There are ants in my Lucky Green Boots Circulation: 97,878,627 Issue: 186 | 15th day of Eating, Y7
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Quest of Three: Part One

by schefflera


Also by Dreagoddess

Authors' note: This story follows the events of the two Meridell plots (Champions of Meridell and Battle for Meridell and of our story "Last a Thousand Years" in issues 162-163. We have tried to make it at least moderately understandable for those who haven't read the background material.

It was one of those improbably gorgeous days where the rain from the previous night and the current sunshine meant that "watching the grass grow" in Meridell wasn't actually boring at all.

     Jeran had accordingly been half-dancing as he sparred with various of the other knights, trying to keep the overenthusiastic vegetation from catching his claws or ankles. The deep blue Lupe was pleased to find that he wasn't overly winded from it -- he was just now getting back to a level he considered acceptable. Fighting the magically-enhanced Eyrie Kass and being struck by Dark Novas and an enchanted sword had taken quite a toll, for a time.

     The first time he'd tried sparring after the assault on the citadel, the Yellow Knight -- a Chia, just to make things worse -- had given him a deeply pained look and advised him to stick to Meriball until he was feeling more himself.

     Clearly the Yellow Knight had never played Meriball with Lisha.

     It had actually been fairly useful. Granted he'd spent a distressing amount of time falling on his face over Symols, but that was only to be expected.

     Jeran left off his exercises at last and was the first, if probably the least startled, to observe Lord Darigan perched on the courtyard wall. The knight of Meridell and the Darigan ruler had struck up a curious friendship after the negotiation of the new treaty and after Jeran had learned some things he'd wished were untrue about the origins of their first war -- that the knights he had always believed to be honorable had, in desperation, stolen the Orb from Darigan's nation and caused the famine and transformations that had turned the others into "If you're after a turn sparring, you're a bit late; I'm done for the morning," he called.

     "Not today, no. Just visiting."

     "Ah. Visiting with anyone in particular?"

     "You, if you're amenable."

     Jeran smiled. "Certainly I'm amenable. Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up?"

     "By all means." Darigan surveyed the practice court, then grinned. "I'll be, ah, outside."

     "Probably for the best." Jeran grinned back and headed to change. Not everyone in Meridell Castle was quite comfortable with Lord Darigan's visits.

     When he emerged, he found Darigan sitting quietly with his back to the wall, staring out across the fields. "You look much improved, even since I saw you last," he said absently.

     "Moving around a bit more has been helpful."

     "I'm not surprised."

     "And how have you been?"

     "Very busy."

     Jeran's mouth twitched. "I would imagine so."

     "Yes, I suppose -- er, is it just me, or is the grass getting a bit aggressive?"

     Jeran looked down at it and blinked. "Not particularly aggressive, no. Just...growing. As grass is wont to do."

     "That fast? Hrm."

     "Well, there's been rain lately."

     "I did notice that."

     "Rain makes grass grow," Jeran informed Darigan solemnly.

     "Hm." This seemed a strange response. Jeran would have expected at least a hint of amusement.

     "Was there anything you needed to talk about?"

     "...I'm not entirely sure."

     Jeran waited politely for a moment, then prompted, "I'd be happy to help if I can, but that DOES require knowing what you're talking about."

     "I won't hold you to that," Darigan said wryly. "I'm thinking of visiting a demon dimension."

     "You're -- WHAT?"

     "Thinking of visiting a demon dimension. Another world, belonging to the Three. I have found reason to believe Kass was taken, not obliterated."

     "...I assume you have some proof of this?"

     "Proof, no. Evidence, yes. I made time, when I could, to examine the traces, the... residue, left where he was last seen. After studying them materially and magically, I'm fairly sure he was removed, and to where; I'm not sure he's still alive there, but it's worth a try."

     "Going to a demon dimension would require more than 'it's worth a try,' I 'd think," Jeran said slowly.

     "Considerable preparation, for instance."

     "This is very true."

     "I'm working on it."

     "Such as recruiting certain knights you think may be crazy enough to join you?" Jeran asked with a smile.

     Darigan smiled ruefully in return. "I was... still trying to decide whether I should ask you or not, but had settled in my mind that at least it might be well for you to know where I was going. You're entirely right that it's not... to be undertaken lightly."

     Jeran hesitated, then added delicately, "And only when you're certain the result will be worth it."

     "Very few things are certain."

