Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: The Onyx Isle - Part Four
Back in the clearing, where Flit had once been tied and guarded, Ash, Silverdrop, and Flit stopped their run. Panting, they sat down, looking over their shoulders every time the wind stirred the bushes, or a bird shifted in the trees.
Finally, Ash stood up, whirling toward Flit. “So,” she growled, “How long did you know that was coming?”
Flit stood up, meeting the Lupe’s gaze. “I didn’t,” he insisted. “I thought they’d given up on finding the Guardian hideout a long time ago, I had no idea they’d try it again!”
“Why didn’t you tell us the pack was on the island? Hmm? You had to know that!”
Flit snarled, “You had to have known too! I told you the pack gave me these.” He gestured at the scratches on his muzzle. “Did you really think they’d just turn around and leave?”
Suddenly, Silverdrop said, “He wasn’t at the Cave.”
Ash and Flit turned toward her. “...What?” Ash asked.
“Avalon. He wasn’t at the Cave... he was wandering around the Island, or he heard something while heading back... why wasn’t he at the Cave?”
Ash frowned. “I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Silverdrop looked up at the Lupe, startled by the angry tone of her voice. Trying to change the subject, she said, “I don’t think it’s Flit’s fault. None of the Gelerts back there seemed real happy to see him.”
“Except the ones who looked like they’d be happy to tear me into little shreds,” Flit growled.
Ash snorted, and Silverdrop thought it was a sympathetic noise- toward the Gelerts who wanted to kill the rogue, rather than the rogue himself.
Silverdrop stepped forward. “Knock it off, Ash,” she growled. “It’s obvious he isn’t one of them now.”
Silverdrop’s temper flared. “Just leave him alone!” she shouted. “He got the Gem for us, he helped fight the Gelerts, the others don’t like him, what else does he have to do for you, Ash? Huh?”
Ash actually took a step back, her green eyes wide with surprise. “I... He’s...”
Silverdrop took a step closer to the Lupe. “Can’t find anything? Then stop treating him like he’s done something wrong! You didn’t seem to have a problem with me when you found out what I did for a living!”
Ash scowled, averting her gaze. “...All right,” she growled. “You want to trust him, fine. Just don’t expect me to be spilling Guardian secrets... and this better not come back to bite us.”
“It won’t,” Silverdrop snapped. She turned away, and walked to the other side of the clearing. She stared at the bushes, conscious of the thin line of green just visible at the bottom of her vision. The Noil Gem... it didn’t belong there. The weight was unfamiliar, almost uncomfortable, and even the way the chain sat against the back of her neck felt wrong... like her fur was spiked around it or something.
The silence that fell over the clearing was suddenly broken by Flit. “So... what’re we going to do about the Guardian?”
“What can we do?” Silverdrop growled. “Even if Avalon’s still alive, we have no idea where Brazen’s taking him.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Flit asked bitterly. Silverdrop turned around, studying the Gelert.
Flit sighed, sitting down and wrapping his tail around his paws. “If they’re keeping Avalon prisoner, they’ll take him to Scarback’s island. They might lock him in one of the dungeons, or they may take him to the island’s other side.” He looked up, eyes drifting from Silverdrop to Ash. “The only reason they didn’t come after us for the Gem was because it’s a lot of trouble to barrel through the jungle, when the Gem can come right to them. They’ll keep Avalon alive, as bait to get the Gem.”
“And when was this plan discussed?” Ash growled.
“Many times,” Flit snapped. “Since Avalon got an apprentice. They figured they wouldn’t be able to pull it off because he’s always hiding in whatever Guardian headquarters you have. Even if we’d never talked about it, isn’t it an obvious plan?”
Ash was visibly grinding her teeth, but she couldn’t say the Gelert was wrong. Silverdrop was more concerned about what Flit had said than either pets’ tempers.
“...They won’t hurt Avalon if he’s being kept as bait, right?”
“They might. They wouldn’t kill him...” Flit’s frown deepened, and he added, “And I think Scarback’ll want him as whole as possible. Not as much glory in killing a crippled pet who has no chance in a fight anyways.”
Silverdrop stamped a paw. “We have to go help him.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Ash’s tail thrashed in frustration. “If we go help Avalon, we might as well hand over the Gem!”
“And what sort of Guardian friends are we if we let Scarback tear him up?”
Ash snapped at the air. “There’s no way to win!” she shouted.
“There’s certainly a better chance of four pets escaping with the Gem than one pet surviving a battle with Scarback.”
