The Game of Master Hog: Part Eleven
Instinct took over, long practiced reflexes seizing control of Judge Hog's body. Smoothly he spun, one hand knocking aside the lightweight crossbow. A fist connected sharply with the side of his face in response, throwing him roughly to the ground with alarming force, his skin tingling as though burned.
'Predictable as ever, Judge Hog,' the deep voice of Lord Quai declared calmly, a trace of humour in his tone.
Pushing himself back off the floor, Judge Hog just gave an impassive shrug in response, carefully nursing his aching jaw. There was no trace of a burn, but still the sensation persisted.
One glance at Quai answered everything. Black flames wreathed his body, replacing his scales with tongues of dancing shadow that seemed to suck the sound from the air. Searing red streaks carved out his horns and claws, burning with a fierce intensity, a knowing smile spread across his shadowed face ablaze with the same unnatural glow. Only his eyes remained unchanged, as alert and alive with intelligence as they had ever been, the glint of madness Judge Hog had expected noticeable only by its absence.
'So you've been possessed after all,' he breathed slowly, feeling the sweat build beneath his sticky black mask. 'Just like Darigan was.'
'Not quite,' Quai replied, those deep tones shaking through Judge Hog's bones. 'Lord Darigan was never possessed by the Spectre, Judge Hog, he was possessed by an insatiable desire for that rotten orb. It was that desire which awakened the Spectre, and which drove him to the madness that would lead to his downfall. This power was an unrelated phenomena, simply triggered when Kribal stole the orb from us.'
Judge Hog's eyes widened in shock, suddenly seeing one of his trump cards destroyed. 'You knew?' he whispered incredulously.
'That it was Master Hog, the very one whom I now serve, who brought my people into two wars that nearly destroyed us? He told me himself, the day I was recruited. He placed a sword in my hand and told me the whole story, of how he had Kribal steal the orb and deliver it to Skarl, how he used Oacus to engineer my downfall while pushing Kass into leadership, knowing the outcome. Everything he has done to my people he laid at my feet, and gave me a chance to avenge. A chance I turned down, for I saw why he had harmed us, and saw his desire to rectify it.'
'By ordering you to endanger the lives of your people in a crash?' Judge Hog cried, 'and then to further endanger not only them but the people of Faerieland too by trying to blow this place apart? If that is your idea of rectifying things, then I would say the madness of Lord Darigan has claimed you too, Quai!'
'No lives were in danger,' Quai retorted quietly, his voice dripping with disdain for small-minded fool standing before him. 'The homecoming had locked down the Citadel, and my guards were everywhere to ensure nobody came to serious harm. Faerieland saw us coming with ample time, and we trusted in you to forewarn them of trouble. We had carefully studied them for years before this day, making absolutely certain we could do this at solely collateral damage, no loss of life. Even this destruction will be minimal; the evacuation order went out long ago, and we have time yet before the overload. By now I suspect even Fyora's Seraphic Legion are out there helping with the evacuation, waiting for the moment this Citadel is finally put out of our misery.'
Judge Hog just stared in disbelief at the dark abomination before him, speaking so calmly of the carnage he had wrought through both Faerieland and the Darigan Citadel. The devastation was a trifling matter, little more, and of no consequence when compared to his grand design. No matter what he said, the Spectre of Lord Quai was a long way from the Draik he had known, who had truly cared for the wellbeing of his people.
'You're no different to Darigan,' he declared coldly, fists balling at his sides. 'Try to rationalise it all you like, but you are acting to the same selfish desires that he did once the Spectre took hold.'
