Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: The Onyx Isle - Part Seven
Avalon jerked awake as a paw landed on his shoulder. Immediately assuming it was a Gelert who wanted him dead so badly that they would defy Scarback’s orders, the starry Kougra leapt to his paws, opening his mouth to roar.
A massive paw clamped his jaws shut, and someone hissed in his ear, “Shut up! We can’t rescue you if we get caught!”
...Rescue? Avalon shook his head, and the paw was pulled back. Avalon turned to see the female Gelert with the scar across her face. Her glowing eyes dipped everything in a faint red tone, including Avalon’s dirty fur.
Realizing that there were more sources of the red light, Avalon turned, and saw two other Gelerts standing nearby; two of the males, the silent one, and the one with the snaggle-tooth.
“What’s this about rescuing me?” Avalon growled. “Who are you?”
The female said, “We are the only Gelerts who know how t’get off Scarback’s island. You know a friend of ours.” She raised an eyebrow.
Avalon took a guess. “Flit.”
“Yes. Flit... I was surprised he didn’t tell Scarback who we were.”
“He never asked,” the snaggle-toothed Gelert said, smirking.
Ignoring the comment, the female said, “As for exact names... I’m Vora...” She nodded toward the snaggle-toothed Gelert. “He’s Hack. And he,” she pointed at the silent male, “is Tacit.”
Avalon looked at each Gelert in turn, then said, “You’re with Flit. Against Scarback.”
Hack snorted. “Not so much ‘gainst Scarback as against bein’ his slaves.”
“Keep it down, Hack!” Vora hissed. To Tacit, she grumbled, “We shouldn’t have brought him.”
Tacit raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Avalon wondered if the Gelert was able to speak at all.
“Look,” Vora said, turning to Avalon, “We want Scarback gone. We aren’t about to go frolicking with the Guardians, but we’re sick of being his battle fodder.”
Avalon bared his teeth. “You want the Gem,” he growled.
“We don’t need the Gem,” Vora snapped. “And we’re not stupid; we don’t need an extra enemy.”
Hack chuckled. “It ain’t us you need to be worrying about. We’re not gonna steal your pretty necklace.”
Vora shot a glare in his direction, but Avalon asked, “Who does want to steal it?”
“Hack, don’t you-”
“Well, Flit, of course,” Hack said. “Noble leader, he wants to try using it to ‘fix’ himself. Wants to have been like that Lupe you have... the one with the scars...”
“Valor,” Avalon said, automatically.
“Yeah. Him. He wants the Gem for that.”
Avalon’s mind was twisted into knots. Flit wasn’t loyal to Scarback... but he wanted the Gem. And the way Hack spoke of the Gelert, Avalon suddenly wasn’t sure how eager Flit would be to return the Gem to a Guardian. And if Silverdrop had it, and wouldn’t let him use it... would Flit hurt her to get the Gem?
Avalon flicked his ears, trying to flick away his thoughts at the same time. No use worrying about Flit; he couldn’t do anything here. “So what’s this ‘rescue plan’?” he asked.
“It’s best we don’t say too much,” Vora said. “There’ll be time, when we reach the island... we’ll get you out, and take you to another ship. Remember the Desert Ferry?”
Avalon almost sank his claws into the wooden floor. The Desert Ferry was the ship traitorous Caiman had sailed. He had last seen it near the docks on Scarback’s island, the Krawk arguing across the water with Brazen.
“Tell me something,” Avalon said. “What’s supposed to happen to me on the Island? Obviously nothing good, but more specific...”
Tacit suddenly whirled around, his ears turned toward the staircase. After a moment, he bared his teeth; Vora, who had stiffened at the silent Gelert’s spin, now gritted her teeth.
“Someone’s coming!” she hissed. “Remember, Guardian, keep quiet... we can’t help you if we’re chained to the floor.”
“Enjoy the gruel,” Hack whispered. Tacit smacked the back of the Gelert’s head with one massive paw, and jerked his head toward the small door near the staircase.
As the Gelerts vanished into the sleeping hold, Avalon lay down, curled his tail around himself, and closed his eyes. He kept his ears pricked, and after a moment, he heard the creaking sound of footsteps. After a moment, he picked up the scent; Brazen.
Brazen stayed still for a long time; Avalon wondered if she suspected that the Gelerts weren’t all as loyal as they seemed. But the silence was complete, broken only by the faint slap of waves against the ship’s sides.
Finally, her steps sounded again, and grew fainter as the Gelert captain went back to the deck.
Avalon waited, but the three traitorous Gelerts didn’t return. He was partly glad of it; he had plenty to think about already.
“So. You decided Flit’s not evil?”
Ash looked surprised; Silverdrop pretended not to notice as she joined the Lupe at the ship’s prow, draping her front paws over the railing.
“I haven’t decided anything,” Ash growled.
“But you can’t say he’s evil.”
Ash tapped her claws against the boat’s wood. “We don’t know he isn’t.” But the fire Lupe’s voice lacked its usual growl of conviction.
“Dunno,” Silverdrop said. “Saving someone from going overboard...”
