Evening fell on the city of Qasala, filling the streets and courtyards with shadows – except in the inner city, around the main square and the palace, where several of the houses had been set on fire. Scordrax the gigantic Scorchio fluttered above the city, roaring loudly and occasionally spitting fire from both mouths. People were panicking and confused. Scordrax had never done anything like that. What was wrong?
“Look!” shouted a voice as Shad and Saura ran closer to the palace. “Who’s that?”
A tiny figure floated closer to the rampaging beast. The light of the setting sun flashed on the sword, no bigger than a toothpick from that distance.
“Deki,” muttered Shad. Some Neopets nearby caught the name and it rolled off through the crowd. “Deki?” “Deki!”
The people began to cheer. Saura sank lower to the ground as he ran, his ears drooping because of the deafening shouts. “This does not look good,” he muttered. “Shad, look at Scordrax. Does he look... strange to you?”
Shad tilted his head, peering up as he ran. “I see what you mean. He’s not destroying systematically. He’s just rampaging. As if in pain or something.”
Scordrax rolled up in the air at that moment, shooting a beam of fire at the library next to the palace. It didn’t catch fire as it was made of stone and built heavily, but the roof stones melted. A deafening roar followed, and then another as Deki attacked.
“He’ll get himself killed like that!” shouted a female Elephante, staring at the sky. Deki’s sword flashed as he whacked Scordrax’s neck, followed by an ugly screech. The beast’s scales were too strong to be cut through. The gigantic Scorchio stopped in the air, focusing the glare of his left head on Deki. Then he opened the mouth.
“Nah,” muttered Shad. “Won’t work.” The sky went red as Scordrax aimed another beam straight at Deki. When it faded, the guard was still there, even though half of his armor had melted off.
“Fire Scorchio,” said a nearby Ruki. “Fire doesn’t harm him.”
As Deki attacked again, the loud cheer of the crowd supported him. Scordrax’s skin was tough, but he didn’t seem to have much concentration. He was rolling in the air pretty much aimlessly, roaring and shooting out fire every once in a while.
“You know what?” hissed Shad, crouching near the ground, ready to dive into safety as soon as the monster should fire at his direction. “I think Artus poisoned him. Or at least gave him something that made his mind hazy and confused him or something, one way or another, this isn’t a spell. It’s just mindless struggling.”
Saura nodded. “Nightsteed should be in the palace already. If Jazan has even one single brain cell left, he’ll stop Scordrax before people start blaming him and things get ugly.”
“Did you hear?” Two young Neopets, a Xweetok and a Kyrii were eagerly chatting some feet away from them. “Jazan sent him!”
“What?” The news spread at once. “Jazan?”
“Well, he’s the only one who controls Scordrax, right?”
“Hah, you know his bloodline, no better than his parents, remember old Razul?”
“Hasn’t been really interested in our welfare lately, you’ve noticed, haven’t you?”
Shad’s ears perked. “Not good,” he snarled. “Totally not good.” His eyes narrowed. “Saura, look.”
The Zafara looked. Drefu Arafan was standing farther in the crowd, grim and proud, seemingly calm but with flaring eyes. He muttered something to the Peophin next to him, who started talking to her friends at once.
“Rumor spreading,” hissed Saura. “Smart, gotta hand it to him. Where’s that stupid prince?”
The strong, deep voice echoed over the crowd, followed by instant silence. Everyone shut up, turning to look at the staircase of the palace. Even though the voice had been loud and clear, the tiny figure of prince Jazan in his white robe was barely to be seen. The two-headed Scorchio stopped in mid-air, ignoring Deki’s sword slashes which didn’t seem to disturb him much.
“Had Nightsteed not warned him, he probably wouldn’t even have known that something is wrong out here,” whispered Saura to Shad. “Nice work, bro.” The Lupe grinned in reply.
The air trembled when Scordrax replied with a deep moaning roar. Then the temporary attention faded again and the beast curled up in another burst of, as Shad and Saura assumed, pain in the stomach.
“Traitor,” a whisper started somewhere in the crowd. When Shad stretched his neck, he could see Drefu mutter something. Others followed his lead and as it often happens in a crowd, the word spread like wildfire. “Traitor!”
