Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 100,597,592 Issue: 199 | 14th day of Swimming, Y7
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Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part Six


by cpmtiger

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Avalon crouched, his tail flicking. He looked around at the Gelerts. They were growling, their red eyes glowing bright, then dimming. There was no break in the circle. Avalon turned back to the shadow Kougra.

     The Kougra wore a black battle helmet that didn't cover his wicked red eyes, or his large silver fangs, which were still curved in a smile. He wasn't crouched, but standing tall, one paw in front of the other. Beside him was a female Gelert, also wearing a battle helmet, this one silver. This Gelert bore striking resemblance to the one that had been hit by the fire Faerie's flames.

     "Close ranks, come on!" she barked, and instantly the circle closed tighter. Avalon growled back at the Gelerts, tail thrashing.

     "Well, well, well," the shadow Kougra said triumphantly, taking a casual step forward. "It seems that the latest Guardian has fallen into our trap."

     The Gelerts in the circle snickered, as did the one with the helmet.

     The Kougra went on as though nothing had happened. "I am Scarback," he said. "A shadow-ghost hybrid, but we didn't lure you here to talk about me. This is about you, you and that magnificent Gem."

     Avalon growled again, but didn't speak. Scarback's mouth twitched in amusement.

     "I see you don't want to talk. Very well, I'll continue." His eyes flicked to the sapphire cord around Avalon's neck. "Here're your options, Guardian." Scarback said the word "Guardian" with mocking respect. "You can give me the Gem, and leave unscathed, or you can fight for it, and as you can see, I'll end up with the Gem anyway.

     "Chose quickly," he added, eyes narrowing. "I won't wait much longer."

     Avalon rose out of his crouch, trying to silently loosen his legs from the mud. "And what if I don't like either option?" he snarled at Scarback.

     The Kougra laughed. "I think what you'd prefer doesn't matter much. You're not in the best position to set the terms."

     "I say we get it now, not waste any time," the helmeted Gelert growled.

     "Wait, Brazen. He's been given his choices; He can still surrender it." Scarback smiled at Avalon, and Avalon could tell by the grin that Scarback would kill him whether he handed over the Gem or not.

     "I'll take my chances with the pack," Avalon snarled. Beneath the mud, his claws were flexing, hindquarters preparing to leap.

     Scarback seemed surprised at this course of action, but then he stepped back. "As you wish," he growled, nodding to Brazen. The Gelert gave a short bark, and the others began to ooze through the swamp at a half run.

     Avalon reared up as the first one approached. It too, reared, and the Kougra and Gelert slashed and swiped at the other with their clawed paws. Without warning, Avalon ducked beneath one of the Gelert's swipes, and drove his own paw into the Gelert's stomach. The Gelert fell backwards into the mud. It flipped itself over and ran, tail between his legs.

     The other Gelerts slowed their attack, then stopped altogether. For a split second, Avalon thought it was because they were afraid of him. Then he heard the noise: a long, mournful howl. Avalon shot a look at Scarback. His teeth were bared, and his eyes were blazing. The fur on the back of Brazen's neck was rising slowly in the way of agitated canines. Maybe it was a swamp creature?

     But it wasn't. Seconds later, a large, dog shaped figure appeared on a high rock behind Avalon. Avalon turned and saw that it was a fire Lupe, the dark parts of its fur black as ashes. Its sharp fangs glistened in the little light penetrating the thick swamp trees.

     Scarback took a step forward, and roared loudly. The Gelerts all whirled to face the shadow Kougra. "Well?" he snarled, "It's a Lupe, get over it! Bring me the Gem, or I'll turn you all into Chia Treats!"

     The Gelerts turned back to Avalon, crouching as they prepared to leap. The fire Lupe leapt from the ridge and landed next to Avalon, spraying mud everywhere. The Gelerts nearby stopped to get the mud out of their eyes. Brazen rose at this and snarled, "GET THEM, YOU FOOLS!"

     Two large Gelerts, one on Avalon's side, the other on the Lupe's, jumped from the circle. Avalon ducked and whirled, trying to dodge the larger pet's blows. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fire Lupe fighting another Gelert with relish. Her paws moved so fast Avalon could barley see them.

     The Gelert Avalon was fighting pounced without warning. Avalon jumped instinctively over it, and turned to see that the Gelert was stuck in the mud. Knowing it would fight its way out, Avalon let out a roar and jumped onto the Gelert's back. The Gelert barked angrily and tried to throw Avalon off. Avalon dug his claws in, holding on tight.

     With a sudden surge, Avalon was tossed off of the Gelert. He rolled in the mud, and when he got up, he spat some of the foul substance from his mouth. Now he was weighed down with mud, and up against a powerful opponent. But far from being afraid, a wicked grin crept over Avalon's face. The massive Gelert, having spent the past minute or so bucking around, in the mud, with a Kougra on his back, was worn out. He slunk backward into the mass of Gelerts.

