The Citadel Quest: Part Five
The Citadel Quest, Part 5 of 5: Escape from Darigan Castle
All that work, lamented Peican, all that journeying to get one of the ingredients to cure our friend, and Lord Darigan just goes and takes it from us. Peican, a Darigan Tuskaninny, Xucrão, a Darigan Hissi, and Sjörén, a Camouflage Hissi, had left their home in Meridell seeking a cure for their sick friend Senhal.
They had felt slighted by their older housemates, who had taken control of the situation without them. While Abharī, a nurturing Faerie Hissi, and Bizhiw, an athletic Red Lutari, tended to the ailing Senhal, their oldest friend, Pystry, a scholarly Mutant Hissi, had pored through the Meridellian library and found an old treatment. The recipe called for the rare Toxic Shroom and the rarer Darigan Draik Egg.
Determined to take action, Peican, Xucrão and Sjörén had traveled to the Darigan Citadel and braved the depths of the dungeons. The dungeonkeeper, Master Vex, had given them the Toxic Shrooms they had sought. But he had also given them a dire warning that evil spirits known as “the Three” had targeted them, intending to corrupt their spirits and use them as pawns against the Darigan Citadel. Chastened by this news, they had traveled to meet Lord Darigan. Upon hearing their story, he confiscated their hard-earned Shrooms.
Lord Darigan smiled sardonically. “Your friend Pystry spoke true. I know the cure he had in mind. The Ague struck my people painfully during that darkest of times, when King Skarl,” he sneered, “stole from my people the Darigan Orb that had been entrusted to my care. Without the orb, our crops failed, and illness overtook us. Only the strongest survived. We were compelled to strip the Citadel from the very land itself and take to the sky, both to protect other lands from our plague, and to protect ourselves from our armed neighbors, who regarded us with loathing. That particular cure would save your friend, although the recovery would have been long and painful.”
“I am actually impressed that the Meridellian archives had even that much wisdom about Darigan medicine. Sadly, I am not surprised that its information was so woefully out of date. For far too long, it has been Meridell’s tragic failure to take rather than ask, to wage war rather than engage in fair trade. Follow me.”
Lord Darigan led them to a small, walled garden in the interior of the castle. By Meridellian standards, it was a sad affair, but on the Darigan Citadel it was a veritable oasis. Dark, thorny vines climbed the walls. Spiked Dariberry bushes muscled their way through thick patches of weeds. “Dariberries are one of our chief exports, especially for Gadgadsbogen,” Lord Darigan announced, “and they are a chief ingredient in our housepaint, which is why most Darigan buildings are indigo. But this,” Lord Darigan announced, “is much less well known. I must ask you not to share this knowledge.”
With surprising delicacy for a warrior, Lord Darigan pulled back a thicket of thorns to reveal a small patch of fragrant periwinkle blossoms.
“Ever since King Skarl stole our orb, our land has been blighted. Very few plants grow here, and even fewer flourish. Flowers are virtually unheard of among my people. A while ago a young peasant girl found a flower that had somehow adapted to our terrain, and I had to explain to the villagers what a flower was. I hybridized that flower to create this new species of blue columbine. It’s not yet hardy enough to survive in the wild, but it’s my hope that one day they will blanket the slopes of the Citadel, and return fertility to our barren soil.”
“The roots of these flowers have a peculiar potency, similar in effect to Dark Shrooms and Toxic Shrooms, but without the debilitating side effects. This flower is one of the Citadel’s rarest treasures.” With a single stroke, Lord Darigan plunged a pointed fingernail into the ground and culled a single flower. “And now it is yours.”
“Th- thank you,” stuttered Sjörén. “We don’t know what to say –“
“Come,” said Lord Darigan, striding quickly out of the garden.
Through a twisted maze of corridors, Lord Darigan led them deeper into the castle’s depths. Darigan guards and courtiers hastened to make way for their potentate. Sjörén noticed that although the castle staff was unfailingly polite and deferential, the smiles with which they greeted their Lord were sincere.
“Morale is certainly high among your servants, Lord Darigan,” offered Sjörén.
“Does this surprise you?” retorted Darigan. “They are not my servants; I am theirs. Although they respect me out of obedience, they would not do so if they did not already obey me out of respect. I do not know that your King Skarl has yet learned either of these lessons.”
Peican struggled within himself. On the one hand, he couldn’t help thinking, how is it that such a noble ruler is in the Gallery of Evil, and King Skarl, who hurt these people so badly, is in the Gallery of Heroes? but he quickly pushed that potentially treasonous thought to the back of his mind. As they reached a descending circular staircase, Peican worked up the nerve to ask Lord Darigan something that had been bothering him for some time.
