The Game of Master Hog: Part Five
After the barren, uninhabited lands of the far Tyrannian plateau, it was a relief when Jess finally stepped back through the entrance into headquarters and into normality again. Long queues of arguing pets ran down the side walls, the hectic reception desks abuzz with activity as the handful of overworked pets on duty rushed about madly trying to sift through the petty disputes and find the real problems affecting Neopia Central, while the petty disputes continued to fight it out in line. Every seat in the heart of the entrance hall was filled with those already being seen to, awaiting their chance to meet with a Defender and discuss their case, or waiting for friends and loved ones to return from their own.
After the silence of the plateau, the chaos was a welcome sight. More welcome still was the pink Elephante waiting at the foot of the distant staircase, nervously fingering his moustache. Catching sight of her he hurried over, leaning close so nobody else could hear.
'We received your message,' he said hurriedly, 'but we cannot believe what you said. Did she really suggest it was... that?'
Jess nodded and motioned him toward the stairs. Around them the hubbub of the busy life of Neopia Central faded away, and the higher they climbed the quieter even the manic activities of the Defenders of Neopia became, until an unsettling silence rested over the two of them. Only then did she say, 'She spoke in riddles, but the Shadow Usul referred to the Hidden Tower. Judge Hog says there are some very dangerous artefacts stored there, the sorts of things that would be extremely dangerous in Master Hog's hands.'
'He is not lying,' the Elephante confirmed thoughtfully. 'Very few know of its existence, although it seems not as few as we had believed. Of course we should not be surprised Master Hog knows, but it is nonetheless very unsettling. You also said she made some cryptic riddle about Master Hog's agent in 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",' Jess recited. '"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". I have no idea what it means, and nor does Judge Hog. For now he's dealing with what we can understand. However, there is something else I wanted to talk to you about.'
Glancing around nervously, she pulled the Elephante into a vacant office, carefully closing the door behind her. 'She said something else to Judge Hog, about having to choose which path to walk. She had said something about him and Master Hog walking the same path before now. I don't know what to make of it. I know Judge Hog is keeping things from me, and I'm starting to worry it's compromising our case.'
The Elephante laid a friendly hand on her shoulder, a smile spreading across his face as they finally returned to familiar waters. 'My dear, I assure you that is not the case,' he said soothingly. 'Judge Hog has something of a history with Master Hog. They are sort of... mirror images of each other, if you will. He has hunted the Shadow Usul a long time, and missed her on many occasions, but Master Hog he has hunted even longer. Even before the Defenders of Neopia came to be. They were friends once, a long time ago, but something happened. He does not like to talk about it, even to the likes of us, but it is why he often seems to get distracted. Master Hog is a personal battle for him as well as a professional one. That is all she meant, I'm sure. She does so like to talk in riddles, but when you see the world in riddles as she does, it comes as no surprise.'
'I suppose,' she conceded, but the doubt still lay heavy on her thoughts. Judge Hog had been very subdued during their return to the jungle and the waiting village, rebuffing any attempt to make conversation, even about the riddle. Something had unsettled him, and the Shadow Usul's last words seemed to hang in the air around him.
If anything, the words of the Elephante had only made her more uneasy.
* * *
The speckled Xweetok stood between the two figures, scowling angrily over her head at each other. Almost palpable the anger flowed from each hulking pet, clashing in the middle with a maelstrom of rampaging emotion that engulfed the unfortunate Xweetok trying to keep them apart, knowing she would stand no chance if either one tried anything. The only hope she had left was the respect each felt for the fourth figure in the room, but when emotions ran high the Xweetok knew as well as anyone that respect was easily ignored in favour of some primal gratification.
'Gentlemen, please,' a voice interrupted softly, sweet melody cutting through the thick tension with a smooth, delicate stroke. Both pets shrank where they stood, stepping back and releasing their unnoticed captive from their midst. She sighed with relief and returned to her post by the speaker's side, her deed earning her a small smile from the kindly Faerie Queen. Her heart leapt.
