The Game of Master Hog: Part Seven
Quai stepped over the edge. Immediately he felt the rush of wind whipping past his body as he plummeted through the fog, moisture sticking to his scales and into his jacket as it flapped wildly behind him. He ignored it, allowing his mind to drift free with his cascading body, relishing the indescribable sensation of flight. Cold and damp slapped his face but still he kept his eyes firmly fixated on the grey tangle before him, rushing by with alarming speed.
Crystal blue waves suddenly rushed up to greet him, the monochrome grey fog but a passing memory in the wind. His nose filled with that crisp scent of the open seas, clear and fresh even this far above. So long trapped in the humidity of the cocooned Citadel, the fog encroaching on every doorstep, had made him forget how glorious it was to breathe of fresh air again.
Sharply his wings snapped open, and his body was jerked upward with the currents. The rush of the winds about his body slowed, but giving a forceful beat of his mighty sinews he was propelled forward back into the gusts, the intoxicating sensation of the lashing wind rising again against his scales.
It had been too long since he had done this, taking to the skies with the excitement and enthusiasm of a child first learning to spread his wings. Playfully he spun a loop beneath the vulgar grey taint of fog against the radiant morning sky, before shooting forward into a barrel roll toward the clouds ahead, fluffy and enticing as a sleeping herd of Babaa in the Meridellian fields. Unable to stop himself, he spun on his back and skimmed his claws through the barely tangible haze, the hunter pouncing upon his prey, laughing all the while at his own exuberance.
Suddenly he remembered what was happening, and sank below the enticing clouds, righting himself as he did so. A flush of embarrassment rose on his face as he glanced back and saw the rest of his companions falling into formation behind him, but none seemed to pay him a care; they too knew how it felt to be chained within those stone walls for so long, and the thrill of freedom that awaited upon release.
Composure restored, Quai propelled himself onward anew beneath the clouds, his mind poring over the maps he had spent so many hours studying. Nothing ever remained still in the sprawling cloud mass of Faerieland, the countless islands ever shifting with the winds that hurried beneath like underground rivers, only anchored in place by the enchanted bridges that swayed and moved with the currents. Islands rearranged themselves at will, but never drifted far enough to cause trouble for the residents above; only trying to track the motion from below did it cause problems, but Quai's scouts had worked tirelessly for this very moment.
He pulled up at last, shooting through the mist-like clouds and bursting into the open air on the outskirts of the Faerie City itself, situated on the largest and most stable of the delicate islands, the eye of the storm below. The first soothing rays of sunshine were settling comfortably over the quiet streets, the people still happily in their homes, preparing for the day ahead. Only a handful of early risers could be seen against the pastel backdrop of the buildings, but none seemed to have noticed the sudden arrival of the group in their midst.
'Squad bravo, get into position for the drop,' Quai ordered quietly, aware of how easily his voice travelled in the stillness of first light. 'Be certain you are not seen, or the entire operation will be in jeopardy. Squad alpha, you are with me. Move out.'
Each pet quickly nodded acknowledgement before dispersing, promptly being consumed by the many alleys and side streets that made cities across the world. Quai paused to watch them go for a moment, before setting off at a brisk pace toward the palace, threading his way through the dark alleys. Behind him the other members of the squad fell into step, pulling their coats tighter against the chill. A few risked a glance back at the shapeless grey spectre looming near the distant outskirts, dark shadows beginning to take form within.
Quai kept his eyes forward.
Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the wail of claxons behind them, shrieking out over the city; the Citadel was visible. Answering cries came from all directions as the faeries rallied, the alarms echoing through the alleyways and devastating the sleepy morning that had been promised to the people. Slowly the people began to realise what was happening, peeking through windows and stepping into the street to stare wildly about them, finding the towering Darigan Citadel looming in the sky like a falling star, rushing toward the outer reaches of their home. Screams rose above the sirens, the frenzied panic of a populace taking over from the alarms themselves and spreading the warning through every house, every shop, and echoing down every alley.
The Darigan forces came to a standstill in the shadows of their own alley, overlooked by the radiant towers of the Faerie Palace. Terror filled the air like smog, filling their lungs with its contagion and sending shivers of nervous energy through their bodies. Trembling claws grasped at whatever they could find, bracing themselves against what they knew was coming.
