The Game of Master Hog: Part Two
Her night vision was failing. Every cautious step deeper into the labyrinthine network of tunnels only weakened her senses, the all-encompassing darkness growing thicker at every moment. It would not be long until even the meagre outlines of traps she could still see would fade to black, leaving her blind and alone in this dank place. She had to hurry.
Carefully she pulled off a dark glove and placed her paw against the cold stones. Instantly the chill leapt to her exposed extremity, her thick blue fur doing little to hold it back, but she kept it pressed against the tunnel wall and pushed on deeper, step-by-step. Within moments she found what she sought as something unpleasant oozed happily into her fur with alarming speed.
She recoiled and tried to shake it off, but nothing would shake it now shy of persistent scrubbing. The blue Zafara just sighed to herself and restored her glove in place, before turning down the opening beside the vulgar stain. After this long there could not be much further left.
The last gasp of her night vision finally succumbed, and the darkness became absolute.
'You're an idiot, Jess, you do know that right?' she muttered quietly to herself, reluctantly pulling free her gloves. At full stretch she could just feel the icy stones brush against the tips of her paws. 'Any sane pet would have thought to bring a torch along, but not you, oh no. A torch would give you away, and you couldn't risk that; much better to get an enchantment and do it that way. Didn't bother to think what would happen when it ran out and you were left stranded in the dark in the middle of a stupid cave. Leban even suggested you just take a torch along for this very situation, but oh no you couldn't do that. Stupid pride. Stupid idiot.'
With no other course available, she pushed on still deeper into the tunnel network, muttering constantly to herself as she did so. If it caused her to be found as a result, she was struggling to imagine how that would be a bad thing, even if it was Meuka who found her; at least then she would trapped in his lair, which was a definite step up from being trapped in the dark outside of it. When she didn't return, Judge Hog would send someone else along to look for her, and they would have the sense to bring a torch.
Unfortunately, they were unlikely to forget to mention that little fact when they did so.
Her paws suddenly found open air on both sides. Edging forward she groped blindly in the darkness and found the walls again on the far side, but only solid stone joined them. Her path was at an end, and as she hastily ran her frozen paws across the stone it seemed so too was the trail: there was no sign of snot against either passage. Frantically she tried again, throwing her whole body against the stones in one last desperate hope of finding the disgusting substance, but only the chill touch of stone pressed against her coat.
Defeated, she cursed at the darkness, but it did little to make her feel better.
'What's that?' a slimy voice suddenly cried somewhere ahead. Instinctively Jess crouched and pressed flat against the wall, holding her breath. There was no mistaking that voice; even the sound that escaped his mouth seemed to ooze sickeningly. It was enough to make even other snot pets shun the vile creature.
Nobody came. Slowly she eased herself back to her feet and set off in pursuit of the sound, careful to keep her sturdy boots silent as each step touched against the tunnel floor. From ahead she could hear that vulgar tone again, now speaking quieter, his words muffled by the echo. Nobody seemed to answer him, but as the tunnel curved closer still, she could finally make out the welcoming glow of a fire a short way further on. For once in her life, fortune had smiled on her.
'And just what do I get out of it?' Meuka asked his unheard visitor, the words carrying clearer the closer she came to the light. 'I'm the one taking the risk here, but it don't look like I'm getting any payoff. Either make it worth my while, or you can tell your so-called "Master" to go shove it where the sun don't shine.'
Jess edged closer to the opening and risked a glance inside. A smooth circular room greeted her, four cheerful torches blazing happily around its edge. Assorted trinkets lay scattered carelessly across the floor, charting his trail of thefts across Neopia Central and its outlying villages, each shining bright with the flowing dance of the flames. There was no sign of either the Meerca or his companion.
'It was not a request, Meuka,' a calm voice said, the sound carrying from another room to the side of the antechamber. Jess quickly scurried across the room and pressed herself flat beside the opening.
Suddenly Meuka appeared before her, yellow eyes widening with shock at the sight. He recovered quickly, his disgusting, dripping face contorting into a warped monstrosity he considered a smile. Jess recoiled, her own face twisted in revulsion.
'Well now, ain't this a nice surprise,' Meuka remarked. A pink tongue reached out from between yellowing teeth and licked excitedly at his lips, smearing a repugnant green stain through the snot. 'Didn't get enough last time, missy? Came back for a bit more, eh?'
She cringed at the memory of their last encounter; even now she could still feel the snot in her fur, her tail still stiff from where it had dried hard. No amount of bathing seemed to make her feel clean these days.
'By order of the Defenders of Neopia, I am arresting you for too many counts of theft to remember,' she declared loudly, drawing confidence from her own echoes as they filled the chamber, 'as well as seven counts of kidnapping. If you resist I will use force to bring you down.'
'That's what you said last time, and look how that turned out,' Meuka replied with a snigger. 'Although that was only four counts of kidnapping. Here for the new ones are we?' His eyes darted toward the next room. 'Maybe you'd like to join them?'
The very thought made her repress an icy shudder. 'Last chance to come quietly Meuka,' she said firmly, paws unconsciously curling into fists by her side. She knew how this was going end.
He rolled his eyes, pink tongue once again protruding from his mouth and running across his lips. 'Why do you have to be so boring!' he cried, suddenly lunging into attack. Light on her feet Jess slipped aside, twisting to watch the smear of green mucous streak past.
Something struck hard against the back of her head, throwing her roughly to the ground. Meuka cackled wildly, relishing her struggle as she pulled herself upright once again, her neck stinging where his tail had struck. The traitorous trail of snot curled happily around the vile Meerca, twitching excitedly with the rhythm of his warped laughter.