     There was a loud splash, followed by a frightened bark. Avalon turned to see the fire Lupe, breathing heavily but smiling, and the other Gelert, up to his chest in the mud. Avalon turned to look at Scarback. His eyes were flickering the way the Gelerts' had been, and his tail was thrashing.

     "Very well, then, Guardian. Keep your Gem, for now. One day, when you're alone, we'll find you. And there will be no Lupe," he glared at the fire Lupe, who growled and glared back, "to save your skin."

     Scarback turned around, and the Gelerts followed. Brazen went up to the Gelert the fire Lupe had beaten, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and yanked him out. The Gelert whined in pain, but got up and followed Brazen. The Kougra and his Gelerts disappeared into the darkness.

     Avalon turned to the fire Lupe, who was still staring fiercely into the darkness after Scarback. Avalon cleared his throat, and said, "Er… thanks for the help."

     "Don't mention it," the Lupe said, turning from the fog. She glanced at the Noil Gem. "They were after you for that?"

     "Well…" Avalon said carefully, "It's stronger than it looks. I'm Avalon." He extended a paw to the Lupe, who eyed it warily before replying,

     "My name's Ash," she replied, slowly stretching her own paw out. The two shook hands. Avalon had an odd sort of feeling, as if this was supposed to happen.

     "So…where're you from?" Ash asked, studying him. "You don't seem the jungle type."

     Avalon grinned slightly. "I'm from Neopia Central," he said shortly.

     Ash's eyes lit up. "You too? When'd you leave?"

     "About a day or two ago." Avalon wondered why the Lupe cared. On a sudden inspiration, he asked, "What about you?"

     Ash paused, then admitted, "I lived there, too. Until I was ten, anyways."

     "Why'd you leave?"

     "Stray life in the city is harder than a wild life on Mystery Island."

     "A stray?"

     "Yeah, as long as I can remember." Ash smiled at the astonished look on Avalon's face. "So where're you headed?"

     Avalon didn't answer. He was busy thinking. Ash seemed to know nothing about the Gem, but she could be faking it. Then again, if she really had come to the Island at age ten, that was five years if Avalon had guessed her age right. He needed to get to Heartfelt, and judging by Scarback's threat, he needed to get there fast. Ash was his only chance.

     So Avalon answered. "I'm going to Heartfelt," he said slowly, "But I don't know where that is." He paused, waiting,

     Ash tilted her head slightly. "You want me to help you get there?" Avalon nodded. The Lupe looked up at the trees, muttering to herself.

     "Alright," she said at last, "I'll take you. But the problem is, we've got at least one Gelert following us the whole way. And trust me, it takes too much time to throw one of them off our trail."

     "Well, could we at least slow the tracker down?"

     Ash grinned wryly. "There is a way." She glanced pointedly at the mud below them. Avalon groaned.

     "A swamp path, right?" Ash nodded, her grin widening. "You're sure you can get us through this?" Avalon asked nervously.

     "Of course!" Ash snorted, tail swishing. "I've gone through this swamp more times than I can count!"

     Avalon pulled his paw from the mud and peered at the goo doubtfully. But he sighed, and said, "If it'll slow the scouts, I say we do it."

     The path through the swamp was the worst Avalon had ever taken. The muck was everywhere, and any hope the starry Kougra had of getting clean faded to nothingness, as the little puddles of fresh water were for drinking. It was always dark, even during the day. The leaning bog trees closed in on the two, shadowing the strange creatures whose cries filled the swamp.

     Ash really did seem to know her way around. She almost never paused to gage direction, just plowed ahead, ignoring the mud clinging to her thick fur. Avalon huffed and puffed a little behind, his paws struggling to move in the thick swamp mud. Ash led them on dry rocky paths as often as possible, but there were few of these in the bog.

     Avalon was, however, fascinated by the strange creatures in the swamp. Small creatures that looked somewhat like Nimmos or Quiggles often passed by. Brightly colored birds streaked through the dim trees. Once Avalon thought he saw something part Noil, and part bird.

     Ash was hunting these animals, mostly the Nimmo like things. She explained that they were called Greebles. She also said that the Noil bird was a Noilkeet, part Noil, part Pirakeet.

     "How d'you get an animal part cat and part bird?" he asked suspiciously.

     "The Cooking Pot," Ash explained nonchalantly.

     "The what?"

     "Oh…right…there's this Faerie, and she has this cooking pot. If you put certain items into the pot, it'll create something new."

     "So to make the Noilkeet," Avalon said slowly, "You put a Noil and a Pirakeet in the cooking pot?"