'Selfish desires?' Quai repeated, his teeth flashing in a fiery rictus of disgust before he could stop them. 'I serve the people of Darigan,' he snarled, 'just as I always have. I had been pushing for this homecoming ever since the wars, ever since I saw what had happened to the home we had left behind. But even when Lord Darigan finally listened to me, I could hear the people speaking of this filthy rock, this dank cesspool they foolishly called "home". This Citadel is a chain binding us to Meridell, holding us prisoner against the shadow of our own past. Once it was a beacon of hope in the dark skies of Darigan, but now it is a sign of our failure, of what we allowed ourselves to become. If we are to ever rise again, this chain must be broken. This Citadel must fall. Master Hog has given me the chance to finally achieve this, and all I had to do in return was perform the greatest heist in Neopian history. A small price to pay to finally liberate my people.'
'Enough of this madness!' Judge Hog cried. 'Tell me how to shut it down, Quai!'
The Spectre's mouth curled back into a smile of fiery teeth. 'That is not going to happen Judge Hog. This was always to be my last show, this Citadel destined to be my end. Soon they will learn of my involvement, they will discover I was the one who did this, and they will hate me for it. But that is so often the price we must pay to give people what they truly need. I will not stand by and let you take away the freedom of the Darigan people.'
'Have it your way, Quai, but just remember one thing: we defeated the Spectre of Lord Darigan before; now I will defeat you.'
He leapt into attack, balled fist lunging for the Spectre's head. Smoothly the Draik evaded the fierce blow, his eyes never flinching from Judge Hog's as he twisted low and stepped in for a riposte. Supernatural force powered the blow that connected hard with the Moehog's chest, lifting him bodily and hurling him back across the silent chamber.
Groaning painfully, he rolled over and glared up at his foe, but already Quai was on the attack again. Black flames leapt across the cold floor toward him, a tidal wave of energy rushing ahead and sending shivers through his spine. Biting back the agony in his bones he bounded back to his feet and dived aside, feeling the surge of heat and magic brush past.
'I hope that's not the best you can do, Quai,' he cried, shaking off the fatigue in his limbs and taking up fighting stance anew.
'Whoever said I was aiming at you?'
Fear stabbed in Judge Hog's heart as he spun to follow the trail of caliginous fire, his eyes coming to rest on a blackened husk of machinery left molten by the intensity of the inferno. The Spectre of Lord Quai just smiled with satisfaction.
'Now there is truly no means of stopping the engines, Judge Hog. You have failed.'
* * *
The Darigan Acara stood tapping his foot impatiently, eyes constantly darting to the pocket watch in his paw. They were late. The watch closed with a snap. Why were they late? It opened again with a click, his eyes darting to hands that had barely moved. They were still late.
'Where are they?' he asked aloud, turning to his companion. He was unsure why he bothered to ask Kakurain anything though, the stoic Darigan Aisha barely deigning to meet his glance before looking away again, staring silently out into the gathering dusk. Around them the rest of their crew waited anxiously, checking their own watches and trying to make light conversation with the smugglers, who showed little concern for the delays. It was fine for them, they were not the ones who would suffer if the shipments were late. The Acara strongly suspected it would not be Kakurain who suffered either, despite being the one officially in charge. Who would dare try anything with him?
He flicked open his watch again. Still late.
At last the prow of the mighty ship drifted into view, brilliant white sails still open in the windless night despite the small boats ahead pulling her into the underground dock. Relief washed over him, the Acara hastily made his way through the crates and onto the pier, gazing up at the ship as she was brought closer, a look of intense discomfort on his face.
'What sort of time do you call this?' he hailed as it approached, waving his pocket watch toward the deck. 'If we are late delivering these crates heads are going to start rolling, and I will make sure yours go before mine!'
'Sorry, we hit a spot of trouble as we approached the cove,' someone called back to him, a shape leaping onto the prow and waving down. 'We're only a few minutes late anyway, we'll make that up easy.'
The Acara scowled at the cheerful Zafara, biting back the urge to throw a fireball her way. What good was being a sorcerer when there were rarely any opportunities to use what you had learned? Pushing aside the thought, he found a new one lining up to take its place in his mind, and his eyes narrowed as he gazed up at the blue Zafara again. He did not remember any Zafaras being on the crew.
'Who are you?' he called up. 'Are you new?'
