted.
Zephyer relayed what Mori had said, keeping a hand on Talon's arm. Knuckles looked at Talon,
then the manticore. "Right. Round up the Chaotix and get everybody to the Floating Island. Go to
Hidden Palace. There's defenses there."
Zephyer thought of the weapons cache and nodded. "What about you?"
"I'll come soon," he said. "If we can't neutralize it with conventional weapons, then--"
The manticore roared, a lion's roar with hissing and clicking in it. Knuckles waved at Zephyer.
Zephyer pulled off her helmet and thrust it at Knuckles. "Here!" Then she grabbed Talon and darted
away to find the Chaotix.
The Chaotix were up by the house where they had been helping raid Mori's basement, but were now
watching everything in fascinated horror. Zephyer relayed Knuckles's instructions and shepherded
them all out to the portable teleporter. They warped to the Floating Island, and from there to Hidden
Palace, where they set about barricading the entry passages.
* * *
Knuckles clamped the helmet on his head and watched the others battle the manticore. They were
firing everything they had at it--bullets lasers, stun guns, and nothing worked. Bullets bounced off,
and lasers left scorch marks but couldn't penetrate the hide. The only thing the manticore disliked
were the cattle prods, and when it sprang after Zephyer and Talon, it was the cattle prods that beat it
No sooner had they teleported than the manticore leaped into the sky and flew in a circle, its
mandibles clicking as it sniffed. Then it turned and flew northwest, toward the Floating Island.
"No!" Knuckles yelled.
He sprinted down to where the teleporter was, only to see it beam itself out in a flash of light. "No!"
Knuckles roared, watching the manticore fly.
He heard running footsteps and turned to see Slasher as she jogged to a halt. "Climb on," she panted.
"We'll race him."
Knuckles had no qualms about riding Slasher this time. He leaped onto her back, and she launched
herself into the sky. He could feel her trembling as he clung to her, and her powerful wings surged
beneath him. He glanced out at her wings and saw the feathers were only half grown. That had to
slow her down.
He turned on his communicator. "Zephyer!"
Her reply came in a burst of static. "Knuckles? What's happening?"
"It's flying to the island. I'm pursuing it on Slasher."
Zephyer exclaimed in a staticy buzz. "We're in Hidden Palace. Can it get down here?"
"It must have a supernatural sense of smell. Get everybody under cover." Knuckles paused, then
said, "Zephyer, move the island into the middle of the Quadrangle and secure the stationary hover
"Okay Knuckles." The good thing about Zephyer was that she was dependable when the chips were
down. He watched as his island began to move in the distance. "Slasher, fly west!" he called against
the wind in his face.
"Right." The raptor turned and flew toward the sinking sun. The manticore was flying toward the
island by sight alone, and would follow a curved path that was longer than it expected.
"Well, I've meant to fly into the Quadrangle this whole visit," called Slasher over her shoulder.
"What are you putting the island in it for?"
"A theory," said Knuckles. "Sonic and Shadow beat the biolizard by going super, right? Zephyer
can't go super! So I'm boosting our chances."
"I don't follow your logic," said Slasher, "but I'll help you fight it.
Onward they flew as the Floating Island moved to intercept the sun ahead of them. The manticore
was far to their left now, and Knuckles hoped it was tiring. Living in a barn all its life couldn't have
toughened its muscles.
They reached the island and flew over it, watching to see where the manticore would land. It headed
for Sandopolis, and Knuckles had a sudden superstitious fear that it knew there was an entrance to
Lava Reef there. But how could it know?
He and Slasher pursued it, saw it land near the ruins, and dropped to the sand, themselves. The
manticore folded its wings and stood still, its body pulsing as it panted. It was facing away from
them, but the eyes in the back of its head could see them. Beside him, Slasher tensed.
"Distract it," he whispered, drawing his sword.
But before either of them could move, the manticore sprang away across the sand, leaping walls and
pillars, toward the pyramid. Slasher and Knuckles looked at each other and sprinted after it.
The manticore's legs were so long that it outdistanced them and was inside the pyramid by the time
they reached it. Knuckles cursed and dove into the entrance, Slasher following him. "Where's the
Lava Reef entrance?" she asked him.
"It's a ventilation shaft," said Knuckles. "It's on a lower level. Come on!"
