“Hortencia?” I asked. Who else could it be?
“It is me,” she said. “Always me.”
“What… What happened to you?”
“I left,” she said simply. “And I will not be returning. But I did not abandon you. I saw that your needy self would come for me, and so we meet like this.”
I was surprised that she had taken the trouble to leave that note and vial for me. In her eyes at least, Hortencia owed me nothing. On the contrary, I owed her. In fact, I wasn’t really sure why she bothered to help any supernaturals at all. Maybe it was just for her own amusement.
As I gazed around the chamber, I wanted to ask what “this” even was—where were we? But before I could, the oracle continued, “So you trusted me enough to drink the juice.”
Trust might be too flattering a word. “I had no choice,” I said through gritted teeth.
She grinned, folds of her sagging skin bunching beneath her cheekbones. “Good,” she croaked. “You are learning. You are learning.”
Learning what? I would have asked, but I had more burning questions. “I need to know about Cyrus,” I said. Though, of course, you already know that.
Hortencia let out a deep cackle, which spiraled into a violent coughing fit. She dropped to her knees, her hands grasping the rocks as she hacked and spat. I was holding my breath as she looked up again.
What on earth happened to her?
She summoned the flask of stale water and drank from it. Then she folded her legs in front of her and sat cross-legged where she’d fallen. She patted the ground next to her. “Sit,” she commanded me. As I lowered myself, she smiled again—a sickly sweet smile—and said, “It’s story time.”
I nodded, waiting tensely for her to start.
“Close your eyes and concentrate on my words,” she said. She reached out a hand and trailed her clammy fingers from the top of my forehead down to my eyelids, forcing them closed. Then, removing her hand, she began…
“Once upon a time in the land of jinn, there lived a mighty king known as Harzad Drizan. Like his father and grandfather, Harzad was a ruthless leader. He built upon the work of his ancestors to forge a path toward establishing the Drizans as the most prominent tribe in The Dunes. He ruled with an iron fist, and his people respected him, while all other tribes cowered in his wake… except for the Gheens. Although a smaller tribe than the Drizans, the Gheens were highly intelligent and fiercely tenacious, bowing to no-one.
“As the years passed, and Harzad’s two sons grew into men, having children of their own, the time came for Harzad to relinquish his reign—as is the custom of jinn. The Gheens were still unvanquished, and Harzad knew how great a challenge his reigning son would have to face as king.
“His older son was Trezus, while his younger was Cyrus. As was the tradition with royal siblings, the role of leader did not automatically go to the eldest. It went to whomever rose victorious in a treacherous contest, arranged by the king himself to determine true worthiness of the throne.
“Harzad’s father, Setir, had done the same to him and his three brothers, and Harzad’s grandfather had done the same to Setir. And as was also the custom among Drizans, the stakes of each generation’s test had to be raised. The tasks would get harder, more impossible, for this was the way that they ensured their rulers only went from strength to strength, and never weakened.
“Harzad took his time in selecting the task and eventually, with the help of his counsel, he came up with what he believed to be the perfect idea.
“The Drizans were famed for their affinity for The Dunes’ native scorpions. Creatures the size of small horses, with looming, venomous stingers and pincers strong enough to squish a man’s skull like butter. Harzad’s great-grandfather had taken in a large horde of these scorpions and bred them in captivity. Using his unparalleled powers, he had experimented with numerous mutations until he came upon the perfect variation to employ as additional security for their lair. By the end, he’d managed to make their venom so potent, a single sting could kill a jinni in a matter of seconds if caught in their physical form… unless the jinni was exceptionally strong. Only one had been known to survive the sting, and that was the leader of the Gheens.
“In those days the Drizans’ prominence was less established, and the creatures were of use for a number of years. Once the Drizans had secured their supremacy among the jinn, Harzad’s ancestor released a number back into the wild, where they continued to breed uninhibited.
“It was these wild scorpions that Harzad used for his task. Trezus and Cyrus were to battle in an arena with two male scorpions—one each—slaying the monsters, and then drinking the venom from their stingers in front of the gathered crowds. There would be only two rules: the upper halves of their bodies must remain in a physical state, and they weren’t allowed to use magic. Whoever survived both the battle and the venom would be crowned that very same day. If it became a draw, then Harzad would be forced to think up another worthy challenge.
“The brothers were each given four days to prepare for the task—however they chose to do so, using either brain or brawn—and went their separate ways.
“Trezus immediately summoned the clan’s physician and spent the first two days developing an antidote that could line his stomach against the poison. Then the next two days he spent in the armory, gathering and training with the most lethal weapons.
“His younger brother Cyrus, on the other hand, disappeared. He vanished the same hour the men were given the task and he remained absent the entire four days. Nobody knew where he went, not a single one of his wives or children. But on the night of the contest, when the two men were due to meet for the contest, Trezus arrived bearing antidotes and weapons, while Cyrus came with nothing at all. Not even a shield to cover his exposed chest.