Chapter Six: The Turnaround

They waited for a few more hours; Deran began to get hungry.

"Fernet..." he said. "I really hope you have a--"

"Sh."

And they waited some more. Finally, as it began to get dark, Grug seemed to snap.

"All right," he called down in a tortured voice, "I give in. I'll send Laz down to see this... interdimensional portal." He snorted, conveying just how much he really believed in the interdimensional portal.

"Oh, no!" Fernet stage-whispered. "He'll get the treasure!" He winked at Deran, and mouthed, "All is going according to plan."

"I don't know..." Deran was dubious. When Laz came down into the hole, wouldn't he just see that there was no treasure? Surely, Fernet didn't think he could trick the man into seeing something that wasn't there, dim was he was. Surely not...

"Don't you want them both to come into the hole?" Deran whispered.

"No." Fernet winked. "I don't."

Grug chuckled. "This is brilliant. If I send Laz in there, I won't have to risk anything! What do you say to that, fool?" He sneered at Fernet.

Fernet put on a mock-sad look. "Yes, you've got us, all right."

"Haha," Grug said, but he sounded slightly tentative. He shrugged. "Go on, Laz," he said, "get in the hole."

And Laz lowered his enormous body down into the hole. He landed with a thump beside Deran, who edged away from him, and Fernet, who did not.

Laz looked up. He looked to the right. He looked to the left. He tipped his head backwards; he tipped his head forward. Finally, he scratched his nose and called up to Grug.

"I don't see nothin,'" he said finally. "The fool was lyin.' Now lemme out!"

"Get him, Deran!" Fernet yelled. Deran, on reflex, drew his sword and pressed it to Laz's throat.

"You leave," Fernet said, "and we kill your friend, here." He gestured at the captive Laz.

Deran pressed his sword closer to Laz's bull-like neck. "Yeah!" he said, trying to sound menacing.

Grug just laughed. "So what?" he said. "Laz is an idiot. What do I care, anyway? I'll be going now." He bowed ironically. "See you in hell, fools!" He chuckled, and departed.

"Well, what do we do now?" Deran said, lowering his sword. Laz stood there, downcast, tears dripping from his face into the mud.

"Grug..." he said softly in his deep voice. "He doesn't care about me!" More tears.

Deran shifted uncomfortably. "Ah, he was no good anyway. Besides, you decided to be a road bandit, in the first place!"

"Just 'cause Grug was one!" More tears.

Deran looked hopelessly at Fernet. "So this," he said, tone loaded with irony, "is your great plan."

"Oh, it is," Fernet said. "You see, we needed three men to get out of this hole." He pointed to the rim of the hole, which was a good fifteen feet high. "See? We need three men... anyway, now that we've got Laz down here, we can do it." He shrugged. "It's all going according to plan."

"So you knew Grug was going to send him down, then abandon him? You knew it all along?" Deran shook his head.

"Well, I guessed."

Laz just stood there, head hanging, sniffling and rubbing his nose.

"Well, come on," Fernet said, "let's organize ourselves and get out of this..." He seemed to be searching for an appropriately descriptive adjective.

"Hole?" Deran suggested.

"Right."

~

"This is boring," Illariana moaned. She was starting to sound more pitiful than acerbic, at least to Revern's ears. "I'm booooored. Can't we stop? Can I walk for a few minutes, even?"

Revern sighed. "We're almost there, Illariana."

He could feel the girl shudder where she sat in front of him on the horse. He had finally taken to leaving her hands unbound, once she'd promised not to run away (only after he pointed out that they were miles away from any civilization, and he had the horse). She sat astride the horse now, her blue skirts ripped and tattered and splashed with mud, her shoes long-ago lost in some struggle to get free from Revern.

"What will it be like at the Tower of Darkness?" Illariana asked tentatively. "I mean, I don't... is Lord Querliz... will he..." Revern felt her shudder again.

"Don't worry," he said, and meant it. "Lord Querliz is very honorable. He wouldn't hurt you in any way. You know, he's a pretty good leader, for a Lord of Darkness, and all that. He keeps chinchillas--gets them from South Avilia. You'd like him, I think. He complains almost as much as you do. And he lets us have Casual Friday... he's a good Lord of Evil."

Illariana relaxed somewhat. "Oh, good. Does he... yell much?"

