The Game of Master Hog: Part Eight
Devastation greeted him as Judge Hog arrived in Faerieland again. Word had reached him en route of the morning's events, tales of destruction spreading far and wide across Neopia faster than ever before. No stories did justice to the horrific sight of the towering Darigan Citadel embedded in the clouds of Faerieland, its dark stones a harsh contrast to the bright colours strewn about it. Nothing had been spared in its charge, the clouds doing little to still its momentum as it crashed through the outlying islands and ploughed toward the city, throwing up more destruction in its wake. Only the actions of the faeries had been enough to slow it, finally coming to a halt in the heart of the swirling clouds, the disturbed air currents sweeping about it far below and trying to fill the void left behind it.
It was a miracle nobody had been seriously hurt, either in Faerieland or on the Citadel.
Judge Hog made his way through the ruins left to either side of the Citadel's path, picking his way past despairing pets rummaging through the rubble of what had been their homes and shops. Whole communities had been ripped apart by the crash, livelihoods swept away like leaves in a passing breeze. Brightly clad figures moved through those searching the ruins, firmly ushering them away to one of the hastily erected camps beyond the danger zone. It would be some time yet before anybody could think of rebuilding.
His journey finally brought him to the foot of the Darigan Citadel, sitting embedded in the clouds so the town was far above the heads of the pets on the ground. Carefully the Faerieland guards in their bright uniforms were evacuating the citizens, aided by the black and purple forces of the Citadel, the very real threat of the Citadel tumbling only too clear in their minds. Judge Hog gazed up at the silent Citadel itself, its old abandoned wing protruding ominously behind over the gaping chasm it had torn through the clouds. How it had survived the crash intact was beyond his comprehension.
'Well now, a friendly face at last!' a voice suddenly hailed from above. Dark wings opened on the rim of the Citadel, a shape detaching itself and leaping gracefully down to the clouds where Judge Hog stood dumbstruck. It was Lord Quai, looking far worse for wear than when last the two had spoken. His coat was torn and scraped, his scales thick with dirt and dust, but he appeared to have escaped the crash with little serious injury.
'It's good to see you're okay, Lord Quai,' Judge Hog said, nodding up at the Citadel. 'How are your people doing after all this?'
'Surviving,' Quai replied simply, 'and doing a fine job of it, I might add. We were fortunate the preparations for the move had kept all pets indoors most of the day, and grounded all who could fly. It meant when this catastrophe happened everyone was still thankfully in their homes, and we could get them to brace for impact. Naturally everybody is very shaken by what has happened, but injuries are at a minimum and losses are almost zero. It seems fortune has favoured us this morning.'
'Some might call that a miracle on all counts,' Judge Hog replied solemnly. 'I hear the people of Faerieland also escaped with minimal injuries to the people, although the devastation to people's homes is unimaginable.'
'Things are shaken and broken on the Citadel as well, but our problems are nothing compared to this,' Quai agreed, waving a claw back down the trail of the Citadel. 'Of course that could all change very easily with the Citadel where it is; there is nothing to support it, and even the faerie magic is proving of little help. We have to get our people off before it has the chance to fall loose of its own accord. If that were to happen, Faerieland's wounds would be nothing by comparison. At least once we have evacuated any further damage will be of little consequence.'
Judge Hog nodded, gazing up at the precarious Citadel again. 'How did this even happen?' he mused aloud.
'Treachery,' Quai answered, jerking the Moehog's attention back to him. 'I find it hard to believe myself, but I keep replaying events in my mind and know it to be true: Lord Greystone forced this to happen. I had no idea why, but he was pushing me for days about using his scouts to check our path instead of mine. Like a fool I caved to him, a token gesture to placate him for a while, but it seems he only wanted it so his scouts could change our path and force us toward Faerieland. He used fog motes to conceal our path all along, and with no point of reference but the scouts it was easy for him to do this.'
'How do you know it was him? Did he confess?'
'I found him in the abandoned west wing,' Quai explained sadly, 'shortly after the crash took place. I was knocked out in the ensuing chaos, but upon awakening I went to check on things and found him heading that way. I was curious why someone of his station would be heading to such a place at a time like this so I followed him. He met with a Kougra atop the tower, although I cannot say why. When I confronted him he attacked me. Unfortunately, in the act of defending myself...' His voice trailed off ominously.
'Don't blame yourself, Lord Quai,' Judge Hog said. 'This goes beyond you and Greystone, more so than you could imagine. I'm sorry to have to run off, but something tells me I need to speak to Fyora urgently.'
'I wish you the best of luck, but it seems Fyora has gone dark,' Quai replied with a grim look. 'I have been seeking an audience with her ever since this disaster, but that bodyguard of hers has sealed off the palace. Rumours say something happened to her this morning, but nobody seems to know just what.'
