The Game of Master Hog: Part One
Rain lashed against the cold stone turrets overhead, vicious screaming winds sweeping through the spires and crashing against shuttered windows with a ferocity that echoed through the gloomy hallways. Screams of terror rose and fell all around as the oldest and greatest conflict of the ages continued its unending battle, as ceaseless and eternal as the passage of time itself, and just as ancient and storied. Pets fled for cover from the towering battlements, leaving only a handful of either the brave or the foolish behind to face down the ravages of nature unshielded.
The guardsmen just shrugged it off and pulled their thick cloaks tighter about their shoulders, shrinking deeper into its warm embrace. To them it was just another storm, no different to any other they had endured in the name of duty.
Mud coated the cobbled path climbing from the sprawling town toward the mighty Darigan Citadel on its dark hill, yet the carriage driver paid it no heed and urged his purple-liveried Whinnies faster, racing against the storm. He could feel the persistent vibrations rising through his backside as the carriage's occupant banged his cane harder on the roof, demanding more speed. Madness, he thought to himself, but who was he to question the will, and more importantly the coin, of the pet within? All he could do was hope the momentum of his twin steeds was enough to keep the wheels on track against the slick cobbles.
A lone figure trudged ahead, listening to the sound of the racing carriage. Calmly they stepped aside as it approached, barely visible in the shadow of the desiccated trees. The carriage showed no sign of slowing, but it was of no consequence to him; he had already refused a carriage this evening, and was just careful not to be run down by the maniacal charge.
The carriage stormed past, its wheels skidding wide on the muddy cobbles and racing across the thick, sodden earth at the tree line, before disappearing without a word toward the Citadel. The figure allowed himself a slow sigh as he watched it go, before looking down at the splattered mud that now coated his dark cloak. Brushing it aside he inspected his bright uniform, but even with the cloak to shield it his cheerful yellow attire had succumbed to the callous attack.
Judge Hog muttered something under his breath and pulled his cloak back across, obscuring his devastated clothes. He hoped the owner of the carriage would have the sense to be far away before he caught up. It had been a long day already, and the thought of arguing the finer points of road safety was not a thought he cherished at the best of times.
Fortunately the carriage was nowhere to be seen as he climbed the last leg of the hill and approached the towering Citadel doors. Two guardsmen waited patiently beside the ashen portal, their cloaks thrown back to reveal soaked surcoats emblazoned with the purple emblem of Darigan. The storm appeared to be passing them by unnoticed, much to its chagrin.
'I am here to see the regent,' Judge Hog cried above the resurgent roars of the storm.
'We have been waiting for you Judge Hog,' someone replied, a new shape materialising from the dank grey gloom of the storm. Both guards bowed low as they opened the doors, allowing Judge Hog into the grand entrance hall behind the newcomer, a Bruce of the Darigan lands clad in a simple yet elegant black and purple suit. 'The regent has been most anxious for your arrival.'
'Business held me up in town,' Judge Hog offered by way of explanation. The Bruce just nodded politely and led him on deeper into the Citadel.
An unusual brightness filled the typically dull hallways of the Darigan Citadel, the stones echoing with the sound of voices and the manic rush of activity. Pets hurried past in both directions, their faces stressed, voices strained as they argued amongst themselves, many even with themselves, combining to fill the air with a thick, almost palpable tension not seen since the reparation following the fall of Lord Kass decades ago. Even that seemed tame compared to this madness.
Feeling uncomfortable, Judge Hog just continued on the heels of his guide, both pets leaving a long, damp trail in their wakes that passed unnoticed in the bustle. The Citadel felt more alien than it ever had, and it was with relief that Judge Hog finally came to a halt before an unassuming door of polished wood.
'Enter,' a curt voice answered as the Bruce knocked. Bowing low the servant opened the door and motioned Judge Hog inside. The pervasive brightness that filled the Citadel was forgotten here, a pair of thin candles the only source of light resting upon the desk in the centre of the room. A handsome Darigan Draik sat in a plain chair behind it, poring over reports by the lonely light, accompanied only by the wails of the storm beating against his shuttered window.
'One moment,' he said distractedly, turning from the report before him and delving into one of the other piles that littered his desk. A snarl escaped him as he found what he was searching. 'Idiot,' he mumbled to himself, pulling over a fresh sheet of parchment and hastily scrawling a note. 'Why is it the moment Lord Darigan disappears everybody loses fifty points of IQ? It is almost enough to make you wish Kass were still here. Deliver this to Lord Greystone,' he said sharply, handing the parchment to one side. A Darigan Aisha detached from the shadows and silently took it before slipping past Judge Hog and disappearing into the Citadel.
The Draik finally seemed to notice Judge Hog again, and his face curled into a sharp-toothed smile. 'Judge Hog, do forgive me,' he said smoothly, rising and offering a polite bow to his guest, 'it has been something of a testing day, and each passing hour seems to only bring more trials. I thank you for coming.'