Overhead the sky suddenly burst with new colours, the familiar flashes of magic blinding as the faeries finally responded. Quai crouched lower against the safety of the alley wall, watching as the streaks of colour blurred overhead, the faeries rushing to the defence of the people of Faerieland in one last desperate hope to stop the inevitable. He held his breath and waited, counting down the seconds. A flash of lavender filled his vision, and he breathed easy again; Fyora was on her way. Everything was still going to plan. Only moments remained.
Impact. Faerieland shuddered, every tiny island quaking under the unimaginable force of the collision. Enchanted bridges shattered as violent quakes forced their way through, the walls of the Faerie City trembling precariously around the petrified citizens. Then came the roar, the wild, uninhibited scream of impact beating against the pastel buildings of the city, shouting down the cries of alarm and drowning all in its terrible crash. Dust and debris rose to fill the skies, an unnatural volcano erupting on the outskirts of the clouds and shrouding the city in its ashen outcry.
It was time. Leaping into the dusty veil, Quai hurried across the street, past the eerie silhouettes of the Faerieland residents, paralysed with a mixture of fear and awe as events passed them by, and made his way into the waiting maw of the Faerie Palace. Its doors still stood open invitingly, the grand entrance hall coated in the dust of the crash and tainting its splendour with a ghostly sheen. After the chaos of the city, the almost deathly stillness was eerie, a world apart from where they had just come.
Keen to be clear of the chilling sight, the Draik led his team deeper into the palace, one claw moving unconsciously to rest on the hilt of the sword by his side. Every hallway was deserted, the bright glow of the shining corridors possessed of the same eerie sensation that gripped them when first they stepped in. The Faerie Palace felt abandoned, the hollow echo of their footfalls the only sound in the dusty silence.
He brought them to a halt in an octagonal chamber set into the heart of a lonely passage running down the eastern wing of the palace. A mural dominated one wall, carefully depicting the first Faerie Queen Ysarie looking down over the pets of Neopia, the eternal mother to them all as had been her descendents over the long years. It was the only adornment to the odd chamber, two passages leading out to form a single corridor along which they had entered.
'It's here,' Quai said confidently, gazing up at the magnificent image of the faerie matriarch. Sharply he spun on his heel and marched toward the opposite side of the room, the bare expanse of pastel purple wall staring back at him, exuding the same soft glow that filled the halls of the faeries. Carefully he reached out to touch it, his claws already starting to tingle with that familiar sensation of powerful magic at work.
The wall suddenly quivered before his claws, twisting and contorting into a whirlpool of iridescence. Quai leapt back, hand shooting to his hip and drawing his slender sword protectively, the sound of six other pets following suit behind ringing in his ears. The whirlpool grew fiercer as he watched, crackles of raw magic dancing across its surface, a storm-ridden sky trapped within a wall. A single strand of lavender suddenly streaked across the tumultuous surface, taming the rampaging colours as it arced and curved gracefully, etching out an unfamiliar sign that glowed with a tranquil light. Soft at first, the light quickly grew stronger, more intense with each moment, until with a last blinding flash it reached its crescendo.
It only lasted a handful of seconds. A gateway now stood before them, its golden archway aglow with the sparkling residue of magical energy. Standing beneath stood a hulking figure, armoured arms folded in contempt, a knowing smirk on his dark face.
'I was beginning to wonder if you would show up,' the figure declared, stepping through the gateway and glaring down at Quai. Shining armour covered the shadow Grarrl's body, carefully moulded to his heavy build, a rich purple cape hanging from his shoulders without insignia. Quai felt his stomach churn uncomfortably, his eyes frozen on the subtle hues that danced across the face of that heavy armour, tinged with the six soft tones of faerie magic: Faeriesteel. Magically crafted it was light as cloth, but harder than any other metal on Neopia, rarer than any gemstone, each piece was a work of art, unique and beautiful as a snowflake.
Only one group wore such armour.
'I must say, I am honoured to find an agent of the Seraphic Legion waiting for me,' Quai replied, returning the Grarrl's smirk with his own sly smile. 'I always thought your kind were too important for guard duty, but evidently I was mistaken. It seems in these troubled times even the mighty have fallen.'
'I could say the same for you, Lord Quai of the Darigan realm,' the Grarrl retorted. 'From regent of the Citadel to a common thief, all in the course of one morning. Is this price worth it just for the scraps Master Hog will throw your way?'
'Common?' Quai repeated, affronted. 'If I am nothing but a common thief then what does it say of you, legionnaire, who is sent to apprehend me? It is most crass to associate me with those petty fools Judge Hog wastes his life pursuing, although perhaps the greater insult is your arrogance. One legionnaire to stop the will of Master Hog? It would appear your Commander is going senile if he felt that all it would take.'
