The Game of Master Hog: Part Four
Red bleached the distant horizon, etching out the hulking silhouettes of the slumbering behemoths that scattered the endless plateau of northern Tyrannia. Nature had long since claimed them, leaving behind just their broken shells encased in rock, the natural artistic beauty of their formations drawing pilgrimage year after year by the aspiring artists of the world. None made the journey now, the still short days of spring leaving them vulnerable to the twisted terrors of the nightfall, where the stories claimed these once mighty beasts rose anew, prowling the barren plains in search of a prey long forgotten.
In the distance a volcano exploded in a flurry of fiery crimson and choking black ash, heralding the coming of the night. The last sun-stained patches of red sky faded to the velvet off-black of night, tiny eyes sparkling overhead as other worlds spied upon their own, waiting for those ancient petrified monsters to rise again.
Jess watched the show from her protective circle of firelight, still awestruck by nature's perfect dance. It had been little changed over the past few days, but somehow it never grew old, watching the subtle differences in colour, the different sounds of the plateau's inhabitants rising or slumbering in the sparse shelter all around, the anticipation that perhaps tonight will be the night those silhouettes finally stir.
'Come on, it's time to go,' Judge Hog declared, towering over her. Each hand clutched a flaming torch, burning with an enchanted blue flame; her own two lay between them, their campfire for the gathering evening.
He had changed little during their journey together. From what she had heard, Jess had expected her leader to almost transform back into the hero of legend, the fearless hunter the stories spoke of tracking down the most dangerous of villains; instead he was still distracted, a troubled look fixed in place. Many times during the day she had woken to find him tossing and turning in his sleep, the troubles of his waking mind sending nightmares to torment his sleep. It was just good fortune that even distracted Judge Hog was still Neopia's greatest hero, and his tracking skills were second to none.
In silence they made their way across the dark plateau, the eerie circle of magical blue light surrounding them making the rest of the night stand out darker all around, pressing close on their protective bubble. Every few minutes Judge Hog would stop, crouching to run a hand across the cold stones, his bare fingers caressing them with a delicate, almost loving touch. Though she saw nothing stir at his touch, something seemed to speak to the Moehog and each time he set off in a slightly different direction, or pushed harder the way they were going, new confidence in his stride.
Whatever trail he was following, it was leading them further from the shelter of the rock formations and out across the open plateau, utterly devoid of civilisation. Some said new worlds existed out there, lost in the far-flung reaches of the barren land, but few ever dared to travel so far; food and shelter was sparse this far from the jungle, growing worse with each additional mile.
A sudden shudder ran through Jess' body, the unnatural chill rushing to every part of her body. Her legs gave way beneath her, and it was only by the quick reflexes of her companion she was saved from crashing heavily to the harsh rock floor. Finding her feet she made to thank him, but he quickly raised a finger to his lips and she fell quiet.
Their torches flickered in a passing breeze, but she could feel no gust brush against her skin. Instead shadows crept through the playful tongues of blue, reaching out with icy fingers toward her chest. Again she felt the unnatural chill rise through her body, closing about her rapidly beating heart, frigid claws cradling it with an unworldly delicacy that made it beat still harder. Desperately she tried to calm herself, but only sharp breaths came, catching in the frozen cage of her chest as she felt the eyes on her from all around, reaching through her protective bubble of light.
As sudden as it began, all fell still. Pounding hard against her chest, her heart finally began to steady itself as the probing fingers dissipated, the shadows retreating back from the circle of firelight. Refreshing air filled her lungs, cold from the night but blissful as it filled her chest, banishing her fright.
'I should have warned you about that,' Judge Hog said slowly, his voice too steady. 'Sorry. It means she knows we're here; she likes to get a good look at those who come near and find out what they are after. It's one of the things that make her so hard to catch.'
'Does that mean it's over?' Jess asked, still panting heavily. 'If she knows we're here, surely we've lost our chance?'
He shook his head. 'Nobody can sneak up on her at night,' he explained, 'and nobody can find her by day. She is not someone you catch with the element of surprise, but with... something else,' he finished lamely. 'Extinguish your lights, it's time to put the plan in motion.'
Obediently she concentrated and extinguished her flames, checking carefully she could call them back at will. A tiny blue ember hopped across the top of each torch reassuringly for a moment, before falling quiet again.
'How do we find her now?' she asked, an eerie sensation washing over her as the darkness began to divide into unseen shades before her.
