The Game of Master Hog: Part Three
'You are dismissed,' Judge Hog said distractedly, staring out over the cheerful vista of Neopia Central. Ever since the new building had been created to house the Defenders of Neopia at the very core of Neopia's greatest city, it had always been a sight to ease the heart of the veteran hero, reminding him of those he fought to protect, yet even the magnificent view from his high office was not enough to settle him today. It had not even been a full hour since his return to Neopia Central, and yet already it felt a lifetime had passed.
Heaving a deep sigh, he turned his back to the enchanting view and surveyed his office. His closest advisors still sat opposite his desk, both the gruff orange Yurble and distinguished pink Elephante mirroring his unease, looking over the collection of papers that had taken pride of place upon the polished wood. Seven different envelopes, each containing a different cryptic riddle. Each signed off with the same two letters.
Suddenly he was aware of another, standing openly behind his companions. Green snot still clung to the unfortunate Zafara's blue fur despite her best efforts, but it seemed she had long since forgotten about it. By her sides both paws had balled into fists, quivering uncontrollably. Neither of the others seemed to have noticed her continued presence as the other members of the organisation had filed out.
'You are dismissed,' Judge Hog repeated firmly.
'I need to report, sir,' the Zafara replied, trembling under his stare.
'We have more pressing issues to deal with,' he said, more sharply than he had intended. 'Put it in your written report and I'll be sure to read it once this issue is dealt with. Until then, you are dismissed.'
'Sir, it is about this issue that I need to speak with you,' Jess pressed. 'I thought it best not to say anything in front of the others, but I did not receive that note from Meuka.'
As one all three others in the room turned their heads to look at her, eyes wide with surprise. Somehow their shock seemed to instil a new confidence into her, calming her nerves. Judge Hog recovered first, turning his back on her once more to stare out of the window, yet she could almost feel his attention focused on her.
'Well?' he prompted expectantly.
She swallowed hard, pushing down the last of her nerves. 'I was supposed to find Meuka with that note,' she explained, 'just like all the other wanted felons we brought in over the last few days. But when I tracked him to his lair he was not alone. There was another pet with him, and it sounded like they were having an argument over something, most likely that very message. Meuka didn't seem happy with the arrangement. Before I could learn more I was discovered, and fought against him. I managed to apprehend him, but then I was confronted by his companion, a checkered Kougra with a sword and blaster.'
'A checkered Kougra?' the Elephante cried, looking around to Judge Hog. One hand nervously smoothed his elegant moustache, a sign many a young recruit had observed when anxious. 'Did he give his name?'
'No,' Jess conceded, 'but Meuka did call him something. I think it was-'
'Kribal,' Judge Hog finished for her, sighing deeply. She nodded agreement. 'That confirms it then. What did he say?' he added, looking over his shoulder at Jess.
'He shot Meuka's restraints, which seemed to do something that left him out cold, before knocking me down and ordering me to deliver that envelope to you. When I asked who he was, he just said something about being a playing piece on a game board. I'm afraid I don't understand what he meant.'
'You weren't meant to,' the Yurble grumbled, scowling angrily at the thought. 'That comment was for Judge Hog's benefit missy; he knew you would pass it on. He knows how we work better than we do.'
'He certainly knew about the instability in those new restraints the faeries down in R&D developed,' the Elephante agreed, playing with his moustache again. 'We will have to get them to work on fixing that or risk giving more shocks to our captives. I know they are criminals, but it doesn't give us the right to treat them that way, even by accident.'
By the window Judge Hog allowed the flow of conversation to pass him by. Kribal, he thought to himself, staring out over the busy streets of Neopia Central again. Why would Kribal have been sent to deliver a letter to Meuka? Unless of course, he had expected the repulsive creature to be resistant. The latest hunt had been highly publicised in The Neopian Times, so it would not have required much effort to know how close they were getting. Had Kribal been supposed to be found? Were his words as the Yurble had suggested, a message sent to reinforce those haunting words. The game has begun.
'Who is this Kribal?' Jess asked, pulling him back from his reverie. 'How does he know so much about us?'
'Kribal isn't the one responsible for all this,' Judge Hog answered thoughtfully. 'As he said to you, he is just another piece on the board, like all the rest of us. It is the one who put him there that matters.'
'And who is that?'
'Classified information,' the Yurble snapped. 'You should know better than to go asking those sorts of questions girl!'
'Now, now, don't be so hard on her,' the Elephante said quickly, waving his companion down. 'Judge Hog, you said it yourself when you first brought us in here that we're going to need some extra help on this, and this young lady here has already found herself deeper than the rest. It might be an idea to bring her into the fold on this case, and give the three of us a bit more space to manoeuvre. Considering what is happening, we are going to need all the manoeuvring space we can get.'