'One legionnaire, you say?' the Grarrl said, his smirk growing wider. 'Who said anything about that?'
Gasps from behind made Quai turn, a flash of fear striking in his heart. Distortions formed in the air around the room, ripples opening out with theatrical flair to reveal another quartet of pets clad in the striking Faeriesteel armour of the Legion, each clutching a lance glowing with the ever-changing aura of the faerie magics. Their cloaks fell still down their backs, iridescent in their dormant state, no trace of the magic contained within now visible.
Seven against five, Quai thought to himself hastily. They had the advantage in numbers, however slight, but there was no doubt the legionnaires held the advantage in skill. They had unwittingly walked into a slaughter.
He turned back to face the leading Grarrl, who smirked wider still. Lazily he raised a hand before him. From nowhere a sword took form, elegant in its simple design, its blade alive with dancing azure flames. The slender sword in his own claws felt increasingly redundant by the moment.
'Throw down your weapons and surrender, Lord Quai,' the Grarrl declared calmly, 'and none of you will be harmed.'
An image of Xandra flashed before Quai's eyes. 'You know I cannot give that order,' he replied firmly.
'If you try to resist us, we will cut you down.'
'Then I suppose we will at least have the pleasure of going out in a blaze of glory.'
'If only there was anything glorious about what you are about to do,' the Grarrl concluded sadly, no trace of the smirk left on his face. 'As you will, Lord Quai.'
The Grarrl stepped into attack, sword carving a broad arc through the air before him. Quai caught it lightly on the edge of his slender blade. Immediately he felt his body shudder, the searing heat of those azure flames rushing through his veins. He leapt back, breathing hard, and was thrown almost instantly onto the defensive again as the Grarrl stepped closer. Bracing himself he caught the second high stroke, forcing his eyes to stay open as that unworldly strain rushed through him again. Their swords never connected; along the edge of the Grarrl's blade the flames had gathered, burning bright as they solidified and met Quai's strong steel. How could he fight such a power?
He lunged forward onto the offence, sword stabbing forward at the Grarrl's underarm. His foe made no effort to defend, allowing the meagre steel to scrape harmlessly off the shaped Faeriesteel. There were no weaknesses in such a suit of armour.
Casually the Grarrl pushed Quai's sword away, throwing the Draik open to attack. Clumsily Quai leapt back again as the flaming sword cut through the air, and found his back suddenly strike against something hard. Expecting attack he spun with sword raised, but the pet behind just collapsed forward, his black and purple coat pierced through. The first to fall, but even a quick glance warned Quai it would not be the last. For all their valiant efforts, they were only delaying the inevitable.
Suddenly two legionnaires leapt forward, their lances thrust before them triumphantly. Beset on both sides the Draik pulled back, his wings reaching around protectively. Sealed in his little cocoon he summoned what strength remained to him, calling deep into the furthest reaches of his heart. There was no point holding back now.
Black flames leapt across his wings as the lances fell, turning them aside with ease. Long dormant energy coursed through Quai's veins, his entire body pulsating with a new life he could never have imagined possible. He could feel his own familiar flame in his belly, but now a rampaging inferno was in his heart, overpowering what he had thought possible and revitalising him anew.
Such power, such possibility; he could at last see why Darigan had given in to it all those years ago.
Burning with his newfound power, he allowed his wings to retreat, unleashing a fearsome shockwave across the room that hurled back the dumbstruck legionnaires. Quickly Quai seized his advantage, lunging against the first as the rainbow Lutari struggled to his feet. The same burning passion in his heart now ran across his sword, the blackened flames leaping forth against Faeriesteel as the blade cut across the Lutari's breastplate. It held fast, a dark tear of corruption left in the wake of the attack. A flash of fear crossed the Lutari's face, but he rallied into attack, magical lance swinging for Quai's head. He caught it with ease. Enhanced muscles surged into life as he wrenched it free from the pet's grasp and casually flung it aside, spinning through with his sword in its wake. The Faeriesteel gave under the second stroke.
Triumphant, Quai spun to face his next opponent, but the Grarrl was suddenly before him again, azure flames meeting dark. There was no pity left on the Grarrl's face now, his mouth twisted into a rictus of fury, green eyes burning with the same intensity Quai could feel raging in his own.
'What have you done to yourself?' the Grarrl hissed.
'Then allow me to put you back to sleep!' the Grarrl roared.
