Kings and Curses: Part Six
Jazan could tell from the way Esmeralda rubbed her temples that she had a pounding headache, but she still told Caspar everything once she woke. After Qasala had been informed of the devastating news – Esmeralda reported the reactions of the stunned and horrified generals and mages in detail – Sambar asked, "What do we do now? We can't just sit here." The stubborn set of Hanso's and Brynn's mouths showed that they felt the same way.
Jazan did, too. He hated sitting here wondering what sorcery Aurajar might bring to bear against his city – Jazan had no doubt that the zombie king would try to regain power. But that throne was Jazan's now, and would be Caspar's in time, and Jazan wasn't about to let that murderous former king have a second chance at the crown.
But there was nothing they could do at the moment. He said, "We could make it through the desert at night – after all, you three did. But we can't beat a Draik to Qasala, and we've all been awake for far too long. We need to sleep sometime, and we might as well do it here. We'll catch a few hours now, and then quick march back to Qasala as soon as the stars start to fade. I'll set warding spells so no one has to keep watch."
Aldie lay back down immediately. Everyone else started to find places on the spread-out cloaks where they could lay flat. Jazan envied Nabile – after growing up in Scarab hideouts where the beds were thin straw pallets on the floor, she could sleep on anything. Only Jazan's weariness would keep him from having a wakeful night. He stared up at the stony ceiling, wondering what it would take to defeat an ancient king thoughtlessly released into the world.***
The next thing he knew, he was being poked with something. "Father, Father, time to get up!"
Jazan blinked – Esmeralda had taken her sheathed sword off her belt and prodding him with it. Stretching muscles sore from too little sleep on too rough of ground, he said, "Esmeralda, unless you want to practice embroidery with Neera, you'll stop that right now."
Nabile chided teasingly, "Don't scare her like that, Jazan."
Esmeralda muttered, "It's not funny. I'd rather go after Aurajar bare-handed than sit and stitch with her."
Sambar scolded, "Don't even talk like that, Princess, unless you'd like to see it take place."
Mirzah moaned, "It's too dark and there's no coffee!" In the light from the fire, Jazan saw Roxton and Clara nod in fervent agreement. He rubbed his temples, trying to assuage the headache that came with weariness and the overuse of his magic the day before.
Then Esmeralda said, "Caspar's talking to me – he felt that I'm awake. He's tired. He's been using a lot of magic, too." Then her golden eyes – the same color as her father's – widened. "Qasala's being attacked by zombies! It started around midnight last night. None have managed to get past the outer wall – the guards are keeping them away. But the zombies and the specters seem to keep coming back." Before Jazan could interrupt, she continued, "There aren't that many. They'll show up, attack one place on the wall, then retreat and come back somewhere else later. But it's hard to keep them down."
Sambar shook his massive head. "Sweet Fyora, sweet Fyora, sweet Fyora." Clara's and Jordie's eyes were wide and afraid.
Roxton said lightly, "Well, it's good that we're here. We'll be glad to lend a hand."
Jazan snapped at him, "You're the cause of this mess, you arrogant fool. You're lucky that I'm not having you chained and locked in the dungeons."
Hanso informed Roxton, "I've known this guy longer than you have. This is the time when you shut up and keep quiet, or he'll do what he says."
Brynn snorted. "When have you ever kept quiet after you've started to irritate someone?"
"And when I didn't keep quiet, Jazan had me thrown in the Brightvale dungeons, so I ought to know."
Jazan wasn't in the mood for this – and he didn't like having his own shortcomings and short temper pointed out in front of his daughter. He said, "We need to get back to Qasala. There's no time for banter. If you're talking, you should be saving your breath for the march."
Nabile set a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "It'll be okay, Jazan."
Jazan wished he could feel her security. But he knew that she felt so secure because she trusted him completely, and was sure that he'd be able to find a way out of this.
He wished he had that same confidence in himself. True, he'd always managed before. But with each new threat, there was always a new chance of failure. He reached up to grip her hand, and their rings clinked together lightly.
Cyrex groaned, "I'm not going to stop feeling like a mountain fell on me any time soon, so let's get walking before I keel over." Jazan winced. Mirzah had informed them all that the knight ought not to be moving, but they couldn't leave him here alone and every hand was needed back in Qasala. Hanso and Brynn offered their comrade shoulders to lean on, and the group started on their weary trek back to the city.
The sun wasn't even showing itself above the horizon yet, and Jazan envied it thoroughly. He liked to get up with the sun, but he didn't particularly appreciate beating it to the new day.
And that was when the zombies burst out of the sand.
