The Game of Master Hog: Part Nine
Little more than a shack in the shadow of the Techo Mountain, the Mystery Island branch of the Defenders of Neopia was little more than a font for the rich tropical sunlight that bathed the island throughout the year. Sitting in what little scrap of shade the shack afforded was a crude wooden desk, used as a footrest by the Island Mynci leaning back in his chair, ridiculously broad-brimmed hat shielding his eyes from the stray sunlight as he flicked through the latest edition of The Neopian Times, a pile of unorganised paperwork left ignored beneath the desk itself. It was rumoured a proper office had once been considered for the island nation, but it conflicted with the easy-going nature of its workers, who much preferred to just report in occasionally as they patrolled in the sun.
It was into this little bubble of island paradise that the city-dwelling blue Zafara stepped, wiping thick sweat from her brow with an already saturated handkerchief. The Mynci at the desk looked up at the sound of her dehydrated panting, and a wide, friendly grin spread across his face.
'Ah, you are Jess, yes?' he cried cheerfully, reaching down into the shadow of a drawer and producing a bottle of crisp, clear water. Gratefully Jess accepted his gift, drinking deep of the refreshing liquid. Immediately she felt its effects, lifting her spirits enough to nod an answer to his question. The Mynci beamed wider and produced a second bottle, replacing the one she had already drained. 'Welcome to Mystery Island. You are here to see the Techo Master's guest, yes? Come, Watiki will take you.'
Full of energy the Mynci leapt to his feet and waved her to follow, striding confidently out into the baking jungle heat. Jess shook her head in disbelief and hurried set off in pursuit, suddenly finding the wide hat Watiki wore very appealing.
When she mentioned it he just laughed. 'I would give you it, but then I would be hot and sticky instead of you, and that would make me unhappy,' he said reasonably. 'You should have said when back at the office, Watiki would have given you spare, yes?'
'You know what they say, hindsight sees everything,' she lamented sadly, although when he just laughed again she found her voice joining in despite herself.
'You see, is too hot to waste time with regrets,' Watiki declared brightly. 'Stop worrying and relax, just enjoy the sun. Is not far to Techo Master's school now anyway.'
'Why did you take him to the Techo Master instead of the office?' Jess asked, following the Mynci through the last of the rich verdant trees and onto the low slopes of the volcano itself, the Techo Master's school just visible in the distance.
'Watiki, he is not a man of medicine,' the Mynci replied with an honest shrug, 'he is hunter. If your pet he runs, Watiki will track him through jungle and bring him back, but if you want him better so can talk, you take him see someone who knows. Techo Master knows. Make sense, yes?'
She could not argue with that and said as much, earning herself another friendly laugh from the affable Island Mynci.
By the time they reached the steps of the Mystery Island Training School, Jess was feeling the heat again. Gladly she struggled up the last leg of the journey and into the waiting overhang of the porch, the shade blissfully refreshing after the scalding tropic sunshine. It was impossible to believe she had once spent rainy days indoors longing for the sun to return.
A red Nimmo waited for them at the entrance, regarding Jess with puzzlement on his face. He met Watiki's eye, the Mynci giving a shrug in response and handing Jess another fresh bottle of water. 'She still getting used to things on the island,' he said lightly by way of explanation. The Nimmo just nodded sagely, waiting patiently for her to recover her composure. Finally she felt stopped panting, and with a respectful bow he led them inside.
Silence filled the school as they made their way through the narrow corridors. Each room was full of students locked in meditation, their instructors moving along the rows and exacting reprimands to those who dared so much as cough. Jess felt her feet start to step lighter on the floor, uncomfortably aware of her heavy boots, but nobody paid any her heed as she followed behind her companions. Watiki shot her a curious glance over his shoulder, as though aware of what was passing through her head, and his face broke out into a wide grin. Already she could feel herself start to worry less.