The trio whirled around, as Quaz slowly stepped into the clearing. The royal Kougra’s deep-gold eyes settled for a moment on each of the three pets, and he said, “The consequences of the Gem falling into Scarback’s paws would be terrible... but I fear that staying hidden now won’t keep it safe from him.”
“Why not?” Ash asked. She still sounded angry, but her tone was more controlled; Quaz inspired immediate respect.
“Silverdrop hasn’t completed her training yet. Yes, she’s a good swordfighter, and yes, Ash, you could complete parts of her training... but the magic of the Noil Gem...” Quaz sighed. “I haven’t been as good a teacher to Avalon as I ought to have been... he was lucky, we were lucky that he was able to figure out most of it for himself. But Silverdrop, I don’t want to deprive you of that same experience.”
Silverdrop hesitated, then asked, “Why couldn’t you teach me? Not that I want to leave Avalon on-”
Quaz held up a paw to silence the silver Kougra. “I’m getting old, Silverdrop. It’s been years since I wore the Gem... and even longer since I used it. The Noil Gem’s fire faerie had the Gem for a few years before it came to Avalon, in fact. I can barely remember how to use the Gem...”
Silverdrop looked down, feeling horrible for the royal Kougra. Quaz was old, and he’d been a Guardian far longer than should have been required. His original apprentice, a Darigan Kougra named Ragnora, had been captured by Scarback and his Gelerts, and thought dead for a long time. Just a few years earlier, Avalon, Ash, and Silverdrop had rescued Ragnora from Scarback’s Island, but she had already been skipped in the line of Guardians.
Quaz continued speaking. “If Silverdrop doesn’t learn to use the Gem’s magic, she cannot teach her apprentice, and that apprentice cannot teach theirs, and so on. Sooner or later, Scarback will figure this out, and whoever the current Guardian is will stand no chance against him.”
“So either way, we lose. Again,” Ash snapped.
“No,” Quaz said. “You escaped from the Island before, also leading along a prisoner, I recall. And once again, you have an ally who knows the terrain- correct, Flit?”
The Gelert looked surprised. “Ah... yes... yes, I know the island... How’d you...”
“Know your name?” Quaz smiled slightly. “I can see everything the Gem sees, though as the Gem grows distant, my sight won’t be clear. But the secrets of Heartfelt cave are for another time.”
Quaz didn’t miss Ash’s suddenly stiff posture. Turning to her, he asked, “What Gelert passes up the opportunity to bring the Emerald Noil Gem to Scarback?” When Ash didn’t answer, the royal Kougra said, “Your suspicions, appropriate as they are, are blinding you to the truth. Stranger things have happened than a change of heart among the enemy lines.”
He and the Lupe locked eyes for a moment; in unison, they looked away, neither out of weakness, but simply of understanding. Quaz let his gaze fall upon the Gelert. “Flit. If you’re the pet I think you are, I commend you for your bravery. If, however, you’ve managed to deceive me and my fellow Guardians, I hope that Fyora puts as horrid a curse on you as she can think up.”
The Gelert nodded. “I am what I say I am,” he said simply.
Finally, Quaz turned to Silverdrop. “The one who wears the Noil Gem is considered the Guardian; ultimately, every decision falls on your shoulders. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, but know that it exists; listen to your comrades, listen to your instincts, and most importantly, listen to the Gem.”
Silverdrop barely had a chance to nod, before Quaz went on, “You’ll need to sail to Scarback’s island. I would send you on the Desert Island, except that Caiman is no longer steering for us.” The Kougra’s face wrinkled into a scowl as he said the name of the traitorous brown Krawk. “The ship is also too large, and the Gelerts will doubtlessly be looking out for it.”
Silverdrop nodded, already seeing where this was going. She glanced at Ash, and the fire Lupe’s slight nod indicated that she knew, too. Silverdrop asked Quaz, “So when’s Captain Storm getting here?”
The small marsh was not Captain Storm’s usual docking bay. His boat’s prow was covered in an oozy green moss, dripping off of the wood in a way that reminded Storm of thick pirate’s grog.
The pirate Lupe made a face, shoving his red captain’s hat tighter on his head. He didn’t quite trust the spindly, low hanging branches not to swipe his prized hat... and the spyder webs dangling here would be hard to wind his paws around. Storm was not interested in touching any filthy, sticky webs.
“C’mon there, me wooden beauty,” he said, patting the side of his small craft after carefully eyeing it to be sure that there was no slime there as well. “Jus’ a little farther, an’ we’ll be back on the ocean where we belong.”
The ship didn’t reply, though Storm hadn’t expected it to. Ships weren’t known for doing much talking. Storm gave the side another pat, then looked ahead. He squinted, then nodded. “Arr, there’s our port. An’ our passengers.”