They bore blades cankered with rust – Esmeralda, near the front, drew her sword and parried a thrust just in time. Jazan had his own sword out in a flash, and charged to meet her. "To me! To me!" There were at least two score zombies clawing their way to the surface, and with odds that awful they had to stay together, or they were all finished.
Esmeralda threw a bright mage-light into the sky. Mirzah cried, "Look at them! They don't like the light!" It was true – the zombies in their ragged desert robes were shying away, shielding their empty eyes.
Jazan knew what these zombies were when he met those eyes. Mindless minions animated by sorcery – no more individual initiative or personality than a stone statue. Of course, Aurajar had been no fool, and to make up for their lack of intelligence he'd made them very strong and well-nigh indestructible. He remembered Esmeralda's reports from Qasala – they had had trouble keeping these monsters down.
Outnumbered over four to one, he didn't like their chances. "We need to get out of here – we'll never beat them in a fight!"
Nabile asked, "How? They're all around us!"
Jazan had to parry another strike before he could think of a response. He noted that while Clara looked terrified and stayed at the center of their circle with the injured Cyrex, Roxton and Jordie were each holding their own – Roxton especially seemed to be talented with the long heavy knife he wielded. That was one mark in his favor, though it was still heavily outweighed by the marks against him.
And then the searing desert sun came over the horizon.
Instantly, the zombies cried out in their hoarse, inhuman voices, and they broke ranks and fled. They shambled away as fast as they could into the innumerable caves and crevices in the borderlands.
Brynn said, sheathing her sword, "That was far too close for comfort."
Esmeralda reported, "Caspar says the zombies in Qasala just cut and ran for it!"
Hanso looked into the dawning sun. "They didn't like the mage-light, but the sunlight was too much for them! They can't stand it!"
Mirzah said grimly, "But what do you bet they'll come back at dusk twice as nasty?"
Jazan knew she was right. "We still need to get back to Qasala as fast as we can. We need to be ready for another offensive tonight."
Nabile rubbed her eyes. "I'm going to need more coffee."
He sighed as they started trekking across the sand again, taking her hand in his. "I think we're all going to need more coffee."
Hanso asked, "You're sleepy? All the crazy sword-wielding zombies and evil sorcerer kings woke me up just fine."
Brynn sighed. "Not the time, Hanso."
Cyrex rubbed his head. "I'll reword that. Shut up, Hanso, or I'm going to feed you to a Wadjet."
Roxton complained, "Fellow's just trying to lighten the mood a little! There's no need to be grim!"
Nabile gripped Jazan's hand tighter in a silent warning, but before Jazan could say something sharp Cyrex growled, "Wadjets. And I'm not kidding."
As they walked, Jazan did take the time to pat Esmeralda on the shoulder. "You fought well against those zombies, especially when the first one took you by surprise."
She blushed with pleasure. "They did startle me."
As Sambar and Mirzah wrestled with the map, arguing over which was the easiest way back, Nabile laughed. "Do you think they didn't startle the rest of us?"
Jazan called to the two leaders, "If I wanted to listen to arguing, I'd have brought Neera!" They lowered their voices, and he told her, "That's why it's impressive – I've seen plenty of startled people freeze up, and then they need rescuing."
She asked, "Does this mean I get to fight again tonight?"
She'd handled herself better than many fighters against their eerie attackers. He nodded. "Yes, you may."
She threw her arms around him. "Thanks, Father!"
He sighed. "Thank me later." He didn't deserve one word of thanks – not until he figured out a way to get all of them out of this situation in one piece.
They made good time across the dunes – by mid-afternoon, the Qasalan gate was being opened for them. Nightsteed and Caspar waited inside. Nightsteed said, "Come on in, get something to drink, and try to get the sand off. We've got a bit of time."
As the others sped up at the mention of drinks and washing, Jazan stayed behind, resting his hand on Nightsteed's head. "Not nearly enough time."
Nightsteed said, "Enough time to find a way to hold them off for another night, at least."
Jazan looked around at the stone buildings of his city – some creamy white, others red-gold. He didn't want to just hold off a threat to his people. He wanted to get rid of it. What was he king for, if he didn't have the power to keep his people safe?
As the leader of this people, he'd helped rebuild this city from a forgotten ruin to a power respected throughout Neopia. And one old king who'd tried and failed to destroy this people for his own gain was not going to be allowed to ruin that.
He watched Nabile, Caspar and Esmeralda walk briskly up the street. Aurajar also would not be allowed to come anywhere near his family. Jazan would do anything and everything in order to prevent that.
It was time to get to work.
To be continued...