The Game of Master Hog: Part Ten
The cool sea breeze swept through the bustling streets beside the harbour, rejuvenating the spirits of the tired workers waiting on the wharf for the next run of ships to approach. Already they were visible in the harbour mouth, sails down as they were pulled carefully into position, mooring ropes being readied to welcome them to Krawk Island.
Jess stood and watched from the wharf, half-hoping one ship would suddenly unfurl the blackened sails of the infamous Revenge and put an end to her search, but none obliged her unspoken request. She had searched the streets of Warf Wharf for hours since her arrival, but nobody was willing to speak of the ominous ship belonging to Captain Scarblade, their friendly faces turning dark at the mere mention of either ship or captain. The only ones who even feigned interest were the pirates with cunning grins and sharp faces, drawing her close while their colleagues tried to snatch her purse. Only one had actually tried so far; bad news travelled fast among the pickpockets.
Something had happened recently, she was sure of it, just as she was sure everybody knew about it. The only problem was finding someone willing to talk. On Krawk Island pets only talked if you made it worth their while, one way or another.
Reluctantly she turned her back on the water lapping against the wharf and turned back toward town, knowing what she had to do. Her contact on the island had warned it would likely to descend to this, but she had held hopes of finding information another way. Hopes that had long since been dashed, leaving her efforts just futile efforts to delay the inevitable.
Everything on Krawk Island eventually came down to gambling.
Assorted pets watched her as she made her way through the breezy streets of the dockside town. Wealthy merchants eyed her travel-worn jacket with disdain, their noses aloft as they swept proudly by in their rich suits and expensive dresses, dull clad servants hurrying at their heels, as nondescript as the grey stone buildings that made up Warf Wharf, and treated with the same regard by their masters. Pirates continued to watch her with mild interest, but she casually adjusted her jacket as she walked, revealing the shining cutlass at her hip, and they promptly lost interest. Her contact had also warned her of the danger of appearing weak. If his advice continued to pay off, she was beginning to think she might have to get him transferred back to Neopia Central as he asked.
She came to a stop in front of an unassuming building, a pair of simple white dice hanging from a hook above the door its only concession to what lay inside. Heaving a defeated sigh, Jess steeled herself and marched in.
A simple room greeted her, dominated by the large circular table in its centre. A pirate Meerca sat in one of the seats, his feet kicked up casually onto the table, fixing a tear in his oversized red hat with one hand. Meeting her gaze he poked his pink tongue out childishly before returning to his task, paying her no further heed. She returned the favour.
'Do forgive him,' a smooth voice declared from across the room, 'he lost a few marbles some years back, and then quickly lost the rest.' The owner of the voice stood on the far side of the table, leaning nonchalantly against the carved stone fireplace, a fire blazing contently by his feet. The pirate Krawk wore a rich sapphire suit more akin to a merchant than a pirate, a black and grey bandana tying back a mane of thick white hair serving as a reminder of his former profession. He smiled broadly at her, a valuable selection of golden teeth sparkling in the firelight. By his side the light caught the scent of gold again, catching on the shining hook attached to the end of his right arm. The years had been kinder to Grimtooth than his companion Monty, Jess quickly seeing where the earnings from their games had gone.
'Can I help you with something lass?' Grimtooth asked politely, stepping forward to the table and leaning against the back of his high chair. 'A game of dice perhaps?'
Jess stepped up to the table, carefully allowing her jacket to open further and reveal the shining cutlass clearly to the two pirates. Monty stared at it blankly for a moment before his pink tongue flashed once more in its direction and he returned to his hat, though the Krawk allowed his eyes to linger on it a moment longer, his gold-toothed smile fading slightly.
'I'm looking for information,' she said.
'Then you've come to the wrong place, lass,' Grimtooth replied. 'This is a gambling house.'
'A well-informed gambling house from what I've been told. I need information on the Revenge, and word on the street says you know a lot about the comings and goings around the island.'
'We know a lot of things,' the Krawk said firmly, his smile vanishing completely at mention of Scarblade's ship, 'but it seems you're not too good at learning them. This is a gambling house, not an information broker. Go and try someplace else.'