A few moments later, the bottom of Storm’s ship gently hit the small stub of land, and the pirate Lupe leapt down to meet his passengers- his old friends.
“Storm!” Silverdrop gave him a wobbly sort of smile.
The pirate Lupe grinned back. “Arr, good t’be seein’ ye again, Silverdrop! Bein’ a lone pirate got its perks, aye, but company ain’t one of ‘em, tha’s cert-“
Ash cut him off, stepping forward and eyeing the ooze-covered prow. “What happened to the Storm Cloud Returns?” she asked.
Storm winced. The fire Lupe did not sound like she was glad to see him. Well, maybe that wasn’t quite it... she was stressed, that was all, and whether he’d been Captain Storm or her own mother, she wouldn’t have been glad to see him.
Of course, Ash would probably have some less-than-nice things to say to a pet who was either dead, or had abandoned her to life as a stray.
“Arr, the Storm Cloud Returns ‘ad its day’s o’ glory... but af’er we got off o’ Scarback’s island, it was springin’ leaks ev’ry time I turned ‘round. I’m thinkin’ that island put a curse on my poor little boat... an’ so alas, I decided it was time ter get meself a new one. A bigger one this time, a rowboat’s no place fer a pirate, really.”
Ash looked over the sides. “Where’s the name.”
“Oh th’other side,” Storm said. “She’s the Scarlet Kateil!”
“A Kateil?” Silverdrop repeated.
Storm nodded. “Aye! The Kateil, a noble petpet known fer bein’ great lookouts! Like meself some o’ the time, aye?”
Ash sighed. “Okay, Storm... look, can we go now?”
Storm’s smile fell away faster than the ooze dripping from his ship. “Aye, Ash... my ‘pologies... when a pirate’s worried, he hides it... but a pirate’d rather show ‘is fear than dilly-dally ‘round... well, c’mon then!” He sprang back onto the ship, shoving down the gangplank. “Le’s get aboa-“
His eyes widened, focused on something behind Silverdrop and Ash. No... it couldn’t be... not here!
Ash sighed. To Silverdrop, she said, “You should’ve told him-“
Storm drew his sword from the belt around his waist. Sliding down the gangplank on three legs, leaning from left to right as he struggled not to fall off, he shouted, “ASH! SILVERDROP! GET DOWN! THAR’S A-!”
The pirate Lupe dug his paws into the ground, trying to stop as quickly as possible. He ended up skidding on the ooze, sending his sword flying (he heard it hit one of the spyder-web-covered trees), and landed on his belly with his legs splayed wide, and his chin and belly covered in muck.
“Quaz,” he said, eyes twisting toward the royal Kougra above him. “Ye need t’warn me o’ this stuff ‘fore I jump off the gangplank. Now...” The pirate Lupe stood up, mud dripping down one cheek from the feather on his hat, which had fallen onto the ground along with a good portion of Storm’s fur. “Why don’t yet tell me why I’m not supposed ter attack this red-eyed beastie here.” He jerked his head toward the Gelert now half-hidden behind Quaz.
“His name’s Flit,” Silverdrop said, hurrying to join the group. “He’s a friend. He helped save the Gem...”
“I’m no friend to Scarback,” the Gelert said. He looked worried, as if the pirate might still attack him.
Storm frowned. “A friend,” he repeated. “I dunno... if he ain’t evil, why hasn’ he Changed?”
Silverdrop sighed. “We don’t know,” she said, clearly having discussed this before. “But look, I’ll vouch for him.”
“So will I,” Quaz said quietly.
“Can we hurry up?” Ash snarled. She was on the ship already, her paws draped over the edge of the rail. “The Gelerts could be at the island already!”
Storm nodded. “Aye, the lass is right! Ye two, get aboard!” Flit and Silverdrop glanced at each other, then headed toward the gangplank.
As they ascended, Storm sat beside Quaz, scraped mud from his face, and said quietly, “You aren’t coming, right?”
The old Kougra sighed. “No, Storm... my days for adventures passed long ago... and this time, when I feel most needed...”
Storm put a paw on his friend’s shoulder. “Even Guardians can’t do everything.”
“Who doesn’t expect more of themselves than they can give?”
Storm thought a moment. “A pirate,” he said. “...An’ any pet with enough friends ter tell him he’s done more’n enough.”
“More than enough? I don’t know Storm... this doesn’t feel like success.”
“Trust me, if he hadn’t met ya, he’d have been Gelert food ages ago.” The Lupe shook his head. “Five years ago, that kid couldn’ta fought off an angry Noil.”