     Ash nodded, bushy tail swishing. "Yeah. Most of the petpets go home with the Human's pets, but some of them escape and come into the swamps."

     Four days had passed before Avalon and Ash encountered something other than the strange animals. Ash froze ahead, hackles raised. Instinctively, Avalon froze as well. He'd learned to trust Ash's movements. Thinking it was a snake, he looked ahead. Nothing. Curious, he looked at Ash. She was looking around, teeth still bared.

     Avalon raised his own hackles, not to appear dangerous, but to smell better. Then he caught it. A strange scent, concealed by swamp muck, but not completely. Avalon strained his ears. The birds around them were oddly silent. The starry Kougra had only a few seconds to realize this before he was knocked off his paws. Ash barked loudly, but the massive shadow-ghost Gelert barked louder.

     The Gelert had pinned Avalon in the mud. Avalon fought angrily, but the Gelert was too big to be pushed off. Its head shot forward, and when it pulled back, Avalon saw a piece of the Noil Gem in the Gelert's teeth. The Gem's string had twisted, so as the Gelert tugged, the chain tightened around Avalon's throat.

     Gasping for breath, Avalon pulled his hind legs from the mud. He heard another fierce bark, and guessed that another Gelert was blocking Ash. Avalon had one shot. He put his hind paws against the Gelert's stomach, and with a mighty shove, tossed the Gelert off him. At that moment, Ash charged forward, her large momentum making up for her small size. The Gelert was hit a second time, and darted away, a second pummeled Gelert behind.

     Avalon got to his feet, then sat down to catch his breath. To his surprise, the Gem didn't have a single tooth mark in it. In fact, it looked exactly the same as it had before he'd entered the swamp. There wasn't a speck of dirt or mud on it, even though Avalon had been up to his neck in the swamp's filthy water several times.

     Ash sat down next to him. She had a bleeding wound on her jaw, but besides that she seemed perfectly fine. All except for the look of anger on her face. Avalon cringed.

     "How'd we miss them?" Ash muttered, peering into the trees. "I've been more alert than ever, and I still managed to miss them?"

     "At least you found out they were there," Avalon pointed out. "What made you realize you were there?"

     Ash shrugged. "Just this sort of feeling we were being watched." The two were silent for a moment, then Ash got to her paws.

     And without another word, Avalon and Ash continued through the swamp.

     Avalon and Ash reached the end of the swamp two days after the Gelerts had attacked. They emerged onto a brightly lit plain, thick with tall yellow savannah grass. Avalon paused for a moment to savor the feel of dry ground beneath his paws.

     Ash also seemed relieved to be out of the swamp. She led Avalon to a pool of flowing water, where they washed the mud from their coats. That night, they camped by the river, feeling full from the large rats Ash had killed. The stars above gleamed as bright as the stars on Avalon's fur, brighter than the Kougra had ever seen them.

     Avalon looked around again. After the attack, he and Ash had been on the lookout for more of Scarback's Shadow Gelerts. Ash had pointed out earlier that the Gelerts would have to return to the place the two parties had fought, then follow through the swamp, to the plains, and all the way to Heartfelt. Avalon knew that this should slow them down, but the massive beasts had kept pace with them through the thick swamp.

     "Stop worrying," Ash growled, between drinks of river water. "They can't possibly be through the swamp now."

     "I don't know," Avalon replied, his eyes narrowed. "They kept a really close pace. I mean, those things are huge. Maybe they can just plow through the mud and everything."

     Ash looked up from the water and rolled her eyes. "Look, they were probably following us from the start. Besides, they're so big, maybe the mud'll slow them down."

     Avalon now turned and rolled his eyes. "It didn't stop them before," he reminded her.

     "Well, they certainly could've followed your voices." Avalon whipped around, in battle mode within seconds.

     What he saw was a Kougra. An odd Kougra, however. It was light tan, with darker brown stripes on its tail and sides. A sweeping golden mane surrounded the Kougra's head, giving the impression that his head was too small for his body. The cat was seated, claws hidden in the sheaths of his massive paws. This was obviously a seasoned warrior, old now, judging by his voice. But what made Avalon ease out of his battle pose was the mark on the Kougra's neck. A large circle of permanently flattened fur encircled the neck, and a familiar shape was patterned into the chest fur.

     All of the shapes and sizes were exactly the same as the ones on the Gem Avalon had around his neck. He turned to Ash, who seemed to have just made the connection herself.

     "Those flattened parts," Ash muttered.

     The Kougra smiled jovially. "Yes, it's a permanent flattening. Something to do with its magic, I suppose. I'm always going to bear the mark of a Noil Gem Guardian."

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part One
» Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part Two
» Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part Three
» Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part Four
» Avalon and the Emerald Noil Gem: Part Five



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