She smiled sweetly at him, one paw calmly reaching into her jacket pocket. 'And here I thought we might turn it into a game,' she said cheerfully. 'I figured we'd let fate decide. One game of dice, and if I win you tell me what I want to know.'
Grimtooth's smile flickered back across his face at the mention of dice, his old habits instantly reacting to the allure of chance. 'And what's in it for us if we happen to win?'
From her pocket she produced a single emerald, larger than her fist, its immaculate beauty shining in the firelight. Just the most fleeting glimpse caused the Krawk to salivate, his Meerca companion finally putting down his hat to gawp foolishly at the magnificent stone. Even from a distance they could tell it was perfect, its value greater than most of Warf Wharf.
'Deadeye!' Grimtooth called suddenly, 'come and have a look at this.'
A door opened at the back wall, a distinguished pirate Eyrie stepping into the room and surveying Jess with a bored eye. Like Grimtooth he bore the signs of a pet who had grown accustomed to wealth in his latter years, the golden medallion resting against the striking silver plumage at his breast the only reminder of his roots he bore.
His eyes fell upon the emerald, and suddenly his interest in proceedings spiked noticeably. 'Well now, where did you come by this?' he asked, his polite tone masking a sharp accusation. 'Last I heard that fancy little stone of yours was the property of the Governor. No idea what game you're playing darling, but we don't handle stolen property like that.' Too hard to sell it on, his eyes seemed to say.
'Nothing stolen about it,' Jess replied truthfully. It had actually been another little gift from her contact, which he claimed to have "borrowed" from his employer for the day. Without an official presence, any Defenders operating on Krawk Island tended to find themselves in the employ of the Governor, one way or another. 'I happened by it in a game of chance earlier today, and thought it might come in handy for bartering information. Only considering I won it, it seems more fitting to gamble it for what I want instead.'
'A wise lass, this one,' Grimtooth said with a golden smile, sliding into his seat. 'Deadeye, how's about we play a game? I know a few people who would be quite keen to get their hands on that gemstone, not least of all our dear Governor. After all, it's not like we stole it now, is it? I say we take her wager.'
Reluctantly the Eyrie consented, grumbling to himself as he pulled out his chair, Jess taking up a seat opposite the slimy Krawk. Opposite the Eyrie, Monty restored his hat and watched Grimtooth produce the dice, his eyes alight with a newfound excitement. Whether for the game or just some new madness his mind had conjured, she felt it best not to ask.
Grimtooth reached over and placed the polished wooden cup before her, six dice rattling inside. 'You know the rules, I hope?' he remarked lightly. She nodded. Not sure if you do, though, she replied in her head.
The air rattled with the sound of dice in their cups, the room echoing with the rhythm and suddenly seeming far emptier than it had when she entered. The fur on the back of her neck stood on end, her eyes darting between the three smiling players. Embracing the game she forced herself to smile back, and the air rang anew with the sound of four cups striking against the wooden table, the last rattles of the dice falling still.
Cautiously she lifted her cup. A six and four stared up amidst a cluster of twos and threes. A good start. Across the table Deadeye had turned up the one and four needed to qualify but little else of interest, while luck was clearly avoiding Monty, a mess of twos and threes all he had managed. She turned her attention to the Krawk, who smiled his gold-toothed grin one last time and raised his cup. Thirty-six pips. Six sixes. If he qualified it was over; he already had the highest score possible, and after only one roll. He only had two chances left though, and they had to count.
Cursing inwardly, Jess returned her four remaining dice to the cup, and once again the air rattled with dice, ending in the heavy thumps of wood on wood. Two more sixes looked up at Jess beneath her cup, bringing her total score to eighteen. Next to them a solitary pip cried out her chance, qualifying her for the end result. Monty was already out, a second terrible roll leaving him on five points and still needing to qualify. Even two sixes would only give him seventeen, losing to her minimum of nineteen. Deadeye had claimed a five, but the Eyrie was already showing little interest in his own dice, seeing where the true game lay. Grimtooth needed just a four from his last throw in order to qualify with a perfect score and strip her of victory.
One last time Jess took up her cup, the last die rolling loudly inside of its wooden shell. Across the table she met Grimtooth's knowing smile, his eyes shining with triumph. It was over. He was going to roll a four.