Quaz’s smile was feeble, and quickly vanished. “So I’ve taught him to fight. I haven’t taught him how to perform miracles.”
“Well, some pets figure that out on their own. ‘Specially you Guardians. C’mon, you don’ think Avalon made it through all those years jus’ t’die on us now?”
Quaz shook his head, but he wasn’t agreeing with Storm. “This may be out of our paws, storm. Scarback’s got his claws dug deep into this.”
Storm nodded. “Aye, but doesn’ he always? Look... I know Scarback’s crazy, an’ he doesn’ like Avalon. But he’s smart. He won’ do anythin’ unless he’s go’ that Gem wrapped ‘round his own neck.”
The two were silent a moment. Finally, Storm asked, “So how’s one’f Scarback’s Gelerts end up in our little crew here?”
Quaz frowned. “It seems we may know even less about Changed pets than we thought... and how Scarback keeps an entire platoon of Gelerts evil.”
Storm crossed his arms. “I won’ lie, Quaz... I’m prob’ly no’ gonna be too comfortable with him there.”
“Unfortunately, you’re going to have to deal with it. He insisted on going... and I think his intentions are good. During the fight, the Gelerts had the Gem for a moment... if Flit was a spy, he could have stopped right then, and gone off with his pack. He tackled the Gelert who had it instead... he could be what the Guardians need.”
Storm sighed. “Well, if he turns out t’ be like Caiman, I’m throwin’ him overboard... and givin’ him a good clonk on the head with somethin’ first.”
“Just don’t rush to conclusions,” Quaz warned. “And don’t look for disloyalty. Ash is already doing that.” His scowl made it clear to Storm that the royal Kougra didn’t approve of the Lupe’s behavior.
“Aye, I’ll leave the spyin’ ter Ash, then... an’ I reckon we’d better get goin’. Take care o’ yerself, Quaz... don’ rush back t’Heartfelt, don’ get in any fights...”
Quaz chuckled softly. “I’ll do my best, Storm. I’m not denying my years to anyone, especially not myself.” He stood up. “Thank you, Storm. Not just for this, but for everything you’ve done since we met.”
Storm bowed, taking off his hat and swirling it in an elaborate motion. Or it would have been elaborate, had a low-hanging branch not snagged it. “’Tis all been my pleasure, Quaz... er, ‘cept fer runnin’ over yer boat... tha’ was...”
“I think ‘unplanned’ was the word you used,” Quaz said. “Try not to do it again... unless the boat has some of Scarback’s Gelerts in it.”
“As ye wish.” Storm yanked his hat free of the tree, brushed a spyder off of it, and jammed it on his head. Trotting toward the ship, he shouted, “Avast, mates! Yank out th’ sails, keep yer paws an’ tails inside the boat- don’ ye touch tha’ wheel, Ash! ”
Silverdrop and Flit glanced at each other. “Why’re we letting out the sails?” Silverdrop called, as Storm yanked in the gangplank. “Won’t they get caught on the trees?”
Storm jerked his head toward Quaz. “Look over there, mate.”
Silverdrop, Flit and Ash looked, and saw Quaz sitting calmly, his fur gleaming gold in the light of a fire faerie, clad in a long red robe. She had her hands raised, fire swirling in a tall oval between her palms. The fire swirled faster and faster, and the faster it went, the bigger the oval got, until Quaz and the faerie were completely hidden behind it.
Storm patted the side of the boat as the fire oval blocked their view of anything before the ship. Silverdrop and Flit had managed to unfurl the sails, just enough to avoid getting them tangled in the tree branches.
“Arr, here we go!” Storm shouted, as the fire in the center of the oval turned black, then slowly, patchily, began to clear... turning to a landscape with blue water and blue sky. The open ocean!
A wind gusted through the marsh, and slowly, the boat scooted forward. Tree branches snapped as the mast ran into them, one hitting Storm’s head. Before the pirate Lupe could raise a challenge with the offending twig, the wind picked up, and they were blown through the portal.
The ship reared momentarily, stunned by the sudden strength of the water against its prow. But the Scarlet Kateil quickly pushed back, and a few shouted orders later, the sails were completely spread, harnessing the wind and shoving the boat through the water.
Silverdrop leaned on the railing, looking down at the water below. She was glad to see it passing quickly, the Delfins alongside the craft looking as though they were struggling to keep pace with the boat.
Hopefully they could keep this speed the entire way to the island. Silverdrop had a feeling Scarback’s patience wouldn’t hold out forever; eventually, he would choose vengeance over the Gem.
To be continued...