He led Slasher down narrow stairs and sloping shafts, wading through soft sand and pelting through
wide halls, lit by the glow from Knuckles's sword. He knew all the shortcuts through the upper levels
of the pyramid, and made use of them. The manticore had only its sense of smell.
Knuckles and Slasher arrived in the wide hallway with a ten foot wide ventilation shaft in the stone
floor, and paused for a moment to catch their breaths and listen for the manticore. "It hasn't been
here," said Slasher, inhaling. "We beat it."
"Not for long," said Knuckles, hearing the tapping of its legs as it galloped up the passage toward
"Get back," said Slasher, stepping into the middle of the passage. As the manticore rounded the last
corner and its mismatched body filled the corridor, Slasher sprang at it with an attack roar. At the
same time Knuckles ran forward and swung the Emerald Sword with all his strength, the blade
shearing off the spiky insect leg at the knee. The leg curled up, but there was no blood.
The manticore knocked Slasher aside with a sweep of its head, then pounced on Knuckles, jaws
slavering and insect-eyes unblinking. It knocked him down with a hooked forefoot and bit at him,
but Knuckles protected himself with his shield. Its breath was hot and reeked of carrion.
But it didn't want him. As soon as he was down, it stepped over him, pulled in its limbs and crawled
down the ventilation shaft. "Slasher!" Knuckles yelled.
She picked herself up, panting, and ran to the shaft. "It's already gone," she announced. "I can't get
"Just jump in," said Knuckles. "It turns into a slide."
Slasher gave him a dark look, but there was no time to lose. She turned around backwards and slid
into the shaft. After a moment Knuckles followed her.
The shaft was long and dark, leading straight down to Lava Reef and filled with a hot roaring
updraft. The stink of the manticore filled the shaft, and its venom and saliva had dripped onto the
stone. Knuckles cursed it and hoped Hidden Palace was blocked off. He mentally ran through all the
weapons in the stockpile, and knew that none of them were stronger than what the police had used.
He reached the bottom and found Slasher already bounding down the passage, snarling to herself.
He ran after her and the manticore.
Slasher caught up with the monster first, and Knuckles arrived just in time to see her leap up its side,
grab the base of its wing in her jaws and bite down. The bone cracked and the manticore wailed and
turned, trying to bite her or sting her with its tail. Knuckles ran up and sliced off its other foreleg.
That leg curled up, and the manticore fell to its knees, snarling.
Slasher was hanging from the underside of the monster's bat wing, and she began to claw at the
leathery membrane with her sickle-claws, shredding it like silk. The lethal tail struck at her over and
over, but it only stung its own wing and back.
The spider-legs that were curled under the manticore's belly unfolded and planted their feet on the
ground. The manticore stood up on them, curling its two remaining lion-feet under its body. It was
not as tall, now, but creepier with its leg-joints high above its back. One of these new legs reached
up and brushed Slasher off its wing.
She hit the ground, bounced to her feet and bit the offending leg. Her powerful jaws crunched it in
half, and black blood oozed out and spattered the cave floor. Knuckles saw that the foot was missing
from a leg on the other side, and suddenly knew what had happened the night Slasher appeared on
his porch, half-mad and bloody.
She gagged and retreated, shaking her head and spitting out the foul blood. She began coughing and
ran into a neighboring tunnel, and the manticore ran on, ignoring its wounds.
Knuckles chased it through the tunnels and caverns, shocked at how it was choosing the most direct
route to Hidden Palace. He turned on his communicator. "Zephyer! It's in Lava Reef and it's coming
straight for you!"
"We have the entries blocked," she replied, "but you're going to have to kill it out there. I'm not
letting it near Talon."
"It's so fast! I may not be able to stop it. Slasher's run off, and Zeff--"
His communicator clicked as she disconnected. "Zephyer!" he exclaimed. She had hung up on him!
He furiously tried to reconnect, but there was no reply. He continued running, ducking into low
passages and swerving around crystal clusters, feeling the heat of Lava Reef growing. The Hidden
Palace entrance was in the main cavern where the lava pools were, and the manticore was headed
straight for it.
He looked back and saw Zephyer running toward him through a side passage. "What are you doing
here?" he snarled as she ran after him and the manticore.
"I'm not going to let you fight this thing alone!"
"What about Hidden Palace?"