At last the Nimmo came to a halt beside another door and waved them inside. There waited the green Techo Master, balanced precariously on his slim tail, lost in meditation. Beside him lay a single bed, its occupant stirring awkwardly in the throes of a troubled sleep. Jess' eyes darted to the clothes on the dresser beside the bed, settling on the rich coat of black and gold hanging over its edge. A long cut ran across one side, carefully repaired by one of the students, but the stain was still there.
The Darigan Gelert in the bed had seen trouble before coming this far, and Jess suspected she knew where.
* * *
'Lord Greystone?' Jess repeated in disbelief. 'You're sure?'
The apparition of Judge Hog nodded gravely, floating above the peculiar golden orb on the desk. The gruff Yurble had claimed it was an old faerie relic used for their magical communication system, generally reserved for dignitaries of Faerieland when far afield. For Judge Hog to have acquired one was unprecedented.
'Lord Quai claims he was the one working in league with Kribal, using the Citadel crash as a diversion,' Judge Hog continued, 'during which time Kribal cleaned out the Hidden Tower. I took a look at the scene at the bottom of the tower on my way here, and I have to agree it looks like Kribal's work. There was some sort of magic going on, but I'd guess that just means Master Hog has found a new toy he wanted to test out.'
'If Kribal has those items we'll never find them again,' the Yurble grumbled to himself in the corner of the office, looking sullen. Jess shot him a warning look, but he brushed her off without a care. 'You don't know Kribal like we do missy. That Kougra was always good at appearing and disappearing as he pleased.'
'What happened to Greystone?' Jess asked, turning her back on the miserable Yurble.
'Fell off the Citadel, according to Quai,' the Moehog explained. 'He wouldn't have been too much help anyway: if Kribal was leading the attack on the Hidden Tower, he would have made sure Greystone knew as little as possible about the grand design. He's too careful for that sort of thing.'
Jess just shook her head, looking troubled. 'Kribal doesn't fit with what the Shadow Usul told us,' she said slowly. 'If you are right and we can trust what she says, then Greystone would be a much better fit. He is a "stranger from dark lands", who rose following the defeat of the Spectre of Darigan. The sort of destruction you speak of can very easily refer to "the Grim Mynci stalks in his shadow". He would be a tidier fit.'
'The problem with riddles, my dear, is they do not tend to give us tidy fits,' the pink Elephante by her side said. 'Besides, there is too much in that riddle that would not apply to Greystone, but would still apply to Kribal. I would agree with Judge Hog on this one, at least for now.'
'He's right,' Judge Hog agreed, 'that riddle is too vague for a tidy fit. No matter who crashed the Citadel would have the Grim Mynci in his shadow, and practically the whole lot of the Citadel rose after the Spectre of Darigan was defeated...' His voice suddenly trailed off, realisation dawning on his face.
Jess exchanged a nervous look with her colleagues, but found both suddenly looking alert, almost hopeful.
'The Spectre of Darigan,' Judge Hog mumbled to himself, oblivious of their continued presence. 'That was where I saw those marks before. When I visited the Citadel after the war, all those who came across it bore the same black marks. That means...' He looked up and saw the three of them staring at him expectantly, waiting for him to finish his thought. 'That means you might be right Jess,' he concluded. 'But until we find out more there's nothing we can do. You three dig up what you can at your end, try to interrogate those brought in with notes again, go through what old records you can find about Greystone and go through everything we have on the Spectre of Darigan and the first war. I'll stay here and do what I can for Faerieland, and see if I can't find something myself.'
'How do we contact you if we find something?' Jess asked quickly. 'The moment The Neopian Times got wind of the story there was a panic of Neomails flying about and now the whole system is backlogged heavily. They say it could take days, if not longer for any messages to get anywhere.'
'Use the communicator and leave a message with the attendant so I can call you back when I get a chance,' he answered. 'Good luck.'
'You too, sir.' Like that he was gone, the golden orb falling silent and becoming little more than a simple glass paperweight again.
* * *
That had been just before a Neomail arrived, passing through the systems before everything crashed and just delayed in final delivery. Jess never believed in lucky breaks, but as she looked down at the troubled form of Lord Greystone in the bed before her she was beginning to think it was time to change her opinion on the matter.
