Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: The Onyx Isle - Part Two
“We can’t trust him,” Ash said flatly. She, Avalon, and Silverdrop had walked to the opposite edge of the clearing, where they could still see the Gelert, but were out of his hearing range.
Avalon nodded. “It’s too farfetched.”
Ash snorted. “It’s more than that, it’s impossible. He’s evil unless he was Changed, and then he’d have to remember his past- and then he’d just shift back to whatever he used to be!”
Avalon nodded. A good portion of Scarback’s army was made of pets converted unwillingly into evil shadow Gelerts with glowing, pure-red eyes, by a still-unknown method. These pets remained evil, unless they remembered their past lives. Once this happened, the victims returned to normal, and since Scarback never seemed to leave his Gelerts on their own, the rest of the pack ‘took care of’ the problem. The only Changed pet Avalon, Ash and Silverdrop knew was a purple Lupe named Valor, who had managed to escape the Gelerts with only a scar down his muzzle as a visible reminder.
But Silverdrop frowned. “We don’t know much about the Changing,” she pointed out. “Maybe their memories don’t always make them shift back... or maybe he just escaped, and it takes time for them to Change... or who knows, the evilness a Changed pet gets might wear off sometimes.”
Avalon scowled at his paws. “Again, we don’t know enough...”
Stamping a paw, Ash said, “It doesn’t matter. How likely is any of that? I don’t think Scarback’ll have left flaws in his Gelerts.”
“He’s not perfect,” Silverdrop retorted. “If his plans had all gone perfectly before, he’d have gotten the Gem before Avalon or I’d even heard of it.”
“But there’s never been a slow Change back before,” Ash protested.
“None we know of,” Avalon said quietly. “We only know about Changed pets because of Valor. If he hadn’t escaped, we’d probably have no idea... who says this Gelert isn’t like Valor?”
“The fact that he’s still a shadow Gelert with glowing eyes!” Ash was speaking through gritted teeth. “Look, you can’t just let him into the cave on theories, especially not these; they’re total guesses, there’s not anything really backing them up. But there is evidence he could just be a spy, and Scarback’s trying to play on our good old hero reflexes.” She glared at Avalon. “And it looks t’me like it’s working.”
Avalon glared right back at the Lupe. “What kind of heroes are we if we kill someone innocent just because they might be enemies?”
“What kind of successful heroes are we if we fall for every convert story?” Ash retorted.
Avalon raised a paw. “I never said we would take him into the cave, or spill all our secrets! But I agree with Silverdrop... we don’t know enough about the Changing to say for sure that he’s just tricking us.”
“So what, we leave him out here and just trot in and out of the cave to get food?”
“Ash, knock it off!” Avalon growled. “We’ll take him to another clearing... one of us can keep guard on him. We’ll take him food, treat his injuries... I’m not stupid, Ash. Scarback already got us with Caiman, I’m not going to give him a wide-open chance with a more obvious possible spy.”
Ash and the Kougra locked gazes for a moment, and at last, Ash nodded once. “Fine. But keep your traps shut, everyone. Don’t answer his questions, even if they seem like they’ll do him no good.”
“So when do we decide he’s a convert, not a spy?” Silverdrop asked, her tone tinted with disdain.
Ash faltered, then shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe we can make up a test... or maybe he’ll get impatient and ruin the scheme himself. From what I’ve seen, the Gelerts aren’t real patient.”
“Brazen isn’t,” Avalon growled. “But not every Gelert’s going to be just like her or Zeth.” Avalon felt the fur on the back of his neck prickle at the mention of the two Gelerts. Brazen was the current pack leader, a ruthless, fast-acting killer completely loyal to Scarback’s commands. Zeth was her younger brother, an equally deadly beast, who had never lost a battle... until Quaz’s sword had struck a vicious blow that ended the Gelert’s bloody record.
After a moment of silence, Ash shifted her shoulders, and asked, “Where’re we gonna take him? Let’s get a move on, Quaz might get up here any second.”
“We’ll take him somewhere close,” Avalon said, lowering his voice, “but we’ll take him around a bit, make him think we’re going farther than we really are.”
Ash and Silverdrop glanced at each other; neither was certain what Avalon was planning. The starry Kougra grinned slightly, and said, “Just follow my lead.”