Both of the other two had taken up station again at the foot of the throne's dais, glaring at each other once more. She ran her gaze over them, taking in Judge Hog with his proud stature, face hidden behind that ever-present black mask, his yellow uniform still dusty from his travels to get this far. It had been quite the shock when he had barged into the throne room, disturbing the court with an abject lack of decorum. As the queen's steward it had fallen to Velvet to undo the mess, and it was with little enthusiasm she thought of the troubles that lay ahead for her now; there would be a lot more fallout from that interruption to come when the guests at Fyora's court had the chance to feel offended by it.
Opposite him stood the grizzled white Eyrie Streiaq, head of Fyora's bodyguard and a surprising confidant in the affairs of not only Faerieland but all Neopia. Velvet had never mustered the courage to ask where he had earned the scar that adorned the left side of his face, running from above his eye and curling across his beak. Combined with his short temper and harsh, gravelly voice, she had always felt wary around him, despite Fyora's assurances. Today was no exception; standing tall in his rich purple uniform, a regal silver circlet bound about his forehead glowing with a soft light, he still managed to convey a presence she would expect from an armoured knight.
'With all due respect, Lady Fyora,' Judge Hog said sternly, not taking his glare from Streiaq, 'we don't have time to waste right now. The longer we waste here, the more time Master Hog has to prepare his strike. The Hidden Tower must be protected.'
'I've already told you how stupid that would be,' Streiaq snapped back. 'The Hidden Tower is one of the most protected places in all Neopia, and placing guards would just draw attention to the fact something is wrong. You said it yourself Hog, the last thing we need is widespread panic, and that's what you'd give us. Nobody has ever broken into the Hidden Tower since the days of Lady Shysaria!'
'And nobody had ever broken into your tower since the days of Lady Shysaria, and yet Master Hog still managed that without any trouble, did he not, Commander?'
Commander? Velvet stared from Judge Hog to Streiaq, but the Eyrie showed no sign of discomfort at the sudden title. Streiaq was the head of Fyora's bodyguard, but that did not grant him a title above "Sir".
'That was different,' Streiaq growled.
'No, it wasn't,' Judge Hog insisted, taking a step closer. 'The Seraphic Tower is under the same protections as the Hidden Tower, and Master Hog made a mockery of your so-called defences without any trouble. Twice. Word reached me about what happened to that statue you had in the tower for safekeeping.'
Velvet gasped. Seraphic Tower? That was a legend, a story lost in Faerieland mythology, speaking of a second invisible tower in the Faerieland skyline, home to Fyora's hand-picked legion of specialists. Could it actually be true? The fresh scowl on Streiaq's face suggested Judge Hog had struck a nerve, something Velvet took as confirmation. It explained everything, for Streiaq to be Commander of the Seraphic Legion too.
'Judge Hog, that is enough,' Fyora suddenly interrupted, rising from her seat and taking up position between them, just as Velvet herself had done before. This time they made no move to approach, both pets instead stepping back reverently. Nobody would dare oppose Fyora so forcefully. 'I am afraid I am inclined to agree with the Commander on this. The secrets of the Hidden Tower are too dangerous to allow anybody to even suspect their existence, and your suggestions would do more than just rouse suspicion. You have my assurances that we will do everything in our power to heighten the defences, but there is little more we can do.'
'My Lady, we must take action or those secrets will not only be exposed to the world but the items themselves will be scattered far and wide! We will never get them back.'
'This is assuming your information is even correct,' Streiaq barked angrily.
'The Shadow Usul has never led us wrong before.'
'So you admit to repeatedly using one of the most wanted villains in all Neopia as a source of information?' Streiaq roared. 'You have caught her and let her go before? You are supposed to be bringing these villains to justice Judge Hog, not giving them free rein so long as they toss you a bone now and again.'
'Commander Streiaq,' Fyora reproached sharply, 'that was inappropriate. Though she is indeed a wanted criminal, the Shadow Usul is older and wiser than any of us, and Judge Hog did what he deemed was right. She has no allegiance to any but herself, so if she says our enemies intend to move on the Hidden Tower, it is so.'