     "Some things have to be. I'm not saying success must be certain, be blunt, you have to be sure it's worth even trying to rescue someone who would've cheerfully killed you not long ago."

     Darigan laid the staff down on the ground with a caution that suggested he still wasn't entirely sure the grass wouldn't eat it, then rested his elbows on his knees. "Cheerfully, I assure you, is not exactly the word. But I think... I must tell you many of the same things both to make you see what the true danger is, and to show you why it is worth it to me."

     Jeran settled himself comfortably and made an inviting gesture. "Then please, tell me?"

     "To begin..." Darigan's eyes went rather distant. "His errors are, by and large, all ones I made myself, and made first. Through chance and mercy I... found, was given, the strength to change after a point when by rights it should have been too late. After the theft of the orb, when the ills were only beginning, I listened to promises from the Three, of power for revenge." He smiled mirthlessly. "They claimed at the time that they'd made the orb for us, long ago; I didn't believe that part, though I've since been led me to wonder. Never mind that. The heart of the matter is, Morguss, ah, introduced us, and though I'd studied magic before, I began learning fouler magics... and how to fight, which I hadn't before. And I bargained with them."

     "Something tells me these weren't the sort of bargains you strike on market day."

     A snort. "Not if you're any good at shopping."

     Quietly, "So what did you bargain?"

     "In return for enhanced power... to do what they willed. It seemed reasonable enough at first; they said they wanted me to seek riches, seek conquest, and as I saw it that was all part and parcel of getting the orb back."

     A sigh. "And it grew clearer, as time went on, that they wouldn't be satisfied with stopping there, and clearer yet that what they really wanted was that I depend on them, and do what they desired because they desired it and could take their gifts away, not because I wanted their gifts for my own reasons. But I didn't care, at first." Darigan shook his head. "I wouldn't have said I was afraid of them, or what they could do, but when I told myself I needed their aid yet... that's what it meant."

     "...And then they drove Kass mad the same way, when he tried to take your place in every way." Jeran shook his head. "Well, if you came back, there's hope for him, I suppose. But it makes me nervous."

     "Essentially. ...I had help. I heard them whisper that they would destroy me, for having been defeated, and that's the last thing I remember clearly before waking up next to a ditch in northern Meridell. I still don't know how that happened -- but I couldn't hear them for a while, and Sally was, to put it mildly, a better influence."

     "THAT much seems obvious. Delightful child."

     Darigan's mouth quirked in a smile. "I agree entirely." He sobered again and added, "The fact remains... Kass was my friend, before. The Three knew of him in large part because of me, and there seems no more reason I should have had a second chance than he. ...And as it happens," he allowed himself a small smile again, "I beat him when he had their help and I did not."

     Jeran was silent for a long moment. Finally he nodded as if to himself and looked up at Darigan. "I'm in. I have to clear my leaving with the king first, of course."

     Darigan threw him a startled look and then, very slowly, smiled. "I thank you." A hesitation. "But Jeran... I think in their own realm they will not be as... simple to get rid of."

     "It was simple before?" Jeran shrugged. "We'll be going in warned and prepared...and, I think, with the best antidote against them. I think we can persuade Illusen to give us some magical aid."

     "Well, relatively simple, though not exactly easy. ...But Illusen? I suppose she might be inclined to favor you," Darigan said uncertainly, "but while I had thought of petitioning her, it was mostly in hope of allaying the grudge I'd expect her to bear."

     "If what you say is true, I think her grudge will be as much against the Three as you, if not more so. And we'll need magic of her strength to succeed."

     "I can blame them for a great deal, but my actions were still my own." Darigan looked thoughtful. "Still, you're right, any aid from her would improve our chances a great deal. ...Do the usual means of dealing with the greater faeries apply?"

     "Compliments and quest objects? Sometimes, but Illusen is a bit more...idiosyncratic than most faeries, greater or lesser. She deals with things in her own way, according to how interested she is." And she'd grown very interested, long ago, in a brash young cub who'd wandered into her glade. Hopefully she'd be willing to do him a favor.

     "An idiosyncratic faerie." Darigan shook his head bemusedly. "That almost sounds more unnerving than an actively malevolent one."

     "Just stay on her good side and there isn't a problem."

     "I'm reasonably sure I'm not on it at the moment."

     Jeran grinned. "I am. We'll try to convince her."

     "This," Darigan said, "should be interesting."

     "Keep a positive attitude." The knight's grin widened. "She can smell fear."

     "Oh, well. Who can't?"

To be continued...

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