Ash rolled her eyes as Avalon stood up, and strode toward the Gelert. “Great. Nothing like a nice clear plan of action.” Shaking her head, still scowling over the lost argument, she trotted after him, Silverdrop half a pace behind.
“All right,” Avalon said, using his most stern voice and matching expression. He had his tail and ears up, and he straightened himself to look down on the Gelert as best he could; it wasn’t too difficult, considering that the Gelert was lying down. “Come on. We’re taking you to a clearing near our camp.”
The Gelert looked around. “This isn’t... your camp?”
Avalon shook his head. “This is just where we swordfight. Why would we do that outside our camp, anyways? The noise’d attract unwanted attention... maybe even Scarback’s attention.”
The Kougras and Lupe watched the Gelert’s face, and even Silverdrop, his strongest advocate, was startled to see the Gelert’s face twist in disgust at Scarback’s name. This twisting grimace apparently hurt his cuts, for the expression quickly became a wince of pain.
Silverdrop asked, “What’s your name?”
The Gelert blinked at her, as if the question surprised him. This puzzled Silverdrop; why would the Gelert expect the Guardians to know his name? They knew Brazen... and she vaguely remembered a prison guard on Scarback’s dark island named Brutus... but how many of the common Gelerts was she supposed to know?
“I’m Flit,” the Gelert said at last. “Scarback used to use me as a messenger.”
Silverdrop nodded slowly, then asked, “Do you know anything useful about what Scarback’s planning to do?”
Flit studied her a moment, and it was an eerie moment. Silverdrop didn’t like the red eyes on her. Anytime she’d been watched by such eyes in the past, it was in the hopes of finding a place to strike.
“I don’t know what his exact plans are,” Flit finally said. “I’ve heard bits and pieces... perhaps you Guardians can put the pieces together, you probably know more about his plots than I do.”
“Silverdrop,” Avalon growled. “Enough.”
“No, wait,” Ash said. “I wanna know, too. How can you not know about Scarback’s plots? You and the other Gelerts are the main fighting force in all of them!”
Flit snorted. “You think Scarback wastes time briefing the army? He tells us who to kill and who to take alive... he tells us what we might be facing, and maybe how we should bring it down. He tells us to move faster or walk quietly, or ‘reminds’ us to listen to Brazen... but he doesn’t tell us why.” The Gelert lashed his thin-tipped tail. “In his eyes, we aren’t smart enough to comprehend why. He thinks we’re all just bloodthirsty, like Brazen is... he’s wrong.”
“Wrong?” Silverdrop ignored Avalon’s furious glare. “Are there more Gelerts like you then?”
“No... no, we’re not at that point yet. But they’re starting to wonder why we’re doing what we’re doing. I’m the only one who doesn’t practically worship Scarback, and that’s why I’m the only one who sees that it’s wrong.”
Avalon frowned slightly. “Really?”
Flit nodded, managing to hold his head high enough to meet the Kougra’s golden eyes. “Really.”
Avalon said, “Y’know... I think the Noil Gem should be able to tell whether you’re really on our side.”
To Silverdrop’s surprise, the Gelert just nodded and said, “I hope so. I know why you’re treating me like a spy. But I’m not one.”
Avalon glanced at his friends, surprise faintly evident, but he turned back to the Gelert and said, “All right. If the Gem glows green, you’re one of us. If it turns red...”
Flit nodded. “It’ll be green,” he said confidently.
Avalon kept his eyes on the Gelert, but they slid slightly out of focus as he sent a mental need to the Gem to evaluate the Gelert, to determine if what he said was a lie. Silverdrop watched, unsure what to expect; they had never asked the Gem to do something like this before.
She had not been expecting the Gem to glow yellow.
All four pets stared at the Gem, their expressions baffled- including Flit’s.
“What’s yellow mean, Avalon?” Ash asked at last.
Avalon hesitated. “I... I’m not sure. I guess... it can’t tell?”
“What d’you mean, it can’t tell?!”
“I mean... it’s confused,” Avalon said. “I don’t know why.”
They were silent for a long moment. At last, Silverdrop said, “Well... we can’t say he’s lying for sure.”
Avalon sighed. “I know.” Turning back to the Gelert, his posture stiffened. He growled, “Can you stand?”
Flit nodded slowly, getting to his feet one unsteady paw at a time. “And walk. Although I’m not sure how long.”
“Tell me if you need a break,” Avalon said curtly. “We’re going pretty far.”