“Shut up, all of you!” This was another voice, equally strong and loud. Nightsteed, complete with his flaming hooves and rotting bandages, was standing next to his friend. Against all odds, the crowd fell silent. The question of Jazan was a question, but Nightsteed was respected. Not loved, true, but respected. And feared.
Saura turned to glance at Drefu. He was edging away in the crowd, something flaring in his eyes. Things were not going as planned. Not at all.
“Scordrax!” called Jazan again. It was an order. Even a twenty-ton two-headed Scorchio in stomach pains is unable to withstand such an order. He turned slowly in the air, turning both heads to look at Jazan. Another deep moan escaped his both throats.
Shad dashed off through the crowd. Saura blinked, turning to stare at his distancing back, then he ran off as well, following his brother. The whole crowd watched silently, backing off as Scordrax descended, making room for his landing. Nobody paid attention to the two brothers as they ran towards the palace and up the stairs.
“Jazan,” barked Shad, panting as he stopped on the last steps. The prince turned to look at him. He didn’t look bored and absent any more. Now he just looked grim, comparable to Nightsteed’s recent behavior.
“Jazan, I’m pretty sure that whatever Scordrax has, it’ll kill him any minute now,” said the Lupe. “Deki is unable to beat a beast like him, so in order to make him look like a hero, he has to use other ways to, y’know, slay the monster.”
The prince’s orange eyes narrowed. “You have a point.” He turned to look at the vast Scorchio who was now humbly sitting in front of the palace. Big as he was, his heads reached up to half of the staircase and the quiet rumbling moan in both of his throats made their ears vibrate. The crowd was silent, waiting for the result.
“Let me just...” Jazan muttered thoughtfully, gazing at his gigantic pet that was now completely tame.
“The Death of Toxic spell, maybe?” asked Nightsteed.
“Nightsteed, he has a crowd right behind him; we can’t do that to them,” snorted the Kyrii. “No, I think... yes, that should work.” His eyes narrowed, and turned crimson. His robe turned black and started flapping around his feet as he stood there, energy gathering around him and running up the robe as narrow bright blue lines. The prince of Qasala squinted, frowned and without a word slashed his hand through the air.
Scordrax blinked. His eyes widened. He fidgeted uneasily on his feet, then raised both his heads and sent a massive burst of fire at the sky from both throats. Some ten feet from the wide mouths, the beams merged and turned bright green. For a moment the whole main square was lit by ghastly green light, turning everyone’s faces into something from a twisted nightmare. Then the Scorchio closed his two mouths and the square fell silent – and dark, not counting the few burning houses nearby. Nightsteed nodded at those absently and the fire faded.
“What would Death of Toxic have done?” asked Shad.
“Washed the toxins out the... normal way,” Nightsteed replied quietly.
The Lupe’s ears twitched. “Oh. Yuck.”
Jazan raised his head to gaze at the crowd behind Scordrax – and the small guard who was still fluttering in the air.
“Deki!” he called. “Come here.”
His voice rolled through the crowd, which trembled for a second, resisting the call – Jazan’s voice used the same stern tone Deki had used when calling the two brothers on the alleyway. Deki still floated in the air. He was fighting back, a small-scale mage as he was.
“Come here!” the prince boomed. Deki was only a rookie, a young mage taught by his father. Jazan was one of the strongest magicians in Neopia. The Scorchio flew closer, or rather struggled closer, fully against his will.
“Deki,” muttered a voice behind them. Shad and Saura turned around, blinking. They had forgotten that the palace always had guards. At the moment there weren’t two, but only Harfu, slanted eyes full of shock.
“Don’t worry, kid.” Nightsteed looked back at him over his wrinkly shoulder. “He fooled us all, not just you.”
The Scorchio landed reluctantly in front of Jazan, avoiding Harfu’s look. He looked aside for a moment, not sure what to do or say, then frowned, gulped and apparently came to a decision, raising his head and looking straight into Jazan’s dark red, glowing eyes. The square fell so silent that you could hear a needle drop, though in that situation the needle probably wouldn’t have dared to drop loudly.
“Let me get this straight.” Jazan’s voice was now normal, but nevertheless everyone could hear him. “You were planning to seemingly defeat the rampaging Scordrax, claim my throne with the support of the people and become the new ruler of Qasala with your father as the real mastermind and advisor behind your back.”
Deki’s face was impenetrable. “Yes.”
Jazan raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
The Scorchio’s expression didn’t change. “Yes, Your Highness.”