The cups hit the table for the last time. At a nod from the gracious Krawk Jess lifted her own first. Five. Twenty-three points, a very respectable score. Deadeye claimed another five, taking himself from the running. That just left Grimtooth, smiling victoriously already, one claw tapping out a beat on his cup. Gently he tilted it back, his three opponents leaning forward as one.
'Sorry, lass, but that's what happens when you gamble.'
'So it would appear,' Jess conceded sadly, placing the emerald on the table before her. 'Although, it would be more accurate to say that's what happens when you gamble with cheaters.'
The pirate Krawk had the gall to look affronted, but not affronted enough. Visible only if you were looking for it, his eyes flickered first, and she had her opening. In a heartbeat she bounded across the table, kicking aside the snatching fingers of Monty as he lunged for the emerald, and stamped down on the shocked Krawk's golden hook. It shattered under her heavy boot, fragments creating a golden rainfall in the firelight as they scattered across the room to leave just six small objects pressed to the woodwork beneath her heel. Six dice, identical to those neatly arranged beside his wooden cup.
'Seems we have a situation,' she said lightly, jumping down beside the stunned Grimtooth. 'Now I realise the laws aren't too strict in this part of the world, but I know for a fact there are a lot of people who would take rather... unkindly to news of this. So, I have a proposition for you that should benefit us both. You tell me what I want to know about the Revenge, and I won't tell anyone about this.'
'So this is the true face of the law is it?' Grimtooth sneered, his smooth tone abandoned in the face of defeat. 'How disappointing.'
'This is the price we sometimes have to pay,' Jess retorted coldly. 'Trust me, I would like nothing more than to drag your cheating backside through the streets and tell the world what you really are, then let you rot in a cell somewhere, but that wouldn't save lives today. Letting you walk away with your freedom and dignity at least mostly intact however, will. Do we have a deal?'
That golden toothed smile flashed back across the sneering Krawk's face as he nodded grudgingly. 'It doesn't matter anyway, you are too late to find her,' he explained. 'She docked at the Smuggler's Cove a couple of days back and then disappeared as suddenly as she came. She was sailing a lot lighter when she left port though, and those smugglers locked themselves down right. We got a bit curious so we invited Benny the Blade for a couple of games of dice, Scarblade's first-mate. Well he got mighty chatty, and told us they had made a haul of a lifetime, but couldn't shift it themselves. Needed someone else to do that for them you see. Another ship is due at the cove in about an hour's time, and once she sets sail you ain't ever going to see that cargo again lass.'
'Then I guess I'll just have to stop it before she sets sail,' Jess replied curtly. Roughly she pushed the Krawk aside and rushed back for the door, pausing only to slip the emerald back into her pocket. The last thing she heard before the door snapped shut behind her was the sad sighs of three pirates, their last hope for some gain from the day disappearing in one final sparkle of green.
Everything on Krawk Island eventually came down to gambling. And then it inevitably came down to cheating.
* * *
'You're sure that's what it said?' Judge Hog replied blankly, his mind racing. The purple Bori nodded solemnly. They had all been played for fools without the slightest hint of resistance.
'The Commander also had someone compare it against the Shadow Usul's riddle,' Jilleau continued. 'Everything fit perfectly. Lord Quai has been manipulating us all along. Your girl on Mystery Island made a good catch.'
'It's only a good catch if we can finish the job,' Judge Hog snarled.
'Agreed. If he's acquired the power of Spectre of Lord Darigan, however, that is going to be easier said than done. I would like to request permission to accompany you, just in case.'
Judge Hog waved indistinctly back at her as he took off at a sprint. Jilleau took it for agreement and bounded after him, rushing from the palace and back into the streets of Faerieland.
Only a few days had passed since the chaos but already some semblance of normality had been achieved, the clouds upon which they ran restored to their pristine condition by the tireless efforts of the faeries. The rest of the streets were not faring so well however, the lasting wounds of the crash destined to take far longer to heal, but the citizens of Faerieland were throwing everything they had into returning their lives to normal.
