Shad and Saura: That Other City - Part One
Art by ssjelitegirl
Author's note: This story, albeit having an independent plotline, is in essence a sequel to my last series, Shad and Saura: The Story of Elversti. It's not necessary to read the first series in order to understand - and hopefully enjoy - this story, but some of the loose ends from 'Elversti' have been tied up here. If you read the first series and feel that it left some questions, then here you just might get your answers.
A merchant barge was quietly sliding down the wide river that flowed through the Lost Desert, supplying it with water and thus being the life source of the whole land. It was early in the morning, so the air was still fresh and even a bit chilly. Nights can be very cold in the desert, yet the fat desert-colored Kacheek standing on the deck of the barge knew that the land would turn into an oven within the next few hours. He wiped his forehead that tended to be sweaty all the time, no matter what the weather, and shouted:
“Hey Khatu, what’s taking you so long? Fell asleep down there?”
A starry Nimmo poked his head out of the trapdoor in the deck. “Seeing that you woke me up three hours after I fell asleep, you shouldn’t be surprised. Listen, there’s too much unorganized junk down here. We’ll never get it sorted and packed by the time we reach Sakhmet.”
“Well, start working faster then. I’ll send some of the guys down to help you.” The Kacheek turned around, muttering something about lazy incompetent loafers who worked at the docks for small handfuls of Neopoints and whose idea of charging the ship meant throwing the goods in as quickly as possible to get it over and done with.
The day was hot and humid by the time the barge docked at the pier that had been built onto the bank of the river many, many years ago. Several carts pulled by Elephantes and Tonus were already waiting there and soon the silent pier was filled with shouts, chatting, and the sound of running feet. In that casual chaos many other Neopets went to the shore, Neopets who obviously had nothing to do with the rough, unstable life of sailors and merchants, Neopets whose joints were stiff, who suffered from the heat and complained about poor conditions to each other as they started off towards the great city of Sakhmet that loomed in the distance. One cart stopped by a small group of Bruces and the Tonu pulling the cart started negotiating about the cost of the ride to the city.
The Lost Desert was far away and hard to reach. Cruise ships didn’t pay off there so the passengers who wanted to visit Sakhmet had to use the service of merchant ferries or join the caravans, which was even more uncomfortable. The desert Kacheek climbed back aboard, frowning to himself. He didn’t like those complaining city slickers but they paid well and were now gone anyway... hello, what’s that?
“Hey, you two,” he shouted. “Shouldn’t you be going off?”
There were two Neopets still standing by the railing, squinting at the majestic visage of the city that seemed to hover above the ground in the hot air. One of them, a shadow Lupe with eager yellow eyes and a studded collar, had stood up, leaning as far as he could and looking around curiously, panting in the scorching sun. The other one, a spotted Zafara, now turned around, raising his slender hand to shade the sun as he looked at the Kacheek.
“Hey, g’morning,” he said with a wide grin. “No sir, we’re going with you to Qasala. Everything’s been paid for.”
Now he remembered. The two had come aboard at the southern harbour of the Haunted Woods. They had been quiet and minding their own business the whole way so the Kacheek had completely forgotten about them in comparison with the other constantly complaining passengers. “Qasala, ey?” He toddled closer, wiping his forehead again. “Yeah, I remember you two paying the full price. Not many people go to Qasala these days. It’s a nice place but not much of a tourist attraction compared to Sakhmet.”
“A shame indeed,” agreed the Zafara. “We have some business to attend to there, otherwise we would probably not have bothered with the journey either. Long way, and,” he grinned vaguely, “a bit pricy. But I suppose it’ll be worth it.”
The Kacheek smiled widely, showing two rows of yellowish teeth. “Gotta make a living somehow. We’ll get there in about three hours...” he winced, trying to remember, “Saura, right?” The Zafara nodded with a smile. “And you were Shad.” The Lupe’s tail waved around as he turned to give a happy grin, showing a set of such sharp long fangs that the Kacheek had to stop himself from jumping back. “You two related?” he asked, feeling that he should ask something.
“Stepbrothers,” said Saura. “We come from Mystery Island.”
The Kacheek nodded. “Nice place, really nice. Been there in business some three years ago. Beautiful times...” He sighed. “Well, gotta get back to work. Enjoy the rest of the journey.”
“We will,” Saura assured. “Thanks, Captain.”
“Skipper, not captain,” laughed the Kacheek. “Skipper Toru, at your service. Feel free to let me know if you should need anything.” He strode off over the deck, huffing like an Ettaphant. Saura the Zafara sat down by the railing and gazed at the sky.
“The weather is going to be nice today,” he remarked.
“Yeah,” his stepbrother bumped down next to him, “too nice. Lost Desert ain’t for my taste.”
“It won’t take long in Qasala,” said the Zafara. “Tonight we can already travel west with the last caravan and catch the first ship to Mystery Island.”
Shad the Lupe snorted. “Yeah, right. You know how these things go. We arrive in Qasala, get mixed into something weird again, sort things out in a week or so, go through a bunch of adventures trying to find a caravan going west, and even if we manage to finally get on a ship, it’ll probably sink, or be attacked by pirates, or both.”