Avalon led them in a series of circles for about half an hour. Only Avalon, Silverdrop, and Ash recognized the landmarks as familiar, though Flit might have as well, if he’d been paying attention. He had his eyes fixed on his paws, as if he needed to see them in order to keep from tripping over himself. All three pets had strapped on their swords before leaving, and the hilts and sheaths shone brightly in the increasing sunlight. Silverdrop couldn’t help thinking of them as bold threats, silent, but just as impressive as snarled warnings. If Flit could focus on anything besides his injuries, he would quickly realize that escape was impossible.
The Silver Kougra was troubled more than she had expected to be at the Gem’s uncertainty. What did it mean, if the Gem was confused? That Flit was somehow tricking it? Or was Avalon’s expectation of finding evil influencing it somehow- combining with the Gem’s desire to cooperate with its wearer, perhaps?
They finally stopped in a clearing about a two minute slow, casual walk from where they’d started. Avalon watched as Flit, who hadn’t asked for a break during the entire walk, laid down, leaning against a fallen log. His breath was coming out ragged, and through Avalon’s tough captor demeanor, Silverdrop could tell from the rapid twitching at the tip of his tail that he was concerned. “Get some water, Ash,” he said. The fire Lupe nodded, trotting out of the clearing.
Avalon sat down slowly. “I’ll take the first watch,” he said. “Silverdrop, you and Ash need to decide who’s guarding next, and we’ll switch at noon. We’ll trade off again when it starts getting dark, and we’ll do the same thing in reverse through the night.”
“Fine,” Silverdrop said, scanning the treetops as if searching for spies. She hesitated, then lowered her eyes to meet Avalon’s gaze. “Need me to do anything?” she asked, her tone slightly softer.
Avalon curled his tail around his front paws. “Yes... we’ll need some sort of medicine, some bandages for the cuts on his legs, most likely, and some sort of cream for the ones on his muzzle... you know where they are, right?”
Silverdrop had no idea where any of the medical supplies were, and since the Kougra had taught her where just about everything was, he’d know that. But Avalon wasn’t really asking her that. He was telling her that Quaz knew, without giving away the older Kougra’s existence to Flit.
It all seemed like ridiculous dodging and cover-up to Silverdrop, but of course, she was only the apprentice, and Avalon her mentor. He was supposed to be wiser about how to deal with enemies... but...
Well, maybe she was just sympathizing with him too much. She knew what it was like to turn your back on something you felt guilty about, and had decided was wrong, only to have others rub it in your face, like the rough sands of the Lost Desert, sand that Silverdrop had spent all of her life treading.
But even this very-likely possibility didn’t diminish her anger toward Avalon... and Ash, while she was at it. The two needed to be more open-minded; why were the villains always seen as a single, like-minded unit, rather than a population of individuals, who simply tended to share ideas? The three of them were cultural anomalies; why couldn’t Flit be one as well?
The silver Kougra’s short journey was fueled by her anger, and she reached the main base of Heartfelt cave so quickly that it surprised her. Also surprising was Quaz, unlocking a set of cupboards with a small silver key Silverdrop had never seen before. Silverdrop stepped into the room, and Quaz’s ears briefly swiveled in her direction.
“Good morning, Silverdrop,” the royal Kougra said, turning they key to the right until the latch clicked loudly. “Give me a moment to open this cabinet, and I’ll get you the medicines you need.”
Silverdrop blinked. “How’d you know I needed medicine?”
Quaz jabbed his tail toward the front of the cave, at a thin, short wall of semi-transparent fire hovering in the air. After a moment of looking at the flame, an image appeared; the clearing, where Avalon sat guarding Flit.
“You were watching us?” Silverdrop asked, turning back to Quaz.
“Watching the Noil Gem, specifically,” Quaz said. “I woke up before you came back from training, and I know you don’t take that long.” He frowned at the door, then gave it a sudden yank. Whether from rust or simple lack of use, the door remained firmly shut.
Silverdrop stepped forward. “Here, I’ll help.”
Together, the elderly royal Kougra and the young silver Kougra wrenched the door open. To Silverdrop’s surprise, the inside was clean, bright, and well-organized, filled with rolls of bandages, jars of elixirs, extracts, and healing potions, tubes of thick medicinal creams, and, for some reason, a glass jar of white-chocolate chip cookies.