The prince nodded vaguely. “And I would’ve been killed.”
“Eventually, yes. Your Highness.”
Apparently Deki hadn’t involved the Ixi princess in the plans. He seemed hesitant for a second. “Undecided. Probably killed too.”
Deki shrugged slightly. “Well, we had to improvise. Father is stronger than him so it made no big difference. We could’ve disposed of him any time we wanted. He showed up conveniently when we took care of the two tourists, so we used the chance.”
“Though you failed to take care of us,” remarked Shad, his tail waving around on the cold stones. “I mean, I’m not exactly an expert here but tying your enemies up with ropes and leaving them all unguarded in a courtyard somewhere in an abandoned house isn’t exactly the best way of doing it, or so I’ve heard.”
Deki shot a glare at him and fell silent again. Jazan raised his head. “Where’s Drefu?”
The question wasn’t directed to anyone in particular, so the Neopets in the crowd started looking around nervously and Nightsteed lowered his head, closing his eyes.
“I can’t find him,” he said after a second. “He’s blocked his senses.”
“Ask him about plan B,” suggested Saura, crouching down on the landing the way Zafaras usually do. The prince and his friend glanced at him, “Plan B?”
“There’s always a plan B, especially with something so important,” said Shad. Jazan turned to look at Deki again. The Scorchio’s expression was still icy, but now something was shining through. Something sinister. A very vague grin.
“Well, talk,” said Jazan.
“I’ll rather die than betray my father,” stated Deki.
“Suits me,” snorted Nightsteed, lowering his yellowish horn.
“Whoa, wait!” Jazan’s eyes, though glowy red, somehow managed to look frightened. “We can’t do that! He has important information.”
“Which he’s not willing to share, so no need to have him around,” started the Uni. Deki shot a nervous glance at him. Nightsteed didn’t exactly look like the winner of the Beauty Contest to start with, especially on closeup, but when he got cranky, he could get very unnerving.
“I’m sure we’ll manage to convince him somehow,” said the prince.
The Uni shook his head so that his dark mane and the bandages flew all around his neck. “Waste of time. And he’ll probably end up lying anyway. Let me just...”
“Wait, wait!” Deki’s eyes had widened. “I can tell you. It makes no difference.” He stepped back quickly, his eyes stuck on Nightsteed’s horn. “Father has created a new spell based on the information from the two spellbooks the tourists brought. Should his original plan fail, he’s going to use that spell to bring Qasala under his rule and create an undead army so strong that even Fyora’s power would be unable to defeat it.”
Jazan blinked. “Undead army? I had hoped that Qasala has seen the last of those.”
“You know how it goes, usurpers can never resist good undead armies,” grunted Nightsteed somewhat sarcastically.
“Well, they’re not good, that’s the problem. They tend to be brainless moaning machines who kill people when you least need it. Trust me, I’ve done my research.” The prince rubbed his forehead. “Okay, let’s go find him then. Deki?”
“The catacombs under the palace,” muttered the Scorchio, taking another step back.
“Lovely.” Jazan looked at Harfu, narrowing his eyes, trying to remember the name. “Eh... Harfu, right? Guard him until we get back. We have a city to save.”
“Bad idea, “ said the ghastly Uni. “Harfu is his friend. Was.” One look in the Ixi guard’s shocked eyes confirmed that.
Jazan raised a brow. “Really? Didn’t know that. I’ve really been neglecting my duties.” He looked at the crowd in front of the palace. “Volunteers?”
The sea of grim faces spoke for itself. The tables had turned.
“Mage test, kid,” Jazan said lightly, turning around. “If you manage to stay unharmed here, you got potential. Just don’t kill anyone. Mobs are not to be underestimated.” He walked into the palace, calmly and with determination, and Nightsteed followed him. Shad and Saura looked after them, then at Deki, then at Harfu, then at the approaching people.
“Well, I’m not gonna miss that,” stated Shad, diving into the cool dark depths of the hallway.
Saura blinked. “What? Hey... wait! Where are you going?”
“After them.” The Lupe’s dark fur had already blended into the shadows. “I don’t think anything interesting will happen here and it’d be fun to see a battle of the mages, don’t you think?”
“Fun...?” Saura ran out of words. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, managed to produce a ‘ghack’, then waved his hands around, then whimpered hopelessly and hurried after Shad.