The Citadel Quest: Part Four
The Citadel Quest, Part 4 of 5: Champions of Darigan
In the split second it took Peican to realize that a vicious iron ball of spikes was hurtling straight at his eyes, his only thought was it’s times like this I hate being a Tuskaninny. His flippers, so useful in the water, just couldn’t move very fast on land.
The instant before the spikes would have hit, something massive slammed into the back of his skull, knocking him to the floor. The spiky projectile missed him by centimetres, and rebounded against the wall back into the dark room. Peican’s friend Sjörén, a Camouflage Hissi, grabbed his limp body and pulled him out of the doorway into safety.
Peican gasped in shock as he realized what had happened. Peican’s and Sjörén’s other traveling companion, Xucrão, a Darigan Hissi, had seen Peican’s danger and launched into him from behind. Xucrão had saved Peican from injury, but at the cost of vaulting himself into the boobytrapped room.
Xucrão flew around the room, darting and coiling his body to dodge three ensorcelled spiked balls, each more lethal-looking than the next. To make matters worse, he had to avoid bumping into the fallen body of their official escort, Captain Galgarrath, who had had the misfortune of walking into the dimly lit room first.
“He won’t last more than a few seconds in there,” hissed Sjörén in dismay. What had started as a trek to find rare ingredients in the Darigan Citadel to cure their sick friend had gone terribly awry. In the dungeons of Master Vex, they had finally located one of the items, only to learn that the they had somehow fallen under the pernicious influence of malevolent spirits known as “the Three.” Captain Galgarrath had been tasked with delivering them safely to Lord Darigan, but no sooner had they reached the castle than the Captain had been felled by ricocheting spiked shotputs, and Xucrão was seconds away from disaster.
Suddenly the room flooded with light, and the spiked balls froze in midair. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my training room?” demanded a deep baritone voice. On the far side of the room stood a stranger, a tall Darigan Hissi wearing spiked shoulderpads like epaulets. His unusually thick body radiated athleticism.
“Captain Galgarrath, milord,” grunted the fallen Red Grarrl, lifting his heavy body off the floor. “Hail and –unh! – well met,” he added, extracting a particularly nasty spiked ball from the tough folds of his muscular neck. He sneered at the object cradled in his had as though it were a rotten courgette, and tossed it aside, where it hovered motionless in midair. “I have orders from Master Vex to accompany these Meridellian visitors to Lord Darigan’s Chambers. I apologize for intruding, but the last time I took this route through the castle, there was no training room here.”
Xucrão glided down to rejoin his friends. “That was so much fun!” he whispered. “And do you realize who this is? Layton Vickles! The Layton Vickles!” Xucrão could hardly contain himself.
Layton Vickles, Captain of the top-ranked Darigan Yooyuball Team, legendary MVP and All-Star, clasped the Grarrl’s hands. “Captain, please accept my apologies. We thought this was an unused part of the castle. I prefer to work out in private, as my presence... tends to draw a crowd. Come. I insist you see our team medic, if you don’t mind accompanying me to practice.”
Xucrão bolted upright, nearly braining himself on a floating spike. “Us? Practice? You?” he stammered incoherently.
“What my friend means to say, is that we’d be honoured,” interrupted Sjörén, “and I’d be grateful if your doctor could check on my other friend, as well.”
Layton nodded, and gestured for them to follow.
As Sjörén helped Peican up, Galgarrath pulled Xucrão aside. “I really shouldn’t be allowing this detour,” confided Galgarrath. “But you acted well, putting your friend out of harm’s way. Bravery like that should be rewarded. Besides,” he winked, “I’m a Yooyuball fan, too. I’d never forgive myself if I made you pass up this opportunity.”
Gliding with an elegant economy of motion, Layton led them up several floors to a spacious, well-lit indoor Yooyuball court. The other members of Team Darigan were already warming up with some passing drills. On the sideline, a round-faced Darigan Skeith monitored them.
“Reshar!’ bellowed the Skeith. “No long passes until you’re warmed up! You don’t want a pulled shoulder like Tandrak! Now let’s see some hustle!” He grinned toothily at Layton’s approach. “Hail there, friend. Kids,” he said, tilting his head towards the squad. “What’cha gonna do?”
“Hail, Mungo,” laughed Layton. “Have you seen the medic? My friends here had a slight mishap in my training room.”
As the Skeith lumbered off, Xucrão couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “I just have to ask, Mr. Vickles, sir, could I get your autograph? I just have to have it...” Xucrão’s voice trailed off. “Actually, could I get an autograph for my friend Bizhiw? He’s a huge Yooyuball fan, and I just know he’d love it.”
“It’s the least I can do. Tell me, friend, what colour pet is he?”
“Um, he’s a Red Lutari.”
“Perfect.” Layton smiled. Leaning into the pitch, he called to his teammates. “Tormo! Kep! Can you bring that Red Yooyu over here?”
While the medic examined Peican, Xucrão and Sjörén watched with awe as Team Darigan signed the carapace of the Red Yooyu. The petpet giggled as their feather quill brushed its chin.
“That’s Bizhiw with a ‘w,’” Xucrão called. Layton laughed. “We live in Neopia, my friend. We have to spell stranger names than ‘Bizhiw’ all the time.” Layton lobbed the Yooyu to Xucrão. “Go in health,” whistled Layton, as he joined his team on the field,
“Come along,” said Galgarrath firmly. “We’ve tarried long enough.” The Grarrl led them higher and higher through the castle. They passed scores of guards, and would surely have been repeatedly stopped if not escorted by the Captain. Finally they reached an ornate double door flanked by guards and two terrifying Darigan Elementals. Galgarrath approached one of the guards, a handsome Darigan Usul with a serious face. Two small, intricately blown glass bottles tied securely to her waist, to which the Elementals would return after their shift, marked her as the officer in charge. “Hail and well met, Anza,” he greeted her warmly. “It’s good to see you. I have orders from Master Vex to request an audience.”