'Watch the shadows,' Judge Hog answered, motioning her to crouch beside him. He ran a quick hand across the stones by their feet. Impossibly the shadows squirmed with the passing, noticeably shifting before becoming one again, each individual strand becoming indistinguishable from the rest. She shuddered.
'They are easy to find when fresh,' Judge Hog said calmly, 'so long as you know what to look for. With experience you learn to read them, and a skilled tracker can even detect them at other times, although never by daylight. Just another little trick that makes chasing her down so difficult. Now, you know what to do, so let's finish this.'
Steeling herself, she gave a resolute nod. Silently the towering Moehog set off into the darkness, one torch sweeping across the ground before him, keen eyes watching the motion of the shifting shadows. After a few paces she began to follow slowly, her eyes scanning the darkened landscape for any sign of their elusive prey. Every footstep followed Judge Hog's precisely, pausing when he did, following in his new directions, keeping the gap between them steady at every juncture. He had been adamant about that, drilling it into her every day while they rested, constantly reminding her how everything rested on this one thing. "Something else" was needed to catch this prey, and it seemed this was that.
Time slowly passed, every moment dragging in the solitude of the night. A chill breeze formed somewhere in the distance, gathering momentum as it swept over the pair on their invisible trail, bringing with it a bite that drove deep into Jess' bones. As it brushed past she almost thought she could feel the cold fingers against her body again, reaching out to her through the night, examining her closely. Too closely for the wind.
'Now!' Judge Hog cried. Immediately she willed her torches into light, blue flames exploding brightly and banishing the probing fingers from her body. A silent shriek seemed to ring out through her bones as the shadows swarmed and scattered, a wild escape from the sudden charge of pure, blinding light in her hands. Ahead Judge Hog had done the same, two more blazing torches in his grasp, shepherding the night itself into their waiting snare.
With nowhere to go the shadows fled to the centre of the rapidly closing trap, twisting and congealing in place. Where one moment Jess saw the thick flow of darkness, an Usul suddenly stood, recoiling from the brightness all around, a wreath of deep purple flame about her neck leeching the glow from the air about her ethereal form.
Jess cheered their triumph, but Judge Hog sharply cut her short. 'Stay where you are!' he barked, forcing his torches into the hard ground. Deflated, Jess stepped back and followed suit, keeping her position between the blazing torches. The snared Usul turned to look at her, pupilless yellow eyes meeting her own. She took another step closer to the safety of the light.
A soft hiss escaped from the Usul, little more than the whistle of a draughty window. 'So, the champion of light and justice comes for me once again.'
Jess gasped. Only that same hissing had come from the Usul, the words seeming to materialise directly in her thoughts. Those blank eyes stared at her again, and the tone of the hiss changed to the unmistakeable sound of a snigger. She glared back, but the Usul just continued to laugh at her expense.
'What has happened oh champion?' the Usul asked, eyes turning back to Judge Hog. 'Since when has the greatest hero of this world travelled with one so foolish?'
'I would have thought you'd be used to it by now,' Judge Hog replied calmly. 'You don't exactly cut a normal figure in this world. Not that it matters now of course. You are under arrest.'
'I am no criminal, champion of light and justice.'
'This year alone you are responsible for grievous assaults against no less than eighteen individuals,' Judge Hog retorted coldly. 'Four of them lie dead, and the other fourteen are still hospitalised. At least three will never walk again, and two will never see.'
The shadows shifted into what passed for a nonchalant shrug. 'I do what I must to survive, as I always have. Glory-seekers come for me, the haze of vengeance and mock justice, fear of what I am. I protect myself when they come with their light and their steel and their magic. I do no more than you. I do no more than your student. Will you place yourselves under arrest too?'
'We do it to protect others!' Jess argued, but once again Judge Hog cut across her sharply, 'Keep out of this. Shadow Usul, I do not claim to be above the law, but you cannot claim to only ever fight in self-defence. I have been keeping a record on you since the beginning, and the list of those you have assaulted, kidnapped, or otherwise harmed is growing ever longer. We can debate the reasons later, but you are still coming with me.'
'We both know that is incorrect. You forget, champion, I see everything that moves in the shadows. They speak to me, always whispering, always screaming, a million stories of a million people. I see the one who stalks your nightmares, the corrupted heart, the champion of dark paths, of warped justice. You walk the same path once again.'
'What do you know?'
A rent opened in the shadow, a shaft of stale yellow light appearing below her unnerving eyes to take the shape of a mouth, twisted into a sly smile. 'I know that I will not be taken by you today champion of light and justice, not if you wish to find the agent of your corrupted heart. Let me walk with my kind again, and you may learn what the blind see in the night.