'I know the feeling only too well Lord Quai,' Judge Hog replied, sinking into the chair before the Draik's desk. 'Unfortunately it is the price we pay for leadership.'
'And if my dealings with these cretinous fools results in the betterment of the Darigan people, it is a price I will gladly pay time and again,' Quai retorted, seating himself and moving his stacks of reports aside. 'It is just sometimes difficult to see how not throwing Lord Greystone from the Citadel will achieve that.'
In spite of himself Judge Hog chuckled at the thought. 'That's an easy one,' he said cheerfully, 'it will make you feel too much like Kass. We both know where that will lead Quai, and your people need you in charge right now.'
Quai nodded thoughtfully. 'Speaking of Kass, I have wondered if perhaps Greystone is channelling his spirit or something. If it was not for the fact that accursed Gelert was a pain in my side even before Kass appeared on the scene, I would ask someone to check for me.'
'He would not actually try to delay the return for some reason?' Judge Hog inquired.
'Greystone respects Lord Darigan too much for that,' Quai answered with a dismissive wave. 'Before his illness set in, Lord Darigan spent the best part of the last decade preparing for the homecoming, and even Greystone would not dare risk that simply because he dislikes me. No, he is just going out of his way to cause petty problems, like the good bureaucrat he is. All plans for our return to the homeland are still on schedule, thankfully. In fact I received a message from young Master Darigan just a few days ago confirming the preparations at his end. If the worst should happen to his father as a result of this illness, the Darigan people look to be in good hands in his successor.'
'I am glad to hear it. After everything your people have suffered Quai, it is about time for some good news. I won't lie though, it is a bit unsettling with the Citadel so buzzing with life. I had grown used to it being a bit on the gloomy side.'
'So had I to be honest,' Quai admitted, leaning forward wearily and resting his snout on steepled claws. 'Now everything is in motion this place no longer feels like home. I suppose it is rather fitting in a way, as soon enough it will no longer be home. We have been away from the Darigan lands for far too long, and it is about time we went back. I just wish people paid more attention to the risk of being on a floating rock as it travels. I remember that first journey to Meridell only too well, but it seems I am the only one.
'Do forgive me Judge Hog, I have spoken far too long on this. I did not ask you here just to listen to my woes, but rather to share with you some information Master Darigan passed on to me; it appears we have found the trail of the Shadow Usul.'
Judge Hog jerked upright, an excited shine in his once weary eyes. 'The Shadow Usul?' he repeated in disbelief. 'You're sure it's her?'
'She was positively identified in the homeland,' Quai answered, reaching into his piles and producing a report. 'Master Darigan ordered our scouts to pursue her, carefully of course, and find out where she was headed. This report arrived a few days ago. They have tracked her to Tyrannia.'
The Moehog cursed inwardly. Tyrannia. Of all the places she could hide, that was one of the worst. The jungle was dense and unforgiving, full of deep shadows and precarious pitfalls that would make tracking her a nightmare, let alone trying to apprehend her. The barren plateau was even worse: vast and featureless up close, each area looked much the same as the last, and even the most skilled of trackers often found they were going in circles before long. Neither was a promising prospect.
His dismay must have showed, as Quai added, 'Do not lose heart Judge Hog, there is more to that report than just the word "Tyrannia". Our scouts did manage to track her to a more specific area, and the signs showed she has travelled that way before many times. We suspect it to be one of her lairs. There are more details contained in the report that will help you to narrow down the search area, at which point... well, there are things that only Neopia's greatest hero can do.'
Judge Hog looked up, meeting that steely stare, Quai's face still frozen in that sharp, knowing smile. A lair was certainly a good lead, even if she had already moved on, but Tyrannia was still a challenge, even to him. He smiled at the thought, matching Quai's. There was nothing quite so invigorating as a good challenge.
Suddenly a knock came at the door, interrupting their conversation. 'Enter,' Quai called sharply, leaning back in his chair again and hastily recomposing himself.
It was the same Bruce that had brought Judge Hog to Quai's chamber, clutching a familiar yellow envelope in one flipper. 'Do forgive the intrusion Lord Quai, but an urgent neomail has arrived for Judge Hog.'
Judge Hog met Quai's confused gaze as he took the waiting envelope from the servant. As one both pets looked down at the unassuming item, white wings emblazoned in one corner beside Judge Hog's name, addressed to him in this very room of the Citadel. His eyes drifted to the bottom corner where the sender's name was written.
He paled. Forcing his fingers to remain still he carefully broke the seal. The envelope fell open, dropping a single sheet of paper into his lap. Only two sentences were written, both in a hauntingly familiar script.
The game has begun. Catch me if you can.
'The "game"?' Quai asked, reading the letter upside down. 'What does it mean?'
Judge Hog looked up and met Quai's stare again, puzzlement showing on his handsome face. Slowly something else began to seep across it the longer he held the stare, a cold dread affixing itself firmly in place. A perfect mirror of what he saw through the Moehog's black mask.
'I wish I knew,' Judge Hog answered quietly. 'I really wish I knew.'
To be continued...