'It is just a precaution, Lord Quai,' a new voice suddenly explained, interrupting their conversation. It belonged to a familiar purple Bori, her face set in a look of displeasure for the rumours Quai spoke of, her bright uniform covered in dirt and scrapes from the rescue effort. 'Sir Streiaq cannot take the risk of someone trying to use this tragedy as a distraction to attack the Lady Fyora. Once order has been restored throughout the city, you shall have your audience I am certain.'
'Thank you for your kindness, Guard Captain,' the Draik replied in his silken tones, gifting her a small bow. 'Now if you will excuse me, I must return to attending my people. I wish you the best of luck Judge Hog, and hope you will assist in the rescue efforts after should duties permit. We could certainly use more strong backs such as your own.'
'I will do what I can, Lord Quai.'
Together they watched the Draik take flight again, sweeping gracefully back onto the towering Citadel and vanishing from sight. The Bori's mouth twisted into a thin line, her marked distaste fighting its way to the surface. 'He has been very insistent about seeing the Queen,' she said quietly, 'almost to the point of causing a further commotion. I realise he is troubled by events, but that doesn't give him the right to cause more problems. Now, I've been given orders to take you to the palace Judge Hog; we already received word of your impending arrival.'
He fell into step beside her as the Bori set off at a brisk pace around the ruin, threading a path through the refugees and toward the Faerie City itself. Beneath his feet the clouds squirmed uncomfortably, once-smooth pathways now replaced by a broken and fragmented trails through the shaken streets of the city. Around them the faeries were hard at work trying to solve the problems, the brightly coloured guards doing what little they could to assist in the magical artistry that kept Faerieland floating in the skies of Neopia. The damage appeared far more widespread than Judge Hog had believed.
The Bori had moved ahead as he watched the city reeling from the crash, and hastening his pace Judge Hog caught up once more. She shot him a sideways glance, curious smile spread across her face, but made no comment on his tardiness.
Feeling her unspoken quip ringing in his ears, Judge Hog remarked casually as they walked, 'I am sorry to hear about your demotion. Just a Captain now then these days?'
She allowed a humourless chuckle and replied, 'Not many would call becoming the head of the Faerieland Guard a demotion.'
'Not many were second-in-command of the Seraphic Legion, Lieutenant Jilleau.'
'A position I am glad to say I still hold, off the record of course,' she said quietly. 'But you know just as well as I do the Legion is a secretive organisation, and we must have some more public face. Your own father was a sergeant in the Guard if I remember rightly. I seem to recall serving under him for a time. The Commander gets his position as Fyora's bodyguard, so it seems right his lieutenant takes up the position as Guard Captain. Between us we have every base covered. In fact it is because I am Guard Captain we were able to make some preparations for a potential attack. Your warning helped us save lives today Judge Hog.'
'I wasn't aware Streiaq listened to my warning.'
'He wasn't happy about it, but Fyora vouched for the credibility of the Shadow Usul so he had to do something,' she explained. 'Unfortunately it was not enough. We managed to evacuate the people the moment we saw a disturbance, but... the Commander will explain further,' she finished sadly, leading the way toward the open doors of the Faerie Palace. Alone in Faerieland it appeared to have escaped with little damage, its formidable foundations holding fast against the unprecedented disruption to the cloud bank upon which it sat.
Jilleau led on into the entrance hall, nodding to the guards helping with the clean-up inside. Each pet nodded back respectfully and attacked their work with greater enthusiasm as she passed, any idle chatter remaining silent even after they were out of earshot. Suspicion rose in Judge Hog's mind, a thought she confirmed with a sly wink as they made for the throne room: the Legion patrolled the halls of the Palace today, not the Guard.
The reason for this change became apparent the moment she pushed open the grand doors to the waiting throne room. Streiaq was already waiting inside along with Fyora's Xweetok steward Velvet and, much to Judge Hog's surprise, Jhudora. All three turned as the doors closed with a gentle snap, staring at Judge Hog as he gawped wordlessly at the sight before him.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw, even in the wake of everything else that had happened in Faerieland: Fyora captured. Hovering inches off the ground she was rotating uncontrollably, the gentle motion almost hypnotic as her blank eyes stared out sightlessly, her body snared within what appeared a transparent crystal, its presence notable only by the reflection of its pristine surface. A number of broken and notched weapons lay scattered about the floor by her feet, splintered remnants of broken crystals alongside them, all useless in their vain efforts to break her prison.
'How did this happen?' the Moehog breathed, cautiously approaching the spinning faerie, her body still as though frozen in time itself.
'Master Hog's agents had set up a trap for her,' Streiaq answered gruffly, snarling at his Queen, seeing only those who had done it to her. 'They knew she would rush out there the moment the Citadel appeared, and were lying in wait. We found a load of crystals set up in the shadows, calibrated to her specific aura. The moment she arrived they triggered, and there was not a thing we could do. Except bring her back here.'