'You could say that,' she replied thoughtfully. 'As for who I am, well, I suppose I am the one who is going to arrest you.'
Suddenly she leapt from the ship, crashing down heavily against the stunned Acara. Helplessly he collapsed beneath her, a crumpled heap under her agile frame. With a smile Jess looked up over the shocked collection of pets, staring at the display in sheer disbelief. Everything had been going perfectly according to plan, and suddenly it all seemed to be falling apart. Perfect.
'Attack!' she roared, flourishing her cutlass. From the deck erupted a tide of pets, leaping into the fray against Quai's forces. Shock vanished quickly in the face of battle, but the element of surprise gained her team a strong foothold before their enemies could recover enough to hold. She allowed herself a satisfied smile at the sight before crouching beside the fallen Acara and handcuffing him. Despite the order to attack, they were still here to take them in alive; there was just no possibility Quai's forces would surrender without a fight. Any effort to try would have cost them the surprise they dearly needed.
A pirate Shoyru dropped lightly beside her, cutlass resting against his shoulder. 'A good first hit,' he remarked casually, sparing a passing glance for the unconscious Acara. 'I figured we'd have more resistance than this, though.'
'Don't underestimate them,' Jess warned. 'We have them on the back foot now but these are trained soldiers.'
'So are the Governor's,' he replied, 'and we have the advantage of momentum. The smugglers won't fight for our enemies, they are too smart for that, so all we need to do is press our advantage.'
'Just remember, Lucas, our priority is to secure the packages at all costs.'
'I'll get right on it. What about you?'
'I'm going to try and end this quickly,' she answered, eyes scanning the chamber. Through the frenzied battle she finally found her target, the Governor's forces giving him a wide berth: Quai's bodyguard, Kakurain. 'Cut off the head and the body will die,' she muttered.
The Shoyru followed her gaze and gave an audible swallow. 'Rather you than me. Just try and stop him before he hurts too many others; the Governor doesn't know I've dragged his soldiers into this, and the more we can give back in one piece the less he'll chew me out over it later.' With that he took off into the fight, leaving her alone on the dock, his words ringing in her ears. Someone has to bring him down, she thought, and as the leader that job falls to me.
Cutlass aloft before her and the sound of a dozen further sets of handcuffs jingling at her belt, she charged into the fight. Ducking and weaving through the clash of soldiers she realised Lucas had been right in his belief, and the momentum of the surprise assault was spurring the Governor's forces on with great enthusiasm, the still bewildered Darigan pets succumbing under their heavy charge. It would not last long however, and as she leapt through another struggle, cutlass lightly deflecting a lethal blow, she saw the Darigan forces already rallying together in clusters. A fierce kick took her opponent down, and lightly she tossed a set of handcuffs to the pet that had been fighting him, hastening back into her pursuit of Kakurain. While he still stood the Darigan morale was never going to falter.
Cutting through another foe she bounded onto the piled crates of stolen goods and leapt above the battlefield, Kakurain finally in her sights ahead. Luck seemed on her side as he fought a trio of intrepid would-be heroes, called to him by the prospect of glory, his back to her approach. The Aisha moved with the grace and poise of a dancer, stepping smoothly through the motions of battle, sword but an extension of his body as he thrust and parried, blocked and struck, fluid and ceaseless in the dispatch of his three opponents.
It was too late to back down, and powered by the same momentum that kept the battle flowing around them she threw herself from the last crate and toward Kakurain's back. With unnatural speed he moved, a clawed fist striking her stomach mid-flight throwing the energy from her. Smoothly he slipped into a roundhouse kick, knocking her effortlessly aside.
Her body ached from ears to tail, but she had no choice but to keep fighting. Channelling her determination she forced herself upright, quickly scanning Kakurain's fighting stance for an opening. To her surprise they were everywhere, the Aisha standing almost lazily before her, sword clutched loose in one clawed hand, its blade hanging low until the tip was brushing against the sandy floor of the cavern. Judge Hog had always taught the value of defence, but Kakurain ignored it openly, flaunting his reputation as though it were a shield.