Tapping the cookie jar with one claw, Silverdrop asked, “Are these in here for a reason?”
Quaz grinned. “Yes. Those are magic cookies, used to cure Sneezles. We decided to start stocking up when we saw how high they were selling on the Neopian market.”
“Oh.” That mystery explained, Silverdrop went on to a more serious question. “Y’know, if a Guardian ever got hurt, how would they get this thing open?”
“The Noil Gem, of course,” Quaz said. “The cabinet is difficult to open only to keep invaders from being able to use our medicinal supplies. The sword cases are actually the same way, except that they can distinguish between enemies and those trusted by the Guardian, which is why you and Ash can always remove your weapons. It’s the same with the flame screens... and almost everything in this cave, really.”
Silverdrop looked around the cave with new respect. She’d always assumed that if an enemy got into Heartfelt cave, that would be the end of the battle; the enemy would have an arsenal of weapons and magic at their clawtips, and all the work of all the previous Guardians would be wasted.
“Does Avalon know about that?”
Quaz sighed. “Yes... but you can’t blame him for being harsh about dealing with the Gelert. You haven’t faced them as often as he and Ash have, and so your expectations of them aren’t as stone-set. That may be a good thing... but understand that Avalon and Ash’s suspicion is not groundless. We were fooled once by a less obvious source... you remember Caiman.”
Of course Silverdrop remembered Caiman. The brown Krawk had masqueraded as a loyal ship’s captain, and taken Avalon and Ash to the Lost Desert to find Silverdrop. But Caiman had been a traitor the entire time, sending messages to Scarback through his Pirakeet. They’d last seen the Krawk on Scarback’s island, and either he was still there, or he’d been killed. Scarback wasn’t very forgiving of failure.
The two Kougras were silent as they removed the various medical supplies Avalon had asked for, and loaded them into a small satchel. It didn’t seem like a long time at all before Silverdrop was winding through the underground maze, then emerging from the base of the hill, and then into the clearing where Avalon, Ash, and Flit waited.
The next several days were rather monotonous. It was an endless cycle of a shifting guard duties, which were to be spent in silence. At first, Flit attempted to catch the three pets’ eyes, as if he might be able to convince him of his honesty this way. But after a while, he realized that even Silverdrop wouldn’t look directly into his glowing eyes, and finally ended up sleeping most of the time.
Apparently, the rest was doing him good. The wounds on his body were healing quickly, and Silverdrop wondered if this might be some sort of magic Scarback had given his red-eyed warriors. But while she was curious, Avalon was worried.
“Maybe he’s only so docile now because he can’t afford fighting us!” the starry Kougra growled, explaining the situation to Quaz while Ash was on guard duty.
“Or maybe he doesn’t want to fight,” Silverdrop protested. She almost asked why he always had to expect the worst possible reason for something... but of course, she knew why. He was a Guardian. It was his job.
”Maybe this isn’t something I want after all. I mean, being able to protect the Gem from pets like Scarback, using swords, having big adventures... that’s one thing. But do I really want to spend the rest of my life waiting for something bad to pounce at me?”
Hastily, she shoved these thoughts from her head. She couldn’t think these sorts of things; being a Guardian was all she had... unless she wanted to go back to being a used, pathetic, law-breaking desert thief.
Avalon replied to her comment, drawing the silver Kougra’s attention back to the present. “Maybe not, but it’s true he could just be biding his time.”
Silverdrop met his golden eyes with her own silver ones. She could just see Quaz, his face twisted into a frown. “Avalon... do you really think he’s just a spy?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, it’s possible, and more likely than-“
“I wasn’t asking that!” Silverdrop snapped. “I asked if you think, gut feeling, Flit’s a spy.”
Silence spread across the cavern like an invisible mist. Avalon closed his eyes for a moment, and let out a sigh. “...Honestly, I don’t know what to think. He doesn’t seem dangerous... but how do I know that’s not fake? I want to trust him, if that’s what you’re asking... I want to think we could have someone from Scarback’s group on our side.” He straightened his shoulders. “But Silverdrop, one thing I’ve learned since I got this Gem- you have to watch who you trust.”
He left the cave, the Gem’s eyes shooting out thin beams of light to aid him through the dark maze. Silverdrop watched him go, her eyes narrowed, but her shoulders drooping. Why couldn’t he get past Caiman’s betrayal?
