The Game of Master Hog: Part Six
Cloying grey fog swirled about the floating Citadel, reverberating with the powerful roars of engines buried deep in the sturdy rock floor. People had shouted and wailed as the first terrible cries of the mighty machines had risen to life again, the populace of the Citadel having long grown accustomed to the background hum of them steadily keeping them suspended in the air, frozen in place like a dark pendant in the Meridellian sky. Now they had grown accustomed to the roar of the revitalised engines, powering them through the skies of Neopia, trailed constantly by the persistent fog.
Standing atop the westernmost tower of the Citadel, Lord Quai stared out into the gloomy barrier obscuring their path. His scouts were out there somewhere, trusted agents keeping ahead of the flow and ensuring they continued on path, renewing the fog motes that fuelled this veil whenever they started to run low. Periodically his keen eyes caught sight of one, the vague shape barely visible amidst the motion of the fog, and he felt his heart jump. But nobody else noticed, the stories running through the Citadel speaking of an ancient curse testing their resolve, just as the Spectre had done when first they came this way. It was a story Quai allowed to grow, hoping it would deter people from trying to watch the fog. So far, it was working.
His thoughts drifted to Master Vex, kept under sedation in his own prison, and he felt a wave of relief. Vex would never have believed the stories, remembering well their journey all those years ago; he would have thought to look, and would have seen through their illusion. Quai had been right to do what he had, the fear resting heavy on him for days. At last he felt at ease again, the melancholy of regret pushed aside in the face of success.
Elated by his successes, Quai found a new spring to his step as he retreated back toward the steps, his black and purple coat catching in the breeze, and made his way back into the tense hallways of the Citadel. Months of manic preparation had finally been completed, leaving in its wake an eerie silence that filled the empty passages, the blazing fires and cheerful torches fallen quiet as the draughts returned to reign once more. How ironic it seemed to the Draik, that as they made to leave the Citadel behind and return to the lands from which they came, the Citadel finally started to feel like home again. A wry smile settled on his face at the thought.
His cheer was doomed to falter, however, and no sooner had he escaped the winds and the fog than another rampaging typhoon hurried toward him in the shape of a Darigan Gelert, handsomely attired in the gold-trimmed black that had become popular during the reign of Lord Kass; a time during which Lord Greystone had found life particularly satisfying by the deranged Eyrie's side.
A life he did not find so satisfying under the new regent.
'Quai!' the Gelert barked angrily, his features already twisted into a rictus of distaste. 'Why have you grounded my scouts?'
'Why good evening to you as well Lord Greystone,' Quai replied calmly, not breaking stride as he approached and passed the Gelert, forcing the insufferable lord to give chase. 'It is always a pleasure to see you.'
'Stop playing games Quai and answer my question!' Greystone growled, finally falling into step. 'I tried to send my scouts out not an hour ago but one of your foolish servants refused me. Me! I am still as much a lord of this Citadel as you, Quai, and I do not appreciate having your servants retract my orders.'
'Oacus receives his orders from me, Lord Greystone,' Quai explained slowly, his voice holding just a hint of condescension he knew Greystone would not recognise for hours, 'so it was actually I who refused you, and retracted the order given to your scouts. All pets are grounded for the duration of the journey, as you were informed at departure. This way only my scouts are permitted into the fog, and we can ensure there are no crossed communications. Everything will flow more efficiently with a structured chain of command.'
'What utter nonsense,' Greystone scoffed angrily, stepping in front of Quai and forcing him to a halt. 'This is just your efforts to keep power for yourself, Quai, and I for one will not stand for it. I demand that you allow my scouts to map the path ahead!'
'Do you not trust my scouts, Lord Greystone? Or perhaps it is the one to whom they report you find so untrustworthy? Unless of course you are merely trying to delay our return once again?'
'You forget I saw your games after we lost the war,' Greystone snarled, 'and I know how you operate, Quai. I would not trust you to fall if I threw you from the Citadel.'
'Is that a threat, Lord Greystone?' Quai asked politely, treating the Gelert to a wide smile of deadly, sharp teeth. 'I realise Kakurain is away, but do not think I will be unable to defend myself against you. If it troubles you so deeply, I shall speak with Oacus at my next convenience and see if we cannot perhaps include a few of your scouts into the rotation. Now if you will excuse me, I do not have the luxury to waste further time with petty squabbles; I assume it escaped your attention, but we are presently in flight on an overpopulated rock, and there are issues regarding the well-being of its people to which I must attend. Good night to you, Lord Greystone.'
He gave the Gelert a last courteous incline of the head before sweeping past impatiently, leaving the maddening lord glaring after his retreating back. Greystone's words lingered in his thoughts for a moment, but he quickly dismissed the possibility of suspicion; ever since Quai was defeated by Kass for leadership of the Citadel after the first war that foolish Gelert had relished any opportunity to make his life difficult, no matter how petty. The rest of the council had seen the sense in allowing Quai full control over the journey after all; this was just Greystone making a nuisance of himself in his ceaseless posturing. He shook the foolish pet from his thoughts and hastened toward his chambers.
A cheerful fire was already blazing in the grate when he arrived, illuminating the room with dancing shadows. Two candles burned brightly on his desk, standing vigil over the latest report from the scouts positioned ready for his arrival. By the desk floated his steward, the Darigan Kiko bending into a respectful bow as he entered.
'Ah, Oacus, I just had a rather unfortunate meeting in the hallway,' Quai began, but the Kiko quickly interrupted, 'It has already been attended to my lord. Two scouts in Lord Greystone's company are already ours, and a third can easily be swayed to our way of thinking. Arrangements have already been made for them to be included in the next rotation. Lord Greystone should be appeased, at least for the time being.'