The swords met again, twin flames dancing between them. Responding to memories long forgotten, Quai lightly twisted the sword as the azure flames wrapped about the dark fires and pushed the Grarrl back hard. His foe stumbled, gifting him his chance at last. The slender blade struck Faeriesteel, the formidable armour holding fast, but the same black corruption was already spreading. It would not last a second blow.
Sword clutched in both hands, the Grarrl suddenly spun, throwing his stumble into momentum and attacking with all his force. Too late Quai tried to protect himself, and with a tremendous clash of steel the swords met one final time. Quai felt his wrist twist painfully as he failed to hold his defence, the sword thrown from his grasp and clattering aside uselessly, its fires falling quiet. The confidence of his newfound power flickered as he faced the Grarrl again, a loud roar rising from the back of his foe's throat.
Azure flames rushed across his gauntlet as one fist connected hard with Quai's chest, and in an instant the Draik felt the fight forced from him. Gasping for air he rolled to a stop beside the discarded lance, staring up bleary eyed at the panting Grarrl. No mercy was visible as the Grarrl's eyes met his own, and roaring again he leapt into attack. Quai's claws closed about the lance and pulled it up protectively. His body shuddered with the impact, the lance falling hopelessly from his grasp.
Suddenly the Grarrl was thrown from his view, rolling across the floor to join his stunned companions. A new figure landed in front of the Draik, his fur thick with dust and dirt from his travels outside. Even through it there was no mistaking the chequered pattern however, and Quai felt his heart leap.
'Kribal!' he exclaimed, his voice mingling with that of the Grarrl.
The Kougra glanced over his shoulder at Quai. 'Finish the mission, Quai,' he said calmly, seemingly unperturbed by the remnants of the battle. 'I'll deal with things down here.'
Quai did not need telling twice, and taking up the lance once more he hastily scrambled to his feet. His sword lay in the gateway with the three remaining members of his squad, all sporting new tears and scrapes from their struggle. Risking a glance back Quai saw the Grarrl rise to his feet, fiery sword held before him, flanked by two legionnaires. Somehow it seemed they had managed to defeat two of them, although he suspected Kribal's hand in their turning fortunes.
Keen to be away, he hurried through the gateway, reclaiming his sword in the process, and hastened up the spiral staircase of the Hidden Tower. Nobody else greeted them as they made their way ever higher, another golden gateway visible at the top. A sense of relief washed over Quai as he led the way through the waiting opening and into the upper floor at last.
There was no stranger collection of items in any shop across Neopia Central's fabled bazaar as there was waiting for them at the top of the Hidden Tower. Rows of weapons ran down one wall, swords of many colours radiating the soft glow of magic at work standing next peculiar contraptions from faraway lands made of what resembled asparagus, familiar crossbows of Meridell hanging beside an ornate trident of mysterious blue, fanciful staves decorated in outlandish trinkets and vulgar monstrosities dredged from the lairs of Hubrid Nox and Meuka. Trapped in intricate display cases stood toys and dolls, Quai recognising the likeness of Lord Darigan himself seated beside a beautiful construct of Lady Fyora in all her resplendent glory. Books and paintbrushes stood on the far side of the room in locked cases, beside delicate potion bottles and items Quai dared not try to comprehend the use of.
All theirs for the taking.
'You,' he declared firmly, waving his free hand at one of his awestruck companions. 'Go and find the storeroom; we're taking everything we can get our hands on from this place. You two prepare the circle and get the boxes brought in, we need to start moving things as soon as possible, especially if the Legion are on to us. Kribal will take of those downstairs, but who is to say there are not more coming.'
The trio of pets saluted smartly before hurrying to work, leaving Quai to walk through the gathered oddities with a lazy eye, trying to think of where Fyora would hide her true storeroom. His mind wandered to the gateway below, and he quickly turned his attention to the bare wall opposite where they had walked in. Two windows stared out over the open sky, displaying the chaos still filling Faerieland far below. He laughed to himself and ran a claw along the wall between them.
It did not take long for something to respond, a strand of lavender energy running across the smooth surface beneath his waiting claws, carving out a shape against the polished stonework. 'Nobody knows what an invisible tower looks like,' he mused aloud, stepping back and regarding the strange glyph, identical to the one on the gateway below. 'Who would question a window where one has no place to be, if they are not aware it should not be there?'
