Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: The Onyx Isle - Part One
I apologize for the colossal delay between the previous Avalon stories and this one. I hope that those years have at least served the purpose of making this a better, more interesting story than I could have written then.
Evenings on Mystery Island were usually considered rather peaceful. Twilight was the time before the hungry night-roaming Kougra went out hunting, and after the vicious Cobralls settled down from hectic, prey-chasing days. The air was filled with the peaceful chitters of various birds, and the Island seemed captivated by the lull of another ruby and orange sunset.
But the calm was suddenly interrupted by a rustle of bushes, a loud bark, and frantic pawsteps. Squawks and shrieks accented whatever drama was occurring below, beneath the thick jungle canopy, in ever-growing darkness.
A snarl, the sound of metal against metal, and more rushing feet. A chase, almost a hunt, initiated by a booming howl that rocked the leaves of the nearest trees. Rain began to fall over Mystery Island, and the lazy pink and purple clouds started to turn black.
Silverdrop jerked awake, her head lurching from her crossed paws. She strained her ears, silver eyes swiveling, searching the darkness for the half-perceived foe. Slowly, the silver Kougra stood up, flicking her tail and waiting, crouched, for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Despite what she’d heard, or perhaps only thought she’d heard, there was nobody here who shouldn’t have been. Just one starry Kougra, a fire Lupe, and an elderly tan Kougra with a broad mane, Royal, without the decorative clothing.
Nothing amiss... everything as it should be.
Silverdrop let out a frustrated sigh, and rolled her shoulders in the hopes of making the spiked fur lie flat. Lying down again, she scowled at the cave walls around her. It had been a while since she’d been so jumpy... not since being a thief in the Lost Desert had she been so restless.
“It makes sense,” she told herself. “With all the attacks going on lately...”
Silverdrop shook her head. Now wasn’t the time to worry about the attacks. If she wanted to keep fending them off, she would need to be well-rested, and pondering the latest troubles on the Island would doom her to hours of staring at stone walls.
Closing her eyes in an attempt to force sleep upon herself before she could trap herself, Silverdrop couldn’t stop a question from swirling through her mind. “Was that bark just a dream... or was it real?”
Avalon wasn’t surprised to find Silverdrop awake. The young silver Kougra was just as worried as he was about the recent attacks. Half of the starry Kougra’s sleep had been faked, but he didn’t want his apprentice to realize how uneasy the attacks made him.
As usual, Ash was not awake yet. The fire Lupe had lived a life full of stress, and a little more piled on wasn’t going to stop her from getting a proper night’s sleep. Apparently, she’d found some way of keeping unwanted thoughts locked away, so they couldn’t pester her in the dark silence. It was a talent Avalon envied. Even with the Gem, he couldn’t stop troubled thoughts or nightmares.
He stood up, stretching in typical Kougra-style, reaching from one end of the rock he’d been sleeping on to the other. Straightening, he rolled his shoulders, and craned his neck; Heartfelt Cave had not been made for comfort, and the Gem didn’t make sleeping comfortably much easier.
The Gem in question was around Avalon’s neck. It always was, and perhaps it was the constant wear rather than magic that made the identical impression on the starry Kougra’s chest. The Emerald Noil Gem, a blazing green version of its blue cousin, attached to a sapphire chain.
The Emerald Noil Gem, magic, power, wonder... and a great danger.
The Emerald Noil Gem, the sole reason this cave existed, and the only way the Neopets inside had become something close to a family.
Avalon hadn’t had a real family before, and even his parents, trying to impersonate a family, were gone now... again, partially because of the Gem.
Five years ago, when Avalon had only been about thirteen, a long-robed Fire Faerie had appeared, shoving the Noil Gem into his paws and ordering him to run. Avalon had done so, and returned to his house to discover that his parents had vanished, leaving behind no evidence of where they had gone.
The fire that had destroyed his house left Avalon with no options, besides following the Faerie’s other instructions. Avalon had left Neopia Central for Mystery Island, and with the help of Ash, discovered Heartfelt Cave, and Quaz, the now-sleeping royal Kougra who had been the previous Guardian of the Emerald Noil Gem.
Avalon was now the Guardian. It was his duty to keep the Gem from falling into the wrong paws, and it was an exceedingly active duty now.
These wrong paws belonged to Scarback. Scarback was a shadow Kougra, with a pure-black pelt and even darker stripes. He also possessed strange, glowing red eyes, which matched the color of the slash winding down his back. He and Avalon had fought twice now, the first time when Avalon was only an apprentice; the starry Kougra had given Scarback a permanent limp to his right leg. The limp hadn’t slowed Scarback down, however; the demonic Kougra had later tried to stop Avalon from finding his own apprentice, Silverdrop, with a frightening tenacity.
And now another year had gone by, and something was happening. This time, however, Avalon didn’t know what, and it infuriated him.