Revern thought about that. "Only when someone insults his chinchillas. On the whole, he mainly just complains. Very subtly. For example, one time..." Revern chuckled, recalling the moment. "Well, you see, the ogres had served him soup... you know, that soup that's supposed to be cold? I don't know what's it's called. Fancy name."

"Gazpacho?"

"That's the one!" Revern shook his head, chuckling yet again. "Well, Lord Querliz didn't know, you see, that it was suppose to be cold--so he very calmly called in the Royal Sorceror. And he asked the Sorceror--politely--to bestow a gift upon the ogre who had served the soup. The Royal Sorceror asked him what gift he ought to bestow--and Lord Querliz quite simply asked him to make all of the ogre's food, for the rest of his life, turn into gaz--gaz--"

"Gazpacho." Illariana giggled. "That's funny. I bet the ogre didn't like it.

"Oh, of course not," Revern said lightly. "But when he complained, Lord Querliz had him put to death, so that's all right."

"What?" Illariana screeched. "Put to death? That's--that's horrible! I thought you said Lord Querliz was a good man!"

"I said he was a good Lord of Evil," Revern corrected her. "The two are very different. Lords of Evil can't be entirely compassionate and so on... thought Lord Querliz, I must say, pushes the boundaries a bit. He's even more merciful than his father, Lord Ergon the Flexible."

"Lord... Ergon... the Flexible?"

"That's right." Revern nodded.

He saw Illariana move her head to the side in a gesture of confusion. "If Lord Ergon was 'the Flexible,'" she said, "what's Lord Querliz?"

"His formal title is..." Revern paused, not wanting to give up some of the dignity of the noble tradition of Lords of Evil. Oh, what the hell, he thought. "Lord Querliz the Chinchilla Rancher."

Illariana snorted with laughter, then composed herself. "Is it entirely proper for a Lord of Evil to be a chinchilla rancher?" she asked.

Revern shrugged. "Lord Querliz doesn't really care what's proper," he said. "I mean, he lets us have Casual Friday... his father never did that. He lets the ogres have an annual cookout on the Dark Mountain. He lets us have our own paper--'Modern Minion,' we call it. He lets us bet on which evil sorceror is going to invent the Ultimate Device of Evil first--my money's on Howard. You can meet all the evil sorcerors when we get to the Tower of Darkness."

"So when are we going to get there?" the queen asked.

"Oh, we've been making good time," Revern said. "Very good time. Now we just have to go through the Wasteland." He pointed straight ahead at a barren area of moors--colder than moors, really, more like taiga--populated by only a few scrubby trees (as well as lemmings and other small creatures of that sort, as well as a few magically-augmented musk oxen, but they weren't in evidence at the moment). The scrubby trees did not look very healthy; in fact, they looked like they had been attacked by maniacs with blunt pruning shears. They were twisted, windblown and scraggly, branches blown bald of leaves due to the ever-present ominously whistling wind, helpfully supplied by the evil sorcerors of Lord Querliz. On the whole, the Wasteland was not a very inviting-looking place. Not to mention the great war between Good and Evil had been fought there twenty years ago, and there were still some skeletons lurking in unlikely places (purposefully arranged that way, in order to scare off heroes with delusions of grandeur, by Lord Querliz's various evil minions).

Revern could feel Queen Illariana shivering.

This is the Wasteland? she squeaked.

Revern breathed deeply of the ominously whistling wind. Home, sweet home. He urged the horse on. Let's go.

~
How did we do that? Deran asked, staring down at the muddy hole in the ground in which they had been trapped. He tried to refrain from scratching his head.

It was easy, Fernet said. I told you it would work, making a three-man-high column. He winced. Even if I did dislocate my shoulder.

Deran sighed. They had both climbed on the accomodating Laz's shoulders, then boosted each other out of the pit. Then had come the hard part; getting Laz out. In the end, Deran had had to lower Fernet into the pit by the ankles, then haul him up. Fernet complained of a dislocated shoulder, but Deran suspected he was just kidding, or at least exaggerating, especially since his shoulders looked perfectly normal.

You didn't dislocate your shoulder, Deran said. Fernet made a face at him that indicated that yes, he had, and Deran sighed and turned to him. Here, let me see that. Fernet, wincing, extended his arm; Deran ran practiced fingers over his shoulder socket.