The Techo Master opened his eyes, fixing her with his formidable, piercing stare. His eyes suddenly softened, and a smile curled across his face as he dropped to his feet. 'Ah, you must be the one Judge Hog sent to investigate? Watiki sent a messenger up to us when your Weewoo arrived with the message this morning. I must say I am surprised it beat you here, I had always believed the Defenders of Neopia were very swift at travelling around the world.'
'I sent it last night,' Jess admitted. 'I wanted to make sure everybody was prepared for my arrival, and with the Neomails being down it seemed the best way.'
'Of course,' the Techo Master replied politely, 'now everything makes sense. If you will just give us a moment, we shall wake him for you. The look on your face says he is who you were expecting, so I am certain you have a lot of questions.'
'One or two,' Jess said quietly.
She retreated into a corner of the room with Watiki as the Techo Master stepped by and opened the door, quietly giving his orders to the Nimmo still waiting outside. The Nimmo quickly hurried away, leaving the Techo Master to begin tending to the troubled Lord Greystone. Strange potions and herbs appeared from unseen pockets in his robe, dextrous fingers setting to work with great haste. Jess caught herself staring and hastily looked away, only to find Watiki watching her with his cheerful grin in place, finding humour in her ways.
'Where did you find him away?' she asked quietly, keen to find an excuse to remove that grin if only for a moment.
'One of our fishing boats pull him out of ocean a few mornings ago,' the Mynci explained. 'Not many Darigan pets this way, especially not in middle of ocean, so they bring him back. Send word ahead, which I send on to Judge Hog, yes? Watiki was very surprised to find Darigan noble when ship return that afternoon, he was expecting commoner, but by then Neomail was down so I not report it, and worry no more. It seems this Gelert is important, yes?'
'According to Judge Hog's information up in Faerieland, Lord Greystone here was the one responsible for the disaster,' Jess replied. The news was enough to remove Watiki's grin, replacing it with a solemn grimace.
The door opened again, this time revealing a pretty yellow Cybunny in the robe of a student. She started at the sight of the two pets waiting in the corner, shaking her tray precariously, and hastily dropped a respectful bow. Together the two Defenders nodded back and watched on as she hurried to the Techo Master's side. Pulling aside the cloth on her tray she revealed a full teapot, a strange red steam rising from its spout. The Techo seemed to have expected it however, and calmly placed more herbs into the waiting pot. Finally he nodded to his newfound assistant, and she carefully poured out a single cup of the colourless broth, peculiar red steam rising thick into the air.
The moment the steam reached Greystone's nose, his eyes shot open, terrified eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. In an instant Jess was by the bedside, but the Techo Master waved her away distractedly and raised the boiling cup to the Gelert's mouth. Gently he eased a sip of the strange concoction into Greystone's resistant mouth and coaxed him to swallow. The blank look in his eyes faded away, and carefully he leaned forward to gratefully take more of the Techo Master's broth.
'What is that stuff?' Jess asked, cautiously approaching again.
'We gave him a potion to help him sleep,' the Techo Master answered, waving her closer this time. 'Something was troubling him, so I felt it only right to help somehow. This was merely to help him wake from his sleep, along with some herbs to help with the pain. I would suggest you give him a few moments to compose himself before asking questions.'
'Unfortunately we don't have the time for that,' Jess said firmly, staring down at the dazed Gelert. Slowly he turned to look up at her, bemusement radiating from his face. 'What is your name?' she asked him carefully.
'I am Lord Greystone,' he replied slowly. 'And just who might you be?'
'My name is Jess, I am here on behalf of Judge Hog of the Defenders of Neopia. I am here to ask you a few questions regarding what happened a few mornings ago.'
'A few mornings ago?' he asked, puzzlement spread across his face. Suddenly his eyes widened as his memory engaged and he bolted fully upright. 'Quai!' he yelled, but it quickly turned into a scream as the wound in his side seared in agony. He fell back against the bed, the young Cybunny leaning over and hastily pulling back the sheets to check his bandage. Whatever herbs had been given did not seem to be having much effect.