The Moehog nodded slowly at the window, still staring out with an almost longing look in his eyes. 'A fair point,' he replied. 'And I think you may be right. Jess, pull up another chair and take a seat.' He waved her toward another chair sitting against the wall. Quickly she pulled it over to where the others sat and eagerly seated herself, waiting for Judge Hog to sink into his own. Whatever she had found herself in, it was major.
'Our enemy is a pet by the name of Master Hog,' Judge Hog explained slowly, leaning back in his chair. 'Or at least that is the name he goes by now. The Kougra you met, Kribal, is his right-hand, and has been so for an extremely long time. These two pets stand at the centre of an organisation that covers all of Neopia, and is perhaps one of the most powerful forces on this planet. By the hand of Master Hog, nations have been set against each other in war, entire villages have been horribly cursed, and evils the likes of which we never believed more than stories have walked the face of the world again. He is responsible for nearly every major disaster to strike Neopia for the best part of the last thirty years, and has under his control many of the most devious and dangerous pets to grace the Gallery of Evil, from Captain Scarblade through to Sloth himself.'
Jess felt her jaw drop foolishly. 'Who is he though?' she asked.
'Nobody really knows these days,' the Elephante answered solemnly. 'Judge Hog knew him in his youth, but those days are far behind now.'
'He was something of a prodigy in those days,' Judge Hog continued, 'but unfortunately events left him with a rather warped perspective on the world. We have no idea why he does what he does, but every time things start out like this. Master Hog likes to give us a hint of what he is planning, to give us a chance to stop him. Either he likes the thrill of the game, or he just thinks it's just more fun to watch us squirm, but for whatever reason he always gives us a warning, and we use it to try and give the rest of Neopia a fighting chance.'
'Quietly of course,' the Elephante supplied with a nod at Judge Hog. 'If we let it be known that we were the ones trying to push people into fighting against Master Hog and his schemes, people would start to suspect something was awry. Can you imagine what would happen if the general public learned the existence of Master Hog and his organisation? It would be anarchy. Learning one pet had done it all: the Darigan wars, the coming of the Bringer of Night, the crash of Faerieland, and all the rest. People would not be able to cope.'
'So we steer them in the right direction,' Judge Hog finished. 'Sometimes the operation requires a more delicate touch, and then we can intervene ourselves, but usually he operates on the grandest of scales, requiring us to bring pets together from all over the world to stop him.'
Collapsing back still further, Jess allowed the weight of what was happening to sink in. The strange Kougra had roused suspicion of something deeper, but this? This was the sort of thing the wild conspiracy nuts normally went in for. To discover it was the truth pushed her belief to its limit.
'So, what do we do this time?' she asked at length, looking between the other three pets. Both Yurble and Elephante averted their eyes, uncomfortable grimaces spread across their faces.
'We go hunting,' Judge Hog declared firmly, rising sharply enough to cause his chair to crash to the thick carpet with a strangely muted thud. 'I've already had enough of Master Hog and his games. While I was at the Citadel Lord Quai gave me a report pointing us in the direction of the Shadow Usul, so I'm going after her. I always think best when I'm hunting.'
'You can't be serious?' the Yurble exploded, rising angrily and pointing an accusatory finger at his superior. 'That lunatic is up to Fyora-knows-what and you want to just leave him to it? Send someone else after her, we need you here in case something comes up. What happens if we solve these riddles whilst you're off gallivanting all over who-knows-where chasing at shadows?'
'Calm down now my friend,' the Elephante said quietly, once again waving down the Yurble. 'I actually happen to agree with Judge Hog on this matter. I remember accompanying him on a hunt some years ago, and I must say the thrill of the chase and the focus of the hunt did wonders. The two of us can stay here and work on trying to understand these accursed riddles while our mighty leader does what he does best.'
'And what about me?' Jess piped up, the flow of conversation soaring above her head.
'You're coming with me,' Judge Hog answered promptly. 'We'll have a copy of the riddles to take with us so you won't be missing out on anything. But seeing as you've just been promoted, it's time to learn what it means to play at the top. Go and get yourself cleaned up and ready for a trip to Tyrannia, the plateau. Be back here in one hour. As for you two, send word to the branch at the village if anything happens. They'll know where to look for us.'
Still grumbling, the Yurble nodded his reluctant agreement, joining the amicable Elephante as they filed from the room, the seven riddles clutched delicately in their hands. Jess stood and pulled off a perfect salute to Judge Hog, but he was already back to staring out over Neopia Central, that same wistful look in his eyes as before. There was more to all this than he was letting on, but for now she let it go; they had far more pressing issues to deal with, and she trusted he would not hold back anything that could jeopardise their mission.
It was time to go hunting.
To be continued...