"I've done all I can there. I got out by teleporter. Is that stuff on the floor blood?"
"Yeah, Slasher bit a leg and it's bleeding this black stuff. Are you sure it can't get in to Hidden
"I don't know!" she wailed. "I used the barricades and the Chaotix are in there, and I pulled some
crystals to help! Knux, don't let it bite you! It'll eat you alive!"
"Yeah, I heard."
The two ran for another mile and were gasping for breath when they arrived in the vast cavern in the
middle of Lava Reef. The manticore was already on the other side and pacing back and forth, back
and forth at the Hidden Palace entrance.
"Can it get in?" gasped Knuckles as they slowed to a walk.
"I grew crystals over it," panted Zephyer. "It can probably smash them if it figures out how, I didn't
have time to force-grow the big ones."
Knuckles stared at her, but there was no time to marvel. The manticore's movements were becoming
faster and more excited, as if it could smell its prey beyond the blocked entrance. The echidnas
hurried toward it, swords drawn.
As they approached, the manticore spun to face them, stumped and angry. It sprang at Knuckles,
who blocked its blow with his shield. Its mandibles closed on his shield and yanked him into the air,
nearly dislocating his shoulder. It tossed its head and threw him across the cave. He landed in a roll
and struck the wall so hard it stunned him. He lay there a few minutes, unable to breathe or think,
watching as Zephyer swung her sword at its face, trying to reach its eyes.
Knuckles's lungs began working again, and he struggled to his feet. He was going to be sore in the
morning. "Zephyer, get away from it!" he croaked, hurrying forward. She didn't hear him, and one of
her wild swings pierced one of the multifaceted eyes.
The manticore screamed and leaped backwards twenty feet, kicking up gravel from the cave floor
with its flailing legs. Black blood ran down its face.
"Score!" Zephyer yelled, holding her sword in the air. As Knuckles hurried to her, she held out a
hand to show him she was carrying a miniature of the Master Emerald. He took it from her and put
it in his shield hand.
"What do you expect the Master Emerald to do?" he asked her.
"I don't know," she said. "You're the one who wanted to fly into the Blackguard Quadrangle."
Knuckles's scattered wits returned, and he looked at the emerald in his hand. "Right." He clenched
his fist over it and said, "Master Emerald, island protection initiate."
The Emerald Sword lit like a floodlight, Zephyer's sword blazed gold, and power rippled over her
armor and Knuckles's helmet.
"Isn't this the command you were afraid to use?" asked Zephyer.
"It's worth a try," said Knuckles. "Let's dice up that bug." They charged at the manticore.
The beast was waiting for them, jaws open. Knuckles felt a twinge of doubt in the back of his mind,
even as he and Zephyer swung their weapons and a wave of destructive chaos energy blasted off
them like a whirlwind and struck the monster. "Wait!" he commanded, holding back Zephyer from
attacking again. "Dang, I forgot, it's a stinking ultimate lifeform!"
Instead of being killed instantly, the manticore absorbed the chaos energy and used it to heal its
injured legs and eye.
"Oh, fantastic idea, genius!" Zephyer snapped, glaring at him. "You just HEALED it!" A bolt of
electricity jumped between them, and the manticore squealed and retreated.
"Electricity!" Knuckles exclaimed. "Of course! That's why only the cattle prods hurt it!"
"What?" Zephyer looked blank.
"Look, get on the other side of it and think alike!" hollered Knuckles, running toward the manticore.
Zephyer ran to its other side, and they looked at each other through its legs. "The Master Emerald!"
Five hundred volts snapped between them, knocking them both down. The manticore leaped straight
up in the air and tried to fly, but its broken wing flailed and it landed back on its feet. It ran for the
Hidden Palace entrance, which was covered by a fan of white crystal spikes. It began clawing at
them, chipping some of them loose with its hard insect legs.
"Same thing again!" yelled Knuckles, and they shocked it again. The manticore only redoubled its
efforts, bending to bite the crystal. It tore one loose, chewed and swallowed it as the echidnas
watched in horror. "It's gonna get through!" cried Zephyer. She ran in among the monster's legs and
slashed at the side of its face. At once it turned and grabbed Zephyer around the waist in its
Knuckles ran forward, but the manticore sidestepped and knocked him down with three legs at once.