“Hail, Galgarrath. These civilians are with you?” The captain nodded. The Usul signaled to the Elementals, who retreated from the door.
Beyond the door lay a vast spiral staircase, leading up the highest tower in the Citadel. At the very top, Galgarrath led them into a circular room with a high ceiling and mysteriously purple stone walls that almost seemed to pulse like veins. An empty dais stood in the corner; a rough-hewn, plain wooden table dominated the centre of the room.
“Lord Darigan must be away. Wait here,” ordered Galgarrath, “while I find him.” The door closed firmly behind him. The three friends took in the chamber, surrounded by the hollow silence.
“Not much to look at, is there?” mustered Xucrão.
“Downright spartan,” puzzled Sjörén, trying to reconcile the Darigan Lord’s authority with the room’s austerity. “The castle itself is so opulent. Why does the most powerful person in the land live with so little?” In a burst of intuition, he realized, Lord Darigan has surrendered himself to this prison on high, just as Master Vex has surrendered himself to his prison in the dungeons... because that’s the cost of leadership. What had the crazy seer accused him of? Being corrupted by Ambition? Sjörén’s eyes swam with contrition.
Just then, a high, commanding tenor voice rang out, jolting them with its ultrasonic overtones. “What are YOU doing here?” A tall, bald Korbat advanced on them, his plain black cloak covering a lean but powerful frame. There was no doubt this was Lord Darigan himself. His pale hand grasped a twisted dagger at his waist. “Just because we’re currently at peace with Meridell doesn’t mean you can just swan up here and explore my Citadel whenever you feel like it. Now please leave before I summon the guards!”
“Uhhh... we better leave!” blurted Xucrão.
“We were only trying to help a sick friend –“ started Sjörén, then stopped, cowed by the Lord’s skeletal glare.
“Isn’t that always the way with Meridellians?” Darigan snapped, in chilling tones. “You just march in and take what you want. Always with the best of intentions, to be sure.” His voice dripped like dark honey. “No thought for the consequences of your actions. You come, potentially bearing illness, endangering my people. You steal our treasures and strut like heroes. You call us cursed when we adapt to survive, and evil when we reclaim what is rightly ours.” Lord Darigan unsheathed his dagger, and lifted a small pointed jewel, darker than voidberry juice and radiating power, from his pocket. “Now GET OUT!”
Xucrão and Sjörén slowly backed towards the door. Peican raised his arm. “Wait. We’ve been going about this all wrong.” Peican closed his eyes, breathed, and pulled himself directly beneath Lord Darigan’s outstretched blade.
“Hail and well met, Darigan, Lord of the Citadel,” began Peican, lowering his head in a gesture of obeisance. “You’re right. We came here for selfish reasons. We came without understanding you, and honestly, there is still much I don’t understand about your ways. But we also came for a good cause. Please, your Lordship, will you please help us?”
Lord Darigan’s eyes hardened. He lowered his hand, and with the tip of his dagger lifted the Tuskaninny’s chin. “Hail and well met, my good Tuskaninny. I know what it means to be brought low, and to need help from a stranger. You are welcome to my realm.” He paused as the doors swung open again, and Galgarrath entered. “Captain?” he queried. “I did not call for you.”
“No, your Lordship,” replied the Grarrl, bowing formally. “I apologize for intruding, but Master Vex ordered me to bring these visitors to your attention. He has reason to believe they have been touched by the Three.”
Darigan’s eyes narrowed. With a scowl, he stared probingly at them, seeming to bore into their very souls. “Yes, I see now. If I had not let my old anger at King Skarl get the better of me, I would have seen it earlier. But, that is just what I should expect from the Three. Still, I am ashamed to have been misled so easily.” For the first time, he smiled. “A Korbat should know, better than anyone else, to listen when one cannot see clearly.”
“Begging you pardon, sir, but who... or what... are these Three?” asked Sjörén, emboldened by Darigan’s improved mood.
“The Three,” Darigan explained, “are evil spirits who inspire Greed, Revenge, and Ambition to bring about rulers’ downfall. Both your land and mine have suffered gravely at their hands before.” He paused, lost in sad memories. “They take particular pleasure in perverting a noble cause.” Turning to Galgarrath, he inquired, “What is Vex’s counsel?”
“He instructed me to help them on their quest, your Lordship.”
“Very well,” mused Darigan. “As always, the Master has proven his wisdom. I will want a full report, Captain, but it is clear to me that the danger is passed. These lads have rejected the pernicious call of the Three. Beware, though,” he admonished his guests, “their influence will never totally leave you. You will need to be vigilant, and strong. Now, pray tell, what help did you seek?”
“Our friend contracted the Neobonic Ague,” said Sjörén. Lord Darigan’s face darkened. “Our friend Pystry found a cure, but we needed a Toxic Shroom –“
Sjörén held up the tray of glowing shrooms that Master Vex had given them.
“– and a Darigan Draik Egg.”
“Captain,” ordered Lord Darigan in a tone that brooked no argument, “Please take these Toxic Shrooms from our guests, and return them to Master Vex. You are dismissed.”
Sjörén looked helplessly at Xucrão and Peican, who nodded in silent agreement. Hesitantly he surrendered the rare shrooms to the Captain.
To be continued...