Jess glanced over at Watiki, who shrugged and pulled one hand across his mouth, indicating he had not said anything before. He had not known anything to tell Greystone before now.
'Quai?' Jess queried politely.
'That rotten traitor!' Greystone snarled, breathing hard as the pain shot through his body. 'He did this to me. I caught him returning to the Citadel after the crash and confronted him about his scouts. I had tried to get my own there for days, but his worthless steward kept getting in my way. I wanted to know what was happening, but the moment I saw he had fled the Citadel I knew he was a traitor. He did not even bother to deny it, just attacked me and cast me into the ocean.'
'And you expect me to believe you fell from Faerieland all the way into the ocean and survived?' Jess retorted, scepticism oozing in her voice.
Greystone shot her a scathing sneer and replied icily, 'I do have wings you know. I may not be able to fly very well, but I was able to slow my descent somewhat. Now why are you still standing there you stupid girl, go and arrest that treacherous blackheart!'
'I would, but you see we already have testimony from Quai that it was in fact you who was responsible for this,' she replied, smiling sweetly at him.
'So what, I would crash the Citadel and then jump to what would almost certainly be my death?' the Gelert spat angrily. 'Idiot girl! Check the Citadel records, check with any of the other lords, and you will find Quai had full control over the journey from the offset. He was the only one who could orchestrate something like this, the very reason I wanted my scouts checking our route in the first place. He just set you after me as vengeance for my standing against him during the election with Kass.'
'Election? What election?'
'The election after we lost the war,' he explained coldly, snarling at her ignorance. 'Do you know nothing of our history? Idiot girl. Quai tried to take over the Citadel, but Kass beat him in an election and took over instead. I had expected him to send that Kakurain to assassinate Kass for it, but even Quai was not that stupid.'
'He lost to Kass?' Jess repeated distantly, the words spinning in her head. Cast down by the allure of desire, the flames of retribution, and the drive of ambition. 'Cast down by greed, revenge, and ambition.' The Grim Mynci stalks in his shadow. 'An assassin for a bodyguard.' But still he stands true and just, a star in the darkest night. 'Even Judge Hog speaks well of him, says he was the perfect replacement for Lord Darigan. It was Quai.'
Watiki appeared at her side, a look of concern on his face. 'What is the matter? Why do you speak in riddles?'
'A riddle is exactly what it was,' she explained, 'a riddle from a reliable source telling us who was responsible. I thought Greystone fit, but they told me he didn't. And they were right. Greystone doesn't fit, but Quai does. He fits every part of the riddle, not just tidily but perfectly. Quai was the one behind it. I need to get a message to Judge Hog at once!'
'The Neomail system still down,' Watiki replied, 'but I will get a petpet to fly up there at once.'
'Greystone, what else can you tell me?' Jess snapped as the Mynci hurried away. 'What did Quai do with the stolen goods from the Hidden Tower?'
The Gelert recoiled under the harsh tone, his arrogant superiority splintering in the face of her suddenly forceful presence. 'I know nothing of that,' he admitted truthfully. 'I only saw him return.'
'What about when you were falling?' she pressed fiercely, 'When you were in the ocean? Did you see anybody flying down with boxes? Any other ships in the sea?'
'There was one ship, miss,' the Cybunny suddenly supplied. 'My brother serves on that fishing boat. He... he told me he saw a pirate ship in the distance that morning, thought it was a bad omen. Said it was all black, with big black sails.'
'The Revenge,' the Techo Master said darkly. 'Captain Scarblade still sails the seas.'
Captain Scarblade. She had once thought him the mastermind behind the destruction of Old Maraqua, and the terrible attack that had shaken the seas as it fought to recover. Now she knew the truth, that Master Hog had simply used Scarblade as a puppet to fulfil his own enigmatic ends. That meant the Revenge in the seas below Faerieland had only one explanation.
'Where can I find Scarblade?'
To be continued...