“His father was both surprised and saddened; Cyrus had always been his favorite of the two. Trezus was only encouraged, thinking that his brother’s arrogance would surely lead to his demise.

“The king, queen and all the Drizan people gathered in a makeshift arena in the desert, with the two brothers standing on either side. Two jinn let loose the first mammoth black scorpion a few feet in front of Trezus—who had volunteered to go first.

“As the scorpion hurtled toward Trezus, he valiantly swung and swiped with his swords, but he was unable to get close enough to gouge the scorpion, so ferociously protected by pincers and a towering stinger. In the end, he managed to spear through a joint in its neck—paralyzing it—but when Trezus severed the stinger from the dying scorpion and squeezed the venom into his mouth, he collapsed instantaneously. The attendant physicians gathered round, but they were too late. Trezus Drizan had not been strong enough to withstand the poison. He was not worthy of his father’s crown.

“All eyes turned on Cyrus. Two jinn brought in the second scorpion and placed it in front of Cyrus. It scuttled toward him, just as the other had done to Trezus, but as it reached within four feet of the younger brother, it stopped abruptly. The ringmasters gathered round, suspicious that Cyrus could be playing foul and using supernatural powers, but they soon verified he was not.

“The scorpion remained still, pincers folded, stinger hanging low, as was its head. It was as though the beast was bowing to the young man. And then, with one swift movement, Cyrus launched onto the back of the scorpion, took its stinger within his muscular arms and snapped it from its body. He leapt off as the scorpion flailed and rolled onto its back. Shortly after, the supervisors pronounced it dead.

“The crowd held their breath as Cyrus bit right into the barbed stinger, tearing through the flesh until he reached the venom, where he poured a full mouthful into his jaws for all to see. He swallowed… and yet he stood.

“A minute passed. Two minutes. Three minutes.

“Still he stood.

“The crowd erupted, the king and queen relieved, and all present hailed their new king as a miracle. A gift from God Himself. Harzad simply labeled him as the son he’d always known he had, a true heir to his throne.

“Cyrus’ coronation ceremony was the most lavish in the history of the Drizans. And so began Cyrus’ rule. Even more ruthless than his father, after only four years, he eradicated the Gheens as any potential threat. But throughout Cyrus’ years of ruling, until this very day, he never revealed to anybody how he truly came to power. How he truly withstood the test his older brother could not. And why should people question him, when by his actions he was so clearly meant to lead?”

The oracle’s voice faded. I opened my eyes—or at least my mind’s eye. Her head was tilted toward me thoughtfully, the torchlight sending shadows dancing across her wizened face.

“Well?” I said. “What did happen to Cyrus during those four days? What did he do? What has given him the strength that he has?”

I should’ve expected what was coming the minute she stopped talking at such a pivotal moment in the story.

“Benjamin, Benjamin,” she said, with an almost gleeful smile. “You like to be spoon fed, don’t you?”

I like straight answers, the same as any person who is not insane.

But I already sensed that I was going to get nothing of the sort from the oracle. Her outward appearance might’ve changed drastically, but she was still the same maddening woman.

“I will give you what you need, not what you think you need,” she said after a pause. “And what you need is my advice.”

Advice. The last time she’d given me her “advice”, I’d ended up trafficked to The Underworld and imprisoned as an ornamental pet.

“What is your advice?” I asked, my jaw tight.

She rose to her feet. Her withered, almost unrecognizable face panned down to me as she replied, “Return to The Drizans’ palace and remember… everybody has something to hide.”

Ben

Before I could pose another question, the scene around me faded, as did the oracle. I found myself lying on the ground. I opened my eyes. My real eyes. River was crouching over me, one palm against my forehead. Aisha hovered nearby, too.

“Are you okay?” River asked anxiously. “You were talking to yourself.”

I sat up, rubbing my head, livid at the oracle for having sent me back without any explanation as to what she’d meant. It took a few moments to collect my thoughts before standing up again.

“We need to return to Lake Nasser.” I sighed. “I’ll tell you everything when we get there.”

Aisha was strong enough to transport us back to the islet where we’d left the others, and on arrival I recounted what had happened to River, Aisha and myself.

“So you’ve got to return to the Drizans’ palace,” my father murmured.

“Yes. I have to observe some more…” And hope against hope the oracle isn’t messing with me.

“You’ll really go alone again?” River asked.

Before I could answer, Lucas stepped forward. “I’ll go with you,” he said, eyeing me steadily.

My parents spun around and gazed at him in shock. I couldn’t miss the flash of gratefulness in their eyes, while I could not say the same for Jeramiah. The last thing he wanted was to let his father go again, naturally.

“Okay,” I told Lucas. I wasn’t exactly sure why he had volunteered but I was grateful. I didn’t think it was a good idea to go down with any more than two, but two of us should be manageable.

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