“Yeah... well... well, you know if he’d just let me fall. If it’s a charade, he has to make it look good.”
“But he could’ve been knocked over along with you.” Waves crashed again in Silverdrop’s mind, and the sky seemed to darken with the memories.
“Calculated risk.” Ash turned to Silverdrop. “We still don’t know why he hasn’t Changed. That still doesn’t make sense.”
Silverdrop sighed. “Maybe it’s something... something he can’t lose. Like me... I still sneak up on pets, most of the time. I still start planning how to swipe food before I realize, oh yeah, I can eat it now, it’s for me.”
“Those are habits,” Ash growled. “I haven’t lost mine either. But the Gelerts who have this... change of heart are supposed to go back to the way they were. It’s happened before. It’s broken magic.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Silverdrop said. “And magic’s not that simple.” She turned away from the prow, heading toward the center of the ship. Glancing toward the sky, she waited for the wind to pick up, and sent her frustrated thoughts to the clouds.
Across the deck, Flit sighed. He couldn’t hear the conversation between the Lupe and the Kougra, but it was obviously a discussion about him.
The whip-tips of his ears rolled in a slight wind from the ocean. Again, he thought about telling her. Surely, she’d be furious when she found out about the others...
But if she knew about Vora and Hack and the rest of the group, she’d be furious anyway. There was no easy solution, no way out of this. His stupid choices had gotten him into yet another hole he couldn’t worm his way out of. Doomed if he did, doomed if he didn’t. No way to win.
He simply hoped the others were doing what he expected of them. And he hoped that they had figured out exactly what ritual would be performed on the darker side of Scarback’s Island.
As the wind picked up, and Silverdrop cast the glowing green mast once again, Flit headed below deck. Though he knew he was alone, he glanced around before slipping into his quarters, making sure to lock the door behind him. The Crokabek sitting on the bedpost straightened as Flit approached, as if ready to deliver a message.
“There was nothing,” Brazen told him, but Scarback was more convinced of the Gelert captain’s incompetence than his on-board enemies’ non-existence.
The boat ride had been thoroughly unpleasant, a trip straight from Razul’s fiery vision of Sakhmet. Tighter quarters aboard the ship than in his towers meant being closer to his troops than he liked; the Gelerts were good fighters, but they were fools, and too easily entertained by fights that compromised the ship’s effectiveness.
Scarback enjoyed seeing blood on his decks as much as the next masterful villain, but he would prefer that blood not belong to his own army.
“You didn’t look hard enough,” Scarback growled. He was sitting in the center of the room, his weight on his left side. The scar winding down his right front leg didn’t showcase the improperly-fused bones beneath, an unpredicted side-effect of using his magic to heal the fracture, given to him years ago. Now the black-pelted Kougra had two scars, and a limp, courtesy of the star-pelted Guardian chained below-deck.
“I stood down there for almost ten minutes,” Brazen said. Her voice was low, respectful, but Scarback could hear the indignation and annoyance lurking in the accent of each word. “If anyone was there,” she added, “I’d have heard them.”
Scarback sighed. “Of course you wouldn’t have- why would they be noisy if they knew you were listening for them?”
Brazen didn’t seem to have a good answer to that, which didn’t surprise Scarback. A shimmer ran along the captain’s silver helmet as she dipped her head in consent to his point.
“Did you check the pack’s sleeping quarters?” Scarback asked, well-aware that “quarters” wasn’t the proper word to describe the massive, hammock coated room the Gelerts slept in.
Brazen snapped her teeth together.”It wouldn’t have done any good! They’d have run to the back of the pack, and pretended to be asleep; that’s a hundred or so Gelerts to check before-“
“Then you go wake the Gelerts in the back,” Scarback snarled, “and bring them to me! I will figure out which ones aren’t the traitors!”
Brazen nodded, eyes averted from Scarback’s. “Of course, sir. My apologies.”
Scarback didn’t respond to the apology. His voice returning to its usual menacing rumble, he asked, “Has my Crokabek returned to the ship yet?”
Brazen shook her head. “Osus thinks it got lost in your storm. Ridell... Ridell says it was too small a bird.”
“Ridell can shove his beak into the ship deck,” Scarback snarled. He was tired of the Darigan Lenny’s constant complaining. Ridell wanted to go looking for the Guardian’s ship, if there was a ship after all. But- as Scarback had explained, many times- the Lenny couldn’t fly low enough to see the ship without being spotted and recognized by the pets onboard the ship.
Hence, the Crokabek. But since sending it out, despite the logic of it, he’d been dealing with open complaints from Ridell, and subtle ones from Osus.
Osus was the Crokabek-keeper; before being turned into a shadow Gelert, he’d been a Lenny, though only Scarback knew this. It explained his “knack” for dealing with bird-like petpets, and an ability to communicate with them, though not perfectly. Before Osus had been appointed Crokabek-keeper, the birds had been used only for sending written messages. Now, they could be used as perfectly effective spies.
But at the moment, Osus was less miracle-worker than an extremely tempting target for Scarback’s anger. It would be almost blissful to toss the Gelert over the railing, and watch him splutter as the ship sailed away.