Before he could rise it stood on him, crushing him against the stone with its entire thousand pounds.
As the breath was forced from his lungs, he looked up and saw that the only thing keeping Zephyer
from being sheared in half by the mandibles was her armor. She was stabbing at its face over and
over, and its jaws were biting at her breastplate, trying to tear it off.
The manticore shook Zephyer viciously, then dashed her against the ground, and suddenly she
wasn't fighting anymore. The sword fell from her limp hand and clattered on the ground. It dropped
her among the broken crystal shards, planted a foot on her stomach and tore off her breastplate with
its mandibles, throwing it aside. Now it would eat her alive.
Hopelessly she looked at Knuckles, the wind knocked out of her. She was going to die in the next
five minutes and there was nothing either of them could do about it.
Knuckles gripped the Master Emerald and tried to throw the monster's foot off his back, but it was
too strong, too heavy. He watched Zephyer as the manticore's jaws came down the final time, and
mouthed, "I love you."
Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and the Master Emerald's power blazed between them in a
spectacular lightning bolt that made their swords sing. It arced through the manticore's head in a
blaze of blue light, knocking Zephyer out of its jaws. The manticore did a sideways flip, landed on
its back and lay still.
For a long moment it was silent, the only sound coming from their swords, which were resonating a
high A note in response to the Master Emerald. Knuckles lifted his head, dropped his sword and
shield, and dragged himself the fifteen feet that separated him from Zephyer. Her eyes were closed,
and blood was soaking her shirt where the straps holding the breastplate had broken. "Zeff," he said,
kneeling over her. "Look at me. Please be alive."
"You won't fry me again like that, will you?" she said through her teeth.
"It works both ways, Zeff," he said. "We killed it. Look."
She opened her eyes and looked toward the manticore, which was lying motionless with its head
charred black, and one leg twitching.
She dared look at him again, then sat up with a groan. "Are you all right?"
"Just some bruises," said Knuckles. "You're bleeding."
She looked down. "It's just a scratch." She looked at him and said, "Okay, NOW we know the
monster dangerous combined thought of all."
"Really," said Knuckles. He pulled her to him and kissed her in relief.
They were thus engaged when they heard a snarl, and Slasher jumped on the manticore's exposed
belly and began slashing and clawing it.
"Hey Slasher!" Knuckles yelled. "It's dead already!"
"I'm making sure!" she roared. "Ultimate lifeforms are very tough, you know!" She continued
mutilating the carcass as Knuckles helped Zephyer to her feet. They were both weak and shaky from
the electrical shock. They picked up their discarded weapons and walked through the shattered
entrance toward Hidden Palace, leaving Slasher to maul her enemy, furious that she had not been
there for the final blow.
25. No Echidna is an Island: Chapter 10: One final problem
Chapter 10: One final problem
Talon was sick with worry when Knuckles smashed the crystals covering the Hidden Palace
entrance. He and Zephyer walked in, and Talon ran to them and hugged them both. "It's dead," said
Knuckles. "It's safe now."
"Yes sir." Talon looked at Zephyer's broken breastplate and Knuckles's grimed shield, and marveled
that they weren't hurt worse.
"Zeff," said Knuckles, "take Talon up to the house. The Chaotix and I have to warp the carcass back
to the mainland for evidence. I'll be home after that."
"Okay," said Zephyer, reluctant to leave him looking so tired. She looked at the Chaotix, who were
bursting with curiosity, but biting back the questions. "Look after him, you guys."
Vector saluted. "Aye aye, Zephyer!"
She took Talon's hand and led him out to the teleporter antechamber as Knuckles took off his
helmet. "Get some ropes," he told the Chaotix. "There's a lot of manticore hamburger out there."
* * *
Zephyer put Talon to bed in his old room, then went to her room, took off her armor and shoes, and
crawled under the blankets without changing clothes. She didn't even care about the scrapes on her
sides--she just wanted to sleep. She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, and didn't even
wake up when Talon came in and snuggled up to her, too traumatized to sleep alone.
It was after eleven o'clock when Knuckles got home. He dragged himself to the couch, flopped on it
and snored. He was still in the same position hours later when Zephyer awoke and went hunting for
him. She draped a blanket over him with a smile, and went back to bed.