Outside of the city things were not so smooth. Broken and scattered cloud islands drifted as they pleased, the secrets of the bridges proving elusive with Fyora still encased in her crystal. Delina the Crafting Faerie was slowly making progress, but as the pair rushed past her latest efforts it was evident her quest was far from over. With their homes still loose amidst the clouds, the citizens had been forced into the outer reaches of the city, the constant presence of brightly clad guards a sign of their troubles.
Approaching the Darigan Citadel the worst came to be, chaos reigning again as the air filled with new sounds alien to the airborne city in the clouds. Quickly Judge Hog forced his way through the wild crowd of both Darigan and Faerieland residents, Jilleau close on his heels before the flow of pets could close about him, and collared a Darigan guard barking orders to his colleagues.
'What's going on?' he cried over the pained roars coming from the Citadel. 'Where is Lord Quai?'
'Lord Quai is inside of the Citadel, sir,' the guard replied quickly, waving silent orders to his comrades. 'A problem has arisen with the engines. Lord Quai has ordered us to evacuate the people while he tries to deal with it.'
'The engines?' Jilleau repeated thoughtfully. 'Surely they would have been disabled by the crash?'
'Not unless he reactivated them,' Judge Hog hissed. 'He must have known we'd find out about him eventually, so he's planning to overload the engines to cover his escape.'
'If he overloads the engines, the whole Citadel will go up!' Jilleau exclaimed. 'That won't just endanger the people here, but could cause chaos for miles around!'
'Then you need to start evacuating people!' Judge Hog ordered. 'You're the Guard Captain here Jilleau, it's time to use your authority and get these people out of here at once. Don't worry about Quai, I can handle him alone if I have to. Just get these people to safety!'
She nodded firmly and hurried to find her colleagues, leaving Judge Hog to fight past the frenzied Darigan refugees still clamouring to return to their homes. His heavy build served to push them aside with ease, and within minutes he had scaled the climb to the ruins of the town and was pounding through abandoned streets toward the Citadel. In the gathering twilight the trees lining the old, mud-stained path to the Citadel stood out clear against the horizon, crudely etched from the darkness itself to stand guard against him. No storm-ridden journey this way in the dead of night had ever given him such an uneasy feeling.
Drawing closer, he could feel the vibrations running underfoot, the engines struggling in the depths of the rock foundations. New sounds were interspersed through the roars and cries, heavy clunks and cracks running through the unseen workings of the machinery beginning to falter under the strain. He was running out of time.
The Citadel doors had been torn off their hinges during the chaos, the way open for Judge Hog to leap fearlessly into the dark passages. The blazing torches and incandescent fireplaces of his last visit were a lost memory in the stifling half-light shining through dusty windows, the air thick with the vapours spewed forth by the struggling Citadel engines. Following their trail he found the path leading down to the shadowed depths, the darkness finally becoming absolute.
Suddenly a flame danced across his palm, burning blue against his blackened gloves. Magically enhanced tongues spat against the thick shadows, banishing them deeper, taking with them the swirling smoke that clogged the passage ahead. Holding his guiding light before him, Judge Hog hurried down the waiting steps into the bowels of the Citadel, delving into halls few but the Darigan engineers ever saw.
No paths branched off as he reached the bottom of the spiralling steps and hastened down the passage. The noise was strangely muffled this deep, the secretive workings of the engines beating out their pained rhythm softly all around. An eerie breeze filled the hall this deep, dispersing the lingering smoke and leaving just the all-encompassing darkness behind, fleeing before the blue flames. Judge Hog found his pace slowing, his skin crawling uncomfortably.
At last a light appeared ahead, the magical flame dissipating as he rushed toward its beckoning cry. The engine room stood before him, eerily silent despite the heavy metallic pumps dominating each corner pounding fiercely. Thick monochrome pipes ran from each across the ceiling, spitting colourful sparks to illuminate the room in flashes of bright colour anew, whatever magic powered them now sending cracks across the surface, threatening to split at any moment. Everything screamed with a fierce absence of noise, the silence thick and heavy as the bangs and roars of the engines had been outside.
How was he meant to shut something like this down?
'Welcome to my home, Judge Hog,' a deep voice whispered behind him, the unmistakeable point of a crossbow suddenly digging into his back. 'I am so glad you could make it.'
To be continued...