But, Scarback knew, he wouldn’t feel so joyous when the Crokabek returned. They refused to do anything but cower in front of Ridell, and Scarback didn’t know off the top of his head if any of the other Gelerts had once been Lennies or Pteris.
Forethought. That was what separated Scarback from other villains.
Brazen was still standing near the door, her muscles tensed, as if ready to bolt the instant her master uttered “go.”
Sometimes, having troops completely petrified by your presence was annoying.
“Go watch the Gelerts. I want to hear about anything suspicious, and do not make me tell you what I define as ‘suspicious’.”
Brazen dipped her head. “Should I tell Brutus, sir?”
Scarback shook his head. “He may be a traitor as well.”
Brazen hesitated, but finally said, “He’s been loyal for years... and he’s not an underling, he’s the prison guard. Why would he change sides?”
“Loyalty seems up for grabs lately,” Scarback growled. “For all I know, Brazen... you might be a traitor.”
Brazen bared the tips of her teeth. “If I’d turned traitor, why would I tell you about hearing Gelerts last night?”
Scarback rolled his muscular shoulders. “To convince me that you’re not a traitor, of course. But in all seriousness... I don’t think you’re stupid enough to betray me.”
The Gelert captain nodded. She’d seen many of Scarback’s various deadly punishments, sometimes involving magic, other times hideous “marvels” of technology, given to Gelerts for mere incompetence.
“Go, Brazen,” Scarback said at last, and the Gelert captain practically scrambled from the room.
Sometimes, having troops completely petrified by your presence was incredibly amusing.
“Only three days,” Scarback muttered. He unsheathed the claws of one front paw, and examined them for a moment. They were long claws, black as his fur, and sharp enough to make clean cuts in the ship’s ragged wood. If it took any longer than three days to get to his island, the Gelert at the wheel was going to have quite a miserable time on the Isle as well.
“You’re sure he’s not creepin’ around?” Vora hissed.
Tacit nodded his burly head, a jerkiness in the motion indicating that he was growing impatient answering the same question over and over again.
In the true spirit of one of Scarback’s Gelerts, Vora didn’t really care if Tacit was annoyed. As long as he didn’t turn violent, and continued to do as she ordered, how he felt about it was of no real consequence.
Anyways, Tacit wouldn’t be happy with her no matter what. He’d made it very clear, in his own way, that he wasn’t interested in any leader besides Flit. Vora still didn’t get that loyalty; Flit wasn’t quite scrawny, but he was definitely thinner and weaker than the majority of the pack. He certainly wasn’t as lithe as Brazen, or as broad as Tacit himself. Flit talked tough, but you could tell his heart wasn’t entirely in it. Vora had considered getting rid of their band’s diminutive leader, but Tacit would probably have interfered. And if Flit escaped her attack, all it would take was a word to Scarback, and Vora would be fresh meat for the red-eyed cat.
At the moment, Vora’s main concern was Shag. Flit had successfully kept his runty brother unaware of the small group of traitorous Gelerts, well-aware that at the first sign of proof, Shag would race to Scarback’s quarters, seeking his former status as a prime spy among the pack. But now Flit was gone, and Vora had to admit that whatever he’d done had worked. Shag had been giving her strange looks, searching looks, and as the days went on, he had begun watching Tacit, Hack, and a few other members of the group just as carefully.
“Runty freak,” Vora growled. “I’d love to throw him off the ship.”
Tacit didn’t reply, just kept walking beside Vora. The best way to keep out of earshot and out of plain sight was to keep moving; among the bustling, squabbling pack, movement was the camouflage of choice.
“Think he’ll go after the Guardian?”
Tacit frowned at the pack around them, and slowly shook his head.
“Too scared?” Vora guessed.
Tacit nodded, his red eyes sweeping the crowd again. Vora watched him, suddenly uneasy. Tacit was mute; he’d been so since being Turned into one of Scarback’s Gelerts. Usually, the process of Changing went fine, but occasionally, strange things happened; Gelerts without voices, Gelerts blind in one eye, Gelerts who couldn’t run.
In some ways, Tacit’s silences was a good thing; it meant that he couldn’t be questioned, and couldn’t give names, but it also meant that he couldn’t clearly communicate. Because of this difficulty, Tacit hadn’t confided his motives to the group on one of their first meetings. Everyone else had, and surprisingly, everyone seemed to have told the truth; certainly Flit was among the Guardian’s friends now, just where he wanted to be.
The fact that Tacit still supported Flit as leader, however, led Vora to some uncomfortable thoughts about his alliances. One Gelert like Flit was bad enough. But two...
Vora had Hack fully on her side, agreeing with her approaches. But all Hack had was a snaggle tooth, and Tacit could dispatch Gelerts with a single smack of one gargantuan paw.
The mental image of Tacit turning toward her after dealing with Hack was what made Vora stick to Flit’s plan. That, and if Scarback was able to perform his ritual, he would be omnipotent. You couldn’t escape the chains held in a god’s paw.
To be continued...