* * *
When the echidnas called Howe the next day at noon, the ferret was purring with glee. "The whole
Blackguard Island chain is talking about this trial. This morning they brought in Mori and his
lawyer--I can clean that wimp's clock any day--and at first the jury felt sorry for him. I mean, he's
missing an arm and everything. And then we pulled back the curtain and showed them the
manticore! All sympathy went out the window. Especially after we told him what he'd done to his
kids. I'm expecting a verdict of a life sentence from them."
"How was Slasher's testimony?" asked Knuckles. He and Zephyer were sitting on the porch sipping
fruit drinks. Talon was slouched in a lawn chair, playing a game on Knuckles's handheld computer.
"Her testimony was brilliant," said Howe. "She was very calm and lucid about everything, and going
feral is something the Blackguard citizens understand, what with that horrible school being here."
"How's my lawsuit coming?"
"Wonderful." Howe savored the news. "There have been other lawsuits, but the school has its own
panel of defense lawyers who always got them settled out of court. Not this time! This case has
blown that school wide open. They'll go belly up a dozen times over once I'm through with them."
Her voice took on a more serious note. "Talon is without a proper guardian now, and your adoption
approval process still isn't finished."
Knuckles glanced at Zephyer, who had been listening, and they both looked at Talon. "So what'll
Howe sighed. "They'll place him in foster care temporarily."
"Argh!" Knuckles slapped his forehead. "So we're back where we started! When do they place him?"
"Two o'clock this afternoon," said Howe. "I'll meet you at Orphan Aid."
Knuckles shut off his com and looked at Zephyer. "Ever get the feeling that everything we do is
"Yes." Zephyer looked at him. "Hey, no electricity."
"You're right. Think about Talon." They did, and nothing happened.
"Maybe we blew out the charge with that last one," said Zephyer.
"Good," said Knuckles. "I was getting to the point where I was afraid to look at you."
"Likewise." They both looked at Talon, and the bad news hung over them like a storm cloud.
"Tal," said Knuckles. The anteater looked up. "I just talked to Howe. She said you have to placed in
temporary foster care until our approval process is finished."
Talon stared at him blankly for a moment, then dissolved into tears and put his head in his hands.
Zephyer rose and went to him. No one spoke--there was nothing to say. It seemed the past two weeks
had all been in vain.
* * *
Howe met them at the Orphan Air office, and didn't comment on the desolate expressions of the
echidnas and anteater. She explained the foster-child process to Talon and had him sign a few
papers, and watch a video. He didn't speak and performed mechanically, as if he was incapable of
feeling any more pain.
Finally the ferret said, "Would you like to meet the foster parent? He's in the next room."
"Yeah!" Knuckles jumped up. "And if he's not a nice guy, I'm gonna pound his head!"
Howe raised a hand. "No violence, please." She opened an adjoining door and ushered them
A long figure rose to his feet, and everyone but Howe stared at him. "Espio?" said Knuckles. "What
are you doing in here?"
The chameleon's grin was big enough to wrap around his head. "While you guys were treasure
hunting, I got myself approved for foster care. So now Talon goes to live with me for a while. And
hey, if I happen to live on the Floating Island, it doesn't matter, does it?"
"Of all the diabolical--" Zephyer began, then started to smile. "--cunning angelic lizards!" She ran up
and hugged Espio until he choked. "Now, now," he said, pulling away, "no attacking other clients,
now! Come on, Talon, you go with me."
Talon was grinning as he walked up to him. This change of fortune had left him stunned, but it was
obviously no joke. Knuckles was just staring with his mouth open. Espio laid one finger alongside
his snout-horn and winked, then strode out with Talon.
They all met up at the same teleporter afterwards. "After you," said Knuckles to Espio and Talon.
Espio stuck his nose in the air and said, "Come along, slave--I mean son." He grinned as he and
Talon stepped on the teleporter and vanished.
"I ought to pound him for that," said Knuckles.
"The point is, you can," said Zephyer. They joined hands and stepped on the teleporter, and warped
* * *
A few days later, Knuckles entered the house and shed his dripping raincoat. Outdoors was a solid wall of rain, and the air was heavy and warm. "Let it rain," thought Knuckles, hanging his raincoat on a nail by the door. "It'll wash away the manticore's stink."
Talon was lying on the couch with a book, and looked up as Knuckles entered. "Hello, sir."
