Kings and Curses: Part Eight
Jazan's first instinct was to attempt to attack the magic that animated Aurajar's zombies and enslaved the wraiths to his bidding. But it was no use – to be able to pull it apart, he would have had to know something about how it was put together. Jazan's hands were by no means clean when it came to black magic, but he'd never even gone near the dead arts. That wouldn't work.
He had to go out there and face them. If Aurajar attacked in person, he'd go for Jazan first – that would give the fighters time to get away. And Jazan was the most powerful sorcerer that they had. If there was anything magical that could be done, he would be able to do it better from there. He drew his sword.
A sword scraped out of a sheath behind him as well – he turned to see Esmeralda wearing a helmet and armor. He shook his head. "No. You stay up here. It's safer."
Esmeralda said, "Mama told me I'd be safest if I was within ten feet of you."
Jazan sighed. He had to admit that as long as she was close to him, he could take care of her. He warned, "If Aurajar shows up, I want you back inside the city gates so fast that everyone will think you've grown wings."
She shuddered. "I'm not stupid, Father."
He nodded. "Remember – if you get yourself hurt, your mother will hurt me."
She snickered. "Aurajar versus angry Mama – if I were you, I'd go for the evil zombie sorcerer king."
Jazan agreed emphatically. "Let's go meet Sambar – he'll have a squad ready." There was a large part of him that was absolutely terrified for Esmeralda's sake, but he couldn't acknowledge it. She was ready for this – it would be wrong of him to keep her back when she was both able and willing.
The squad was waiting with the particular shifting stance of people who are through with waiting and want to be doing something already. Jazan said, "We're going to get them back from the gates, and see how many we can take down. This is a recon mission, not a decisive strike. Everything was chaotic last night, and we don't know enough about what the zombies are capable of. And if Aurajar comes back, everyone besides me needs to get back inside the city gates."
He noticed the relief in their eyes – no non-mage with even a grain of sanity relished the prospect of tangling with a powerful sorcerer.
He felt Esmeralda's mind touch his. You know that if you do something heroic, Mama's going to scold and we're all going to have to listen to it.
She was getting older, he realized wistfully – it wasn't too long ago that she would have said that out loud, making her look like a child and him look like a fool for bringing her along. He smiled at her, and then two soldiers pulled open the small gate to the left of the main one to allow them out.
Jazan hit the zombies with a blast of magic first, knocking them out of the way in order to give the people behind him time to get into formation and – more importantly – to shut the door before any of the undead could get in.
Then he was charged by a zombie Grarrl that stood half again as tall as he did, swinging a massive battle-axe. Even when the mind was gone, the body remembered the muscles to use to wield a weapon, and this particular body seemed to remember very well. Jazan's hands hurt with the reverberations of the metal when he blocked the crushing blow.
Then Esmeralda shouted, "Yoo-hoo! Who let the wagon have a weapon?"
The big Grarrl turned toward where she was fighting a wraith, meeting every stroke of its shadowy blade with her own. When it started toward her, Jazan took the opportunity to trip it up – it got caught in the haft of the axe and landed heavily.
At that moment a wraith came at him from above – when it flowed away, the Grarrl was up again, but it wasn't moving as smoothly or as quickly anymore. Jazan was able to meet its next attacks without the same pain, but before he could do more it shambled away.
Then a larger wave of zombies came over the hill – Sambar shouted, "Back-to-back! Form a circle!"
They did – Jazan stood with Sambar on one side and Esmeralda on the other, protecting their wounded, who huddled in the center of the circle as enemies came from all sides. Jazan began to wonder whether Aurajar was trying to form this into a trap – he couldn't retake the city with Jazan still standing. But there was no time to think before he had to match swords with a zombie that he would have hired for the Palace Guard if the swordsman still had a mind. He shouted, "Aurajar's picked the cream of the crop for this, hasn't he?"
Sambar replied, "When have you ever known an evil sorcerer to do things halfway?"