Avalon slowed his pace to a walk about halfway through the maze, his eyes slightly out of focus as he reran the conversation through his head again. Silverdrop was so intent on trusting this Gelert... she knew the dangers, Avalon was sure of that, and it wasn’t as if she was a soft pet who didn’t understand what could happen if they were betrayed.
So why couldn’t the two of them agree on how to deal with Flit?
The light from the Noil Gem, previously the color of summer sunlight, suddenly turned a dark blue, drooping at the beams’ edges. Avalon stopped, trying to figure out what this meant. The Noil Gem was infamous for beaming and glowing and sparking different colors, which all seemed to mean something different. Dark blue and dripping was a new color and a new look to brightly-colored lights normally as sharp-edged as Avalon’s sword.
After a moment, the lights shifted back to their original color. Avalon continued walking, but couldn’t help feeling that the light was duller now, as if the Gem was sad that its wearer hadn’t understood its message.
About two days after confronting Avalon, Silverdrop came to the clearing to take her shift. She watched as Ash left, looking as if she’d fought exhaustion all night. She stopped beside Silverdrop, and whispered, “Keep your eyes and ears open... if he’s going to try something, it could be now.”
Silverdrop clenched her teeth; Ash was almost worse than Avalon. But she nodded slightly, resuming her stride without another look at the fire Lupe. Why did the two of them have to be so-
She stepped into the clearing, and was surprised to see the Gelert sitting up, stretching out his neck. Silverdrop actually froze a moment, and when the Gelert glanced at her, he froze as well. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to look suspicious, as if he were loosening any tight muscles fro an escape attempt. Slowly, he lay down, his head up but ears flat.
Silverdrop leapt atop the rock used for guard duty, and began scanning the edges of the clearing, looking for any sign of Flit’s pack-mates. Of course, there was nothing; the birds were squawking too loudly for there to be anything as vicious as a Gelert pack nearby, let alone an entire band of them.
Suddenly, Flit spoke. “The healing... it’s a natural ability Scarback’s given us. Not some dark magic I’ve been working between your shifts.”
Silverdrop turned toward him, startled. “Dark magic?” she repeated, frowning.
“Yeah... dark magic. Evil magic.”
“You thought we thought you were using magic to heal yourself?”
Flit looked confused, one eyebrow raised slightly higher than the other. “...How else would I be healing so quickly, if it wasn’t just how Scarback designed us?”
Silverdrop stood up, turning her entire body to face the Gelert. “What are you talking about? Why would we think you were using magic at all?”
The Gelert stared at her for a moment... and then, his eyes widened. “You don’t know... By the faeries, you don’t know!”
“Don’t know what?” Silverdrop demanded, baring her teeth slightly.
“Some Gelerts in the pack can do magic! Most of them were probably mages before they were Changed, at least that’s what I think.”
“You know about Changing?”
Flit nodded. “I’m not supposed to... I heard Scarback talking about it... I thought maybe I was one... ”
Silverdrop hesitated. “Well... do you remember anything about before you were Changed?”
Flit sighed. “No... but if there was anything, wouldn’t knowing about the Change be enough?”
“Maybe...” Silverdrop hissed softly. “We don’t know much about it... not as much as we’d like to,” she added quickly, trying not to give too much information away.
Flit’s ears drooped further. “I don’t know much either,” he admitted. “I wanted to help... but I don’t know if I have anything that can help you!”
“Well, we didn’t know Gelerts had magic,” Silverdrop pointed out. “You thought we knew that. Maybe there’re other things... ”
Flit shrugged. “Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to matter much...” He lifted one paw slightly, just enough to make the rope around it taut. He glared at the rope, and growled, “Why can’t I just Change?”
Silverdrop could hear the anguish in his voice, the frustration at being unable to prove that he was honestly a traitor, and not just a pathetic spy. The silver Kougra hesitated, trying to figure out what to say.
But before she could, a Kougra’s roar ripped through the island’ s peaceful atmosphere, like claws raking away a spider’s web.
Silverdrop leapt to her paws. “That’s Avalon!” she hissed.
Flit’s long ears were pricked. “I don’t know any Kougras, but that sounds like a challenge... ”
“But who’s he challenging?”
“That isn’t the question,” Flit growled, standing as best he could. “The question is, ‘How many of Scarback’s Gelerts is he about to fight?’”
To be continued...