'Just like last time,' he sneered. 'I thought you were bringing me down?'
She pounced, fist propelling through the air ahead. It connected with something gooey, the unpleasantly familiar sensation of Meuka's snot seeping thick through her fur. He fixed her with his manic grin, vile yellow eyes meeting her own repulsed stare, and she finally saw where her fist had landed.
He had caught it in his mouth.
Shrieking in disgust she pulled him close and brought up a knee, kicking him back hard. His tenuous grip shattered, his body spinning back through the air under the force a kick fuelled solely by disgust. Instinctively his tail shot out to catch him, the Meerca bouncing lightly to a halt, snarling to himself. Jess seized on the opportunity to desperately shake free the cloying snot that covered her arm, seeping through fresh bite marks in the sleeve and clinging to her fur.
The snarl changed into a vicious hack, each rasping sound sending a fresh shiver across the Zafara's skin. Slowly she started to back away, a stab of worry entering her mind. Was he choking? Had she caused it? She had to do something, but her mind went blank. Only panic remained now.
Meuka looked up, evil grin back in place. Jerking violently he retched, a last heinous cry rising from the back of his throat. Suddenly a putrid globule shot from his mouth, a yellow-green ball of condensed phlegm speeding through the air toward the petrified Zafara. Too late she raised her hands protectively, the disgusting ball of phlegm striking her squarely and exploding in a mess of foul fluids. She wanted to scream, but instinct warned her against it, knowing it would only allow the horrible stuff into her mouth.
Through the spray Meuka suddenly appeared again, using his tail to launch forward on the offensive once more. Desperately she tried to twist aside, feeling his mucous covered body scrape across her own as he passed. Seeing her chance she reached out as he sped by, paws sticky with snot closing about his tail and gripping hard. Heavy boots that had seemed so loud as she hunted in the darkness proved their value as she dug them into the rough stone floor and pulled hard, turning both the momentum of his lunge and her own twisting into a spin. Together they spun wildly, around and around, the four bright flames becoming a blurry streak across Jess' vision as she struggled to keep her footing.
Finally she could hold no longer. Meuka wailed as he was flung aside. With a heavy crash he collided with the hard wall and slumped into an untidy heap at its base, the echo of his shrieks fading away into the labyrinthine passages.
Head still swimming Jess staggered to a standstill, wide eyes staring around in bewilderment. Slowly the torches were beginning to take shape again, the mesmerising maelstrom of colour her addled mind had crafted settling down as balance reasserted itself, allowing the nausea to rest in the pit of her stomach. She heaved a relieved sigh, and finally turned her attention to the softly groaning creature stirring against the wall. Wild eyes stared up at nothing, spinning with the motion of a bemused mind.
'You're under arrest,' she remarked lightly, crouching beside her defeated foe and producing a pair of faintly glowing handcuffs from her coat pocket. Not unkindly she pulled his limp arms around and locked the Faeriesteel restraints into place. A soft purple glow rose as slender tendrils of magical energy reached out, gently curling around the Meerca's legs and tail and securing him tight; there was no escape now.
'Not exactly what I would call an impressive performance,' a calm voice suddenly declared behind her. Instinct took over, her fists automatically balling into fists once again as she rose lightly onto her toes and spun to face the speaker, forgotten in the excitement of Meuka's appearance and ensuing clash. It was a Kougra, his fur a chequered pattern of white and grey beneath a simple grey coat pulled tight against the chill hanging in the air. Keen yellow eyes shifted from Jess to the recovering Meuka, fighting in vain against his bonds, a look of icy distaste spreading across the Kougra's face. Almost unconsciously his gloved paw caressed the hilt of a sword sheathed by his side, its black scabbard standing out clear against the light grey.
'What are you doing, Kribal, finish it!' Meuka cried.
From nowhere a blaster appeared in the Kougra's paw. Jess barely had time to gasp before the shot was fired, the thick stench of residue filling the air in its wake. She flinched, but the shot never struck. By her feet the chained Meerca let out a small whimper, and fell still.
'What have you done?' she breathed, crouching beside her fallen foe. He was still breathing, but only just, each shallow gasp softer than the last.
The stolid Kougra just holstered his blaster, not a flicker of emotion for what he had done passing across his face. 'My job,' he replied simply. 'I only shot his restraints; he will recover with time.'
His words spoke true, Meuka's breathing becoming steady again, if still very shallow.
Turning to face the Kougra, she asked, 'Who are you? What did you want with him in the first place that would make you want to shoot him later?'
'Just another piece on the game board,' the Kougra replied cryptically.
'This isn't some game,' she replied coldly, feeling her dislike for the Kougra growing with each callous word.
'And yet we play nonetheless.'
Suddenly he was on her, fist punching hard into her stomach. All energy vanished from her muscles, her body collapsing helplessly into an untidy heap in the middle of the circular chamber. The cold air rushed to fill her winded lungs, bringing with it a stabbing pain in her chest as she gasped desperately for air.
Something hit the floor before her. It was an envelope.
'Deliver that to Judge Hog,' the Kougra said calmly behind her. Despite the businesslike manner with which he spoke, something in his tone demanded obedience; the thought of disobeying his order never dared enter her mind. Of their own accord her eyes drifted to where Meuka lay; the price of crossing him.
'Just tell me,' she gasped painfully at his retreating back, 'who are you?'
The Kougra did not answer, leaving Jess to watch on helplessly as he stepped from the chamber and into the waiting embrace of the shadows.
To be continued...