'Something about having the Queen of all the Faeries displayed so prominently in the street at a time like this didn't sit well with the Commander,' Jhudora supplied jovially, a look of unsuppressed glee on her face. 'Personally I find it hilarious! It's like all my birthdays and Days of Giving have come at once, and I've gotten exactly what I wanted every time!'
'Where were you when this happened Jhudora?' Judge Hog snapped automatically, earning himself a look of sarcastic indignation from the powerful darkness faerie.
'Sleeping, like everyone else,' she replied sharply. 'You know I wouldn't do something like this Judge Hog, so do me a favour and shut up. I may like to see the old girl show a few signs of weakness now and then, but she is still my mother and for whatever reason I still love her. It's just nice to know she's not so perfect as she seems.'
'Jhudora has been helping us try to break the magics that sealed the Lady Fyora away,' Velvet explained. 'So far however we have not found the slightest trace of success. And without her we'll never know just how much has been stolen.'
'So it was all a distraction after all,' Judge Hog noted.
'Pretty much,' Streiaq agreed. 'The Citadel crashes and forces all the faeries out of the palace, including Fyora, which leaves very little standing between them and the Hidden Tower. The whole lot has been raided, and we've got no idea where they've taken it. I've got everyone scattered across Faerieland, but there's no way we can search the whole city while it's in this sorry state.'
'Perhaps you should have taken my warning to heart,' Judge Hog said coldly.
Streiaq rounded on him, talons ripping through his uniform and pulling him closer until his tusks were almost against the wroth Eyrie's beak. 'I did all I could, and lost five legionnaires for my trouble,' he snarled. 'If you had done your job and caught them in the first place this would never have happened. In fact, if it wasn't for your rotten warning I would have had more pets stationed inside the palace ready to react, rather than scattered through the guard all over Faerieland waiting for some snotty little twerp to stick his nose up.'
'You can't blame me for this Streiaq,' Judge Hog hissed, pushing the Eyrie back. 'I warned you this was coming, but you decided not to cause a commotion and lock down the tower. If you had listened to me in the first place Master Hog wouldn't now be sitting on all the most dangerous items on the planet!'
'ENOUGH, BOTH OF YOU!'
Velvet started at the sound of her own voice. Both pets stepped back as though struck, automatically glancing up at Fyora before they realised who had actually spoken. Affronted by their disregard, the speckled Xweetok felt her courage rise, catching a glimpse of Jilleau's thin smirk behind her commander's back. She scowled at the Bori, but earned no response, instead turning her angry glare on Judge Hog and Streiaq again.
'Fyora is trapped and helpless in here, and the most dangerous artefacts of Neopian history are in the hands of a criminal out there somewhere, so instead of trying to sort it the two of you decide it will be more fun to blame each other?' she snapped. 'I never thought I'd be saying it to a couple of pets like you, but for crying out loud grow up! The way I see it the only way we are going to free Fyora now is to find this Master Hog, or his agent out here, and the only way to find him will be to chase down the items stolen from the Hidden Tower. Those things are incredibly valuable, and these items from the secret chamber are practically priceless, so they're not exactly going to be easy to move are they? Find the items, and you will find the one responsible, and from there we can try to free Fyora from this accursed crystal! Faerieland needs her right now.'
'There's one problem with that,' Judge Hog replied quickly before Streiaq could speak, 'according to Lord Quai the one responsible was a rogue Darigan lord by the name of Greystone. Unfortunately he's no longer available.'
'Greystone wasn't the one who hit the tower,' Streiaq growled. 'I saw the state of Korval and the others afterwards, and it had Kribal's handiwork written all over it. Except one... I've never seen anything like it before, but he was killed by something else. Something magical.'
'Either way, it means our only lead is a dead end,' Judge Hog concluded with a sigh, staring up at Fyora again. Oddly tranquil, she just continued to rotate gently in place, staring out into nothingness.
'Then I suggest you do what do best Judge Hog and go find some new leads,' Velvet snapping, pulling him from his reverie. 'Something has to be done now before those items disappear forever. You are supposedly Neopia's greatest hero, so it's time to prove it. Master Hog is your investigation, and from now on you have full jurisdiction on the matter. Commander Streiaq, you and I have an obligation to the Lady Fyora to repair the damage that has been done to Faerieland by this disaster, and prevent anyone from taking advantage of the situation. Leave the investigation into what has happened to Judge Hog.'
Streiaq opened his mouth to protest but the Xweetok fixed him with a fierce look, and to Judge Hog's surprise the stunned Eyrie just deflated. Behind him Jilleau looked troubled, shooting Velvet a distasteful glare that passed the Xweetok by unnoticed.
As he left the throne room and the stricken Fyora behind, Judge Hog could not help but feel somehow elated by this sudden turn of events. All of Faerieland was now at his disposal, and somewhere out there he knew there would be a loose end waiting for him to tug. All he needed do was find it. And in order to do that, he needed information.
Revitalised with a new energy, Judge Hog set off deeper into the Faerie Palace. He knew what he had to do.
To be continued...