“Morning,” he said to Silverdrop, flicking his tail. “I’m guessing you didn’t sleep well?”
Silverdrop shook her head. “No.” She hesitated, wondering if she should mention the barking. She quickly decided against it; already, the memory was so faded that it could be nothing more than the remnants of a dream. There were plenty of real Gelerts, the shadow-colored, red-eyed soldiers of Scarback’s army, to deal with. “We doing any training, or just watching?”
Avalon shrugged. “That’ll depend. Ragnora’s supposed to report today, and if she’s got any important news... ”
Silverdrop nodded, looking around the cave as sunlight began to brighten their surroundings. Most of the stone was hidden by vast display cases, containing all sorts of armor and weaponry for all the species of Neopia. The center of the cavern floor was not stone, but a training field, brimming with real grass, dotted with small rocks, and scarred with the prints of many ancient Guardians and their apprentices, practicing the use of swords, defensive armor, or just paw-to-paw fighting. As of late, Quaz had also found it a more comfortable place to rest than the stone floor. The royal Kougra was growing old.
Silverdrop glanced back at Avalon, and saw her mentor frowning at the display cases. “What’s up?” she asked, knowing Avalon well enough to understand that the frown was more melancholy than it should have been.
Avalon’s scowl deepened. “We used to be the ones who knew what was going on. I mean, Scarback usually knew too, but at least he wasn’t the only one... but he’s planned something on the offensive this time... and we don’t have a clue what he’s after anymore. He’s got to know by now he can’t get his paws on us in here...” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what’s going on anymore.”
“Well, it’s not like we’ve ever had all the details.” Ash opened her eyes, her fire-patterned tail swishing.
Avalon restrained a growl, whiskers twitching. “No,” he grumbled, “but we always had some scrap...”
“He’s after the Gem again,” Ash interrupted. “What else do we need t’know?”
Avalon looked toward the glass-covered hole in the ceiling, where the sunlight entered the cave. The glass looked like solid stone on the other side, which was an obvious necessity in a world as secretive as those of the Guardians of the Emerald Noil Gem. “Exactly how he’s planning to get it would be helpful.”
Ash rolled her eyes, and said to Silverdrop, “He really knows how to ruin a day, doesn’t he?” Ignoring the glare Avalon shot in her direction, the fire Lupe leapt lightly from her rock, and trotted toward the display cases. She pulled out three swords; Silverdrop’s Engraved Short Sword, her own Iron Lupe Dagger, stretched so it was more sword-like, and Avalon’s personal, magically modified sword.
Tossing the two swords to the Kougras, who caught them by the hilts with practiced ease, Ash said, “C’mon. We’re gonna go outside and train.”
Silverdrop glanced up at the glass window overlooking the training field. “It rained last night... the ground’s gonna be soaked.”
Snorting, Ash replied, “It might end up raining the night before we fight Scarback. Come on, guys, aren’t you getting a little sick of breathing the same air day after day?”
“We won’t be breathing at all if some of Scarback’s Gelerts are waiting for us outside,” Avalon growled. But he went to a set of hooks on the wall, and pulled his sword belt off of the wall. He set his sword down as he strapped the belt on, and the blade’s unique features gleamed in the sunlight.
Each Guardian’s blade was unique to them; Avalon’s had once been a Pteri Sword, but after his first battle with it, where he had broken one of Scarback’s legs, some magic had changed the sword. It had kept its golden color, but had lost the wings on the hilt, replaced with an engraved sapphire star trimmed in a gold slightly darker than the rest of the blade.
Silverdrop, already familiar with the sword and its markings, eyed it again, this time with some envy. Her own blade was nothing special, just a standard sword from the array of cabinets surrounding the training field. She preferred the Engraved Short Sword to the others, simply because it resembled Coltzan’s Shrine, the essential symbol of her homeland.
But it would be still-nicer to have her own personal sword. She had a lot of training and battle-experience under her own sword belt. And then there were the desert thief days... Shaking her head slightly, Silverdrop caught the scabbard Avalon tossed her, and strapped it around her waist. No point dwelling on things she couldn’t have. She did have yet to do something as impressive as cripple Scarback, after all.
The trio headed outside, moving quietly so they wouldn’t wake Quaz. Getting out of Heartfelt Cave wasn’t as easy as it sounded. First, the three had to find a slightly rubbery spot on the floor, and wait for it to suck them in, like truly quick quicksand. It was an extremely disconcerting experience the first several times you did it, but despite Ash’s words about being stuck inside the cave, all three had entered and left Heartfelt Cave so many times that it became almost natural.
After falling a short distance to the floor, the three still had to worm their way through a maze of dark tunnels, the way lit by wide beams of light bursting from the tiny eyes of the Emerald Noil Gem. When, several long minutes later, they reached the end of the tunnel, Avalon pressed a small button on the side wall. The “ceiling” above began to move, and sunlight rushed into the open space, along with a fresh breeze of warm, sweet Mystery Island summer air. Even Avalon couldn’t help but smile at the familiar scents and sounds and feels of his home.