A breeze swept through their illuminated snare, an icy chill brushing past Jess' cheek. Nervously she glanced back to check on the torches, but both still burned bright, blue tongues swaying in the breeze. At ease again she turned back to the Usul, but suddenly spun to face the torches again. It was not the breeze they were shifting with, but the creeping fingers of darkness reaching out again, probing for their mistress.
'Sir, we have to arrest her now!' she cried, advancing on their captive.
'Jessica, stand down!' Judge Hog barked hotly.
'She is trying to escape!'
'I gave you an order!' he roared. The Zafara recoiled as though struck, creeping back toward her torches, searching fingers of deepest black curling about her boots as they hunted for the Usul.
'Does this mean we have a deal?' the Shadow Usul asked.
'Tell me what you know,' Judge Hog demanded, his voice hard as the glacier that formed his words. 'What is Master Hog planning?'
'The corrupted heart, he seeks a place, a place where my kind cannot pass. Radiant halls, a glimmer in the night skyline, unseen by all but by those within. A place where the poor will find riches, and the rich will come to get poorer. The last resting place of this world's secrets, the legacy of the corrupted heart laid bare.'
Judge Hog let the words swirl in his mind, trying to make sense of them. She spoke in worse riddles than the messages Master Hog had left him, yet somehow this one made sense, the words twisting in his mind into a new order. A place of riches, a land with radiant halls, where the secrets of Neopia were left to gather. He gasped as understanding finally arrived, a chill running through him that had nothing to do with the Usul.
'He plans to attack the Hidden Tower?' he breathed. She did not respond, but just fixed him with those emotionless eyes. Somehow he knew he was right.
'Why would he go for the Hidden Tower?' Jess asked, her eyes darting to the encroaching tendrils of shadow. 'From what you've said about Master Hog, I would imagine he could just buy anything he wanted from there?'
'The legacy of the corrupted heart,' the Usul repeated in her mind. 'Even the hidden halls of the Eternal Star have their secrets.'
'Fyora keeps more than just powerful weapons and toys in the Hidden Tower,' Judge Hog translated. 'There is a secret room where she looks after the most dangerous artefacts of Neopian history, the relics the world thinks destroyed. The scroll that led to the Bringer of Night, a sample of the potion Krawley gave to Neovia, the weapons that defeated Razul, and so many others that never saw the public eye. That is what Master Hog wants. Tell me Usul, who is the one doing this?'
'A stranger from dark lands, risen in the spectre of defeat, cast down by the allure of desire, the flames of retribution, and the drive of ambition. The Grim Mynci stalks in his shadow, and the dark fires burn in his heart, but still he stands true and just, a star in the darkest night.'
'Another riddle?' Jess cried, watching as the shadows closed the final leg to their mistress. 'We don't have time for games, we need a his name!'
'The shadows are blind, but can sense a presence,' Judge Hog replied slowly. 'They don't see faces, they don't understand names, they just see what they must. They see what we are, not who. That riddle is all we're going to get.'
'Then we need to arrest her now!' Jess insisted.
Judge Hog just shook his head. 'We made a deal,' he said, meeting the Usul's stare. 'One day I will find you, and one day I swear I will catch you. But this is not that day.'
She seemed to smile again, the shadows twisting for only a moment. 'You will have to choose one day, champion of light and justice, which path you will walk. Until we meet again.'
The probing fingers of shadow reached their host, and in an instant she was gone, the light of the torches unbroken around the Defenders.
Jess felt sick, standing by to let that creature go without a fight.
'We made a deal to trade information for her freedom,' Judge Hog said solemnly, standing over her. 'We could not go back on that once it had been made. We have to be decent and honourable, or we'll risk becoming like those we hunt. The Shadow Usul is dangerous, but Master Hog is an awful lot worse. If he gets his hands on anything from the Hidden Tower, the damage the Shadow Usul could do in her entire lifetime would pale in comparison to a single day of his. It's not an easy trade, and I'm not happy about it, but it is what has to be done. It's the price we have to pay. We'll catch her one day, and she won't be able to talk her way out of it. But that day is not today. Today, we have a different monster to catch.'
And what about those last words. Jess left it unsaid, just nodding and taking up her torches once more. Much as it pained her to admit it, he was right. For now they had to focus on stopping Master Hog, and that meant putting the information they had paid so highly for to use.
Replaying the Usul's riddle in her mind, she just wished she understood what it meant.
To be continued...