”King Jazan? Please, come in.”
Jazan looked down at the little blue Aisha girl cordially inviting him through the door of her Roo Island home. “Abigail Avinroo, I presume?” the Kyrii asked, glancing past her at the décor of the living room. Family pictures on the mantel and doilies on the couches seemed so strange compared to the palace of Qasala. Other lands of Neopia were quite odd, indeed.
“That’s me,” Abigail said with a nod. “The den’s down the hall on the right. My brother should be back soon with your opponent for this year’s challenge.” She waved him inside. “I’m making kabobs for a snack. You know, since they’re from the Lost Desert. Celebrating your heritage.”
“Thank you,” Jazan said, still feeling rather overwhelmed by the entire situation. His cape billowed authoritatively as he made his way down the hall, but the Kyrii felt anything but in control right now, so far removed from his element.
How had he gotten into this in the first place? Oh, right—Nabile had said things like “You need to broaden your horizons” and “It’s good for you to get out of your comfort zone every once in a while,” and “So help me, if you don’t compete in the Games Master Challenge this year, I’ll tell everyone that your goatee is fake”.
As he sat at the table in the den, Jazan stroked the ornamental cover on his very real goatee and thought that he needed to buy that woman more chocolate, to keep her placated.
Wearily, he leaned his staff on the edge of the table and examined the paperwork in front of him. There was a list of qualifying games, a handbook of procedures and policies for team captains, a rubric to determine participation prizes… A colourful title caught his eye, and he lifted the sheet of paper.
“The theme of this year’s Games Master Challenge,” he read, “is ‘Heroes versus Villains’. The captain of Team Heroes is King Jazan the Fourth, Ruler of Qasala, Emperor of the Shadowed Sands, Master Sorcerer and Maven of Curses.”
Jazan grinned. He did so like when people remembered to use all of his titles. And it was also a relief to see that they had put him in charge of the Heroes side. He seemed to be remembered by many of the older crowd as a villain, all because of circumstances that were out of his control, and a bit of bad press besides.
But he had risen above that and proven himself to be a hero, albeit a rather grumpy one. Well, not everyone could be an irresponsible rogue like that Hanso character. Someone had to mind the rules, and stay organised, and—
He cleared his throat to distract himself. Thinking about Hanso too much gave him a migraine.
Jazan looked back at the paper. “The captain of Team Villains is… to be determined?!” He flipped through the next few pages, but could find nothing on who his opponent would be.
With a groan, he flopped back in his chair. “I’m going to have an ulcer by the time this is over, I swear.”
Abigail popped in wearing an oven mitt. “Everything okay in here?”
Laying one arm over his face, Jazan turned to her. “Who’s my opponent?”
“I actually don’t know,” Abigail said. “AAA wouldn’t tell me. He said he had a special guest planned, but he had to go through the proper channels, so he can’t actually announce the team captain until the event starts, just in case things fall through.”
“And the proper channels would be…?” Jazan asked.
The Aisha shrugged. “You got me. Although a few times he’s come home smelling like magic something powerful. Stinks up the whole house.”
A beeping sounded from the kitchen, and her earstalks perked. “Oh—I gotta go turn the kabobs!” She scampered away.
Jazan massaged his sinuses. Powerful magic? That wasn’t a good sign. Who was he up against? Xandra? The Darkest Faerie? Hubrid Nox couldn’t make it, for obvious reasons. What other villainous magicians did he know? There wasn’t any chance Wrawk the Merciless could be back on the loose, was there?
The front door opened again and Jazan stiffened.
“Make yourself at home in the den,” a nasally teen’s voice said. “I sent out the announcement that the challenge is open, so participants should be pouring in any minute now.”
“Oh, how delightful!” said another voice, deep and rasping and distressingly familiar. “And this challenge is to decide the fate of all Neopia, correct?”
“Errr—no,” the teenage voice said. “But it will decide which team has the better gamers on it.”
“Excellent! Evil shall prevail! And do I smell kabobs?”
As the two voices grew nearer, Jazan felt glued to his chair, and he could only watch in dismay as a flaming, demonic figure in black robes sauntered in to the den.
Fire licked through the empty eye sockets of the creature’s skull as it saw Jazan and stopped. Then it spread its arms wide and swept him up in a crushing hug. “Son!” Emperor Razul cried.
All of Jazan’s faint hopes of this being a bearable experience fled, probably back to Qasala to hide under his bed like he wished he could. “Hi, Dad,” he wheezed through constricted ribs.
“It’s been far too long!” Razul said, setting him down.
“It’s been since last year’s Giving Day party,” Jazan muttered, numbly sitting down. “How did you get here?! You’re supposed to be banished to another dimension for all eternity!”
“Oh, funny thing, that,” Razul said. He waved his hands, and in bursts of flame, signs began to appear on his side of the table that said things like “Villainy Rules” and “Team Fiery Doom”. “This kind young man pulled a few strings, hired a few necromancers, and poof! Here I am!” He gestured to the diminutive yellow Blumaroo who stood in the doorway of the den.
The lad wore unusually-coloured glasses and his head resembled an enormous egg, but Jazan tried not to stare. “Do you realise what you’ve just done?!” the Kyrii king asked.
“Created the epic showdown of the year!” AAA said, pumping his fist.
Maybe, Jazan thought, if he backed out of this now, Nabile would be forgiving. He just had to figure out a distraction so he could escape. Perhaps if he cursed the kabobs to emit a high-pitched whine—
“First!” shouted a yellow Wocky who ran into the den, wearing a t-shirt with a game controller logo. He grinned toothily as he surveyed the table. “Oh man, Jazan versus Razul! This is gonna be wicked awesome!”