'You mean until he next gets a chance to draw breath,' Quai corrected, stepping behind the desk and sinking into his comfortable chair. 'Unfortunately each time he does so he has this frustrating habit of using it to speak, and that invariably leaves him with a new grievance against my regime.'
'You fear he may suspect something?' Oacus asked, fidgeting nervously.
Quai just laughed, something he found too rare an occurrence in these troubled days. It ended sooner than he would have liked, even Greystone's foolishness not enough to hold his mirth for long.
'Lord Greystone is too much the fool to suspect anything,' he said. 'He just likes to make trouble.'
'Unfortunately, my lord, it is troublemakers like Lord Greystone that too often stumble into real trouble,' Oacus replied sagely. 'Even if he does not suspect, he may yet find his petty acts lead him where we do not want him.'
The Draik looked up from the report and met his steward's gaze, that disarming honesty reflecting back at him. 'Perhaps,' he conceded, 'but it is too late now. The report states we are nearly to our destination. Withdraw all scouts, and make the preparations Oacus. Order someone to keep an eye on Greystone though, just in case. I would rather not see some harm come to him, but I would be lying if I claimed I would be sad to see it happen. What of Mindas?'
'He has reported further successes in the trials my lord,' the Kiko declared brightly. 'Everything is ready. I shall have one of the scouts deliver him ahead of time.'
'There will be no need for that,' a new voice suddenly declared, startling the Kiko so violently he dropped his reports over the floor. A dark shape detached from the shadows out of the fire's reach, revealing a Kougra with chequered fur of grey and white, the thick black coat hanging from his shoulder dripping with dew from the fog.
'I shall see to the preparations,' the Kougra concluded, glancing down at Oacus as he hurriedly recovered his reports. The Kiko quickly looked away, hoping he had not seen the reproachful glare of a moment before.
'Master Hog has sent you to oversee the operation then, Kribal?' Quai inquired, leaning back in his seat. 'I will admit to be rather offended by his lack of trust. Have I not proven my loyalty?'
'I have not been sent to oversee anything, Lord Quai,' Kribal replied impassively, fixing the Draik with his steely gaze. 'Master Hog meant you no slight, he merely wished for me to check in on your progress. It strikes me as more efficient if I take your agent ahead, rather than have you waste risking one of your scouts.'
'To check on my progress? If he wanted a report he needed only ask.'
Kribal gave a rare smile, Quai fighting an urge to recoil. 'Reports can be intercepted Quai. You know how important this operation is, so I would have thought being entrusted with it in the first place should be a sign of Master Hog's opinion of you. Unless of course you have something to hide from me? I hope I don't need to remind you of what happened to Xandra when Master Hog finally caught up with her again?'
Xandra. Quai repressed a shudder at the thought of what had happened to her, the only one foolish enough to try and operate outside of Master Hog's wishes. The crash of Faerieland had instilled in him a rage even Kribal had never witnessed, pushing him so far as to break into the Seraphic Tower where her petrified body was being held and steal her. Nobody could ever forget what had happened next, almost two decades later.
'My apologies,' Quai said politely, giving the Kougra a respectful nod. 'Times are difficult enough on the Citadel these days as it is, and I am afraid my work on this operation has resulted in my nerves becoming somewhat strained. I did not mean to question Master Hog, or yourself. You will be pleased to know everything is operating on schedule. We are due to arrive at first light tomorrow, as planned.'
'Then I would suggest you get some rest, Lord Quai,' Kribal replied coldly, 'or you will risk being strained tomorrow. Our sources say Judge Hog has been made aware of the plan, and has already met with both Fyora and Commander Streiaq. He doesn't yet know about you, but the Shadow Usul gave him a riddle that appears to point your way. Be prepared for more trouble than originally expected.'
'Very well.' Inwardly he cursed Master Hog's games, but he dare not let the thought show on his face.
With one last nod of farewell, Kribal motioned Oacus onward, and together the pair departed. As the door clicked shut Quai finally breathed easy again, unaware of how long he had held it. He had thought he was over his worries about that Kougra, but he had a habit of appearing at the worst times, always throwing the Draik off guard and leaving him ill-mannered and sorely lacking in composure. Kribal had been right in one thing however: the operation tomorrow was crucial. There was no way out if things went wrong. Only success was an option now, and even then it would not save him.
For Lord Quai, the end began with the sunrise.
* * *
Daybreak came. A chill morning breeze swept across the Darigan Citadel, sifting through the thinning fog veiling the distant horizon, the last fog motes fading away into the morning air. Perched upon the battlements of the westernmost tower, staring out over the distant ocean far below, Lord Quai closed his eyes and allowed the winds to curl about him, caressing his scales with their tender touch, so alien and yet so very familiar. Would it be the last time he felt this?
Bright rays of crystal sunlight finally broke through the fog bank, the first reaches of the day's radiance on the distant horizon calling forth to herald the day. Quai opened his eyes, and stared out over the city in the clouds, drawing ever closer with each passing moment. In his mind he could see the people beginning to stir in their pastel homes, blissfully unaware of what the day was destined to bring. In the heart of the city he could see the palace, the radiant halls of the Faerie Queen herself standing watch over the citizens of Faerieland. Somewhere above it stood the unseen tower, hidden to all eyes, waiting for him to come.
Everything had been planned to perfection. It was time.
'Move out,' he ordered.
To be continued...