He looked down at the lance still clutched in his other hand, pulsating softly before the glyph. Faerie magic, he thought with a smile. It was so simple. Taking up the lance in both hands he forced it point first into the heart of the glyph. The end splintered on impact, but sheer force pushed it deeper into the wall, its magic flowing free against the sealing effect of the glyph. Faerie magic battled against faerie magic at Quai's fingertips, rogue tendrils of energy lashing out hot across his face, but he just pushed harder, forcing his weapon against Fyora's seal.
Suddenly the wall exploded in a haze of pastel dust, the thick taste of magical residue rushing into Quai's mouth. Coughing violently he waved it aside. The deadened remains of the lance fell from his hand and crashed lifeless to the floor, its magic gone as was its head. Before him stood the ruins of another golden gateway, leading into a small room. Bright light shone from every surface, the intense glow casting a veil over the room's contents to leave shadows envious.
Every dangerous artefact of Neopia's history waited in that blinding shine, forgotten by the world; who knew what other secrets were locked away, what treasures far more valuable and far more dangerous than Quai had ever imagined were just metres away from him. The thought of stepping through and sampling it was ensorcelling, but with a sigh he stepped back from the gateway, turning back to his companions again. Remember Xandra, he thought sadly.
At the entrance to the main chamber his three companions stood dumbstruck, staring at the opening in awe. Between them stood a simple wooden box, a number of smaller boxes piled up beside it, standing within the confines of a glowing purple circle. Whatever strange experiments he had been doing, it appeared Mindas had succeeded in creating a box that could be in two places at once. All that remained was for them to fill it.
* * *
Disturbing the clouds had forced a thick mist to rise across the city as the dust cloud vanished, shrouding the ailing Darigan Citadel once again its veil. Alone at last, Lord Quai launched himself up into the grey maze, trusting his instincts to guide him to the abandoned wing and its waiting tower.
Everything had gone according to plan. Mindas' magics had worked perfectly, transporting their stolen goods from the Hidden Tower and out into an unremarkable warehouse in the back roads of the Faerie City. The rest of his squad had seen to the packing and preparation of the goods, leaving just the descent down to the ocean far below remaining, where Kakurain waited aboard the [i]Revenge[/i] to take delivery. Despite the mist, it would still not be until nightfall they dared risk it.
He touched down atop the westernmost tower, savouring the feel of the solid stone beneath his feet again. It had only been a couple of hours since his departure, but the surreal solidity of the Faerieland clouds had left him uneasy. It was good to be home.
'Welcome back, Lord Quai,' someone hissed. Quai jerked his head up and met the icy glare of the Darigan Gelert, his black and gold jacket thick with moisture from the mist. Droplets of dew glistened on the edge of his sword, its pointed brandished menacingly in Quai's direction. 'I have been waiting for you, traitor.'
Quai did not bother to deny it. Instead he just curled his lips into a smirk and crossed his arms with contempt, looking at the dishevelled pet with little pity. 'Lord Greystone, I would say it is a pleasure to see you so well after what has happened, but we both know that would be untrue. I will confess I had expected to find you still cowering under your desk, clutching that favourite plush toy of Kass you have.'
Greystone snorted angrily. 'Unlike some people, Quai, when the Citadel cries out in distress I answer her call. The regent on the other hand appears to have been busy with other matters. I had almost believed this was just some twisted accident until my scouts discovered you absent from the premises. And then here you are, finally dropping back in after all this time. I suppose crashing a Citadel and endangering a people is busy work.'
'Busier than you could ever imagine, Greystone,' Quai replied smoothly.
'So you admit it!' the Gelert cried wildly, flourishing his sword at Quai. 'You are a traitor to the Darigan people!'
Quai just shook his head, feeling the weight of his morning activities pressing down on him. 'It seems to me, Lord Greystone, that although one of us is indeed a traitor, it is in fact going to be whichever of us is still standing on this tower in thirty seconds,' he replied impatiently. 'I am not going to hand myself in quietly, so if you intend to use that sword of yours I suggest you hurry up and do so.'
Greystone lunged forward, snapping at the bait. In one stroke it was over. The Gelert collapsed forward against the battlement, his sword falling into the swirling mists below.
'I have just remembered a funny story I was once told,' Quai remarked casually behind him. 'It said that you had never learned to use those wings on your back. A pampered little lord, always in carriages or coaches, who barely even bothered to learn to walk, let alone fly.'
A shadow loomed over him. Desperately Greystone struggled to his feet, paws gripping the stonework for support, but a claw suddenly closed about the scruff of his neck and forced him back down. He could feel the Draik's ghostly breath on the back of his ears as he leaned in closer.
'I hope you are a quick study, Lord Greystone.'
To be continued...