“Lord Darigan, I mean no disrespect,” Peican chose his words carefully, “but how does a compassionate ruler like yourself permit the abuses I saw at the Petpet Arena?”
“Sometimes a ruler has to make compromises for the good of his people,” replied Darigan soberly. “The Arena used to allow petpets an edge in their owners’ Battledome fights, and the Darigan people have only survived by becoming tough and exploiting every last small advantage available. Now the Petpet Arena provides entertainment for privileged sportsmen from the surface. Did you see any Darigan pets among the petpet owners in the arena? I thought not. We make sure that no petpet may begin fighting unless it is not just healthy but at full strength. We end every match at the point where the petpet can no longer continue.”
Seeing Peican’s uncertainty, Darigan continued. “The Darigan Citadel has extremely scarce resources. Skarl has yet to be called to account for his role in that fact. If wealthy surface-worlders are willing to pay for the privilege of using our sporting facilities, I would be foolish not to allow it. But let me ask you this, my good Tuskaninny. How do people on the surface seek to improve their petpets’ level?”
Peican thought for a moment. “Generally by zapping them with a Petpet Ray.”
“Do the petpets enjoy this?”
“Actually, they often cry or whimper...”
“And do petpets ever come to harm from this?”
“Well, sometimes they lose levels, or are reduced to piles of soot. Sometimes they disappear forever...”
“And is this somehow more humane?” challenged Darigan. Peican was silent. “Consider,” counseled Darigan, that there are as many reasons for training petpets as there are petpet trainers. Some, like Brucey B, are driven always to get what they want, whatever they want. We Darigans know only too well the dangers of such avarice. Others simply seek excellence, and the best way to strengthen a petpet is through competition. This is not a bad thing, young Tuskaninny. Tell me, why do the petpets battle? Could they not disobey their cruel trainers?”
“They could,” Peican admitted.
“The petpets, in their innocence, experience happiness and well-being in submitting to their master’s will, provided the master is both just and merciful. You saw only the worst side of the petpet trainers. Had you seen Dr_Death, for example, you might have felt differently. I assure you he is one of the most compassionate Neopets I know.”
Darigan’s stride slowed, as they approached an ominous portal. “Yes, young Tuskaninny, I am afraid that sometimes a ruler must work with people he would rather not, and must often make sacrifices for the greater good.” He regarded Peican sadly. “To get a Darigan Draik Egg, you could go to a Darigan she-Draik. I could command it, but I choose not to be like Skarl, and simply take what I desire. There is only one person on the Citadel whom I know to possess a Darigan Draik Egg, and I do not know what she will demand for it.”
The doors creaked open at their approach. Darigan hesitated, steeled himself, and strode into the magical workshop that lay beyond the doors. “Hail and well met, Lady Morguss.”
An elderly Green Moehog looked up from beneath her cowl with an evil smile. Despite her hunched back, she emanated dark power. “Now, Darigan, there’s no need to use manners with me. Nor do you need to introduce your young friends here. I’ve already heard all about them.”
Peican shivered involuntarily. “So,” croaked the witch, “it’s a Draik Egg you’re needing? Why, it’s my honour to be of service to your Lordship.” Her tusks flashed in a slow, broad grin. “Of course, it comes at a price.”
Darigan sighed. “What do you propose, milady?”
“Darigan Tuskaninnies are such a delightful rarity,” she cackled. “There’s so little water up here, aquatic Darigans are few and far between. I’ll give you the Egg in exchange for your Darigan Tuskaninny essence.”
Peican recoiled. “You want to take my soul?” he spat.
“A soul for an egg? ‘Twould be a good bargain indeed! But no, little one, I would take away what makes you a Darigan Tuskaninny. You’d become something more basic. Of course, I can sweeten the offer. Perhaps a nice Red Hissi? Unless you think there’s something wrong with being a Hissi.” She looked pointedly at his two Hissi companions.
“You won’t goad me that easily, Morguss,” Peican said coolly.
“Look, if you need Darigan essence, I’ll give up mine,” interjected Xucrão.
“Oh, how unselfish. Someone’s had a little brush with Greed, hasn’t he?” snickered the Moehog. “But no, it’s the Tuskaninny or nothing.”
“Fine, lady,” snarled Peican. “You’ve got a deal.”
In a flash, Morguss pinched Peican’s arm, and with surprising strength, dragged him into a large, empty iron cauldron. Peican closed his eyes, trying not to imagine what that cauldron might have held in the past. She uncorked a sinister-looking bottle and poured a foul, viscous solution smelling of rotten Neggs and turpentine over Peican’s head. It itched and burned, making the Tuskaninny convulse as though he had the Shaky Flakys.