Fernet winced, more at the sound of his voice than his touch. Is it bad? he asked nervously.

Deran smiled to himself. How the young worried over small things. Deran had broken his left arm twice, himself; he hardly noticed when it twinged with bad weather. And besides, Fernet's arm wasn't damaged in the slightest, just sore from unaccustomed exertion at the most.

You're fine, he told the boy gently, and left him to rotated his shoulder, frowning to himself.

Will it hurt my juggling? he asked.

Juggling? What're you doing juggling on a Quest? Deran stared at him. Be serious, Fernet.

Just to make a little money... you know, I need to be in good shape for that bet with the onion and the flaming batons, Fernet said, as if it were something obvious. Through all this, Laz stood dumbly to one side, face downcast.

Oh, yes, the bet with the flaming batons, Deran said. He started to make a sarcastic comment about the wiseness of starting a bet with flaming batons and an onion, then stopped himself, struck with the strange and entirely unwelcome notion that Fernet might actually know what he was doing. It seemed patently ridiculous; Fernet had all the common sense of a turnip (probably less). But he had gotten them out of that hole. Deran sighed. The world seemed so upside-down.

Fernet was staring at Deran, not saying anything, and Deran shook himself.

he said, addressing Laz and Fernet, we'd better get going. We have to find Grug and our horses--he has to lead one of the horses, he can't go too fast that way--so we can catch him.

And don't fall into any holes! Fernet said.

You're the one who fell into one, Laz said, and Deran agreed. Fernet was indeed the one who had initially fallen into the hole. And I digged the big man went on. I'm not gonna fall in.

Fernet looked downcast. Just trying to give advice.

Deran said curtly.

They set off walking in an uneven line--Fernet in front, as he was nimbler than Deran and Laz, Deran next, and last of all, Laz, hunched over and snuffling over absence of the errant Grug. They moved across the moors in this fashion, trying to track Grug and the two horses through the thickening mist. It was not easy, mainly beause Fernet, what with all his nimble springing to and fro, was trampling on the trail. Plus, Deran had to keep a sharp eye out for holes, since Laz seemed to have forgotten where he'd put them.

Is there a hole coming up? Deran asked Laz for approximately the fifteenth time in a row. Also for approximately the fifteenth time in a row, Laz shrugged.

he said.

Meanwhile, Fernet was walking backwards in front of Deran, juggling, probably in preparation for the big flaming-batons-and-onion bet. He was not only trampling on Grug's trail, he was distracting Deran mightily, not to mention annoying him just as mightily.

Deran said at last, could you please come here?

Fernet, startled, dropped one of his juggling balls in the mud and had to scramble to retrieve it. When he straightened up, smiling sheepishly, Deran scowled at him and beckoned him over.

Deran said, May I ask you something?

I'd prefer if you didn't, Fernet said, to be honest.

Well, I'm going to. Deran sighed and ran a hand through his muddy hair. Fernet, you have to walk behind me. All your... antics... He tried to keep from growling, are ruining the trail we were following.

Were following? Fernet asked, keeping pace with Deran.

Yes. Were following. We certainly aren't following it any longer, because you've made me lose the trail.

Fernet said. He sounded utterly unrepentant. You know, though--

I've had enough excuses, Deran said. Come on, just slow down and walk behind Laz so we can find the trail, all right? He gritted his teeth, and Fernet, wisely, obeyed.

The moors, though deserted for miles, were not all that far from the nearest town, Midolanse, a small town to be sure, but it was a town. And Deran wasn't sure he could go much longer without a town... without all the things he could procure in a town, including food, new clothes, blankets and of course, wine.

The town was close, he knew, though the last time he had been this far from the castle was five years ago, when he had journeyed to the Wasteland on that ill-fated Quest--the Quest to obtain the legendary magical musk ox skin of the leader of the musk oxen, a great weapon in battle, used by Lord Querliz and his armies of darkness. But Deran had failed and gone back to the castle in disgrace. The musk oxen had just been too smelly; he hadn't managed to get one skin without fainting from the stench, let alone the skin of the leader of the musk oxen.

Derean shook off that thought. He didn't want to be reminded that this Quest, the Quest to rescue Queen Illariana, would doubtless take them straight through musk ox territory in the heart of the Wasteland.