Desperately she leapt into attack, cutlass carving through the air by her side. Easily he turned it aside, his own slender blade cutting across her shoulder. Pain shot through her arm, her fingers no longer able to grip the cutlass, and seizing the chance Kakurain pushed forward again, one harsh kick throwing her back against the boxes from which she had leapt, spilling golden orbs across their battlefield to nudge the Aisha's feet ineffectually.
He didn't need a defensive stance, she realised hopelessly, his senses were already sharp enough. He never spoke, only listened in order to sharpen his ears all the more, detecting the softest of sounds to indicate his attackers. His body had been honed to the point of a dancer's grace to gift him the speed and reflexes he needed to respond to those minute warnings, his relaxed posture simply one of limber dexterity. Every weakness she had seen in him was suddenly a strength. But still she could not give up, not while the battle was still being fought around them.
'Jess!' a voice suddenly cried. Something crashed into the sand between her sprawled legs: a notched and curved blade burning bright with intense flame. She caught a glimpse of a pirate Shoyru waving vaguely somewhere in the distance, but he was quickly consumed by the tides of battle anew, turning quickly against them. A Sword of Reif from the Hidden Tower had become the last dying embers of their victory, waiting for her to reignite them.
But she was not Sir Jeran. What use was a sword against a foe like Kakurain?
He attacked one last time, sword thrusting forward for a final blow. Snatching up the Sword of Reif in her good hand she dived aside, quick eyes suddenly understanding what she had to do. Quickly the Aisha spun, sword cutting across her tail and sending a fresh flash of pain through her senses, but she fought it down. Spinning in the air she flung the sword back at her foe, trusting in his ability. Lightly he twisted to avoid it, the fiery blade digging into the sand by his feet, useless.
'You should watch where you put your feet!' she cried suddenly, throwing herself to the ground away from him. Slowly Kakurain looked down, the golden orbs sparkling up at him in the gathering twilight. His expressionless eyes flickered as he understood at last: they were not orbs, they were bombs. Ghostkerbombs, a burning sword cutting through their fuses.
A high-pitched wail shrieked through the cavern above the terrible roar of explosion, sand and splintered crates erupting against the ceiling and crashing back down in a rain of destruction. Silence rushed in to fill the gap left in its wake, the sounds of battle falling still.
Jess looked up. A slender sword stood shuddering before her, its point embedded deep in the bedrock of the cavern. It was over.
A sweaty hand appeared before her, belonging to a sandy pirate Shoyru with a broad grin on his face. 'Not exactly what I had in mind when I tossed it your way, but I think your way worked better,' he declared, helping her back to her feet. 'Without Kakurain the Darigan forces are already surrendering.'
'The stolen goods?' she asked breathlessly, staring around the eerily quiet cavern.
'Aside from several million neopoints worth of Ghostkerbombs that just went up in smoke along with a Sword of Reif, everything is still here,' he replied with a wink. 'I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when you have to explain to Fyora why you have cost her so much.'
'She'll understand,' Jess replied, smiling back at him. To her surprise it felt natural, not forced. 'How about our people? How did we fare?'
'Better than I had hoped when we started this,' he admitted, though his smile had fallen into a grimace. 'You forced their surrender before too many were lost. The Governor is still going to chew me out something rotten, but I think if we let him take the credit for letting us come along it might save me being flogged for it.' He winked again, a sparkle of amusement in his dark eyes.
'Maybe a transfer back to Neopia Central will save you that flogging instead,' she suggested. 'I think you've earned it.'
'Scoring a victory like this one? I should think so.'
'It's not a victory, not yet,' Jess replied darkly, her smile vanishing in an instant. 'This is only half the battle Lucas, and until we bring Quai to justice the victory is a long way off.'
'Then let's hope Judge Hog got your message,' Lucas replied, the pair staring out together into the gathering night settling over Krawk Island.
To be continued...