“Do try to hold still, dearie,” she chortled. “It takes a moment for the potion to sink into the skin.” Peican just glared.
“All that’s left is a new form. What did we decide, my lamb? A Red Hissi?” She pulled a winged flask from a cabinet. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to be a nice Green Uni?”
“Lady Morguss,” warned Darigan.
“You,” she mocked the great Lord, “are no fun.” With a flourish, she decanted the frothing red liquid from the flask. It sizzled like hot grease on Peican’s flaking skin. Peican gritted his teeth. It’s worth it, he thought, if Senhal doesn’t have to suffer. Then, in a flash of light, the pain was over. In the cauldron stood a drenched, exhausted Red Hissi.
“Careful! Careful!” screeched Morguss. “Don’t spill a drop of that mixture!” Xucrão and Sjörén flew above the cauldron and carefully lifted out their transformed friend.
“Oh, how splendid,” chirruped the hag, smelling the dregs in the cauldron. “First, I’ll reduce it, then triturate it, and oh, the fun I’ll have!”
“Lady Morguss,” stated Darigan, “I believe you owe my guests?”
“Oh, yes.” Morguss looked put out. “It was starting to go bad anyway.” She opened a mouldering chest and extracted a large, mottled amethyst egg swaddled in gauze. “Now be off with you!”
They quickly took their leave. “You’re going to like being a Hissi, Peican,” said Xucrão. “And if you don’t, well, we can always change you back... It’s only Neopoints, right?”
Peican didn’t answer. He flapped his wings to try to stand upright, and toppled over backward on the floor.
“You’ll get the hang of flying in no time. Um, you should try moving your spine side to side, not up and down,” suggested Sjörén, as Peican falteringly tried to propel himself forward.
“I am sorry,” said Lord Darigan. “Changing colour, or species, should be a joyful exploration, not a coercion. I hope your friend appreciates your sacrifice.”
“I’m sure he will,” managed Peican. “For now, let’s just get this medication home.”
Peican wasn’t secure enough in his flying to attempt the solo trip down to the surface, so the three companions, treasures and souvenirs in hand, stood on the edge of the Citadel, at the taxi drop-off.
Lord Darigan, to the delight of the locals, had escorted them there. He gazed into the distance at the white monument displaying scenes of the war. “I hate that monument,” he confided. “King Skarl sent it as a peace offering. I don’t think it occurred to him that it presents a very lopsided vision of the war. So many Meridellian heroes. So much of our darkness, when we were under the influence of the Three, with no acknowledgement of how we were originally wronged. Even a picture of Sally, the little girl who fed me when I was reduced to little more than an animal. But I accepted them to be polite, and it reminds us of the dangers of succumbing to the Three. I at least escaped from them. Others were not as lucky.” He looked sadly at a group of children playing Kass Basher in a nearby caldera.
Peican clumsily mounted his taxi steed. “Go in good health, your Lordship,” he smiled.
“Go in health, friends of Darigan,” answered the lordly Korbat. “And remember, however you may be painted, whatever king you serve, we are proud to call you Minions of Darigan.”
Sjörén saluted. Peican’s Uni and Sjörén glided gracefully off the Citadel’s wall.
“Um, Lord Darigan?” asked Xucrão. “Do you think you could, maybe... throw me over the side?”
Darigan laughed, the high-pitched echolocation of his Korbat voice bouncing off the city wall. Coiling the Darigan Hissi like an oversized Yooyuball, he hurled Xucrão with a force that would have impressed Layton Vickles. Xucrão whooped with delight as he straightened his wings into an easy glide.
Back home, Senhal sat up in bed, his fever broken. It would still be a few days before he was a hundred percent, but the Darigan medicine had done its work.
“You really should have told us where you were going,” Abharī admonished the triumphant trio, “but I’m so happy you found a better cure! I only wish you could share what it was.”
“Let’s just say that the Darigans show their strength on the outside, and keep their beauty protected within,” said Sjörén.
“I’m going to have to explore the Darigan Citadel’s library,” mulled Pystry.
“I can’t believe you actually met Team Darigan!” gushed Bizhiw, playing with his priceless new Red Yooyu. “I’m so jealous!” he grinned.
“I can’t believe you gave up your paintjob for me,” whispered Senhal to Peican, his throat still sore. “And to become a Hissi, to boot. This place is becoming a real pit of Hissis.”
“Den of Hissis?” laughed Pystry.
“Slither of Hissis,” suggested Peican. “And don’t give it a second thought. I may have given up my Darigan paint, but I won something far more important. I’m more Darigan now, on the inside, than I ever was before.”