The Eyrie stepped back and bowed his head to his queen. 'My apologies, Lady Fyora. Judge Hog.'
'Now, I believe we are finished here gentlemen,' she continued, returning to her throne by Velvet's side. 'Judge Hog, I would suggest you return to Neopia Central and work on trying to decipher the Shadow Usul's riddle. The best thing you can do for us now would be to apprehend the agent of our enemy before he can strike. Commander Streiaq and I will do what we can. I assure you, we will do all within our power to keep the Hidden Tower secure, without compromising its future security in the process. Now, I am afraid I must return to my court, and seek forgiveness for this interruption. Good day, gentlemen.'
Together both Judge Hog and Commander Streiaq bowed low, before sweeping from the room on each other's heel. Velvet noticed neither so much as glanced at the other as they left the throne room behind and were swallowed into the shining halls of the palace. She fully expected to hear raised voices the moments the door fell closed, but none came.
* * *
Click. The sound of the playing piece being placed on the board echoed about the chamber through the dusty silence. At the table the players exchanged cunning glances.
Click. 'How is Lord Darigan faring?' Vex asked, surveying the last move of his opponent. They were heading toward a draw, but he was determined to strike a victory first.
Click. 'His condition has not changed, which I suppose is something of a blessing,' Lord Quai replied. 'Even if he is not improving, at least he is not deteriorating either.'
Click. 'I suppose when we return home you will be back to your old job? Master Darigan will take over as regent.'
Click. 'That does seem likely. If I am honest I will be glad to step down. Perhaps we will have more time to play then, Master Vex?'
Click. 'Would be nice my lord, but quite unlikely. Once we return to the homeland, you will have to return to your own lands again and look after your people. I doubt you will have much time to visit the court dungeons.'
'That would be a pity,' Quai replied sadly, placing his piece with a sigh. Click. Vex suppressed a smile; distracted by the conversation, Quai had played right into his trap. There was a reason he was the greatest Cellblock player on the Citadel. 'Although you forget Vex, I can fly. I may not be able to make it weekly, but perhaps a trip to court bi-weekly would suffice for a game. We cannot allow this tradition to die; you are one of the few pets in this place who seems capable of giving me a challenge.
Click. 'Likewise, Lord Quai,' Vex replied with an oily smile. 'Of course, we must get home first.'
Click. 'You remember the journey here well?'
Click. 'Very well. I am actually looking forward to going up top and seeing the sights again. Last time we made the journey I didn't have time to fully appreciate it, what with the war preparations. This time I can enjoy the ride.'
'Likewise, Master Vex.' Click. 'I believe that is victory.'
Vex stared in horror at the board. He had been so consumed with luring Quai into his trap that he had unwittingly fallen into Quai's. Cursing himself inwardly he nodded and shook Quai's outstretched claw graciously. 'Well played, my lord.'
'And you, dungeon-keeper,' Quai replied politely, rising to his feet. 'And... I am sorry.'
Stepping back, Quai waved a claw toward the board. Vex looked down at the pieces before him, his keen eyes staring at the Quai's last piece.
'This is not a proper playing piece!' he exclaimed.
The board exploded into a blazing fireball, hurling Vex back against the merciless steel bars of his dungeon cells. Their audience erupted with wild screams and shrieks, the madness of Vex's dungeons resonating through the dusty chamber, calling for help.
The door leading to the guard chambers opened. A silent Darigan Aisha stepped through, calmly sheathing a slender silver sword by his side. Quai met his stoic gaze with a smile. 'Galgarrath and Haskol are taken care of?' he asked. The Aisha nodded. 'Good work.'
Quai knelt beside the unconscious Mynci, a look of rare regret flashing across his face. 'I truly am sorry, my friend,' he whispered, 'but I could not take the risk. You are too intelligent for your own good Vex, and I could not allow you the chance to notice something was awry. Kakurain, put him in one of the cells and tend to his injuries. But be careful with him, he is still a friend in spite of all this.' The Aisha nodded again.
'How many more friendships will I have to betray before this is over?' the Draik mused aloud.
To be continued...