Jazan drew himself up, sitting straight like proper royalty and trying to exude regality. “Choose a side, Neopian,” he intoned, “and choose wisely, for the battle between good and evil is ultimately fought in the hearts of—“
“Join Team Villains!” Razul said. “We have cookies!” He held up a plate of the baked desserts.
“Awww yeah!” the Wocky said, reaching for a cookie. “Evil is the best! You’re so bad, dude! It’s great!”
Jazan slapped a paw over his own face. “This is a travesty.”
As the Wocky perused the list of qualifying games, a blue Cybunny stepped into the room. “First—awww, Gummy Rats,” she said upon seeing the Wocky, who gave her a cheeky grin.
“Cookie?” Razul asked, nudging the plate her way.
“Not from you, fiend!” she said, folding her arms. “I’m signing up for Team Heroes!”
Jazan clasped his paws. “I’m not the only sane Neopian left! You will not regret your decision, milady!”
“Thanks,” she said. “So, uh… what’s the sign-up prize?”
“The what?” Jazan asked.
Razul waved a paper in his face. “Every Neopian who joins a team gets a free participation prize.”
“Oh—“ Jazan dug around in his pockets. All he had was some lint, a royal seal or two, and a few talismans for safe measure. “Uh—I’m not sure I have anyth—Dad, what are you doing?!“
Razul had snatched Jazan’s staff and handed it to the Cybunny. “For you, girl, the Staff of Justice!” he thundered. “A fitting token for a hero such as yourself! Not that it will matter much in the end, muwahahaha!”
The Cybunny’s eyes widened as she examined the jeweled sceptre. “Whoa… awesome! I gotta go brag about this!” She snatched a list of qualifying games and bounded out of the den.
“That’s mine!” Jazan yelled after her, but it was too late. “Dad!” he moaned, tugging on the cloth of his headdress. “You can’t just give royal symbols of power away like that!”
“Ohohoho!” Razul clapped his brittle talons in delight as more Neopets came streaming in to sign up. “Isn’t this fun! Why, it reminds me of the good times we had at Sakhmet!”
Jazan found the real participation prizes in boxes under the table, and proceeded to hand them out to everyone who joined his team. “Thanks to you,” he grumbled, “Princess Amira never wants to see me again! She won’t even return my Weewoos anymore!” He paused. “Well, I mean, she doesn’t write back. She returns the Weewoos, but they look like they’ve been shot out of a trebuchet.”
“Glorious!” Razul said. “See how she fears our kingdom’s power!”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not the reason,” Jazan said.
Amid the throng, Abigail ducked in. “Kabobs are ready,” she said, setting down a sizzling platter. “How are you two doing?”
Jazan started to say, “Could be bett—“
“Marvelous!” Razul said, picking up a kabob. He thrust the entire thing into the flames past his teeth, where it was consumed, skewer and all. “I wish I could have tasted that,” he said.
“Ooh, nice decorations, Your Highness,” Abigail said to Razul. “King Jazan, your side’s looking a little… bare.”
“It’s organised,” Jazan insisted. “Besides, I’m not relying on flashiness – or cookies – to win people over to my team. I’m appealing to their inner strength of character and—“
“Nonsense, boy!” Razul said. “You need to liven things up a bit!” He snapped his claws, and in a whirl of flame, a papyrus appeared on the wall beside them. It was covered in scrawls of ink that made up a very rough stick-figure doodle of what looked like a Kyrii cuddling an Erisim under a smiling sun. The cartouche in the corner contained badly-rendered hieroglyphics that read “pRicnE jAzn”
Jazan let out a strangled cry. Leaping to his feet, cheeks burning, he tore the papyrus down, and with a flick of his wrist, sent the offending document back to the palace archives where it belonged. “Dad! Stop showing off drawings I made when I was four!”
As he moved to sit down, he surveyed the rest of the wall, and his eyes fell on a flag on a rope that stretched above the table. Despite the closed window, the flag seemed to twitch restlessly, making minute jerks back and forth on the rope like the tiniest game of Tug ‘O’ War ever. “What’s that?” Jazan asked.
“The team performance indicator,” AAA said. “It shows which team is currently ahead at any given moment.”
“But… the flag is closer to my father’s side,” Jazan said.
Razul nodded. “That usually means I’m winning, son.”
The Kyrii’s eye twitched. “How could you be winning?! You’re the bad guy!”
“Face it,” Razul said, buffing his claws on his robe, “the allure of evil is just too great. Also, I’m baking more cookies as we speak!”
AAA squinted at him. “Where are you baking them?”
“There are advantages to being made of fire,” Razul said.
“That is it!” Jazan slammed his paws on the table. “My team is going to wipe the floor with yours, and prove once and for all that good always triumphs over evil! And then maybe you’ll leave me alone!”
Razul laughed as the distinct aroma of peanut butter cookies began to fill the air. “Now that’s the old pep I like to see from you, boy! Makes this challenge far more interesting!” He reached for another kabob. “May the best evil overlord win!” he said, holding the skewer out for a toast.
“I’m not evil!” Jazan wailed. “I’m just misunderstood!” All thoughts of ducking out of this had long left his mind. He had a new task: to further the cause of goodness, to clear his name for once and for all… and to get his overbearing father off his case.
This was going to be a long week.