Esmeralda knocked aside a mace that came swinging toward her. "For a bunch of dead guys, they sure don't give up easily!"
Jazan looked around – there were more zombies coming every minute. Aurajar had hundreds of them! Where did they come from? Where had he left them, in preparation for his return? "We've got to pull back, Sambar! We're going to be overwhelmed!"
Sambar roared, "Toward the gate! Get to the gate!"
The massive Grarrl was charging again at the head of a group of zombies who were all almost as big as he was, with wraiths weaving in and out of the gang. Jazan shouted, "Faster! Faster!" He shot a blast of force at them – he didn't dare to use too much, because he had a cold certainty that he would need it later. They stumbled, but it didn't hold them. He looked around wildly – Esmeralda was matching swords with another zombie. "Esmeralda, run!"
Like the warrior she was training to be, she obeyed the order, running to the head of the retreat with her sword at the ready. Jazan followed – he kept to the rear, guarding his people, but he had no intention of getting himself hurt trying to fight an especially large lackey. He evaded, wishing that he could allow himself to use more magic. It was easy to confuse the mind in order to lend himself an advantage, but none of Aurajar's servants had any mind to be confused, and any other tricks would use too much power.
Then they were in the gate – Jazan did use magic to force the spell-reinforced wooden doors closed. As they came to, he heard the thunk of weapons slamming into the outside. He took a deep breath. "That was close. Far too Fyora-blasted close."
Hanso and Brynn were both there – Hanso asked, "Is it just me, or is that a whole lot more zombies than anyone has a right to have?"
Brynn nodded grimly. "I'm thinking rather fondly of Brightvale bandits right about now. At least they had the decency to look scared."
There were shouts up on the wall, and the clashing of metal against stone – one of the captains shouted, "They've got grappling hooks! Cut the ropes, lads, and keep the grapples – no, you idiot, don't throw the stupid thing at the enemy! They'll tie it to a new rope and come right back! Get away from there!"
Jazan sighed. Hanso and Esmeralda both snickered. Then Sambar said, stilling the entire group, "Is it worrying anyone else how well-prepared these zombies are?"
A grizzled old soldier said, "Me, for one. Last night was just a handful of skirmishes. What you'd expect from the undead. Tonight – this is organized. Too organized. There's a tactician behind it all, and I don't like thinking about how he's getting all the zombies to follow orders. Pardon me for being forward, Your Majesty, but would you have that much power?"
It was an honest question, even though Jazan didn't like the answer. "No." He didn't bother to explain that technically he could, but all of the ways to achieve that much magical strength were violent and steeped in dark magic. He wouldn't stoop to them, even to defeat Aurajar. By doing so, he would become just like the old Draik king, and his people would be no better off.
But it was uncomfortable to think about the fact that Jazan might not be strong enough to do this on his own. He instinctively shied away from turning for help, but he didn't know what else to do.
As a matter of fact, now that he'd decided he could accept outside aid, he didn't know where it could come from. Faerieland was fighting the shadow practitioners, and King Altador – the only Neopian ruler that Jazan would consider a friend – was battling pirates on his shores. Help would not be coming from either of those kingdoms. Jazan realized that he was probably on his own.
What could he do? The zombies would wear the living soldiers down – at the rate they were going, they wouldn't last until dawn. What could be done? What could be done?
That was when Nabile and Caspar ran down the street toward them – Jazan realized in horror that Jessamine and Neera were trailing them. He asked, "What's going on?"
Nabile said, "Aurajar and another horde of zombies appeared around the fountain outside the palace. He transported a lot of them."
Jazan gasped before he could stop himself. That took far more power than the Kyrii king had available – he didn't even want to know what Aurajar had done to magnify his power. He thought quickly. "The palace has a threshold – he can't cross it by magic unless I allow it or he breaks down the barriers." And Jazan knew he couldn't rely on that taking too long.
Unless he could think of some desperate plan, Aurajar would sit on the Qasalan throne by sunrise.
To be continued...