Saura laughed. “Life would be boring if such things didn’t happen, don’t you agree?”
The Lupe grinned as well. Their minds drifted to a leather bag under the small bunk bed Saura had been sleeping on down in the hold. The bag contained two spellbooks that were the root of all their troubles in the past few weeks.
And the only reason they had started off for Lost Desert was to do some shopping. Cloth, some rarer books, a few cures, nothing too tricky – until they visited their stepbrother Tsuki in Neopia Central who had asked them to deliver those two books to his friend in Sakhmet. The spellbooks took them to a strange, old and forgotten land, it hadn’t been easy to get out and when they finally got on the boat to Lost Desert, they were contacted by their brother again, only to be told that the friend in Sakhmet had moved to Qasala.
Sakhmet would’ve meant crowded streets filled with chatter, lively bazaars, games and entertainment. Skipper Toru was right: Qasala wasn’t much of a tourist attraction compared to that. It was farther away and had only recently been brought back from the curse that had embraced it for centuries. Strangers did go there, but rarely and mainly out of curiosity, and didn’t stay for long. Cursed cities don’t fly back to prosperity overnight.
The boat started to move again. Shad the Lupe threw himself down on the deck, staring blankly at the sandy bank moving past his narrowed eyes. “I wonder if it’s even hotter in Qasala?”
“The distance isn’t so big that the climate would change too much,” said Saura, leaning his back against the railing.
The Lupe yawned widely and with pleasure, it was a long rich contagious yawn that started with his pink tongue rolling out and ended with two rows of long fangs snapping shut. “You know... I think this trip will be pretty boring.”
“You know...” Saura’s dark blue eyes narrowed into stripes as he looked up at the blue and golden flag of Lost Desert up in the gaff, which partly covered the bright sun, “I wouldn’t be too sure. A sleeping Meowclops still has its claws. We’re going to a city that has a long and dark history, was cursed for many centuries and is still ruled by a powerful magician. Cities don’t forget that easily, Shad. Qasala’s curse may be lifted but as long as people still remember it, it will continue to affect everyone living in there.” He stretched his legs out and closed his eyes. Unlike Shad, he didn’t mind the hot sun much.
Shad frowned. His brother had a point – going to a city with such a history feeling carefree and happy would be pretty crazy. Then again, why worry in advance when you don’t know if there’s anything to worry about?
“Guess we’ll see about it when we get there,” he said, getting up. “I’m going downstairs, this heat is killing me. Try not to fall overboard or get sunstroke.”
Saura grinned in his half-sleep, waving his hand to shoo the Lupe off. “I’ll be fine.”
The barge slid on.
The sun had finally risen – this night had seemed almost endless. He was standing there on the balcony of the Royal Palace of Qasala, soft wind stroking his mane. It was still a bit strange to have smooth skin and a flowing mane again but it happened every morning and he had gotten used to it long time ago. Perhaps too long.
The blue Uni turned his head. “Nabile,” he said, more to acknowledge the Ixi’s presence than to ask what she wanted. Technically he should’ve been using the term Your Highness Nabile of Qasala – which was in fact the shortest of all her titles – but the pink Ixi’s husband had still been Nightsteed’s best friend for centuries. Those things tend to affect even the strictest etiquette rules.
Nabile went up to him and leaned against the ledge. “You’ve seemed worried lately,” she said. “You always get lost at dusk and show up at dawn and even then you won’t go to sleep but roam the palace and dig through the library. What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Nightsteed’s ears twitched as his eyes narrowed in a sudden burst of fury. “You’re the ruler of this city, or co-ruler, or however these things work for you, and you haven’t noticed what’s wrong? Look at this city. Can’t you see it? Better put, can’t you feel?”
Nabile scowled. “Well, I didn’t spend centuries living here being cursed, it’s not like I know every single stone in these walls...” she covered her mouth as she realized what she had just said. “Oh... I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
The Uni tilted his head to glare at her, then turned away again. “Okay then, let’s put it that way. Qasala is suffering from lack of Jazan. Surely you’ve noticed that.”
Nabile nodded, now getting his point. Prince Jazan hadn’t been the same lately. He had grown lazy, spending hours slouching on his throne, paying little to no attention to what his advisors told him, or nibbling on snacks from the royal kitchen while staring at the wall with a bored expression on his face, and sometimes he could get really cranky. “But isn’t that just because of plain boredom?” the Ixi asked. “Qasala is now back to normal and beginning to prosper; it doesn’t need Jazan’s hand everywhere.”
“True,” said Nightsteed. “That’s exactly the reason. Routine. The problem is, his old strong bonds with Qasala, once so very strong, mind you, as he practically lived for Qasala all these years he was cursed, these old bonds are getting weaker. He’s drifting away from Qasala in his heart, and he’s a mage, so these things have an effect other than simply metaphorical, Nabile.”
Nabile frowned with concern. “So the city is missing Jazan.”
Nightsteed shook his head. “No, not that. It can do fine when Jazan isn’t around. But Jazan’s own feelings for Qasala are getting weak and,” he practically spat the last words out, “someone’s taking advantage of it.”
To be continued...