The ceiling was actually a large black rock, at Mystery Island’s ground level. Once everybody had jumped out of the tunnels, Avalon shoved the rock over the hole, where it latched comfortably into place. The rock looked like thousands of others all over Mystery Island; no casual observer, perhaps not even a thorough one, would pay much attention to the boulder.
The small, grassy area where Heartfelt Cave met the rest of Mystery Island was a quiet, tranquil place. A small river burbled nearby, always chittering happily. Sunlight painted the trees of the surrounding jungle bright green, and glowed against the raindrops resting upon the leaves’ wide surfaces. Even the mud looked almost inviting, cool and soft against the heavy island heat that would come when the sun reached its noon peak.
It was an improvement from the urban life of Neopia Central, which Avalon had once woken to every day. With a silent sigh, he touched the Gem around his neck. It had brought the danger of Scarback into his life, but without it, he would still be there, catering to the needs of parents too busy to be parents.
The three began a mock battle, after having their weapons’ edges blunted by a burst of magic from the Noil Gem. They divided at random into teams of two against one, and with this method practiced both teamwork on the offensive, and defense and attack when outnumbered. Silverdrop showed the most prowess in solo attack, but Avalon and Ash, from years of combat with one another, seemed almost psychically connected.
But Silverdrop was becoming less random in her attacks, and more strategic, and Avalon was confident that she’d be able to hold off, and soon completely defeat, at least one of her two “attackers”.
Of course, the use of this sort of training was limited; Scarback’s Gelerts attacked with claws and teeth, not swords.
Avalon, facing off against Ash and Silverdrop, had just blocked Ash’s sword, and ducked to avoid a swing from Silverdrop, when he thought he heard something.
He immediately dropped his sword, and raised his front paws as if in surrender. Silverdrop’s sword and Ash’s stretched dagger froze, and their ears pricked. Nobody threw down their swords in the middle of a practice fight, unless there was an urgent reason.
Suddenly, Silverdrop bared her teeth, and pointed with her tail toward a bush. Chokatoes that hadn’t yet ripened were still quivering gently, as if something had rustled the foliage around them just a moment ago.
Avalon picked up his sword, but didn’t sheath it. He also didn’t hold it in a defensive position, simply set it next to the rock. He was planning to fight paw-to-paw, if it came to violence, and didn’t want to cut himself on a loose blade. He also didn’t want to give the potential attacker any clues about what was coming- the scrape of metal on metal would tell an attacker plenty.
Ash shoved her stretched dagger into the ground beside her, twisting it at an angle. If she needed to, she could untwist the dagger, draw it back out, and immediately have a sword ready for use.
Silverdrop simply shifted to a defensive position, her grip on the sword’s blade firm. It was important to have as many fighting styles available as possible, and she seemed to be the only one willing to hold onto a sword.
Suddenly, the bush rustled again, in a sharp jerk this time, as something black flew from the leaves, snapping several Chokatoes from their branches. Half-instinctively, Avalon, Ash, and Silverdrop pounced backwards, their faces twisting into snarls.
Avalon suddenly realized that the thing that had leapt at them had missed... and was getting to its paws, just lying there, belly in the mud. But he also recognized the black fur, and the whip-like tail and ears... and if the eyes were red, then this was one of Scarback’s shadow warriors...
But he couldn’t see the eyes. They were shut tightly, even when the Gelert lifted its head, slowly. Its muzzle, curled into a grimace, was streaked with cuts, some of which still bled. Now that Avalon looked again, he saw that the Gelert’s coat was matted in several places, and patches of fur were missing from his hindquarters.
Something must have gotten to the Gelert first, and now it seemed too weak to attack the Guardian and his two comrades. Avalon hesitated, wondering if he should strike. An enemy this wounded shouldn’t leap into battle in the first place...
Suddenly, the Gelert opened its eyes, clenching its teeth and panting heavily. Its red eyes darted from Avalon’s golden, wary survey, to Ash’s pale-yellow glare, to Silverdrop’s metallic, assessing gaze.
“The Guardian,” he gasped, looking back at Avalon. Avalon nodded his head once; there was no harm in admitting what he was. All of Scarback’s army knew that a starry Kougra was guarding the gem, and even if they hadn’t, the shimmering pendant on his chest was an obvious giveaway.
Avalon was expecting an insult, or a threat, or perhaps just a puddle of spit to appear at his feet... but instead, the Gelert glanced behind him, as if afraid of something in the jungle’s shadows, and said, “Please... I need help.”
“What about the rest’f your pack?” Ash snarled. “Why can’t they help you?”
The Gelert managed a weak smile, but unlike all the other grins Avalon had seen from the red-eyed Gelerts, this one looked sad, rather then cruelly pleased. “These wounds come from my pack. I’m a traitor to them.”
To be continued...