"Heya Talon. Where's Zephyer?"
"In your room, I guess," said Talon, sitting up. "Can I see it?"
Knuckles walked over, slid off his ring and handed it to Talon. It was a copy of his brass one, but this time in gold--two thick bands wrapped around each other in a loop.
"It's better than the one Tails made," said Talon, grinning. His grin was even more lopsided than usual because of the bandage over his eye and cheek.
Knuckles was glad to see him resting, and even more glad to have him in the house. "You bet it is," he said, putting the ring on again. "Take it easy, Tal."
"Yes sir." Talon returned to his book, and Knuckles went in search of Zephyer.
She was sitting at their bedroom window, watching the rain with the window open, and the room was full of the clean, fresh scent. Knuckles walked up beside her and looked out at the trees bowing in the distance. "Quite a storm."
"Yes." She looked up at him. "Did you get it?" He pulled off his ring and handed it to her. She fingered it and tapped it against her teeth. "Real gold this time, I see."
"Yep." Knuckles slid it back on and sat down beside his wife. They watched the rain, and Knuckles was struck by a rare mood of self-doubt as he thought of the significance of their rings. Gold to symbolize true love ... but his ring had been brass. He looked at his wife and wondered if he loved her enough. Or if she really loved him. He thought of the electric surge that had killed the manticore--she had to love him now. But ... he had forced her to. He had derobotized her, so what if she had only married him out of obligation? "Zeff ..."
She looked at him. "Hmm?"
He looked down. "Do you really love me?"
"Of course." She peered at him. "You're not having second thoughts about marrying me, are you? I know I was kind of pushy about you carrying a weapon ..."
"No, no, nothing like that. Why did you marry me in the first place?"
It was a plainitive question, and Zephyer frowned. She had never thought of Knuckles as insecure. "Because I love you, dummy."
He fingered his ring. "I kind of ... forced you. After I derobotized you, you didn't have a choice."
"Hello, island to Knuckles," said Zephyer. "You'd been courting me a long time before that, and in case you forget, we had a deal. I'd marry you if you could derobotize me."
"But you wanted to back out, and I wouldn't let you ..."
He looked up to see Zephyer lean close and study his face. "All right, what have you done with Knuckles?" She shook her head. "Knux, the reason I threw such a fit was because I was robotized! You know that whole sordid mess I was in. Quit the pity party already. I knew what I was getting myself into."
He smiled. "You never cut me any slack, do you?"
"Somebody's got to whip you into shape sometimes," said Zephyer, putting an arm around him. He pulled her close and kissed her slowly, stroking her hair. Then he kissed her forehead and held her to his chest as he had done when she was recovering from derobotization.
She lifted her head and stroked his face. "If you're mad at me, just tell me."
"I'm not mad at you. I was just thinking."
"You think too much, mister Guardian."
"One of us has to."
She glared. "What did you say?"
He grinned. "I'm kidding."
They were in the middle of another kiss when they heard the front door blow open, and the footsteps and voices of the Chaotix. "Uh oh," said Zephyer, pulling away. "What are they doing back so soon?"
"Maybe the test wasn't as long as they thought," said Knuckles, getting up.
"Look at this, Talon!" Vector was whooping as the echidnas walked in. He pulled an envelope out from under his raincoat and waved it around. "This is my private detective license!"
"So you got it, eh?" said Knuckles.
"So did I!" said Espio, and Charmy produced his own.
"How about you, Mighty?" asked Zephyer as the armadillo entered last.
He held up his envelope with a grin. "Check it out! A license to snoop!"
Zephyer looked at the floor and yelped. "You guys are dripping all over my clean floor! Ditch the raincoats, pronto!"
The Chaotix sheepishly pulled off their coats and hung them beside the door. As they moved toward the living room, talking about the test, the door opened yet again and Slasher blew in, half-open wings streaming rainwater.
"Slasher!" Zephyer cried, slapping a hand to her forehead.
The raptor looked at the wet floor. "It's already soaked."
Zephyer threw a towel at her and left the room.
As Knuckles followed the Chaotix into the living room, Talon sidled past him and walked to Slasher. Knuckles watched from around the corner as Talon shyly took the towel and helped Slasher dry her wings. Then they both dried the floor with furtive looks at Knuckles.
He grinned and left.